Posted by: Johan Normark | August 13, 2009

The post-positivist mantra – practice

For the past 30-35 years, the social sciences have often focused on the idea of practice, either in the form of Bourdieu or Giddens. Of course, archaeology has also been affected by these currents. However, posthumanocentric archaeology is not very fond of the idea of practice.

When a humanocentric archaeologist finds an artefact, he or she often attributes it with a practice. The word practice is used in archaeology as a term including action, acts and a way of being. Practice as a certain way of being, e.g. like the practice of writing includes various types of acts. The practice of writing would be something that could be seen as stretched out over a life-time of a scribe, and a group of scribes whose dominating practice would be writing. As such, it is assumed to be an entity that forms a continuous whole that exists even when the scribes are sleeping or eating.

Practice can be divided in two blocks; one that is based on hidden premises of deductive theories (shared presuppositions). The other refers to embodied knowledge. Many of the concepts related to practice are not as easily classified and that is why they have been so attractive. They can be discursive and corporeal at the same time, such as in Foucault’s writings. Connerton (1989) also describes embodied and inscribed practices. The embodied practices are personal and experiential performances. These practices have a great influence since they have a sensory impact. Inscribed practices are socially shared and transcend actions of an individual. These may be consciously recognized (Joyce 2000:9-10). It is the latter that is problematic.

Stephen Turner (1994) argues that “practice” has become a mantra in post-positivist social science. If sociologists are not satisfied with a social formation’s own self-justification, they tend to explain how things are done and appeal to practice, habit or tradition. The later Wittgenstein (1998) is seen as responsible for this direction. Practices are supposed to avoid the links to positivist social science, but practices are usually seen as causing people to do things in time and space. Practice theorists often treat practice in a way similar to Kuhn’s paradigm, as something external and determining. Here practice is sometimes a hidden premise or presupposition, which may then be accessible from a linguistic perspective. Practices are believed to be subconscious and resist conscious expression (Fuller 1997:316).

In posthumanocentric archaeology, practice is one way to fill out the voids in-between materialities. It is used to give us a coherent narrative but it is mainly attached to the individual human agent. A farmer farms, a scribe writes, etc. What about organizations? A practice theorist would argue that there are no agents beyond the individual human agents. An organization assemblage only exists because of individual practices according to this view. That is only partially true. The organization is an agent of its own, independent of its parts. But does the organization perform practice(s)? Can an organization have subconscious practices? If so, then also a site assemblage performs practice(s). I fear that the practice mantra does not help us out if we want to understand how greater scale assemblages work.



  1. Thanks for this post, Johan.

    Your account of practice theory as being based on the individual agent surprises me, esp. since most practice theorists are precisely seeking a virtuous middle path between what they regard as the twin excesses of methodological individualism and societal holism.

    See Reckwitz on precisely how one may bring individuals back into practice theory, a loose family of approaches focussed not on interactions, structures, systems or individuals but rather on *practices*, those embodied, shared sets of activities that can be carried out with more or less flair, dexterity and recognition.

  2. What I object against is the idea of a kind of “essentialism” in the practice that remains the same throughout time and space. Is the practice of writing the same today as when an Egyptian scribe wrote down texts four thousand years ago? Clearly the individuals are not the same so the essence must be sought in that embodied and shared sets of activities. I fail to see such an “essence”. Hence I fall back on Turner’s Humean approach that focus more on individual habits rather than Bourdieu’s shared habitus. Like DeLanda I also believe that shared sets of activities belong to greater assemblages, such as organizations or perhaps families, rather than a general practice “floating around” in-between micro and macro scales. So, is the activities of an organization, institution or a state practices in the same sense as an individual human being writing? I doubt it.


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