Exploring the relevance of practice theories for social change

As part of their studies, first year students in the Leadership for Change Master’s Programme are writing short memos on various social theories. We are publishing some of the memos here, on the LFC blog. This set of memos deals with practice theories, a topic on which Elina Närvänen gave a lecture to the students.

Practice theory as an approach to understand change in the consumption habits
Emma Saramäki

When going to a supermarket, one can choose between thousands of products and might have difficult time when deciding what to buy and cook for dinner. Looking back to the beginning of the 20th century, that much thinking wasn’t required and the choices were mostly between two kinds of meat – and maybe a pack of cigarettes.

Nevertheless, grocery shopping can be viewed as routinized behaviour, a practice where different activities are used.

Consumption can be studied as a social phenomenon which practice theory seeks to explain. Warde (2014) examines practice theories in consumer research through three eras. In the first decades of the 20th century, consumption was mainly seen through the economistic view where the emphasis was laid on individual decision making, known as ‘acquisition phase’. Later, between the 1970s and 1990s, an era called ‘apprecitation phase’ with symbolic view took the lead and individuals were seen as expressive beings influenced by social relationships.

Today, following Warde’s thinking, we have reached the ‘appropriation phase’ where people are surrounded by items and consumption is a daily practice of an individual. People are attached to materiality and status is often built on luxurious lifestyle although nowadays it is socially acceptable to deny purchasing and consume only when needed.

According to Warde (2005, p.137), consumption is “a process whereby agents engage in appropriation and appreciation, whether for utilitarian, expressive or contemplative purposes.” He sees consumption as an engagement in the practice instead of personal decision. Such an approach well describes sustainable consumption today, as people are dedicated to certain brands and products and are willing to pay far beyond the costs of an average product in order to be truly green. This also includes an ethical approach as sustainable products tend to also take into account the humanitarian aspects in the product cycle.

At the end, going to a supermarket is not that simple a practice as it requires cognitive and psychological effort as well as tacit knowledge on how to act in the process. Elements such as practical and general understandings, rules and teleoaffective structures are the cornerstones of practices and they are carried out by human beings (Warde, Welch & Paddock 2017, p. 29).

Is it therefore the individual customer who makes the decisions at the store, or is the person only an actor in the chain conducting daily duties without a deeper meaning?

It is undeniable, that the society we live in affects our behaviour and thinking although we might not always be conscious of the influences. Therefore, sustainable consumption is as much of a creation of the trends in the society as a choice of an individual choosing the organic, locally produced spinach over the one imported from Spain. However, it is the individual’s series of practice where the current trends become concrete and begin the change of the consumption habits.

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Practice theory in practice
Aaron Donnelly

Practice theory is related to the behavioural patterns of actors in everyday life. Adding to Reckwitz (2002), practice theory consists of several elements such as the use of vocabulary, forms of bodily and mental activities, background knowledge, states of emotion and motivational knowledge.

An important characteristic of this theory is that “practices form structures of action” (Reckwitz 2002). Reckwitz adds that all social forms of the theory originate from traditional action theory, in that an individual behaves a certain way as an agent, and that the agent’s desires and beliefs influence their actions.

Dr. Elina Närvänen explained that practice theory comprises of two classical figures the ‘Homo Sociologicus’ and ‘Homo Economicus’ that are also mentioned in the Reckwitz article. The Homo Sociologicus considers that humans abide to the norms within society, are concerned with the welfare of others, and are willing to cooperate with the social environment. The Homo Economicus is characterised as being a rational thinker whose decision-making processes revolves around material self-interests (monetary and non-monetary gains for themselves).

A common flaw that both figures share was pointed out by Reckwitz, who stated that they lack an understanding of the symbolic organization of reality (Reckwitz 2002, p. 242). On the other hand, an aspect that both the ‘Homo Sociologicus’ and ‘Homo Economicus’ incorporate are the knowledge of symbolic structures to understand both action and social order.

In order to understand this multifaceted theory, Reckwitz’s (2002) study analysed three other different versions of cultural theory: mentalism, textualism and intersubjectivism. The first theory mentioned was ‘mentalism’, which believes that the mind is the place where the social is developed, because it is where the structures are formed through knowledge and meaning making (Reckwitz, 2002). The second theory, ‘textualism’, involves symbolic structures that are formed outside of the mind, that through the concept of discourse and the use of signs (written forms of communication).

For example, advertisements are a form of textualism because they are created to present the symbolic meaning from the products. The final theory that was discussed was the theory of ‘intersubjectivism’, which locates the social via the interactions, this paradigm consists of the use of ordinary language, as there is a structure of intersubjectivity built within this approach (Reckwitz, 2002).

For instance, a kettle on the stove would be the intersubjective object, once all the actors establish that the object is a kettle, meaning is created, this is because everyone is able to examine its features, and as a collective determine that it is a kettle.

I would like to apply this theoretical approach through the notion of value creation, in understanding what people perceive as value (not only the monetary aspects) but also studying the social, psychological, discourse, and knowledge characteristics.

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Changes from the perspective of practice theory
Mariia Kangasmiaki

Practice theory. The concept sounds inconsistent and, at the same time, challenging at first. After all, usually by “practice” it is implied something opposite to “theory”.

However, according to Andreas Reckwitz (2002), in practice theory, a “practice” (German “praktik”) means certain routinized actions in human behavior such as forms of bodily activity, mental activities, background, knowledge, know-how. In other words, practice theory examines what and how we do. An individual, being a carrier and “the unique crossing point of practices” (Rekwitz, 2002, p.256), plays a very important role in practice theory.

From the perspective of “theory”, practice theory is a way of explaining the world. Reckwitz (2002) represents this social theory as a vocabulary which “opens up a certain way of seeing and analyzing social phenomena” (p. 257). As such, practice theory focuses on practices as “everyday life”, bodily movements and mental activities of humans to understand the complex world and help to interpret social facts and events going on around us.

Practices are embodied in many different forms in our lives. For example, visiting a lecture, as an essential component of education process, implies coming into a lecture hall in time, sitting, listening or discussing, writing, typing and many other things. Obviously, in different universities, countries and periods of time this particular practice can be special and unique.

Or, think about such a mundane practice as washing hands before eating which demonstrated affiliation with the upper classes as little as 100 years ago.

The background and cultural context also influence and emerge through such differences in practices. Here is one of the main values of the practice theory. It is the revealing capacity of practices. It empowers a researcher to recognize what lies beneath, to see the core of conceptualizing processes. Practices illustrate how people live and exist in particular culture, society and time.

Society is a compound of numerous practices that are interconnected and comprise the society as it is. Thus, social changes can be viewed and explained with changes in practices. They are described through the emergence, transformation, differentiation or decline of a specific practice (Warde 2014). A crucial role in the reshaping of practices pertains to technologies, materials and infrastructure. (ibid) Internet, social networks, plastic and cars have made our lives easy, fast, mobile, etc. For example, the ways of “finding love” or building a family undergo radical changes in comparison to the end of the 20th century. I e-met my husband in a social network. We lived in different countries and communicated through Skype or FaceTime. Then we were able to meet thanks to high-speed trains and cars. Would it have been be possible even 20 years ago? I am not sure as the practices related to meeting someone have altered through the emergence of new technologies and infrastructure.

One more “routinized” example that comes to my mind would be the practice of discarding rubbish. When I moved to Finland, I needed to focus on sorting the waste: glass, paper, bio, metal… In the beginning it was an annoying procedure for me. It was not routinized and, consequently, required more mental and bodily efforts from my side. Now I can view on that process from the perspective of practice theory and explore that the practice of discarding rubbish was led by declining my previous practice not to sort rubbish and further transformation the way of throwing-out. Finnish rules, norms and technologies appeared to be different than my old habits and I had to change my “practice” because it was not shared in this society.

These two examples illustrate not only how practice theory can explain social changes in general, but also how it can be implemented for new self-perception and self-reflection. However, it requires to look at mundane, regular and “insignificant” things and processes with fresh eyes and find new meanings in routine life.

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Practice theories, gender, and social change
Jasmin Assulin

Social and cultural theories are not true or untrue, rather they are instruments of selective attention” Warde (2014)

Practice theories provide a more specific form of ‘cultural theories’ that derive from explaining and comprehending action through structures of meaning (Reckwitz 2002). Reckwitz defines a practice as a repetitive type of behavior, which includes several elements that are connected to one another: bodily activities, mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge. As a tool, it can be seen as a system of interpretation, which helps us make empirical observations and statements. Practice theories, as Elina Närvänen stated at her lecture,  help us to understand how the world is in general, to see and analyze social phenomena.

An interesting everyday-life example of this is the distinction between the definitions of sex and gender. Judith Butler suggests viewing gender as something that is continuously performed. Unlike sex, which is biological, we are not born with a gender. We develop a gender via performances and acts, day after day. Originally the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that gender is socially and culturally constructed and therefore is neither the causal result of sex nor something ‘fixed’ or ‘pre-determined’ as sex.

In Gender Trouble (1999), Butler makes an observation which is interesting also from the point of view of practice theories. She suggests that, as gender is a cultural meaning, the sexed reality, the body, assumes that a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex because genders are culturally constructed.

As many social and cultural theories, practice theory helps us to structure and analyze the world and multidimensional social realities. When reflecting it on social change, it is a tool to explain change for example through emergence, transformation, differentiation and decline of specific practices, but it is important to emphasize that it is not a tool to predict it (Warde, 2014).

Connecting this to gender studies and Butler’s ideas of sex/gender, we can distinguish that in addition to explaining social change, practice theory can have an impact on the institutionalization and normalization of practices. Concepts/definitions that were earlier seen as something rather similar, from a biological point of view, have changed via social change and institutionalization as well as normalization as practices, and now exist as two different definitions with two different meanings.

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How can practice theory help us drive societal change?
Elina Siivari

We know that our consumption patterns impact our environment, and that many of our present practices are extremely harmful and promote climate change. Then, why do our consumption habits change so slowly, even though we clearly are informed of the negative side-effects of our consumption habits, and should have strong incentives to change them?

Practice theorists suggest that this may be due to hyperrationalizing and intellectualizing individual actors’ behaviour, as well as our limited ability to change deeply embedded practices (Reckwitz, 2002; Hargreaves, 2011). In practice theory, agents are seen as “as carriers of routinized, oversubjective complexes of bodily movements, of forms of interpreting, knowing how and wanting and of the usage of things” (Reckwitz, 2002, 259). Social practices are routines, and routinized social practices create societal structures. Agents are central to the theory of practice: “Social world is first and foremost populated by diverse social practices which are carried by agents” (Reckwitz, 2002, 256). Practice theory therefore offers a point of departure for understanding how our societies come to be and why we behave the way we do, including why we consume the way we do.

Warde (2005) applied practice theory on societal process of consumption, arguing that the practices guide consumption rather than any personal decision about a course of conduct, and many items we consumer are defining elements of certain social practices. As Warde (2005) states, “the principal implication of a theory of practice is that the sources of changed behaviour lie in the development of practices themselves”.

Through the lens of practice theory, leading change will require in-depth understanding of the nature of the societal practices that form the structures of society and breaking the routinized actions. According to Hargreaves, our consumption patterns will persist as unsustainable if we focus on persuading individuals to make different decisions instead of transforming practices to make them more sustainable: Individuals are not rational and linear decision makers as some “unsocialised behavioural models” (Hargreaves 2011)   suggest.

The focus is no longer on individuals’ attitudes, behaviours and choices, but instead on how practices form, how they are reproduced, maintained, stabilized, challenged and ultimately killed-off; on how practices recruit practitioners to maintain and strengthen them through continued performance, and on how such practitioners may be encouraged to defect to more sustainable practices”. (Hargreaves 2011, p. 84)

Practices may seem as difficult to transform, but we have to remember that they are products of institutionalized arrangements of their own time – and they are always somewhat contested. Practices contain the element of constant change, simply due to agent’s inherent capacity to adapt, experiment, and improvise (Warde 2005), but to be able to actively challenge them we need to understand how they are formed, as Hargreaves, (2011) suggests.

Changing individual knowledge-structures is not enough because individual agents are engaged in multiple intertwined practices and knowledge is only one element changing practice, but it still matters if it helps in breaking the routine and creating a new normal: Social structures are created when enough individual agents believe in the same.

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Sustainable consumption as a practice
Reetta Grönlund

Sustainable development and becoming more and more sustainable are very trendy these days. And no wonder. There have been several serious indicators that the climate change is happening and the changes to our planet are extremely devastating if we don’t act and change the ways we live.

The Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) published a report in October 2018 that woke up a lot of people. The report is tough to read through as it tells a very harsh future for the planet and us if we don’t manage to stop the global warming at 1.5C. The sea level rises, corals die, artic glaciers melt, fish die… The list of horrible consequences seems to be never ending (IPCC).

How could we all learn from this, turn a new leaf in our behaviors and start practicing sustainable consumption?

Reckwitz (2002) suggests that practices are not only repeated over and over again but also tied to interests in normal everyday matters and life. So, if turning something into practice seems to be a matter of being interested in the topic and interpreting it, shouldn’t it be easy for most of us to start sustainable consumption and sustainable development?

An increasing number of people are very concerned and interested in climate change and they want to act upon the issue. Sustainable consumption is becoming more popular. There are many ways of incorporating sustainable consumption, such as recycling, buying second-hand, buying quality items that last for a long time, repairing and/or amending broken items.

In the UK for example, policy changes to attempt to react to pro-environmental behavior have been increasing. A key matter in these policy debates has been to realize the difference between which efforts for sustainable consumption or pro-environmental behavior can be done by individuals and which require bigger, fundamental changes in the society (Hargreaves 2011). These acts by individuals are an important form of knowledge, as anyone can try them and succeed.

There is a widely known saying that practice makes perfect. Nobody is perfect with sustainable consumption but anyone can practice. Interestingly, Hargreaves (2011) reveals in his research that the unsustainable patters of humans are not the results of attitudes or values, but rather just part of social practices and “normal” routines. Furthermore, taking this result in mind, there needs to be a way to change people’s “normal” routines and that should, therefore change their behavior towards more sustainable way. Explaining this means that people are not not-choosing un-eco-friendly products because they do not want to, but because they are used to buying something else. Naturally the question rises that how can we then change people’s routines to make them more inclined to sustainable consumption?


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