Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

4 thoughts on “Talking about practices

  1. Hi Clive – I must say this is becoming a little bit of a hobby horse. Not many involved in NRT, at least as far as I know, are ‘anti-language’ in the way you portray. That people, such as Russell, maybe, perhaps, may be hesitant about casting interpretation around words could be because what is being question is the manner of interpretation of words, signs, gestures, and so on. I think the way you are casting NRT here is not at all representative of the work done under that banner, and it was precisely in the understanding of such critiques that there is a chapter called ‘representation’ in the collection ‘taking place’ and why, back in Geoforum, that an NRT editorial stated that no one was ‘against’ representation. These issues may still be to worked out but there are people who are trying…

  2. Pingback: visual methods and the nonrepresentational « visual/method/culture

  3. Hi Clive, having now had a chance to read Russell’s paper i think its worth pointing out to anyone still following these comments who has not that he does not mention NRT once, nor Deleuze, not even in passing. Moreover he seems to be trying to work with a version of practice theory, which, as Ben Anderson and myself try to set out in our introduction to ‘Taking Place’, has many points of intersection with NRT, (insofar as we can talk about these theories as distinct sets of claims, which is doubtful), but is not the same as it. I understand that blogs are informal and used for expressing personal views and so on, and i wouldn’t want for a second to show ‘disdain towards your ‘viewpoints, opinions, perspectives’ or those of others, but i wonder if you can find sustained examples of people explicitly doing NRT who are doing this. Certainly the people who Russell cities who could be cast as doing NRT with empirical work with people, David Bissell and Hannah Macpherson, for example, couldn’t be accused of this.

  4. Hello Paul, thanks for the comments, no-one has taken any notice of my posts before now, nor perhaps should they. A couple of clarifications: I was not ascribing my argument to Hitchings, his piece was just the provocation. I like his argument, certainly, but I guess I am also intrigued by why it would even need to be made, not least under that heading – where does the need to assert that practice-based approaches and talk-based methodologies can get along come from, under the shadow of a worry about the latter being ‘unduly representational’? The first two of the three ‘moves’ I suggested would, I think, be fairly easy to establish, were one inclined to actually take the trouble, both through the textual record and through a kind of collective-auto-ethnography of theory-in-geography-land over the last decade or so: one way or the other, language/discourse/textuality get run together, and conflated with ‘the representational’ (this is a long-standing tendency that dates to an earlier moment of ‘the cultural turn’, but which has been compounded in subsequent developments away from that moment); and there is a recurring fascination with the idea that some methods are supposed to be able to get at things that others just can’t ‘capture’. The third point is, I guess, more a matter of judgement, but as with the other two, I think the reference is actually fairly broad, hardly restricted to a field of self-identfied ‘NRTists’ (or is it ‘NRTers’?), but to a wide range of sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected strands of theory and research that circulate in and around geography. All in all, I suppose this all comes down to what sort of practice one thinks ‘representation’ is, because depending on your answer to that, you may or may not be inclined to take the idea of ‘the non-representational’ as a possible object of theoretical or methodological attention to be something of a red herring, a little like ‘the non-discursive’.

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