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.