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.

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