Elements of Everyday Practice

I have long been fascinated by everyday life. Its routines and familiarity can lead us to forget just how important it is – how indeed everyday practices build up like Lego to form our days, our cultures, and our social structures. Disruptions or new experiences, however, often prompt us to re-consider the everyday and how we come to reproduce it through repetitions of familiar practices.

Whether studying leisure, migration, or energy use, I have found Social Theories of Practice particularly useful for understanding and investigating how everyday life works. This diverse tradition within social science draws from earlier scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, and has been developed in the last few decades by Ted Schatzki and Elizabeth Shove, among others. Using quite different vocabularies, these authors all suggest that it is our everyday practices that structure the world around us – whether cooking, drafting legislation, running a horse ranch, or going to the opera. Studying these practices is therefore important for understanding how social life works and changes.

The idea of ‘practices’ as distinct things, rather than just a generic verb (to practice driving or guitar), can be somewhat strange to think about at first. But considering what these things are made up of can be helpful. In a 2011 paper, Kirsten Gram-Hanssen expands upon Reckwitz’s suggestion that practices are made up of elements by comparing different authors’ understandings of what makes up a practice:

Gram Hanssen elements table 2011

(Gram-Hanssen, 2011: 64)

While the use of widly varying terms makes such comparison necessary, Gram-Hanssen’s table is problematic in three ways. Firstly, while Reckwitz, and Shove and Pantzar, talk about practices being made up of elements, Schatzki and Warde do not call the terms listed ‘elements’. Secondly, the table makes it seem as though Reckwitz is the only one who addresses the body at all, something which is certainly not borne out by a reading of the other authors’ work. Thirdly, while the categories attributed to Reckwitz are things he sees as being distinctive within social theories of practice, these are not the elements he lists very clearly on p249 of the article cited.

Hui elements table 2011

(Hui, 2011: 52)

In my PhD Thesis, completed the same year as Gram-Hanssen’s article, I was also interested in trying to compare these authors’ work, and ended up doing so using two different tables in order to avoid these issues. Firstly, Reckwitz and Shove’s explicit discussion of elements that make up practices allows their terminology to be compared. While Shove and Pantzar do not discuss bodily or mental activities as elements, they understand these to be part of the act of integrating or bringing together the elements of a practice.

Since Schatzki and Warde use quite different language to talk about what makes up a practice, they are best considered in relation to each other. Both authors talk about how practices are made up of various doings and sayings, and these are linked together by the things in the figure below. Since doings and sayings rely implicitly upon bodily and mental activities, these aspects are understood to be a part of practices though not explicitly named in this comparison.

Hui linkages table 2011

(Hui, 2011: 54)

Depending on what one is trying to study, these different ways of understanding what makes up a practice can be more or less useful. Shove and colleagues’ tripartite elements have become a popular model, in part because their simplicity lends itself to diagrams that can be adapted and developed. Cecily Maller and Yolande Strengers have for instance built upon Pantzar and Shove’s diagrams of these three types of elements in order to discuss how the practices of migrants change over time. Lenneke Kuijer, in a recent working paper, also develops their diagrams to show how practices can vary each time we perform them, as well as change with the addition of new elements. I have also recently mused on how understandings of the elements of social practices might be enriched and developed through further consideration of how elements are linked and modelled in the natural sciences. Though the elements of social practices are not taken to be ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ in the same way as carbon, hydrogen, or chlorine, they nonetheless provide a useful starting point for thinking about and studying the practices of everyday life.


  • Gram-Hanssen, K. (2011) Understanding change and continuity in residential energy consumption, Journal of Consumer Culture 11 (1), pp. 61-78.
  • Hui, A. (2014) [≠] Manifesto, DEMAND Centre Working paper 4, Available: http://www.demand.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Demanding-IdeasWorking-Paper-compilation-ES-for-web.pdf
  • Hui, A. (2011), Enthusiasts’ travel: mobilities and practices, PhD Thesis (Lancaster University).
  • Kuijer, L. (2014) A call for more practice theory on the future, DEMAND Centre Working paper 12, Available: http://www.demand.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Demanding-Ideas-Working-Paper-compilation-ES-for-web.pdf
  • Maller, C. and Strengers, Y. (2013) The global migration of everyday life: investigating the practice memories of Australian migrants, Geoforum 44, pp. 243-252.
  • Reckwitz, A. (2002) Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing, European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2), pp. 243-263.
  • Schatzki, T.R. (2002) The site of the social: a philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press).
  • Shove, E. and Pantzar, M. (2005) Consumers, producers and practices: understanding the invention and reinvention of Nordic walking, Journal of Consumer Culture 5 (1), pp. 43-64.
  • Warde, A. (2005) Consumption and theories of practice, Journal of Consumer Culture 5 (2), pp. 131-153.

Becoming a writer

Last week I took part in my first structured writing retreat, which was sponsored by my Department and facilitated by wonderful colleagues. Although I was initially unsure about some aspects of the approach – in particular having to name specific goals before each writing session and writing for set periods of time in a room with eleven other people – it ended up being a wonderful experience. The weather and setting were beautiful, and it was incredibly nice to have time dedicated to discussing the writing process, given the fact that most of my interactions with departmental colleagues tend to focus around teaching or administration.

The three days reminded me of the occasions when I have felt most like a writer – like someone who prioritizes writing, schedules a day around it, and feels regularly energized by it. While writers have very different patterns of productivity (and sleep), I seem to find the most focus when I write first thing in the morning, before checking my email. It was the unexpected discovery of this routine (after having long thought of myself as a night owl) during the last months of my PhD that gave me renewed energy and to this day makes me miss the attic room where that writing took place. Rediscovering the pleasure of this routine has been lovely, and I look forward to using it to ground me as the chaos of term time begins.

On the topic of writing, I thought I would post a few other resources that I’ve come across and plan to use in my teaching. While we didn’t speak about teaching writing at all during the retreat, thinking about the writing challenges that still exist for my colleagues and I reinforces my interest in discussing writing with students. One thing I came across is a nice post by Rachael Cayley about how to use reverse outlines to edit a piece of writing. In addition, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings often provides me with interesting ideas to muse over, and part of David Foster Wallace’s discussions of writing struck me as potentially helpful for students:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

– David Foster Wallace

And to finish, another thought from David Foster Wallace that is useful for writers at any stage of their careers:

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Academic pressures and faked research

In the world of academic research, approval and career progression, if not fame and fortune, come alongside studies and publications that are deemed to be ‘new’, ‘innovative’, and ‘world-leading‘. This undoubtedly follows from an understanding that generating new knowledge about the world is valuable for society. Yet when the search for new knowledge is accompanied by significant external pressures to find it (and quickly), this can become counter-productive. Instead of taking time with or even replicating studies to be sure that their claims are reasonable, academics can feel trapped in a cycle of ‘publish or perish‘ in which they, and their research, suffers.

I found myself musing on these issues after reading an article about the problem within social psychology of faked results and poorly supported conclusions. While the author, Jerry Adler, focuses largely on quantitative studies, which are judged by different standards than my own qualitative research, the context he outlines is shared by many researchers today.

Something unprecedented has occurred in the last couple of decades in the social sciences. Overlaid on the usual academic incentives of tenure, advancement, grants, and prizes are the glittering rewards of celebrity, best-selling books, magazine profiles, TED talks, and TV appearances. A whole industry has grown up around marketing the surprising-yet-oddly-intuitive findings of social psychology, behavioral economics, and related fields. The success of authors who popularize academic work—Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakonomics guys, and the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer—has stoked an enormous appetite for usable wisdom from the social sciences. And the whole ecosystem feeds on new, dramatic findings from the lab. “We are living in an age that glorifies the single study,” says Nina Strohminger, a Duke post-doc in social psychology. “It’s a folly perpetuated not just by scientists, but by academic journals, the media, granting agencies—we’re all complicit in this hunger for fast, definitive answers.”

While not all researchers are enticed by the idea of becoming an academic celebrity or TED speaker, the existence of this public discourse provides further pressure to do research quickly, and make sure it has a quick impact, aims which are often at odds with the realities of complex research situations. For me, at least within UK sociology, the situation is not as dire as Adler seems to suggest. That is, faking research is far from a routine practice. Yet the questions Adler raises about academic culture and what is being encouraged by its developments are important. For instance he highlights some work being done by groups committed to reproducing results and sharing data before publication:

This amounts to a whole new approach to experimental social science, emphasizing cooperation over competition and privileging the slow accretion of understanding over dramatic, counterintuitive results.

This certainly echoes discussions within academic circles about resisting the pressure to sacrifice principles of good research, and the importance of pursuing an ethics of slowness. Strohminger’s point about our complicity in a culture that places speed before other principles such as cooperation is key. It suggests the importance of encouraging alternative values such as kindness, and create supportive working cultures. Learning how to ‘criticize with kindness‘, for instance, might become a core skills taught to graduate students.

As Annie Dillard said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives‘, and the principles embedded in the production of research become the principles embedded in the knowledge ensuing from it. How we make knowledge and how we use it are deeply intertwined, so questions of academic honesty become intertwined with questions for all of us about the answers we want to hear and the kind of knowledge we expect to encounter.

Unfinished business and ‘Demanding ideas’

‘Unfinished business’ is a feature of many people’s lives, taking a variety of forms and with a range of accompanying meanings and emotions. Yet it’s not often that we are encouraged to sit back and think about how ‘unfinished business’ is made, and the trajectories that it is a part of. There are, after all, many things that could have been labelled ‘unfinished business’, but which were deemed not important enough to be pursued, or seemed somehow ‘finished’. The opportunities and openings of ‘unfinished business’ therefore are markers of priorities, interpretation and sometimes active creation.

Last June, I co-organized an event that made time for crafting such openings. We found ourselves with space in the lovely Lake District, and thought it would be fun to use it in order to think about some of the unfinished business within social theories of practice. In order to stimulate discussion, we had each participant write a 2-3 page ‘mini-manifesto’ about the unfinished business that they would like to see pursued in the next decade. Having no idea how people would take up this request, it came as a pleasant surprise that the finished compilation coalesced around similar themes and concerns. Some of the papers focused upon substantive issues linked to energy and the DEMAND Centre research program, while others thought about how theories of practice can engage with questions of the large-scale, power, linkages, temporalities, the future, and policy. Their provocatively short format provided an excellent starting point for more detailed conversations about not only how our interests intersected, but also key divergences. With a few walks and shared meals to further stoke conversation, we all emerged energized by the feeling that there is still much exciting work to be done.

Working in an academic context, and indeed many others, it is easy to become frustrated by unfinished things because of external pressures to finish them. This event, however, was a reminder of the importance of lingering with, meditating upon and playfully provoking what yet remains unfinished.

The ‘mini-manifestos’ from the event, including one in which I ask a lot of questions inspired by the symbol [≠], are now available as working papers from the DEMAND Centre website, and we are working on plans to follow up with further writing in the future.

Demanding ideas WP cover