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Practice Theory

Page history last edited by Hannah Limov 9 years, 9 months ago

 

Table of Contents 



 

Main Points

 

     The anthropological concept of Practice theory is not necessarily a defined theory, but a perspective used in collaboration with other anthropological theories, such as functionalism or symbolic anthropology.  The main idea of Practice Theory is analyzing the relationship between established structures of culture and how the people in reality act within that structure.  Practice Theory focuses on the idea that people are not only influenced by their social structure, but influence their social structure as well.  This idea of a circular relationship between people and society is a founding aspect of practice theory.  In Sherry Ortner's description of Practice Theory she lays out three main aspects of this practice: the Power Shift, Historic Turn, and the Re-Interpretation of Culture.[1]

 

 

Power Shift

     The power shift was characterized by a changing view of power. This view changed from defining power as the dominance of one class over the other, to power relationships between every individual.  In this way, power is viewed as a product of human agency, not as an objective force in society.  "Habitus" is a term central to the power shift as well. It refers to how people habituate their power roles, and therefore create the structure that exists.  Other founding practice theorists believe that power relationships have a certain level of consciousness and therefore people actively create resistance to the structure that exists.

 

 

Historic Turn

     The historic turn was a anthropological movement that strayed away from conventional theories, and focused on individual cultures rather than universal theories.  It focuses on temporality, or history as a key element to cultures, and a key element of shifting ways of feeling in these cultural structures.  Studying the history and time factor in a cultural practice is crucial to understanding the reasons why it has occurred.  The analysis of time was sometimes used in short-term contexts, such as the importance of time length in the reciprocation of a gift.  If the gift was returned too soon, it could show that the giver wishes to end the relationship quickly.  It it is returned later, then it may show disrespect, or disinterest in continuation of the relationship.[2]  The historic turn served as a way to study a culture's history and its effects on the current customs of the culture.  

 

 

Re-interpretation of Culture

     In previous interpretations of culture, there was an accepted concept that people are influenced, and possibly defined, by their culture.  Anthropologists would attribute human action and practice in relation to their respective culture.  However, this frame sometimes led to cultural stereotyping and profiling of people to explain how they acted in relation to their culture.  In contrast to this approach, Practice Theory acknowledges that culture is a thing that is mobile, and therefore does not exist where certain ethnicities are based, but can spread across areas.  In this view of culture, it is a thing that does not define people; rather the people define it by giving it meaning in their lives.  This re-interpretation of culture's definition was an important characteristic of Practice Theory.

 

 

Habitus

     One of the main points illustrated about Practice theory is the concept of habitus. This was brought up by Bordieu in his book, The Logic of Practice, in a section titled "Structures, Habitus, Practices." Habitus is explained  to be “...systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is as a principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.” [3]In layman's terms, habitus can be defined as being the collective set of practices and habits that an individual or collective group partakes in on a day to day basis. By looking at how habitus materializes, we can see the similarities between individuals and classes who are more likely to undergo the same experiences and understand how these have become homogenized to become an indicator of a culture.

 



 

Key Figures

 

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

 

[4]

 

     Pierre Bourdieu was a French social scientist who was born in 1930. His family was of modest means and lived in a province in southwestern France [5]. He obtained his degree in philosophy from Ecole Normal Superίeure. Shortly after, Bourdieu was sent to Algeria for his military service in 1955 [6]. He also conducted research and taught at the University of Algiers. During his stay at the university, Bourdieu also carried out many extensive fieldwork projects and surveys there [7]. Some of his research included the rural Kabyle and the Berber-speaking migrants to Algiers [8].  Bourdieu was strongly influenced by the relationship between culture and power, which eventually led him to be involved in political efforts [9]. Bourdieu's involvement in political affairs led him to start his own ethnographic research in the midst of a violent struggle between Algeria and France after World War II [10].  The purpose of his research on Algeria was to understand the war, and in doing so, Bourdieu came to follow a structuralist agenda. However, while organizing his data, he made two conclusions—that methods and devices used to assist in organizing data were assumed to be the most logical models, which were from the anthropologist’s culture. Secondly, it indicated a bias and an outsider's perspective on observing the Algerian society were not the acts of rules but the products of a more fluid and often contradictory social experience.[11]Following these conclusions, he then decided to understand the Algerian culture by observing the everyday actions, behaviors etc. of the people.

 

     However, in 1960, Bourdieu moved back to Paris because the pro-colonial Algiers forced him to flee. This was because, classified as a certain type of ‘liberal’, he was under the threat of death [12]. In Paris at the L’Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes, he organized a group of scholars to examine European educational systems [13]. At this time, Bordieu also continued to analyze field data collected during sojourns in rural and urban Algeria until 1964.  During the 1970’s, Bourdieu had slowly established his position in French academia through streams of publications. Some books that he wrote were Distinction (1979/1984) and The Logic of Practice (1980/1990), which propelled Bourdieu to become the chair of sociology at the College of France in 1981 [14].  Bourdieu continued to write books and publish articles from his perspectives of intellectual fields such as art history, educational research, cultural studies and philosophy until he died in 2002 of cancer. By the end of his death, he had written forty five books and 500 articles [15].

 

     Bourdieu’s work contributed and was very influential to anthropology through his development of the Practice Theory. He wrote two books, Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) and The Logic of Practice (1990) that truly explains and elaborates upon the concept of Practice Theory[16]. Bourdieu explained the theory of practice by arguing that culture is the exclusive product neither of free will nor of underlying principles, but is instead actively constructed by social actors from cultural dispositions and structured by previous events [17]. Contributing to Practice Theory, Bourdieu introduced the terms doxa, habitus and practice to help comprehend the rules that underlie social behavior [18].

 

Sherry Ortner (1941-present)

 

 

     Sherry Ortner was born on September 19, 1941 in Newark, New Jersey.  Ortner received her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1962.  She went on to receive her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago while studying with another prominent anthropologist, Clifford Geertz.[19]Ortner's graduate work began with field research on Sherpas in the Himalayas during 1966-1969 with her then husband, Robert Paul, who was also a graduate of the University of Chicago.  Once she had received her Ph.D., she taught at Sarah Lawrence College during the early 1970s. From 1977 to 1994, Ortner taught in the Women’s Studies and Anthropology programs at the University of Michigan.  Following her stint at the University of Michigan, Ortner taught briefly at the University of California at Berkeley and then Columbia University.[20]  Since 2004, she has taught at University of California at Los Angeles.  In 1990, she was also a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant.  

 

     In 2004, Ortner was given the J.I. Staley prize for writing the best anthropology book of the year.[21] Ortner has acquired many honors in her career from “the National Science Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, American Academy of Arts and Retzius Medal of the Society of Anthropology and Geography of Sweden.”[22]


     Practice Theory as explained by Ortner “...seeks to explain the relationship(s) that obtain between human action, on the one hand, and some global entity which we call 'the system' on the other."  She goes on to state, “every usage of the term 'practice' presupposes a question of the relationship between practice and structure."[23] 

 

     She believes there were three major criterion in anthropology at the end of the 1950s: British structural-functionalist, psychocultural, and American evolutionist. "Practice Theory examines the things people do and say on a daily basis. By practicing, or participating in, these events people are strengthening their cultural systems, but the systems also shape them. Ortner describes Practice Theory as a blend of Geertzian thick description with a more politicized view of culture that focuses on the relationship between individuals and the overarching social and economic structures that organize their lives."[24]

 


 

Key Texts

 

 

Outline of a Theory of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu

     Practice Theory seeks to find the context of events that a structuralist theory is unable to address and/or explain. Pierre Bordieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice is centralized on habitus, unconscious behavior that is constructed and limited by an individual's previous experiences, or as Bourdieu defines it, "spontaneity without consciousness or will" [25].  In direct contrast to structuralism, practice theory believes social structures to be set forth and defined by the actions of the people, in particular habitus. He theorizes that, to an extent, structures also influence one's habitus, but only in regards to social 'norms' that have already been set forth by society. In this respect, habitus and institutionalization coexist in self-perpetuating cycles.

     Bourdieu goes on to explain how class and habitus perpetuate each other. Stating, "each member of the same class is more likely than any member of another class to have been confronted with the situations most frequent for members of that class"[26], Bourdieu explains the ways in which people simultaneously depend upon and construct solidarity within their specific class. Humans learn to institutionalize and internalize these common 'choices' from an early age. This sense of belonging and oneness with the class is a key part of a child's enculturation and will effectively influence the 'choices' the child makes for the remainder of his or her life. Habitus is the basis of the social norms set forth by a specific society. 

     In addition to habitus' influence on particular classes within a society, habitus has a very key role on all the 'choices' people make. As Bourdieu explains, the so called 'choices' people make are in fact mere reflections of both their personal and their class habitus. One's new experiences are constantly changing their prior experiences; however, Bourdieu suggests that the elder experiences are more influential because they have given a foundation for the 'choices' made later in life. Bourdieu goes on to suggest that human beings seek the 'choices' that will help to reinforce their habitus; he compares this process to a "...sequence of programmed actions produced by a mechanical apparatus" [27].  He claims the choices people make to be created by an objective, unconscious avoidance of anything that may disturb the equilibrium of the world in relation to the habitus. According to Bourdieu, all 'choices' made are the answer to "...the paradox of the information needed in order to avoid information"[28] that might otherwise harm the habitus. He explains this as a self-defense mechanism set in place by the habitus in order to avoid questioning the previously acquired information. 

    

 

Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power and the Acting Subject by Sherry Ortner

     Sherry Ortner’s Anthropology and Social Theory draws on Practice Theory to offer solutions to modern problems. She examines issues related to social class as well as the relationship between power and agency. In one of her essays, she specifically addresses the relationship between race and middle-class identity in the United States. On page 3 of the book she writes that Practice Theory suggests restoring "the actor to the social process without losing sight of the larger structures that constrain (but also enable) social action"[29]. In this book Ortner rethinks key concepts of culture, agency and subjectivity in order to apply them to anthropology in the twenty-first century. The book is comprised of seven essays, both of interpretive and theoretical nature. She argues that the concept of culture needs to be reconfigured and suggests applying elements of Practice Theory in order to do this. She stresses the notion of human agency and demonstrates how social theories must build upon one another in order to be relevant in modern contexts. 

 


 

Critiques

     Though the Practice Theory of Anthropology is one that encompasses a more holistic approach by validating an individual’s agency within the context of their society, it still has its downfalls and critiques. However, given that it is one of the newest anthropological frames of thought, this theory has limited critique.

 

Stephen Turner

     One of the key and only authors critiquing practice theory is Stephen Turner in his book Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presupposition.[30] In his book, Turner argues that practice theory’s focus on agency and social constructs is too limiting in the analysis of other cultures and societies. He states that although Practice Theorists may be trying to find an overarching idea that defines all cultures, this generality is a product of the assumption that knowledge is tacit, or that knowledge is understood or implied without being specifically stated. According to Turner, however, cultures do not have an identifiable means by which a "practice" can be transmitted or recreated. Essentially, Practice Theorists' dependency upon the idea of tacit knowledge limits their description and understanding of how "practice" is shared and handed down. Thus, without this basis of tacit knowledge there can be no such theory of practice.

 

     Additionally, Turner states that Practice Theory is too general in stating that all individuals of a society live under universal or shared social constructs. Since the individual is directly affecting what the social constructs are in their community, the social constructs will never be the same for every individual. This negates the fact that the construct is in fact a universal social construct at all. This argument then goes further by stating that because of this lack of a shared or universal construct within a society, there can be no way for these "universal practices" to be transmitted to the next generation. 

[31]

 

Raymond Williams (1921-1988)

 

     

     Another critique of Practice Theory comes from renowned critic and novelist, Raymond Williams. He is most notably known for his contribution to the Cultural Marxist critique, in which he espouses upon the hegemony present in all cultures. Marked by his childhood class origins, Williams consistently emphasized class and power at the root of most cultures.[32]   Though not explicitly, Williams here notes an often-cited flaw in Practice Theory, its absence of hegemony and power roles altogether.[33] Used by Laura Ahearn in her ethnography Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, & Social Change in Nepal, this presence of power and hegemony is becoming more and more integrated into Practice Theory as anthropologists and other researchers understand the significance that power and hegemony have within any particular culture. [34]

Deutschland über alles.

Footnotes

  1. Ortner, Sherry B. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Duke University Press Books, 2006.
  2. "Updating Practice Theory," Sherry Ortner
  3. Bordieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. 1 ed. Stanford University Press, 1992.
  4. "Pierre Bourdieu." Gluon Symmetry. Web. 18 Nov 2010. .
  5. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 322. Print.
  6. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 322. Print.
  7. Wacquant, Loic. "The Sociological Life of Pierre Bourdieu." International Sociology 17.4 (2002): 552. Web. 18 Nov 2010. .
  8. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 322. Print.
  9. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 323. Print.
  10. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 326. Print.
  11. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 324. Print.
  12. Wacquant, Loic. "The Sociological Life of Pierre Bourdieu." International Sociology 17.4 (2002): 552. Web. 18 Nov 2010. .
  13. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 322. Print.
  14. Wacquant, Loic. "The Sociological Life of Pierre Bourdieu." International Sociology 17.4 (2002): 553. Web. 18 Nov 2010. .
  15. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 334. Print.
  16. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 325. Print.
  17. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 321. Print.
  18. Moore, Jerry. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 329. Print.
  19. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/Ortner.htm, accessed 18 November 2010.
  20. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/klmno/ortner_sherry.html, accessed 18 November 2010.
  21. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/ortner/teach.html, accessed 18 November 2010.
  22. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/ortner/teach.html, accessed 18 November 2010.
  23. http://www.elizd.com/website-LeftBrain/essays/practice.html, accessed 18 November 2010.
  24. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/Ortner.htm, accessed 18 November 2010.
  25. Bordieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 56
  26. Bordieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 60
  27. Bordieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 60
  28. Bordieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 61
  29. Ortner, Sherry B. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
  30. Turner, S. P. (1994). The social theory of practices: tradition, tacit knowledge, and presuppositions. University of Chicago Press.
  31. Turner, S. P. (1994). The social theory of practices: tradition, tacit knowledge, and presuppositions. University of Chicago Press.
  32. Drummond, Philip (2010). Raymond williams: british media critic. The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved from http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=williamsray.
  33. McGranahan, Carole. "Practice Theory." ANTH 2100. University of Colorado at Boulder. November 1, 2010. Lecture.
  34. Ahearn, Laura M. (2009). Invitations To Love (A. Arbor, Ed.) Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. (Original work published 2006).

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