Chapter 3 takes a look at the work of two twentieth century thinkers who are critical in understanding the turn to practice: Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu.


Giddens is reportedly one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. His idea of structuration draws on the work of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Originally I was going to focus specifically on structuration in my independent study, but I decided against it because of the breadth of Giddens’ influence, and the idea that it might be more useful to focus on the practice theory angle, which conceptually ties together Giddens work with the work of other folks in the field of IS and ITC. Also, I’ll admit, once I discovered he served as an advisor to Tony Blair my interest waned a little bit.

Giddens uses the idea of structuration to resolve dualist tensions in social theory related to subjectivity and objectivity. Structuration is a recursive model of society defined by practices that are composed of actors, rules and resources.

  • actors: the producers of activity, who draw on rules and resoures
  • rules: generalized procedures for action, not to be confused with instructions or prohibitions (Wittgenstein)
  • resources: the ways in which power, or the ability to mobilize people, is manifested (Marx)

Nicolini uses language as an example. Spoken language and the rules of language mutually constitute themselves. Spoken language is based on rules of language, but the rules of language would not exist if they were not enacted and reinvented in spoken language. So there’s the recursion.

Actors are required to be knowledgeable and reflexive in structuration theory. However their knowledge and abilities are finite which is how change and mutation can get in. Giddens also emphasizes that activity is always situated in time and place, which shows his connection to Marx’s historical materialism. And finally practices are related to each other–they form interdependencies and accrete which manifests as structures and systems. Sometimes practices may result in structures that contravene each other which can result in reorderings and revolutions in practice.

Another interesting concept Giddens introduces is practical and discursive conciousness. Where practical consciousness is “saturated with taken for grantedness” and has a lot of parallels to the idea of tacit knowledge that we saw earlier in Heidegger’s idea of ready-to-hand.

Could Giddens’ rules be comparable to algorithms? Who follows the rules in either case? Could people using technologies that embody alogorthmic rules be thought of as following the rules? Or does the level of indirection break that. When the algorithms break, they become visible, kind of like infrastructure. I wonder if the controversy involving adaptive structuration theory (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994) is centered around whether the rules can be written down I also wonder if focusing on the site of practice provides a way out of some of this controversy about the prescriptive application of structuration theory?

According to Nicolini uptake of Giddens was low, because of rise of postmodernism at the same time, which eschewed the theory building that Giddens was doing. They were also tired of the conservative implications of his system. (p. 50). His work was also highly theoretical, and difficult to put into practice. He actively dissuaded people from using his concepts in their own research! It was to be used as sensitizing principles. It sounds like I could read Giddens (1991) for more abou this. Giddens resisted the idea that material artifacts could be structural resources. This seems rather odd, and perhaps at odds with ANT. Orlikowski (1992) introduced the use of structuration theory into organizational studies and ICT. But in Orlikowski (2000) she moved away from it, towards practice theory. These might be useful transition to focus on later in the semester.

Giddens appeared too busy developing a theory of society and individuals which put everything in the right place, portrayed people as reflexive and rational, and allowed almost no room for pathos, emotions, disorder, conflict, and violence. Moreover,Giddens’ structurationism failed to inspire a community that had been held to ransom for decades by the boxes, arrows, and loops of system theory. In spite of its innovative, strong, processual character, Giddens’ system theory looked suspiciously like more of the same. Finally, critical authors were some-what unhappy with Giddens’ flat and a-conflictual view of the social, and were weary of the potentially deeply conservative implications of structurationism.


According to Nicolini, Bourdieu’s core point is that representing practice, or praxeology as he called it, is not enough (anthropology)–practice needs to be explained (sociology). I interpret this as saying that descriptions of practice must reflect on they ways in which description is being performed: what is being made visible, and what is being made invisible. These are important things for Bourdieu. I find this explanation much more compelling than the strong/weak distinction that Nicolini makes in the introduction.

Habitus is a key concept or theme throughout all of Bourdieu’s work. It helps get around the problems of objectivism and subjectivisme. I feel like uunderstanding objectivism as Nicolini describes it, would involve more reading, especially Levi-Strauss and the Structuralists. Habitus isn’t a way of understanding the world – it’s more a way of being in the world. Habitus relates to the body, in ways that are similar to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of schema and habit as well as Polanyi’s idea of personal tacit knowledge. Schema and habit in particular really remind me a bit of Dewey’s ideas about norms. Schema is compared to the feeling of driving a car where the car is an extension of the body’s corporeal schema. It’s only where that meshing breaks down that the schema is noticed. Again breakdown plays an important role. It seems like this meshing is the content domain of HCI.

Tacit knowledge was used by Polyani to explain how scientists work. Explicit knowledge is traditional scientific knowledge exemplified by the scientific method. But tacit knowledge is an awareness of knowing how to do something that defies analytical description. “We know much more than we know we know.”

Bourdieu summarizes his idea of practice using the following formula that is desribed in Bourdieu (1984), p. 101.

(habitus * capital) + field = practice

Capital is anything rare and worthy of being sought after. It can be material and symbolic. Symbolic capitol in particular sustains domination, because it includes the power to name, and renders the entire process invisible. Fields are domains or structured spaces in which the distribution of capital is disputed.

Habitus is a group phenomenon.

Lau (2004) is cited quite a bit for distinguishing and criticizing these ideas – which might be useful to read.

Ways of studying practice (or rather, what not to do):

  • need to participate in “daily endeavors”. You need to live, not represent. You also need to dismantle or side step the power relation of the Academy over the practitioner

  • Simply providing a description of practice is not enough. You need to describe how the practices are propagated and work together.

Reflexivity if important to Bourdieu – since he saw how his own work was itself problematic in the way that it theorized capital in metaphysical terms. Michel De Certau criticizes Bourdieu’s split theoretical personality, and points to levels of pratices: dominant ones that are organized by institutions and many minor ones that operate as micro-tactices of resistance, local deformations, and reinvention. I almost put Certeau (2011) on the reading list for this semester after reading about him in an essay by Alan Liu. It’s just a matter of time since de Certeau’s approach, much like Latour, seems to be a great bridging work between the humanities and social sciences, which is kinda where I live.

Nicolini sees Bourdieu’s idea of habitus as not accounting for practices, and suggests that perhaps the very idea of trying to theorize practices is at the heart of the problem. The solution is the problem. Habitus is self contradictory: it says that practices are historically and socially contingent, but operates at a theoretical level that are outside place and time. Bourdieu fails to account for change (only reproduction), mediation (technology), and reflexivity as part of practice.

So, I’m left feeling Bourdieu has some quite subtle theoretical ideas, almost too subtle – but from this brief introduction I feel much more aligned with his politics than with Giddens. Bourdieu’s attention to everyday life is attractive:

Bourdieu directs our attention to the fact that practice is the locus of the social reproduction of everyday life and symbolic orders, of the taken-for-grantedness of the experienced world and the power structure that such a condition both carries and conceals. (p. 69)


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.

Certeau, M. de. (2011). The practice of everyday life (3rd ed.). University of California Press.

DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121–147.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity. self and society in the late modern age. Polity Press.

Lau, R. W. (2004). Habitus and the practical logic of practice an interpretation. Sociology, 38(2), 369–387.

Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). The duality of technology: Rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science, 3(3), 398–427.

Orlikowski, W. J. (2000). Using technology and constituting structures: A practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization Science, 11(4), 404–428.