In their introduction to an edited collection on Inventive Methods, Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford acknowledge that inventive methods “are methods or means by which the social world is not only investigated, but may also be engaged” – that is, they are involved in “configuring what comes next” (2012, p6). While this is true of all methods – whether seemingly ‘new’ or ‘old’ – it is not often explicitly discussed in the traces circulating through research communities. This is particularly the case when considering the relationship between methodological and theoretical invention. Though it is necessary to explain how one conducted empirical research when writing papers, the conceptual implications and assumptions of methodological plans can be more sparsely addressed.
This blog is intended as a space for engaging in such discussions of the challenges, complications, and configurations of methodology and theory. For me, its genesis traces back to three sets of experiences and reflections. Firstly, teaching undergraduate sociological methodology courses for the last three years has provided plenty of opportunities to think about how we come to know and use methods, and the extent to which we discuss the ontological and epistemological assumptions undergirding our research. Secondly, reading empirical studies applying practice theories – particularly in the area of sustainability – began to raise questions for me about their commonalities and how certain concepts within the broad family of practice theories have perhaps disproportionately shaped empirical research and the possibility of further theoretical development. Finally, attending a seminar given by Hilmar Schäfer in January 2015 provided a refreshing opportunity to discuss these issues, as he took care to outline both methods and methodological assumptions underpinning his research. Our subsequent conversations led to both this blog and a linked session at the DEMAND Research Centre 2016 International Conference in Lancaster, UK.
While there are many issues that I could take up here, in the rest of my post I will focus upon two points: first expanding upon my second reflection above, and then considering it in relation to the issue of sampling, and how different theoretical approaches to sampling might configure research differently.
The first proposition on this blog is that “Established methods offer both opportunities and dangers for working with practice theories”. Whilst the breadth of this statement makes it difficult to disagree with, I think an equally important point is that established understandings or concepts from practice theories similarly offer both opportunities and dangers for methodologies. Take for instance the assertion that practice theories “conceptualize the ‘smallest unit’ of social theory … [as] practices”, rather than “minds, discourses [or] interactions” (Reckwitz 2002, p. 245). While Reckwitz makes this point during the process of differentiating practice theories from other types of social theory, it has in many cases been adopted as not only a theoretical statement, but also a methodological one. That is, practices aren’t just the “site of the social” (Schatzki, 2002) – they are also units that can be sampled and investigated in order to generate new empirical data (and through analysis, potentially new concepts). We see this in a range of studies whose design seems to start from the question: what practices shall we study and how shall we define or bound those practices? The development of concepts which specify elements making up specific practices (what Reckwitz calls praktiken 2002, p249; e.g. the three types of elements in Shove and Pantzar 2005, p.45) further undergirds the idea of practices as units “whose existence necessarily depends on the existence and specific interconnectedness of these elements, and which cannot be reduced to any one of these single elements” (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 250). These ideas are all helpful in understanding dynamics within practices. Starting methodologically from the definition of practices of interest, however, configures what comes next and what kind of data about a world of practices is uncovered. Studying practices as if they were discrete prevents a consideration of how, both empirically and theoretically, we might recognize that “the social is a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices” (Schatzki, 2001, p. 3). The danger is therefore that recognizing the ontological importance of practices as units for understanding the social world is conflated with or uncritically translated into their importance as units of empirical study. In order to study larger-scale phenomena (such as global production processes) or to better understand how practices are characterised by varied types of intersections and linkages (see Hui forthcoming), it therefore becomes important to think carefully about how methodological approaches to sampling constrain or enable what is discovered about a world of practices.
It seems to me that more could be done to engage critically and inventively with sampling. For one, this might involve an acknowledgment that studies drawing upon practice theory can require multiple, sequenced, stages of sampling. In my research on leisure pursuits (Hui 2012, 2013), I first purposively sampled leisure practices with contrasting spatialities and elements. Patchwork quilting was chosen as indicative of a family of practices focused upon the manipulation and transformation of material elements, which can be performed at home without much mobility. Birdwatching was chosen as a contrasting case where meetings and not materials are central – mobility to outdoor spaces and multiple dispersed habitats is crucial for the aim of seeing varied wild birds. This sampling of practices, however, was then followed by another stage of sampling, wherein interview participants were found through purposive and snowball sampling that sought variety in career stages (novices, experts), levels of involvement (casual, intensive), and links with leisure organisations (non-members, members, leaders).
This multi-part sampling raises a few important issues. Firstly, where studies start from a concern for particular praktiken, the sampling of these practices is likely to occur alongside sampling within them – the discerning of which practitioners, elements, spaces, performances, etc. will best contribute to understandings of practices’ dynamics. Secondly, the sequencing of these stages of sampling is important because it can affect their interlinkages. Sampling participants after having determined practices of interest allowed me to focus on how they related to these practices – using practice-specific characteristics such as level of involvement as sampling criteria rather than simply standard socio-demographic characteristics. Thirdly, this highlights how processes of sampling, when used alongside practice theory, might engage with different characteristics of even seemingly familiar units. Sampling people need not be about attending to gender, class or age unless these characteristics are important for the practices at hand. In the case of patchwork quilting, a practice predominantly performed today by middle to upper-class women of middle age or older, it would make no sense to try and understand the practice by seeking an equal number of young or male or lower class participants. Whether sampling people, or material elements, or documents, or other units, understanding how they fit into practices therefore becomes a prerequisite for determining how they might be best sampled.
This final point also suggests the dynamic whereby sampling procedures might pivot from being focused upon single praktiken to being concerned with the interlinkages between multiple praktiken, or other properties of a nexus of practices. Technologies, for instance, have varied influence – while the sewing machine is a part of a few leisure and professional practices, the personal computer is a part of many more. To understand how multiple practices are shaped by shared technologies, it would therefore become important to think about sampling in relation to this propensity for multiple enrolment. That is, thinking about which technologies are at the intersection of more or fewer practices would become important for determining their potential contribution to discussions of the material intersections between multiple praktiken.
While it is obvious then that sampling is a part of “configuring what comes next” (Lury and Wakeford 2012, p6), the opportunities for theoretical and methodological creativity that this opens up could in my view be further explored. Instead of imagining units in relation to one practice, we might imagine how they are positioned in relation to complex nexus of practices, and then explore how this configures samples, data, and subsequent conceptual developments differently. While I have begun to experiment with this approach in research on the multiple networks in which material elements are enrolled (Hui 2015), I would be very interested to hear about other colleagues’ thoughts and experiences of configuring samples, and research, differently.
Academic Fellow, Lancaster University, Sociology
Hui A (2012) Things in motion, things in practices: how mobile practice networks facilitate the travel and use of leisure objects. Journal of Consumer Culture 12(2): 195-215.
Hui A (2013) Moving with practices: the discontinuous, rhythmic and material mobilities of leisure. Social & Cultural Geography 14(8): 888-908.
Hui A (2015) Networks of home, travel and use during Hong Kong return migration: thinking topologically about the spaces of human–material practices Global Networks 15(4): 536-552.
Hui A (forthcoming) Variation and the intersection of practices. In Hui A, Schatzki TR and Shove E (eds.) The nexus of practice: connections, constellations and practitioners. London: Routledge.
Lury C and Wakeford N (2012) Inventive methods: the happening of the social. London: Routledge.
Reckwitz A (2002) Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory 5(2): 243-263.
Schatzki TR (2001) Introduction: practice theory. In: Schatzki TR, Knorr Cetina K and von Savigny E (eds.) The practice turn in contemporary theory. London: Routledge, 1-14.
Schatzki TR (2002) The site of the social: a philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Shove E and Pantzar M (2005) Consumers, producers and practices: understanding the invention and reinvention of Nordic walking. Journal of Consumer Culture 5(1): 43-64.