Social Practices

This is a longer explanation of Social Practices.

A human life is social. We are tied to—or, at the very least, nested in—a community. This is not simply a warm and “truthy” ethical dictum or an abstract political concept or a pleasant idea; it is a biological and evolutionary fact. Like it or not, a human being without any community is like an ant without an anthill. We may try to ignore the community, or separate ourselves from our communities, but we cannot have come to be without a community. Human life takes place in communities, and communities are maintained by social practices. It follows that any discussion of a well-lived human life—or even of a human soul’s wellness (ευδαιμονια)—must involve a discussion of those practices within which a human life is lived, those practices by which a life is lived well or poorly. Practices grow out of communities, but they also create and express community. It is all well and good to talk about the importance of community, about how “it takes a village” and about the role of the Internet in building global community, but community—κοινωνια—is created, expressed and maintained in embodied everyday acts of integrity, respect, hospitality, kindness, and generosity.
Now, there is currently work being done that provides a close, theoretical examination of the social practices that organize our everyday lives. Practice Theory is a form of social philosophy influenced by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and focusing upon social practices as the primary unit of analysis. In the early 20th century, the major project of English language philosophy was to understand the logical structure of language. Related to this project was the question of reference: “How exactly do these word and these verbal and logical structures refer to objects, events and situations in the world outside of words?”
Much of Wittgenstein’s work—especially in early works such as the Tractatus—explores these questions. In fact, at several points, he thought he had pretty much wrapped up the question, and he retired. But philosophy—like so many things—always has a few loose ends that refuse to be tied up.
One night, in a conversation at Cambridge, the Italian economist Piero Sraffa challenged Wittgenstein to explain the logical form of a familiar Italian obscene gesture. Now, when an Italian flips the bottom of his chin with the tops of his fingers, it does mean something—even though it has no logical structure, and doesn’t refer to an object in the world. Starting with language acts like Sraffa’s, Wittgenstein began discussing language in terms of “language game”—complexes of words, gestures, and actions that involve free play within loosely understood patterns.

The focus of a conversation is not so much “depicting” a state of affairs; instead, communication accomplishes certain goals. Yes, sometimes the goal is to describe reality, but sometimes it is to coordinate activities, or to maintain relationships, or to make decisions. When a Cambridge philosopher ways: “the cat is on the table,” it is a proposition about a state of affairs, and is either true or false. If my mother were to say it, it is a command to remove the cat, now.
Although there are ground rules that are either implicit or explicit, within the playing of the game, there is room for improvisation. The rules of soccer do not make the players move this way or that, they provide a framework within which the players develop their own strategies and counter-strategies, and provide common understandings of what counts as good play or bad play, or even what counts as winning. The rules of language-in-use do not rigidly determine what will be said, but allow a framework within which we can choose to respond to other things that are said. Practices also provide and arrange a Lifeworld within which human activity takes place.
An Italian going brushing his chin, or a Frenchman going pulling down the lid beneath one eye, a Texan, in his truck, greeting you by raising one finger off his steering wheel—all of these have meaning. Their meanings aren’t derived from logical structures, or from objects in the world, but from the space these little gestures fill in a weave of social practices.  A parent ruffling a child’s hair, a friend making eye contact and saying “hey,” your husband of wife holding your hand (or refusing to hold your hand), or standing or refusing to stand when the national anthem is sung—all of these have meaning. They are very meaningful, because they express and maintain and build some of the most important features of our world—our most important relationships.

And because their meanings are derived from their places in this rich weave of social practices, the meanings can change. Saying: “so, how’re you doing?” to somebody you pass in the hall has a different meaning when you are meeting them after he or she has left the Dean’s office, or when you are meeting him or her for the first time after a bitter divorce, or checking on him or her after a funeral. In fact, among most English speakers, the first time in a conversation one says: “so, how’re you doing?” it is a greeting, a part of re-establishing contact and starting conversation—the verbal equivalent to the Texan in his truck going raising his index finger. the second time in a conversation you say: “so, how’re you doing?” it is an invitation to respond and share how you are doing.

Building on this Wittgensteinian work, Practice Theory extends these “Language Games” into “Social Games,” exchanges, actions and re-actions that take place in social groups. These patterns of interaction—social practices—form and are formed by a shared social world—a habitus—that its members share. Most work in Practice Theory is concerned with how larger patterns of social practices both create and are created by the dominant social structures. Among the ground-breaking work of practice theory was the anthropological work of Pierre Bourdieu, who examined how gift giving in Algerian Berber culture was never a simple exchange, but included fine nuances of value and of time spent before responding, all of which varied with the social status of those involved. Although there were no explicit rules to the transaction, all involved understood the implicit meanings, and how they could reinforce the social structure while allowing those within it to jockey for a change in status.
Practices can be analyzed in terms of interpreted meanings that actions and gestures and words have, but also in terms of where they locate individual (or collective) actors within a group. You are a player on the field, but you are often put into a specific position by the field, positions that are not always even or equal, and which extend or limit what actions you might be able to take.
An example of this is the difference between giving someone food–say the distribution of food at a food bank, serving someone food—say as a waiter or waitress, and sharing food with someone—showing a guest hospitality. Giving food as a charity puts the giver in a position of power and the recipient in a position of of dependence, serving someone food put the server in the weaker position of the servant and the recipient in the position of power as the one who can give orders, but sharing food puts each on a more equal setting, and creates a field within which there is a greater place for continuing the relationship either through conversation, sharing, and possible future reciprocation.

My own professional area of interest is how socially specific social practices structure our understanding of the world. Epistemologically, we humans are not passive recorders of sense data. We use our world. We explore it. We manipulate it. Some portions of the world are present to us as objects of use, some as tools, some as threats and dangers, and some portions of the world are only present to us as neutral background. We understand our world through acting within it and upon it.
However, the patterns of our actions—the patterns of all human activity—are derived from the weave of social practices in which we find ourselves. Even when we act alone—as individuals—we act in patterns we have seen modeled in the social practices of the culture around us. When we first begin to play with the world as small children, the patterns of our play—the first interactions we will have with the world—are modelled on the practices and behaviors we have seen our parents perform. On his desert island, the patterns of Robinson Crusoe’s life still reflect the patterns, attitudes and artifacts of British social practices. Although the play of children, and even our own rough encounters with the world seem “natural” and unmediated, they always already follow patterns common in our culture.
It would follow from these ideas that understanding across cultures must take into account the larger context of social practices within which all understanding takes place, social practices that vary greatly from culture to culture. I investigate and explore how social practices work, how they shape our understanding of the world, and how these understandings differ across cultures.

4 thoughts on “Social Practices

  1. Cogent and articulate, Robert, as I would expect. It was also humorous. When you wrote, “If my mother were to say it, it is a command to remove the cat, *now*,” I could actually hear the moral force in her voice and visualize it in the expression on her sweet face. It made me smile.

  2. Our social practices both verbal, “so how are you?”, and nonverbal, the Texan raising his pointer finger from his steering wheel in greetings, are sometimes so subtle to me that I miss them if I am not paying as much attention as is required to notice. Sometimes, this is evidence to others that I may possess some extent of cluenlessness. 🙂 My intent is never to be rude, but just somewhat otherwise occupied.

    • Non-verbal social cues are real rough. Backwater communication is a huge part of any interaction, but unless you were raised in or are deeply imersed in a culture, and in a specific set of social practices, it is next to impossible to master.

  3. So true, Robert ! I am sometimes outward focused looking for clues and inuindos. But sometimes, I am focused on my own thoughts. When my children and I visited Korea, the culture was so different that I was constantly looking outward for social clues as to how I should act and wanting to be appropriate in a place so unfamiliar.

    While there, I entered a small market and found myself slightly bowing to the cashier in respect and gratitude for her help. I noticed she instinctively returned the bow without even thinking. I had elicited an automatic response from her because of her cultural background. Mine was, on the other hand, just in the beginning process of newly learned Korean social skills. After I left to go back to the hotel, I wondered if I had bowed appropriately due to her age related to mine and her status as a clerk to mine as an obvious visitor to her country. Perhaps I was in error but I didnt ask. So maybe I could ask my Korean friend. I dont know when I will return to Korea but just in case, I would like to bow appropriately. 🙂

    A lesson I learned by visiting Korea for such a short time was that I would rather spend more time in a new culture and learn more of their language and social cues. Just visiting a country for its sights and scenery is lovely but my preference would be to become a part of the people and customs while staying longer.

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