The Limits of Practice: Why Realism Can Complement IR’s Practice Turn

Milja Kurki, Jonathan Joseph

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This paper argues that the current calls for a practice turn in IR are, while positive in many respects, are problematic and potentially limiting because they are premised on: a confused understanding of the role of philosophy and realist philosophy in particular and a restricted view of the role of sociological investigation. This arises from the problematic tendency of to lapse into advocacy of an anti-realist philosophical and sociological imagination. We suggest that the problems that practice theorists point to should lead not to knee-jerk anti-realism but rather can motivate a reinvigorated conversation with realism. This entails revisiting the role of philosophy, realism and sociology in the study of practices. We argue that far from being antithetical to practice theory, a reconsideration of realist philosophy helps make sense of the role of practice and provides those advocating practice theory with better tools to deal with the challenges which motivated the development of these theoretical stances. Reconsidering realism entails, however, a reconsideration of a wider social ontology within which practice takes place, and openness to the role of philosophical and theoretical abstractions in teasing out the role of practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-97
Number of pages27
JournalInternational Theory
Issue number1
Early online date06 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2018


  • practice theory
  • critical realism
  • scientific realism
  • Bourdieu
  • structure


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