Practice-based approach to human values: a critical perspective Part 1

ethics-2110591__340Last week I have been exploring social theories which could help me to better understand and interpret my data. One of the outstanding questions I still have to address concerns the origins of human values. In light of this, the title of Sarah Hards’ (2011) article – “Social practice and the Evolution of Personal Environmental Values” – looked especially attractive. I found Hards’ work enormously useful in helping me to clarify my own stance on the genealogy and nature of personal values (although I don’t claim that these views are crystal clear, fully developed or not subject to change). What follows further is a critique rather than an endorsement of Hards’ account and I will only present a portion of it in this week’s post.

In her article, Hards applies ideas from the social practice theory to explain aspects of human-environment relations. Specifically, she draws on the practice-based approach to human values to offer an alternative perspective on the process of formation and development of individual environmental values – “ethical, political and spiritual worldviews relating to the environment, and understandings of and relations with nature” (Hards, 2011, p. 26). Within this approach values are understood to form and develop not within the person, but through people’s continuous social interactions and, specifically, encounters with the values and ideas circulating within and broadly shared by the society. Values are taken to be essential co-constitutive components of social practices, the latter being defined as “durable social structure(s) made up of a configuration of elements, including: ideas, emotions, and meanings associated with the activity; mental and physical skills required to perform it; and materials and equipment needed” (Shove and Pantzar, 2005 cited in Hards, 2011, p. 24). Importantly, such commonly shared ideas, which every social practice is defined by, are argued to have a restricting impact on individuals’ performance of practices, meaning that people enact any given practice in the ways that conform to the social values around it.

One of the major implications of this approach is the absence of distinction between personal and social values. I find several problems with this view. Firstly, the assumption that every social practice tends to be enacted on commonly recognized and approved terms fails to adequately account for the variations in individual performances of any given social practice which, undoubtedly, can be and are found both across and within societies. As Hards (2001, p. 25) notes herself, “a social practice exists only when it is performed by individuals, and while people, are sometimes described as its “carriers” (Reckwitz, 2002) they can transform it by performing it in new ways”. While the social practice approach recognizes individuals as “active and creative, constantly reinterpreting social structures and norms within the changing contexts of their lives” (ibid.), to explain continuous transformation of social practices by referring solely to the contextual nature of people’s actions is to acknowledge only one side of the story. Apart from objective structural conditions which, undoubtedly, shape the ways in which we act, these ways are also defined by individuals’ subjectivity and, more specifically, the particular concerns that their engagement in practice is ultimately meant to address. In other words, people exercise creativity in relation to their performance of social practices not only in response to the changing structural conditions, but also to more comprehensively and effectively accommodate their subjective concerns, desires, and needs. Since individuals hold different values and embrace different concerns depending on their personal backgrounds, experiences, and circumstances (as well as surrounding structural factors), not only do they engage in different social practices, but their performances of them are also distinct and may either conform or run contrary to societal expectations and norms. We have already seen examples of this in the stories of Lucy and Solveig, who engage in veganism – an example of a social practice rigidly defined by a set of commonly held ideas and norms – in two very different ways: Lucy exhibiting total compliance with the broadly shared ideas about what it means to be a vegan, while Solveig willfully subverting social norms around veganism for the sake of her own ultimate concerns. Thus, the contrast between Solveig’s and Lucy’s performance of the practice of veganism arises not due to the factors of external reality, but those found within them, i.e. their subjectively defined concerns. The subversion of social norms in Solveig’s case is possible because human beings have subjective powers to succumb to or evade social affectivity (i.e. feelings of emotional distress in response to societal judgments) by either embracing or staying dispassionate to particular social norms – an argument advanced both by Archer (2000) and Goffman (1959), contending that for social evaluations to have any affective impact on us, we first need to recognize appropriate societal norms and incorporate them into our own moral matrix. Thus, social conceptions of any given practice will circumscribe individual performances of it only if the subjects come to prioritise their underlying values over their other values in life. As we have seen, commonly shared understandings of veganism guide Solveig’s food practice only to the extent that they do not transgress her ultimate concerns.

Secondly, the idea that individual values are merely expressions of the norms and ideas dominating the surrounding ethical, political, and cultural discourses calls for significantly greater degrees of social conformity than those any society can showcase. Application of this argument to environmental beliefs is especially problematic due to a lack of consensus about what is good for the environment and how to achieve it. Although Hards exemplifies her discussion of the relationships between ideas and practices by referring to “a broadly shared conception of what it means to live a low-carbon life” (2011, p. 26), the messages on how to shrink your carbon footprint circulating in the general public discourse are far from unambiguous. Thus, organic foodstuffs are commonly understood to have lower CO2 footprint than conventionally grown produce. At the same time, warnings abound that the environmental benefits of organic goods shipped over lengthy distances are, to say the least, questionable, if not altogether outweighed by the negative impact. An ethically minded person must exercise his own judgment as to which choices, out of those available to him, would bring the greater good. Depending on his values and concerns, he may either decide that investing in conventional but locally developed agriculture is a better way to support the environment or, alternatively, that buying organic from struggling growing communities in the developing world is morally justified. In either case, the practice of ethical consumption is interpreted and adjusted in light of the subjects’ personal values and commitments that may well have been developed prior to, independently from and outside of the practice itself.

Hards’ own study appears to corroborate this argument. As she notes, for some climate change activists nature-related values were not the primary motif behind their environmental practice – instead, issues of social justice were the priority. This reveals that the underlying meaning of participants’ environmentally oriented actions was determined by their subjectively defined concerns, rooted in their individual life experiences. Subjects’ performances of practice are therefore shaped by what they perceive to be the most important issue and hence the ultimate goal of their involvement in it. Further, Hards highlights how the participants’ values were triggered by their widely differing individual experiences, from tending animals to taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. It seems to me that such obviously arbitrary nature of the experiences from which people can derive their morals speaks against the argument that values are neither individually developed nor personally possessed, but are mere expressions of broadly shared social ideas.

My objections to the practice-based approach to human values do not end here but, being mindful of the excessive word count of this post, I will continue the discussion next week.


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


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