Telling Practice Stories

What is a practice story?

I like to think that the work of social science is to tell practice stories about an event or phenomenon. Practice stories explain something by describing how it develops over time as norms, rules, and organizational arrangements are acted on and adapted by people as part of their daily lives, and in the context of their social lives (their communities, groups, networks, and families). Practice stories therefore help us to make sense of things as ongoing processes, both shaped by and shaping general patterns, arrangements, rules, norms, and other structures.

There has been a tendency in recent ethnography to focus on people’s opinions and feelings, or on their cultures, while forgetting to look at the wider structures that frame their choices. In the field of migration, there has been a tendency to examine wider structures or individual choices and feelings, without linking the two. Practice stories pay attention to people’s feelings and emotions, their experiences and their free choices, but also to the wider constraints and opportunities within which they act. More than that, practice stories take account of how these different features of social life interact, and thereby how structures (like social classes, for example) get produced or reproduced.

Theoretically, practice stories can draw from a wide range of social theory that comes under the description of structuration theory or practice theory.

Agency and Structure in Sociology

At the heart of a great deal of sociological theory is what we might term an agency/structure dualism; that is, a tendency to perceive the agency of individual human actors as distinct and separate from social structures. In early sociology, the emphasis was on structures. In the work of Durkheim, for example, ‘social facts’ such as laws, religion, education, and other more relational aspects such as norms, were depicted as having a force of their own on societies, independently of the individuals and their actions. In Marx’s work, socio-economic forces worked independently to shape human societies. This approach was gradually challenged by a variety of schools of thought we might call ‘subjectivism’, including symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, phenomenological sociology, social constructionism, and hermeneutics. These approaches emphasised the creative, reflexive and dynamic aspects of social life. They were especially influenced by a set of philosophical ideas known as interpretivism. For interpretivists, it is essential to see humans as actors in the social world rather than as re-acting like objects in the natural world. Sociology has now reached something of a consensus, in which it is impossible to ignore all that has been learned on either side and scholars are seeking ways to understand the ongoing interaction of structure and agency. These approaches tend to be called structuration or practice theories.

Practice and structuration theories

Structuration theory was a social theory of practice proposed by Anthony Giddens. Giddens insists that social life is neither the outcome of individual actions (determined by how individuals feel, what they intend, or plan to achieve) nor determined by social structures (institutions, rules or resources). Instead, social structures limit what people can and cannot do, what they even try to or wish to do, but agents do have some free will; and the very social structures that enable or constrain in some situations are made and remade by individuals in the process of their acting (or their agency). For Giddens, we therefore cannot even think of agency and structure as (ontologically) distinct; they are a duality – always interdependent and interrelated.

In a similar way, Pierre Bourdieu believes that people’s tastes and preferences, choices, desires and actions cannot be separated from structural constraints, because people internalize what is possible for them. Bourdieu proposes the concept of practice as a way of thinking through those same processes that Giddens refers to as structuration; that is, the making and acting out of daily life. His notion of the practice of social life draws on the concept of habitus. Very crudely, habitus refers to the dispositions, habits, ways of doing things, ways of thinking, and ways of seeing the world that individuals acquire, singly and in groups, as they travel through life. They are therefore structures that have become embodied and are acted out by people. People are always in practical relations to the world and practices (what we do), therefore, are reasonable (sensible, plausible) adjustments to the future rather than (as some people see them) rational calculations or the product of identifiable plans.

Rob Stones has developed a stronger version of structuration theory that builds on the work of Giddens, responding to criticisms of Giddens, and drawing on strengths from other work. My own approach combines the work of Rob Stones with further insights from the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, where they describe communities of practice and situated learning, and the elaboration of the concept of agency as proposed by Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische.

Communities of practice are any social group (family, community, work mates, social club, a partnership) that comes together and has to work out how to get on together. A community of practice is a good way of thinking about the level in-between laws and rules, on the one hand, and free choice, on the other hand. It is in their communities of practice that individuals learn what the rules of ‘the game’ are and how much they have to stick to them. And it is from people we come into contact that we get ideas about how things might be different, and who has the power to change what. Lave and Wenger call this ‘situated learning’. The work of Emirbayer and Mische is a useful adition to the suite of theories we can use, because they remind us that people are not entirely controlled or pre-determined by their habitus. Individuals always have the ability to imagine different ways of living, and different ways of doing things, even if these sometimes seem impossible. It is this distinctive aspect of human agency that gives us the power to (sometimes) change things.

Collecting data to tell Practice Stories

I am proposing these various theoretical perspectives on practice as a means to start thinking theoretically about how social life unravels in practice. Methodologically, this involves conceptualising and learning about the wider structures that frame the practice of a given community or group. This can use both grand theorising as well as learning practically about the smaller, local, relevant context. But abstract-level arguments should always be linked overtly to the analysis of the practice of daily life.

Practice theory views individuals as knowledgeable, which calls for empirical research to pay attention to their perspectives, thoughts and opinions.

Practice also often involves doing things without being aware of it, in the context of constraints and opportunities of which people may not be conscious. It is essential, therefore, to find ways of studying the practice of daily life and understanding it without relying solely on the views of agents. Ethnography that pays attention to both wider structures and the thoughts and feelings of agents, within the context of action, is thus an ideal approach to research practice.

Practice stories should reveal the complexity of people’s daily lives, should try to understand cultural differences, and challenge stereotypes and typifications. Life history and narrative research that examine individuals’ personal stories also offer promising and fruitful approaches for the study of practice. But structures are both internal and external, so agents’ perceptions can never be divorced from structural contexts.

Furthermore, a researcher might understand aspects of the context not perceived by the agent. A methodology that enables a perspective beyond just that of the agent seems crucial.

Finally, an empirical study informed by a theory of practice will always be temporal. We should avoid snapshots of society, on the one hand, and equating time with social change on the other; social reproduction and continuity also take place over time (and space). The gaze of the researcher cannot be restricted to the ‘present moment’ or to ‘individual action’. We have to study broader institutional systemic and structural frames and wider forces, but the focus is on how these are manifested in practice.

If you want to understand these issues in more depth I recommend you consult my two books: Ethnographic Methods (2nd ed) and International Migration and Social Theory.

For all the other authors I have mentioned, full references can be located in my books.

1 thought on “Telling Practice Stories

  1. Pingback: Santa at Easter and talking about migration | Karen O'Reilly

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