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.

To shed more light on the relation between practices and norms, Joseph Rouse suggests we distinguish between „regularist” and „normative notions of practice“ (Rouse 2007, p. 47). Regularist notions of practice conceive of practices in terms of regularity, whereas normative notions of practice conceive of practices with reference to a moment of irreducible normativity – “not reduc[ing] them to governing rules or exhibited regularities” (Rouse 2007, p. 48). And he further explains: “On this [normative] conception, a practice is maintained by interactions among its constitutive performances that express their mutual accountability” (ibid.). Not surprisingly, a normative notion of practice is what Rouse himself advocates for.

But Rouse is not alone. Theodore Schatzki’s notion of what a practice is can, in fact, be read as a normative notion of practice as well: “the doings and sayings that compose a given practice are linked through (1) practical understandings, (2) rules, (3) a teleoaffective structure, and (4) general understandings” (Schatzki 2002, p. 77; emphasis added). Schatzki also emphasizes that “[i]t is important to stress that the doings and sayings that compose a practice need not be regular” (Schatzki 2002, pp. 73–74). And let me add that what he refers to when speaking about ‘rules’ are “explicit formulations, principles, precepts” (Schatzki 2002, p. 79). (Still, Schatzki’s perspective remains committed to a Wittgensteinian account of rule-following.)

In contrast to Schatzki, Rouse is less interested in explaining how things – practices, material arrangements, social life – have transpired historically. Rouse’s normative notion focuses on regimes of accountability:

“On this normative conception of practices, a performance belongs to a practice if it is appropriate to hold it accountable as a correct or incorrect performance of that practice. Such holding to account is itself integral to the practice and can likewise be done correctly or incorrectly. If done incorrectly, then it would appropriately be held accountable in turn. That would require responding to it in ways appropriate to a mistaken holding-accountable and so forth.” (Rouse 2007, p. 48)

And he offers an instructive example:

“We can also understand in this way Wittgenstein’s suggested invocation when justifications run out, ‘This is what we do.’ Wittgenstein is often read as appealing to a regularity here, but one can instead give his remark the inflection with which a parent tells a child, ‘We don’t hit other children, do we?’ Such statements do not describe what children actually do. On the contrary, parents say this precisely because and when children do hit each other. They do so as a response to the child’s action, which tries to hold that action to account.” (Rouse 2007, p. 49)

For his reflections on accountability, Rouse refers to Brandom but does not draw much upon Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. His normative notion of practice, Rouse argues, is compatible with a Foucauldian perspective – and it may go well together with a sociology of critique and evaluation as developed by, among others, Boltanski and Thévenot.

But does a normative notion of practice remain true to basic practice-theoretical commitments?According to Andreas Reckwitz (2002, 2003), the basic commitments of practice theories concern the role of materiality (i.e., artefacts and bodies), the primacy of collective knowing-how and an emphasis on informality, as well as a notion of social stability as routinization. Reckwitz (2003) qualifies the latter as a tension between routinization and the incalculability of interpretive indeterminacy. Hilmar Schäfer (2013), in turn, characterizes practices as inherently in-/stable.

A normative notion of practice does not deny any of these commitments. In fact, it may shed new light upon informality. Even for a normative notion of practice as outlined by Rouse or Schatzki, informality remains important. Wittgenstein’s account of rule-following remains fundamental. However, Rouse and Schatzki’s notions of practice force us to take a second look at the ways in which (formalized or formalizable) rules and norms figure in practice. In fact, many practices – traffic engineering and civic participation in traffic are just two examples – are aptly described as intricate in-/formalities, phenomena for which their rule-boundedness and normative charge is constitutive.

It is important to note that, on this account, rules and norms remain a matter of practice. The formality (or formalizability) of rules and norms must not be considered to be an innate characteristic of rules and norms but rather emerges, ultimately, from practices of formalization – practices that relate to but are not identical with the practices they seek to regulate.

Lastly, and to return to this blog’s focus on method, let me shortly consider the benefits that a normative notion of practice might provide for empirical studies of practice. Following Schatzki and especially Rouse, empirical studies that proceed from a normative notion of practice could, I suggest, pursue questions such as: How are rules/norms invoked within a practice – as something to be followed, to be cared about, to be transmitted, to be protested, to be deliberately ignored or as a resource for establishing liabilities? How do (or don’t) rules/norms help to integrate practices, link clusters of practices or set them apart? How do (explicit) rule-making and (implicit) rule-following relate? How do practices of rule-debating and rule-complaining, rule-preserving and rule-adapting relate? How does caring for rules relate to practices of rule violation? How are all these practice interwoven, how are they ‘one and several’ (Stefan Laube) at the same time?

Proceeding from Rouse’s normative notion of practice, one may examine how complex regimes of accountability unfold over time: How are participants in practice held accountable and how are acts of holding accountable held accountable in turn? What is the pattern of action/reaction characteristic of specific practices? When do chains of accountability unfold, when do they break down? What are the answers, silences and escalations that practices – qua practices – accommodate? Mutual accountability, understood as resonance and resistance, must not be thought of solely in terms of spoken dialogue. It can be a matter of bodies and artefacts, a matter of technological scripts and material inscriptions, physical resonance, breakdown, or motion.

Taking these hints as an empirical starting point can, I hope, fruitfully complement existing methodological perspectives (see Schäfer’s transitive methodology), contributing to growing methodological diversity within the realm of practice theories (and supporting proposition 6).

Susann Wagenknecht

Post-doctoral researcher, Department of Social Sciences, University of Siegen



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Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European journal of social theory, 5(2), 243-263.

Reckwitz, A. (2003). Grundelemente einer Theorie sozialer Praktiken/Basic Elements of a Theory of Social Practices. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 32(4), 282-301.

Rouse, J. (2007). Social practices and normativity. Philosophy of the social sciences, 37(1), 46-56.

Schatzki, T. R. (2002) The site of the social: a philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Schäfer, H. (2013): Die Instabilität der Praxis. Reproduktion und Transformation des Sozialen in der Praxistheorie. Weilerswist: Velbrück.