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.