Drawing once more from the Pat Thomson well – “the key thing I have to remember is” that perfect is the enemy of the good
I really enjoy preparing things, getting all my ducks lined up in a row so that when I start doing the writing work I can get into a flow-state and not have to stop until its done. The challenge is knowing when I’m ready – this preparation phase can and will keep expanding as I find more and more ways to make the thing that I’m working on ‘perfect’.
This completely neglects the fact that it is often only when I start writing something that I know where it is going anyway, as I need to actually find the combination of words and ideas that sum up everything that I’ve been thinking.
Its time to be writing something. I’m not expected to produce something amazing on the first attempt, I’m expected to be learning as I’m doing, so doing is the only way to see what I’m learning.
One of the things that frustrates me most when I read a lot of academic writing is the distance between theory and action. So many papers seem happy to conclude that further research is needed and leave it at that. There’s often seemingly little if any followup. (Of course, I’m generalising, it’s the vibe)
This is why I was pleasantly surprised with the final chapter of Shove et al’s book. They’ve carefully built a case that examining practices in a particular way can help us to better understand them at a societal level and they wrap it all up with some broad discussions of how these ideas might then be put into practice in a social policy setting – particularly in terms of how we might try to address climate change.
The authors’ acknowledge that this is no simple thing, given that currently public policymaking appears to be largely dominated by “concepts from economics and psychology (e.g. theories of planned behaviour, models of rational economic action, representations of habits as drivers of behaviours etc.) and is for the most part untouched by developments in sociological theory” (p.139). (Don’t get me started on economics).
The core difference between the current approach taken to social change, particularly in terms of the practices contributing to climate change, and practice theory derived approaches lies in the current belief that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by attitudes and governments need to give people the choice to change their behaviours at this individual level. Choice is seen as a fairly big deal. Assuming that I understand what the authors have to say, their alternative is to work more to shape practices directly across populations by intervening in the availability of elements of the practices and the relationships between practices, as well as making more of an effort to do this in line with the existing local variations in practices instead of taking something of a cookie-cutter approach. (I’m pretty sure this is a gross oversimplification but that seems to be the broad strokes). They have a nice table to illustrate this:
This dominant paradigm of the ‘ABC’, in which A stands for Attitude, B for Behaviour and C for Choice (Shove, 2010), underpins two classic strategies for promoting more sustainable ways of life: one is to persuade people of the importance of climate change and thereby increase their green commitment; the second is to remove barriers obstructing the smooth translation of these values into action. Over the last few years, the language of motivators and barriers has been extended, behavioural economics has come into view and there is increasing reference to the need for a more holistic approach. However, none of this has altered the basic outline of what remains a thoroughly individualistic understanding both of action and change (p.140)
I have to say that while the assertions that the authors are making about overemphasising the idea of choice and people’s attitudes in changing their behaviour, I’m not sure that they utterly demolish the reasons for doing so. The points made though about how this overlooks cultural, geographical and historical contexts that help shape variations in practice between areas/groups/etc are valid and I would suggest that adding an examination of practices to the policy toolkit is highly sensible. From what I can see overall though, the methods for achieving change through these broader methods feel slightly hazy and seem to forget that there are many competing agendas at play (getting re-elected for example) that this holistic approach doesn’t necessarily play nicely with.
This argues for what Rip describes as a modest approach to policy, not based on a quest for control or an ambition to nudge the drivers of behaviour, but on a subtle and contingent ‘understanding of the sociological and economic nature of the processes they seek to influence’ (Grin et al., 2010:2007). Defined like this, policy making is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors. It is instead better understood as a more process-based ‘succession of short and fairly rapid steps’ involving sequences of ‘trial-and-error learning or ‘serial adjustment’, anchored in and never detached from the details and specificities of the practices in question (p.142)
As always, I try to bring the ideas in the literature back to my own day-to-day work in a university and frame it in terms of evolving teaching practices. I don’t disagree with any of the ideas here philosophically but have some serious pragmatic questions about how well this approach would be received by sceptical academics and how implementable it is.
The authors draw on earlier chapters in the book to identify four ways in which a practice oriented approach to change might be achieved:
In brief, the policy makers and other actors, past and present, can and do influence: a) the range of elements in circulation; b) the ways in which practices relate to each other; c) the careers and trajectories of practices and those who carry them; and d) the circuits of reproduction. (p.143)
A) The range of elements in circulation
In terms of climate change, the idea is to remove or reduce the bad ‘elements’ of practices rather than bad behaviours. The authors discuss this in terms of Japan’s “Cool Biz” initiative – which actually is quite fascinating. It’s mainly about changing office culture – supporting more casual, warm weather work wear than conventional suit and tie for men – to enable less use of air-conditioning (or keeping offices at higher temperatures – a range between 20-28 rather than the current 22-24). This program is in its 12th year now and other than some resistance from tie companies (really) and some initial uncertainty about cultural practices when meeting people from non-Cool Biz offices (workers took to carrying ties with them), it is a success.
Stories like these remind us that elements of meaning – including the meaning of office-wear, style and comfort – do not arrive fully formed but are reproduced and transformed in social situations that are already laden with significance (p.146)
I’m a little hazy on exactly how this differs from changing behaviours – it seems to be doing so from a slightly different direction from what I can see. In terms of my own work, I guess our equivalent is demolishing large lecture spaces.
B) Configuring relations between practices
This section talks at length about the relationships between cycling and driving. From what I can see, when you have a competitive relationship, one practice tends to need to lose something for the other one to benefit. How a practice is perceived depends on how it’s competitor is seen. So compared to walking, cycling was considered speedy but compared to driving, slow.
Thus far we have discussed driving and cycling in order to draw attention to the changing relation between practices, to the potential for symbiotic as well as competitive relationships and to the consequences of past configurations for the accumulation, character and durability (or otherwise) of relevant elements. Since policy interventions take place within and not outside specific histories of practice, issues of timing are crucial (p.148)
C) Configuring careers: carriers and practices
Most of what I got out of this section was about looking at defections from practices – what we can do to discourage someone from continuing in an undesirable practice. It took a big veer off into social theory territory and Bourdieu and I can see that this is an area that might be helpful to explore down the line but for now, it seems a little too tangential.
D) Configuring connections
Communities of practice feature in here and creating the conditions for practices to flourish. Most of the rest of it seemed to be about change management, which I’ve dug into previously and there didn’t seem to be much new.
In summary, taking a social/practice perspective – because there is social theory and there is practice theory too – offers some interesting new angles for implementing change and understanding practices.
I’ve enjoyed the ideas in this book and will certainly explore them further – I’ve particularly valued the authors methodical approach to breaking down the ideas and simplifying parts in the pursuit of higher truths. In terms of my work and my research, it’s certainly given me some ideas for understanding what third space TEL workers (I should really just say TEL edvisors) do and I think that where this will get particularly interesting is when I start to look at the crossovers between the practices of TEL edvisors, teachers, students and maybe even university management. I strongly suspect that this is where we will find (hopefully) some useful answers to the questions around how we can do TELT better.
This chapter primarily sums up the core ideas of the book (probably should’ve read it first). If I was to sum up the summary, I’d say that their argument is that streamlining the various elements of practice into materials, competences and meanings helps to understand practices in a broader context (and thus the emergence, evolution, dissemination and decline of practices). They also spend some time explaining the different relationships that practices have with both time and space – in a nutshell, time and space shape practices and practices shape (our perceptions of) time and space. Finally they touch briefly on the fact that practices affect power and privilege and, again, vice versa. (There’s also a bit of stuff about how and if practices compete with one another and where people sit in terms of practices – are they simply automaton style ‘carriers’ of a practice or are they more?)
To unpack this a little further:
Simplifying the definition of practice
Two quotes explain the decision making process pretty well – both on page 97.
We come back to the more complicated challenge of conceptualising elements in a moment but one obvious development, at least as regards more classically social theories, is our inclusion of materiality as a constitutive element of practice. Though barely mentioned iby Giddens (1984), artefacts, technologies and infrastructures feature in Schatzki’s account not as parts of practice, but as aspects of ‘arrangements’ to which practices are tied (2010b: 135)
we took our inspiration from Reckwitz and from his suggestion that practices consist of interdependent relations between elements including ‘forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge of in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’ (2002)
By looking at Reckwitz’s list in particular, we can see how Shove et al have streamlined emotion and motivational knowledge into ‘meaning’, which has also allowed for broader social contextual factors to play a part. This works well for me because it’s important to recognise that a practice exists within a larger context and is impacted by other people.
The authors also try to broaden our idea of practices to encompass the micro-changes and variations that occur between performances, practitioners and contexts. They note that:
‘theories of practice are commonly thought to deal better with routine reproduction than with innovation… however this is not the only way to go. Throughout this book we have been keen to build on the observation that not all enactments of practice are consistent or faithful and that each performance is situated and in some respect unique. In addition, in some small way each enactment changes the elements of which practices are made. (p.98)
Shove et al come back again to the significance of material elements, which speaks in some ways to the bigger question about how deterministic these can be in driving and/or creating practices. They observe that ‘numerous studies suggest that technologies and artefacts ‘script’ bodily performance and the types of competence required to produce configurations that work (Akrich, 1992)’.
On the question of how much impact people have on their practices, the authors stress that ‘practices are active integrations of elements’ (p.100) – the implication clearly being that it’s people that need to be doing the integrating.
One consequence, then, is that human agency is loosely but unavoidably contained with a universe of possibilities defined by historically specific complexes of practice. It is in this sense that practices make agency possible, a conclusion that is not all incompatible with the related point that practices do not exist unless recurrently enacted by real-life human beings (p.100)
All of which is getting a little philosophical for me but we press on. Well, we press on in some ways into even more philosophical areas in some ways relating to the nature of time and space. (Which I maintain would exist perfectly happily without the existence of people at all and so what we are probably actually talking about here is our perception of space/time – just for the record)
Practices in time and space
In exploring the relationship between practices, time and space, the authors find that there are four, not-incompatible ways of thinking about both time and space in terms of practices. They launch out of the blocks with this idea:
Should we view space and time as resources for which practices compete, in effect treating them as additional elements? Alternatively would it make better sense to think of space and time as coordinates in terms of which the location of a practice might be described and plotted? Or should we go along with Schatzki’s interpretation of activity timespace (Schatzki, 2010b) as something that is forged in the moment of doing, and through which past and future are integrated? (p 100-101).
At which point I start to scratch my head and hope that my assumption that Schatzki is referring to perceptions of time is valid. Because otherwise I don’t buy it. The authors spend a fair bit of time on the different ways of view time and space in terms of practice and I don’t see any of them as necessarily wrong, just valid in different situations. What I’m most interested in what it means in terms of overall application.
So, to precis, time is a limited element in that when you are performing one practice, you aren’t performing another. However, because we prioritise practices, we schedule them in ways that help us to achieve as much as we possibly can. Now the authors don’t get into this idea but I’d suggest that part of the way that we do this is by understanding that a practice has time as one of its attributes – we know that it will take 5 mins to brush our teeth – and we factor this into the way that we schedule things. So, so far, time shapes our practices and our engagement with them. What gets interesting is that this goes the other way, to an extent. Practices also shape our time. Certain practices are commonly only done at certain times – brushing your teeth before going to bed, for instance. So the meaning of a practice comes into play. At a larger scale, the kinds of practices that we engage in shape the way that we structure our week – weekdays for ‘work’ and weekends for ‘leisure’. So as I say, there are a number of different kinds of relationships between practices and time and they are not mutually exclusive. Going to work shows us that we don’t always control our time when it comes to practices either, so we need to be conscious of the fact that there are limitations on when we practice.
Societal rhythms are defined by the recurrent scheduling and sequencing of specific practices and, over the longer run, changing patterns of daily life reflect the dynamics of social practice (p.103)
The authors go on to discuss how practices exist when they aren’t being performed and their answer is that the persistence of the elements of the practice across time are what enable this. Seems obvious enough.
Similarly the relationship between space and practice has a number of facets. Some practices require more space than others and this impacts on our ability to perform them. Dedicating a space to a particular practice (e.g roads and driving) means that this space is no longer available to other practices (e.g farming). The need to have access to a large space for a particular practice adds a barrier to accessing that practice – more of an equity/societal issue perhaps and more on that shortly. Space impacts the way that elements travel (e.g to a mountain top) and this shapes the availability of a practice. However space might also see a number of practices co-existing within it – cyberspace for example. Looking at things the other way around, practices also influence space. Consider a kitchen and the way that this room is largely reconfigured for the practice of cooking. Without cooking, we would have no need for kitchens. This reconfiguration of the space can also serve to perpetuate the existence of the practice.
As driving and flying reconstitute space and time around them, they help embed the future inevitability of driving and flying. Both become necessary if life is to go on within the reconfigured spacialities and temporalities these practices have engendered (p.105)
So the core of Shove et al’s point is that time and space are more than just elements.
Space and time are not elements equivalent to those of materiality, meaning and competence. They do not circulate in their own right, nor are they shared and stored in the same way. Equally spatial and temporal coordinates do not merely define the settings and scenes in which practices are enacted. Arrangements of time and place are structured by past practices and are themselves relevant in structuring future pathways of development and/or diffusion. In this role, they act like elements in that they constitute media of aggregation and storage, holding the traces of past practice in place in ways that are relevant for the future, and for the perpetuation of unequal patterns of access. (p.106)
Dominant projects and power
The final section kind of continues on with this theme, digging more into how and why certain practices and the projects that they are associated with, become dominant in a society. (Spoiler, it’s about having power and access to resources).
Those who have the means to engage in valued social practices are in an especially privileged position in that is is they who contribute to the direction in which such practices develop. The specification of relevant elements and their circulation/distribution are in this respect intimately connected (Bourdieu, 1984) (p.106)
The authors wrap up this chapter by noting that sometimes those people with power will seek to shape the meaning surrounding a practice (e.g. washing hands) to help them make a profit. They talk about a soap manufacturer working with the church (among others) to reframe the notion of dirt and its undesirability to ultimately sell more soap.
Some stray ideas
A few thoughts came to mind as I read this chapter, triggered largely by this final sentence
The question is then whether policy makers can intervene in the dynamics of social practice and if so how, on what basis and with what chance of success? (p.107)
Bringing this all back to my work and my research, I need to think about this in terms of good TEL practices, TEL edvisors and teachers/lecturers. If practices are to some extent determined by the powerful, we either need to find someone with enough power to impose them or get the powerful to embrace them. Or both, really.
I also wonder what the role of time and space in Higher Education is – new purpose built teaching spaces are being designed and constructed that will presumably try to shoehorn people into particular teaching practices by removing the option of other approaches. The time needed to teach effectively with technology/online is also something that I assume has been explored but I need to look further into this because I really get the feeling that the unions negotiating our contracts aren’t.
This chapter has us looking at the ways that practices can be grouped together, what factors drive these groupings and what impact competition and collaboration between practices has on other practices.
(I’m still mind-mapping the core concepts now before writing these posts and feeling like they’re helping a lot in terms of clarity.)
Shove et al open with more discussion of why they are viewing practices in the simplified way that they are. (In comparison to other theoreticians in the field like Schatzki.) It feels slightly defensive at times but I guess this is what one needs to do when trying a new approach – justify, justify, justify. Their main point is that
by holding fast to this approach we are able to describe historically fluid processes of linkage, disruption and mutual influence and identify instances in which practices become so closely connected that distinctions between them dissolve (p.71)
Their arguments here are making more sense to me as we progress but I’m still going to have to check out the other theorists to see what other angles there are. It does feel more and more however like I can draw pretty heavily on these ideas in how I scaffold my own research. At the moment it seems like I want to catalogue the various practices of TEL edvisors, teachers/academics and maybe institutions (if that isn’t too broad) in pursuit of understanding of the relationships between these practices and to find areas where they can be improved or better supported. I had a Skype chat with my supervisor last week and he doesn’t seem to have any urgency in my work – I’m not sure what to make of this. I get that this is my work and I need to drive where it is going and I don’t want to be told what to do but I’m still feeling rather unguided.
In terms of how practices are grouped, the authors suggest that there are bundles and complexes.
Just as elements are linked together to form recognisable practices, so practices link, one to another, to form bundles and complease. Bundles are loose-knit patterns based on the co-location and co-existence of practices. Complexes represent stickier and more integrated combinations, some so dense that they constitute new entities in their own right (p.71)
In a nutshell, practices can be linked because a series of them might need to occur in a specific order (such as docking a large ship) and at a certain time or they might need to occur in a given space (like the photocopy room). Or both. Or the practices might be more loosely linked, so that you could do several in succession but it’s not necessary to do so.
The fact that practices occur in the same place could be that this is where the necessary materials are stored – and this is turn could be because this is where the practice(s) need to occur. Cities are considered great for the evolution of practices because “proximity… increases the chances of cross-fertilisation between otherwise unrelated practices” (p.74).
These examples have emphasised collaboration as a key factor in the relationships between practices and this is particularly seen to be the case when considering complexes. (This is also referred to as “blackboxing” in other circles – the practice of driving, comprising a host of mini-practices, is the black box for all of them)
…when practices do come to depend upon each other (whether in terms of sequence, sychronization, proximity or necessary co-existence), they constitute complexes, the emergent characteristics of which cannot be reduced to the individual practices of which they are composed (p.75)
However, on the other side of the coin we have competition. There might be competition for materials, particularly time – I guess time is a material more than anything else – and competition for the attention of the practitioner.
…there are instances in which time-use data reveals what seem to be aggressively competitive moves in which one practice colonizes resources and captures recruits at the expense of another (p.76)
The rise of television in the home from the 1950s onwards is seen as a prime example of this, changing the way that people organise their lives and prioritise practices. These kind of practices come to be referred to as ‘dominant projects’. This mirrors language used elsewhere
In innovation studies, the notion of dominant design has been used to explain how certain products and technological solutions define the terms off which others compete (and collaborate)… ‘technological experimentation and competition persists within a product class until a dominant design emerges as a synthesis of a number of proven concepts (p.77)
Initiating change at this point is seen as a challenge, with the authors noting that “breaking through incumbent regimes and overturning dominant designs requires radical rather than incremental innovation (Abernathy and Clark, 1985)” (p.77)
In terms of my own research, where initiating change does seem to be a necessary (or at least desired) outcome, I wonder if I might write up some case studies of successful implementations of change of dominant projects. I’d imagine that before then I’ll want to interview TEL edvisors (and maybe academics – though this may not be necessary) in the course of identifying and defining sets of practices in these various worker domains.
There’s an interesting description of some possible methodologies for analysing the relationships between practices toward the end of this chapter – it’s perhaps still slightly abstract but I’ll include it for further consideration.
Multi-level analyses of stability and change emphasise one-way tracks of path dependence. These do not necessarily exclude parallel accounts of more fluid patterns of multi-sited anchoring. However each approach draws attention to significantly different forms of positive and negative interconnection. The first highlights competitive relations and their impact on the selection environments of the future. The second suggests that webs of co-dependence are not evenly arranged, that they include nodes, knots, relays and points of convergence and amplification, and that the emergence of dominant systems and projects depends on how practices are linked and not (only) on their capacity to compete. This underlines the importance of identifying and analysing types and combinations of spatial and temporal links while remembering that these connections are living tissue: they do not exist ready-made, but are continually re-woven as practices to be reproduced (Ingold, 2008) (p.79)
There’s a final quote in this chapter that I particularly liked, mainly because it seems highly relevant to an unrelated (I think – though I’m considering whether it might be incorporated into the research in some way, if I can overcome some local barriers) project for academic professional development – STELLAR.
In the first part of this chapter we distinguished between loose bundles and denser, stickier complexes of practice, also describing arrangements in which patterns of sequential order and periodicity combine, and in which serendipity is common. It may be that configurations less constrained by path dependencies or by strict temporal order are better able to accommodate diversion and interruption. In these situations temporary defection, multi-tasking and contamination between practices is perhaps more likely than when practices are held together by strong routines (p.79)
One of the key aims of STELLAR is to support a host of different forms of professional development practice that academics can dip into and out of in their own time. To me, this sounds somewhat in line with this idea.
Chapter 4 of The Dynamics of Social Practice takes us from the ways that the elements of practices circulate, emerge and disappear to the people that ‘carry’ these practices and some of the reasons that they pick them up and abandon them (or defect from them, to use the preferred terminology of the authors).
After my post on Chapter 3 came in at 3000+ words and took a day and a half to write, I thought I’d look for a new approach for this post. So here’s my mindmap of core concepts that I’m hoping will help me take a bit more of a top down view.
Something that I’ve felt was missing in discussion of practices up until now was the human element, the practitioners. The authors, taking a practise-centric perspective unfortunately refer to practitioners as carriers, which I kind of get from that viewpoint but it still feels wrong. Putting this quibble aside, the authors do identify some valuable issues when it comes to the spread of practices in relation to people, not the least of which being that inequalities of opportunity and access can play a significant role in who becomes a practitioner.
Rather than asking how social and material inequalities restrict the potential for one or another practice to develop, should we not also think about their impact on individual lives and the chances that people have?… It is so in that the chances of becoming the carrier of any one practice are closely related to the social and symbolic significance of participation and to highly structured and vastly different opportunities to accumulate and amass the different types of capital required for, and typically generated by participation (p.61)
The authors lean heavily on Bourdieu here, who I’m yet to really dip into but from what I’ve seen of his work, I think we’re on the same page.
Shove et al discuss the importance of pre-existing networks (and communities of practice) that expose practitioners to new practices. In this particular instance, they frame the discussion in terms of the emergence of the Punk movement.
…critical features, like the diameter of the circle and the density of links within it, proved to be important in allowing rapid interaction between members, establishing patterns of mutual obligation and enabling a productive concentration of energy and effort. The same arrangements that allowed punk practices to emerge also enabled them to take hold and diffuse. In effect, the networks through which punk came into being, and through which its carriers were recruited, were formed by previous interests and affiliations. This suggests that new and emerging practices exploit connections forged and reproduced by practices that co-exist or that went before. Needless to say, these links are not randomly distributed but, in the case of punk, neither were they configured by intent. (p.62)
There’s further discussion later in the chapter about the way that people can belong to multiple communities of practice and that practices can spread between these communities. It’s the last sentence of the quote above though that makes me think the most about how we can make use of these networks to spread new practices. It seems as though working with existing networks might be far more effective than trying to start new ones from scratch. This seems to create challenges in my research, where the nature of academia seems to be that it is regarded as a solitary practice and I’m not sure what these existing networks might be. Hopefully it’s just that it’s harder rather than impossible.
In looking at the work of Brown and Duguid on Communities of Practice, the authors note that “the ties and connections through which practices develop and circulate, and by means of which they reach and capture new recruits, do not necessarily map onto organisational or institutional structures” (p.62)
I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my workplace, which is why I’ve made a significant effort to connect with my colleagues across colleges and other institutions based on our work types and backgrounds.
Drawing on the work of Wenger, the authors go further, noting that
if communities of practice are born of the experience of doing, they cannot be willed into existence or designed from afar. But it is also puzzling. If communities are defined by the practices in which members engage, can they also act as conduits through which the practices flow? (p.63)
There is also a tipping point where practices are so widespread that surrounding elements (materials, meaning) help to reinforce them.
Where practices are widespread within any group or society, the chances encounter are that much higher. And in situations where participation is simply expected, recruitment follows as a matter of course. There are, in addition, instances in which people are required to adopt or refrain from certain practices by law. There are no laws about showering on a daily basis but the practice has become embedded through material and not only social networks. As a result, people are, in a sense recruited to showering by the design of the bathroom and the products on sale, as well as by the expectations of family and friends (Burke, 1996) (p.63)
This echoes sociomaterial theory, as far as I can see.
Once someone has been exposed to a practice and been recruited to it, the next logical step – if the practice is right for them – is that it becomes part of their ‘career’. They progress from a novice practitioner through a range of performances of the practice, often in the company of other practitioners, to mastery of it. At some point they might even adopt it into their identity, so that they become a full practitioner – like a ‘jazz musician’ or a ‘drugtaker’ – probably both in that specific instance. (oooh, 50’s zinger)
The practicalities of becoming what Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to as a ‘full practitioner’ and the sequences and stages involved vary from one practice to another. This is relevant in that at any one moment, a practice will be populated and carried by people with different degrees of experience and commitment. (p.65)
Shove et al take a brief sidestep at this point to consider the ‘career’ of a practice itself. At times, it feels like they’re trying to be a little too cute/clever with language but I can also see what they’re getting at. It’s essentially the evolution of the practice over time. They discuss the fact that you might expect novices to be try to bend or break a practice with new ideas and approaches, given their lack of reverence for the history of the practice but find that it just as often (if not moreso) tends to be more those that have achieved mastery that are the most at ease with changing things. This makes sense to me, in that you need to know the rules before you can break them. It does suggest that it’s useful to maintain a certain flexibility or fluidity in the definition of a practice, as there will always be changes and permutations as it ages.
The impact of these changes in practices on their associated communities of practice can be significant and amplify the changes – which sometimes then change the communities
Outside the realm of formal organisation, and sometimes within it too, evolving practices routinely change the margins of relevant networks and the scope of who they do and do not include. As snowboarders split away from skiers, new communities of practice formed. Similarly, when practices diffuse through social hierarchies, for instance as people emulate those of higher status, the meaning of participation changes; an influx of new recruits often leads to the exit of others…Patterns of participation matter not only for who gets the opportunity to do what, but for who it is that shapes the future of a practice, and for how individuals are shaped by the experience (p.66)
The final section of this chapter looks at what happens (and how and why) when practices collapse and experience large scale defections.
Schatzki suggests that judgements about whether practices have died or merely been transformed should reflect the extent and character of change. He provides the following guidance: ‘where multiple mutations are accompanied by continuities in other components, a practice lives on’, but ‘when changes in organisation are vast or wholesale, or a practice’s projects and task are simply no longer carried out, former practices expire’ (2002: 244) (p.67)
They identify three key pathways that reflect change in practices; innovations, fads and fashions.
An innovation is simple – it merely renders a previous practice redundant or inferior. In the UK in the 1950s, 40% of journeys were made by bicycle but over subsequent decades and car culture grew, this shrank to just a few percent.
Fads seemingly spring from the air, recruit a lot of people very quickly but then disappear just as quickly. Shove et al identify three key reasons that fads fail as ongoing practices and use hula-hooping to illustrate their points. The first is that they often lack the depth needed to give people ‘internal reward’ – otherwise known in gamification circles as intrinsic motivators. Once someone has mastered the basics of hula-hooping, there’s little to progress onto and no other practices that connect to the skills that have been developed, such as one might find in gardening or cooking. So there’s also little connection to social meaning or other practices, all three factors making sustainability hard.
To put this observation the other way around, practices are, perhaps ironically, better able to retain commitment when they afford scope for innovation… These interpretations suggest that mass defection is possible, and perhaps even likely, where practices are not consistently internally rewarding, not laden with symbolic significance and not enmeshed in wider networks (p.68)
Fashions though tend not to lead to significant defections or adoptions because they do little in terms of changing underpinning meanings or practices.
Fashions are different in that they are characterized by cyclical processes of substitution: last year’s model is replaced by this year’s design, but in the end and at the level of practice, nothing really changes (p.67)
When examining defection/recruitment, Shove et al are careful to make the point that these things are not necessarily just ‘two sides of the same coin’. The relationship can be more complex than this. Looking at the rise of Internet use in the 1990s, researchers were concerned that the hours being spent were replacing family/social time, without recognising that part of people’s family/social practices were now just being done online.
While it isn’t mentioned in this book, there is a model used to describe change in Education Technology – SAMR. (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition). This seems as though it could be valuable in the way that we discuss social practice theory and particularly changes when looking at TELT practices. I’m not 100% sure how yet but it’s there.
Shove et al raise an interesting question without an answer – in fact it seems virtually impossible to realise but could be highly enlightening.
…what if there were some means of assessing the rates at which individual practices are changing, and hence the relative ‘plasticity or rigidity (lock-in) of the interlocking systems of practice of which society is composed’ (Shove, 2009: 30) …Should such a thing as a societal index of practice transformation exist, it might indicate that certain domains of daily changes are moving more quickly, or are more dynamic than others. It might show that some such changes are necessarily synchronized, or cumulative, and that others are not. As they go about their daily lives, people are unknowingly engaged in reproducing and enacting multiple and varied cycles of change, simultaneously shaping the lives of practices and being shaped by them. (p.69)
I honestly don’t even know where you’d start with this, it seems to operate as such a large scale. Would we measure the number of participants? The complexity of their practices? (This might be achievable across a limited set of practices in TELT perhaps.)
The authors conclude this chapter by noting that our identities and careers shape the practices that we join. They refer to the work of Pred , who sees our lives as revolving around
a handful of ‘dominant projects’, these being inter-linked practices that in combination ‘require that participating individuals expend their labour power or in some other way engage themselves in activity in a given manner, at a given time and place (Pred, 1981: 16) (p.70)
So what have I drawn from this overall and what can I bring into my research? The point about the challenges of imposing a community of practice from above rather than working with existing networks is well taken however one of the challenges that I’m encountering in universities is that those networks of teaching practice are non-existent or hidden. Research is the primary focus of a university – I guess I should say this university as it is an ‘elite’ one – and research is seen as a solitary process, in this school at least. Less so in sciences I’d imagine.
The idea of a career path both for the practitioner and the practice itself is also interesting – I have a feeling that when it comes to TELT practices that this might not necessarily align with the position/status of the academics, so that feels like an area of sensitivity. Fostering and supporting fluidity in the definition of the practice makes sense and so does encouraging innovation.
Fads are something that we’re plagued with in TELT and these frequently come down from on high – MOOCs for example. These are more connected to existing practices and networks though, so maybe fashions is a more accurate term.
The transfer of practices through the multiple communities of practice that practitioners are connected to also makes a lot of sense and I’m sure there must be ways to better make use of this.
(Drawing a mindmap of this chapter was actually a really useful idea – way to go brain)
Finally I guess the question of access and opportunities to engage in practices is certainly something important in my work with TELT practices.
Lots to think about but I’m really enjoying this book.
Having set out the case for defining practice as the interwoven relationship between three key elements; materials, meaning and competences (I always want to say competencies here) in Chapter 1 & 2, the authors move on to examine how the elements can exist independently, how they (and by definition, practices) move from place to place and how practices emerge, disappear and persist.
I’ll be honest, it gets kind of meta in some places and there’s a degree of toing-and-froing (which they acknowledge) between the idea that in a practice, the three elements can or can’t exist without each other. We seem to land on the fact that clearly they can but the practice itself can’t exist without them all.
The good news is that the more I read of this, the more it seems like a nice theoretical hook to hang my research on. So far I can generally accept the ideas that are being put forth and I’m starting to substitute TELT practices into their other examples to see how well they fit. It’s all got me thinking about practices in a new way that I think might help me to pin down how I plan to actually conduct this research. (Spoiler alert, after having the grandest of ambitions for a massive multi-part research project last year, I’m realising that something more modest would still be perfectly acceptable)
Here are some of the core ideas put forward in this chapter, some useful supporting quotes and some of my stray ideas, questions and observations. (Quick note to self – reading this as an e-book means that there are no proper page numbers – the front cover of the book is considered page 1 – so double check the page numbers for quotes that you actually plan to use)
Practices constantly evolve while their component elements tend to stay more stable.
As structured and situated arrangements, practices are always in the process of formation, re-formation and de-formation. By contrast, elements are comparatively stable and are, as such, capable of circultating between the places and enduring over time. We are consequently surrounded by things that have outlived the practices of which they were once a vital part… Abandoned biscuit presses, outdated computer equipment and tools for tasks no longer undertaken are obvious examples but understandings, meanings and types of expertise are also discarded as practices evolve. (p.46)
The authors make a sweeping statement that I’m still considering on a philosophical level but looking around my desk at all of the ‘made’ objects (materials), it kind of makes sense. I’m trying to think of things, skills or meanings that we don’t have a use for that we do these things with. I have half a thought that there would be practices that are “carried” or move between locations based on new ideas about uses of material items but I’m not yet sure what that means to me.
…it is only through their integration in practice that elements are reproduced, eroded or carried from one setting or population to another (p.47)
The fact that requisite elements co-exist does not guarantee that they will be linked together but the potential is there (p.47)
The question of access to specific materials needed for practices is raised and ties to the development of different technologies (trains, trucks, planes etc) that mean that access options change and thus associated practices can emerge or evolve. I’d say that the Internet sits nicely in that category of access when it comes to the material elements of TELT practices – though I’m curious about where exactly software and web services sit. They’re on one hand a thing that people use but on the other, contain certain knowledge/competences that save people from having to carry out particular sub-practices in the course of doing larger practices. But perhaps that is just what tools (materials) do? Hopefully we’ll go deeper into the crossover between materials, tools and competences.
There’s also the question of what impact the choice of specific materials in a practice means – some materials playing better with others and creating opportunities to do some things but not others. (Which feels like another of the many areas where these ideas cross paths with sociomaterial theory). I definitely think there’s room in my research for a look at what impact the choice of particular technologies has on practices.
At this point, the authors observe that in terms of practices moving from place to place, the issues faced in terms of the material elements differ from those related to competences and meaning.
Rather, the point is to recognise that whereas forms of (co)location, transportation and access are typically important for the diffusion of material elements, forms of competence and meaning circulate in characteristically different ways (p.49)
The authors go on to explain that they appreciate the importance of the human factor in learning/developing competences but also that they are more interested in the wider question of how competences travel between practices as well as between people. I can accept that this is the nature of the theory that they are formulating but I’m also mildly concerned about the extent to which they have been discarding complexities in the pursuit of an argument.
I do still think that there is merit in what they are exploring though, so it might just need to be a matter of remembering to re-add these factors down the track when I’m doing my research. The practice of in-person learning-by-doing in a teacher/student relationship seems kind of pertinent when we’re looking at interventions to pass along skills and knowledge (competences), rather than looking at them in the abstract. Maybe we’ll get back to this later in the book – I believe the next chapter is about how people are recruited to practices.
When looking at how competences travel, particularly between different contexts, the authors talk about ‘abstracting’ and ‘reversal’ as core parts of the process. By ‘abstracting’, they mean stripping away localisations in the knowledge/skill that wouldn’t apply everywhere to leave the essential ‘knowledge’. On arrival at the new location, this ‘abstracted’ knowledge needs to be ‘reversed’ so that it again becomes contextually relevant.
Personally I don’t feel that ‘abstracted’ or ‘reversed’ (moreso the latter) really work well in terms of capturing these concepts. My video background makes me lean more towards encode (or code) and decode, from the Codec software used in the process of creating and sharing video files. (But maybe these aren’t perfect either).
The basic idea that knowledge has to be ‘abstracted’ form a local situation before it can travel, and that it needs to be ‘reversed’ when it arrives in some new destination, complicates popular interpretations of knowledge transfer as a simple process of sending and receiving. This representation is, however, consistent with an account of practices as integrative performances in which elements are conjoined. The suggestion that abstract knowledge circulates between such moments or sites of enactment is also relevant in thinking about how competences circulate (p.49)
This new space that the competences can sit in between the start point and destination is another thing that I’m still trying to grasp. Is it just a verbose way of describing publishing and documenting of knowledge of activities within practices?
Theories of abstraction and reversal depend on distinguishing between local understanding on the one hand, and what Disco and van der Meulen (1998) term ‘global-level cognitive ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge, that is, knowledge that has been dis-embedded from its local origins and is consequently capable of travelling widely whilst maintaining its own integrity. As discussed in Chapter 2, this idea brings with it the related, and somewhat strange, image of knowledge temporarily existing in limbo, contained in what Arie Rip describes as a dislocated holding tank or reservoir, carried by what one might call an epistemic community and knowledge users pick up their own new combinations from the reservoir (1998). This vision of a gigantic depot of abstracted, de-contextualised buy not yet re-embedded knowledge is intriguing, as is the related suggestion that resources like libraries and the Internet, along with material objects and systems of regulation and certification, harbour pools of knowledge that have been variously certified, legitimated and prepared for travel (p.50)
I find the idea of the Internet acting as a reservoir of ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge interesting but would argue that there is an abundance of local knowledge as well. Fortunately, the authors choose not to dwell on the reservoir, though I imagine I’ll go back to this, and move on to questions around what “has to be done to make knowledge movable (decontextualization and packaging), to let it move (infrastructure) and to make it work elsewhere (contextualization, standardization) (Deuten, 2003: 18)” (p.50)
Having the skills to decode is seen as it’s own special form of know-how and Shove et al suggest that this ability is often tied to pre-existing related knowledge of the competence.
This suggests know-how can only travel – by means of abstraction and reversal – to sites in which practitioners are already prepared to receive it because of prior, first-hand, practice based experience (p.50)
I’m broadly ok with this but think it ignores the capacity of teachers at the arriving end to teach inexperienced people these new skills. Maybe (and I’d suggest often) the teachers come from the originating place to run training and then leave. Clearly it’s easier for people to learn something (and teach it) if it can be connected to existing scaffolded knowledge but it’s far from impossible otherwise. I guess learning how to learn comes into this somewhere as well. The importance of standards and regulations relating to practices can’t be underestimated either, in that it increases the quality of the practices which would be an incentive to participate.
The extent to which competences can be used in a number of different practices is also a key factor in their transportability.
The concept of transferable skills is relevant in this regard. Having been mastered in one setting, competences like those of controlling a ball or speaking in public can be carried over and reproduced in others… This does not necessarily involve recognizable stages of abstraction and codification. Instead, specific competences are transferable because they are common, or at least common enough to a number of different practices (p.51)
This leads us to the question of whether we can reframe the way that we think about the contexts in which certain practices prevail as a way to foster the transfer of competences. In order to help sell more home appliances (e.g washing machines), there was a push in the late 18th century to move the ‘efficient practices and attitudes’ of the business world into the home. This was largely intended to change attitudes to housework that made it easier to sell the time/labour saving benefits of the new technology. (It probably wasn’t done with a specific understanding of social practice theory but they knew what they were doing)
Developing these ideas, certain elements of know-how bridge between practices not by means of abstraction and reversal but by somehow constituting – and potentially changing – the texture and the quality of the social fabric in which many such practices were rooted (p.52)
This brings us along neatly to the final element of the trio, meaning.
One thing that occurs to me here is the necessity of shifting the culture in Higher Education to one that is more willing to embrace TELT practices. I’ve been considering trying to appeal to the notion of scholarship in this regard – academics don’t suddenly stop researching and learning about their disciplines so why should teaching be any different. At the same time though, it is different and getting academics to look at teaching from a different mindset than their research one is a clear goal. Whereas research is a relatively individualistic practice, teaching is better explored collectively. I don’t kid myself that getting this message across will be easy but I think it’s valuable.
On that note, emotions and feelings seem to be an important factor in determining what practices a teacher will and more importantly will not embrace. My suspicion is that they have far more impact than any rational arguments in favour of doing a thing and my question is, how do we examine and address them. Do they sit in the meaning element or kind of alongside? Is this an area that people have looked into deeply – I’ve seen plenty of work about attitudes but I don’t think this is what I need.
The authors accept that the question of meaning is complex and it could be very easy to get caught up in discussions about local/personal meaning and disputed meanings. Once again, they choose to simplify this to pursue their core ideas about “how elements of meaning diffuse and what this means for the circulation of practices in and of which they are a part” (p.53)
Linking new knowledge, ideas and meanings to existing ones is identified as a core element of this. Firstly however, the authors identify the need to isolate meaning related to practice from the meaning attached to which groups in society (and their attendant status) participate in this practice.
The dynamic relation between the status of participants and the meaning of the practices they carry is widely discussed, usually with the aim of understanding how social and cultural hierarchies are reproduced and sustained. By participating in some practices but not others, individuals locate themselves within society and in doing so simultaneously reproduce specific schemes and structures of meaning and order. In Bourdieu’s terms, all cultural practices are ‘automatically classified and classifying, rand ordered and rank ordering’ (1984: 223). … In other words, the interest in what Nordic Walking says about the person who does it, not in how meanings like those of outdoor life circulate between practices or in how they combine with or break away from other symbolic constructs. By contrast, we want to put the element of meaning at the centre of our enquiry (p.53)
While it’s not what the authors intend, this discussion of the ties between status and meaning suggests to me that, in my work, I should consider opportunities to link the use of TELT practices with being a more well-rounded scholar.
Shove et al clarify what they hope to do by shifting focus from the people to the meanings nicely here
But in the context of the present discussion the question is not ‘Who determines whether smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars is transgressive or cool?’ but rather “How are categories like those of being cool, healthy or youthful populated with practices, how does this population change and with what consequences for these frames of meaning?’ (p.54)
Discussion of meaning meanders a little here, largely because the authors acknowledge that it is complex and not something that any one practitioner is able to shape. They point out that meaning changes and is “extended and eroded as a result of dynamic processes of association” (p.54) and also that meanings can merge into larger meanings – such as youth culture becoming seen as part of ‘Americanization’ (p.54). Their key point though is that meaning is often mediated – or at least people/groups attempt to mediate it and spread it though the community.
The catch is that while the media has a vital role in disseminating ideas, pictures and texts, there is no guarantee that these will stick. As with the abstraction and reversal of competence, the decoding and appropriation of meaning is an inherently local, inherently uncertain process. In addition, opportunities for association and re-classification are, to a degree, constrained and enabled by existing patterns and distributions of meaning (p.54)
In other words, you can try to shift meanings to embed new practices but don’t count on being able to do so. (This is perhaps where the authors’ preference for simplifying complex ideas lets them down.) I can still see the value in trying though and off the top of my head, I would think that desirable meanings to have associated with TELT practices would include; innovation/ being up to date, caring, quality and connection.
One of the things that I’m liking the most about this book is that the authors are strong on their structure and their process for building an argument. They start and end each new idea (or set of ideas) with a robust summary of the key points. There’s a solid summary of the six key ideas that we’ve just worked through on page 55. (I’m not including it because I think I’ve covered it already) . They then return to the central theme, that the elements are interdependent in practice.
Although we have discussed them separately, competence, material and meaning are often so closely related that if one element should travel alone (abstracted and packed in isolation), it is likely to remain dormant until joined by others capable of bringing it into the frame of a living practice. This observation reminds us that the relevant elements need to co-exist if practices are to extend or endure (p.55)
Emergence, disappearance and persistence
The final section of this chapter is somewhat shorter than the rest but continues to explore interesting territory. I’ve previously looked at this idea under the concept of ‘change and continuity’ – introducing new practices but supporting effective current ones as well. The tertiary education sector in Australia (and I imagine globally) has undergone massive change in some ways over the last 30+ years and this has, I believe, led to change-fatigue and a mistrust of ‘innovation’. This mistrust of innovation in general dates back far further than this, clearly – remembering the Luddites – and the authors find a great quote to sum it up
innovation of this sort disrupts and destroys. It changes the technology of process or product in a way that imposes requirements that existing resources, skills and knowledge satisfy poorly o not at all. The effect is thus to reduce the value of existing competence, and in the extreme case, to render it obsolete. (Abernathy and Clark, 1985: 6) (p.56)
In TELT terms, this makes me think of the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Replacement) model, which sets out perhaps a gentler set of steps to climb in innovation.
Shove et al’s main point here appears to be that as some practices emerge, they replace others which fade into redundancy. Their component elements may or may not go down the same path, depending on whether they can be repurposed elsewhere.
Practices themselves might change – such as the act of writing with ink, which went from quills, to fountain pens and then to biros. The competence stayed largely the same – though the skills needed to manage the materials changed – but the materials changed greatly. The meaning of using a fountain pen 80 years ago (functional) also changed in comparison to those who use it now (luxurious).
It was at this point, as I was reading about changes in practice and materials that I noted that I was writing notes on a printed piece of paper with a pencil while leaning on the back of a new iPad. I had read previous chapters as an eBook on the iPad but wasn’t happy with the way that I was able to take notes and make comments directly on the text. I’m not entirely sure what this means but it seems interesting at the very least. I guess it’s that the material still needs to be fit for purpose and we will change our practices based on what works best for us. Perhaps there’s something in there about the precise affordances offered by the materials and the emotional responses that we have to them – I do like the tactile nature of pencil.
The text that I was reading at the time seems particularly apt
For our second example, we home-in on the relation between materials and competence. In organising and scripting human and non-human actors, objects and infrastructures determine boundaries of competence, certain aspects being delegated to the technology, others remaining with the human. In some situations, materials stabilise and obdurately reproduce know-how from the past, but in other cases the effect is the reverse. As we have seen, radical technological innovations can undermine the value of established skills and knock rival artefacts and systems out of the way. These processes are often linked. As things fall out of use, the know-how associated with them tends to disappear as well (p.57)
There’s a particular point made in here about machines removing the need to have know-how to do certain things, effectively taking over competences. This is definitely something that I’ll be thinking over in more depth.
Shove et al sum up this section as follows
In describing instances of emergence, disappearance and persistence we have noticed that relations between elements may vary as patterns of participation change. We have shown that material elements transform, carry and preserve forms of competence; that instructions are useful in keeping knowledge in circulation but that more [performance] is required to keep it alive; and that elements of meaning are capable of hopping from one practice to the next (p.59)
So what do I take away from this?
It’s useful to consider how the elements function and move and evolve in their own right and it is equally important to remember that their relationships with their other elements have a significant impact on what forms they take.
In terms of my research into how TELT advisors (or possible TEL edvisors – toying with a terminology change) support TELT practices, this can inform strategies for implementing change as well as creating additional lines of inquiry into what the barriers to TELT practices are.
Next chapter up is about how people are recruited to practices – though it’s been a while since I’ve done a research update here so that seems kind of important too.
Social Practice Theory echoes Sociomaterial theory it seems, in that it takes an holistic perspective of things and treats them very much as the sum of their parts. In this instance however we are looking at the things that people do (practices) rather than how things are organised.
SPT was suggested to me early on by my supervisor as an area for exploration but for some reason it (and all theory for that matter) got put into the ‘for later’ basket. I think at some level I didn’t want to color the way that I looked at the questions too much – but I think I was also daunted by the high-concept nature of theory. I probably still am but now that I’ve finally decided to take a look, it does at least seem as though it will become digestible as I spend a little more time with it.
Another reason to trust your supervisor anyway.
Given that the central focus of my research question is Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching PRACTICES, it makes sense to spend time unpacking what we actually mean by practices. What I hadn’t considered until now is that there are a lot of facets to practice and this may well lead to new ways of thinking about them for me, as well as presenting new opportunities to help shape them.
When I launched into this book – and as it’s a book, it seems useful to post chapter by chapter – it quickly became apparent to me that I have entered a new headspace. It seemed to be a very ontological and epistemological world, laden with a lot of abstract philosophy about the nature of being. As we’ve progressed the authors have grounded it somewhat with more tangible examples – skateboarding and driving a car – as well as asking the question – so why is it helpful to look at this? This has been invaluable in helping me to consider the practicalities and as I read on I was able to start substituting TELT in whatever the text example of a practice was.
What I’m going to do for now, rather than summarise the intro and opening chapter, is summarise key ideas and questions that have been raised, along with some notable quotes.
Chapter 1 – Introduction
One of the aspects of the discussion that drew me in immediately was the importance of both change and stability in practice. I have previously, slightly cheekily perhaps, identified “change and continuity” (see also Veep – HBO series; Turnbull. Malcolm) as being of equal importance when looking at TELT practices. Embracing innovation but also refusing to throw the baby out with the bathwater by exploring options to maintain existing good practices.
The authors begin with an overview of the literature on practice to provide context and also to demonstrate the areas where current theory is lacking, building an argument for SPT. As such, it jumped around significantly and ideas that I grappled with and eventually understood (and in some cases agreed with) were then summarily dismissed. Value was still found in some recent work by Giddens, Reckwitz and Schatzki. Latour pops up with work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Bourdieu also makes an appearance.
Bourdieu has worked with ideas of practice since the 1970s – Outline of a theory of practice (1977 – English version) and The logic of practice in 1990. He described “habitus – concept embodying aspects of practical consciousness and of norms and rules of conduct. (Aspects that other theorists take to be part of practice themselves)” (p.13)
Reckwitz sees a practice as “routinized behaviour” that exists as a “block or pattern which can be filled out by a multitude of single and often unique actions” (p.14). Schatzki sees it as a “temporally and spatially dispersed nexus of doings and sayings” (p.14). The ‘doings’ and ‘sayings’ thing came up regularly in looking at Sociomaterial theory. Reckwitz also identified “interdependencies between diverse elements including forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” (p.14)
From this, Shove et al simmer practice down into three core elements, all interrelated: Competences, Materials and Meanings. Pretty well everything from here on in when it comes to practices is built on these categories. (They acknowledge that this does represent a simplification of what is contained in the elements but it is the relationships between the elements that seem to be the key). To provide an example, in the practice of skateboarding, the material includes the skateboard, helmet and the built environment that is skated in/on. The competences include the ability to ride the skateboard and perhaps the ability to avoid the police when skating in wrong areas. The meaning is bigger and broader and might include how bystanders feel about skaters or how the skaters see themselves as rebels of some kind.
practices emerge, persist, shift and disappear when connections between elements of these three types are made, sustained or broken (p.19)
On the material side, the theorists get more complicated and I must admit that I’m still processing some of these ideas. Hopefully it’s just the language being used. Schatzki says that “artefacts, materials and technologies are not literally part of practices but instead form ‘arrangements’ that are co-produced with practice but which are nonetheless distinct…the practices that are tied to arrangements… help constitute social phenomena” (p.16)
“Other authors reach much the same conclusion, defining technologies as ‘configurations that work’ (Rip and Kemp, 1998) and observing that ‘individual technologies add value only to the extent that they are assembled together into effective configurations’ (Suchman et al, 1999 p.399)” (p.17)
Another core idea is that a practice exists largely in its own right, rather than being something owned or controlled by a practitioner. They aren’t simply a set of actions in the mind of an individual, but “essentially modes of social relations, of mutual action” (p.15). Individuals are more like the carrier/hosts of a practice.
A final key idea is that when someone ‘does’ a practice, it is a performance of that practice. In being performed, the practice “exists and endures because of countless recurrent enactments” (p.15) I’d have to suggest that the individual tweaks that people bring to their specific performances lead to a gradual evolution of the practice over time.
I have to wonder if there is an element of practice that is the act of looking for ways to enhance practice – and is this a meaning or a competence?
Shove et al draw five core questions from these ideas that they then go on to discuss individually in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2, covers the first question and is discussed in this post.
How do practices emerge, exist and die?
What are the elements of which practices are made?
How do practices recruit practitioners?
How do bundles and complexes of practice form, persist and disappear?
How are elements, practices and links between them generated, renewed and reproduced? (p.20)
Chapter 2 – Making and breaking links
Our strategy is to follow the elements of practice and to track changing configurations over time (p.23)
The authors use the practice of driving to illustrate their points here. When people began driving, it was accessible mainly to the rich, with unreliable cars that meant that one needed to be as proficient a mechanic as one was a driver. Chaffeurs with mechanic skills were in high demand. Driving was seen as an adventure rather than a day to day activity. To sell more cars, they became more reliable (also presumably due to manufacturers learning more about the art of car making and collecting feedback from drivers) and so the meaning of driving changed and so did the skills needed and the materials themselves.
Some more definitions of Materials / Competence / Meaning
Materials – “objects, infrastructures, tools, hardware and the body itself” (p.24)
Competences – “Know-how, background knowledge, understanding, deliberately cultivated skill / shared understandings of good or appropriate performance in terms of which specific enactments are judged. Knowing in the sense of being able to evaluate a performance is not the same as knowing in the sense of having the skills required to perform” (p.24)
Meaning – “social and symbolic significance of participation at any one moment” (p.24)
The discussion of Meaning takes a brief sidestep at this point into an idea of Schatzki’s called “teleoaffactive structures” (p.24). The authors describe this as “embracing ends, projects, tasks, purposes, beliefs, emotions and moods… central to the organising and ordering of practice and to the location of social practice within what Schatzki describes as ‘timespace’ (Schatzki, 2010b). He uses this concept to elaborate on the point that what people do has a history and a setting: to show that doings are future oriented, and that both aspects are united in the moment of performance” (p.24) It seems that Schatzki puts this outside of practice but Shove et al prefer to keep it in, in meaning, for simplicity.
I found another definition, evidently from one of Schatzki’s doctoral students. It takes us on a slightly different path to Shove et al but is certainly interesting to consider and probably makes my job harder but hopefully richer 🙂
Schatzki defines a social practice as nexus of doings and sayings organized by understandings, rules, and what he terms “teleoaffective structures.” An understanding is a sense of how to go on in a basic activity, e.g. knowing how to ask questions, give orders, make a left-hand turn, show respect by bowing, and so on. A rule is a linguistic formulations concerning how things should count or how they should or should not proceed. A teleoaffective structure is a linking of ends, means, and moods appropriate to a particular practice or set of practices and that governs what it makes sense to do beyond what is specified by particular understandings and rules.
(No discernable information about the author of this blog post sadly)
A key point that the authors return to is that the linking of the three elements isn’t the end point or normalisation of a practice – the linkages need to keep being remade over and over.
As time passes and practices evolve, the nature of a competence might change. So the ability to crank start a Model T Ford on a cold day moves from doing ‘driving’ to doing ‘history’. Meanings – particularly in terms of social significances – just tend to be overlain with the new ones.
Another interesting question raised was
“Do shared elements bridge between different practices and if so, with what consequences for the different pursuits of which they are a part” (p.32)
There’s another quote worth sharing relating to the local differences in practices
One way of making sense of the relation between standardization and persistent diversity is to suggest that practices like driving are ‘homegrown’ in the sense that each instance of doing is informed by previous, related and associated practices. At the same time, each instance is to a large extent defined by the elements of which it is composed. Manufacturers, governments, driving schools and international associations are consequently instrumental in circulating common forms of competence, meaning and materiality. In so doing, the contribute to the standardization of driving as it is reproduced in different locations. This distinction between elements – which can and do travel – and practices viewed as necessarily localized, necessarily situated instances of integrations (which does not travel) is useful in making sense of the roles consumers, producers and governments play in the reproduction and diffusion of different ways of life. (p.34)
What happens when performances of a practice occur simultaneously in the same space?
The fact that driving is constituted by and takes place in the midst of the routines and habits of other road users, all of whom have ‘careers’ of different durations, reminds us that the lives of practitioners and practices intersect. In short, there is something emergent and collective about driving (and other practices) which has to do with the relation between many co-existing performances situated alongside and in the context of collectively accumulated experience (p.35)
This makes me think that it is worth considering that the practice of teaching occurs at the same time as the practice of learning. (And also that, as more people do a thing, the meaning of that thing changes)
So, what does all of this mean and more importantly, what does it mean for my research?
I think that the key ideas about practice are certainly worth pursuing further and I’ll be interested to see where they lead. To bring this back to TELT practices, it’s more evident that ever now that TELT really represents two distinct practices and I’ll probably want to spend more time breaking down learning and teaching into their composite elements. I think my main focus is still going to be teaching, as this is the area that I support. I think SPT gives me some interesting options to explore in terms of how practices are shared and how they evolve, which speaks to change but also to stability/continuity.
Ideally, I’ll find some new and better ways to understand and describe (and have others do the same with their personal practices) what TELT practices really are and what they are made of.
In terms of developing a research methodology, I’m still not entirely clear but it feels like it leads to a clearer path, whatever that ends up being.
Maybe it’s two papers or maybe it’s a paper and an essay – but they’re both published in journals so I think they should be considered valuable in terms of my lit review. I think I prefer essays in all honesty, though it seems like papers have more currency. My problem with papers is that more rigour is required to demonstrate the value or validity of one’s argument while an essay is able to cut to the heart of the idea more quickly and spend more time teasing it out. If I understood Sociomateriality better I suspect that I could probably explain this in terms of the ‘constitutive entanglement’ between the form/technology and the practice of writing but I’m not quite there yet. These two pieces however have at least given me enough of a taste of this theory to want to pursue it further.
Looking at Orlikowski’s work in this area is a slightly sideways step for me in that it focuses on the complex, holistic relationships that exist between the material (primarily technology in this instance) and people and what they do in the workplace. Clearly Higher Ed is a workplace as much as a place of learning (it would be interesting to see where learning sits on a spectrum of work) but her interest lies more in conventional workplaces and her discipline is more about management and organisations.
One thing that I found in reading these is that it became a lot clearer after I got to the tangible examples, so I’m going to start with that and then backtrack to the more cerebral side of the theory. (I actually find this in a lot of presentations – I’d really like people to show me the thing first and then explain why and how they did it.) The author does a nice thing in the 2010 paper where she describes a scenario of people using a “synthetic world” (p.127) (essentially a company virtual world like Second Life but before the virtual part of the term was in wider use) and then refers back to this as she describes how the different current theoretical approaches would explore it.
Anyway, the two examples that cut through best for me were descriptions of searching via Google and what happens when a workplace gives its staff all Blackberries (mid-2000s) with push email. The core idea put forward is that when we examine how organisations work, we shouldn’t consider what people do and what impacts tech has as two separate things but more as a unified whole.
Orlikowski starts by describing the way we often discuss searching with Google.
‘I googled it’ has become a well-accepted and widely understood reference to the online activity of information searching on the web. And what most of mean by this colloquialism is that we ‘used’ the Google search capabilities to obtain some information.
But this account, while simple and descriptive, is problematic. In the terms of the preceding discussion, it privileges the users, clearly putting the locus of control principally in the hands of the human researchers and relegating the technology to a relatively passive, even domesticated role (2007, p.1439)
She quickly moves on to describe how Google searches work, driven by the PageRank algorithm that weigh up incoming and outgoing links and credibility (to an extent) and relationships between linking webpages to determine the order in which search results are displayed. (Presumably there are some commercial influencers in there as well). It is people however that actually choose which sites to link to and how – and this changes organically over time – so when we think about how we search, if we focus more on the machine or the people, we aren’t getting as clear a picture as if we were to focus on both at one, as one integrated system of sorts. I think this is what she means when she uses (frequently) the term ‘constitutive entanglement’ (2007, p.1435)
At this point I need to reiterate that most of these concepts are fairly new to me in terms of taking an ontological (nature of being) and epistemological (theory of knowledge) view on things. I haven’t spent a lot of time considering them but I can see that they offer an interesting lens to look at larger questions through.
Orlikowski helpfully went on to explain why this mattered.
The same Google search issued by a researcher at different times will produce different results in terms of webpages displayed and their order. While this would also be the case if the researcher had conducted her search in libraries and colleague’s offices, the Google example manifests it more acutely. The information obtained with a Google search done today will shape research practices differently than had the Google search been done last week or last month. And in certain circumstances, such differences may be quite consequential. Indeed, as contemporary commentators writing about the web have noted, algorithms such as Google’s PageRank don’t so much ‘search reality’ as create it (2007, p.1440)
Her other example that illustrated the interconnectivity between the social and material was a case study about Plymouth, a small(ish) private equity firm in 2000 that gave its employees BlackBerrys. (Prestige mobile phones with push email notification – kind of a big deal when they came out but now massively overshadowed by smartphones). This company had a relatively decent philosophy when it came to work/life balance and treated employees well.
In the course of analyzing the communication practices of these information professionals, it became increasingly evident that attempting to understand their practices in conventional ‘media use’ terms neglects critical aspects of what they are experiencing. In particular, viewing the professionals as ‘using’ their BlackBerrys to communicate with each other significantly overlooks how their communication practices have been substantially reconfigured through their engagement with Blackberrys. (2007, p.1441)
In a nutshell, everyone in the company became addicted to checking their emails and responding almost immediately. (The ‘Crackberry’ effect) If people didn’t get a reply from someone at virtually any time, they would quickly grow worried that something was wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone became workaholics but their behaviour changed. This wasn’t the intent in introducing the tech and nor was it what the tech was designed to do but in examining the phenomena, Orlikowski realised that existing theoretical approaches either focused on the tool or the people but not sufficiently on the intertwining of the two and the way that each shaped the other.
As sociomaterial practices, mobile communications at Plymouth is signficantly changing why, when, where and how members interact. Norms of communication are reconfigured, altering expectations of availability and accountability, redefining the boundaries of the workday, and extending and intensifying interactions within the communication network. Plymouth members experience both increased flexibility (about where and when to work) and increased obligation to be continually responsive. The resulting blurring of employees’ work and and personal lives is beginning to undermine the espoused family-friendly values of the firm. (2007, p.1444)
Orlikowski’s main point throughout these papers is that current approaches to examining organisations either ignore the role of ‘things’ (“absent presence” – 2010, p.127) or overplay them (“exogenous force” – 2010, p.127) or overplay the way that people use them (“emergent process”- 2010, p.127). By delving deeper into how things shape behaviour and vice versa by treating people and things as more of an holistically integrated kind of entity (if my understanding holds up), we can come to a richer understanding of how organisations function. (To be honest though, I do still feel like I need to dig much deeper into this theory as I feel like this explanation is missing some core points.)
One of the biggest problems that I have in appreciating Sociomateriality at this point brings me back to the 2010 paper that uses the example of the ‘synthetic’ (virtual) ‘world’ to describe how the different preceding approaches would explore in looking at the use of that tech in the workplace. It contrasts this with what a sociomaterial exploration would examine. It’s probably a matter of my more practical orientation but I’m more interested in the questions examined in the other ‘flawed’ approaches. Perhaps the trick is to find the kinds of questions that a sociomaterial focus would support.
In the ‘absent presence’ approach, Orlikowski considers that
“organisational researchers could use synthetic worlds methodologically, as platforms for coordinating and conducting their inquiries into social behaviour. They are unlikely, however, to inquire into specific technological entailments of synthetic worlds, how they are taken up and changed by participants or how they configure participants’ interactions and with what outcomes. In the absent presence perspective thus, the role and influence of synthetic worlds for distributed collaboration – like technology more generally – will likely remain backstage concerns” (2010, p.129)
This seems less problematic to me than the author if the researchers aren’t actually researching the interaction between technology and behaviour. It almost feels as though Orlikowski’s point is that ‘you aren’t looking at this thing – distributed collaboration – that I consider important and this lessens your research’. But perhaps I’m missing something.
Next we come to the ‘exogenous force’ approach, which assumes that “technology is an exogenous and relatively autonomous driver of organisational change, and as such, that it has significant and predictable impacts on various human and organisational outcomes, such as governance structures, work routines, information flews, decision making, individual productivity and firm performance” (2010, p.129)
Orlikowski feels that researchers working through this lens
“would generally not be interested in studying the specific instance of the MPK20 synthetic world. Instead, common features of various synthetic worlds would be assessed (or represented through proxies such as investment value or information richness) in an attempt to produce statistical regularities about the effects of synthetic worlds in general. These worlds would be predicted to produce certain identifiable impacts on organisations, including impacts on the phenomenon of distributed collaboration. For example, studies might focus on how investments by organisations in synthetic worlds influence the productivity of distributed participants and how these effects might vary across the type of team, organisation or industry.” (2010, p.130)
Once again, this kind of feels like comparing apples and oranges, even though I’m happy to agree that simply exploring the role of tech (and assuming that it leads to change autonomously) seems fairly flawed.
The flip-side of this viewpoint seems to be that of the ’emergent process’ with scholars arguing that “technology results from the ongoing interaction of human choices, actions, social histories and institutional contexts. Technology here is understood as material artifacts that are social defined and socially produced, and thus as relevant only in relation to the people engaging with them… Scholars working from this perspective sought to explain how the particular interests and situated actions of multiple social groups shaped the designs, meanings and uses of new technologies over time.” (2010, p.131)
“With respect to studying the MPK20 synthetic world, researchers following an emergent process perspective would likely conduct detailed analyses of specific interpretations of and interactions in MPK20 to understand how such a world enables and constrains distributed collaboration. Thus, researchers might conduct ethnographic studies of the MPK20 environment, becoming members of Project Wonderland and participating in the various events and activities of the team. These inquiries might examine how members’ communication in MPK20 differs from their face-to-face interaction, how the roles, norms and identities generated by members within MPK20 resemble or differ from those outside MPK20… Structurational accounts might focus on what forms of structuring are evident in users’ situated engagements with MPK20, comparing the practices of Project Wonderland team members within and outside of MPK20 in an attempt to identify whether and how existing or new structures for distributed collaboration are enacted by team members in the synthetic world, and with what individual, team and organisational consequences over time” (2010, p.132)
Once again, if that was what I was investigating, this seems like a reasonable way to do it. Personally I would find the results of this research interesting. Orlikowski does make a reasonable point that it assumes that the technology is finished and finalised (in design terms) when people start using it, when the reality is that peoples’ use and discover of flaws or opportunities to improve it based on their usage – particularly in software – can lead to significant changes from the first version.
In essence, I guess the main flaws identified with these approaches, and the reason for pushing for a new, more holistic one, is that they lack nuance and underestimate the complexity of both tech and human behaviour. They don’t see the interrelationships between the two and the ways that each shapes the other – the “constitutive entanglements” (2010, p.135). From here the paper digs deep into metaphysics and a lot of discussion of the nature of existence that, coming into this cold, I’m currently struggling with. Orlikowski does refer to Barad’s notion of ‘thingification’ which I at least enjoy as a word. In terms of my research, I’m honestly not sure how deep down the ontological rabbit hole I want or need to go but I imagine I’ll come back to this for a further poke around at some point.
Bringing it all back then to what a sociomaterial exploration of the ‘synthetic world’ would look like, which gives us something to compare to the other lens, Orlikowski offers this.
a perspective of entanglement would focus on understanding MPK20, not as the necessary result of a powerful technological infrastructure, or as principally reflecting the interpretations and interactions of the human developers or users, but as a dynamic sociomaterial configuration performed in practice. Rather than attributing agency either to individual actors (designers, engineers, team members) or particular technologies (computers, algorithms, graphics engines, networks), capacities for action would be studied as relational, distributed and enacted through particular initiations of the MPK20 synthetic world. Drawing, for example, on the notion of apparatus, researchers might study how different performances of the MPK20 synthetic world configure communication and information sharing in Project Wonderland, and how these make some practices and knowledge more salient and determinate than others and with what consequences. A sociomaterial perspective would highlight how synthetic worlds are not neural or determinate platforms through which distributed collaboration is facilitated or constrained but integrally and materially part of constituting that phenomenon. Researchers might also examine how integrating MPK20 into everyday practices reconfigures the phenomenon of distributed collaboration within an organisation and what implications this generates for inclusion and exclusion, for responsibility and control. (2010, p.136)
I wouldn’t normally include that much text in a quote but it’s the closest I can come to understanding how a sociomaterial viewpoint looks. It does seem like it could be valuable in certain circumstances but I’m not yet sold that it is a be-all and end-all. The author on the other hand appears to think that it is.
I propose that we recognise that all practices are always and everywhere sociomaterial, and that this sociomateriality is constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing (2007, p.1444)