Asking questions of methodology is a vitally important project. Asking what practice theoretical research makes is also important (Law, 2009, Law and Urry, 2004). In setting up the critique of the ABC as a collective project, we often lambast not just theory but how particular ontological and epistemological assumptions about the nature of resource demand, consumption and sustainability are brought forth and made real in these research and policy traditions.

I am reflecting particularly on the use of mixed methodology and working across qualitative and quantitative data. This involves reflecting on what these different forms of data make. I am addressing two of the propositions of this blog, and linked DEMAND conference session:

Proposition 1. Established methods offer both opportunities and dangers for working with practice theories

Proposition 4. Inventive and multiple methods, units, samples etc are particularly useful for exploring practices at different scales, in relation to changing social patterns and variably interconnected actors.

I raise 4 arguments in the practice theory literature in regards to different types of methodologies – I only quickly address the first two as these are the most accounted for arguments to more deeply consider analytical and statistical generalisation of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Discussion

The first argument is “Practices can’t be understood (just) by talk. We need other methods that reflect the materiality, sociality and performativity of practices”.

In this line of argumentation it is recognised that alternative methods – such as visual methodologies- are needed to observe performances of practices and their material, performative and conventional entanglements (Halkier and Jensen, 2011, Martens, 2012). These debates are nicely captured in the literature (E.g., Martens, Halkier & Jensen). Arguably the embodied experimentation literature that is emerging within practice theoretical research communities is reflective of this too – although talk is often used to reflect on these experiments (Davies and Doyle, 2015, Kuijer, 2014).

 

The second arguments is “Practices can be understood by talk. People can talk about their practices, and can talk together”.

This line of argumentation is summarised by Hitchings (Hitchings, 2012) in his defence of the humble interview and talk more generally, and is reflective that talk for example can be used to capture elements of practice such as cultural norms, rules, principles etc. People can also be reflective on their performativity. In a recent paper I reflect that people can also talk together about their practices in small group conversations/ focus groups. This is a particularly useful way of uncovering the ‘taboo’ and sensitive dynamics underpinning practices in a more ethical way. In this way focus groups – particularly the emergence of humour – creates new data about social meanings that are difficult to access through different methodologies (Browne, in press, Halkier, 2010).

 

The third argument is that “Practice theory methodologies overemphasise analytical generalisation and data from domestic contexts”

This third argument reflects on the analytical generalisation that occurs from the qualitative data that forms the basis of much of practice theoretical approaches (reflected on by Halkier & Jensen). Analytical generalisation are claims that are made through data and theory to the broader relevance of the results beyond the case study. From qual data – because of the often small sample sizes -researchers tend to make theorised claims about the patterns of categories and dynamics of the material (e.g., Halkier & Jensen reflecting on Blaikie, Kvale).

This debate about scaled down/scaled up research is finding footing in the literature on water governance, infrastructures and practices. For example – I think in (a friendly) critique to my own writing in 2013 about scaling up social science approaches to quant methods – Fam et al reflects that small scale, scaled down research at the domestic and household scale (or looking at practices where they occur) is particularly important for unpicking feminist implications of research (Fam et al., 2015).

Deep, rich, scaled down qualitative data is important. It enables reflections on dynamics of politics in peoples everyday lives. Take for example the significance of the work of Petrova and Bouzarovski, Walker, Simcock, et al on the dynamics of fuel poverty (Petrova et al., 2013).

However there is a pervasive emphasis on the scaled down data – particularly from domestic spaces – in practice theoretical research. Despite practice theory deemphasising methodological individualism, arguably this reliance on analytical generalisation from often small amounts of domestic data to societal patterns is problematic as it perpetuates an emphasis on domestic consumption as a (or sometimes the?) primary site of intervention. As opposed to, for example, considering more deeply political ecology or political economy perspectives to changing infrastructures and practices (Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2005).

A recent exceptional exception to this is the meta-ethnography by the Wollongong gang reflecting across multiple ethnographic domestic practice projects to make larger reflections about disruption, transformation and change (Gibson et al., 2015). Our sites from which we make analytical generalisations are also strongly dominated by the Global North which are issues I have addressed in another paper at this conference (Browne, 2016).

This is particularly problematic as practice theory is increasingly being invoked in policy and non-academic spaces to reflect on ways of intervening (Browne et al., 2014a, Evans et al., 2012, Spurling et al., 2013, Strengers and Maller, 2015). For mundane everyday practices this sort of reliance on analytical generalisation from mostly qualitative and household level data configures an engagement with intervention that is dominated and configured towards the household. Evans & Welch’s recent work on food waste in the retail sector is a great example of what happens when we zoom out from the domestic to consider distributed responsibility of actors (something I have reflected on also in the water industry and water demand) (Evans, 2011, Evans and Welch, 2015, Hoolohan and Browne, in press).

 

Argument 4 goes something like this: “To really understand practice entities more work needs to be done to reflect practices and entities at population levels”

In statistical – as opposed to analytical – generalisation you can make bolder claims to the patterns of practice entities and how they exist across a population because of the representativeness of the sample. This is because your data is reflective of a what a larger number of people do across a population due to sampling methods (Browne et al., 2014b, Pullinger et al., 2013).

This is not to say that the socio-demographic representativeness of the sample is reflective of the spread, pattern or diversity of practices you will find in that sample. But that you have asked what people do across a large population you know reflects the type of society we have (culturally, socio-economically, geographically etc) this data can give you confidence to state what the patterns of practices are in that population.

Unfortunately I think there is a secondary engagement with quantitative data in practice theoretical communities. The work that does exist on quantitative methods tends to use time use data, and to a lesser extent surveys and expenditure data (Bartiaux and Salmon, 2014, Warde and Martens, 2000, Yates and Warde, 2015). This includes my own research with Anderson, Pullinger & Medd. The quantitative research that does exist tracks time use of routines and habits, links practices to end use consumption data where possible, and sometimes engages with feedback and experimentation (Foulds et al., 2014).

Used cautiously and with a combination of other methods quant methods are useful in reflecting upon practices as (reported) performances, and practice entities at one snapshot in time (Browne et al., 2013). The benefits of quantitative data is in the traces that it reveals, enabling some interesting thought experiments about historical and future trajectories of change across certain populations (Browne et al., 2015).

 

Are Mixed Methods Always more Illuminating?

Quantitative methods struggle though to reflect deep dynamics of practices, how they change over time, and interpersonal dynamics, performativity or gendered/political implications of research. There is a pervasive sense in the social sciences that for quantitative research to be critical and good it needs to be combined with qualitative data.

The same sorts of critiques should be levelled at qualitative data – when is analytical generalisation sufficient, where does it overstretch, and how could different methods for example that rely on statistical generalisation reveal different things about practices that are critically complementary.

This is why I am a strong advocate that mixed methodologies are always more illuminating. Each reveal different levels and layers and dynamics of practices at different scales, and make different politics within our methods.

Alison L. Browne

Research Fellow/Lecturer, Human Geography and Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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Twitter: @dralibrowne

References:

Bartiaux, F. & Salmon, L. R. 2014. Family dynamics and social practice theories: An investigation of daily practices related to food, mobility, energy consumption, and tourism. Nature and Culture, 9, 204-224.

Browne, A. L. 2016. Histories, trajectories and patterns of cleanliness, energy and water consumption: Reflections on China. [Conference paper available online from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298721630_Histories_trajectories_and_patterns_of_cleanliness_energy_and_water_consumption_Reflections_on_China]. DEMAND Conference ‘What energy is for: The making and dynamics of demand’. Lancaster, UK.

Browne, A. L. in press. Can people talk together about their practices? Focus groups, humour and the sensitive dynamics of everyday life. Area.

Browne, A. L., Medd, W. & Anderson, B. 2013. Developing Novel Approaches to Tracking Domestic Water Demand Under Uncertainty—A Reflection on the “Up Scaling” of Social Science Approaches in the United Kingdom. Water Resources Management, 27, 1013-1035.

Browne, A. L., Medd, W., Anderson, B. & Pullinger, M. 2015. Methodologies as intervention: Intervening in practice through quantitative and mixed methodologies In: STRENGERS, Y. & MALLER, C. (eds.) Social practices, interventions and sustainability: Beyond behaviour change. UK: Routledge.

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