IMG_8078The last two weeks have been busy and full of exciting events – I’ve been travelling, giving a talk at the departmental seminar (pic on the right!), and interviewing restaurant owners in State College for a guest post on the Rock Ethics Institute’s blog. I hope this sounds as a valid excuse for skipping last week’s posting, supposed to be the sequel to the previous one in which I looked at Sarah Hards’ application of the social practice theory to understanding the origins and formation of individual environmental values. Today I take up this discussion.

To reiterate – I don’t intend to object to the assertion that “personal values are drawn from the ideas circulating within the environment, and are shaped by social context” (Hards, 2001, p. 31). The argument about “the situated nature of values and practices as enabled and constrained by the various landscapes in which individuals are embedded” that Hards (2011, p. 39) advances based on her study findings is the one that my own research confirms. However, this seems to be different from claiming that social practices are rigidly defined by an unbending “set of ideas, including values (…) that enables and limits the thoughts and actions of those performing it” (Hards, 2001, p. 26). To suggest that people’s values are rooted in their engagement in practices, contextual experiences, and social interactions is different from arguing that socially developed and endorsed ideas about any given practice are the sole prime determinants of how and to what ends individuals perform it. Neither do I find compelling the idea that personal values do not exist outside the social world. This reduces individuals to their sociality and strips them of their emergent property of personal identity which, as Archer would contend, is defined exactly by what people value and care about in life. To endorse the conflation of personal and social values means to subscribe to Goffman’s (1958) view that personhood can only be developed and understood through social interactions and never outside the social world. Archer, to the contrary, makes a clear distinction between social and personal values. For her, social

(…) conventions and agreements are themselves culturally emergent properties (CEPs) which derive from past chains of interaction, but which, in any contemporary context, are pre-existent to, have relative autonomy from, and exercise causal efficacy over the present “generation” of subjects. Individuals confront them, they do not create them, although they may transform them (Archer, 2000, p. 217-218). 

This approach clearly does not favour the conflation of values and practices, whereas the social practice theory understands values as constitutive of and by the practices. To me, the latter view seems to suffer from a serious flaw – to see values as inherently and inevitably part and parcel of practices implies that whoever engages in any given social practice is always acting upon and expressing the values that are commonly associated with it. However, different people may engage in the same practice for different reasons and with different purposes, without being concerned about – or even aware of – its underlying values. Thus, George – one of my research participant whom I haven’t yet introduced on my blog – admits that he chooses organic products because of their presumed health benefits and better quality rather than out of a desire to reduce his negative environmental footprint. In claiming that “people carry or express ideas that are circulating in their social environment”, Hards (2011, p. 26) seems to overlook an important nuance, i.e. that through performance of particular practices people may transmit ideas and values without necessarily expressing compliance with or commitment to them. To come back to the previously mentioned example, George’s purchase of organic produce may be conveying environmental values to the people around him, who may perceive his choices as a reflection of the values commonly associated with organic consumption, and yet his shopping practice does not express environmental values in the sense of manifesting what is important to him for it pursues particular personal benefits and is therefore devoid of any value-content.

The same argument can be justly applied to what could be called ‘involuntary’ or ‘forced’ ethical consumption. Ethical choices may simply be forced upon individuals by the system of collective provision – thus, establishments committed exclusively to fair trade procurement are increasingly common and now range from schools, workplaces, rail stations, and churches to entire towns. Such “governing of consumption” does not necessarily require the governing of consumers, for it is “acts not identities or beliefs” (Clarke et al., 2007, p. 241) that it is fundamentally concerned with (Barnett et al., 2010; Wheeler, 2012). I refer to Barnett et al.’s account (I discussed their application of the theory of governmentality to ethical consumption here) not in order to endorse the dismissal of consumers as agents of conscious choice, or ethical purchases as an expression of individual values, commitments, and concerns, but to vindicate the distinction between values and practices. Although consumption acts in ‘forced’ or ‘unintentional’ ethical consumption are consistent with what society would broadly define as ethical shopping and, moreover, although they may well have ethical derivatives, since the choice is made in pursuit of some other goals or simply due to the lack of alternatives, it is void of the value-content and cannot be claimed to express environmental values or contribute to their development. For the practice to be expressive of values, its performer must, first of all, subscribe to and, furthermore, intentionally act upon them.

Thus, it seems to me that the distinction between personal and social values is the one that can and should be made. Yet, as I stressed before, I do not aim to deny the social nature of values. There is no objection to the argument that individuals derive their principles and views from within the society and its dominant moral discourses, and societal normative order has the power to affect or, in the words of Archer, “exercise causal efficacy” over individuals and their courses of actions. What I do argue, however, is that personal and social values are separate from – albeit in a continuous dialogue and interaction with – each other, as are our personal and social identities. Individuals possess the agential properties to transform the social into the personal by rejecting some norms and subscribing to others – the ones that they internalise and embrace as guides to a morally satisfying – from their subjective perspective – way of life. Moreover, individual performances of any given social practice cannot be universally homogenous precisely because they are informed not merely by the socially shared ideas around that practice, but also by what individuals themselves want to achieve through it.


Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2010). Globalizing responsibility: The political rationalities of ethical consumption. John Wiley & Sons.

Clarke, N., et al. (2007) ‘Globalising the consumer: doing politics in an ethical register’, Political Geography, vol. 26, pp. 231_249.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.

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

Wheeler, K. (2012). ‘Change today, Choose Fairtrade’ Fairtrade Fortnight and the citizen-consumer. Cultural Studies, 26(4), 492-515.


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