Practice

The ‘practice’ approach to social phenomena is very important for the design of narrative environments, as it underlies the conceptualisation of narrative environments as forms of spatial (social) practice and temporal (social) practice. The notion of practice is a way of understanding the co-implication and entanglement of environments, discourse (including narrative discourse) and human activity in a narrative environment. All of the following approaches may have value in thinking through what may be said to happen in a narrative environment, as a field of (social, spatial, temporal) practice.

Emergence of the ‘practice turn’

In seeking to convey the significance of the term ‘practice’, Theodrore Schatzki states that while thinkers once spoke of ‘structures’, ‘systems,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘life world,’ ‘events,’ and ‘actions’, when seeking to define the primary generic social entity, many theorists in more recent times would give ‘practices’ a comparable primacy (Schatzki, Knorr Cetina and Von Savigny, 2001: 10).

Calvert-Minor (2014: 124) points out that the ‘linguistic turn’ disclosed that our languages and concepts play constitutive roles in knowledge claims. The ‘social turn’ revealed that what we take as known or take to be rationally justified is a function of social and cultural contexts. In more recent times, many social epistemologists, sociologists of knowledge and science studies practitioners recognise that what lies at the heart of knowledge production are not individuals or communities, but practices. This is the ‘practice turn’ in epistemology that maintains the constitutive importance of language and society in epistemology but shifts the centre of epistemological inquiry to practices.

Similarly, Reckwitz (2002) considers that after the ‘interpretative turn’ of the 1970s, ‘practice theories’ or ‘theories of social practices’ formed a conceptual alternative that seemed attractive to those dissatisfied with classically modern and high-modern types of social theories. Nevertheless, this praxeological approach, i.e. emphasising practice, Reckwitz notes, has never been systematically elaborated. Elements of a theory of practice can be found across a spectrum of social theorists in the last third of the 20th century.

Of greatest significance in this respect for Reckwitz are Pierre Bourdieu whose praxeological project carries a trace of structuralism, Anthony Giddens, who developed a ‘theory of structuration’, heavily influenced by late Wittgenstein, and Michel Foucault, who pursued diverse theoretical options between structuralism, post-structuralism and a Nietzschean theory of the body, arriving at a framework of analysing the relations between bodies, agency, knowledge and understanding. Although not mentioned by Reckwitz, the work of Henri Lefebvre should be included in this context as being particularly important for narrative environments, as he developed an explicit concept of ‘spatial practice’ and of the rhythms of daily activity through his concept of rhythmanalysis.

Furthermore, Reckwitz continues, in empirical sociology, cultural studies and anthropology works in the wake of Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, Judith Butler’s ‘performative’ gender studies and Bruno Latour’s science studies can be understood as members of the praxeological family of theories. In social philosophy, Charles Taylor’s neo-hermeneutical model of embodied agency and the self-interpreting animal follows a ‘praxeological’ path. Of this group of thinkers, particularly Garfinkel and Butler, and to the extent that Garfinkel’s influence can be detected in Latour, one might legitimately talk of a ‘performative turn’.

However, it was not until Theodore Schatzki published Social Practices. A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social in 1996 that a social philosophy explicitly focused on the practice concept emerged, Reckwitz argues.

For Schatzki (2001), as Postill (2010) notes, there are four main types of practice theorists: philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, Dreyfus and Taylor; social theorists, such as Bourdieu, de Certeau and Giddens; cultural theorists such as Foucault and Lyotard; and theorists of science and technology, such as Latour, Rouse and Pickering.

These theorists may be considered as the first generation or wave of practice thinkers who laid the foundations of practice theory. The second generation, who are testing those foundations and building new extensions to the theoretical edifice, include Sherry Ortner (1984) [1], Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, von Savigny, Reckwitz and Warde (Postill, 2010).

One of the traditions of thought to which Schatzki refers above, which talked of structures and systems, is Marxism. This tradition does not fit easily within Postill’s characterisation of two generations of practice theorists, but Ortner (1984) is well aware of the threading of Marxist influences through the first generation’s thought. Another approach to ‘practice’ can be seen to emerge from this Marxist lineage by way of Arendt’s, and subsequently Habermas’s, re-conceptualisations of Aristotle’s categories of action, i.e. theoria, praxis and poiesis (very roughly translated as reflective/systemic thinking, doing and making, respectively), and accompanying modes knowing, i.e. episteme, phronesis and techne (again very roughly translated as systemic knowledge, practical (ethical and political) knowledge and technical knowledge, respectively), by way of a critique of Marx’s appropriation of them and his (in Arendt’s eyes) over-emphasis of ‘labour’ (work) to the detriment of ‘action’ (politics).

Dimensions of ‘practice’; Practices and material arrangements

Sarah Pink (2012) notes that, in the context of the ‘practice turn’ in contemporary thinking, practices have come to be defined, loosely, as sets of human actions that can be associated with each other in some way and that can form a category for sociological analysis. Given this looseness, it becomes possible to refer to local, micro-scale phenomena such as washing up, doing the laundry or gardening and practices which are less defined by location, such as digital photography and social media activism. Nevertheless, theories of practice and the uses to which they have been put remain diverse, meaning that there is no unified practice approach.

Schatzki (2011), for example, approaches the study of large social phenomena as bundles of practices and material arrangements. Such bundles of practices and material arrangements make up sites of the social, which may be termed sociotechnical regimes. By ‘practices’ Schatzki intends spatially-temporally dispersed, open sets of doings and sayings organised by common understandings, teleologies (ends and tasks), and rules. By material arrangements he mean linked people, organisms, artefacts, and things of nature.

Practices and arrangements bundle together in that, firstly, practices effect, alter, use, and are inseparable from arrangements; while, secondly, arrangements channel, prefigure, and facilitate practices. An important feature of practice-arrangement bundles, and thereby of social phenomena, is interwoven time-spaces: interwoven teleologies and motivations that govern, and place-path contexts in which, the activities composing bundles and social phenomena take place.

Schatzki explains that the activities, entities, rules, understandings, and teleologies that are at work in any local situation are elements of phenomena, i.e. practices, arrangements, and bundles thereof, that stretch out over time and space beyond such proximate situations. Indeed, these items come to be at work in local situations because they are components of practice-arrangement bundles. Elements of local situations also often come from elsewhere to be part of them, as Latour (2005) discusses in his chapter “Redistributing the Local”. For this reason, the ontology of practice must be distinguished from those of ethnomethodology and phenomenology, which highlight local (proximate) situations.

Notes

[1] Ortner argues in 1984 that “a new key symbol of theoretical orientation is emerging, which may be labeled “practice” (or “action” or “praxis”). This is neither a theory nor a method in itself, but rather … a symbol, in the name of which a variety of theories and methods are being developed.”

Bibliography

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Ortner, S.B. (1984). Theory in anthropology since the sixties.Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26 (1), 126–166. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/178524?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed 4 October 2015].

Pink, S. (2012). Theorising the familiar: practices and places. In: Situating everyday life practices and places. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 14–30. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446250679 [Accessed 19 January 2016].

Postill, J. (2010). Theorising media and practice. Oxford, UK: Berghahn.

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5 (2), 243–263. Available from http://est.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/13684310222225432 [Accessed 28 January 2016].

Schatzki, T.R. (1996). A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schatzki, T.R. (2011). Where the action is (on large social phenomena such as sociotechnical regimes ). Sustainable Practices Research Group Working Paper, 1-31. Available from http://www.sprg.ac.uk/uploads/schatzki-wp1.pdf [Accessed 27 January 2016].

Schatzki, T.R., Knorr Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E., eds. (2001). The Practice turn in contemporary theory. London, UK: Routledge.

edited 17 September, 2016 by Allan Parsons