Researchers in the field of STS convincingly state that studying infrastructures also means to deal with questions of social order (see, for example, the very active blog Installing (Social) Order. Building on this, I propose to replace, or at least supplement, the classical concept of the (supra-)structure with that of infra-structuring. As with other ‘discoveries’ this one was rather coincidental and serendipitous: In April 2016 I became part of the newly founded Collaborative Research Center (SFB) Media of Cooperation. For the researchers gathered there, the concept of infrastructure is one of the central concepts employed to investigate how cooperation between various actors is made possible. In this context I soon began wondering whether the concept of infrastructure could not replace the classical sociological notion of structure and reconcile practice theory with phenomena usually considered to be macrosociological problems. This blog entry is a tentative attempt to discuss this idea.
In our work we have used theories of social practice (Reckwitz 2002; Schatzki 2002; Shove et al. 2012) to study a number of mundane practices common to everyday life, including laundering, bathing, cooking and cleaning (e.g. Maller & Strengers 2013, Strengers et al. 2016). Nearly all of our projects have involved empirical work with households in Australia. In researching practices in-situ we have relied on interviewing as a core method. This requires people to talk about, share and reflect on practices they have been recruited to. Although interviewing for studying practices has been successfully defended in a panel discussion at the 2016 DEMAND conference as well as in literature (e.g. Hitchings 2012), like any method, it has its limitations.
The limitations of interviewing are mainly associated with an oral format where participants provide a first- or second-hand spoken-word account of the practices they and others perform. We are therefore reliant on participants’ memories and descriptions of practice accounts, including all of the elements of interest. As readers of this blog will know, theories of practice emphasise the dynamics and agency of the material world, and in doing so decentre humans to varying degrees. Given this interest in materiality, relying solely on talk-based interviews in practice-based studies may miss important aspects of material agency—a point Alison Browne and Jenny Rinkinen and Mattijs Smits make in their posts on this blog. We have found two ways to resolve this issue. Continue reading “Cecily Maller & Yolande Strengers – Visual provocations: reflections on scrapbooking as a method for studying global practice change”
Although my past work has focused on everyday performances of domestic practices, I’m currently part of a project that is rather more ambitious and unusual. It aims to understand how policies and policy-making practices steer energy demand, often in unintended or unrecognised ways (see Royston, 2016, for details). Tracking down these “invisible” effects has demanded a diverse and evolving set of methods.
Practices are steered in many ways, including through the policies of state and public sector actors. If we want to understand changing practices, we need to consider (among other things) how these policies affect them, both intentionally and unintentionally, and how these effects might change in future. These questions reflect the call made by other contributors (e.g. Browne, Schatzki, Trentmann) for practice theory to go beyond domestic daily life and consider larger issues (as expressed in Proposition 5).