In the final chapter of Practice theory, work, and organization Nicolini concludes by presenting his own approach to practice theory, which he calls a toolkit approach:

I am not interested in proposing a new theory of practice. Instead, I will embrace a different strategy that can be described as a form of programmatic eclecticism or, more simply, a toolkit approach. My main tenet is that to study practice empirically we are better served by a strategy based on deliberately switching between theoretical sensitivities. (p. 213)

In short, the toolkit approach that I advocate here responds to the principle that the aim of social science is to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of the world, and not to offer simplified answers to complex questions. More clearly, good social science makes the world more complex, not simpler. Thicker, not thinner, descriptions are the aim of good social science. And so it should be in the attempt to understand practices. (p. 215)

This toolkit approach is less about applying existing theories to new phenomenon, and more about increasing articulation, or useful knowledge about the world (Stengers, 1997). He also invokes Barad (2003) and pragmatists to say that theories are actually attempts to reconfigure the world in useful and productive ways. These attempts at doing things in the world sometimes work but often the world bites back in useful and interesting ways. Theories and methods are conceived of as packages. Strangely this is a topic that has come up in my Ethnography class this semester where the professor has stressed how deeply interrelated theory and methodology is.

This package of theory and method is needed for:

  • describing the world in terms of practices (not systems, actors, classes)
  • textual representation: being able to capture, communicate and experiment
  • establish infra-language for generating new stories and theories

He uses the metaphor of zooming in on practices in a particular place and time and then zooming out to where practices can be compared with other practices. These are alternated and repeated, as different theoretical lenses. Ethno-methodology is an example of zoomed in attention: micro-ethnography, organizational ethnography, Shadowing, conversational analysis, attention to sequence all are useful. But if analysis is limited to these techniques the view can become locked in and extremely formalized.

Another technique of zooming in focuses attention on the body: how are practices achieved with and through the body. Also of interest is how the body itself is shaped by practice. It can also be useful to focus on artifacts in relation to the body – the materiality of practice.

Also of interest are auto-poesis or creativity – the application of practices to particular times and places to suit the contingencies of circumstance. Noting how practices are adapted and made unique can help identify them. In addition the practices are characterized by their durability or persistence over time. What are the mechanics of persistence that allow practices to perpetuate?

The zooming out process is mostly a process of taking an identified practice and situating it with other practices.

In a sense, then, all practices are involved in a variety of relationships and associations that extend in both space and time, and form a gigantic, intricate,and evolving texture of dependencies and references. Paraphrasing [Latour (2005), p. 44; see also Schatzki (2002)), we can state that practice is always a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many types of material and human agencies that have to be patiently untangled.

The metaphor of the knot is one that’s come up a few times in Nicolini’s book … and I ran across it recently in Jackson, Gillespie, & Payette (2014). I notice from my notes and citations I’ve accumulated during my reading that the first the knot also appears in Engestrom:1999. I don’t know if it’s just the presentation by Nicolini, but Engestrom seems to keep popping up in interesting ways – so I’d like to follow up my reading of practice theory by digging into some of his work. Another word that gets used a lot when describing the process of zooming out to look at relationships between practices is assemblage, which isn’t really referenced at all but seems to be drawn from Deleuze:1998. Just glancing at the Wikipedia page about Assemblage I can see that constellation is also used in assemblage theory. Somewhere along the line I picked this word up as well, but I don’t remember where. I think I’ve looked at Deleuze & Guattari (1988) before and been intimidated. It might be interesting to read some of the theory/crticism around Deleuze at some point.

Nicolini offers up a few things to focus on to achieve this effect of zooming out from individual practices:

  • compare here/now of a practice with the there/then of another
  • how do practices “conjure” or establish social arrangements?
  • what are the interests/projects/hopes that led to the current state of affairs?

He also suggests that shadowing, the sociology of translation and Actor Network Theory are useful ways of zooming out the theoretical perspective (Czarniawska-Joerges, 2007; Latour, 2005; Law, 2009). ANT’s idea of following the actors can be a useful technique for discovering connections between practices. The actors can be people, artifacts and inscriptions. The sociology of translation (an idea from ANT) can help examine how relations/associations are kept in place (Callon, 1984). I think I’ve read this piece by Callon before, at least it’s in my BibDesk database already, but I should move this up in the queue to read. I read Reassembling the Social a few years ago, probably before I had enough context to understand it. Czarniawska is new to me, so that might also merit some reading up on.

Again the word “knotted” is used to describe how are connected together:

The idea of translation invites us to appreciate that associations need to be “knotted” and kept actively in place through the coordination of humans and non-human mediators such as forms, software, policy documents, plans, contracts, and spaces. Only when all these resources are aligned to form chains of translation in such a way that the results of an activity are stabilized and turned into a more or less solid black box, can effecting the activity of another practice be accomplished. (p. 231-232)

Nicolini points out that ANT and translation don’t really explaining why things get knotted together other than somewhat bleak implications of power. Practices on the other hand provide a pro-social, teleo-affective (Schatzki) grounding to work from–where goals matter, and aren’t reduced to notions of Power.

The second class of techniques for zooming out are what Nicolini calls practice networks or action nets (Czarniawska, 2004). The idea here is to to ask where are the effects of the practice under consideration being felt. How are the results of the practice used in other contexts?

I’m actually really glad that the book closes by connecting the dots between practice theories and Latour, since this is something that had been at the back of my mind while I was working through the chapters. Latour seemed to be conspicuously missing in the review of the literature of practice, but Nicolini was actually saving him for the conclusion. I also like the formulation that practice provides an almost ethical dimension to ANT that isn’t simply political–not that politics are ever really simple. It’s just the level of focus isn’t at the macro level necessarily, but in the hands of people achieving things in their local environments, for their comfort and survival perhaps–not for domination.

Nicolini also brings back the idea of Cultural and Historical Activity Theory to stress the idea of analyzing how did we get here. Historical analysis is key to understanding power relations in the current state of affairs and how they are inscribed in practice. Zooming out on the temporal dimension provides this historical view.

The process of zooming in and zooming out can be repeated, but it also can be achieved by having multiple research projects open at the same time. Each project provides a zoomed in perspective on a particular phenomenon, but the connections between projects offer an opportunity to reflect from a zoomed out perspective. This idea appeals to my own habit of keeping multiple plates spinning at once. I suspect many people work this way. He offers the rhizome as a metaphor or talisman of this sort of work–rather than a linear process. Nicolini does say that the idea of zooming in and out suggests that the world is organized into micro, meso and macro levels – which is something he does not want to suggest. Instead he thinks it’s more a question of refocusing on specific circumstances, and then relations between those sites: moving around above practices and then hovering above particular practices.

The book concludes by saying that none of the chapters are meant to be formulas but just suggestions for ways of working to be tried.

So my last words are: give it a go and enjoy responsibly!

I feel like lots, and lots of rhizomatic exploration await from this very useful book. Thanks Nicolini :) The only problem is that I think I may need to adjust my reading for my independent study based on what I’ve learned. But that’s what independent studies are for right?

References

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), 801–831.

Callon, M. (1984). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. The Sociological Review, 32(S1), 196–233.

Czarniawska, B. (2004). On time, space, and action nets. Organization, 11(6), 773–791.

Czarniawska-Joerges, B. (2007). Shadowing: And other techniques for doing fieldwork in modern societies. Copenhagen Business School Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Jackson, S. J., Gillespie, T., & Payette, S. (2014). The policy knot: Re-integrating policy, practice and design in CSCW studies of social computing. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 588–602). Association for Computing Machinery.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press.

Law, J. (2009). The new blackwell companion to social theory. In B. S. Turner (Ed.), (pp. 141–158). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Schatzki, T. (2002). The site of the social: A philosophical exploration of the constitution of social life and change. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Stengers, I. (1997). Power and invention: Situating science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.