On September 24th and 25th 2014 the Graduate School of the University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, the Netherlands presented a two-day conference on Practice Theories entitled ‘An Inquiry into theories of practice: Rethinking actors, materiality and organisations’.
During this conference central issues raised by practice theories were explored and discussed. The conference was a joint effort to reflect on our own practices as researchers in order to develop a stronger methodological awareness about knowledge creation as social practice. Practice theories conceive actions of people as part of a practice, a larger set of activities. This means, for instance, that organisations are not regarded as entities but as an assembly of practices. In interaction, people ‘carry’ different practices. Practice theory gives us an alternative view on practitioners as well. Not only people, but also material ‘objects’ are interacting, and therefore not ‘just objects’. Knowledge emerges from within interactive practices and theories of practice concentrate on the ethos of these practices. Practice theories offer another view on the social, valuing differences.
Two leading key note speakers, prof. Davide Nicolini (University of Warwick, GB) and prof. Robert Schmidt (Eichstatt University, Germany), presented their thoughts and views on Practice Theories.
Both share a vivid interest with researchers at the University of Humanistic Studies in complex organisations, and thorough qualitative and conceptual research.
Interview with prof. Davide Nicolini, University of Warwick, GB
Interview with prof. Robert Schmidt, Eichstatt University, Germany
Interview with prof. Gert Spaargaren, Wageningen University, the Netherlands
Prof. Gert Spaargaren gives his view on the meaning of practice theory for sustainability issues. He concentrates on consumption and how consumption can become more sustainable. Spaargaren was one the first scholars in the Netherlands, together with his research group, to take on a practice approach.
Short reflections on the conference by participants
A central question to ask ourselves
The practice turn in social and organizational studies involves a fundamental change in perspective on the social world. Regimes of ordinary activities form the unit of analysis and the finding place of ‘knowledge’, instead of individual actions or a system approach. In that way, this fundamental change is the result of self critical reflection on the currently existing dominant approach in social research.
Nicolini and Schmidt had to face some critical questions during the Practice Theory Conference. My question is directed towards ourselves (scholars in ethics of care and humanistic studies). How open are we for the possibility that a change in perspective in our disciplines enables us to see more than we do now from our taken for granted positions?
Jeannet van de Kamp
What I learned from my first acquaintance with Praxeology
I discovered that a family member in the game of praxeology is the French philosopher Sandra Laugier. She describes ethics of care as an ‘ethics oriented towards vulnerability. It moves from the just to the important, from reason to perception, in resonance with Wittgenstein.
I learned I have to move beyond philosophy to understand the power game. Praxeology is a game changer with regard to several ethical and sociological approaches. Positions of authority are created by practice. Academic praxis is shaped by a sense of this game.
I learned that a discours is also a practice. Practice theory tickles my moral imagination. No more, no less. What does it mean when people work together in a complex context?
I learned that the way we were trained to do qualitative empirical research during the Master Ethics of Care and Policy is close to praxeology.
(I learned too that getting funding for this kind of research is a difficult game to play.)
A shift of mind – confusing, yet attractive
During the conference it seemed that my brain was not, or not yet, suited to making the ethical turn that it seemed to be asked for. I got confused. As a student care ethicist it even puzzled me what questions should have to bother me. What kind of turn was it all about? About rethinking human agency and personal responsibility? About rethinking the traditional distinction between fact and value?
However, years of ongoing socialisation seemed to be called into question. Educated at the Dutch University of Humanistic Studies I was used to think about normativity of care professionals as mainly a matter of individuality. The moral responsibility of these professionals, their actorship taken for granted, was conceived as related to their individual stance of life. Besides I think that it is anything but easy to rethink normativity by leaving the traditional way of seeing, interpreting and judging what is going on in social practices with respect to the supposed morality and move in another direction, even after one year of being a student of the Master in Care Ethics and Policy.
On the one hand it makes me feel rather uncomfortable to live with so many fundamental questions but on the other hand I would not like to return to my formerly state of mind. I believe the shift is attractive, for anyhow I do already perceive a sense of ethical relevance in making a turn.
Let the practice speak
As a student of the master Ethics of Care and Policy in Utrecht I have heard about practice theory in a lecture. Nevertheless through the opening keynote of Professor D. Nicolini, wherein he sets the scene, it became more clear to me how to approach practice theory. The conference struck a good balance between lectures from keynote speakers, interference from the audience, various forms of debate and the time to reflect. But at some point I lost track. Because what is a practice? Where do I start? Where does it end? How do I observe? These kind of questions were popping up in my head. I was trying to frame the practice approach, I wanted to frame a practice, and that is precisely what this approach is not about. The Ethics of Care helped me to understand “it is not about looking at practices but about seeing from practices”. I learned to let the practice speak instead of starting to frame the practice from the outside, in other words let the ordinary action reveal itself.