Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing
The field of cultural theories, that is, of social theories which explain or under- stand action and social order by referring to symbolic and cognitive structures and their ‘social construction of reality’ (Berger/Luckmann) is highly complex. Practice theory represents a subtype of cultural theory.
Where is the social ‘localized’? Apart from the ‘naturalist’ approaches which located the social in the non-meaningful strata of a ‘social structure’ (e.g. in Durkheim’s ‘social density’ and ‘population size’ or in Simmel’s morphological social ‘forms’ of formal regularities and networks), classical social theory above all offered two answers to this question. The model of the homo economicus placed the social on the level of the intended or unintended product of subjec- tive interests – a common will or distribution of values on ‘markets’ – whereas the model of the homo sociologicus situated the social in a consensus of norms and roles. The smallest unit of social analysis, then, is respectively, single actions or normative structures.
Of course, for cultural theories the ‘locus’ of the social must be connected with symbolic and cognitive structures of knowledge.
Yet, this general idea can amount to rather diverse solutions: culturalist mentalism (in an objectivist and a subjectivist version), culturalist textualism, intersubjectivism – and practice theory.
We hardly need mention that practice theory is not ‘true’ (in the sense of corre- sponding to the ‘facts’), nor are the other versions of social and cultural theory ‘false’ (or vice versa). After all, social theories are vocabularies necessarily under- determined by empirical ‘facts’. As vocabularies they never reach the bedrock of a real social world, but offer contingent systems of interpretation which enable us to make certain empirical statements (and exclude other forms of empirical statements).
the ‘high-modern’ theories of culture in mentalism, textualism and intersubjectivism imply a rigid formal rationalization of what human agency and social order are. From the point of view of practice theory, Charles Taylor and Pierre Bourdieu make very clear this tendency of ‘hyperintellectualization’ and situate themselves in opposition to it.
In the form of his critique of the ‘scholastic habitus’, Bourdieu (1997, ch. 2) has arrived at a similar judgement: modern social theory and social phil- osophy have a tendency to present human agency as a highly reflexive and formally rational enterprise which resembles to an amazing extent the self-images of modern intellectuals and their life-world – in the form of calculating or duty-obeying agents, in the form of consciousness or mental machines, of dominating texts or conversation.17
For culturalist textualism, symbolic structures are not situated ‘inside’ the mind. Instead, they have their place ‘outside’ – in chains of signs, in symbols, discourse, communication (in a specific sense) or ‘texts’. In order to explain the structurality of the social world, one need not climb down into the inwardness of mental qualities, but rather must stay on the level of signs and texts in their ‘publicness’ (Geertz): here symbolic structures must be located. The social cannot be anchored on the psychological level of minds (including a ‘conscience collec- tive’), but only on the (by definition) extrasubjective level of signs in their ‘materi- ality’ (Foucault). ‘Mental’ qualities, then, turn out to be nothing more than very specific concepts within discourse about something which is described as mental. Culturalist textualism (no doubt an awkward label, but there is no convention- ally shared concept in sight) has emerged in the last third of the twentieth century as a result of a basic critique of mentalism, in both its phenomenological and its structuralist strand. It is anti-foundationalist in its elementary doubt that we can find a last ‘foundation’ of social analysis in the human mind.
Culturalist textualism in its radical anti-mentalism and under- standing of mental attributes as conceptual ascriptions in discourse (including the localization of knowledge and the social beyond bodily acts)
Place the social in discource and in acts of communication.
The social in the extra-mental and extra-corporal level of discourses, texts and symbols, i.e. : the social in the sense of the textualists.
Textualism identifies the entire realm of the social with texts, signs, symbols or communication. Moreover, it understands these discourses as extra-mental and extra-bodily patterns.
The idea of structure/process in textualism, finally, comes nearest to that in practice theory: Here, structure consists in the autopoiesis of codes in a sequence of discursive events (early Foucault and Luhmann are very similar in this regard). Structure is thus temporal and always implies the possibility of breaking down in ‘new events’ which do not conform to the code.
Textualism calls upon us to regard the social world as a chain of discourses, symbols and communi- cation – all of them preferred intellectual motives – thus, as an unintended play of meanings, distinct from ‘agents’.
post structuralism and semiotics
Above all, three theoretical contexts can be distinguished in whichever versions of a culturalist textualism have been developing. The first branch is post- structuralism and semiotics, which have ‘decentred the subject’ and which define the social as the level of discourses or sign-systems. The best theoretical formu- lation of this position can be found in Michel Foucault’s L’archéologie du savoir (1969). Here Foucault proposes that discourse is not to be treated as a mere ‘document’ of the mental qualities ‘behind’ it, but as a sequence of external events in which symbolic structures (‘formative rules’) are manifested. Knowledge is a quality of discursive events; these define subjects.
Parallel to the anti-mentalist heirs of structuralism, radical hermeneutics provides the anti-mentalist heir of phenomenology and a second strand of textualism. Clifford Geertz’s outline of a symbolistic anthropology (1973), in which he argues for regarding ‘culture as a text’, can be interpreted as an adequate expression of this tendency. The ‘thick description’ of the cultural here does not refer to ‘what is in people’s head’, but to the symbolic quality of material objects, including events of behaviour.
constructivism and interactionism
Niklas Luhmann’s constructivist theory of social systems (1991), situated at the cross- roads of the influences of semiotics and phenomenology, represents a third version of culturalist textualism which keeps its distance from ‘old-European thought’ of mentalism. On the social level, Luhmann ascribes the quality of ‘observing’ the world – i.e. of interpreting it according to certain systems of differ- ence – to communication itself. The sequences of communication, defined by Luhmann as self-reproducing social systems, are themselves the place of codes, of knowledge, and of interpretation. Thus, acts of communication, which are understandable without any reference to psychological attributes, are the proper site of the social.
Practice theory does not place the social in mental qualities, nor in discourse, nor in interaction. To say that it places the social in ‘practices’ and that it treats practices as the ‘smallest unit’ of social analysis is at first nothing more than tauto- logical. One needs to clarify what practices are.
Practices’ in the sense of the theory of social practices, however, is something else. A ‘practice’ (Praktik) is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one other: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background know- ledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and moti- vational knowledge. A practice – a way of cooking, of consuming, of working,of investigating, of taking care of oneself or of others, etc. – forms so to speak a ‘block’ whose existence necessarily depends on the existence and specific inter- connectedness of these elements, and which cannot be reduced to any one of these single elements. Likewise, a practice represents a pattern which can be filled out by a multitude of single and often unique actions reproducing the practice (a certain way of consuming goods can be filled out by plenty of actual acts of consumption). The single individual – as a bodily and mental agent – then acts as the ‘carrier’ (Träger) of a practice – and, in fact, of many different practices which need not be coordinated with one another. Thus, she or he is not only a carrier of patterns of bodily behaviour, but also of certain routinized ways of understanding, knowing how and desiring. These conventionalized ‘mental’ activities of understanding, knowing how and desiring are necessary elements and qualities of a practice in which the single individual participates, not qualities of the individual. Moreover, the practice as a ‘nexus of doings and sayings’ (Schatzki) is not only understandable to the agent or the agents who carry it out, it is like- wise understandable to potential observers (at least within the same culture). A practice is thus a routinized way in which bodies are moved, objects are handled, subjects are treated, things are described and the world is understood. To say that practices are ‘social practices’ then is indeed a tautology: A practice is social, as it is a ‘type’ of behaving and understanding that appears at different locales and at different points of time and is carried out by different body/minds. Yet, this does not necessarily presuppose ‘interactions’ – i.e. the social in the sense of the inter- subjectivists – and nor does it remain on the extra-mental and extra-corporal level of discourses, texts and symbols, i.e. the social in the sense of the textualists.
shift in our perspective on body, mind, things, knowledge, discourse, structure/process and the agent. One could point out the philosophical background of practice theory, above all Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late works (1984[1953, 1969]) and Martin Heidegger’s early phil- osophy (1986) and their radical attempts to reverse common philo- sophical and everyday vocabularies – and in fact, we find everything that is original in practice theory already in the work of these authors.
Body At the core of practice theory lies a different way of seeing the body. Practices are routinized bodily activities; as interconnected complexes of behavioral acts they are movements of the body. A social practice is the product of training the body in a certain way: when we learn a practice, we learn to be bodies in a certain way (and this means more than to ‘use our bodies’). A practice can be understood as the regular, skilful ‘performance’ of (human) bodies.
Mind Social practices are sets of routinized bodily performances, but they are at the same time sets of mental activities. They necessarily imply certain routinized ways of understanding the world, of desiring something, of knowing how to to do something
Things For practice theory, objects are necessary components of many practices – just as indispensable as bodily and mental activities. Carrying out a practice very often means using particular things in a certain way.
Knowledge A specific social practice contains specific forms of knowledge. For practice theory, this knowledge is more complex than ‘knowing that’. It embraces ways of understanding, knowing how, ways of wanting and of feeling that are linked to each other within a practice. In a very elementary sense, in a practice the know- ledge is a particular way of ‘understanding the world’, which includes an under- standing of objects (including abstract ones), of humans, of oneself.
Discourse/Language In practice theory – in contrast to textualism and intersubjectivism – discourse and language lose their omnipotent status. Discursive practices are one type of practices among others. Discursive practices embrace different forms in which the world is meaningfully constructed in language or in other sign-systems. At any rate, discursive practices must, as practices, be more than chains of signs or ‘communication’ (in the sense of Luhmann), but they are not identical to speech- acts.
Practice theory must stress that ‘language exists only in its (routinized) use’: in discursive practices the participants ascribe, in a routinized way, certain meanings to certain objects (which thus become ‘signs’) to understand other objects, and above all, in order to do something.
Structure/Process For practice theory, the nature of social structure consists in routinization. Social practices are routines: routines of moving the body, of understanding and wanting, of using things, interconnected in a practice. Structure is thus nothing that exists solely in the ‘head’ or in patterns of behavior: One can find it in the routine nature of action. Social fields and institutionalized complexes – from economic organizations to the sphere of intimacy – are ‘structured’ by the routines of social practices. Yet the idea of routines necessarily implies the idea of a temporality of structure: Routinized social practices occur in the sequence of time, in repetition; social order is thus basically social reproduction. For prac- tice theory, then, the ‘breaking’ and ‘shifting’ of structures must take place in everyday crises of routines, in constellations of interpretative interdeterminacy and of the inadequacy of knowledge with which the agent, carrying out a prac- tice, is confronted in the face of a ‘situation’.
The Agent/Individual The agent stands at the centre of classical theories of action. Here he presents himself either as the self-interested figure of the homo economicus, or as the norm-following and role-playing actor of the homo sociologicus. In the former case, the social world seems first and foremost to be populated by independent individuals who confront one another with their decisions. In the latter case, the social world is first and foremost a system of normative rules and expectations, to which agents/actors as rule-following figures conform (or become ‘deviant’).
In practice theory, agents are body/minds who ‘carry’ and ‘carry out’ social prac- tices. Thus, the social world is first and foremost populated by diverse social practices which are carried by agents. Agents, so to speak, ‘consist in’ the perform- ance of practices (which includes – to stress the point once more – not only bodily, but also mental routines)
For practice theory, social practices are bodily and mental routines. Thus, mental activities do not appear as individual, but as socially routinized; the ‘individual’ consists in the unique crossing of different mental and bodily routines ‘in’ one mind/body and in the interpretative treat- ment of this constellation of ‘crossing’.
Compared to textualism and intersubjectivism, practice theory does not encourage the regard of institutional complexes solely as spheres of discourse, communication or communicative action, but their consideration as routinized body/knowledge/things-patterns of which discursive practices (understood in the sense elucidated above) are components. The way, for instance, that organiz- ational, gender or science studies change their outlook under the influence of practice theory can be imagined even if one does not know the works that actually are influenced by it.16 There is a considerable heuristic difference between whether we are, for instance, encouraged to analyse the ‘mental maps’ that scientists, men/women or members of an organization use; to explore scientific discourses, gender discourse or ‘organization as communication’; or whether our interest is directed to reconstruct how gender, science or organization is produced by a nexus of (non-discursive and discursive) practices as body/knowledge/things-complexes.
Textualism chooses the path of ‘postmodernism’, which stresses the discursive or semiotic ‘constructedness’ of all entities. For practice theory, this focus on signs, texts and discourse secretly tends to become high-modernist. For practice theory, only the new focus on the ground- edness of human action in bodily routines and in practical understanding is suitable to remain aloof from modernist models of the social and of the agent. Wittgenstein, Heidegger and hermeneutics are philosophical forerunners of such a project.