Using practice theory without getting hung-up on definitions

November 30, 2017 / Research /

This blog article discusses how practice theory has been used in energy research, including debates over what constitutes a practice. It argues that we shouldn’t get hung up on definitions, but should focus on using the most useful analytical aspects of practice theory. This way, it can help to uncover insights into social activity that might not have been found using another conceptual framework.

My research on energy demand from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) draws heavily on practice theory. Practice theory offers a distinctive way of understanding the social world, moving away from a focus on the individual, or discourse and language, as the principal unit for research.


Practice theory has become popular in social scientific research into energy demand, most notably as a way to move beyond the idea that individual behaviour change will bring about the scale of demand reduction required to meet climate change targets. Rather than consider energy consumption to be a result of individual choice, a practice perspective highlights how energy is bound up in the ‘doings and sayings’ of everyday life: travelling to work, socialising with friends, cooking or eating. This alternative framing emphasises the limits of individual choice. For instance, if you live in the countryside but work in a city more than 20 miles away, then usually the easiest travel option for you is to drive, given the existence of a high-quality road system, cheap fuel and the social norms associated with driving. Considering ‘commuting’ through the lens of practice theory, we can see how materials, policies, technology and social meanings influence this activity, and that the element of individual choice is actually minimal. The relationships between these practice ‘elements’ are always mutating, constructing a dynamic ‘constellation’ which together make up the practice.

On the one hand these observations are hardly radical. But seen from the perspective of a social scientist investigating the use of energy in commuting, practice theory expands the possibilities for empirical study. The individual traveller (who in practice terminology is the ‘carrier’ of the practice) is no longer the sole actor of interest, opening up the potential for a variety of lines of enquiry. These include the potential to trace how materials and technologies have increased the safety and comfort of driving, leading to changing mobility patterns and even reconfiguring the broader practice of work itself.

Defining practices

The example given above about the relationship between commuting by car and the practice of work indicates that practices can have different scales and boundaries. Can ‘putting your foot down’, or ‘listening to the radio’ also be practices, or are they sub-categories of commuting-practice? For many adopters of practice theory, defining the types and boundaries of practices is a critical process.

One of practice theory’s most noted scholars, Theodore Schatzki argues that if we are true to the epistemological foundations of practice theory, then all social activity is made up of practices. The ‘plenum of practices’ includes not only cooking, but all the constituent parts of that activity: growing and transporting food, burning natural gas, following a recipe. In acknowledging that not all practices are ontologically equivalent, Schatzki differentiates between dispersed and integrated practices. Dispersed practices are small scale activities such as following rules, tinkering, or consuming energy through appliances’ standby mode, and can be conducted without context and incorporated into more complex social practices, taking on different meanings. Integrative practices are broader activities including business practices, shopping or cooking. In Schatzki’s account, these practices have their own ‘teleo-affective structure’, which is to say they hold meaning and significance both for the performers of practice and in the wider social world.

For Alan Warde, this distinction is not enough. In trying to define what eating is from a practice perspective, he creates the new concept of a ‘compound’ practice to account for its scale and ubiquity. Specifically, he suggests that four integrative practices each make up the practice of eating, which affords it a different ontological status. These are (1) supplying food, (2) cooking, (3) the organisation and rules associated with meals, and (4) aesthetic judgements of taste. But why stop here? What about the integrative practice of shopping for food, or disposing of it?

A world without boundaries

In my opinion, debates over definitions, boundaries and ontological status of different practices lead us down a normative path. Striving towards a taxonomy of practices cuts against the radicalism and fluidity of analysis that the theory offers.

Having encountered practice theory at the start of my PhD, I found the radical decentring of the individual to be intellectually liberating, offering possibilities for research into social activity and energy demand which challenge the conventional methods and approaches of social science. If the entire social world is made up of practices alone, then whichever way you turn, whichever question you seek to answer, you will find practices to investigate. Concepts such as the ‘constellation of elements’ evoke an image of the chaotic social world which begins to represent the complexity and dynamism of lived-experience.

On a practical level, imposing rules and definitions on practices allows commentators to cast aspersions on others’ chosen practice for analysis. Typing, one might say, is not a practice in itself, but a constituent element of other practices such as ‘working’, ‘writing’, or ‘catching up with emails’. My contention is that the definition of practice is solely dependent on your research question.

If for example, you are attempting to trace the history of the secretarial profession, it is entirely appropriate to trace the trajectory and development of typing. Indeed, given the importance of material configurations (the adoption of the QWERTY format), the social meanings associated with the highly gendered practice, and the competences of touch-typing, practice theory may offer a valuable analytical framework for such a study. Returning to the example of eating, if your research is concerned with how family mealtimes have changed in the recent past, then it seems reasonable to define ‘eating at the table’ as a practice, in order to contrast it with ‘eating on the go’, or ‘grazing’.

This is not to say that drawing boundaries around a practice is a trivial exercise. It is a critical part of research design, as much as defining the research question and sampling for empirical data gathering. The challenge for the researcher is to identify a practice that allows them to best utilise the epistemological approach offered by practice theory, and to uncover insights into social activity that might not have been found using another conceptual framework.

For my recent paper on working from home, practice theory assisted me in developing my empirical approach, as well as analysing results. Although one could argue that working from home is simply a performance of work, but in a particular spatial setting, I chose to define home working itself as a discrete practice. This encouraged me to seek to find distinctive characteristics and themes associated with this activity. I was able to explore ideas of comfort, control and flexibility, which appeared to take on particular meanings and relevance within the practice. In decentring the individual and thinking about the dynamic constellation of elements, practice theory encouraged me to account for the material and affective dimensions of practice. This helps to bring to attention the importance of elements such as clothing and blankets, and the distinct ‘homely’ atmosphere created through tinkering and adapting aspects of our environment.

Reading sociological research and attending social science conferences, it can sometimes feel as though there is a ‘correct’ way to use practice theory. Debates and criticisms over where to draw boundaries can detract from the value of practice theory as an analytical framework. Perhaps this is related to the traditions and motivations of the researcher. For some, the theoretical integrity of practice theory as an explanatory account of the social world may be a core objective. For others, social theory is used primarily in support of their empirical work.

In my own research, I am motivated by the challenging of understanding how energy is used in the course of everyday life, and how social science can uncover patterns of consumption and opportunities which may lead to carbon emissions reduction. Rather than try to develop a taxonomy of practices and potentially be hindered by its ’proper’ use, it makes sense to be led by the research subject, and deploy its analytical strengths more fluidly.