When you open the door and leave the house you are living in, you interact with architecture. Or take the example of the former Guinness brewery in Dublin’s inner city quarter The Liberties: When the building ceases to host a brewery and its industrial workers and is, instead, used as site for a technology park and for digital workers, it becomes visible how intimately architecture and the social are intertwined. But how can we approach architecture’s agency and its co-constitutive character for practices? How can something that is primarily bodily experienced be the subject of social scientific analysis? In this contribution, I am concerned with exactly these kinds of questions.
By contributing to this blog, I aim to boost the discussion surrounding the methodological consequences of an unsettled relation of practice and discourse theory. In addition I wish to link these consequences with the ongoing demand to continue the dialogue about appropriate methods of practice sociologies my colleagues and I started two years ago (Schäfer/Daniel/Hillebrandt 2015).
The following outline of practice theory shows why I engage with my object of research – protest – in the context of discourse and practice in the first place. This leads to a synergetic dialogue between practice and discourse theory in the form of post-structural materialism (Hillebrandt 2016) using the concept of serialized events from Foucault (cf. Foucault DeE III, no. 234, 2003). The general methodological consequence of this is a genealogy of the present and a sociology of practice of historical events compared to current ones. I conclude by answering the question of how current protest can be understood by building a bricolage of practices of protest starting from an unprecedented event with the potential for serialization.
The idea for this blog post evolved accidentally. It is based on biographic data I gathered in the context of research for my PhD thesis about intersexuality and a new perspective, which has opened up for me in relation to current sociological accounts of subjectivation. Accordingly, this contribution is the surprising output that arises when theoretical discussions suddenly open up a new perspective on »old« material.
In the tradition of poststructuralist theory, current works describe subjectivation primarily as an external impact on the individual, as a constant process of discursive and non-discursive practices of »doing subjects« (Reckwitz 2017, 125). It seems to me that a poststructural understanding of subjectivation mainly focuses on the practices of production and thereby neglects the empirical dimension of the resulting subjectivity, understood as a specific way of feeling and thinking as well as acting in the world of the subjects.
A principle methodological challenge for any research is the identification of the core unit of analysis and the ‘entry point’ for empirical enquiry. Both depend on the research questions to hand. For the study of practices these challenges are particularly acute. Studies of practices can range from relatively discreet bundles of activities (such as showering or cycling) to compounds of practices as described by Warde (2013) in relation to eating, which, depending on the question being asked, might or might not encompass cooking, shopping, or entertaining. Where the practice begins and ends is both a theoretical and a methodological problem. Within the conceptual repertoire of practice theories the term ‘coordination’ is often evoked, as something representing the binding together of ‘entities’ (e.g. Shove et al, 2012), of people performing practices (Southerton, 2006), or of actions in time and space (Schatzki, 2010). Despite the critical conceptual role in theories and studies of practices, coordination raises sets of methodological conundrums: what exactly is being coordinated and over what spatial, temporal and societal scales is this coordination occurring?
If only I had got round to responding to these propositions earlier! If I had contributed in April 2016 – as was my plan – this task would have been so much easier: 4 lines and not 4 pages. In April, I knew what I wanted to write. Having read the blog and been part of discussions at the DEMAND conference, I simply wanted to add an 8th proposition which went as follows:
Taking “practice” as a central conceptual unit of enquiry generates a range of distinctive questions. The choice of methods depends on which of these questions you want to take up and pursue. Using practice theory is thus not directly tied to certain methods, but the choice of methods is – as always – dependent upon your specific research question.
At that point, that was all I had to say.
I still hold this view (with some qualifications… see below) – but in explaining what I mean and why, it is useful to back track a bit and also take stock of how this position fits (or doesn’t) with the contributions that others have made to this blog.
Although my past work has focused on everyday performances of domestic practices, I’m currently part of a project that is rather more ambitious and unusual. It aims to understand how policies and policy-making practices steer energy demand, often in unintended or unrecognised ways (see Royston, 2016, for details). Tracking down these “invisible” effects has demanded a diverse and evolving set of methods.
Practices are steered in many ways, including through the policies of state and public sector actors. If we want to understand changing practices, we need to consider (among other things) how these policies affect them, both intentionally and unintentionally, and how these effects might change in future. These questions reflect the call made by other contributors (e.g. Browne, Schatzki, Trentmann) for practice theory to go beyond domestic daily life and consider larger issues (as expressed in Proposition 5).
Ted Schatzki’s differentiation between ‘modest grand’ and ‘grandiose’ theories certainly has some appeal, however, for my taste, his opening statement lays on the grandiosity a bit too thick.
Social theorists, especially those hailing from social philosophy, are like fish in water when speaking on matters of ontology. However, is it really helpful to deliberate and decide of what sociality ‘ultimately’ consists? The answer ‘of practices’ may be equally as fitting as ‘of communication’ (Luhmann), ‘of cognition’ (Brubaker/Cooper), etc. Sociality depends on many such ‘essential’ ingredients. And, thus, it seems to me that one of the most fecund impulses stemming from both Foucault and Latour is their insistence on ontological heterogeneity.
In my perspective as a sociologist, two issues appear of greater import than their ontological brethren: 1. the practical research question: as what can social processes be studied? 2. the question of theoretical wording: how they can be spoken about?
When conducting qualitative research in a foreign country, practice researchers are faced with a number of methodological questions: How do we ‘get at’ practices in a different cultural context? How does our understanding of practices evolve in relation to knowledge of one’s own culture? Which kinds of methodologies are most appropriate? In sum, what you need to know to be able to write about practices in other countries? Continue reading “Jenny Rinkinen & Mattijs Smits – What do you need to know about practices (in other countries)?”
“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves.”
Outsiders might conceive of the field of practice theories as suffering from multiple personality disorder. Each practice theory seems to frame the concept of practice slightly differently. Still, this kind of multiplicity is not a cause for suffering. In fact, as long as practice theories maintain basic ‘family resemblances’ (Reckwitz 2002) – like for instance a post-individualist decentering of ‘the actor’ – it is rather a resource for innovation (Laube and Schönian 2013). There is, however, something else. Each practice is several, is many, is a profusion of itself. Adapting the words of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) helps to shift our focus. It is not the field of practice theories that is suffering from an identity crisis, but rather its central research object. The empirical profusion and complexity of practices poses a common methodological challenge.