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A fourth media question for practice theory

December 2, 2008

This is the second in a series of posts on my work-in-progress paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. It follows from a recent post titled “The field of residential affairs”.

Theorising media and practice

Practice theory is an approach to social theory focussed on ‘practices’ rather than systems, structures, individuals, or interactions. Practices are the embodied arrays of activities than human agents perform with varying degrees of regularity, skill and flair. First developed in the 1970s and 1980s, this approach is associated with some of the key figures of C20 social theory (e.g. Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault, Latour) and appears to be undergoing somewhat of a resurgence in the present decade (Postill forthcoming). Practice theory was designed as a virtuous middle path between the excesses of methodological individualism (which places individual actors at the centre of the analysis) and its logical opposite: methodological holism (centred around societal wholes or structures). The idea was to overcome the rigidities of structuralist-functionalist and systemic models of social action by regarding humans as having agency – the practical ability to change their social worlds – but without reducing them to the status of atomised individuals.

It is only in the past few years that media scholars have begun to discuss the potential uses of practice theory for media research. The key publication in this regard is Nick Couldry’s (2004) “Theorising media as practice” in which he puts forth practice theory as the next paradigm for media studies. Couldry is interested in media power and media-oriented practices, and more particularly in investigating whether some media practices may serve as ‘anchors’ to other societal practices. In a similar vein, but taking issue with some aspects of Couldry’s proposal, Mark Hobart (forthcoming) calls for a ‘radical’ overhaul of media studies via the theory of practice. In the place of Couldry’s ‘media-oriented practices’, Hobart proposes the concept of ‘media-related practices’. These are social practices that can range from a direct engagement with a given medium (or set of media) – for instance, when a group of friends regularly meet to follow the football league on television – to a tenuous or indirect media link, e.g. a family whose conversations and purchasing decisions are partly shaped by prior media engagements. For Hobart, the advantage of a practice approach is that it does not predetermine what counts as a ‘media’ question or domain for study, allowing the ethnographer to be guided by research participants’ own understandings of what they think they are doing, and why those doings matter to them.

My own position on practice theory is that rather than regard it as the next paradigm, I see it as providing us with some useful conceptual tools to combine with existing tools as required by the research question at hand. Elsewhere I have identified three main media questions where I think practice theory can be of assistance: media and the body, media production and media in everyday life (Postill forthcoming). In the present paper I wish to add a fourth media question to the list, namely the study of (digital) media and local politics. I now turn to this question.

Continued here

References

Couldry, N. (2004) Theorising media as practice. Social Semiotics 14 (2):115-132.

Hobart, M. (forthcoming) What do we mean by media practices? In Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Postill, J. (forthcoming) Introduction: Theorising media and practice. In Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

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