Review of EASST/4S Conference Track “Comparing and Connecting Concepts of Practice”1

The German language provides the term “Stammlokal”, a restaurant or pub where people go on a regular basis. In a Stammlokal certain things are taken for granted; for instance, it is not necessary to order my drink since I can assume that the waiter knows my routines and will show up with my favourite beer. Furthermore, when ordering a burger I don’t need to mention that I dislike cucumber; in my Stammlokal my burger is served with tomatoes, lettuce and, of course, without cucumber. Indeed, what makes a Stammlokal so appealing is the fact that a few basic understandings are self-evident, they are confirmed and don’t have to be negotiated.

Upon entering the panel on “Connecting and comparing concepts of practice” organized by Elizabeth Shove, Nicola Spurling and Gordon Walker, we did not expect the presentation of a coherent outline of different theories of practice. In fact, a distinguishing feature of theories of practice is the multiplicity of backgrounds informing different concepts and understandings. Since the programmatic exclamation of a “practice turn” (Schatzki et al. 2001), the notion of practice has been further developed in relation to a variety of empirical studies across various fields of investigation (e.g. Shove et al 2012, Schmidt 2012, Law & Mol 2008, Orlikowski 2007). This year’s conference programme illustrates very well the variety in which the notion of practice currently receives attention, either explicitly (several panels focused on ‘practices’) or implicitly (numerous papers included the term ‘practices’ in their title). For these reasons, we assumed the panel would shed light on the different ways distinct theories of practice inform empirical research.

In line with this expectation, the panel brought together a number of theoretical and methodological papers as well as reports on empirical research projects. While the discussion of these papers was fruitful, their conception of practices as well as their methodological strategies moved in a tension between shared basic assumptions about what a practice-theoretic framework entails and the questioning of these understandings. In fact, we got the impression that research on practices still lacks the very feature that makes a Stammlokal so appealing: the fact that a lot of actions in a Stammlokal are taken for granted.

Before we detail this impression, we will give a brief overview of the paper contributions. In sum, there were thirteen presentations, organized in three sessions. The papers addressed the multiplicities of theories of practice, methodological concerns and the application of distinct approaches to empirical research. Niklas Woermann undertook the endeavour to map and classify the heterogeneous field of theories of practice: taking Wittgenstein’s rule following as his starting point, he traced different interpretations of this philosophical problem in order to give an overview and moreover, search for a coherent vocabulary within the diverse field of practice theories. This undertaking stood to some extent in contrast to our own paper, which described the multiplicity of theories of practice as a rich resource in relation to empirical research. The metaphor of the monocle made explicit that any theory is actively engaged in the research process, but theories of practice must be understood as specific monocles; they offer multiple readings and perspectives, thus prompting the researcher to work back and forth between theory and data in very comprehensive ways. Importantly, the two papers raised the question of to what extent the diversity and the different philosophical traditions of practice theories are problematic and, if so, whether a homogenous vocabulary is desirable.

All of the papers shared the understanding that approaches informed by theories of practice are strongly tied to methodological considerations; that is, the investigation of practices suggests certain methodologies, for instance in the case of practices as situated activities, ethnographic research methods are implicated. Nevertheless, researching practices on larger scales possibly implicates not only qualitative methodologies but the generation of quantitative data. This was apparent in the paper by Elizabeth Shove; her investigation of practices of water drinking, cooling and heating explored how these practices (as entities) occur on larger scales and how they relate and configure each other. Moreover, her research illuminated what actually “counts” as practice when tracing the dynamic and changing appearance of practices over time. The first move involves quantitative methods of aggregation enabling the researcher to investigate the interaction between practices; the second asks the researcher to draw boundaries while doing ethnographic research so as to identify distinct practices. In linking practice theory to a socio-technical system approach, Matt Watson continued the focus on larger scales of practices and the account of change. His paper showed how a systemic understanding of practices may inform empirical research in order to intervene in the transportation system in the UK towards a less carbonised future.
In a similar fashion, Alma Carrasco Altmirano combined the sociocultural theory of writing with practice theory and illustrated the practice of scientific writing of PhD students as a specific learning process. Moreover, the papers presented by Daniela Rosner and Graham Dean illuminated the relation between digital technologies and skilful practices. Both presentations showed that the digital manifests itself in bodily performances and connects to the craft of knitting and binding (Rosner) as well as to the craftwork involved in digital maker culture (Dean). Indeed, following the practices digital technologies are part of illustrates that technologies create not so much a virtual, detached realm as a realm that is very much connected to the bodies it relates to and the material spaces in which it occurs.

The discussion of change and the relation between the different elements of a practice was the centre of investigation in a number of papers. Maarten van der Kamp’s presentation on organic farming revealed that standards are locally enacted in relation to the sociomaterial settings they are part of. He discussed the ways in which farming practices overlap with the practice of certification, thus making the individual performance of organic farming comparable across different sites. The paper by Ralph Brand put emphasis on studying the different elements of spiritual practices. It showed that practices are contested moments of coordination of these elements and, moreover, one element of a practice might dominate the others. For instance, theological understandings shape the materialities of spiritual practices (i.e. buildings, altars) and the spiritual competencies (i.e. praying) they rely on.
The investigation of how theory informs empirical research was continued in Nicola Spurling’s presentation on the practice of driving. As part of a policy-informing research project, her paper made explicit that theories of practice can help to think outside the behaviouristic understanding of agency and, moreover, highlighted that policy regulations are part of practices and shape these.

A rather unfamiliar theoretical framework to us was the understanding put forward in the three papers by Ardis Storm-Mathisen, Britt Kramvig and Jo Helle-Valle which they called a “radical practice perspective”. With reference to research on nursing practices and their sociomaterial embeddedness, this perspective emphasised taking into account “nothing beyond the observable practices” (Kramvig). In addition, the papers pointed to the necessity of relevant research methods considering the context-sensitivity of data (Storm-Mathisen).

While we could entirely comprehend the methodological concerns put forth, we were rather surprised by the call for a stronger consideration of “the actor” within practice theory (Helle-Valle). Contrary to our expectations, the discussion on the notion of “the actor” and whether it needs to be re-appropriated within theories of practice received great attention. Assuming practices, and not actors, to be the focus of practice-theoretic informed research projects, we assumed this to be a rather uncontested issue, but apparently the question of who is part of practices is still a controversy amongst practice theory scholars. In addition, the notion of a “radical practice perspective” presupposing “nothing beyond observable practices” appeared to us as a statement pushing aside (or overlooking) the work that has been done so far within the realm of practice theory. In fact, several authors have tried to overcome behaviouristic understandings and in doing so demonstrated that the notion of practice is not simply an equation for performance, behaviour or routine; instead, theories of practice try to overcome reductionist understandings by relating material dimensions of practical action to symbolic dimensions such as meanings and discourses (see Mol 2002, Knorr Cetina 2007, Reckwitz 2008, and Shove et. al 2012).

This brings us back to the question of to what extent the diversity of concepts of practice is problematic and, if so, whether a homogenous vocabulary is desirable. Our answer to this is twofold: First of all, as said above, we appreciate the multiplicity of theories of practice as they stimulate the engagement with empirical research. Indeed, a good way to decide what counts as a practice is to investigate empirically how practices make themselves accountable and recognizable. This can be accomplished by tracing their dynamic and changing appearance over time and/or in different settings (see Shove et al. 2012; Schmidt 2012: 156-89). Secondly, however, we think it is of much benefit to share a minimum of basic understandings when investigating practices; for instance, actors are neither the central nor the most important parts of practices. Despite their diversities, theories of practice share the basic understanding that “actors” (i.e. individuals or groups of individuals) are not the authors of practices. Actors participate in practices alongside and in relation to other partakers such as artefacts, spaces, competences and meanings. In fact, as long as these basic understandings are not self-evident, we have to investigate practices without the comfort of a Stammlokal.


Knorr Cetina, K. (2007) “Culture in global knowledge societies: Knowledge cultures and epistemic cultures.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32: 361–375.
Law, J. and Mol, A. (2008) “The Actor-Enacted: Cumbrian Sheep in 2001.” In: Malafouris, L., Knappett, C. (eds.): Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, Wiesbaden: Springer, pp. 55-77.
Mol, A. (2002) The body multiple. Ontology in medical practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
Orlikowski, W. J. (2007) “Sociomaterial Practices: Exploring Technology at Work.” In: Organization Studies 28: 1435-1448.
Reckwitz, A. (2008) „Praktiken und Diskurse: Eine sozialtheoretische und methodologische Relation“, In: Herbert Kalthoff/ Stefan Hirschauer/ Gesa Lindemann (eds.): Theoretische Empirie. Die Relevanz qualitativer Forschung, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 188- 209.
Schatzki, T. R., Knorr Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (eds.) (2001) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge.
Schmidt, R. (2012) Soziologie der Praktiken. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M. (2012) The Dynamics of Social Practice. London: Sage.

Notes and Acknowledgements

A special thanks to Alexandra Vinson for commenting on an earlier version of this paper. We also thank Elizabeth Shove, Nicola Spurling and Gordon Walker for organising the panel and we are grateful to everyone who participated and shared their work and thoughts with us.


1 We borrow the title from the movie „Same, Same But Different” (Germany 2009, directed by Detlev Buck). The movie tells the story of a German backpacker travelling to Vietnam where he falls in love with a local woman. This plot makes the film not only a story about love, but also a story about the difficulties of engaging in a romantic partnership without sharing common understandings about it.