Thoughts on: Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 5 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

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.