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.

Immigration, artistry and transformation

When I came across this piece in The Atlantic last month, it struck a wonderful chord. In it, Joe Fassler talks to writer Edwidge Danticat about the links between immigration and creativity. One of Danticat’s favourite books is Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, which discusses how for immigrants, life is a work of art. In moving to a new country, immigrants face situations that require a creativity and resolve that is seen most often in creative arts, and which can implicitly teach their children about the value of these endeavors.

While I haven’t read Engel’s book, the sentiment certainly corroborates many of the discussions I had with Hong Kong return migrants. Even when people didn’t speak explicitly about art, their experiences moving to another country, and even returning to their home country, demanded transformation, a remaking of everyday life, and a sense of humor.

Thinking about how this resonates with the work of artists made me consider how even things like Austin Kleon’s ten rules for stealing like an artist could be re-written with immigrants in mind. My exploration of what that might look like is not based on research so much as a creative extrapolation from the experience of my family and other immigrants I have encountered. Therefore please read it as an experiment in pushing this link between immigration and artistry forward, not as a comment on any debates within migration literature (nor actual advice that should be given to all immigrants). The statements below in quotes are Kleon’s original advice, and any other comments are my own. Your thoughts and responses are welcomed

1. Steal ideas from the locals – though you will re-work them as you do so, it is helpful to build on what others already have discovered about your new context.

2. “Don’t wait until you  know who you are to get started” – this one applies to immigrants as it does to artists. Life in a new place is hard, but it keeps going whether you  know how you fit in or not.

3. Make the life you want to live – it’s hard to live exactly as you did before, or as the locals do, so why not make the life you want for yourself in your new context.

4. “Use your hands” – while for artists this is about making things, for immigrants it is probably more about making connections and relationships

5. “Side projects and hobbies are important” – whether taking on new pursuits or continuing old ones, leisure can be incredibly important for some immigrants’ happiness and sense of community in a new place

6. “The secret: do good work and share it with people” – proving yourself as an artist and as an immigrant are not necessarily all that different

7. “Geography is no longer our master” – this is something immigrants are certainly already aware of

8. “Be nice (the world is a small town)” – especially now with the internet and social media, keeping connected is easier than ever, so even what immigrants do in other countries can make it back to the ears and eyes of their families elsewhere!

9. “Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)” – I’m not sure this advice is as necessary for immigrants as artists – or so the stereotype of hardworking and motivated immigrants would suggest

10. Creativity is the way to find your new normal – whether subtraction or addition, immigration is about transformation and creativity is, as Engel suggests, a key component of this

While the parallel starts to show its weaknesses when you try to push it further like this, I still appreciate the way that picturing immigrants as artists frames them as key actors in the transformation of their lives. So much discussion of immigrant adaptation is about fitting in and therefore highlights normal practices in the larger population. As I’ve seen in my research though, when people immigrate their experience is much more about creative adaptations to new ways of living. In my work I’ve used creative methods to get at some of these adaptations, but I think there is much more that can be done in this vein. As a next step though, I’ll have to go and pick up Engel’s book.

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

They said it

Over the last few weeks, I have spent a lot of time combing through the stuff I left behind. Opening long-closed boxes and marveling at objects I didn’t remember owning. Weighing whether things are meaningful or useful enough to travel across the world to a new home. The physical and emotional work of this sort of excavation is considerable, but it was also a rewarding process because of the moments of surprise.

I had no memory of once wanting to become a naturalist when I grew up. Or of conducting a survey of my Gr. 7 classmates and teachers regarding how much homework is enough and what the purpose of homework should be. But it was fascinating to realize just how much I have stayed the same since I was very young.

For instance, I uncovered many old notebooks filled with quotations. At some point in my teenage years I developed a love for other people’s words. Not just any words, of course, but those that managed to eloquently capture some reality I had just started to become aware of. And so I took to collecting. I found an old school notebook and copied out these phrases by hand, in no particular order. While this project eventually became a chore, with the compulsion to archive weighing down the joy of finding new quotations, I kept the notebooks, and periodically re-read them. Though I didn’t have time to consider their contents during this most recent visit, I realized that in a way I have grown up and taken on a professionalized version of the same process. Instead of just combing through existing wisdom, I now interview people to prompt new insights as well. I’m still fascinated by the captivating things people say, or occasionally don’t say.

Here then is one gem from the project I have been wrapping up on Hong Kong return migrants and changes in everyday life. It came at the end of our last interview and managed to bring together themes that many participants had been expressing:

For me, human beings are animals of habits, patterns. So as life goes on, we do things calling the routine; I eat the same breakfast. Especially we look at most of us who come from a modernized educational system and we look at our schooling. Physically, that’s fitting us into a certain kind of a pattern, certain kind of a routine, everyone is roughly the same. You get a little different choice here and there but roughly, it’s the same.

That being said, different cultures can have very different ways of setting these routines and I was very fortunate to be able to experience tertiary education within another cultural setting. This cultural setting is very different to the one that I had grown up with. And going back to what I said about life processes being cyclical. I mean, I’m in Hong Kong, I eat, I play, I sleep, I do things like that. I’m in the US, same. I’m in Australia, same. However, when I do it in a different space, in a different time, in a different cultural context, I cannot help but look more and clearly, oh, so what it is that I’m doing. Oh, I’m eating because I’m eating something that I don’t usually eat, I am forced to go out of my pattern. Oh, so this is a burrito, I mean, I never had a burrito in Hong Kong prior to my stay in the States. Oh, so this is your sweet and sour pork in the States, well, it’s noting like the sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had in my life. So you call this sweet and sour pork, okay, fine. Things like that.

And looking at life like that is just, first of all, for me, it gave me question marks, sparks of question marks to help me look at my life. What exactly am I doing?

And I dare say, for all of us, it boils down to very simple things. Doing things that you enjoy doing, pursuing it. Whether professionally or not, do it just as a habit or do something that you enjoy doing repeatedly over and over again. Hanging out with people you like hanging out with. Again, professionally or not, just go on with that.

– Daniel, Single, 35-39 Years Old

Good or bad


“There was an old farmer whose only horse ran away. Knowing that the horse was the mainstay of his livelihood, his neighbors came to commiserate with him. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man, refusing their sympathy. Indeed, a few days later his horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse. The old man’s friends came to congratulate him. Rejecting their congratulations, the old man said, “Who knows what’s bad or good?” As it happened, a few days later when the old man’s son was attempting to ride the wild horse, he was thrown and broke his leg. The friends came to express their sadness about the son’s misfortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the old man. As it happened, the army came to the village to conscript all the able-bodied men to fight a war against a neighboring province, but the old man’s son was not fit to ride and was spared. And so on…”
Ancient Chinese story as told in Nan M. Sussman’s (2011) Return migration and identity: a global phenomenon, a Hong Kong case, p233

While research on return migrants from Western countries has found that many feel distressed and like they don’t quite fit in upon returning home, Sussman’s study of Hong Kong returnees finds that the majority have no similar conflict, and are relatively comfortable just adding aspects of what they learned overseas to a new life in Hong Kong. In order to explain this difference, Sussman draws upon the differences between Confucian philosophy and the tradition of the Greeks – particularly in relation to their approaches to uncertainty and contradictions. Traditions of finding pragmatic compromises in Chinese culture, she suggests, make adding new experiences into a hybrid or bicultural outlook easier. The either/or approach, however, which draws more upon Greek philosophy, has the potential to create complications when one is no longer purely American or European or Japanese in outlook and culture.

As a trained sociologist reading Sussman’s psychological study, I kept thinking that a more social analysis of this difference in return migrant experiences would also be illuminating. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about how elements of philosophy might be reproduced through generations of cultural institutions and interpersonal relationships.

One of the reasons I was so attracted to learning about Eastern religions and philosophies during my first degree was that in practice they didn’t always insist upon resolving contradictions. The possibility of leaving questions and interpretations open was extremely appealing after growing up in a media culture where morally-deterministic binaries dominate. Though at times it is important to advocate for what is good and bad, it is equally important to understand when this question doesn’t need to be resolved.

Permanently temporary

In Knowles and Harper’s wonderful book ‘Hong Kong: Migrant lives, landscapes and journeys‘ (2010), they interweave photos and stories of the interconnected lives of diverse migrants in a global city. While it is based on academic research, the text reads like a well-crafted documentary or novel and feels like a personal tour of the city and the lives within it. The content resonates not only with my work, but with my own life, and my uncertainty about where I will end up in five or ten years.

“Anticipation of departure is part of the substance of everyday life and fitting in. Departure calculations are complicated. They are about job prospects and the quality of life and enjoyment of a place. They also involve interpretation of the broader political climate. Abrupt and prolonged periods of unemployment can lead to a recasting of connections to a place. Getting bored and wanting to be somewhere else is not uncommon. Migrants know they can move on; it is one of their skills.” (p59)

While of course this skill is available more readily to those with economic and social capital, knowing that being here – being anywhere – is a potentially temporary arrangement shifts the rhythms and quality of everyday life.

“Staying on means being permanently ready to leave, so that the anticipation of departure is also a way of staying, a way of dwelling: a feature of migrant life.” (p61)

Sunrise in Ottawa Airport