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.
In our work we have used theories of social practice (Reckwitz 2002; Schatzki 2002; Shove et al. 2012) to study a number of mundane practices common to everyday life, including laundering, bathing, cooking and cleaning (e.g. Maller & Strengers 2013, Strengers et al. 2016). Nearly all of our projects have involved empirical work with households in Australia. In researching practices in-situ we have relied on interviewing as a core method. This requires people to talk about, share and reflect on practices they have been recruited to. Although interviewing for studying practices has been successfully defended in a panel discussion at the 2016 DEMAND conference as well as in literature (e.g. Hitchings 2012), like any method, it has its limitations.
The limitations of interviewing are mainly associated with an oral format where participants provide a first- or second-hand spoken-word account of the practices they and others perform. We are therefore reliant on participants’ memories and descriptions of practice accounts, including all of the elements of interest. As readers of this blog will know, theories of practice emphasise the dynamics and agency of the material world, and in doing so decentre humans to varying degrees. Given this interest in materiality, relying solely on talk-based interviews in practice-based studies may miss important aspects of material agency—a point Alison Browne and Jenny Rinkinen and Mattijs Smits make in their posts on this blog. We have found two ways to resolve this issue. Continue reading “Cecily Maller & Yolande Strengers – Visual provocations: reflections on scrapbooking as a method for studying global practice change”
“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.
Practice theory clearly understands sociality as an emerging and motile phenomenon. In the practice of researching and arguing however, it seems to me that we should put more analytic emphasis on it. In this sense two questions deserve attention: (1) How do heterogenous body-object-associations emerge as such in an ongoing practice and (2) how do motile phenomena, like i. e. mobility, movement or transformation, characterize a specific practice. I take it that both of them are aspects of motility. Thus, in my contribution, I wish to follow what Frank Hillebrandt and Hilmar Schäfer have already elaborated on, focussing on the motile dimension of the social.
My contribution is related to Theodore Shatzki. He says in his input: “On my view, perhaps the most important contribution that theory makes to social research is the provision of concepts with which researchers can describe, explain, and interpret social phenomena. “ In my view, there are some ideas in social theory that can be added to what Theodore pointed out in his contribution.
In my view, the interplay of the material body and material objects (body-object-associations) produces the observable praxis as a reality (Hillebrandt 2014). If the praxis is researched, in this way, as a materialistic and bodily constituting process, then one avoids the scholastic regulation of operative intentions as well as of structural properties. Instead of this, it becomes possible to determine the conditions for the origin of complex and variable practices, without thereby placing theoretical logics over the logic of practice. Only in this way does praxis become visible as a reality. Consequently, a sociological theory of praxis adheres to a definition of the body involved in praxis, in order then to relate this to a second, closely connected step for the definition of materialistic components of praxis.
In this contribution, I would like to sketch out both my take on practice theory methodology and its relationship with my current research on cultural heritage. But first of all, I want to start with some remarks about how this blog came about.
My PhD thesis centred on the question of how practice theory can overcome its focus on stability and routine and instead open up its perspective for the dynamics of the social (Schäfer 2013). As Elizabeth Shove, Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson have dealt with similar issues in their book The Dynamics of Social Practice (2012), I engaged in a conversation with Elizabeth Shove, which led to a research visit at Lancaster University in 2015.
Amongst other things (like improving my floorball skills), my research visit highly benefited from conversations I had with members of the department of sociology and the people from the DEMAND Research Centre in particular. I had the opportunity to present my work in a seminar, which led to conversations with Allison Hui about the methodological aspects of practice theory. This blog is an outcome of our exchange, which we would now like to continue with other colleagues. It is also linked to a session at the DEMAND Research Centre 2016 International Conference in Lancaster, UK.