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Local leaders as leading practitioners

December 7, 2008

This is the fourth in a series of posts on my working paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. See previous post here and first post here.

It is important that we distinguish between habits and practices. In common scholarly parlance, practices are often understood to be, quite simply,  ‘all the things people do’: driving, sewing, texting, cooking meals, showering, watching television, making films, or interacting in Second Life. I think this is an unsatisfactory definition. Although it rightly stresses the key element of regularity (without its regular performance, a practice will wither and die), this understanding of practices lumps together two different kinds of arrays of activities: those arrays that can be performed better or worse, with more or less skill, competence and grace (arrays that I would call practices), and those that require little more than habituation – these I would  call routines or habits (Barnes 2001).  So I will reserve the notion of practices for such sets of activities as acupuncture, rock-climbing, film-making or blogging. To the second category belong – except in unusual circumstances, e.g. as part of a long-term artistic project – watching television, showering, or sending emails. 

Perhaps an easy way to illustrate this distinction is through the colloquial idea of “being good at”.  Thus, whilst it makes good logical sense to say that “Sarah is good at rock-climbing” , saying that “Sarah is good at turning on the TV” makes little sense. This is because of the shared understanding that rock-climbing is a learned embodied set of activities demanding  long years of learning, mindfulness, strength, technique, etc., whereas turning on the TV is an easily acquired, mindless and automated habit. Furthermore, rock-climbing is at the heart of a social field and domain of knowledge (Czicksentmihalhyi 1997), whilst no such field or domain exists around the simple activity of turning on the TV.  In case of doubt, one way of telling a practice from a mere routine is to conduct the practitioner test. Rock-climbers, musicians, sociologists, film-makers, and so on, are practitioners of their respective arts, crafts or professions.  By contrast, people who turn on their TV sets every evening are not practitioners of the art of turning on the TV.

Taking these observations to the study of local leadership, we can say that local leaders who want to establish and maintain their leadership positions will need to demonstrate not only habitual performance of their duties – i.e. that they ‘go down to the ground’ on a regular basis – but also that they are good at what they do. This in turn demands that they regularly remind their followers of what exactly it is that they do, and that they demonstrate a high degree of skill, competence and grace in the performance of embodied practices such as public speaking, advocacy, political negotiation, conflict resolution, etc. Accomplished local leaders will be leading practitioners in the field of residential affairs, practitioners who have learned to navigate in a ‘seemingly effortless manner’ (cf. Moores 2005: 23) both the field’s regular stations and its volatile arenas. Moreover, they will typically find their field engagements to generate both intrinsic rewards as they immerse themselves in the ‘flow’ of public performance (Czicksentmihalhyi 1997), as well as extrinsic rewards (prestige, reputation, money, etc.) (Warde 2005) – although when it comes to financial rewards, as we shall see, there is always a potential conflict lurking, particularly among residential activists who are expected to volunteer their time and labour for free.

Continued here


Barnes, B. 2001 Practice as collective action. In: TR Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina & E. von Savigny (Eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London and New York: Routledge.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper.

Moores, S. 2005 Media/Theory. London: Routledge.

Warde, A. 2005 Consumption and theories of practice. Journal of Consumer Culture, Spring.


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