One of the things that frustrates me most when I read a lot of academic writing is the distance between theory and action. So many papers seem happy to conclude that further research is needed and leave it at that. There’s often seemingly little if any followup. (Of course, I’m generalising, it’s the vibe)
This is why I was pleasantly surprised with the final chapter of Shove et al’s book. They’ve carefully built a case that examining practices in a particular way can help us to better understand them at a societal level and they wrap it all up with some broad discussions of how these ideas might then be put into practice in a social policy setting – particularly in terms of how we might try to address climate change.
The authors’ acknowledge that this is no simple thing, given that currently public policymaking appears to be largely dominated by “concepts from economics and psychology (e.g. theories of planned behaviour, models of rational economic action, representations of habits as drivers of behaviours etc.) and is for the most part untouched by developments in sociological theory” (p.139). (Don’t get me started on economics).
The core difference between the current approach taken to social change, particularly in terms of the practices contributing to climate change, and practice theory derived approaches lies in the current belief that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by attitudes and governments need to give people the choice to change their behaviours at this individual level. Choice is seen as a fairly big deal. Assuming that I understand what the authors have to say, their alternative is to work more to shape practices directly across populations by intervening in the availability of elements of the practices and the relationships between practices, as well as making more of an effort to do this in line with the existing local variations in practices instead of taking something of a cookie-cutter approach. (I’m pretty sure this is a gross oversimplification but that seems to be the broad strokes). They have a nice table to illustrate this:
This dominant paradigm of the ‘ABC’, in which A stands for Attitude, B for Behaviour and C for Choice (Shove, 2010), underpins two classic strategies for promoting more sustainable ways of life: one is to persuade people of the importance of climate change and thereby increase their green commitment; the second is to remove barriers obstructing the smooth translation of these values into action. Over the last few years, the language of motivators and barriers has been extended, behavioural economics has come into view and there is increasing reference to the need for a more holistic approach. However, none of this has altered the basic outline of what remains a thoroughly individualistic understanding both of action and change (p.140)
I have to say that while the assertions that the authors are making about overemphasising the idea of choice and people’s attitudes in changing their behaviour, I’m not sure that they utterly demolish the reasons for doing so. The points made though about how this overlooks cultural, geographical and historical contexts that help shape variations in practice between areas/groups/etc are valid and I would suggest that adding an examination of practices to the policy toolkit is highly sensible. From what I can see overall though, the methods for achieving change through these broader methods feel slightly hazy and seem to forget that there are many competing agendas at play (getting re-elected for example) that this holistic approach doesn’t necessarily play nicely with.
This argues for what Rip describes as a modest approach to policy, not based on a quest for control or an ambition to nudge the drivers of behaviour, but on a subtle and contingent ‘understanding of the sociological and economic nature of the processes they seek to influence’ (Grin et al., 2010:2007). Defined like this, policy making is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors. It is instead better understood as a more process-based ‘succession of short and fairly rapid steps’ involving sequences of ‘trial-and-error learning or ‘serial adjustment’, anchored in and never detached from the details and specificities of the practices in question (p.142)
As always, I try to bring the ideas in the literature back to my own day-to-day work in a university and frame it in terms of evolving teaching practices. I don’t disagree with any of the ideas here philosophically but have some serious pragmatic questions about how well this approach would be received by sceptical academics and how implementable it is.
The authors draw on earlier chapters in the book to identify four ways in which a practice oriented approach to change might be achieved:
In brief, the policy makers and other actors, past and present, can and do influence: a) the range of elements in circulation; b) the ways in which practices relate to each other; c) the careers and trajectories of practices and those who carry them; and d) the circuits of reproduction. (p.143)
A) The range of elements in circulation
In terms of climate change, the idea is to remove or reduce the bad ‘elements’ of practices rather than bad behaviours. The authors discuss this in terms of Japan’s “Cool Biz” initiative – which actually is quite fascinating. It’s mainly about changing office culture – supporting more casual, warm weather work wear than conventional suit and tie for men – to enable less use of air-conditioning (or keeping offices at higher temperatures – a range between 20-28 rather than the current 22-24). This program is in its 12th year now and other than some resistance from tie companies (really) and some initial uncertainty about cultural practices when meeting people from non-Cool Biz offices (workers took to carrying ties with them), it is a success.
Stories like these remind us that elements of meaning – including the meaning of office-wear, style and comfort – do not arrive fully formed but are reproduced and transformed in social situations that are already laden with significance (p.146)
I’m a little hazy on exactly how this differs from changing behaviours – it seems to be doing so from a slightly different direction from what I can see. In terms of my own work, I guess our equivalent is demolishing large lecture spaces.
B) Configuring relations between practices
This section talks at length about the relationships between cycling and driving. From what I can see, when you have a competitive relationship, one practice tends to need to lose something for the other one to benefit. How a practice is perceived depends on how it’s competitor is seen. So compared to walking, cycling was considered speedy but compared to driving, slow.
Thus far we have discussed driving and cycling in order to draw attention to the changing relation between practices, to the potential for symbiotic as well as competitive relationships and to the consequences of past configurations for the accumulation, character and durability (or otherwise) of relevant elements. Since policy interventions take place within and not outside specific histories of practice, issues of timing are crucial (p.148)
C) Configuring careers: carriers and practices
Most of what I got out of this section was about looking at defections from practices – what we can do to discourage someone from continuing in an undesirable practice. It took a big veer off into social theory territory and Bourdieu and I can see that this is an area that might be helpful to explore down the line but for now, it seems a little too tangential.
D) Configuring connections
Communities of practice feature in here and creating the conditions for practices to flourish. Most of the rest of it seemed to be about change management, which I’ve dug into previously and there didn’t seem to be much new.
In summary, taking a social/practice perspective – because there is social theory and there is practice theory too – offers some interesting new angles for implementing change and understanding practices.
I’ve enjoyed the ideas in this book and will certainly explore them further – I’ve particularly valued the authors methodical approach to breaking down the ideas and simplifying parts in the pursuit of higher truths. In terms of my work and my research, it’s certainly given me some ideas for understanding what third space TEL workers (I should really just say TEL edvisors) do and I think that where this will get particularly interesting is when I start to look at the crossovers between the practices of TEL edvisors, teachers, students and maybe even university management. I strongly suspect that this is where we will find (hopefully) some useful answers to the questions around how we can do TELT better.