Friday, June 30, 2006

Employing practice theory

During the past eighteen months I have collected extensive data on doctoral practice using my original conceptual framework. Some of my richest data is contained within the edited and verified transcripts of interviews conducted with ten candidates and two individuals identified by each candidate as significantly influencing their PhD research.

While my tri-focal lens—theories of learning, socialisation and knowledge production—proved very effective as a means framing and implementing the process of data gathering, I have found it less useful in terms of interpretation. More thinking and voluminous reading has led me to an in-depth exploration of practice theory. Essentially, this is concerned with the unravelling and illuminating the complexities of human activity—although some theorists have begun to incorporate material processes and products into the realms of activity and practice.

While practice theory can be viewed as a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of publication and discourse, individuals acknowledged as being highly influential in its development span the centuries. Some practice theorists begin (or remain pre-occupied with) Aristotelian concepts (e.g. techne and phronesis). Others draw their inspiration and ideas from 20th Century philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heiddeger; sociologists like Bourdieu and Giddens; or postmodernists of the ilk of Derrida, Foucault and Latour.

For me, two publications suggest a coming of age for practice theory. One is a collection of essays published in 2001 edited by Schatzki, Knorr Cetina and von Savigny entitled The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. The other is a recent edition of Pedagogy, Culture and Society 2005, 13, 3—edited by David Hamilton. Both publications were generated as a result of independently conducted seminars on practice, and contain material that is as challenging as it is stimulating.

While practice theory acknowledges that the individual and the social structures that they encounter are inextricably linked, attention tends to be placed on the explication and implications of these linkages. For example, I have found that some theorists have provided powerful insights regarding the reciprocal relationships existing between agency and structure, and the extent to which one is continually shaping/constituting the other. These insights are proving very useful in terms of increasing my understanding of the ‘doings and sayings’ of doctoral candidates; interactions with their learning partners; the dynamics of their operating environments; and the outcomes of their research.