Chapter 7 is largely about Theodore Schatzki’s theory of practice. At its simplest his idea of practice is comprised of tasks and projects. Tasks are things like opening a can which could be part of a project like cooking a meal. Assemblages of tasks and projects are practices. Actions can be linked together by rules. All practices involve goals or ends that the participants may or may not be fully aware of: a teleo-affective structure. Discussion, contestation and conflict around these goals are part of practice. Practices are continued through repeated performance and collective/social memory (Schatzki, 2006).

The presence of objects in practices has a variety of interpretations. Notably Latour makes the case for objects as participants in activity (or practices). This is opposed to Schatzki who says that only humans carry out practices. Other theorists such as Barad (2007) take a position somewhere in the middle by arguing that the position of objects with respect to humans is a function of the discursive and material practices that are being examined. I’m noticing from my bookmarks that I’ve run across Karen Barad before, perhaps because of her work around STS and feminism. This might be an interesting pathway, I’m always drawn to approaches that take a middle path through extremes. Nicolini offers his own synthesis of these two viewpoints:

When we examine the world in terms of a (multiplicity of) practice, we cannot avoid taking into consideration the central role of artefacts and the entanglement between human and non-human performativity. More than this, the practice approach warns us that the nature and identity of objects cannot be apprehended independently of the practice in which they are involved—just as we cannot make sense of our practices without taking into account the materials that enter it. Objects,materials, and technology need thus to be studied “in practice” and with reference to the practices in which they are involved. (p. 171)

He attributes the neologism sociomateriality to Orlikowski (2010), which might could be a good paper to follow up on for my work, since that idea figures so prominently in the way I’ve been thinking about my interviews with web archivists.

Practices unfold in contextual spaces where it they are situated with other practices, which in turn provide understanding about what objects are for, how they can be used, what actions can be performed with them, and what actions follow those actions, etc. Heidegger calls these spaces clearings; Foucault calls them discursive spaces/positions; Schatzki calls them sites. Wittgenstein used this idea of context when describing how people follow rules. Context provides intelligibility.

Practices require a social dimension: they must be shared amongst a collective of participants. Nicolini calls this sociality or a horizon of intelligibility. These collectives have an ordering, or a particular arrangement of people, artifacts, organisms: for example in workplaces like an office or a factory. For Schatzki sites are the outcome and effect of practices that entangled with material arrangements. This recursivity seems to directly recall Giddens idea of structuration.

For Schatzki Social arrangements are made of three things: chains of actions, orchestration of ends or projects, prefiguration actions (actions that determine future actions). Nicolini adds a fourth: material arrangements. It’s not clear here exactly what Nicolini is doing here. From the way this chapter is put together in the sequence of the book he appears to be aligning his own theoretical viewpoint very closely to Schatzki, but also seems to be modifying or amending/appending to Schatzki’s ideas of what constitutes practice. He also seems to cite Joseph Rouse quite a bit for interpretation of Schatzki.

Putting Schatzki’s ideas to work in studying organizations involves participant observation to:

  • identify actions
  • identify practice-arrangement bundles (that enclose those actions)
  • identify other nets of practices that are tied to those bundles

Funnily enough Nicolini goes on to say that part of the problem with Schatzki is that it is difficult to apply his theory in an empirical way. Researchers don’t really have an idea of what to go out looking for during participant observation when using Schatzki. He contrasts this situation with Latour’s idea of ANT which isn’t so much a theory as it is a way of working: follow the actors.

Reference

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Orlikowski, W. J. (2010). The sociomateriality of organisational life: Considering technology in management research. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 125–41.

Schatzki, T. R. (2006). The time of activity. Continental Philosophy Review, 39(2), 155–182.