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Realism and practice theory

As a realist who uses the concept of practices (not least in my forthcoming book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy), I’ve occasionally been surprised by hostility to the concept from some other critical realists.Here I’d like to defend the concept, while putting some caveats around how realists should use it.

Let’s start with a simple definition of practices: a practice is an tendency for multiple social actors to act in a similar way. Blogging and tweeting, for example, are practices, but there are also a huge number of others. Note the word similar: practices are never executed identically in any two cases. In at least some respects, my blogging is different from anyone else’s blogging, and my blogging is different every time I do it. But there are identifiable similarities between different cases of blogging that enable us to call blogging a practice.

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The concerns I’ve seen can be summed up like this: practice theorists (e.g. Bourdieu, Giddens, Schatzki) substitute practices for a more differentiated social ontology that recognises the causal significance of structure and agency, and therefore the concept of practices is irredeemably conflationist (Margaret Archer’s term for approaches that collapse social structure and agency together into one). As Mark Carrigan puts it in a recent tweet “the concept of a practice bakes structure into human activity”. Since the distinction between structure and agency is fundamental to realist social theory, this would imply that realists shouldn’t use the concept of practices.
Archer’s accusation that Giddens and Bourdieu collapse structure into agency are largely justified – Giddens tells us that structure consists of rules and resources, and that both exist as mental properties of human individuals, while Bourdieu refers to habitus – the set of dispositions that each individual has, again a mental property – as “structuring structures”. Oddly, both also have structure-like concepts in their theories (systems for Giddens and fields for Bourdieu) but don’t seem to recognise that these might be relevant to debates over structure and agency. One way of looking at this might be to say that even conflationist thinkers can’t really do without social structures, even if they call them something else.
Some of the more recent advocates of practice theory also seem to be on a mission to replace structure and agency with practices. Theodore Schatzki, in his introduction to The Practice Turn in Social Theory, tells us that “practice approaches promulgate a distinct social ontology: the social is a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices centrally organized around shared practical understandings. This conception contrasts with accounts that privilege individuals, (inter)actions, language, signifying systems, the life world, institutions/roles, structures, or systems in defining the social. These phenomena, say practice theorists, can only be analysed via the field of practices” (p. 3).
This kind of “practice imperialism” is just as unacceptable to realists as conflationism: any attempt to accord explanatory primacy in every case to one particular type of force is bound to fail. Having said that, I agree with Schatzki that practices are enormously important. Every aspect of social life is enacted through practices. But there are many reasons to say that this cannot be the only focus of sociological work.
One reason is related to the point that every case in which a practice is implemented is different from every other. My action of writing this blog post has some similarities to other cases of blogging but it is also unique. No-one else has blogged while sitting in my office wearing the clothes I’m wearing now, for example. However, sitting at one’s desk to work using a computer is itself a practice and wearing conventionally acceptable clothes is another, so a practice theorist might say that this is merely an intersection of multiple practices. That does not solve the problem for practice theory, though, because we need an explanation for the variability and intersectionality in the implementation of practices and these cannot be explained in terms of practices alone, which are by definition similarities between actions. How and why did I choose to blog today, in my office, wearing these clothes, when I could have done something else instead? To add to the problem, there are always aspects of actions that aren’t practices at all: there is no generalisable social practice of ‘writing a blog entry that assess the relation of critical realism to practice theory from Dave Elder-Vass’s perspective’. The uniqueness of particular acts, in other words, cannot be explained purely in terms of practices: we need to recognise individual human agency and the choices that people make about how to implement practices.
Equally, we cannot treat practices as unexplained explainers. Practices themselves are caused, and not just by other practices. Elsewhere I’ve developed detailed explanations of how practices are caused, which attribute the primary causal power involved to social entities (or social structures) I call norm circles (see my 2010 and 2012 books for details). Whether or not they accept my particular explanation, realists would argue that practices are produced by an iterative process in which people act under the influence of social structures and/or cultures (Archer’s morphogenetic cycle). Individuals do not just spontaneously act in similar ways to other individuals, but follow practices because they have been influenced by social groups to do so. I would want to add now that the structures that influence us to follow practices are not only social but also material: my practice of blogging is both enabled and constrained, for example, by the technical characteristics of the Blogger platform.
Practices, then, are important because all of our social activities implement practices, but to make sense of practices we must avoid reducing social theory to practice theory, and avoid reducing social ontology to a purely practice ontology. Practices are always implemented in unique ways by reflexive individuals, and always depend on a structural and material context that conditions us to follow them without forcing us to. But recognising all of this should not lead to us dropping the idea of practices. Rather, we can now see that the concept of practices is a useful one that is consistent with a realist social ontology: we can invoke practices as elements in sociological explanations without collapsing structure into agency – and we should!
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4 thoughts on “Realism and practice theory”

  1. Dave, I’ve struggled a bit with these distinctions in my work so this is helpful.
    I am wondering if we are released from the influence of structuring structures when we exercise reflexivity (I understand for some of his critics Bourdieu’s habitus doesn’t account for reflexivity). But we can be ‘trained’ or incentivised to be reflexive, so it becomes a habitual response. So can reflexivity be a form practice rather than a challenge to practice theory?

  2. Hi Huw,
    I don't think we are released from the influence of structures when we exercise reflexivity – the ways in which we think are influenced by our experience, including our experience of social structures. We may take account of the structural context explicitly when we make decisions e.g. 'I know there are no job opportunities for people with my qualifications so I will join the army because that's the best career open to me'. But we may also be influenced by social pressures that have shaped the person we are, without necessarily being fully aware of that, e.g. young men who choose to join the army having absorbed and adopted a culture that glorifies war and the nation. One way of representing that is to say that our actions are multiply determined – multiple factors influence them, including our reflexive choice-making but also the structural context.
    On your second point, I don't think of reflexivity itself as a practice, but a capacity that we each have (and exercise) as a consequence of being human – of having the various biological structures that implies – but the way in which we exercise it is certainly influenced by our life experience. You could even say that there are different ways of practicing reflexivity, but that doesn't make reflexivity at base a practice. That does imply a bit of a embellishment of the very simple definition of practices in my post, because making reflexive choices is of course something that multiple actors do in a similar way. My assumption is that to be a practice, that similarity must arise from normative or at least contextual influence (and I think practice theorists would agree with that) whereas our basic capacity to be reflexive arises from biological capacities (which practice theorists might not agree with). Having said that, different types of reflexivity might appear as a result of contextual influence. For example, if we live in a society where rational calculation is widely advocated, we may tend towards an calculatively instrumental form of reflexivity, whereas if we live in a society where interpersonal empathy is widely advocated, we might tend towards a more empathetic interactional form of reflexivity. Similar arguments lie behind Archer's recent work on different forms of reflexivity and the ways in which social change seems to encourage some forms at the expense of others.

  3. An interesting take, Dave. Just a couple of thoughts:

    I've always considered practices as the concrete actions that form the mediating point between unactualised structure and agential properties. Actually, now I type that, I'm tempted to call it the point at which in Bhaskar's terms the real properties, tendencies etc. of a structure or agent become actualised into concrete historical outcomes – collapsing objectively-given possibilities for alternative action (path dependencies), and so on. If this is the case, then practices are an essential element of any non-general (i.e. historically localised or empirical) investigation because it is that collapse that allows things to happen in the first place.

    In this regard, explanation purely in terms of practices perhaps tends toward a kind of empiricism beyond the critique you put forward here. This isn't a necessary consequence, but I think it is certainly the case that practice theory involves the theorisation of a particular emergent social strata – i.e. actualisation, that does not subsume a broader explanation from the point of view of CR.

    Of course, if one was to consider subjects as themselves stratified, this provides a point at which similarities between practices such as blogging can be subject to investigation. This perhaps gets a little lost in all the talk about structure and agency that seems to raise so many hackles – people are emergent too!

  4. Hi Alex

    I think your first paragraph gives a good explanation of actions, rather than practices as such. A practice, as I understand it, is a type of action rather than a particular action. An particular action is indeed an actualisation of various properties or tendencies, but we only have a practice when we can observe similarities between multiple actions. That's still very much an empirical concept, but it's how we put it to work that determines whether this is an empiricist move.

    If we think, for example, that my act of blogging can be explained purely by saying that I am carrying out the practice of blogging, we are in strongly empiricist territory where regularity is enough to give us explanation.

    But if we argue that my act of blogging is influenced by my understanding of the practice of blogging (which itself derives from the existence of such a practice) but also by my desire to make strategic use of this practice to pursue some objective of my own (as well as a range of other factors such as having access to the time and the equipment required to do it), then we are employing causal mechanisms and complex interactions between them and thus moving away from empiricist forms of explanation.

    As you say, this puts us in a place where we recognise that people also possess emergent powers, and also where the existence, development and variability of shared practices themselves is a matter for investigation.

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