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Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory

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Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory
Martha S. Feldman1

University of California, Irvine
Wanda J. Orlikowski

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This paper describes the emerging field of practice theory as it is practiced in relation to organizational phenomena. We identify three approaches — empirical, theoretical, and philosophical — that relate to the what, the how and the why of using a practice lens. We discuss three principles of the theoretical approach to practice, and offer examples of how practice theory has been used in the organizational literature and in our own research. We end the paper with a discussion of the challenges and opportunities provided by practice theory.

KEYWORDS: Practice, practice theory, organizational research

In this paper we discuss the value of practice theory for issues of concern to organization theorists. We are motivated to write this by our own experiences, primarily our experiences as researchers and teachers but also our experiences as editors and reviewers of papers that investigate practices empirically and use practice ideas theoretically. Central to a practice lens is the notion that social life is an ongoing production and thus emerges through people’s recurrent actions. We have become intrigued by the capacity that such a lens affords for analyzing social, technological, and organizational phenomena, and we write this piece with the intent of sharing our understanding and interest in that capacity.

We believe that a practice lens has much to offer scholars of organization. And we believe this is especially the case today. Contemporary organizing is increasingly understood to be complex, dynamic, distributed, mobile, transient, and unprecedented, and as such, we need approaches that will help us theorize these kinds of novel, indeterminant, and emergent phenomena (Barley and Kunda, 2001; Child and McGrath, 2001; Ciborra, 1996; Law and Urry, 2004; Stark, 2009). We believe practice theory, with its focus on dynamics, relations, and enactment, is particularly well positioned to offer powerful analytical tools to help us here.

We begin by positioning the practice lens as a specific approach to understanding the world. We discuss a number of key analytical principles of practice theory and offer a few illustrations of current organizational scholarship that is informed by these principles. We then describe some experiences of using practice theory in our own research practice, so as to ground its use in the details of specific projects and intellectual histories. We end with a brief discussion of some of the challenges faced by practice scholars, as well as the value that can be derived from engaging in practice scholarship.

Positioning a Practice Lens

In our consideration of practice theory, we situate it in relation to three ways of studying practice (Orlikowski, 2010): an empirical focus on how people act in organizational contexts; a theoretical focus on understanding relations between the actions people take and the structures of social life; and a philosophical focus on the constitutive role of practices in producing social reality. All three of these foci are salient for scholars using a practice lens, though in any particular piece of scholarship researchers may emphasize one focus over another.

The first empirical approach to practice recognizes the centrality of people’s actions to organizational outcomes, and reflects an increasing recognition of the importance of practices in the ongoing operations of organizations. This approach answers the “what” of a practice lens — a focus on the everyday activity of organizing in both its routine and improvised forms. This approach is, to some extent, a reaction to an earlier emphasis in organizational theory that focused primarily on structural features while neglecting the agentic capacity of human action. Many scholars of contemporary organization theory recognize the importance of human agency in organizational life while making theoretical contributions to fields not necessarily associated with practice theory or practice philosophy. Dutton and Dukerich (1991), for example, develop and use identity theory in their study of the practices of employees of the New York Port Authority toward the homeless. Dougherty proposes an emergent image of differentiation and integration in innovation by focusing on “the actual work of sustained product innovation” (2001: 615). Weick and Roberts (1993) locate their study of distributed cognition within the practices of the crew of an aircraft carrier. These and many other studies emphasize the importance of human agency in producing organizational reality without taking on board either the theoretical or philosophical apparatus of a practice lens.

The second theoretical approach to practice explicitly takes on board the apparatus of practice theory. While it includes a focus on everyday activity, it is critically concerned with a specific explanation for that activity. This approach answers the “how” of a practice lens — the articulation of particular theoretical relationships that explain the dynamics of everyday activity, how these are generated and how they operate within different contexts and over time. Key theorists who have advanced specific practice-based theoretical relationships include Bourdieu (1977, 1990; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992), De Certeau (1984), Giddens (1976, 1979, 1984), and Ortner (1984, 1989). Their work has been influenced by ideas from Heidegger (1962) and Wittgenstein (1967), as well as Schutz (1967, 1970) and Garfinkel (1967). More recent influences on contemporary practice theory include the works of Latour (1987, 1992, 2005), Lave (1988), Engeström (1999) and Schatzki (2001, 2002, 2005). As we discuss below, working with the specific theoretical ideas of practice theorists requires researchers to engage with the core logic of how practices are produced, reinforced, and changed, and with what intended and unintended consequences.

The third philosophical approach to practice entails the premise that social reality is fundamentally made up of practices. That is, rather than seeing the social world as external to human agents or as socially constructed by them, this approach sees the social world as brought into being through everyday activity. This approach answers the “why” of a practice lens — a focus on everyday activity is critical because practices are understood to be the primary building blocks of social reality. Such an ontology may be more or less explicit in researchers’ use of practice theory. For Schatzki, for example, practice theories represent a distinct social ontology: “the social is a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices centrally organized around shared practical understandings (2001: 3). Some researchers use a practice ontology to question the status of the phenomenon they are studying (e.g., Gherardi, 2006; Lave, 1988). They do so by making the ontological primacy of practice — that is, that practices are fundamental to the production of social reality — a focal aspect of their research agenda (e.g., on learning and knowledge) and then use it to reconsider and respecify the phenomenon of interest (e.g., in terms of collective doing and cognition in practice). Other uses of practice theory may be simply consistent with a practice ontology without making the fundamental status of the phenomenon under investigation core to their research question.

These three approaches represent three different foci that practice researchers may emphasize in their use of a practice lens. In the rest of this paper, we focus primarily on the middle approach — practice theory — while referring occasionally to the empirical and philosophical approaches. As a theoretical paradigm, practice theory is still a relatively unsettled intellectual landscape with multiple sources, influences, and instances. As such, there is no definitive cannon of practice theory that is widely accepted by most scholars (Schatzki, 2001; Gherardi, 2006). What we hope to do here then is to outline some principles based on how practice theory is currently understood and applied within organizational research, so as to provide a point of reference for scholars reading this research and those choosing to engage with it in their own research practice.

Practice Theory overview

While practice theory is a broad intellectual landscape, there are some recognizable features that have emerged and which are relatively common to the scholars working within the terrain. Here we sketch the outlines of some core principles of a practice theory. We then offer a few brief illustrations of how scholars have applied some of these core ideas within organizational studies, before turning to our own experiences.

Some Principles of Practice Theory

Critical to practice theory is the relationship between specific instances of situated action and the social world in which the action takes place. While various practice theorists emphasize different aspects of these relationships and elaborate distinct logics, all generally subscribe to a key set of theorizing moves: 1) that situated actions are consequential in the production of social life; 2) that dualisms are rejected as a way of theorizing; and 3) that relationships of mutual constitution are important. These principles cannot be taken singly, but implicate one another. In the following we try to make these very abstract principles more concrete.

Practice theory argues that everyday actions are consequential in producing the structural contours of social life. While this principle of consequentiality is worked out differently by different theorists, the general principle of consequentiality is found throughout practice theory. For Bourdieu, the habitus is a “generative principle of regulated improvisation … which reactivates the sense objectified in institutions” (1991: 57ff). For Giddens, practices are those social actions that recursively produce and reproduce the structures that constrain and enable actions (1984). For Schatzki (2002), the bundles of human activity that constitute practices enact social orders. MacIntryre captures this consequential quality of practice when he describes the development of portrait painting as being driven not primarily by the external demand for portraits but by the standards of excellence created by practitioners through the practice of portrait painting (2007: 189ff). According to his view, what make portrait painting or any other activity a practice is that the action of engaging in it is consequential for the development of the activity. What is produced and how varies: it may be social structures (Giddens, 1984), field and habitus (Bourdieu, 1991), bundled arrays of activity (Schatzki, 2001), and so forth, but the productivity or consequentiality of everyday practices is consistent.

That practice is consequential for social life is, for many practice theorists, associated with a strong humanist orientation and the foregrounding of human agency (Schatzki 2002). Recent work in a posthumanist vein, however, has been strongly influencing practice theory (Schatzki, 2001). Such work — largely conducted by science and technology scholars, for example, Callon (1986), Latour (1987, 2005), Knorr Cetina (1997), Pickering (1995), Pinch (2008), and Suchman (2007) — has articulated the consequential role played by nonhumans such as natural objects and technological artifacts in producing social life. While these scholars differ as to how they theorize the status of nonhuman agency relative to human agency — for example, whether these agencies are posited to be symmetrical (Callon 1986; Latour 1987), intertwined (Pickering 1995), or entangled (Suchman 2007) — their work has been particularly influential in helping practice scholars acknowledge the importance of materiality in the production of social life.

A second principle of practice theory is the rejection of dualisms and recognition of the inherent relationship between elements that have often been treated dichotomously. These include such conceptual oppositions as mind and body, cognition and action, objective and subjective, structure and agency, individual and institutional, free-will and determinism (Reckwitz, 2002). Bourdieu’s theory of practice, for instance, takes as a central focus the deconstruction of the longstanding notion that the subjective and objective are independent and antithetical concepts. In addition, he singles out several other “antinomies — which the concept of the habitus aims to transcend — of determinism and freedom, conditioning and creativity, consciousness and the unconscious and the individual and society” (1991: 55). In the case of Giddens, a primary purpose of his work on structuration theory is to transcend the dualism of agency and structure. As he writes, “The constitution of agents and structures are not two independently given sets of phenomena, a dualism, but represent a duality” (1984: 25). While analytical oppositions are sometimes useful, practice theory encourages skepticism towards these, and the conceptual means to redefine and reintegrate concepts that have been partitioned and polarized in other theories. In particular, practice theory enables scholars to theorize the dynamic constitution of dualities, and thus avoid the twin fallacies of — on the one hand, “objectivist reification” — and on the other, “subjectivist reduction” (Taylor, 1993).

A third principle of practice theory is the relationality of mutual constitution. Though sometimes the term relational is taken to mean interpersonal, the meaning intended here echoes that of Foucault (1978) and others in viewing relational as stipulating that no phenomenon can be taken to be independent of other phenomena (Bradbury and Lichtenstein, 2000; Østerlund and Carlile, 2005). Phenomena always exist in relation with each other, produced through a process of mutual constitution. The specific interactions of phenomena entailed by relationality vary among scholars. Giddens (1984) is well known for theorizing the recursive relationship between agency and structure. In this case, it is not just that recurrent actions constitute structures, but that the enacted structures also constitute the ongoing actions. Such practices are said to be recursive because they are “constantly recreated by the same means whereby they express themselves” (Gherardi, 2006: 31). Though not using the language of recursion, Bourdieu also proposes a relationality in which practice, habitus and field produce and reproduce one another (Bourdieu, 1990; Gherardi, 2006; Chia and Holt, 2006). The notion of mutual constitution implies that social orders (structures, institutions, routines, etc.) cannot be conceived without understanding the role of agency in producing them, and similarly, agency cannot be understood “simply” as human action, but rather must be understood as always already configured by structural conditions. The ongoing nature of this constitutive relationship indicates that social regularities are always “in the making,” that is, they are ongoing accomplishments (re)produced and possibly transformed in every instance of action (Gherardi, 2006; Reckwitz, 2002).

Relations of mutual constitution are not to be confused with feedback relations, often referred to as feedback loops. Feedback involves the generation of information about system conditions that flow back to the system to control it. The notion of feedback recognizes the presence of distinct elements in a system that act on each other through information flows. While such interactions can regulate or modify the ongoing operations of a system, they are not seen to construct the system themselves. Relations of mutual constitution produce the very system of which they are a part. Escher’s 1948 lithograph “Drawing Hands” — where the left hand is depicted drawing the right hand, and vice versa (Orlikowski, 2002) — provides a visual depiction of this relational constitution.

It is important to note that relations of mutual constitution do not imply equal relations. Rather these are relations of power, laden with asymmetrical capacities for action, differential access to resources, and conflicting interests and norms. Practice theorists differ in how they theorize power. In Bourdieu’s work, for instance, power occurs through the objectification and institutionalization of subjective relations (1990). For Giddens, power is identified with the agentic capacity to “make a difference” in the world and is defined as the “the means of getting things done” (1984: 283). In his formulation of the structuration process, power relations enact structures of domination over time. Power is thus understood to have both constraining and enabling implications for everyday action. The asymmetry of relations is fundamental to practice theorizing, and as such, “the notion of power can often serve as a helpful tool for identifying the relational forces at play in a particular practice theory (Østerlund and Carlile, 2005).

Some Applications of Practice Theory

Applications of practice theory have been gaining ground within organization studies, and we offer three examples here. In the first two examples — the fields of strategy and knowledge — scholars are drawing substantively on practice theory to investigate the phenomena of strategy making and knowing in practice. In the third example — that of neo-institutionalism — scholars are drawing more lightly on practice theoretic ideas to inform their theorizing of institutional maintenance and change.

Strategy. A growing community of organizational scholars studying strategy has begun to use practice theory to understand the relational and enacted nature of strategizing (Whittington, 1992, 2006; Johnson et al., 2003, 2007; Jarzabkowski, 2005, 2008; Golsorkhi et al., 2010). Strategy here is understood as something that actors do as opposed to something that organizations have. This is an understanding of “strategy in the making” — as a dynamic accomplishment rather than a static outcome. Building on Mintzberg’s (1978) important identification of emergent and deliberate strategy, the “strategy as practice” stream of scholarship focuses in particular on how strategy is constituted through the everyday actions of organizational participants. These scholars are also interested in understanding how what is produced (strategy) serves to constrain and enable the actions taken, and with what strategic consequences. “Strategy as practice shifts the analytic focus to how strategy is constructed rather than how firms change, in order to understand the myriad of interactions through which strategy unfolds over time, each of which contains the scope and potential for either stability or change (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002)” (Jarzabkowski, 2005: 5). For example, Mantere and Vaara (2008) examine the discursive practices that create more or less participatory strategizing processes, while Kaplan (2008) explores the framing practices that create and alter the meaning and legitimacy of strategic initiatives, highlighting the different consequences resulting from practices that reinforce existing collective frames and those that produce divergent frames.

Knowledge. A number of scholars within organization studies have turned to practice theory to help them reformulate notions of knowledge commonly used in the management literature. They have drawn particularly on Giddens’ (1984) and Bourdieu’s (1990) insights into human knowledgeability, as well as work by anthropologists such as Lave (1988) and Hutchins (1995) who have argued for seeing knowledge as a consequential activity grounded in everyday, situated practice. Giddens, for instance, defines knowledgeability as “inherent within the ability to ‘go on’ within the routines of social life” (1984: 4) and Bourdieu clearly identifies knowledge as constructed within practice rather than passively recorded (1990: 52). These insights have led to an understanding of knowing-in-practice as the knowledgeability that is continually enacted through ongoing action. Such an understanding rejects the traditional dualism set up between knowledge that exists “out there” (encoded in external objects, routines, or systems) and knowledge that exists “in here” (embedded in human brains, bodies, or communities). Rather, “knowing is an ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002: 252). This enacted view of knowledge is strongly evident in research on knowledge production and sharing within organizations by such scholars as Bechky (2003a, 2003b; 2006), Brown and Duguid (1991, 1998), Boland and Tenkasi (1995), Carlile (2002, 2004), Cook and Brown (1999), Gherardi (2006), Gherardi and Nicolini (2002), Nicolini et al. (2003), Tsoukas (2005, 2009), and Wenger (1998). While the specific orientations of these scholars vary, their studies have in common the idea that knowledge is not a static entity or stable disposition, but rather an ongoing and dynamic production that is recurrently enacted as actors engage the world in practice.

Institutionalism. Institutional theory is a stream of research that has also drawn ideas from practice theorists, though in a more limited way that does not fully take up the potential of practice theory (Barley and Tolbert, 1997; Whittington, 1992). The focus of this stream is the creation of institutional fields and their effects on individual actions and cognitions (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991; Scott, 1995; Greenwood et al., 2002, 2008). This focus reflects a somewhat hierarchical and nonrecursive logic that views constraint as moving from organizational fields to institutions to individuals (Bechky, this volume). The mutually constitutive relationship between actions and institutions is rarely engaged or actively theorized. Human agency is thus portrayed as primarily shaped by macro-institutional forces, and it is largely in the presence of some exogenous shock to the system that actors are seen to shift (usually suddenly) “from unreflective participation in institutional reproduction to imaginative critique of existing arrangements to practical action for change” (Seo and Creed, 2002: 231). Such a dualistic view of agency is at odds with a practice understanding of agency as central to both the reproduction and transformation of institutions. Some recent institutional work has begun to shift this dominant view to take everyday practices more seriously as a constitutive component of institutions. This work focuses particularly on the micro-dynamics of institutional stability and change as performed by people’s actions, interpretations, relations, and strategies (Zilber, 2002; Munir and Phillips, 2005; Lawrence, 2004; Lounsbury and Crumley, 2007; Kellogg, 2009).

Having sketched out some key principles and organizational applications of practice theory, we turn now to our own experiences with practice theory to highlight how we have used its core ideas in practice and to draw attention to the value we have found in such use.

Practice Theory in Practice: Our Stories

Our two stories of using practice ideas in organizational research discuss the empirical and theoretical terrain that we have each navigated with practice theory as well as the disciplinary orientations we bring to our use of practice theory. Differences in our intellectual backgrounds and the diversity of empirical phenomena we study give different flavors to our approaches to practice theory. At least as important as the differences between us are the differences among the projects each of us have conducted. Both of us actively study practices empirically — focusing on the everyday activity of organizing in both its routine and improvised forms. In some of our research, we draw heavily on the core elements of practice theory, while backgrounding ontological issues. In other parts of our research, a practice philosophy becomes more central as when we problematize the ontological status of the phenomenon under investigation.

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