The charge that practice theories are only or perhaps especially good for studying small scale and typically bounded activities like showering, smoking, playing floorball or cooking dinner has been repeatedly and I would say effectively rebuffed. Behind the scenes, and sometimes up front, those who claim that practice theories are incapable of engaging with large and important questions about politics, economy, climate change, power and inequality make one or more mistakes about what practice theories offer, and about the core ideas on which they are based (Schatzki 2016; Nicolini 2017). Proponents of transitions theories (Geels et al. 2016; Schot et al. 2016)are, for instance unwilling to accept that practices exist on a single plane. Others adhere to incompatible forms of conceptualization, analysis and interpretation, hankering after big explanations and abstracted laws of markets and political, economic processes. Although related, these critiques are not of a piece and neither are the responses to them.
Some counter arguments start by explaining that what look like large phenomena – such as markets and governments – are quite literally made of a multitude of interconnected practices (MacKenzie et al. 2008; Araujo et al. 2010; Sayer and Wilkinson 2015). This is not a position that is unique to practice theory. In his book Why we can’t afford the rich, Sayer approaches the economy not as a machine but ‘as a complex set of relationships between people, increasingly stretched around the world, in which they act as producers of goods and services, investors, recipients of various kinds of income and as taxpayers and consumers.’ (Sayer and Wilkinson 2015: 19). Callon (1998)and Mackenzie (2008)do much the same, but with more of a focus on the materials and forms of knowing of which such practices are made. There are many other examples, but essentially the claim is that market exchanges, forms of governance, and the making and implementing of strategies do not simply affect practices: rather they are practices.
A second approach is to emphasise the means by which many ‘component’ practices (buying, retailing, manufacturing, investing) hang together and to show how the resulting bundles, complexes or constellations can have extensive and sometimes durable effects. The focus here is on media of interaction and circulation, more than on the point that there is nothing beyond practice.
A third route is to take issue with the suggestion that significantly different processesare at play in constituting and driving large (and important) issues and that distinctive concepts are needed to deal with transitions at this level and scale. In short the counter argument is that efforts to develop such concepts depend on forms of abstraction and reification that have the perverse effect of obscuring the very forms of interdependence that matter (Nicolini 2017).
These are not mutually exclusive positions. Quite the opposite: all are conceptually consistent, coherent and convincing responses. So what is the problem? Assuming that for these reasons and more, practice theories arecapable of informing what are taken to be big and important topics why is it that ‘Almost no practice theoretical studies exist’ (Schatzki 2016: 4)of such phenomena as international financial systems, military alliances, educational systems, and so forth. Why are debates about global problems not already over run by practice theoretically informed studies?
If we reject the conclusion that the lack of empirical research is symptomatic of practice theory’s conceptual failings, we need to look for other explanations. The library is one place to start. If you browse the shelves marked Sociology you will find traces of ‘the cultural turn’ woven through sections like the family; gender studies; media; social class and even science and technology studies. Older books, with plainer covers, reveal other trends in disciplinary preoccupations and in what Abbot describes as the unfolding chaos of disciplines (Abbott 2001). If you go on a more dedicated hunt, and if your aim is to discover where theories of practice fit not only in the library but also in how big topics and problems are conceptualized you are likely to confront a puzzling disjunction between the potential of this family of ideas and where and how they have had traction.
This is not to suggest that practice theory is in any sense narrow: relevant concepts appear and have been generated in management and organization studies; education; language; philosophy; geography and sociology. I need to do more reading but my sense is that across these disciplines some practice theoretical lines of enquiry have caught the attention, and others not. Practice theories have, for instance, provided and fueled increasingly influential challenges to classically individualist accounts of the social world, including those that dominate fields of health, education, environment, and some areas of organization and management. This is important work, but it may have produced a rather lopsided agenda. I suspect practice theoretically inspired researchers have been busy doing battle along the frontlines of behavior change, rather than figuring out how practices connect.
Perhaps as a result, the repertoire of concepts used to describe connections between practices is decidedly underdeveloped. In the Dynamics of Social Practice(Shove et al. 2012)we talked of ‘circuits of reproduction’ and ‘connective tissue’ and we did so without getting into very much detail at all. Our simple representation of looser and tighter connections between practices in space and time still makes sense, but again it provides few clues as to how such links might feature in empirical research.
In his discussion of ‘Large social phenomena’ Schatzki makes the case for ‘overviewing’ as a technique for grasping both the origins and the details of social affairs (Schatzki 2011). In The Nexus of Practices(Hui et al. 2017)we added terms like ‘threading through’ and ‘suffusing’ along with preliminary accounts of cross-practice connections forged through material relations and/or of forms of knowledge. These extend Schatzki’s catalogue of some of the ‘types of events and processes that happen to bundles [of practices] and their components in the plenum of practices’ (Schatzki 2016: 19)which include the following:
- Accumulation, association, aggregation
- Disassociation, dissolution
- Colonization, absorption
- Diffusion, circulation, contagion
- Stability, solidification, persistence, evolution
- Bifurcation, differentiation, synthesis, polypization
- Convergence, merger
- Divergence, separation
Meanwhile, Gherardi talks about textures and webs of practice (Gherardi 2012). Building up an intriguing and evocative vocabulary is definitely a start. However, to establish practice theory as a powerful and relevant point of reference across many more fields and debates than is currently the case, more needs to be done to establish an agenda that is explicitly concerned with connections between practices and thus with a much wider range of topics and problems.
This contribution is designed to move in that direction. One way forward is to think about what terms like accumulation, circulation, interweaving and convergence refer to in different contexts. Another is to distinguish between concepts that characterize the density of connections between practices or that focus on aspects of spatial (and other kinds of) extent Similarly, characterizing the consequences of connections between practices is not quite the same as showing how such connections form and evolve over time. Rather than trying to do this in the abstract, the next few sections introduce two examples of contemporary problems (global obesity and plastic waste) and one from the past (Cistercian monasteries and their economic, technological and cultural influence) and do so as a means of showing what such an exercise might involve.
Obesity – becoming large
By any standards, global obesity is a large problem. According to the World Health Organisation (2018) ‘Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.’. This rate of change is impressive. Since being overweight is associated with a string of non communicable diseases, it is also a troubling trend. As the WHO continues:
‘The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016. The rise has occurred similarly among both boys and girls: in 2016 18% of girls and 19% of boys were overweight.’
So called ‘globesity’ (global obesity) is evidently positioned at the intersection of multiple practices. Still quoting from the WHO, the cause of obesity is an imbalance in the number of calories consumed and expended. The rise in obesity is consequently attributed to:
- an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat; and
- an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight)
So what distinctive contributions and insights might practice theories make in understanding the increasing prevalence of obesity in many parts of the world? Why is this happening now? What developments within practices, and what connections between them lie behind the figures quoted above?
Not surprisingly, policy responses to the problem fail to provide much insight into any of these questions. As one might expect, these mostly focus on people making healthy choices. If taken to heart, this suggests that for some unknown reason, and at a particular point in history, millions of individuals switched to making ‘unhealthy’ choices. Other more persuasive responses consider features of the ‘obesogenic environment’, this being one that systematically offers less than healthy options in terms of food and exercise. If we are interested in the changing prevalence of obesity, we’d need to go further and ask how so many environments came to be ‘obesogenic’ so quickly, and how these environments simultaneously shape the diverse practices of diet andexercise.
In putting the question like this we have the glimmerings of a method that would conceptualise the shape of the human body (and in fact many human bodies) as traces or outcomes of historically specific conjunctions of practices. It is in this context that terms like accumulation, circulation, interweaving and convergence begin to make sense.
Obesity and being overweight is quite literally an accumulation of body mass. From this point of view, human forms represent a physical record of the conduct and also the circulation of broad genres of practice. But what about the interweaving, and more specifically, why might diet and physical activity change in the wrong directions, and at the same time? Russo provides one possible response (Russo 2012). She attributes problematic forms of energy-dense food production anddeclining exercise to the transition from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy. By implication, the increasing prevalence of obesity is a necessary and unavoidable consequences of shifts in production and in the myriad of practices that follow.
Whether this is a convincing explanation or not, trends in diet and exercise arise, and in a sense only exist, within and because of the detail of what people do. Capturing the processes involved arguably requires forms of enquiry that are capable of ‘zooming in’ (to the contents of the fridge; the plate) and ‘zooming out’ (to the global food industry; agriculture) (Nicolini 2017). However, this is only part of the story. Other methods are needed to shuttle horizontallybetween bundles of practices that underpin the ingestion of energy-dense foods (shopping, cooking, retailing, eating) and that are of consequence for physical activity and exercise.
Paying attention to connections like these generates new questions, for instance about how urbanization affects (or reflects) both diet and exercise, perhaps mediated by transitions in the indoor climateor transportation systems, including systems of automobility (Urry 2004). It is also useful to think about whether and how the contemporary bonds of obesity might be broken. For example, can we imagine the rise of practices that require significant increases in physical effort, or the (re) emergence of forms of eating that are ‘better’ aligned to the prevalence of sedentary ways of life. Following this line of thought, the sudden increase in obesity might be conceptualized not as a conjunction, but rather as an historical disjunction in which a culture of energy-dense diet, linked to a previous era of physical activity, has spilled over into a period in which less physically demanding practices have taken hold.
As with the next two examples, the languages of accumulation, circulation, interweaving and convergence need a bit of refinement. For instance, body masses accumulate but not in the same ways as masses of inherited wealth. Similarly the task of identifying relevant forms of diffusion and circulation is complicated by the fact that obesity is at the intersection of multiple practices, not of one or two alone. In this case, perhaps the most interesting ideas have to do with interweaving and the apparently simultaneous convergence of practices that result in an increasing prevalence of fatter bodies.
The next example, which has to do with an accumulation of very small bits of plastic, generates a somewhat different agenda but one that is also about how practices connect.
Plastic waste – the particles of practice
It turns out we are surrounded by many very small bits of plastic waste. There are growing concerns about this, and especially about marine litter and the tiny fibers of plastic now found in the sea, in rivers and lakes and tap water as well. These fragments are entering food systems (and us) with unknown consequences, and are acting as effective carriers of harmful microbes. Apparently plastic is an excellent surface on which organisms ‘surf’ the world. So much so that some specialists are expecting the evolutionary process to result in new forms of micro-plastic-adapted life.
Like obesity, this is a relatively recent global phenomenon. ‘In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034’.Plastics have only been in widespread use since the 1950s, but ‘Global production of plastics (synthetic organic polymers) has risen in the past 30 years and this has coincided with a proportional increase in the levels of plastics pollution observed in all components of the marine environment’(European Marine Board 2013: 31).
There are many different kinds of plastic, and plastic materials/objects have become integral to the conduct of untold numbers of practices in just about all areas of production, consumption and daily life. The accumulation of micro-plastic particles (where they are, what size they are, how they travel) is an outcome both of the durability of this material and of multiple material-practice conjunctions that converge in making anonymous plastic waste, and that go on to affect future/further sets of practices including fishing and swimming and more.
What might practice theories bring to the bigger challenge of conceptualizing the material inputs and outputs of what people do, and thus to a range of issues including global warming, resource depletion, and air pollution? One route is to focus on the shifting roles of material elements: as necessary but in the background of practices; as things that are interacted with directly, or as resources that are transformed (Shove 2017). Working back from a nanoparticle, one might recover the sequences of practices through which a specific fragment has passed, and that the material in a sense links as it switches from one role to another. This is not so far away from studies that follow plastic items as they move from one jurisdiction to another, and as they disintegrate along the way. For example, Artemis Papadaki-Anastasopoulou writes about plastic bags that river authorities try to remove, and about the impossibility of doing so when they break down.At a minimum, attending to the fluid roles of materials in sequences of practice adds a lot to otherwise socially inert accounts of ecological and other forms of metabolism, life cycle assessment or material flow. Similarly, practice theoretically inspired accounts of circulation would not focus on ocean currents alone.
There are many other narratives to follow. Histories of technology (Bijker 1997)describe the origins and mass production of plastics, but have less to say about how they became embedded in practice. Attending to these issues would mean thinking about forms of substitution (Shove et al. 2007)and about how plastics have been part of transforming both the details of doing (from surgery to car manufacture and more) and the lives and trajectories of the practices involved. As with energy (see www.demand.ac.uk) it makes sense to ask big questions about what plastics are ‘for’ and to consider the further sequences of production (oil, profit making) that co-constitute consumer ‘needs’. These issues of transformation and feedback raise others about how the ‘dust’ of so many diverse practices end up in the sea (and land, and air). Is this a story of convergence: from different roles and forms to a more undifferentiated mass of fragments? Is interweaving a better point of reference?
Social and economic histories of waste (Strasser 1999; O’Brien 2012)do a great job of tracking the fluidity of economic valuation, but they tend do so without enquiring into the changing histories of the demand for paper (from rags), or of fertilisers and glues (made from bones). Latching these material narratives on to parallel histories of practice would help make sense of otherwise abstracted economic explanations of how things acquire and lose value. I am not sure where these thoughts lead but there is something appealing about blending ideas about calculation and markets (Callon and Muniesa 2005), the trajectories of waste and want (Strasser 1999)and related chains and particles of practice.
More immediately, the point is that the types of accumulation, circulation, etc. mentioned in relation to plastics are not exactly the same as those considered with respect to the rather different problem of obesity. With a bit more systematic effort it might be possible to tease some of these forms apart and arrive at a better understanding of the processes involved. My third example is seemingly unrelated.
Cistercian habits – bundles and circulations
One good thing about workshops like this is that you can write about anything you like. I got interested in Cistercian monasteries when cycling in France. As a piece of architecture, the abbey at Pontignyis just amazing and so is Fontenay. Cycling and thinking go together and this trip set me wondering about the relation, or tension, between the relatively closed worlds of these monasteries and the impressive geographical reach of their influence not only religious, but also in terms of agriculture, metallurgy and (in France) wine production. I also started thinking about how these different sets of practices cohered and shaped each other (De Wit et al. 2002).
So far I have only dipped into a few issues of Cistercian studies quarterly. From this I have learned that the leaders of satellite institutions (known as daughter monasteries) returned, annually to the ‘mother’ in Citeaux. These travels and meetings linked communities that were physically set apart from their local environments. There is much debate about how local communities, lay people and monks actually interacted, but the idea of seclusion was important: monasteries were situated at least five miles away from existing settlements. Despite or perhaps because of being cut off’in this way, the Cistercians were said to exert more influence in Europe than any other medieval religious order (Wollenberg 2018: 421). Amongst other things, this included an important role in the development and also the circulation of methods, techniques and practices of metal working (Burton et al. 2011).
Roosa writes about the place of iron working and blacksmithing ‘within the monastic context, demarcated by legal, social, and physical boundaries, through which raw materials, tools and objects, workers, and monks flowed’ (Roosa 2017: 3). This highly localized conjunction of ‘elements’ within highly organized ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991)was in some important respects an outcome of the extended Cistercian order. According Gerry McDonnell, an archaeologist of metallurgy, ‘The Cistercians monasteries with their strong European network could play a major role in the evolution of iron technology in Europe spanning the critical period of technological development between 1000-1500AD’.
I know nothing about religion, but it is clear that the organization of Cistercian life including values of self-sufficiency and seclusion were related to the separation of communities, their internal structure and the links between them. And it seems that these conjunctions were important for how diverse practices hung together and for and the flow of know-how. One other example illustrates this intriguing interweaving of enclosure and extent.
When they set up home in Pontigny the monks brought vines with them from Citeaux – and they planted them in the soil of what is now known as the Chablis region. Rather than mixing these grapes with others, as was common practice, the Cistercian monks made their own wine from their own private vineyards. One side effect was the realization that local conditions and soil were important for the result and through this conjunction that the notion of ‘terroir’ came into being. But it did not do so alone. According to Truax, literacy and record keeping were also relevant. To quote:
“Modern histories of wine routinely credit the Cistercians with several significant developments within the industry, and there can be little doubt that the scale of Pontigny’s operations and its contacts with other wine-producing Cistercian abbeys laid the groundwork for experimentation and innovation” (Truax 2018: 411) – being literate allowed them to keep records.
These observations point to the potential of somehow blending Latouran notions of ‘action at a distance’ and ‘centres of calculation’ (Latour 1987)to produce an account of both the dynamics and the geographies of habits, and the historical development of what we might think of as the ingredients of habitus (Bourdieu 1984). More specifically, the Cistercian examples draw attention to the challenge of conceptualizing the multiple but always localized reproduction not of one practice at a time (Pantzar and Shove 2010)but of somewhat integrated bundles of practice.
This radiation map of Cistercian influence flattens these complexities out but there is something intriguing about conceptualizing accumulations (of know-how); conjunctions (of bundles of practice – united by religious ideas of simplicity and seclusion) and networks as outcomes of linked but localized enactments of Cistercian habits.
Connecting connections: obesity, plastics, and Cistercian habits
The cases discussed above range from the eleventh century to the present day. Across this period there could well be some tends and historical developments that are generically important for how practices connect. Forms of time-space compression, or the role of the digital in enabling substantially new ‘textures’ or relations between practices might be examples. However, I am not looking for grand narratives or for ultimate causes. Instead, my idea was to use the increasing prevalence of obesity and plastic particles, and the packaging and reproduction of Cistercian habits to think about different modes and meanings of accumulation, circulation, interweaving and convergence, and to explore ways of revealing ‘horizontal’ connections alongside methods of ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’.
I am not sure I have made much progress, but in the course of trying I have tripped over a handful of promising lines of analysis and enquiry.
First, and most pragmatically focusing on connections between practices challenges and refreshes dominant agendas and methods of conceptualizing problems that are of widespread if not global significance. Framing the prevalence of obesity as the outcome of an historical conjunction of multiple practices grouped around diet and exercise is of immediate consequence for how this phenomenon is studied and understood. Thinking about how practices of literacy and privacy combined in making the history of wine, and how the conjunction forged in Pontigny spread calls for something other than innovation or diffusion studies, or studies of transitions as these are normally understood. Instead, and in both cases, what is needed is a method of conceptualizing processes of interweaving and of development and ‘diffusion’ in a single frame. By implication, practice theories have the potential to generate distinctive ways of thinking about how practices and combinations of them become large, widespread or dominant.
They also provide some insight into the modes and consequences of accumulation. This is a topic that definitely deserves more attention. Practices of eating and diet have outcomes currently resulting in a global accumulation of body mass. Similarly, plastic fragments can be thought of as the outcomes or durable material traces of many practices. However, the practicalities of accumulation are not the same, nor are routes through which accumulations feed back, or feed forward into the future, or converge with further unintended consequences. Wealth, body mass, plastic particles, the know how of viniculture or metallurgy all ‘add up’. And some such ‘added’ processes intersect. For instance, the prevalence of obesity is associated with a rise in non communicable disease that is unevenly distributed across the population. To give another example, Sayer suggests that the potential to amass unearned income underpins (via a few intermediate steps) an accumulation of carbon emissions.
Long lists of terms like accumulation, association, aggregation, disassociation, dissolution, colonization, absorption etc. need some sorting out and there is a lot to think about – but as I have indicated above there are also many ideas to work with. There is evidently scope for the productive pairing of concepts established in different areas of practice theory and other conceptually compatible traditions. I have suggested mixing Lave and Wenger’s (1991)ideas about the social organization of becoming a practitioner with others that focus on the material elements of practice. Likewise, de Wit et al.’s (2002)work on innovation junctions might inspire practice theoretically friendly interpretations of ‘innofusion’ (Bijker 1997). Combining STS/economic sociology on markets and market making with parallel, but largely missing theories of consumption and demand as outcomes of practice would be another possibility.
In conclusion, moves like these have the potential to inform and inspire research that conceptualizes and engages with global problems and that does so without mimicking the forms of abstraction and multi-levelling that dominate today. Looking some years ahead, I hope that contributors to this workshop will have shifted agendas such that sections of the library that deal with politics, economy, media, gender and inequality will become home to lively and influential practice theoretical debate.
Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the DEMAND Research Centre
** Picture credits: Map of Cistercian expansion quoted from https://www.flickr.com/photos/26882802@N04/with/2531425437. In case there are any objections concerning the use of this image in scientific context, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Warming indoor environments relates to judgements about metabolic rates that are self-fulfilling, and quiet likely to be linked to rates of obesity see. van Marken Lichtenbelt, W., Hanssen, M., Pallubinsky, H., Kingma, B. and Schellen, L. (2017). “Healthy excursions outside the thermal comfort zone.” Building Research & Information45(7): 819-827.
https://nomadit.co.uk/conference/easst2018/paper/41802– 2018 EASST conference presentation panel A12, ‘Plastic matters: the material politics of (micro) plastics.
De Wit et al. write about the office as an ‘innovation junction’, that is, as a space in which different practices come together, and in which co-location has a bearing on how different aspects of office life develop together.
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