What is practice theory?
Update 19 March 2015. See full chapter (PDF)
Social theorists agree that there is no such thing as a coherent, unified ‘practice theory’, only a body of highly diverse writings by thinkers who adopt a loosely defined ‘practice approach’. Theodor Schatzki (2001) distinguishes four main types of practice theorists: philosophers (such as Wittgenstein, Dreyfus, or Taylor), social theorists (Bourdieu, Giddens), cultural theorists (Foucault, Lyotard) and theorists of science and technology (Latour, Rouse, Pickering). It is also possible to distinguish two ‘waves’ or generations of practice theorists. Whilst the first generation, led by some of the foremost theorists of the twentieth century (e.g. Bourdieu 1977, de Certeau 1984, Foucault 1979, Giddens 1979, 1984) laid the foundations of what we now regard as practice theory, the second generation is currently testing those foundations and building new extensions to the theoretical edifice (Ortner 1984, 2006, Schatzki 1996, Schatzki et al 2001, Reckwitz 2002, Warde 2005).
In this section I review the main questions addressed by the more influential members of each generation, concluding with some contemporary trends in practice theory. The first generation of practice theorists sought a virtuous middle path between the excesses of methodological individualism (‘the claim that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions’) and those of its logical opposite, methodological holism (the explanation of phenomena by means of structures or social wholes, Ryan 1970). Put differently, they wished to liberate agency – the human ability to act upon and change the world –from the constrictions of structuralist and systemic models while avoiding the trap of methodological individualism.
These theorists regarded the human body as the nexus of people’s practical engagements with the world7. Thus the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977) developed the notion of ‘habitus’ to capture ‘the permanent internalisation of the social order in the human body’ (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 130) whilst recognising ‘the agent’s practice, his or her capacity for invention and improvisation’ (Bourdieu 1990: 13). In Bourdieu’s theory of practice, the world’s structural constraints form ‘permanent dispositions’. These are
schemes of perception and thought, extremely general in their application, such as those which divide up the world in accordance with the oppositions between the male and the female, east and west, future and past, top and bottom, right and left, etc., and also, at a deeper level, if the form of bodily postures and stances, ways of standing, sitting, looking, speaking, or walking (Bourdieu 1977: 15, quoted in Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 130).
Bourdieu borrows the Greek word ‘hexis’ to refer to the way in which social agents ‘carry themselves’ in the world; their gait, gesture, postures, etc. (Jenkins 2002: 75). He exemplifies this idea with his early research in Kabylia (Algeria) where he observed that men and women carried themselves in markedly different ways. Where women’s bodies were oriented down in keeping with ‘[t]he female ideal of modesty and restraint’, men’s bodies were oriented towards other men (Jenkins 2002: 75). Bourdieu concluded that Kabyle bodies are ‘mnenomic devices’ that help to reproduce fundamental cultural oppositions and are integral to a cultural habitus learned more through observation than formal teaching (Jenkins 2002: 75-76). In Mark A. Peterson’s (this volume) summary of Bourdieu’s account of practice:
Social life is a constant struggle to construct a life out of the cultural resources one’s social experience offers, in the face of formidable social constraints. By living in a society structured by such constraints, and organised by the successful practices of [others, JP], one develops predispositions to act in certain ways.
Later in his career Bourdieu added the notion of ‘field’ to his practice-theoretical vocabulary (see Bourdieu 1992, 1993, 2005, Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, Reed-Danahay 2005, Swartz 1997). Fields are specialist domains of practice (e.g. art, photography, sociology) with their own ‘logic’ that are constituted by a unique combination of species of capital, e.g. financial capital, symbolic capital (prestige, renown) or social capital (‘connections’). An apt metaphor for a field is that of a game. Only players with sufficient ‘know-how’ and belief in the game (‘illusio’) will be willing to invest time and effort playing it. Skilled players acquire over time a ‘feel for the game’ or ‘practical sense’ that allows them to improvise in a structured but seemingly effortless manner. Field agents’ successful strategies may appear to the casual observer rational and conscious but in reality, says Bourdieu, they are only possible when there is a good fit between the habitus and the field. The habitus
…produces strategies which, even if they are not produced by consciously aiming at explicitly formulated goals…turn out to be objectively adjusted to the situation. Action guided by a ‘feel for the game’ has all the appearances of the rational action that an impartial observer…would deduce. And yet it is not based on reason. You need only think of the impulsive decision made by the tennis player who runs up to the net, to understand that it has nothing to do with the learned construction that the coach, after analysis, draws up…The conditions of rational calculation are practically never given in practice: time is limited, information is restricted, etc. (Bourdieu 1990: 11)
Another fundamental notion in Bourdieu’s practical apparatus is ‘doxa’, those deeply internalised societal or field-specific presuppositions that ‘go without saying’ and are not up for negotiation (Bourdieu 1998: 66-67, 2005: 37, Parkin 1997: 376). For Bourdieu, in sum, practice is ‘based on the dispositions inherent in habitus’ and unfolds as ‘strategic improvisations – goals and interests pursued as strategies – against a background of doxa that ultimately limits them’ (Parkin 1997: 376).
A closely related notion to Bourdieu’s habitus is Michel Foucault’s (1979) concept of ‘discipline’. Like habitus, discipline ‘is structure and power that have been impressed on the body forming permanent dispositions’ (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 130). In contrast to Bourdieu, though, Foucault laid particular emphasis on the violence through which modern regimes impress their power (or ‘biopower’) on bodies (2001: 130). In Europe, the introduction of mental asylums and prisons allowed the replacing of earlier hierarchical and centralised forms of control with more diffuse and insidious forms of ‘governmentality’ and ‘disciplinary power’. Disciplinary power works through the body; subjects learn to self-regulate their bodily practices, making it less necessary for states to intervene directly in their lives (Gledhill 2000: 149).
Like Bourdieu, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1979, 1984) first developed an original version of practice theory in the 1970s, but he arrived there via a very different route. Where Bourdieu prided himself in grounding his theories in empirical research, Giddens is more concerned with the history of philosophy and social theory than with sociological data (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 129). In The Constitution of Society he sets out to unify structure and agency through the notion of the ‘duality of structure’, the idea that structure is both ‘the medium and outcome it recursively organizes’ (1984: 374). Social relations are structured across space and time thanks to the duality of structure – this is what Giddens calls ‘structuration’ (1984: 376). His ‘structuration theory’ demonstrated ‘how principles of order could both produce and be reproduced at the level of practice itself’ and not through some ‘ordering’ society impinging upon individual actors from above (Couldry, this volume). Critically building on Hägerstrand’s (1967) geographical work, Giddens argues that we cannot separate ‘individuals’ from the day-to-day contexts they help to constitute. Rejecting what he regards as Hägerstrand’s weak notion of power as ‘authority constraints’ to human action, he stresses instead the transformational power of human action which operates both with the limitations and possibilities afforded by societal constraints (1984: 116-117).For Giddens, the routinisation of day-to-day life is fundamental to humans who derive a sense of ‘ontological security’ from the familiar contours of the social worlds they have helped to (re)create (1984: 23, 50).
Turning now to the second generation of practice theorists, these thinkers have continued to stress the centrality of the human body to practice while paying closer attention to questions of culture and history as well as developing new concepts (e.g. ‘dispersed’ vs. ‘integrative’ practices, see below) and applying practice theory to new areas (e.g. consumption studies, organisational theory, material culture of the home, neuroscience).
In 1984, the American cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner published a germinal essay titled ‘Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties’ that is often regarded by anthropologists as marking the discipline’s ‘turn to practice’ (see Bird this volume, Eriksen and Nielsen 2001, Ortner 2006). Ortner questioned the three ‘theories of constraint’ that dominated US cultural anthropology in the early 1980s, namely interpretive anthropology (Geertz), Marxist political economy and French structuralism (Lévi-Strauss). She found that these approaches remained silent about human agency and ‘the processes that produce and reproduce [societal, JP] constraints – social practices’ (2006: 2).
Dissatisfied with this situation, Ortner sought inspiration in Bourdieu (1977), Giddens (1979) and Sahlins (1981) who she saw as putting actors back into social processes yet without neglecting the larger structures that enable and constrain their actions. On the other hand, Ortner was critical of practice theory for lacking ‘a recognisable concept of culture’ (2006: 11) and for its limited purchase on questions of power and history. In this regard, she found Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ more useful than Foucault’s totalising account of disciplinary power (hegemony, for Gramsci, is ‘strongly controlling but never complete or total’11). Leaning on Sahlins’ work, Ortner concluded that ‘a theory of practice is a theory of history’ and that therefore social practices can only be understood in their articulations with historical events.
If Ortner’s 1984 essay is still essential reading for anthropologists interested in practice theory, Theodor Schatzki (1996, 2001) is a more central figure among second-wave practice theorists. Schatzki is a Wittgensteinian social philosopher for whom the idea of a ‘total field of practices’ is fundamental (2001). By this term Schatzki appears to mean – but this is not entirely clear – the dense tangle of human practices that spans the globe. In order to be able to work with this massive web, says Schatzki, practice theorists have had to either (a) narrow down the inquiry to more manageable subfields of the ‘total field’ (e.g. science or photography; Bourdieu, Giddens) or (b) transform an existing subject-matter into a practice-theoretical question (e.g. Swidler’s 1986 notion of ‘culture as practice’; see also Couldry’s ‘media as practice’, this volume).
For Schatzki (2001: 3), ‘the social is a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices centrally organized around shared practical understandings’. The maintenance of practices over time depends on ‘the successful inculcation of shared embodied know-how’ (2001: 3) as well as on their continued performance (1996). Because activities (or actions) and bodies are ‘constituted’ within practices, ‘the skilled body’ is where activity and mind as well as individual and society meet (2001: 3). It follows that we can only understand actions within their specific practical contexts.
Most practice theorists, according to Schatzki (2001: 2), minimally define practices as ‘arrays of activity’ in which the human body is the nexus. Although he subscribes to this curt definition, Schatzki (1996) also introduces an important distinction between what he calls ‘integrative’ and ‘dispersed’ practices. Integrative practices are ‘the more complex practices found in and constitutive of particular domains of social life’ (1996: 98), e.g. cooking, farming or business. By contrast, dispersed practices include ‘describing… explaining, questioning, reporting, examining and imagining’ (1996: 91) and they can take place within and across different domains or subfields (see Peterson, this volume).
Another contemporary author, Andreas Reckwitz (2002), synthesizes elements from Schatzki, Bourdieu, Giddens and other thinkers to build an ‘ideal type’ of practice theory. With Giddens, Reckwitz emphasizes the importance of routines – ‘social practices are bodily and mental routines’ (2002: 256) – whilst noting that we should not lose sight of ‘crises of practice’ that can bring about significant changes, i.e. new routines. Reckwitz also notes that practice theorists have, by and large, neglected the individual (cf. Helle-Valle’s ‘in/dividual’, this volume), even though there is
a very precise place for the ‘individual’ – as distinguished from the agent – in practice theory…: As there are diverse social practices, and as every agent carries out a multitude of different social practices, the individual is the unique crossing point of practices, of bodily-mental routines (2002: 256).
Where Reckwitz is often abstract and philosophical, Alan Warde (2005) – who inspired Nick Couldry’s turn to practice – approaches practice theory with a far more concrete, empirical aim in mind: the sociology of consumption. He finds Schatzki’s notion of ‘integrative practices’ of more relevance to this research area than his ‘dispersed practices’ (explaining, reporting, questioning, etc.) and illustrates his argument with examples from the practice of motoring in Britain.
For Warde, the rewards of practice can be of different kinds; they can be social (Bourdieu’s social recognition), psychological (e.g. Csíkszentmihályi’s  notion of ‘flow’) or of other kinds. Complex practices offer practitioners more levels of self-development and a stronger sense of wellbeing than simple practices, which to Warde may explain why many people appear to be satisfied cultivating low-status practices. Practices are internally differentiated and distinctions among practitioners can matter a great deal, not least in the differing qualities and degrees of commitment to the practice (2005: 138). No practice is ‘hermetically sealed’ from other practices: innovations diffuse, copying and borrowing are common (2005: 141). Nor are practices understandable without regard to the broader political, infrastructural, and technological environments in which they are sustained (Randles and Warde 2006: 229).
In the wake of this second wave of thinkers, practice theory is currently being put to numerous new uses across a range of disciplines, such as the study of domestic and leisure practices (Shove 2003, Shove and Pantzar 2005, Shove et al 2007), social and political anthropology (Evens and Handelman 2005, Nuitjen 2003), strategy research (Jarzabkowski et al 2007, Whittington 2006) or neuroscience (Lizardo 2007), to mention but a few areas of research.
To summarise, practice theory is a body of work about the work of the body. With one or two exceptions, this loose network of approaches to social theory takes the human body to be the nexus of ‘arrays of activities’ (i.e. practices) that agents perform with greater or lesser commitment, dexterity and grace. Whilst some of these practices are widely diffused across social space and time, others are found clustered in configurations that change over time through the socially (re)productive agency of practitioners. Practice theory itself has diffused across epistemic space since its emergence in the 1970s and today we find practice theoretical approaches in subfields as diverse as strategy theory, political anthropology, material culture studies, the sociology of consumption and neuroscience.