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.
The first is to supplement interviews with household tours, where participants take us around their homes, demonstrating practices of interest and the materials involved in performing them (e.g. Strengers 2010). This not only prompts participants’ memories but allows the material dimensions and skillful performance of practices to become more prominent. The second is to complement interviews with visual scrapbooking. Scrapbooking is a type of ‘cultural probe’ (Gaver et al. 2004) which is based on an interviewing style that centres on a collection of images presented in a ‘scrapbook’ format after Wyche et al. (2006). We provide a brief overview and review of this method for studying global practice change over space and time.
In a general sense, we engage with these propositions in the remainder of our post:
Proposition 1: Established methods offer both opportunities and dangers for working with practice theories.
Proposition 3: Considerations of space, time and embodiment are essential aspects of practice theory methodologies.
Our experimentation with scrapbooking as a method arose out of our work on the globalisation of energy and water-intensive practices, in particular those related to keeping warm and cool, laundering and bathing. For one project we were interested in international students temporarily studying at universities in Melbourne, Australia. As carriers of practices, we wanted to understand how these students’ practices were enacted in different climates, how they changed on arrival to a new place, and the likelihood of continued circulation back in students’ home countries. Stepping off from Wyche et al.’s (2006) work with a scrapbook and our conceptualisation of ‘practice memory’ (Maller & Strengers 2013), we created a ‘practice memory scrapbook’ that depicted variations of comfort and cleanliness practices. The scrapbook was a visual provocation for interviews which aimed to assist the research team in looking for ‘fragmentary clues’ (Gaver et al. 2004) of past and present practices and their processes of carriage and transformation.
The memory scrapbook contained images depicting different technologies and artifacts, both historical and current, which enable people to keep cool or warm, and wash their clothes or bodies. Applying the principle of defamiliarisation (Bell et al., 2005) we sought to render the new, old and deeply familiar practices international students are engaging in at home and in Australia as strange and unfamiliar through selecting contrasting images. We used Google images to search the Internet for diverse pictures of practice performances or materials, including artifacts from a range of cultures and climatic settings. Our aim was not to try to represent every possible way of performing a practice. Instead we sought to display a variety of techniques for each practice in order to provoke discussion about the practice and how it had changed, and was changing, in students’ lives. Both ‘low’ and ‘high’ tech variations were included, for example in relation to keeping cool: a hand-held paper fan and images of air-conditioning. The completed memory scrapbook contained 40 numbered images corresponding to the practices related to keeping warm, cool, bathing and laundering. These were divided into four corresponding ‘chapters’ each containing 10 images.
Interviews using the practice memory scrapbook involved discussion of participants’ past and present practices. For example, referring to the memory scrapbook, the interview included questions about how participants used to perform practices related to keeping cool in their country of origin, covering what they did on the hottest days, and the materials, techniques and technologies they regularly used to keep cool. The memory scrapbook was presented to the participants at the beginning of each interview. Participants were asked to look through the images, stopping at the end of each practice chapter. From there, questions were asked relating to the practices in focus.
A key outcome of using the scrapbook was that it encouraged participants to reflect on the absence or presence of materials from practices performed in Australia or in their home countries. This indicated these practices were potential candidates for change. For example, students were usually in Melbourne for a few months or a year and experienced financial and housing constraints resulting in them not having access to or being unable to afford the use of a heater or air-conditioner. Because of these material absences, practices were sometimes on the verge of being disintegrated, where despite being carried to a new environment, a practice is disassembled into constituent elements due to missing or unavailable elements (Maller and Strengers 2013). This sometimes resulted in new practices being performed to stay warm or keep cool. For Tran, these involved ’maybe taking a bath. And wearing more sexy clothes!’ The use of scrapbook images facilitated discussion about how students were recruited to local varieties of practice, making it okay to talk about them even though they were perceived as seemingly inconsequential or even embarrassing at times.
We found the scrapbook was beneficial in four ways. 1) It created a relaxed conversational atmosphere compared to interviews based solely on a question-answer format, and was useful for engaging participants when they spoke English as a second or third language. 2) Through participants’ reactions to images that were considered to be or remembered as ‘primitive’ or extreme varieties of practices, the scrapbook helped uncover deeper meanings of and ‘ways of knowing’ practices and enabled reflection on how these have changed, or are changing. 3) It highlighted the importance of the material elements of practices, particularly whether they were present or absent and what this meant for the continued performance of practices. 4) It facilitated discussions of new practices, local varieties or innovations to which students had been recruited. Above all, we found the memory scrapbook facilitated discussion of past and present trajectories of practices which may not be as forthcoming in an interview based on talk only.
Although it doesn’t move entirely away from methods based on talking, the images used in scrapbooking are a useful way to engage participants in the histories and materiality of mundane practices that may otherwise remain unsaid. One potential limitation of this method is that discussions with participants may be limited by the range and type of images presented in the scrapbook, and different sets of images may produce different reactions and responses. Other scrapbooking approaches could entail asking participants to also bring their own images to represent past and present practices. Such extensions of this method could be explored in further research.
Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne
Senior Research Fellow/DECRA Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne
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Maller, C. and Strengers, Y. (2013). The global migration of everyday life: Investigating the practice memories of Australian migrants. Geoforum, 44, pp. 243-252.
Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing, European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), pp. 243-63.
Schatzki, T. (2002). The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of Social Life and Change, Penn State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M. & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes, SAGE, London, UK.
Strengers, Y., Nicholls, L. and Maller, C. (2016). Curious energy consumers: Humans and nonhumans in assemblages of household practice. Journal of Consumer Culture, 16(3), pp. 761-780.
Strengers, Y. (2010). Air-conditioning Australian households: The Impact of Dynamic Peak Pricing. Energy Policy, 38(11), pp. 7312-7322.
Wyche, S., Sengers, P. and Grinter, R. (2006). Historical Analysis: Using the Past to Design the Future. UbiComp 2006. (eds P. Dourish and A. Friday), Springer-Verlag. 4206, pp. 35-51.