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.