Content: I want to forecast at the outset that the topics taken up recently, including this one, appear to be getting more and more difficult and abstract. It is daunting to attempt to summarize briefly the extensive literatures on questions of “the subject”, “practices” and “agency”. Please consider my comments, therefore, as introductions or first attempts to bring together aspects of the debates around these topics that seem to require more reflection.
Everyone is talking about practices recently, indicated in the references to the “turn to practice” in contemporary social theory (for example, Postill 2010; Shatzki 2001). However, not everyone means the same thing when they use the term. As Pellizoni (2015: 77) says, “the definition of practice itself … is anything but straightforward”. He offers a much-quoted definition: a practice
is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge. (Reckwitz 2002: 249 in Pellizoni 215: 77)
But, as Pellizoni goes on to say, this definition does not really take us far since “each of the elements is semantically dense and empirically opaque”.
If indeed this is the case, it seems fair to say that “a practice is the opposite of a self-evident phenomenon”: “One has no more direct access to practices, in any analytically useful sense of the word … that one has to anything else” (Pellizoni 2015: 78). Therefore, taking up Tanesini’s (1994: 207) point that concepts are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here, the task becomes recognizing the connections between how we describe practices and the political implications of particular usages. Again, quoting Pellizoni (2015: 77), “ontological assertions inevitably work as justifications of particular accounts of politics” (Barnett 2007: 57).
Gherardi offers a useful way to begin reflections on this topic. She (2009: 118) makes a distinction between conceptualizing practices “from the outside”, which directs attention to how people (in context) “do” practices, and conceptualizing practices “from the inside”, which rests on a posthumanist analytic in which practices “do” (constitute) “subjects”. Here, we can see that discussions of practices draw us back almost immediately to the competing conceptions of “the subject” considered in the previous two Research Hub entries. In accounts of practices “from the outside”, “the subject” is assumed to be an a priori, acting “individual”, engaged in doing things (“practices”). In the latter account of practices “from the inside”, we can observe how “subjects” are produced as particular kinds of “being” through examining what they do. It is this latter meaning that I intend to pursue here, hoping to make some sense of “practices” in Foucault and in those who draw upon his approach to practices. This will involve brief consideration, in a subsequent entry, of theories of performativity/enactment in STS studies (Science and Technology Studies) and Actor-Network Theory.
In the last two entries (30 Sept. 2019 and 31 Oct. 2019) we observed how Foucault challenged a priori stances on “the subject” and causality. I ended the last of these entries noting that in the place of “universals” he offered “practices”. The move here is from the general to the specific. “Micro-practices” replace generalized speculation about assumed “forces” shaping history. The goal is to make “visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all” (Foucault 1991: 76; emphasis in original). To make these singularities visible requires detailed records of discontinuity, provided through genealogies that trace “an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers” (Foucault 1977: 82).
To this end attention is directed precisely to “what is done” rather than to the motives or intentions of people, which would invoke the interior consciousness Foucault was challenging (see Research Hub, “Conceptions of the ‘subject’: Part 1”, 30 Sept. 2019). The analytic task becomes examining how it is possible for those things to be done, “constructing their external relations of intelligibility” and the knowledges (discourses) upon which they rely (Foucault 1991: 77). And the analytic target becomes “the connections, encounters, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on” in order “to show that things ‘weren’t as necessary as all that” (Foucault 1991: 76), demonstrating a clear challenge to deterministic views of social relations.
So, what are these practices that provide starting places for this analysis? Foucault (1991: 75) describes practices as “places” where “what is said and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned and the taken for granted meet and interconnect”. “Place” here is to be understood metaphorically to envisage a “point of linkage” between what one says and what one does (Flynn 2006: 31), an ensemble of ways of doing things “understood simultaneously as a mode of thinking and acting” (Foucault 1988: 15). Flynn explains that a practice in Foucault has a two-fold character as judicative and “veridicative” (Flynn 2006: 31; italics in original): “on the one hand, practices establish and apply norms, controls, and exclusions; on the other, they render true/false discourse possible”. For example, the practice of legal punishment “entails the interplay between a [judicial] ‘code’ that regulates ways of acting – such as how to discipline an inmate – and the production of true discourse that legitimates [verifies] these ways of acting” (Flynn 2006: 31).
This understanding of practices helps to explain why Foucault turned to what he called “practical texts” as points of entry for his analyses, and why he found the concept of problematization a useful theoretical intervention. On “practical texts” he noted:
The domain I will be analysing is made up of texts written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should: “practical” texts, which are themselves objects of a “practice” in that they are designed to be read, learned, reflected upon, and tested out, and they were intended to constitute the eventual framework of everyday conduct. (Foucault 1984: 12-13)
In a WPR approach, policies are “practical texts” since they tell us what to do, usefully challenging the view that “practices” and “texts” are somehow in opposition [see Research Hub entry: “WPR and Ethnography, Part II, 31 March 2019]
Late in his life Foucault suggested the usefulness of a focus on problematizations as a way to bridge the conventional divide between thought and practice. Using the example of the history of “madness”, he pointed out that, if you looked at how “the mad” were treated – how they were characterized and analysed (in practices) – you would observe how they were problematized (made into “a problem”). You would then have pointers towards “determining the role of politics and ethics in the establishment of madness as a particular domain of scientific knowledge [connaissance], and also of analysing the effects of the latter on political and ethical practices” (Foucault 1984: 8). To this end, in WPR, policies as “practical texts” provide a point of entry for identifying specific problematizing practices.
The question – what do these practices do? – will be pursued in the next entry, along with some examples of contemporary applications of this theoretical perspective.
Flynn, T. 2006. Foucault’s Mapping of History. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge Collections Online: Cambridge University Press.
Foucault, M. 1988a. (Auto)biography MICHEL FOUCAULT 1926-1984, History of the Present, 4: 13-17.
Foucault, M. 1991. Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Gherardi, S. 2009. Introduction: The critical power of the “practice lens”. Management Learning, 40 (2), 115–128.
Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.
Postill, J. 2010. Introduction: Theorizing media and practice. In B. Bräuchler, & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.
Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices. A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243-63.
Schatzki, T. 2001. Introduction: Practice theory. In T. Schatzki, K.K. Cetina, E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory. London and New York: Routledge.
Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon, & M. Whitford (Eds.), Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. New York: Routledge.