Latest Quarterly Issue: Practice Theory and Security Studies

In a new opinion blog post Sebastian Schindler appraises the features of the ‘practice turn’ in International Relations and asserts that ‘our theoretical skepticism must not bury our study of concrete instances of change, in which humans make manifest their capacity of freedom’. Schindler seems to be pointing out a vital aspect of the practice turn, a fundamental rehumanization of the object of study which is intrinsically linked to lived experience and human endeavour.

The Centre’s most recent issue of Global Cooperation, A Quarterly Magazine sought to investigate and elaborate upon developments in Practice Theory. The impetus for the issue was the February 2021 conference ‘New Voices in International Practice Research’, co-organized by Frank Gadinger and Christian Bueger and hosted by the Centre. The conference unleashed a flurry of heated discussion and debate and ignited interest in an exploration of the topic through the lens of current scholarship in the realm of Security Studies. Contributions to the issue seek to provide nuanced answers to the questions, ‘What does it mean to conduct research in a time where on-the-ground data gathering is next to impossible?’, ‘How can we use practice theory to reconcile and understand the rapidly changing security practices of states?, ‘Into which new directions are the methodologies of practice theory moving, and ‘How is the discipline to be defended from stagnation?’

The Covid-19 pandemic is, necessarily, a backdrop to all of the contributions. However, as ominous and omnipresent as this theme is, it functions here as a motivating factor toward a re-examination of how practice theory scholarship is to be performed, deployed, and written about. In his introductory piece for the issue, Frank Gadinger reiterates the notion of ‘praxiographic research’, ‘which is an ongoing process between empirical work and conceptual refinement’ (4[1]). It is this cycle of hands-on fieldwork and constant theoretical reconsideration that provide the foundation onto which is built a dynamic and responsive methodological approach to IR research.

Contributors to this issue have provided diverse texts which simultaneously examine their particular subject matter as well as providing conclusions that answer the question, ‘Why practice theory?’ Ingvild Bode suggests broadening the body of ‘canonical’ practice theorists to invite ‘unusual analyses of empirical puzzles’ (10).  Marion Laurence advocates that the dynamism and nuance of practice theory is essential for understanding the constant development in approaches to high-risk peacekeeping operations (12). Lou Pingeot highlights how the intrinsic link between ‘governing at home and intervening abroad’ (15) is best illuminated through practice methodologies. In their conception on the ‘paradigm of prevention’, Pol Bargués and Jessica Schmidt use practice theory to effectively illuminate the logical puzzle implied by the ‘aspiration to arrest the infinite and anticipate disaster’ (18). Finally, Max Lesch and Dylan M.H. Loh offer examples of applied practice theory in their examination of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, focussing largely on how the concept of the overlapping fields can lead to a clearer understanding of how practices are constituted.

A fascinating interview with new Centre Fellows Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams serves as a poignant coda to the issue and provides an in-depth account of the function practice theory in current Security Studies research. Abrahamsen and Williams respond to questions of methodology with examples from their real-world research; their appraisals of the ever-changing domain of security seem to imply the necessity of a practice theory approach, in all its dynamism and flexibility. The interviewees also address the problems of remote research – a situation many researchers have been forced into since the beginning of the pandemic.

In addition to the main focus of the issue, we also include an account by Centre Fellow Alena Drieschova of her research project on ‘Representants and International Orders’. Drieschova takes up the concept of representants as factors which contribute to a shared understanding of how global institutions function, and how their agents behave. At the heart of the analysis are questions of world-ordering, which Drieschova investigates from an historical perspective. Finally, Christine Unrau has contributed a moving tribute to Alumni Fellow of the Centre and Professor of Social Philosophy at the University of Florence, Prof. Elena Pulcini. Elena is remembered not only for her work on the ethics of care, but also her capacity to listen and to encourage (30).

The issue includes a complete list of our Spring/Summer 2021 Fellows, along with their research projects and group associations. This is also the first issue which we are providing in HTML format for easier access on readers’ device of choice. Regarding the continuation of the PDF format, the articles have been made available both as part of the complete issue, and individually for the sake of convenience.

[1] Page numbers refer to the PDF document