Practice Theory Essay

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The label ”practice theory” refers to a group of approaches in late twentieth-century social and cultural theory which highlights the routinized and performative character of action, its dependence on tacit knowledge and implicit understanding. Besides, these approaches emphasize the ”material” character of action and culture as anchored in embodiment and networks of artifacts. Practice theory has its roots in anti-dualist social philosophy, above all in Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. In contemporary social theory, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Schatzki, Anthony Giddens, and Harold Garfinkel contain diverse forms of practice theory. In a broad sense, Bruno Latour and Judith Butler, partly also Michel Foucault, comprise praxeological ideas as well.

It is Theodore Schatzki’s (1996) book Social Practices, which gives the label ”practice theory” a profile. However, the problematique of practice theory is considerably older and embraces an array of authors who have encouraged the social sciences to a turn to the ”everyday,” to its implicit and bodily foundations. Of special importance here is Pierre Bourdieu who in 1972 published his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Other authors such as Foucault, de Certeau or Garfinkel also coin the term ”practices” at central places in their works.

Practice theory mainly directs its critique at intellectualist social theory, i.e. against those approaches which ascribe a basically intentional, rational and conscious character to human action. Instead, it participates in the broad movement of a cultural/interpretative turn in the social sciences. However, there are also distinct differences between practice theory and certain intellectualist tendencies of culturalism: Thus, practice theory is sceptical towards the inclination of structuralism to reduce culture to logical systems and towards the phenomenological focus on the intentionality of consciousness. Instead, for practice theorists the social consists of patterns of routinized action carried by embodied tacit knowledge. In this basic idea they follow radical attempts in twentieth-century social philosophy (cf. Wittgenstein, Heidegger) to overcome a series of classical dualisms: between the individual and the social, between consciousness and the unconscious, between subject and object, eventually between culture and materiality. For contemporary practice theory, thus the smallest unit of social and cultural analysis is neither an action nor a norm, neither an agent nor a sign, but a practice as a routinized type of bodily behavior carried by an inherent form of practical knowledge. There are three basic elements of practices: the dependence of actions on tacit knowledge; the materiality of the social, deriving from the nexus of bodies and of artifacts; and finally, the tension of practices between repetitiveness and unpredictability.

Practice theory proceeds from the assumption that patterns of actions depend largely on a realm of prereflexive, taken-for-granted knowledge, less a ”knowing that” than a ”knowing how.” In their understanding of action and the social, practice theorists ascribe a special place to the body. The body here cannot be reduced to an instrumental status; rather social practices appear as a repetition of bodily movements. Correspondingly, practice theorists regard practical knowledge less as a quality of minds than of bodies, as embodied knowledge.

As bodily movements social practices possess a specific materiality. However, also in a second respect practice theorists emphasize the materiality of practice: Practices often contain artifacts and form nexuses of bodies and things. Recent practice theory thus regards the constitutive role of artifacts as part of its analytical agenda, although the exact status of non-human ”actants” (Latour) in relation to human bodies and their incorporated understanding remains contested.

The tension between the routine character of patterns of action on the one hand and their unpredictability and stubbornness on the other, forms a last complex of practice-theoretical interest. Generally, practice theory stresses the repetitive, recursive character of practices which enables a reproduction of the social world (cf. Bourdieu’s habitus). On the other hand, practice theorists have often turned to the incalculability of practices, i.e. the latent possibilities of aberrations. Thus, Garfinkel refers to the context-dependence of all actions and Butler to subversions within repetitions. Again, practice theorists do no trace this unpredictability back to conscious agents, but rather to surprising effects which the application of routine movements and understanding in new contexts can bring about.

Bibliography:

  1. Reckwitz, A. (2002) Toward a theory of social practices: development in culturalist theorizing, European Journal of Social Theory 2: 245—65.
  2. Schatzki, T. R. (1996) Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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