On my view, perhaps the most important contribution that theory makes to social research is the provision of concepts with which researchers can describe, explain, and interpret social phenomena. The concepts I have in mind include the frameworks of categories and assumptions that Stefan Hirschauer mentions in his characterization of practice theory quoted on the blog website:
“Practice theories are a kind of ‘modest grand theories’ as they offer mere frameworks of categories and assumptions for developing substantial theories of specific practices.” (Hirschauer; quoted on the blog website)
Practice theories tend to provide concepts that specify the stuff, if you will, out of which social phenomena consist, namely, practices, including what composes practices — above all, actions and material entities — and the wider complexes and constellations formed by practices (the plenum of practices). Encompassing both the composition and wider plenum of practices, practice theoretical ontologies can be quite elaborate.
The “substantial theories of specific practices” that Hirschauer refers to I call “accounts:” delineations of how things work or came about in a particular arena or set of practices, for instance, Japanese mortgage markets, race relations in South Africa, high tech start-ups around San Francisco, and FIFA. Accounts provide explanations of their subject matters. They also make minimum claims about how things work or came about in other sets of practices, that is, what explains things in those other sets.
Modest grand theories contrast with grandiose ones. The ontological pretensions of the latter parallel those of practice theories: their concepts specify the stuff by reference to which the nature and composition of social phenomena are specified. Grandiose grand theories also boast comparable explanatory ambitions: they provide general explanatory templates that supposedly apply to social phenomena widely. Parsons’ systems theory is a good example of an expansive grand theory. Another form grand theory takes is the promulgation of general explanatory schemas — sans the ontologies — that allegedly apply to many domains. A good example is selectionist models of explanation.
I have interpreted the modest grandness of practice theories to lie in the provision of ontological frameworks that supposedly hold of social phenomena generally. However, practice theories have been criticized for applying well to local or small phenomena such as cooking, Nordic walking, and professional practices but badly to large social matters such as markets, international federations, the military-industrial complex, and the Catholic Church. A practitioner of practice theory could simply accept this criticism and confine her attention to local phenomena, thereby recasting practice theory as a form of limited theory. One argument against this retreat, assuming that a key criterion of the goodness of an ontology is usefulness in empirical research, contends that practice theories must be modestly grand since authors are making progress at using or extending its conceptual apparatuses to analyze large phenomena. A second, more arcane argument (see The Site of the Social) has three parts: pointing out that, under one prominent interpretation, “social” means the hanging-together of lives; showing that lives hang together as part of the nexuses of practices and material arrangements through which they proceed; and concluding that, because social phenomena are by definition phenomena that pertain to the social, thus to lives hanging together, and in the plenum of practices, the wide ontological scope of practice theories is justified. Both arguments suggest that practice theory should continue attending to large social phenomena (but not macro ones — see Schatzki 2016a).
Part of this task is ontological: conceptualizing the relationship of large phenomena to the practice plenum. Practice theories approach this relationship in different ways. Bourdieu, for instance, conceptualized social domains such as the economy as fields and analyzed large phenomena in these domains with the concepts he used to theorize fields. On my view, by contrast, large phenomena are constellations, or sets of aspects, of linked practices and arrangements.
Another part of this task is explanatory: explaining large phenomena. If practice theories are forms of modest grand theory, they do not promulgate overall explanatory templates. One might wonder, however, whether practice theory is less modest than advertised. Bourdieu, for example, claimed that explanations of social change can cite drift, circumstantial innovation, or mismatches between structures and habitus. This list is not a template, but it is a broad generalization. On my view, meanwhile, part of the explanation of any social phenomena — large or small — is an historical account of how it came about and is perpetuated. This works as follows (see Schatzki 2016b for details):
- The dynamism (happening and movement) of social life lies in action (cf. Collins).
- Explanations of social phenomena must, therefore, capture the actions that bring about and maintain those phenomena.
- Actions form chains (cf. Tarde, Latour).
- Large social phenomena embrace large numbers of (or far-flung) components of the practice plenum.
- So the action chain nexuses that lead up and maintain to large social phenomena are complex.
- The art of giving explanations of such phenomena is the art of fashioning overviews (cf. Wittgenstein) of this complexity: overviews both of the practice-arrangement bundles that compose the phenomena and of the action chain nexuses that led up to them. An overview of something expresses the gist of the thing. It is a synoptic presentation that captures that something at a broad stroke while also specifying key particulars, in this case, key chains of action. Overviews often take narrative form.
- Giving overviews requires zooming in (cf. Nicolini) to examine specifics of large social phenomena and the action chains leading to them and zooming out to grasp the overall phenomena and to offer overviews. Apprehending specifics calls on the full range of “ethnographic” methods in the widest sense of this term, whereas grasping overall phenomena and proffering overviews requires imagination, abilities to judge saliency and essentialness, powers of interpretation and generalization, knowledge of recent history, and an appreciation of theory. It also requires familiarity with concepts that denote large phenomena and facility with the use of technical concepts to name and convey what is salient, essential, synoptic, and typical of the complex action chain nexuses involved.
I think that this view upholds Hirschauer’s characterization of practice theory.
Senior Associate Dean, Professor of Philosophy and Geography, University of Kentucky
Schatzki (2016a), “Practice Theory as Flat Ontology.” In Practice Theory and Research: Exploring the Relevance for Social Change, Gerd Spaargaren, Don Weenink, and Michelle Lamers (eds), Abingdon, Routledge. [German translation of an earlier version of this text: Schatzki (2016), “Praxistheorie als flache Ontologie.” In Praxistheorie. Ein soziologisches Forschungsprogramm, Hilmar Schäfer (ed.), Bielefeld, transcript, pp. 29–44.]
Schatzki (2016b), “Tracking Large Phenomena.” Geographische Zeitschrift 104 (1): 4-24.