larissa-schindler-135x180Practice theory clearly understands sociality as an emerging and motile phenomenon. In the practice of researching and arguing however, it seems to me that we should put more analytic emphasis on it. In this sense two questions deserve attention: (1) How do heterogenous body-object-associations emerge as such in an ongoing practice and (2) how do motile phenomena, like i. e. mobility, movement or transformation, characterize a specific practice. I take it that both of them are aspects of motility. Thus, in my contribution, I wish to follow what Frank Hillebrandt and Hilmar Schäfer have already elaborated on, focussing on the motile dimension of the social.

I am reflecting particularly on Hilmar Schäfer’s proposition of a transitive methodology. He convincingly states:

“Depending on the research question, practice theory constantly needs to shift its focus in order to follow the multiple connections between heterogeneous elements linked in a relational network. It needs to explore these links and look into the occurrences at their intersections. I propose to call this research approach a ‘transitive methodology’. This draws on the specific connotations of the word ‘transitive’, which is used in logic and mathematics to describe a link between members of a sequence and which derives from the Latin ‘transitivus’, meaning ‘going across’ and ‘connecting’.”

In my view, these lines take up a very important point of empirical research within practice theories, since connections and intersections are crucial phenomena in order to understand social practices. To this I would like to add that research should also bear in mind that these “multiple connections between heterogeneous elements” are not only heterogeneous, but are themselves accomplished in heterogeneous ways: Bodies, things, persons, environments and their intersections do not only bring about a practice concertedly, but emerge as these bodies, things, persons, environments and intersections while the practice is accomplished. These processes of ongoing accomplishment are motile, in a geographical sense but also in a sense of (transient) adaption.

Let me give some examples of this idea that come from my current research projects. In the last few years I have been engaged with two main research projects: One has dealt with the question how the tacit, mainly embodied knowledge of a martial art can be taught and learned. The other, more recent, research project is concerned with air travel as a social and cultural practice. It not only aims to reconstruct the embodied knowledge of travelling in a plane, but also asks how air travel is accomplished as a combination of diverse means of transportation and how within such a form of travel different events interlace. This requires a methodology that goes beyond situationalism.

What can we learn from these projects with regard to my question of a motile dimension of the social? From the martial arts research project we can take the idea that within a certain practice, bodies are accomplished in different ways, and, what is even more important, they learn from each other and change during this process. My research has shown that, alongside with verbal and visual communication, students learn in a haptic way from their partner’s body. Thus there is a haptic communication (Schindler, forthcoming) that allows bodies to learn from other bodies. In order to do so, however, students (and their bodies) have to acquire certain skills, inter alia: by participating they gradually acquire a specific form of seeing the instructor’s demonstrations, they develop a practice-trained vis-ability (Schindler, 2009). Sometimes even, “their” abilities can only be performed with a certain partner (or certain partners). Thus, in the course of learning their bodies adapt in different ways: (1) they have to acquire practice-specific abilities, (2) their material form changes by the very movements they perform, (3) also “their” abilities just like “their” knowledge (at least in part) belongs to the course of a practice as it could not be performed outside or without partners. Robert Schmidt (2008) has made this point convincingly with regard to soccer teams, whose performance can improve in a concerted activity that cannot be attributed to the individual members. In an ethnographic study on cycling Justin Spinney (2006) has shown that cyclist and bike form a hybrid that influences the perception of the environment – cyclists often feel the route more than simply watching it. Furthermore, in a way they coach each other: as the cyclist improves while biking, he will add equipment to his bike, which in turn makes him improve and so on. The haptic communication within a body-body-association that I have observed in martial arts, therefore has an equivalent in the body-object-association of cycling.

In air travel however, bodies (and things) adapt to the situation in quite a different way: On their way through the airport, “mobile bodies” (Imrie, 2000) in a stop-and-go movement go to the gate, where they wait for boarding, line up to enter the plane, to finally turn into “immobile bodies” during the flight. The exertions of this – on the surface immobile – performance might best be noted when passengers get up shortly after touch down even when it will be a long time before they will be able to exit the plane. This transition from mobile to immobile and back to mobile bodies displays the paradoxical phenomenon of slowing down bodies for the sake of hyper-mobile travel. Note furthermore how motility also characterizes a seemingly anti-mobile body-object-association. Ethnographic research on this phenomenon, inter alia, focusses on the boarding of the plane, since in this intersection between walking (on the ground) and flying passengers not only store their hand luggage, but in a way also store their own bodies into the narrow seat rows of the plane. Thus, in concerted activities with flight attendants and with the material infrastructure, they create the specific body-object-association of flying in a plane.

In a nutshell, motility is a core feature of social phenomena. Research with a focus in practice theory needs to bear this in mind; it therefore needs to employ mobile research strategies. Ethnography, in my view, provides us with such mobile strategies, as (1) participant observation allows multi-layered and complex insights into the researched phenomena and thus provides a profound basis for developing (2) a research strategy that uses different tools and approaches that are adapted and invented in the course of the research process.


Larissa Schindler

Researcher, Institute for Sociology, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany




Imrie, R. (2000) ‘Disability and Discourses of Mobility and Movement’, Environment and Planning A 32(9): 1641 – 1656.

Schindler, L. (2009) ‘The Production of «Vis-Ability»: An Ethnographic Video Analysis of a Martial Arts Class’, pp. 135–54 in Kissmann, U.T. (ed.), Video Interaction Analysis: Methods and Methodology. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Schindler, L. (forthcoming)Teaching Bodies: Visual and Somatic Communication in Martial Arts’, in Meyer, C./U. v. Wedelstaedt (ed.), Enactive Intercorporeality. The Coordination, Concertation and Collectivization of Moving Bodies in Sports. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Schmidt, R. (2008) ‘Stumme Weitergabe. Zur Praxeologie sozialisatorischer Vermittlungsprozesse’, Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation 28(2): 121–136.

Spinney, J. (2006) ‘A Place of Sense: A Kinaesthetic Ethnography of Cyclists on Mont Ventoux’, Environment and Planning D 24(5): 709–32.