practice social practice theory space time

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 7, Representing the Dynamics of Social Practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

This chapter primarily sums up the core ideas of the book (probably should’ve read it first). If I was to sum up the summary, I’d say that their argument is that streamlining the various elements of practice into materials, competences and meanings helps to understand practices in a broader context (and thus the emergence, evolution, dissemination and decline of practices). They also spend some time explaining the different relationships that practices have with both time and space – in a nutshell, time and space shape practices and practices shape (our perceptions of) time and space. Finally they touch briefly on the fact that practices affect power and privilege and, again, vice versa. (There’s also a bit of stuff about how and if practices compete with one another and where people sit in terms of practices – are they simply automaton style ‘carriers’ of a practice or are they more?)

To unpack this a little further:

Simplifying the definition of practice

Two quotes explain the decision making process pretty well – both on page 97.

We come back to the more complicated challenge of conceptualising elements in a moment but one obvious development, at least as regards more classically social theories, is our inclusion of materiality as a constitutive element of practice. Though barely mentioned iby Giddens (1984), artefacts, technologies and infrastructures feature in Schatzki’s account not as parts of practice, but as aspects of ‘arrangements’ to which practices are tied (2010b: 135)


we took our inspiration from Reckwitz and from his suggestion that practices consist of interdependent relations between elements including ‘forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge of in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’ (2002)

By looking at Reckwitz’s list in particular, we can see how Shove et al have streamlined emotion and motivational knowledge into ‘meaning’, which has also allowed for broader social contextual factors to play a part. This works well for me because it’s important to recognise that a practice exists within a larger context and is impacted by other people.

The authors also try to broaden our idea of practices to encompass the micro-changes and variations that occur between performances, practitioners and contexts. They note that:

‘theories of practice are commonly thought to deal better with routine reproduction than with innovation… however this is not the only way to go. Throughout this book we have been keen to build on the observation that not all enactments of practice are consistent or faithful and that each performance is situated and in some respect unique. In addition, in some small way each enactment changes the elements of which practices are made. (p.98)

Shove et al come back again to the significance of material elements, which speaks in some ways to the bigger question about how deterministic these can be in driving and/or creating practices. They observe that ‘numerous studies suggest that technologies and artefacts ‘script’ bodily performance and the types of competence required to produce configurations that work (Akrich, 1992)’.

On the question of how much impact people have on their practices, the authors stress that ‘practices are active integrations of elements’ (p.100) – the implication clearly being that it’s people that need to be doing the integrating.

One consequence, then, is that human agency is loosely but unavoidably contained with a universe of possibilities defined by historically specific complexes of practice. It is in this sense that practices make agency possible, a conclusion that is not all incompatible with the related point that practices do not exist unless recurrently enacted by real-life human beings (p.100)

All of which is getting a little philosophical for me but we press on. Well, we press on in some ways into even more philosophical areas in some ways relating to the nature of time and space. (Which I maintain would exist perfectly happily without the existence of people at all and so what we are probably actually talking about here is our perception of space/time – just for the record)

Practices in time and space

In exploring the relationship between practices, time and space, the authors find that there are four, not-incompatible ways of thinking about both time and space in terms of practices. They launch out of the blocks with this idea:

Should we view space and time as resources for which practices compete, in effect treating them as additional elements? Alternatively would it make better sense to think of space and time as coordinates in terms of which the location of a practice might be described and plotted? Or should we go along with Schatzki’s interpretation of activity timespace (Schatzki, 2010b) as something that is forged in the moment of doing, and through which past and future are integrated? (p 100-101).

At which point I start to scratch my head and hope that my assumption that Schatzki is referring to perceptions of time is valid. Because otherwise I don’t buy it. The authors spend a fair bit of time on the different ways of view time and space in terms of practice and I don’t see any of them as necessarily wrong, just valid in different situations. What I’m most interested in what it means in terms of overall application.

So, to precis, time is a limited element in that when you are performing one practice, you aren’t performing another. However, because we prioritise practices, we schedule them in ways that help us to achieve as much as we possibly can. Now the authors don’t get into this idea but I’d suggest that part of the way that we do this is by understanding that a practice has time as one of its attributes – we know that it will take 5 mins to brush our teeth – and we factor this into the way that we schedule things. So, so far, time shapes our practices and our engagement with them. What gets interesting is that this goes the other way, to an extent. Practices also shape our time. Certain practices are commonly only done at certain times – brushing your teeth before going to bed, for instance. So the meaning of a practice comes into play. At a larger scale, the kinds of practices that we engage in shape the way that we structure our week – weekdays for ‘work’ and weekends for ‘leisure’. So as I say, there are a number of different kinds of relationships between practices and time and they are not mutually exclusive. Going to work shows us that we don’t always control our time when it comes to practices either, so we need to be conscious of the fact that there are limitations on when we practice.

Societal rhythms are defined by the recurrent scheduling and sequencing of specific practices and, over the longer run, changing patterns of daily life reflect the dynamics of social practice (p.103)

The authors go on to discuss how practices exist when they aren’t being performed and their answer is that the persistence of the elements of the practice across time are what enable this. Seems obvious enough.

Similarly the relationship between space and practice has a number of facets. Some practices require more space than others and this impacts on our ability to perform them. Dedicating a space to a particular practice (e.g roads and driving) means that this space is no longer available to other practices (e.g farming). The need to have access to a large space for a particular practice adds a barrier to accessing that practice – more of an equity/societal issue perhaps and more on that shortly. Space impacts the way that elements travel (e.g to a mountain top) and this shapes the availability of a practice. However space might also see a number of practices co-existing within it – cyberspace for example. Looking at things the other way around, practices also influence space. Consider a kitchen and the way that this room is largely reconfigured for the practice of cooking. Without cooking, we would have no need for kitchens. This reconfiguration of the space can also serve to perpetuate the existence of the practice.

As driving and flying reconstitute space and time around them, they help embed the future inevitability of driving and flying. Both become necessary if life is to go on within the reconfigured spacialities and temporalities these practices have engendered (p.105)

So the core of Shove et al’s point is that time and space are more than just elements.

Space and time are not elements equivalent to those of materiality, meaning and competence. They do not circulate in their own right, nor are they shared and stored in the same way. Equally spatial and temporal coordinates do not merely define the settings and scenes in which practices are enacted. Arrangements of time and place are structured by past practices and are themselves relevant in structuring future pathways of development and/or diffusion. In this role, they act like elements in that they constitute media of aggregation and storage, holding the traces of past practice in place in ways that are relevant for the future, and for the perpetuation of unequal patterns of access. (p.106)

Dominant projects and power

The final section kind of continues on with this theme, digging more into how and why certain practices and the projects that they are associated with, become dominant in a society. (Spoiler, it’s about having power and access to resources).

Those who have the means to engage in valued social practices are in an especially privileged position in that is is they who contribute to the direction in which such practices develop. The specification of relevant elements and their circulation/distribution are in this respect intimately connected (Bourdieu, 1984) (p.106)

The authors wrap up this chapter by noting that sometimes those people with power will seek to shape the meaning surrounding a practice (e.g. washing hands) to help them make a profit. They talk about a soap manufacturer working with the church (among others) to reframe the notion of dirt and its undesirability to ultimately sell more soap.

Some stray ideas

A few thoughts came to mind as I read this chapter, triggered largely by this final sentence

The question is then whether policy makers can intervene in the dynamics of social practice and if so how, on what basis and with what chance of success? (p.107)

Bringing this all back to my work and my research, I need to think about this in terms of good TEL practices, TEL edvisors and teachers/lecturers. If practices are to some extent determined by the powerful, we either need to find someone with enough power to impose them or get the powerful to embrace them. Or both, really.

I also wonder what the role of time and space in Higher Education is – new purpose built teaching spaces are being designed and constructed that will presumably try to shoehorn people into particular teaching practices by removing the option of other approaches. The time needed to teach effectively with technology/online is also something that I assume has been explored but I need to look further into this because I really get the feeling that the unions negotiating our contracts aren’t.