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International Practice Theory: 2nd Edition Proves Growing Resonance in a Promising Research 'Trading Zone'

12.04.2018 Engaging practice theory in the field of International Relations introduces a set of social scientific approaches to support a more specific understanding of what happens in international politics over time. The second edition of the seminal work of Bueger and Gadinger on the subject after four years indicates a growing body of research, as well as a desire to motivate variety further on, while introducing basic points of a research ethics for practitioners of practice theory research.

The work embraces variety in many ways, as the book's cover already indicates with its pictogram of a juggler. That skilful person is so enviable, because she arranges a variety of objects skilfully (and therefore playfully as it seems). Why not imagine a scientific contribution as performative as that? "In the metaphorical sense, juggling implies coping with and balancing several activities at the same time, or organising an object in a certain manner." The authors allude thereby to possible objects of research as well as to possible methodologies: specialized objects in the researcher's toolbox.

The practice perspective meets a desideratum in International Relations (IR). A better understanding of 'the things and technologies used in producing the international' should overcome traditionally learned dichotomies and distinctions ('level of analysis'). Practice theorists, as the authors suggest, argue that many of these are more of a hindrance than a help. A closer look at situational arrangements seems to be promising in four issue areas of IR that have been particularly important in the discussion of IPT, namely, diplomacy, the production of insecurity, transnational governance, and state building and intervention. IPT does not claim exclusivity or even the status of a 'grand theory', but 'the intent is to show how core phenomena of IR, including power, state behaviour, identity, international organisations, transnational collectives, norms and rules, or war and peace can be studied differently.' (15)

The authors review and evaluate a good handful of major social science approaches with regard to their application in IR. They want to establish the notion of a 'trading zone' with these approaches on the supply side (software) and researchers applying what is useful in a certain case (users). On offer are:

  • Bourdieusian praxeology
  • Foucault’s practice theory
  • Communities of practice
  • Schatzki’s ontology of practice
  • Narrative approaches
  • Actor-network theory
  • Pragmatic sociology

(The software metaphor (which is not of the authors) of cause would imply a notion of open source as long as we enjoy freedom of scientific research.)

The authors added one full chapter and approaches (Foucault, Schatzki), which were not dealt with in the first edition.

One of the core questions in this extended review of approaches and their possible application to objects of IPT research is the relationship between structures and action, stability and change. Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski with their respective approaches mark the outer poles of this spectrum. The authors do not clearly prioritize - besides personal preference - one of these. Instead, they scrutinize possible biases. Whereas power structures and habits are in the focus of Bordieusian praxeology, its application tends to overemphasize fixed differences and stabilities. Nevertheless it is an advantage of this approach that the power issue is covered. Concepts which focus on the ephemeral, on situations, moment of crisis and their potential for change, an approach of Luc Boltanski and his likes, may lose underlying structures, having originated outside the researcher's time frame, and deal with power (the convenience of all status quo) in an all too naive way.

IPT can be seen as an enrichment programme for IR research, allowing for perspectives quite familiar in anthropology and ethnographic research. It introduces a mood of strategy and experimentation in IR  research with an idea to enable a more flexible approach to the ever changing fields of practice in the international political arena. The contribution to cooperation research seems to be obvious. Since a variety of actors and societal as well as organizational levels usually are involved, the lens for observation and understanding must be flexible: researchers shoud be able to ZOOM. 

On normativity: the authors stress self-reflexivity of researchers and propose a research ethic along commitments to process, practical knowledge, collectivity, materiality, multiplicity, performativity and empiricity. They recommend to have open eyes, regarding the toolbox as well as the objects under research. Norms and rules, they argue following Wittgenstein and Heidegger, 'have to be understood in use' (111). They are 'exhibited' and not simply 'followed' (Joseph Rouse), different normative ends become visible in practices of justification and critique 'through the mobilisation of different orders of worth in disputes' (114, Luc Boltanski). Actor-Network Theory is another approach which allows for a different look at normativity, produced alongside certain constellations.

It is a strong point of this publication that a bunch of very recent literature is included, not only in the extensive bibliography but in arguments of almost all chapters.

Numerous fellows of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research are involved in IPT development and find their place reviewed in this volume. Without guarantee of completeness these are: with quite early contributions to the development of IPT, Wanda Vrasti and Morgan Brigg; with influencial contributions over many years, Dvora Yanow; and with recent publications, Felix Bethke, Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Alejandro Esguerra, Mneesha Gellman, Gunther Hellmann, Jonathan Joseph and Kai Koddenbrock.

This volume seems to be a must read for everyone interested in IPT itself and in innovative approaches in IR research in particular. It seems to serve as well as a comprehensive introduction into problems of field research for researchers, who struggle with conceptual and methodological access to specific practices in political organisations, groups, experts, celebrities a.s.o.

To sum it up: an eye opener's 2nd edition at the right time.


Bueger, Christian; Gadinger, Frank (2018). International practice theory. Second edition. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-3-319-73349-4