A Think Piece by Dr Stanley Blue
Theories of practice are diverse and varied, but one central idea is that social scientists should take social practices as their main focus and unit of enquiry. Although ‘practice’ is variously understood, taking a ‘social practice approach’ does not equate to focussing on best practice, or people’s practices. Instead it is a term that denotes a ‘routinized’ type of social activity (Reckwitz 2002). This approach amounts to a significantly different ontological and epistemological view than in most social research, a significantly different way of seeing and studying the world. Rather than starting with an understanding of the world as made up of people, their motives, desires, and needs or symbols, signs, cultural and material objects, etc. we start with routinised social activities as entities that consist of various elements and that interconnect and interrelate to form the social world and establish social order. Giddens (1984) describes the organisation of practices in space and time as the proper domain of the social and we should study it as such if we are to find ways to of better understanding a range of important social issues.
One problem with starting with practices is that at first it appears to leave people out of the frame. Human beings are often central to studies of the social and to studies including disabled people. If we take practices and not people as the central unit of enquiry, it seems as if we are doing people, their views, their needs, and their experiences a disservice.
It is true that an ontological approach that privileges social action over the attitudes, motivations and values of individuals does not focus on the minutiae and complexity of human interactions, or on interpersonal and inter-group power relations. It is therefore not an approach best equipped to capture the requirements, circumstances, and capacities of individuals. However, whilst studies that have privileged these features have had success in improving the lives of disabled people, new frames are required if we want to do more to get things changed. A focus on practices offers fresh ground for conceptualising the social world and new opportunities for improving the lives of disabled people, importantly by accounting for the social context of what people do. It should be noted, that understanding the effect of the constitution of society on disabled people hardly a new idea in disability studies.
One of the main focal points over the past thirty years in disability studies has been transforming the way we think about disability. Disabled people re-defined the ‘problem’ of disability as one that resides in the processes, systems and barriers that constitute a disabling society. In that context, disability studies and theories of practice have much in common. Whilst theories of practice are able to give a very good account of the routinised, embodied and interconnected everyday practices that make up social life, disability studies has many concepts and tools for understanding how everyday social life privileges certain groups whilst disabling and excluding others.
The ambition of the ‘Getting Things Changed’ project, which is informed by these ideas, is to understand how dis/abling practices might be shifted, modified and changed to improve the lives of disabled people. One argument levied at theories of practice is that they provide a very good account of social life, but that have difficulty in accounting for how practices change. Sometimes it feels like practice theory is an account of stasis rather than one which might encourage or enable change. However, this is certainly not the case. Theories of practice are able to provide very good and careful accounts of change. Whilst these debates are ongoing within the field, theories of practice offer complex and nuanced accounts of change that take into consideration changes in technologies, infrastructures, materials and embodied skills that contextualise and complement explanations of change based solely on individual narratives, meanings and motivations.
One very useful and under developed tool for thinking about change is the idea of ‘recruitment and defection’ (Shove and Pantzar, 2007). If our analytical focus is on practices (or doings), then it is important to consider who carries a certain practice, who gets recruited, and who gets excluded. This idea emphasises a way of thinking about practices as entities that capture the resources, energies and commitments of people. “… we might think of practices as vampire like entities capturing populations of suitably committed practitioners (i.e. hosts and carriers) in order to survive.” (2007, 166) Importantly practices capture the resources of particular groups of people. For example, commuting on the train likely recruits from professionals, sleeping in until 12pm likely recruits well from student populations(!) whilst marathon running most likely (though not exclusively) recruits from the physically fit. Similarly many working practices recruit from populations that are able to begin working at 9am. For people who require a carer to arrive, who might arrive later than 9am, to assist them in getting up, this practice so organised would exclude them.
The populations from which practices recruit depend on the changing organisation and integration of materials, meanings and competencies. For example, as new technology becomes available watching Netflix on a tablet device might recruit in the first instance from younger generations. However, increased reproduction of this activity leads to development in social meanings and competencies so that this practice is able to capture commitment from wider populations. Changing materials, meanings and competencies can also lead to defection, or exclusion from practice.
A useful concept that complements the idea of ‘recruitment and defection’ when thinking about disabling society is Garland-Thomson’s concept of ‘misfits’ (2011). She makes the case that fitting and misfitting is a relational process between body and environment, that (re-)produces both in action. She writes: “The relational reciprocity between body and world materializes both…” (595)
She makes the case for examining the quality of the relationship between body and world as one of fitting or misfitting. Garland-Thomson also explains how we might turn misfits into fits and demonstrates how this process works in the reverse:
“… a white cane or a brailed book is an element of the sustaining environment for a blind person to encounter a fit that accommodates the minority embodiment of blindness in an environment built for the sighted. Such prostheses ease the material divergences between bodies and their locations, making misfits into fits.” (601)
This argument fits well with the idea of ‘recruitment and defection’. Garland-Thomson’s example shows that the introduction of new and different material elements such as a cane or brailed book changes the relationship between bodies and environment ‘making misfits into fits’. Changes in configurations of elements modify the ability of a practice to recruit from a particular group. This includes materials, but also competences and social meanings as well. In this way fits and misfits could happen between any group and any practice at any time, and these can be more and less fixed, more and less fluid and more and less open to change.
This argument has a double benefit. First it reframes vulnerability and power away from an inherent quality of someone or something and attributes it to a relational process:
“The relational and contingent quality of misfitting and fitting, then, places vulnerability in the fit, not in the body.” (600).
And second it demonstrates that this process is continuously enacted by everyone:
“Any of us can fit here today and misfit there tomorrow.” (597)
Working with the concepts of practice, recruitment, and (mis)fitting has the potential to be give a rich explanation of how practices recruit from particular groups of people, and how this process of (mis)fitting in disabling society shifts and changes over time.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2011. Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept. Hypatia 26 (3):591-609.
Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkley: University of California Press.
Reckwitz, Andreas. 2002. Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2):243-263.
Shove, Elizabeth, and Mika Pantzar. 2007. Recruitment and Reproduction: The Careers and Carriers of Digital Photography and Floorball. Human Affairs 17 (2):154-167.