The relation between practices and rules – as well as norms – keeps bothering me. Practice theories commonly refute the explanatory power of rules and norms and instead declare normativity as something to be explained, ultimately, in terms of Wittgensteinian rule-following. It seems to me, however, that while this approach is sound and elegant (and while much of my conceptual thinking is deeply committed to it), more reflection on the status of normativity within practices is needed.

Illustrative of this need is my own ongoing ethnographic work on mobility practices and urban traffic infrastructure (comp. Tobias Röhl). Specifically, I study how municipal traffic engineers care for a city’s traffic lights. While these traffic engineers are engaged in particular professional practices – designing traffic lights, repairing and maintaining them, also handling citizen complaints – they also deal with practices as their object of work when they seek to ‘tame’ and regulate urban traffic flows. Yet, crucially, their work concerns rules: engineering conventions, industry standards, and, above all, traffic laws. Municipal traffic engineers are obliged to follow rules, re-inforce rules and impose rules upon traffic participants. In fact, we all take part in enforcing (or, undermining) traffic rules. “Bei Rot bleibst du steh’n, bei Grün kannst du geh’n” (red says stop, green says go) is what we, time and again, tell small children. It is a rule we urgently seek to impart to them even though many of us, adult pedestrians, don’t stick to it when no child is around.

Continue reading “Susann Wagenknecht – Normative notions of practice: on rules, accountability and in-/formality”