Practice theory

Practice theory is a theory of how social beings, with their diverse motives and their diverse intentions, make and transform the world in which they live. It is a dialectic between social structure and human agency working back and forth in a dynamic relationship.[1] Practice theory, as outlined by Sherry Ortner,[2] "seeks to explain the relationship(s) that obtain between human action, on the one hand, and some global entity which we call 'the system' on the other." The approach seeks to resolve the antinomy between traditional structuralist approaches and approaches such as methodological individualism which attempted to explain all social phenomena in terms of individual actions.[3]

Pierre Bourdieu

Practice theory is strongly associated with the French theorist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His concept of habitus represents an important formulation of the principles of practice theory.[4] Bourdieu developed the notion of ‘habitus’ to capture ‘the permanent internalisation of the social order in the human body’. His book, 'Outline of a Theory of Practice', which is based on his work in Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence is an example of Bourdieu's formulation of practice theory applied to empirical data gathered through ethnography.[5] Several works of his are considered classics, not only in sociology, but also in anthropology, education, international relations and cultural studies. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (La Distinction) was named as one of the 20th century's ten most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association.

Anthony Giddens

Known for his theory of structuration and his holistic view of modern societies, Anthony Giddens is considered to be one of the most prominent modern sociologists. His works, Central Problems in Social Theory (1979) and The Constitution of Society (1984), brought him international fame on the sociological arena. Giddens developed the theory of structuration an analysis of agency and structure, in which primacy is granted to neither, to demonstrate ‘how principles of order could both produce and be reproduced at the level of practice itself’ and not through some ‘ordering’ society impinging upon individual actors from above.

Michel Foucault

A closely related notion to Bourdieu’s habitus is Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘discipline’. Like habitus, discipline ‘is structure and power that have been impressed on the body forming permanent dispositions’. In contrast to Bourdieu, though, Foucault laid particular emphasis on the violence through which modern regimes (e.g. prisons and asylums) are used as a form of social control.[6]

Theodore Schatzki

Theodore Schatzki developed an alternative theory of practice – primarily through his books Social Practices (1996)[7] and The Site of the Social (2002).[8] His basic premise, derived from Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, is that people do what makes sense for them to do. Practices make up people’s ‘horizon of intelligibility’.[9] In Schatzki’s work, practices are defined as ‘open-ended spatial-temporal manifolds of actions’ (Schatzki, 2005, p. 471) and also as ‘sets of hierarchally organized doings/sayings, tasks and projects’ [10] Moreover, practices consist of four main elements: (1) practical understanding – “knowing how to X, knowing how to identify X-ings, and knowing how to prompt as well as respond to X-ings” (idem, p. 77); (2) rules – “explicit formulations, principles, precepts, and instructions that enjoin, direct or remonstrate people to perform specific actions” (idem, p. 79); (3) teleo-affective structure – “a range of normativized and hierarchically ordered ends, projects and tasks, to varying degrees allied with normativized emotions and even mood” (idem, p. 80); and (4) general understanding.

Key terms

Agency: An actor choosing to act, the human ability to act upon and change the world.

Field: A structured social space with its own rules, schemes of domination, legitimate opinions. Bourdieu uses the concept of field instead of analyzing societies solely in terms of classes. For example, fields in modern societies include arts, education, politics, law and economy.

Habitus: Collective system of dispositions that individuals or groups have. Bourdieu uses as a central idea in analyzing structure embodied within human practice.[11] The notion captures ‘the permanent internalization of the social order in the human body’.

Doxa: Those deeply internalised societal or field-specific presuppositions that ‘go without saying’ and are not up for negotiation. A constructed vision of reality so naturalized that it appears to be the only vision of reality learned, fundamental, deep-founded, unconscious beliefs, and values, taken as self-evident universals, that inform an agent's actions and thoughts within a particular field, e.g. 365 days, 24hrs, 60 seconds.

Hexis: The way in which social agents ‘carry themselves’ in the world; their gait, gesture, postures, etc.

Cultural capital: Assets which enable holders to mobilize cultural authority e.g., competencies, education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.

Methodological individualism: A claim that social phenomena must be explained by explaining how they reduce to individual agency.[12] how they result from individual actions. It can be used to criticize the structural functionalist view of society as the determinant of individual behaviour. A methodological individualist would suggest that macro social events (wars, recessions, etc.) and conditions (economic, political, and cultural systems) should be explained in the terms of beliefs and actions of individual people.

Structuralism: A theoretical paradigm that privileges social structure over social action,[13] Elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems of signification. A structuralist approach may study activities as diverse as food-preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures (e.g. mythology, kinship) by which meaning is produced and reproduced within the culture.

Structuration: Human agency and social structure are intertwined. Praxis (process) is the repetition of the acts of individual agents which reproduces or subverts the social structure. Social life is more than random individual acts, but is not merely determined by social forces. There is a social structure - traditions, institutions, moral codes, and established ways of doing things; but it also means that these can be changed when people start to ignore them, replace them, or reproduce them differently.[14]

Other important theorists


  1. Dougherty, Elizabeth. “The Balance of Practice.” (2004). Elizabeth Dougherty, Left Brain: Right Brain. 25 Feb. 2010. Web.
  2. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power and the Acting
  3. Anthro Base, article on Practice Theory
  4. Pascalian Meditations, Polity, 2000. see chapter 4 especially
  5. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 1977
  6. Postill, J 2008.
  7. Social Practices (1996)
  8. The Site of the Social (2002)
  9. (Nicolini, 2014, p.164)
  10. (Schatzki, 2002, p.73)
  11. Scott, John; Gordon Marshall (2009). Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (Third ed.). Oxford. p. 299.
  12. Scott, John; Gordon Marshall (2009). Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (Third ed.). Oxford. p. 343.
  13. Scott, John; Gordon Marshall (2009). Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (Third ed.). Oxford. p. 343.
  14. Gauntlett, David. "Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction". Routledge. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
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