Consumption and the theories of practice: promises and challenges of the approach

woman-160281__340As promised, today I am going to explore another theoretical avenue and way of thinking about consumption – theories of practice and, particularly, Elizabeth Shove and colleagues’ (2012) social practice theory. Rather surprisingly, I have only recently come across this conceptual approach whilst reviewing some of the latest literature on ethical consumption, and it is at the BSA conference that I realized its importance and relevance to consumer research.

The social practice theory has been developed by Elisabeth Shove and her colleagues and is the subject matter of their book “The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes” (2012). Being a valuable addition to existent theories of practice, it has quickly caught the wave of contemporary sociological thinking and found wide application in social research. Importantly, it has informed and, as the BSA’s session on “Risk, Globalisation, Climate Change and Beyond” showed, continues to inform studies in the field of consumption as well as sustainability to which understanding of the nature of human behavior, choices and actions is key. The theory was in the focus of all four papers that the session comprised of, and my discussion is very much informed by what I have heard there as well as Shove et al.’s original work with which I still continue to familiarise myself.

In their book, Shove and colleagues claim the social practice theory to be a response to the ever-pressing need to understand the nature of social change and apply that understanding to achieve desired behavioural shifts in the spheres of consumption, sustainability, equality and so on. They aim to do this by revealing the dynamics of emergence, reproduction and transformation of social practices, the elements of which they are constituted, and the links they are bound with.  It is far beyond the scope of one blog post to provide a detailed account of the theory but I’d like to emphasize those key postulations which bear most relevance to the understanding of human consumption:

– practices are constituted of materials, conventions and competences

– consumption is just a moment in a social practice centered around achieving other targets (Shove and colleagues concisely describe these key targets with three Cs – convenience, comfort and cleanliness)

– individuals are not independent agents of rationalized choices but rather merely carriers of various social practices

household-energy-useEach of the postulations has important implications for how we conceptualize consumption and understand consumer behavior. In an article on consumption and theories of practice, Alan Warde (2005) also reflects on consumption as embedded in everyday practices, routines and relationships, such as childcare, career development or dating. Within this logic, consumption is not the end goal and does not have value in and of itself but occurs within and for the sake of other practices. Early developers of the theories of practice Schatzki and Wittgenstein (1996) draw an important distinction between dispersed practices (such as explaining, imagining, describing) which are about “knowing how to do something” (Warde, 2005, p. 135) and are embedded in various other activities, and integrative practices which make up specific domains and are themselves constituted from a combination of dispersed practices (cooking is one example of such integrated practice). Within this logic, consumption is not an integrative, but a dispersed practice, and is best thought of as not even a practice itself, but “rather, a moment in almost every practice” (Warde, 2005, p. 137).  Such conceptualization of consumption implies that consumer choices should be understood as functional elements in social practices and much less as expressions of individuals’ identities, values or concerns.

This line of thinking has important implications for our understanding of consumer behaviour and the possibilities (and correct ways) of changing it.  However, the theory (just as all others) is not immune to critique – in his presentation at the BSA conference Alan Warde has outlined 10 key problematic issues inherent in this conceptual approach to social life. Those included such matters as ontological and epistemological status of practices (performances vs. entities), the need to account for the processes of habituation and institutionalization, methodological protocols and practical application of the theory as well as some others, but the one I particularly side with concerns the level of explanation that the theory is capable to offer. As Alan Warde emphasized, by taking collective social practices as the unit of analysis, this approach jumps straight ahead to the meso-level of social analysis overlooking the micro-level (that of individuals) which still awaits its understanding and explanation. Likewise, I feel quite uncomfortable with the idea that to understand consumption one must somehow go beyond consumers, almost overlook them as unimportant elements or, to use Shove and colleagues’ own term, merely “carriers” of social practices. Still, I think the theory can be very useful in explaining certain aspects of consumer behavior – something I am now alert to and will definitely watch for in my fieldwork.

References

Schatzki, T. R., & Wittgenstein, L. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Warde, A. (2005). Consumption and theories of practice. Journal of consumer culture, 5(2), 131-153.

Warde, A. (2014). Sustainable Consumption and Theories of Practice, British Sociological Association Conference 2014, University of Leeds, Leeds, 23-25 April.

More on the theories of practice

Brand, K. W. (2010). Social practices and sustainable consumption: Benefits and limitations of a new theoretical approach. In Environmental Sociology (pp. 217-235). Springer Netherlands.

Hards, S. (2011). Social practice and the evolution of personal environmental values. Environmental values, 20(1), 23-42.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: everyday life and how it changes. Sage.

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