Practices are actions or activities that are repeatable, regular, and recognizable in a given cultural context. In everyday language, practice is often contrasted with theory, ideas, or mental processes: what is done as opposed to what is thought, the pragmatic as opposed to the ideational. Practices may be discursive (practices that communicate meanings through language), visual (practices that communicate meaning through images), or embodied (practices accomplished through bodily movement and gesture). Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) has proposed using the term signifying practices to denote all types of practices that communicate meaning. It could be argued, however, that it is in the nature of all social practices to communicate meaning. It has been argued, for example, that religions are not constituted solely or primarily by belief or doctrine, but by the inculcation of practices (through the actions of the powerful), both in terms of formal ritual and in terms of quotidian practices such as dress, diet, social interaction, and so forth.
Ritual practice is particularly important since, as Victor Turner (1920–1983) has argued, it links the natural, cosmological, and social levels of order through the manipulation of symbols. As such, it is an important legitimating device in the secular as well as religious spheres. As is true of religious beliefs, religious practices may be considered authorized and therefore legitimate (orthopraxy), or they may be practiced without formal legitimation (heteropraxy) and considered marginal, contestatory, or both.
Professions and disciplines, likewise, are defined and bounded as much by their practices as by their objects of investigation or intervention. Chemistry and alchemy, astronomy and astrology, for example, differ less in their objects of study (the combination of materials in the former, the stars and planets in the latter), than in the practices through which statements about the world may be considered true or false.
In the 1970s and 1980s, practice and practices came to be seen as the object of theorization in certain branches of critical sociology and cultural anthropology. Practice theories, in general, seek to integrate objectivist theories of society (such as structuralism, functionalism, or Marxism) with theories that view social life as the contingent outcome of decisions, actions, and interpretations of competent (albeit not fully conscious) social actors. Prior to the 1970s, the dominant paradigms in both fields were objectivist, and shared a tendency to develop models of social life in which all social action could be seen as an outcome of underlying structures. Functionalist approaches derived from the sociology of Émile Durkheim viewed social behaviors as determined by the social structure, a set of interacting, mutually dependent institutions. Followers of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–), on the other hand, understood social action to be the expression of conceptual structures. Structure, in Lévi-Strauss's sense, consists of cultural grammars, themselves the outcome of the structured categorizing activity that is a universal feature of the human mind. Materialist approaches (including Marxist and crypto-Marxist approaches such as U.S. cultural ecology) likewise saw social action as determined by a structure of social relations that are themselves determined by the exigencies of the natural and human environment.
In all three paradigms, then, some larger entity—a system or structure—is abstracted from the activities of social agents. The actions and intentions of social actors remain outside of the model in all three cases (with the partial exception of some varieties of Marxism). Finally, their coherence as paradigms depends on the suppression of the dimension of time (again, with the partial exception of Marxist paradigms). For example, functionalist approaches tend to be ahistorical. They portray society (or societies) as a set of relations among institutions as if they maintained a state of homeostasis. Likewise, for Levi-Strauss and his followers, the object of analysis is always the relationship among and between conceptual elements that exist, as it were, outside of the flow of time. On the other hand, phenomenological approaches, such as Harold Garfinkel's (1917–) ethnomethodology or Erving Goffman's (1922–1982) symbolic interactionism took a processual view of society that accounted for both the temporal dimension of social life and the intentionality of subjects. Their account of society as the product of ongoing interactions could not, however, account for inequalities in power, status, or effective agency of those same subjects. The question raised by practice theorists in the 1970s, then, was how to reconcile objectivist and subjectivist accounts of society: to explain the reproduction of power and inequality as both ground and effect of quotidian interaction.
Practice theory (or action theory) has been associated primarily with four theorists: Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), Michel DeCerteau (1925–1986), and Anthony Giddens (1938–).
Practice and Discourse: Michel Foucault
Often described as a poststructuralist concerned with the analysis of power (although he himself rejected both labels), the philosopher/historian Michel Foucault's central project was developing "a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects" (1982, p. 208). In his analysis, the subject was not an a priori category, but, rather, an effect of power, of both objectification and subjection. His aim, however, was to move from state-centered models of power (which viewed power as a repressive force wielded by states) toward one that recognized power as diffused throughout societies, constitutive of social relations in general, and productive of distinct forms of subjectivity.
In the context of this larger project, practices (or "mechanisms") served both a methodological and theoretical function. His interest was primarily in discursive practices, by which he meant ways of constituting objects through their ostensible description. His argument, in brief, was that the historical trajectory of the Enlightenment, conventionally understood as a progression toward more accurate descriptions of the natural world and more reasonable and humane forms of social organization, should be seen, instead, as a series of shifts in the ways in which power was exercised. For example, in Discipline and Punish (1975), his study of punishment in the West, he argues that the transition from the practice of public torture and execution to the practice of incarceration was not the result of an evolutionary trajectory from brutality to civilization, but part of a general shift toward an increasing investment of power in the surveillance and minute control of living bodies. This same change requires the surveillance and bodily ordering of children in schools, workers in factories, and soldiers in armies.
The key to understanding and historicizing the operations of power, according to Foucault, is to attend to the ways that specific practices of professional disciplines (and other social institutions)—surveillance, particular modes of categorization, particular bodily disciplines—surreptitiously undermine some forms of power and reorganize others. Practice thus produces subjectivity (both in the sense of identity and the sense of subjection), simultaneously constituting and limiting social subjects.
Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens
The central problem in the work of the French sociologist/anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu and the British sociologist Anthony Giddens is the relationship between agency (the capacity of human subjects to engage in social action) and social structure. Both see social structure as including both patterns of distribution of material resources and systems of classification and meaning. In their works, social structure encompasses both the Marxian/Durkheimian and Lévi-Straussian senses of the phrase. Both share the insight that the social structure as such has no reality apart from its instantiation through the practices (Bourdieu) or actions (Giddens) of particular human beings. Those actions, in aggregate, create and reproduce the structure in which the actions are embedded.
The two theorists diverge, however, in their assessment of the importance of conscious intention in the reproduction of the social structure. Bourdieu labels the key concept for understanding the relationship between action and structure habitus (following Marcel Mauss [1872–1950]). The habitus consists of "systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures" (1977, p. 72). Quotidian practices—of work and leisure, of the design and use of space—communicate basic assumptions about such social categories as gender, age, and social hierarchy. Through practice, actors are socialized to particular embodied dispositions (their habitus). Like Raymond Williams's (1921–1988) "structures of feeling," the habitus does not determine particular actions, but orients actors to particular goals and strategies. Acting on their (socially determined) intentions, the improvised and contingent practices of social actors thus tend to reproduce the symbolic and material orderings of the social world. Since key aspects of the social order are naturalized through the discipline of the body, they are (or appear to be) beyond the social order itself, indeed becoming part of the taken-for-granted, "natural" order (in Bourdieu's system, doxa ). Practices thus tend, regardless of the actor's intentions, to reinforce the claims of the powerful.
Although he prefers the term action to practice in his own work, Anthony Giddens is usually considered in discussions of practice theory. The key term in Gidden's work is structuration. Like Bourdieu, Giddens views social structure as encompassing both material and symbolic dimensions. Social structure, according to Giddens, is the product of action, "a stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world" (1979, p. 55). Agents (actors with the capacity to act and, moreover, the capacity to have acted differently in any given situation), thus, create structure. However, their agency is only meaningful insofar as they are constructed as subjects (in particular subject positions) in a given social structure. Structuration describes the essentially recursive quality of social process: the agent is produced by the structure, which is, in reality, no more than the objectification of past actions by agents.
The main difference between the accounts of Bourdieu and Giddens lies in the relative significance that each gives to the conscious intentions of social actors. For Giddens, actors are reflexive; they have the capacity to reflect on their actions and their identities, and to act according to their intentions. The reflexivity of actors is, indeed, an aspect of social action, and, thus, part of structuration. In the work of Bourdieu, conscious reflection on one's habitus is a possibility, but not a usual part of social process. For Giddens, in contrast, reflexivity is an essential and potentially transformative element of social process.
Practice as Resistance: Michel de Certeau
Influenced by the work of Foucault and Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau's main contribution to practice theory has been to posit practice as the ground of resistance to domination (in addition to the reproduction of power relations). De Certeau distinguishes between two types of practice: strategies and tactics. Strategies are only available to subjects of "will and power," so defined because of their access to a spatial or institutional location that allows them to objectify the rest of the social environment. "A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as a proper (propre ) and thus serve as a basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, "clienteles," "targets," or "objects of research)" (1984, p. xix). Strategies thus invoke and actualize a schematic and stratified ordering of social reality.
Other people, however, though lacking a space of their own from which to apply strategies, are not merely passive objects of such subjects. On the contrary, they are active agents, but their mode of practice is tactical rather than strategic. Everyday practices of consumption (including activities like walking or reading) are tactical in that they continuously re-signify and disrupt the schematic ordering of reality produced through the strategic practices of the powerful. The possibility of contestation of the social order, which is created through multiple strategies, is always implicit in the tactical practices of everyday life.
Anthropology and Practice
The impact of practice theories, particularly those of Foucault and Bourdieu (who was trained in anthropology as well as sociology, and whose early work focused on the Berber-speaking Kabyle peasants of the Maghrib of North Africa), on cultural anthropology has been profound and far-reaching, sufficiently so that Sherry Ortner (1994) claimed it as the most important general paradigm of cultural anthropology of the 1980s as a whole. This should not be surprising; after all, participant-observation is a matter of observing and participating in practices. Theories that privilege practices—both as forms of communication and as the bases on which social relations are structured—provide a means of theorizing the connections between the "imponderabilia of daily life" and the larger questions about structures of power and social change.
Attention to processes of the transformability of social systems, indeed, distinguishes much practice-based ethnography from the practice theories of Bourdieu and Giddens. As Dirks, Eley, and Ortner point out, for Bourdieu, the habitus is a virtual mirror of the social order, thus the ethnographic project is "largely a matter of decoding the public cultural forms within which people live their lives … that already encode the divisions, distinctions, and inequalities of the society as a whole. And the aim is to get as close as possible … to the practical ways in which, in enacting these forms, the subject/agent comes to embody them, assume them, take them so utterly for granted that 'it goes without saying because it comes without saying'" (1994, p. 16).
Indeed, practice theory can provide a framework for examining the reproduction of inequality in general. Works such as Paul Willis's Learning to Labor (1981) or Phillippe Bourgois's In Search of Respect (2003) are more closely aligned with neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony than practice theory as such. Nevertheless, these studies portray their disempowered subjects (working-class British teenagers and New York crack dealers, respectively) in a double bind: the social practices through which they express their resistance to their subjugated status (resistance to school or participation in the illegal economy) ultimately reproduce the set of social relations that binds them to those statuses. In general, however, practice-based ethnographies have been equally interested in the culturally situated practices that lead, intentionally or not, to social change.
Marshall Sahlins's (1930–) influential Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) is a case in point. Using the episode of Captain Cook's death at the hands of the Hawaiians, Sahlins argued that the Hawaiians' complex response to Cook's arrival—ranging from exchanges of material goods and sexual relations up to and including Cook's murder—took place within the cultural logics of the Hawaiian prestige systems. These practices (seen, from the Hawaiian point of view in terms of circulation of mana, or "vital force"), however, applied to a novel context (from the English point of view, trade), ultimately undermined the bases of the indigenous prestige system by incorporating English trade (goods and relations) into that system. Social change, in Sahlins's model, happens as a result of "structures of conjuncture": changes in the systems of meaning, which are, in turn, the unintended consequences of the deployment of social practices, rooted in a traditional system of relations, to novel circumstances.
Sahlins's method—tracing out relationships between changes in practice, changes in systems of meaning, and changes in structures of power—has been applied to shed new light on processes of social change. In his study of the village of Gapun, New Guinea, for example, Don Kulick convincingly argues for the importance of attention to local practices in the process of "modernization." In his account of the disappearance of the local vernacular, Taiap, in favor of the Melanesian pidgin, Tok Pisin, he shows that changes in linguistic practice are motivated by traditional ideas linking gender, linguistic practices, and prestige. The conjunction of local systems of value with missionization and temporary wage labor led to a number of unrecognized effects. The incorporation of Christianized cosmological theories and the language Tok Pisin into indigenous categories, coupled with local ideas about first-language acquisition, led to the systematic suppression of Taiap competence among young children and changes in patterns of (adult and child) sociation. Gapuners came to devalue Taiap not as a rejection of local symbolic practices in the face of outside forces, but of their resignification, the process of which, nevertheless, undermined the basis of reproduction of traditional forms of social action and authority.
Second, because practice provides the basis of the construction of categories of identity along with power, practice theories have been important (explicitly or implicitly) in anthropologies of gender. Roger Lancaster's 1994 study of Nicaraguan machismo as a discourse of embodied practices and Don Kulick's 1998 study of the construction of gendered identities through linguistic practices among Brazilian travestís are cases in point. Anna Tsing's 1993 analysis of discourses of power among the Meratus of Indonesia shows how gendered inequalities are constructed through practice, even where such inequality lacks an ideological basis. Sherry Ortner's (b. 1941) work (1989, 2001) shows the complex and sometimes contradictory character of the gendered projects of Sherpas in general, and Sherpa women in particular, in relation to their engagement with Western mountain climbers and Buddhist monasticism. Finally, practice theory has been important to the ethnography of science, the doxa of modern societies. The work of Bruno Latour (1947) and Steven Woolgar (1979) on the social construction of "facts" or Rayna Rapp's (2000) work on amniocentesis problematize the authorizing discourses of science through the examination of its practices.
Practice theory has, indeed, been of central importance in anthropology since the 1970s, because it links different levels of social analysis. In defining social structure as the outcome of the practices of (socially constructed and constrained) actors, it avoids the contradiction between objectivist and subjectivist, synchronic and diachronic accounts of society and culture.
See also Anthropology ; Orthopraxy ; Ritual ; Society ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Anthropology .
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Dirks, Nicholas B., Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, eds. "Introduction." In Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, 1–14. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
——. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
Giddens, Anthony. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Kulick, Don. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self, and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
——. Travestí: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Lancaster, Roger N. Life Is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979.
Ortner, Sherry B. High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
——. Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
——. "Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties." In Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Nicholas Dirks, George Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, 372–411. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Rapp, Rayna. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Willis, Paul E. Learning to Labor: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
"Practices." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/practices
"Practices." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/practices
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.