This post is, in part, a request for help. I’m trying to understand the relationship between Isabelle Stengers’s concept of “practice” and an “ecology of practice” and the practice theories of Bourdieu, Ortner, et. al. Does anyone have any leads on this? I see many similarities and many differences, but I’m trying to understand the lineage. Is Stengers drawing on practice theory as such or is she developing an alternative practice theory? My sense is the latter, but I don’t have evidence for this. If anyone can suggest some readings to help me figure it out, I would greatly appreciate it.
Now on to the more substantive issue, which is my own concepts of practice and work. I’ve tended to treat these two as synonymous, and will continue to do so. Practice and work, for me, are the ways that we (beings, broadly speaking) constitute our worlds. It is action that makes a difference – that alters and affects others. It is also, in a sense, synonymous with “behavior” if for the simple reason that all activities make a difference and, thus, constitute a world. However, I think the term “behavior” fails to make us think about the world constituting effects of our actions and those of others. Behavior is just what we do, it doesn’t convey the sense of altering and affecting that I want to convey. However, thinking about this today, I began to wonder if “practice” does this, and I’m increasingly convinced that it does not except in some very specific senses. For example, to practice medicine is just to do something – the idea of shaping the world is left out. However, to practice violin is a different matter. Here an individual is building a skill in relation to another object – the violin. But it just doesn’t seem strong enough.
In light of this, and also in light of my confusion with the origins of Stengers’s concept of practice and its relationship with Bourdieu’s (I say this because my use of the term practice in anthropology has caused me in some minds to be associated with Bourdieu, when, in fact, I don’t see myself aligned with his thought at all), I have thought about simply replacing the word “practice” with “work.” As frequent readers will know, I like the concept of work – I think it is essential to my understanding of our social lives and our relationships with others (human and non-human) with whom we share a world. Work, to me, conveys the sense of embodiment, but also the idea of constituting or composing that I want to convey. We work, and this work builds relationships with and between other beings. The world is shaped by our work and we are shaped by the work of others around us. The one failure of the term is that it calls to mind manual labor, and, although I think that’s an important aspect, I don’t want to limit my conception of work to that kind of labor. Instead, I want to think about the ways that all action, all behavior is work – the ways that all work makes a difference, and constitutes a world. Still, I think it is a more powerful concept than either behavior or practice, though I still hold those two to me synonymous.