“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves.”

Fernando Pessoa


Outsiders might conceive of the field of practice theories as suffering from multiple personality disorder. Each practice theory seems to frame the concept of practice slightly differently. Still, this kind of multiplicity is not a cause for suffering. In fact, as long as practice theories maintain basic ‘family resemblances’ (Reckwitz 2002) – like for instance a post-individualist decentering of ‘the actor’ – it is rather a resource for innovation (Laube and Schönian 2013). There is, however, something else. Each practice is several, is many, is a profusion of itself. Adapting the words of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) helps to shift our focus. It is not the field of practice theories that is suffering from an identity crisis, but rather its central research object. The empirical profusion and complexity of practices poses a common methodological challenge.

One reason seems to be that most social science methodologies – even those associated with qualitative research methods – tend to homogenize the social. Thus, they do not sensitize us well for the differences, complexities, fractions and concurrences of our research objects – a problem that has been pointed to with regard to grounded theory methodology (Clarke 2005) as well as with regard to social theory (Reckwitz 2008). Nevertheless, it might be also true for some versions of ethnography.

As praxeographers, we seek to configure social practices, and in order to do so many of us use ethnographic methods. This is worth mentioning, because practice theoretical research is not about capturing an ‘ethnos’, that is, an ethnic group’s way of thinking and framing the world. It is about practices, that is, complex and heterogeneous forms of materially and bodily embedded practical knowledge. In a practice, several forms of knowing as well as “doings” (Garfinkel 1967) come together in an “organized nexus of actions” (Schatzki 2002:71) including humans, material things as well as non-humans beings.

Against this background, Hilmar Schäfer suggests a transitive methodology allowing “practice theory constantly (…) to shift its focus in order to follow the multiple connections between heterogeneous elements in a relational network”. As part of such a methodology, multi-sited research is invoked as a kind of universal remedy. Multi-sited fieldwork can indeed be a good way to deal with the dispersion of a practice in time and space. In my recent research on the formation of political positions in the parliament, I adapted a research strategy Marcus (1995) referred to as “follow the thing”. Doing so, I shadowed a working group of parliamentarians and their assistants/consultants in fabricating a position paper over the duration of nine months. The production process did not only encompass multiple actors but also several sites, including parliamentarian’s offices, informal talks with external experts, an internal “road-tour” of the working group and even coffee houses. While doing fieldwork, I constantly suffered from the feeling of ‘being too late’ or the impression that ‘the real action is happening elsewhere’. Eventually, I realized that the political workers are confronted with a similar problem – how to follow/produce a thing within a multi-sited and multi-temporal practice. Consequently, I realized that I did not really follow the thing – in my case: a position paper in progress. Instead, I followed (certain) people following the thing, paying close attention to how they cope with the dispersion of their practice in time and space. On a methodological level, my research experience points to a promising but largely unexplored way of configuring a locally and temporarily dispersed practice – both in the social worlds investigated as well as in praxeography (Laube and Schank 2016).

However, I also think there are limitations of multi-sited research when it comes to capturing the complex and concurrent profusion of a practice. A practice might involve quite different and unexpected forms of practical knowledge. In official accounts, some of these forms might be completely silent. Then, the problem for paxeography is not only to follow connections between heterogeneous elements but also to give voice to these marginalized facets of a practice.

Let me give some examples of this idea that come from my research on contemporary financial trading (Laube 2016). The project explored ways of knowing and observing the market in a trading room. How can financial trading – as a practice – cope with the unpredictability and extreme volatility of price developments? To investigate this question, I focused on trading derivatives – the most volatile segment of financial instruments. Additionally and unlike in markets for shares or bonds, derivative traders hold positions for just very short periods of time – minutes, hours or half a day best. In sum, this implicates extreme temporal constraints for the traders.

What practical forms of knowing this market did I encounter then? In line with most cultural and scientific representations of financial markets, I found that trading derivatives is massively tied to screen technology and digital information. Consider, for example, the increased attention financial screens receive in recent Hollywood movies. While in the classic „Wall Street“ (USA 1987) financial screens are only props, they are principal performers in „Wall Street 2“ (USA 2010) or in „Margin Call“ (USA 2011). As such, they do increasingly feature in scenes and occasionally also take over dramaturgical tasks. Interestingly enough, the sociology of financial markets likewise and prominently frames financial markets as “virtual societies” (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger 2002). From this perspective, financial trading seem to have become mainly a technological practice.

However, participating in the social life of a trading room allowed me to take notice of the ways the body of traders actually is (still) important. The practice of trading transforms traders’ bodies into disciplined instruments for observing and making sense of the market on screen. For example, being capable of observing the financial screens constantly necessitates a learning of suppressing such bodily needs as the desire to urinate. Furthermore and among other things, it also involves the ritualistic display of fluctuating prices by uttering “alert cries” (Laube 2016:75–100; see also Laube 2008 quoted in Knorr Cetina 2009:77). Thus, trading derivatives clearly has to be conceptualized also as a bodily practice.

Yet, there is more profusion. Trading also must be conceived of as an affective practice. When holding a position in the market, traders literally consider the latter as an extension of their corporal existence. In a biological sense, nothing might happen to the trader’s „body as a thing described in isolation from its use in context“ (Katz 1999:33). However, in a phenomenological sense, they are literally inside the market, exposing their bodies to the erratic and sudden “moves” of the market, crying out in pain or joy: “I am falling / am rising”!

Finally, the market itself becomes an important actor within the practice. The trading room personnel refers to the “mood” or “vitality” of their market and highlights its “nervousness” in contrast to other more “calm” or even “dead” markets. In fact, the trading room knows this market by a detailed vocabulary of agency. Thus, trading also has to be taken into account as an ontological practice.

This kind of profusion of the practice is not by chance. In order to make the market observable all these heterogeneous ways of knowing it are necessary. Against this background, the presence of ontological metaphors should not be reduced to a form of mundane poetics. Rather, from a practice theoretic viewpoint it ought to be understood as a form of knowing the market that enables trading simultaneously as a technological, a bodily and an affective practice.

Fernando Pessoa invented more than 70 heteronyms to give voice to the multiplicity of his heterogeneous and suppressed selves. This enabled him to enlarge his poetic universe. Sociology (or related fields investigating social practices) might follow his example in configuring the diverse forms and elements of practices.

Stefan Laube

Post Doc Fellow – Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main, Department of Sociology



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