10th Anniversary Mobilities Special Issue and Practice Theory Methodologies

While my blogging on this website has taken a backseat to other tasks in the last year, there are two recent developments on other sites that might be of interest.

Firstly, I recently contributed a guest post to the Centre for Mobilities Research blog discussing the recent 10th Anniversary special issue that James Faulconbridge and I co-edited. The special issue itself is also fantastic and I would certainly encourage people to explore the range of diverse papers within it.

Secondly, Hilmar Schäfer and I have developed a new blog in the hopes of encouraging ongoing discussion about the implications of practice theories for methodologies. We have come up with a series of propositions to get conversation started and will be having guest posts from a range of theorists and researchers who have developed practice theory or made use of it in empirical studies. There will be a panel at the upcoming DEMAND International Conference dedicated to furthering discussions, and we encourage anyone who is interested in joining the conversation to read, comment, and get in touch about submitting your own post.

Moving around Taipei

Last month I was in Taipei with colleagues from DEMAND thanks to funding from the British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Scheme and the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and Technology. In addition to workshops with the staff and students at National Chengchi University, our main collaborators, we also made visits to Taipei Medical University, National Taiwan University iNSIGHT Centre, and a local non-profit called HAND: Humanity, Alternatives, Nature, Dialogue. The trip was full and fruitful, and offered many opportunities to reflect upon the themes of our research as they were manifest in a different context. More information about our trip can be found on the DEMAND website, and on Storify.

Without further preamble, here’s a short reflection on normal mobilities in Taipei:

In the 1994 Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan, Taipei was characterized as a “boom town” with “overcrowding, noise and incredible traffic jams” (126). Planning for a Metropolitan Rapid Transit system began in 1975, but was plagued by delays, difficulties and bureaucratic obstacles (ibid., 170) that led to worries that it would “be obsolete by the time it’s completed” (126). Since then, however, significant improvements to infrastructure and public services have transformed a once-chaotic system into another aspect of what locals praise as the ‘convenient’ Taipei city. The city’s MRT (Metro) opened in 1996 and has been growing since then, with the latest section opening in 2013 and more lines set to open in 2015. The ‘U-bike’ shared bike scheme started as a pilot in 2008 and reached over 500 million passengers by June 2013. Taxis are also plentiful and inexpensive – with a ten minute ride costing as little as $150NTD/£3.

Yet more striking when in the city are the scooter/mopeds, which are parked in orderly lines on many streets and crowd into special portions of intersections during rush hour. For the locals we spoke with, car ownership was largely unnecessary in Taipei, though it is still important in more rural parts of Taiwan, because other means of getting around are sufficient for many purposes. Moreover, the falling of real wages over more than a decade has made scooter ownership more practical for many in younger generations. The infrastructure of Taipei city streets, which vary from multi-lane thoroughfares to small lanes that would barely fit one car, also call for and support the usefulness of scooters, which provide a means of getting around both queues of traffic on main streets and queues of pedestrians that clog the small lanes of Taipei’s many night markets.

Taipei scooter rider with yoga matA few days of casual observations also demonstrated that the use of these technologies has become a thoroughly ordinary part of everyday life. Though Taiwan receives twice as much rainfall annually as the UK, this didn’t appear to be a reason to avoid scooters, as we saw people riding in the rain with the protection of ankle-length raincoats. Scooters are also well-adapted, through skill as much as design, for carrying a large range of items. In some cases they are fitted with plastic boxes or crates behind the driver, or adapted to have cargo-sidecars. But in many other cases, people travelled with things between their feet on the small platform of the vehicle. Many models had small hooks that could be used to ensure handbags, backpacks and shopping bags don’t shift or fall off in transit. But in other cases this space was used for extra helmets, large bottles of drinking water, suitcases and yoga mats. In some instances, the space was used for additional passengers – for instance with children standing or sitting on a small plastic stool. Given recent findings from DEMAND’s Theme 1 (Mattioli and Anable) about the car-dependence linked to walking dogs, it was also interesting to see multiple instances where small dogs were catching a ride in the space between their owner’s feet.

Taipei scooters lining city streetWhile the transformation of public transportation and normalization of scooters in Taipei undoubtedly brings complications as well as conveniences, it raises interesting questions in relation to UK government promises for reductions in carbon emissions. As I discussed in my presentation at National Chengchi University, perhaps our imagination has been too limited when thinking about how technologies like electric vehicles could transform our transport system. What if we didn’t automatically assume that EVs will be used in the same way as ICE vehicles? What if we allowed ourselves to imagine a future where scooters, or some other type of vehicle, were normal? How could the transformation of Taipei’s transportation system provide possibilities for thinking about steering change elsewhere?

Needed distractions

One of the great pleasures of being an academic is that reading is a part of my job. But at times this can become a great frustration too. Not only is it impossible to read all that one might want to (or feel the pressure to), but reading can become tinged by a compulsion to productivity. Time spent with a novel may be enjoyable, but can be more difficult to justify when one’s physical or virtual desktop is strewn with articles to be read or reviewed. Yet at the same time, reading widely and outside of one’s immediate area of work can be rejuvenating, and can even prompt stimulating adventures or even improvisations.

This weekend was therefore one filled with some much needed reading diversions and distractions.

Thinking about new media and curation:

The striving toward autonomy is, some argue, ever more prevalent, perhaps even a prerequisite, for works of new media, which exist in a technological context shared by other media and entertainment that have educational and other commercial objectives. In this, it would seem that no matter the form of the artwork, the medium never matters as much as the context. However, the more interconnected the work to its context, the greater the change in the way the work of art might be curated or approached by a curator.

– Graham and Cook (2010) Rethinking curation: art after new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pg. 83.

Thinking about the possibilities of short plays that take place inside cars:

There is great pleasure to be had in a world of limits.

– Neil LaBute (2005) Autobahn: a short-play cycle. NY: Faber and Faber, p.xv.

Thinking about a colleague hosting an event next week to bring together community around the challenge of food justice:

Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate and which is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else.

– Megan Blake, posting on her Geofoodie blog

Thinking about a colleague posting about her new Leverhulme-funded project:

Focusing on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

– Imogen Tyler, posting on her Social Abjection blog

Go Go Gadget… Things and Uses

Some days I get distracted. Diversions into the internet start off with a clear purpose and then meander off-course to become unproductive and unnecessary. But one of the great rewards of my work is that many other days, diversions become useful in unexpected ways. Random ideas resurface from days, weeks, or years ago, and make a crucial contribution to what you are writing or trying to understand.

Last week, while thinking about the ambiguity of electric vehicles as part of my DEMAND research, I dredged from the depths of my memory the old animated children’s program ‘Inspector Gadget‘. While the inspector was himself rather inept at solving crimes, thanks to his niece Penny, her dog Brain, and an array of amazing gadgets, he regularly stumbled upon the culprit or foiled the plot in the end. While the cyborgian telephone in his hand and his extendable legs were quite impressive, he also had a car that could transform from a family van to a police cruiser, even while in motion. All you needed were the magic words… ‘Go, go, Gadget-mobile!’

This recollection set me off on a train of thought about how useful it would be to have gadgets that could become exactly what we needed (but no more) because it might make energy use more tightly linked with the functionality we need from technologies. That is, technical practicalities aside, it might be more useful to not have to drive a van around if we only needed a micro-car to get to work, and yet have its boot/trunk expand when we stop off at the store on the way home from work, or have extra seats appear if the kids need to be picked up from music lessons. It’s a fun proposition to think with. It’s also fun when childhood recollections can be meaningful integrated into your adult life.

While it is overstated to call it ‘prediction’, for those who want to reminisce, here is a fun diversion that considers how some technologies in Inspector Gadget are similar to contemporary gadgets.

Models of improvisation

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

Last spring, I was intrigued to read several blog posts discussing the idea of encouraging academic improvisation. Steve Fuller highlighted in his ‘Modest proposal for all future keynotes‘ that there is no point going to listen to academics who say the same things that they have said in publications. We should therefore be expecting more of them – to engage in unguarded experimentation that creates instead of repeating. Additional aspects of improvisation have been addressed in other blog posts – how it draws upon widespread reading, is linked to the non-linear creativity of writing, and might require us to practice as jazz musicians would in order to hone our skills. I find the general argument compelling, in part because improvised public speaking is not constrained by the logic of PowerPoint and has the potential to respond more intuitively to the context and participants. Fuller’s improvised plenary at the BSA Conference in April 2014 also inspired me to engage differently as a listener. Moreover, there is something about embracing the imperfections and spontaneity of ‘live’ encounters that keeps me returning to theater and music productions year after year.

But what exactly is improvisation? While general definitions point to creation with what is at hand, and without preparation, the bloggers’ comparisons with jazz musicians seemed to suggest a more specific type of improvisation based on accumulated skill and training. Years ago, I dabbled in jazz improvisation, and was also involved with improv comedy as a performer and a musician improvising live scores to long-form improvised stories. I have also watched numerous sessions of contact improvisation, a movement system of ‘spontaneous physical dialogues‘. Exposure to each of these practices highlights that they involve much more than speaking or acting ‘off the cuff’. They depend upon systems of rules and conventions that guide interactions between participants (and audiences). Improvisation is always occurring within particular contexts and structures. The question is therefore which academic structures we are seeking to escape and which we are reproducing through experiments with improvisation.

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

Starting from some of the principles of specific improv practices suggests what else could be gained by making improvisation a normal part of academic practice. In improv comedy, the interactions between performers are guided by basic rules that include a) don’t deny what other people say, b) there are no mistakes and c) the principle of ‘yes, and…’ wherein you always accept what others tell you as true and then build upon it. Trust is also crucial within this form and within contact improv, which adds a focus on physically supporting and giving weight to your dancing partner. When trying to imagine how these principles might apply to academic settings, it becomes clear that the keynote speech is a poor point of reference because it does not involve the same degree of interpersonal interaction as comedy or dance. Yes, academics may draw upon other authors (thanks to many hours of reading their work), but this gathering together is not the same as live discussion (e.g. round tables). Moreover, academics are regularly taught to break the ‘yes, and’ rule. Always accepting what other scholars say is a sign of weakness in a culture where critique is lauded and ‘new’, ‘innovative’ research is encouraged.

But there are many times when academics are a part of live interactions. The public exhibition I produced with colleagues last April was one such context, in which we found ourselves madly improvising when it became apparent that people were not interested in just silently reading the many posters we had prepared. PhD supervisions and group research meetings are others – and here trust, support, and embracing a sense that there are no mistakes can be crucial for the quality of ensuing results.

As much as I find the idea of improvising public lectures interesting then, I think any attempt to embed improvisation within academic practice would benefit from considering the term, its many models, and their implications in more detail. Though improvisation might be understood as something that frees the mind “from reproducing past social structures“, my experience with improv has been more often about recognizing structures and learning to play within them – realizing how jazz pianists play around with the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes within any chord progression and how new audience suggestions can make the same structure of interactions play out differently (as improv games like those on Whose Line Is It Anyway illustrate). Creating new structures proceeds alongside this recognition of existing ones. The question then is not only to improvise or not improvise keynote speeches or classroom lectures, but why do we continue to prioritize keynotes and lectures in the first place? How might prioritizing trust and support in academic encounters shift our attention – for instance to kindness and slowness instead of competition and speed? What would happen to research and teaching interactions if we created more contexts reproducing ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but’?

Where we learn what we know

How do you find out about what is going on in the world? What is news for you? Where is it found? How does it speak to you and upon what is it based?

My interactions with ‘news’ have changed multiples times during my life, alongside changes in technology and my own repeated migrations. Reading papers based in multiple countries changed my understandings of what is ‘newsworthy’ by highlighting that news in one place isn’t always news in another, and ‘local’ figures can sometimes become ‘global’ ones (as the controversies around Toronto mayor Rob Ford have illustrated). But what about the newspapers or news sites themselves – how do their models help to shape what is news?

For the last year, I have been a regular reader of The Conversation UK, an online news source with Australian and UK editions. Unlike some news aggregate sites that primarily re-post stories from other sources, The Conversation commissions all of its articles under creative commons licenses that allow them to be re-published elsewhere. Since The Conversation only publishes articles written by researchers who are experts in their fields, readers can also have confidence that the news on the site is informed and measured. While some posts address current events, others discuss topics such as typography, Facebook privacy concerns, robot swarms and electric cars.  Having been an author as well as a reader, I thought I would present my top 5 reasons for reading, and top 5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation. If you’d like to hear more about my experience of working with The Conversation, feel free to get in touch.

5 reasons for reading The Conversation

  • It is a not-for-profit organization, and all authors are required to disclose any funding they receive, so there is less concern that the news is being influenced by corporate interests.
  • It is committed to making quality research findings available to a wider audience, in order to help people better understand complexities of current issues.
  • It provides a different take on current events than major newspapers, as well as presenting a wider range of ‘newsworthy’ topics.
  • The creative commons licenses and re-publishing model emphasize the point that news shouldn’t be something that companies own – knowledge is a public good.
  • It recognizes the importance of ethical journalism, and doesn’t have any advertisements in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation

  • Be realistic about the differences between academic writing and the blog-type style of The Conversation pieces, and then enjoy exploring them.
  • If you’re interested in ‘pitching’ a new story idea to one of the editors, be clear about its message and be persistent in following up.
  • Raise your online profile through blogging elsewhere. The Conversation works with a traditional news model of commissioning stories related to current events, and prospective authors are at times found through online searches of university domains (e.g. .ac.uk). Blogging for institutional or personal websites will make it more likely that your name will come up if one of the editors is looking for someone with your particular expertise to comment on a recent event.
  • Recognize that the timelines that journalist/editors work to are much shorter than those in academic publishing and approach the time-pressed collaboration with an open mind.
  • Share your piece widely online after publishing. Since The Conversation encourages and actively seeks re-publishing, getting your article picked up by a major news organization or aggregator can help your work to reach an even larger audience.

If you’re interested in the articles I have contributed to The Conversation, they address the absurdity of how often we talk about ‘keeping the lights on’ when our energy challenges are much more complex and how policy areas can overlap – with for instance changes in educational policy having potential consequences for energy and sustainability.

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.

References:

  • 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