A Typology of Cultural Practices15 min read

In a post-Bourdieu world, it is quite uncontroversial to think of practices as bona fide cultural kinds, with some analysts speaking unabashedly of “cultural practices” as possibly the most important type of cultural phenomenon in the social and human sciences (e.g., Reckwitz 2002; Sewell 2005; Swidler 2001). This means that we can use insights gleaned from our previous reflections on cultural ontology to see how practices fit into the world of cultural kinds and even to differentiate different types of practices. This is something that some analysts do mostly implicitly. The argument in this post is that the theory of “cultural practices” could benefit from making these types of differentiations explicit.

One exception to this is Stephen Turner in his Understanding the Tacit (2014:Chap. 4), where he develops a taxonomy of practices by locating them in an “ontological property space” akin to one described previously for cultural kinds in general.

Turner’s typology can be reproduced as follows (p. 67):

SOCIAL

NONSOCIAL

Cognitive/Social

Paradigms, Weltanschauungen, Presuppositions, Structures of Consciousness or Meaning, Collective Consciousness, Systems of Collective Representations, Tacit Knowledge […]

Cognitive/Nonsocial

Artificial Intelligence Rule and Symbolic Representational Models without Sharing of Rules

Subcognitive/Social

Skills, Habitus, mores, “forms of life” and lifeworld, etc. conceived as collective […]

Subcognitive/Nonsocial

Habits, Skills, etc., as the “tacit” part of an ensemble in which there are explicit parts (activities, rituals, performances, etc.) that the individual adjusts to

Adapted from Turner (2014)

It is clear that Turner’s typology is built on the type of ontological claims about culture that we have talked about before but this time applied to practices. Thus, the column dimension is clearly a locational claim, answering the question “where are practices?” with Turner being fairly explicit about this: “The social/non-social divide refers to what can be thought of as location: whether a practice or worldview is understood to be located in some sort of supraindividual place such as ‘the social’ or is no more than what exists within individual brains and bodies” (2014: 68).

However, the column dimension is not purely about location, because one end of the continuum (“the social”) is not just a location but also makes an ontological property claim, namely that practices are social when they are shared. As Turner notes “A Kuhnian paradigm, presumably, is social and cognitive, because it is ‘shared’ rather than individual…” (68).

Note that, as we noted before, analysts will want to keep locational and property claims distinct. The reason for this is that at the other end of the continuum (“the individual”) location and property do not necessarily overlap. A practice can be located in people in the sense of existing “within individual brains and bodies” while also being shared across multiple people (this last is an ontological claim that for Turner is itself contradictory, and thus inapplicable to practices, as we will see below).

But what about “the social” as a “location” for practices? It becomes clear with further reflection that one of the virtues of thinking of culture as practices (in fact the whole motivation to turn to practice theory and abandon cultural idealism) is that the ontological claim of culture existing in a disembodied or non-physical location (e.g., Archer 1996), such as the “collective” or the “social,” is eliminated as unworkable.

This means that if we are talking about practices, then the “social” end of the continuum cannot be interpreted as a locational claim, because “the social” is not a coherent ontological location (although’s people’s bodies are). As such, the column dimension in Turner’s typology makes more sense when re-specified as a pure property dimension (shared/non-shared) than it does as a locational dimension because the whole point of practice theory is that all practices have only one ontologically coherent location, namely, human bodies (although possibly spread out into artifacts as we will see below), while only varying in whether the are shared or not (“nonsocial” in Turner’s terms although “individual” may be a better designation). In fact, Turner himself makes an argument of this sort in dismissing Harry Collins‘s (2010) idea of the “collective tacit” as developed in his Tacit and Explicit Knowledge (Turner 2014: 62-65).

The second (implicit row) dimension of Turner’s makes a more intriguing, but not necessarily unproblematic, ontological claim about practical cultural kinds. The distinction is not locational but seems to be getting at a compositional claim, namely, the idea that practices may be composed of cultural entities that vary along the dimension of representational status.

On the one hand, one can think of practices by drawing on analogies from traditional (idealist) cultural theory and the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. According to this approach, practices are modeled after the sort of representational constructs that we use to talk about more explicit sorts of ideas, propositions, assumptions, models of reality, worldviews, pictures of the world, and the like (usually represented and expressed in natural language). What makes these “cognitive practices” practical is that instead of explicit they are “tacit” or “implicit” in some way or another.

Thus according to Turner, “The ‘cognitive’ family employs notions like rule, premise, structure of consciousness, collective representations, tacit knowledge, and so forth that involve close analogies with what can be directly articulated as roles, propositions” (2014: 68). In this respect, Turner’s cognitive/subcognitive dimension differentiates between practical cultural kinds modeled after the usual lingua-form representations of intellectualist cultural theory and critical rationalism in philosophy and the more “truly practical” kinds taking the form of more bodily centered skills, action schemes, and habits characteristic of the Humean-empiricist or Aristotelian-scholastic tradition (the more prototypical concept of practice, as in Bourdieu (1990)).

In his Social Theory of Practices Turner (1994) has mounted what is, in my view, a decisive argument against the analytical (and ontological) coherence of the idea of cultural entities (whether collective or not) having the representational and semantic properties of explicit lingua-form representations and propositions but also partaking of the added quality of being tacit, implicit, unconscious, and so on (and thus seeming “practical” by being so). This means that the notion of a tacit (implicit, unconscious) representation, assumption, or worldview, whether “social” or individual emerges as another ontologically incoherent proposal. This argument applies to the entire panoply of “Cognitive/Social” conceptions of practices listed in the upper-left cell of the table.

So What?

The arguments so far suggest that the upper-left box (“Cognitive/Social”) of Turner’s typology can be eliminated on two separate ontological grounds. First, on locational grounds, it is problematic to suggest that the “social” is a coherent “location” for cultural practices (separate from individual bodies), second, and quite independently from this point, it is also unworkable to suggest the existence of a mental or cultural entity endowed with all the properties of explicit representations (semantics, intentionality, propositional content and so on) but that also magically happens to be tacit. If something is tacit, then it is non-representational, and thus takes on the status of something closer to a skill, ability, or habit (Hutto 2012; Noe 2004). Finally, the upper-right box seems not to be talking about anything applicable to humans at all (only artificial agents) and therefore can also be eliminated as a cultural kind (for humans).

This means (as Turner ultimately concludes) that when it comes to (“subcognitive”) practices, it seems to be their status as “shared” (social) or individual that is at stake. In a separate line of argumentation Turner (1994, 2014) has proposed that even in the case of practices conceived as non-representational, fully embodied habits, skills, and abilities, you can’t get from individual to “social” (or shared) because you hit what he calls the problem of “sameness” and the “problem of transmission” (Turner 1994). Essentially, Turner links a compositional and a property ontological claim to argue that the only coherent conception of cultural practices is one that sees them as both akin to habits, skills, abilities (and thus compositionally “subcognitve”), but also as idiosyncratic to each individual agent or learner (and thus not necessarily shared).

As such, much of Turner’s recent work has been dedicated to argue that, at out of all the boxes shown above, only the lower-right hand one is an ontologically coherent and analytically defensible conception of practice. In my view, this argument is not as much of a slam-dunk as the one dismissing the “tacit-representational” cultural kinds (obviously the problems of sameness and transmission do apply with a vengeance to this sort of problematic entities). The reason for this is that it is possible to imagine naturalistic (e.g., non-magical) mechanisms capable of both transmitting the sort of practices that live in Turner’s second row while ensuring fidelity (Lizardo 2007). Thus, pace Turner, it is possible for (some) practical cultural kinds to traffic from Turner’s lower-right hand box to his left-hand side (Sieweke 2014), although this is very much a live debate (Turner 2014, chap 7). Addressing this will be a subject for future posts.

Note, however, that even if Turner (1994) was right, it does not follow that practices are eliminated as cultural kinds and are thus reduced to a “non-cultural” (because “individual”) kind. The reason for this is that, as I argued in a previous post, the property of “sharedness” is actually not a particularly pivotal property in helping us differentiate cultural from non-cultural kinds (although it is usually an important empirical outcome of interest to sociologists). The same argument applies to practices. This means that even if all that existed were Turner-style “individual” practices, they will still count as cultural according to other criteria (e.g., causal history of learning).

This also means that we can bracket the sharedness argument and still come up with an interesting typology of practices, conceived as non-representational embodied skills, abilities, and capacities acquired by people as a result of a history of learning and experience. We can further split this (ontologically coherent) cultural entity by drawing on elements of a “dimensional” typology of cultural kinds proposed in a previous post:

A Typology of Cultural Practices

Under this taxonomy, practices vary across two dimensions. First, practices may be distributed narrowly (with the limiting case being a single person) or widely (with the limiting case being all people). This distribution dimension takes the place of the usual “individual/social” (or “social/non-social”) distinction in classical social and cultural theory. Importantly, the distribution dimension is never (ontologically) interpreted according to a “levels’ analogy (Stoltz, Taylor, and Lizardo 2019). Both widely and narrowly distributed practices have a single location and “level” (people’s bodies, or body/artifact couplings) and the only thing that varies is “widespreadness” (Reay 2010).

Second, practices vary according to the extent that they are embodied or scaffolded in materially extended artifacts. On one side, we have practices whose core realizers are almost exclusively located in the physical brains, effectors, and bodies of people (e.g., Capoeira dancing (Downey 2014), boxing (Wacquant 2015), or Vipassana meditation (Pagis 2010)). On the other hand, we have practices that are highly scaffolded and whose core realizers are “spread out into the world,” thus highly dependent on a set of material or physical “prostheses,” and artifacts and not just the brains and bodies of people (Clark 2007). Note that this dimension is analytically independent of distribution, as a practice can be both heavily scaffolded and either narrowly (e.g., laboratory science (Latour and Woolgar 1979), or day-trading in the Chicago stock exchange using the Merton-Black-Scholes equations for pricing derivatives (Mackenzie 2008)), or widely distributed (e.g., the sort of transactional memory practices available to whole swaths of the population via internet search engines).

References

Archer, M. S. 1996. Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2007. “Curing Cognitive Hiccups: A Defense of the Extended Mind.” The Journal of Philosophy 104(4):163–92.

Downey, G. 2014. “‘Habitus in Extremis’: From Embodied Culture to Bio-Cultural Development.” Body & Society 20 (2):113–17.

Hutto, Daniel D. 2012. “Exposing the Background: Deep and Local.” Pp. 37–56 in Knowing without Thinking, edited by Z. Radman. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life. Sage Publications.

Lizardo, Omar. 2007. “‘Mirror Neurons,’ Collective Objects and the Problem of Transmission: Reconsidering Stephen Turner’s Critique of Practice Theory.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 37(3):319–50.

Mackenzie, Donald. 2008. An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets. MIT Press.

Noe, Alva. 2004. Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pagis, Michal. 2010. “From Abstract Concepts to Experiential Knowledge: Embodying Enlightenment in a Meditation Center.” Qualitative Sociology 33(4):469–89.

Reay, Mike. 2010. “Knowledge Distribution, Embodiment, and Insulation*.” Sociological Theory 28(1):91–107.

Reckwitz, Andreas. 2002. “Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing.” European Journal of Social Theory 5(2):243–63.

Sewell, W. H., Jr. 2005. “The Concept (s) of Culture.” Pp. 76–95 in Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing After the Linguistic Turn, edited by G. M. Spiegel. New York: Routledge.

Stoltz, Dustin S., Marshall A. Taylor, and Omar Lizardo. 2019. “Functionaries: Institutional Theory without Institutions.” https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/p48ft/

Swidler, Ann. 2001. “What Anchors Cultural Practices.” Pp. 74–92 in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by K. K. Cetina, T. R. Schatzki, and E. von Savigny. New York: Routledge.

Turner, Stephen P. 1994. The Social Theory of Practices. University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Stephen P. 2014. Understanding the Tacit. New York: Routledge.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2015. “For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood.” Qualitative Sociology 38(1):1–11.

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