As a practice theorist, I engage with Heideggerian and Wittgensteinian arguments that practice is the source of meaning and human action (cf. Schatzki, 1996), broadly sustained by practical understanding and intelligibility, normativity, and teleo-affectivity. I am particularly fascinated by expertise as a form of social, normative, and relational mastery, as “skill, know-how and technique” (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson, 2012: 14) inscribed in bodies and minds, that practitioners must possess to competently engage in a certain practice.
In my research, I look at expertise in labour practices, to understandhow the internal organisation of different types of work shapes conditions of expert conduct, and how this conversely affects practitioners’ relations and engenders conflicts and inequality. I consider here the case of ‘conference interpreting’. This is an exceptionally complex professional practice, based on multilingual communication services performed in high-stake settings (e.g. supra-national organisations, business…), and positioned in labour markets as part of the language industry. (If you cannot visualise it, think about that film with Nicole Kidman doing headphones-and-microphones simultaneous ‘live’ translations for the UN…).
My research found that, in successful practices of interpreting, the expertise of interpreters rests in being a continually present but background figure. In tandem with colleagues as a team to contain the cognitive overload of interpreting in real time, expert interpreters seamlessly mediate the communication from one language into another without intruding into it. Training, codes of ethics, practice and practitioners all support the reproduction of interpreters’ expertise as linked to an ideal normativity of invisibility and teamwork. Both these rules help interpreters to orchestrate performances, as in a concerto of unnoticed professionals. These rules are in place because, in order to be successful, interpreters must hide any mistake and maintain an appearance of easiness to sustain a natural flow of interaction. It is exactly because of this codification that the expertise of interpreters is “invisibilised” in the performance itself. Although interpreters are never truly “invisible”, they must produce a performance of invisibility to users to proceed unhampered. By acting – seen and heard – as a non-presence, they effectively mediate between practices, but their individual expert role goes unremarked. However, if the interpretation goes wrong, through mistakes and disruption of the communication, the interpreter is rendered ‘visible’ (and incompetent) to the client, with a subsequent loss in terms of future hiring chances, professional status, and recognition in the industry. This creates tensions for interpreters around the management of failure, as a stigma of incompetence that they try to avoid by using reparative strategies in performances and a competent use of rules. Nonetheless, interpreters also routinely break such rules, or bend them to the needs of the situation. Rather than failing under the eyes of everyone, interpreters prefer to violate those rules, for instance by signalling their presence, in order to maintain a good quality rendition.From this strange positioning of interpreters, we can infer the ambiguity of the practice itself: Being an expert means being invisible, with the interpreting practice steering the collective understanding of expertise and failure in a distinctive manner (cf. Royston for how policy-making practices steer energy demand in invisible ways).
In fieldwork, I soon encountered two interrelated issues: How does one methodologically account for the ‘invisible’ in expert conduct? And conversely, how does one devise a research design which can account for the multi-dimensional aspects of the practice of interpreting, and the complexity of its expertise – linked to a normative and teleo-affective positioning of invisibility?
Inspired by Browne’s considerations on the particular ontological and epistemological assumptions that practices demand and the possibility to tackle these via mixed methods, I reflect here on Proposition 2: Practice theories make specific methodological demands of those who work with them.
Laube notes that praxeologists often use a combination of ethnographic methods to explore the forms of expertise. However, accounting for the invisibility aspects of interpreters’ expertise – which, as I was increasingly discovering in fieldwork, is inextricably anchored to a very particular notion of normativity and teleo-affectivity – required me to use a coherent approach where ontological assumptions about the various aspects of the interpreting practice and my methodological choices worked together. As a consequence, I realised that practice theories in general – but, more intensively, specific practices – demand researchers to recognise their methodological needs, and to investigate them accordingly by devising appropriate sets of inquiry, taking into consideration the distinctive conditions of their skilful reproduction. Therefore, a ‘simple’ combination of ethnographic methods was not enough in the case of interpreting practice. The methodological demands of bringing to light its expertise were too complex, and I needed to work out a suitable tool for investigation.
I thus resorted to a ‘facet’ methodology (Mason, 2011) to make the invisible visible. Facet methodology is a new model for doing research with mixed methods developed by the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchester School of Social Sciences. In facet methodology, the research design is visualised as a gemstone according to the research concerns. While the gemstone is the overall research focus, facets are conceived as substantive and methodological planes, each designed to cast light in a variety of ways on different – but intertwined – aspects of the research object. Therefore, what the researcher comes to know about the research object is a combination of the gemstone facets (the ontology) and of how the researcher looks at them (the methodology). Since facet methodology aims to capture dynamics, practicalities, and relationalities that we live, I reflected that, in seeking to understand the world as practices – not only experienced and (re)produced, but also contingent, multi-dimensional, and inter-relationally implicated – I could apply it to the methodological design for researching the interpreting practice.
This leads me to my second point, Proposition 4: Inventive and multiple methods, units, samples, etc. are particularly useful for exploring practices at different scales, in relation to changing social patterns and variably interconnected actors. As this is the case of the interpreting practice, I also resolved to design a research model which used a series of methods and samples to investigate facets as the normative, teleo-affective, and material aspects of expertise and practitioners’ interconnections, e.g. in terms of learning and conflict.
I chose a combination of observations, interviews, as well as visual, documentary, statistical and ‘material’ data (i.e. a collection of objects used in the interpreting practice, such as headphones, annotated documents, etc.) which had specific implications for representing the various facets of interpreting as entity (its constitutive features) and how its expertise is operationalized in performances practically. The complementarity of each method allowed me to cast light on such invisible expertise and its effects in multiple ways, but also to consider different individuals (and thus different samples) engaged at varying levels of skilled conduct. For instance, I used participant observations as the ‘proximal research method’ (Nicolini, 2012: 218; Watson and Shove, 2008). As suggested by Mylan and Southerton, I got closer to unwrapping expertise by following the action as it developed, between facets highlighting sequences of repetition, improvisation, and flexibility of interpreters’ conduct. I then focused on performances. I shadowed (cf. Müller) samples of practitioners and their interactions (professional interpreters, instructors, and students in training) to understand how their expertise is steered by failure, success, rules, and strategies, as well as by the spatial and material dimensions in which they practice. As an illustrative example linked to success and failure, I found that interpreters are of course oriented to successfully mediating communication, but they mostly worry about the management of failure and the avoidance of the public, immediate judgment that follows. Rather than positing success as the most important teleological orientation of the practice, interpreting gives more prominence to the presence of failure, as well as the avoidance of the “negative affectivity” (public shame and loss of prestige) that derives from failing.
Participant observations also helped me in investigating another relevant facet – which so far had dwelled in the shadow of the other ones. In fact, I could appreciate how expertise in performances was used as a weapon for competition amongst interpreters, aimed at capturing clients’ faithfulness – thus digging into light the invisibility of tacit power struggles within the industry. Because of the invisibilised nature of their expertise, interpreters in fact struggle to command with clients the status and material rewards which their considerable skill might otherwise bring them. Changes in the contemporary markets for linguistic services are negatively influencing the need for communication experts, and the decreasing professional status of interpreters is linked to the internal nature of their expertise as “people in the backstage”. This helps to achieve goals of communication, but it is also a disadvantage in terms of visibility with clients and society. Often, these cannot make sense of interpreters’ expertise distinctive complexity, and cannot conduce it to a topical discipline or to cognitive complexity. Its only remarkable aspect is to speak a foreign language – a skill which is increasingly at the nexus also of other practices and thus is stripping interpreters of one of their core abilities. As a consequence of this, my informants experienced power struggles with their clients. Clients often minimise and do not trust their skills, monitoring performances and often publicly blaming interpreters for perceived mistakes, with a tangible impact on their already perceived precarious professional status, as interpreters could lose both reputation and future commissions.
Living precariously within dilemmas of display and invisibility of expertise, interpreters also navigatea large amount of tensions and contradictions of competition and non-collaboration, surveillance, and non-compliance to teamwork on a constant basis. When there is a discrepancy of expertiseand visibility between interpreters working together, the potential for competition arises. Albeit incorporated into larger competitive strategies, pushing colleagues to fail under the eyes of clients is a tactical breach of the rule of teamwork often resorted to by interpreters who want to emerge as more expert than their colleagues in comparison. These latter are used by interpreters as “acceptable” forms of competition and cooperation, for the pursue of both the goal of communication and of personal interests, in a way that makes the teleo-affective goals of the interpreting practice and that of interpreters converge.
Additionally, the second methodological facet drew upon in-depth semi-structured interviews. I wanted a guiding but exploratory device to gather information about issues centring on interpreters’ discursive accounts of expertise, as well as their notions of success and failure. I encouraged practitioners to elaborate their storytelling to ‘re-present’ expertise at a different scale, by transposing it into a verbal dimension and to jointly create knowledge with my informants between the nexus of doing interpreting and doing interviews. For instance, many informantsfiercely defended their expertise as full compliance to the rules, but I noticed several instances of rule-breaking. So I asked informants to discuss their behaviour in simultaneous interpretations. One of them shared that she usually relaxes in the booth when it is not her turn, reading a newspaper, ignoring her colleague working, and thus breaking the teamwork rule. Together, we discussed a notion of expertise that goes beyond just displaying verbal conformity to the rules, and how this is created by the impression that there are correct ways to go about in assignments, which results in an objectivated social reality that interpreters recognise, but which is not necessarily an obligation around which they organise their conduct.
As another step in my design for the investigation of different scales and social patterns, I approached statistical and visual research in tandem with material culture. I wanted to highlight dimensions related to expertise which are more marginal (and thus more invisible), less well-captured by verbal or observational accounts. Aside for information on the business situation of the language industry (accounted for through statistical data), my aim was to make the material and visual dimensions of expertise emerge in their original form, this time without my or my practitioners’ textual mediation. In my quest for uncovering the unseen, I took photographs of venues, buildings, informants, objects, non-confidential documents used by interpreters in performances, as well as of performances. Of course, this methodological process was not sequential, but resulted in an investigatory path that went back and forth from the data to the major empirical themes and viceversa to seek for support, augmentation, or contradiction. My facet methodology design was in fact accompanied by Nicolini’s suggestion of ‘zooming in on the accomplishments of practice, and zooming out of their relationships in space and time’ (2012: 213). In this way, I could appreciate that what is expertly performed contributes to the generation of wider effects within the practice, thus appreciating the ‘translocal effects’ of being expert. For instance, I accounted for how interpreters skilfully and fluently engage with the objects of their own practice. Pushing the console buttons during a simultaneous interpretation for an international organisation to make a strategic pause with the ‘mute’ button in order to enable a colleague to whisper the right technical term for an unknown but pivotal word, was one of the countless ways in which interpreters secured the good outcome of the performance. In this sense, informants’ expert performance translocally affected the carrying out of political proceedings at an international organisation, with subsequent public appreciation and successful reproduction of the interpreting practice, interpreters’ professional role, and ultimately of international political encounters.
The complexity of methodologically accounting for the invisible about expertise leads me to some concluding reflections. Clearly, I could not have addressed the specific demands that doing research on interpreting practice entails, if I had not recognised the distinctive methodological demands that it makes, and accordingly operationalized methods, as in Proposition 2. The rigour of using facet methodology comes ultimately from the researcher’s abilities, creativity, and decision-making in establishing how the methods of choice can work with epistemology to cast light on the specific practice at hand. Proposition 4 appears thus to be supported by research designs such as facet methodology, which integrate inventive methods for casting light on practices at different scales, on patterns and on actors. In the case of expertise in interpreting, resorting to inventive and multiple methods and samples proved pivotal in examining how expert conduct is sustained and how this affects patterns of interaction and power. Taking these reflections as a further point can, I hope, successfully complement existing methodological multiplicity within the realm of practice theories research – such as investigating more clearly power, breakdowns, and competitions within practices – and supporting Propositions 2 and 4.
The University of Manchester, School of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology
Mason, J. (2011). Facet methodology: The case for an inventive research orientation. Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3), 75-92.
Nicolini, D. (2009). Zooming in and out: Studying practices by switching theoretical lenses and trailing connections. Organization studies, 30(12), 1391-1418.
Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schatzki, T. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice. Los Angeles: Sage.
Watson, M., and Shove, E. (2008). Product, competence, project and practice: DIY and the dynamics of craft consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(1), pp. 69-89.