Thinking about Practice theories again

For much of my career, I have been at pains to point out how (not only that) structure and agency interact over time in the shaping of social life. 

My focus has been on migration, mainly British emigration, but I have always argued, as an ethnographer, that migrants’ lives in all their richness and complexity should be our focus. I have always wanted to avoid a problem-focused approach to migration. In The British on the Costa del Sol (2000) I made it clear I was not trying to understand a problem, but was hoping to unravel some of the webs of meaning within which British in Spain were suspended (p16). 

In later years, I have more and more drawn from practice theories to understand processes. But my approach is not only about examining the minutiae of daily practices. I include structuration theory as a practice theory (as Giddens himself indeed called it). 

The key thing about practice theories is that they attempt to explicate (unravel, explain, detail) how wider structures are made and remade every day, through the practice of agency. 

 Explanation and Practice Theories 

This approach can offer explanation of outcomes. In the final chapter of International Labour Migration to Europe’s Rural Regions, Johan Fredrik Rye and I (2021) wanted to explain “the ongoing exploitation, the perpetual reproduction and augmentation of labour arrangements that are asymmetric in terms of power relations, working conditions, and outcomes” (p230). 

Our approach offers a coherent interpretation of empirical data. It is multiscalar and multidimensional. It incorporates time, change and action, as well as how structures and reproduced. 

So, we discuss (for example): how “an increasing reliance on temporary migrant labour has become an integral and taken for granted characteristic of rural industries in western societies” and how this “reliance is often ideologically framed in a positive vein” (p232). We note the “increasing levels of polarisation, competition and exploitation of workers” (p233) in agriculture across Europe and the diverse and constantly changing labour market regimes that permit these situations to persist. 

These “structures are supported by cultural and ideological frames that work to fortify them” (p235). So, employers, rather than address the exploitation, celebrate what they are able to offer that is comparatively good. Some even draw on an “imagined backwardness that serves to assert a sort of … superiority over the work” (p236, and see Chapter 5 by Farinella and Nori). Further, attempts to do things differently are constrained by the fact of global economic and legal forces. 

Some migrants have a migrant habitus. “In other words, where migrants go … and how they assume life will be when they get there… is shaped by their own and others’ experiences, and the stories and discourses that frame those experiences”. (p237). Over time, and despite attempts to do things differently and to live according to their desires, “they come to accommodate to the demanding nature of their working and home lives. In other words, they develop identities that are coherent with, and even reinforce the ‘normalisation of, the conditions within which they find themselves” (p238). 

Migrants and employers thus both act somewhat in accordance with their expectations and reproduce existing conditions through their practices/actions. The structures are internalised, embodied and enacted. 

 The role of the state

In Lifestyle Migration and Colonial Traces in Malaysia and Panama, Michaela Benson and I (2018) also draw from practice theories to retrace the interplay between migrants’ ground level practices and the postcolonial heritage and current neoliberal policies in these countries. Here we contend that the governance of migration is a social process that emerges over time. It is creative and dynamic, and shaped through the practices of diverse agents. Chapter Four “reveals how deep-seated historical attitudes inform the reproduction of long-established structural inequalities, but also how, enacted by agents of state as well as migrants themselves, practices of governance develop and change shape” (p111-112)

 TBC……. I am still thinking 

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