When conducting qualitative research in a foreign country, practice researchers are faced with a number of methodological questions: How do we ‘get at’ practices in a different cultural context? How does our understanding of practices evolve in relation to knowledge of one’s own culture? Which kinds of methodologies are most appropriate? In sum, what you need to know to be able to write about practices in other countries?
In reflecting on these questions, we engage in particular with this blog’s first proposition that established methods offer both opportunities and dangers for working with practice theories. We acknowledge that, in using an established method such as the interview, researchers might struggle to get a thorough historical picture of a practice especially when working in a foreign country. However, that does not mean that interlinkages with, similarities to and differences from larger cross-cutting phenomena can’t be identified. Whether the focus is on countries more or less familiar to us as researchers, interviews help point to interconnections between seemingly ‘macro’ developments, on the one hand, and how, for example, households organize their daily doings, on the other hand. This, in our view, speaks for the ‘modest grandness of practice theories’, to which Ted Schatzki refers in his text on practice theories and large phenomena.
We will reflect on these issues from our own experience in conducting research in Southeast Asia, but start with more theoretical notes on the role of language in practices.
Not only in cross-cultural practice research but also more generally in studies on social practices, one of the pressing questions is that of language. Studying everyday life phenomena and those of social practices, scholars have long been engaged in discussions of whether to emphasise researcher-induced interpretations of human action or the accounts of the situated members.
In Schatzki’s (2002) view, sayings are a subset of doings: sayings can be seen as doings that ‘say something’. So defined, sayings need not even involve language, and for example, conscious and unconscious movements of the body can be acts of saying. While the role of language is fairly central in Schatzki’s theorising of social activity, his reading of Wittgenstein does not privilege the linguistic, but rather offers a way of integrating language with the ‘social’. In Schatzki’s words, “the meaning of a word depends on the circumstances of its use, for instance, the activities as part of which it is used, what is going on in the immediate setting of use, the history of its usage, who speaks or writes and to whom, and what stands as ‘self-evident’ for the people involved” (2002). Such speech acts are central to the organisation of social life.
The more materialistic stances of practice theories seem to moderate the role of situated language and talk of language as an ordering device. For example, Shove, Pantzar and Watson (2012) see practice-as-entities as something that can be spoken about, but situated linguistic performances are not at the centre of their theorising. This is, first of all, because practice theory decentres the subject, and thereby also calls for methods that decentre the subject. Practices and their historical trajectories reach beyond a specific time and space, and grasping them requires more than situational explanations (Shove et al., 2012). Another reason to downplay language might be that the aim of theories of practice is often to account for how environments and technologies support and accommodate various practices, and describing this does not always come naturally for practitioners themselves (Thévenot, 2001).
Considering these points, using interviews to get at practice may be considered as problematic; potentially disregarding material surroundings and the naturally occurring flow of everyday life (Martens, 2012). As such, leaning on language-based methods – like interviews – may lead to accounts that do not adequately grasp the material elements; for example, explanations in which objects are followed, not human subjects. Often practice scholars adopt a mixed method approach to overcome problems like this (see for example posts by Alison Browne and Janine Morley on this blog).
Yet, in our study on energy-related practices in urban middle-class areas in Bangkok, Thailand and Hanoi, Vietnam we relied heavily on semi-structured interviews, accompanied by brief house tours, photographing and an exercise of drawing each respondent’s timeline with different household appliances. In the interview situation, we relied on and trusted the help of interpreters as only one of us speaks a bit of Thai. Our choice of method was mostly based on pragmatic reasons, e.g. considering limits of time and other research inputs. The rest of the text reflects upon some of the things we learned during the process.
Our interviews provided telling insight into different and also changing forms of the dynamics of social practice as described by respondents living in Bangkok and Hanoi. Interpretations of the needs and norms, for example, were closely related to the ways in which broader systems of provision were negotiated in practice.
However, when doing research in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you miss out on a lot of common sense knowledge. For example, when people say they drink milk, it easily is left unnoticed whether they drink soy milk, UHT milk, or fresh milk. Or what is the ‘fancy fan’ that some of our interviewees referred to but the interpreter left without a translation? Or, what is inside all the plastic bags people keep in their fridges and freezers? The problem is of not knowing enough, but also of not being able to ask the right questions. Some of the information may also be lost in the translation, and the slower pace of the interview may require the researcher to probe less than one would ideally like. Another problem is that by the time you sit down to analyse the data back at home, it’s not easy anymore to go back and ask follow-up questions. On the other hand, being somewhat of an outsider also helps in asking ‘naive questions’ about things that would otherwise be left unquestioned. This is undoubtedly useful when researching the mundane and everyday life.
Even though crucial aspects of social practices such as materiality may manifest indirectly through speech acts, it is often difficult to grasp without observation. The fact that we did the interviews at respondents’ homes, and thus were able to observe and photograph the setting, actually turned out to be crucial. The question ‘Could you please open your fridge for us so we can take a picture?’ was often met with a slightly embarrassed chuckle but an affirmative answer. Actually entering 50 different households helped tremendously to triangulate information, reflect on our own experiences and ask follow-up questions.
We started this text by proposing that established methods such as interviews can help pointing to interconnections between seemingly macro developments, on the one hand, and how households organize their daily doings, on the other hand. In our case, in engaging with respondents’ stories of their use of domestic appliances, we were able to reach beyond the situated practice, and cut across what are often treated as micro and macro levels of analysis. This required that we treated elements of practice – here appliances – as not only critical for the conduct of specific practices: they were also seen as part of bundles of practice that extend across different scales and moments in history.
These experiences lead to a couple of final questions and reflections to end our post. During our research project we’ve been faced with the question: are we sensitive enough to the so-called local knowledge and local theories, and how do we ensure that we don’t take an imposing ‘Western’ lens with us? We, however, do see ourselves as Western scholars, and using a theory that has been developed in a ‘non-Western’ context would still leave us with a Western perspective. The question maybe is not what kind of a perspective you take with you from home, but rather the degree of its openness. As such, the only option we have is to work with local respondents and interpreters, and keep our theoretical approach open and grounded. Luckily, theories of practice are not strongly normative but rather open enough to accommodate such flexibility.
Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology / DEMAND Research Centre, Lancaster University, UK
Assistant Professor, Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands
Martens, L. (2012). Practice ‘in talk’ and talk ‘as practice’: Dish washing and the reach of language. Sociological Research Online, 17(3), 22.
Schatzki, T. (2002). The site of the social: A philosophical exploration of the constitution of social life and change.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. Sage Publications.
Thévenot, L. (2001). Pragmatic regimes governing the engagement with the world. In Schatzki, T., Knorr-Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (eds.) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge: 56-73.