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.
We are both design researchers, working within the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). Design research is a fairly young discipline, the formalization of which is generally traced back to a series of essays published in Design Studies under the theme ‘Design as a Discipline’ [1, 3, 9]. The aim of these essays was to position ‘designerly ways of knowing’ as a distinct way of generating knowledge about the world. There is much debate around what design research is and does, but in our interpretation of it, we build on the idea that the making and deploying of new artefacts in the everyday world, in order to purposely inquire and ask questions, forms a distinct way of gaining knowledge about the world.
Encountering theories of practice in different ways, we have both drawn on it in our design research. We published separate articles in a special issue on ‘practice-oriented approaches to sustainable HCI’  that can be said to be the first comprehensive introduction to theories of practice within HCI. In 2016, we found ourselves working in the same group at the Department of Industrial Design of Eindhoven University of Technology, where we aim to continue pursuing the relations between theories of practice and HCI. In this blog post, we reflect, from our own experiences, on how theories of practice have shaped methodologies in design research. We thereby engage with propositions 1, 4, 5 and 7. Continue reading “Lenneke Kuijer & Ron Wakkary – Practices-oriented design: how theories of practice are shaping design (research) methodologies”
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.
This blog reports on a workshop in St Andrews this October and the development of a network of researchers interested in using digital/virtual/online methods to study domestic energy practices. Our contribution is different from other posts on this site contributing to proposition 4 (i.e. 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). Others on this website have previously commented on the effectiveness of multiple and mixed methods (Browne, 2016), which may be dependent on shifting focus between local, contemporary performances and historical trends and wider populations (Morley, 2016), but we are pinning ourselves to articulating the utility (and challenges) of online methods for exploring practices. Continue reading “Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs & Louise Reid – Digital/virtual/online methods and studying domestic energy practices”
Researchers in the field of STS convincingly state that studying infrastructures also means to deal with questions of social order (see, for example, the very active blog Installing (Social) Order. Building on this, I propose to replace, or at least supplement, the classical concept of the (supra-)structure with that of infra-structuring. As with other ‘discoveries’ this one was rather coincidental and serendipitous: In April 2016 I became part of the newly founded Collaborative Research Center (SFB) Media of Cooperation. For the researchers gathered there, the concept of infrastructure is one of the central concepts employed to investigate how cooperation between various actors is made possible. In this context I soon began wondering whether the concept of infrastructure could not replace the classical sociological notion of structure and reconcile practice theory with phenomena usually considered to be macrosociological problems. This blog entry is a tentative attempt to discuss this idea.
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).
Contributing to this blog gives me opportunity to reflect methodologically on my PhD research. Then, as now, I was interested in what a practice theory based understanding of energy demand might look like. My focus was domestic settings, specifically in three contrasting areas: cooking, thermal comfort and ICT. My current research in the DEMAND Centre continues similar interests and is entirely focused on ICT.
Here, I wish to reflect on the idea of ‘zooming in and zooming out’. This metaphor is used by Nicolini (2009) to outline a methodological approach for studying practices. It refers to a process of ‘selective re-positioning so that certain aspects of a practice are fore-grounded and others are temporarily sent to the back-ground’ (Nicolini, 2009: 1412). Continue reading “Janine Morley – Zooming Out: In what sequence should methods be mixed?”
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.