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.
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”
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.