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) [‚Ȇ] 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.

Experiments in podcasting: introducing Short Social Stories

As part of the project I am currently wrapping up on the everyday lives and objects of Hong Kong return migrants, Kelly Li and I decided to experiment with modes of communication that are less familiar to us. After getting hooked on several excellent podcasts in the last few years (including This American Life and Radio Lab), I became curious about the possibilities of a pared-down podcast format for disseminating social science research. While I had previously been part of interview- and advice-based podcasts, I thought there might be space for something shorter and more evocative. That is, rather than presenting expert opinions, I was interested in how podcast formats could be conducive to short musings that help to generate questions and new lines of thought.

With this in mind, we decided to jump in and give something a try to see how it would work. This is certainly an experiment, and we don’t have the resources or time that more professional podcasters do. But we thought it would be worthwhile to try the format out and see whether it might spark new interactions around our work.

IMG_3105The result? Something I have decided to call ‘Short Social Stories’. Each episode is a think-piece about five minutes long that tries to encourage curiosity about parts of everyday life that we often don’t pay attention to. The first three offerings highlight thoughts arising from our project on Hong Kong migrants and the objects that they migrate with. If these go well, there is space to expand into other topics and even have other people join in.

After exploring different options for hosting, I decided to go with Soundcloud and thus far I haven’t been disappointed. While this platform is more known for its music-related community, I think the presentation of sound files as waveforms where you can comment on a specific part of the track has a great number of possibilities for public/academic interactions. So far I’ve made use of it by including any direct quotations in the comments, to ensure that due credit is given to other authors and our participants. But I can see the potential for further interaction as well – both questions and comments could be linked to specific parts of the dialogue in a way that isn’t possible on some other hosting sites.

In any case, if you have time please take a listen and let us know what you think. As I say, this is an experiment, and any feedback and constructive criticism about how it works or whether it’s interesting to you would be much appreciated!

If you’d like to see the podcasts on the Soundcloud site itself, you can visit my page here: https://soundcloud.com/everydayallie