What is social practice

On the role of the subject in social practices - By Benjamin Köhler

The so-called “Practice Turn” (2001) by Theordore Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Eike von Savigny was proclaimed pointedly and comprehensively, which was later systematized by Reckwitz for the German-speaking area as a social theory (cf. Reckwitz 2003). In terms of content, the social practices (ancient Greek: prâxis; deed, action) come to the fore in the practice theory between action and structure on the meso level, which not only takes into account the context that expresses cultural knowledge, norms or values, but also the subjective perspective. The following forerunners in terms of content should be mentioned, which opened up new perspectives on action theory: Harold Garfinkels (1967) thoughts on routine actions and Bourdieu (1972) with the "Theórie de la pratiqe", but also Michel Foucault (1978) with his concept of governmentality or Anthony Giddens ( 1984) with the "Theory of structuration" (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 283, Bongaerts 2007: 254). For example, while Giddens emphasizes the importance of the actor's perspective more in the practices, Bourdieu emphasizes the weight of the structures in his habitus concept. Almost forgotten in the systematization, unfortunately, seem to have been the Soviet representatives of the cultural history school under Lev S. Wygotski and Alexej N. Leontjew, whose theory of activity could be very fruitful for the practical theoretical discussion.

In the following, however, I would like to emphasize the content-related approaches of Theordore Schatzki (1996, 2002), as he explicitly opened up the theory of social practices, which is often denied by the other representatives. Subsequently, I would like to work out a cultural-historical perspective for understanding the subject, especially through Reckwitz's systematization (2003, 2004, 2008).

Schatzki sees social practices as the smallest unit of the social in a "temporally unfolding and spatially dispersed nexus of doings and sayings" (1996: 89). Social practices are made up of an organized bundle of activities from what has been said and done, which thus form a connection with interwoven actions (cf. Schatzki 2002: 71). Statements of content are always conveyed physically. Here all body practices come into focus, sweating, bobbing with the foot as well as spoken word groups, their grammar, routine facial expressions or gestures or voices.

Reckwitz sees the body as subjects that only exist in the execution of practices and are products of culturally specific practices (cf. Reckwitz 2008: 125). Only in the concrete interaction, for example when knocking on a door, through the gestures of greeting, smiling, pointing, speaking and closing the door, a certain subject can be reconstructed, in which its cultural context as well as its individuality becomes visible. The greeting with a handshake would be an elementary component, which also reveals a lot about the subjective implementation of the practice - whether a soft, moist or firm handshake. The cultural context prescribes different greeting rituals: When greeting with Orthodox Jewish or Muslim people, for example, different sexes are not allowed to touch each other. There are also differences in the greeting at the royal court, among craftsmen on the roof, among friends in the bar or between business partners in the office.

Social practices and orders are spatially and temporally dependent on the execution by the subjects and on the context of the practices (cf. Schatzki 2002: 64). The respective context is made up of the conditions of the natural environment, the nature of artefacts and the execution of the practice itself - sometimes also from several practices (Schatzki 2002: 130). In the logic of practice, Schatzki differentiates between a “practical understanding” on the one hand and a “practical intelligibility” on the other.

Practical understanding does not mean “a sort of know-how that […] Examples of what I have in mind are Bourdieu's habitus, otherwise called practical sense (“ have a feeling for the game ”), and Giddens's practical consciousness (“tacitly grasping a rule”) ”(Schatzki 2002: 78). Rather, Schatzki's know-how emphasizes as a basis the recognition of practices and the knowledge of how something is done (cf. ibid .: 77). This knowledge and practical knowledge corresponds to a physical knowledge and ability that comes from the collective order of knowledge of the specific culture and the respective context and consists of everyday techniques such as "embodied capacities such as know-how, skills, tacit under-standing, and dispositions" (ibid. 2001: 7) together. This is about the subjective knowledge to carry out specific practices, to interpret their execution and also to react appropriately to them. This already suggests what should be further deepened in the following: In addition to the practice-specific sense, there is also a subject-specific sense (cf. Jaeger-Erben 2010: 78).

Practical understanding (“practical intelligibility”) “is not the same as rationality” (Schatzki 2006: 50), but “in the first place, practical” (Schatzki 2002: 76) and “an individualist phenomenon: It is always to an individual that a specific action makes sense. Features of individuals, moreover, are what principally determine what makes sense to them to do. Examples of such features are a person’s ends, the projects and tasks he or she is pursuing and affecting "(Schatzki 2002: 75). A concrete sense can only be created for the subject individually in the practices carried out and more likely reflects the subjective motives, goals, forms of knowledge and affective properties of the subject. Practices receive an actor-specific meaning in personal motives and goals, which makes it possible to understand practices. Context and practical understanding also decide which practice should be carried out and how (cf. ibid .: 79, 222; Reckwitz 2003: 295). However, Schatzki does not understand the context in a narrow structuralist way: “Nothing determines ante eventum what a person –acting in a world that prefigures paths differently– does.” (Schatzki 2002: 232). From a practice-theoretical perspective, the subject can appear as a "source of unpredictability and innovation without having to presuppose, in classic subject-theoretical terms, autonomy, reflexivity or self-interest" (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 296)

Practical understanding and practical understanding are interdependent, which is particularly evident in the context of the special teleoaffective structure as a property of the practices. In this teleoaffective structure, the practice, its content, its interpretations and possible reactions are generated, weighted, ordered and linked to individual goals, feelings and motives (cf. Schatzki 2002: 135).

The specific context of an interaction includes the concrete space with its temporally determined material arrangement, which enables a cultural and historical location. The interaction at a lake can be on the ground, in an office, at the counter, at the confessional or at a demonstration. In the practical understanding as know-how, practices of the environment can be recognized and classified, which helps to orient one's own practices on it. This includes the know-how of routinized, self-confident walking, looking as well as speaking. The practical understanding, which also expresses the subjective meaning, helps to classify the interaction individually. The subjective execution of one's own practice can thus be shaped innovatively and creatively, which also has an impact on the context. This is the case, for example, when so-called countercultures parody routine practices through individual execution, as the 1968 generation practiced in many places.

According to Reckwitz, practices are know-how-dependent behavioral routines, the knowledge of which is inscribed in the bodies of the subjects in the execution of activities (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 289). The subjects can be understood here as a bundle of practical forms of knowledge that are only actualized in social practices, but cannot be presupposed either intentionally or reflexively (pre-practical). It is only through knowledge that the body becomes capable of acting. (Cf. Reckwitz 2004: 44) Knowledge is not determined by the bodies and artifacts, but their facticity does not allow any understanding either (cf. ibid. 115). The knowledge due to the practical implementation is therefore always historically specific and thus never universal and is better described than “local knowledge” (cf. Reckwitz 2008: 118). This idea is later important for working out the new subject perspective through the practice theories.

In summary, one practice is “an ensemble of interlinked, regular activities of the body that are held together by implicit and shared forms of understanding and knowledge” (Reckwitz 2008: 151). The specific cultural knowledge is expressed physically, so that conversational practices could be classified as bourgeois, East German, white, female or Eurocentric and then have an impact on argumentation, performance, power or narrative practices.

For Reckwitz (2008: 77f.) The subject is no longer universally valid, but historically and locally culturally bound. Cultural orders are inscribed in the body of the subject, whereby the subjects can develop the ability of self-government, expressivity, reflexivity and rational choice. The subject can be a "catalog of cultural forms (...) which define what is to be understood by a fully-fledged subject and which are imprinted in its physical-mental structure in the form of specific dispositions, competencies, affect structures and patterns of interpretation" ( Reckwitz 2006, p. 10) and is produced in the practices that contain the subject form. In doing so, Reckwitz goes so far that a form of subject develops in a specific cultural framework that is actualized in social practices and also wants to be reached by the subjects of society. Examples according to Reckwitz are the “morally sovereign, respectable subject” in bourgeois modernity, the “extroverted employee subject” in organized modernity and the “creative-consumer subject” in postmodernism (cf. ibid .: 14). The reason for this is that modernity, due to global cultural overlaps and overlaps - remember Simmel's thoughts (1908) on the crossing of social circles - no longer gives the subject a clear identity, but rather the subjects have to search for this again and again (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 296).

There are always cultural counter-movements, such as the 1968 movements or the political protests around 1990 on the collapse of the European socialist states, which opposed the hegemonic subject culture with alternative practices (cf. ibid .: 17).

According to this, creative subjects result from the alternative practices that emphasize physicality, creativity and individuality in the practices of a rational and bureaucratic modernity, stylizing hedonism as a model. It "combines in itself the aesthetic ability to symbolically produce innovation, which seeks to break any normative self‐ and external control, with the self-control of the work on oneself and the sensitivity to external expectations that the market places on the profile of the individual." (Reckwitz 2006 : 510)

Theordore Schatzki, as already presented above in the Logic of Practice, emphasizes, in addition to routine practices, above all the subjective perspective (cf. Schatzki 2002: 75ff.). In the concrete action situation, the forms of the subject are imprinted in the context of the cultural context in the practical understanding that influence the practices. But the other side of the logic of practice emphasizes in the practical understanding the subjective meaning of practices, which is produced by the practices, by the practical execution, of the subjects in the context of their individual context.

Hubert Knoblauch remarks rather critically and acutely: "One could say, somewhat exaggerated: the practice here contains the meaning that is merely" called up "by the actors as if they were animators of their own actions" (Knoblauch 2008: 220). However, these fixed contexts of meaning do not exist for the practices, because they are always based on the subjective perspective and the context, which changes due to different positions in time and space. In execution, the subjects orient their practices to their motives, goals, feelings as well as to the context surrounding them with all things, which of course also includes the other, such as the interaction partner. Practices are therefore not limited to communication and interaction. Hubert Knoblauch (2008), with his culture and subject model of meaning, is not that far removed from Schatzki's logic of practice in some thoughts: On the one hand, culture as an objective context and context, for example in the Christian West, gives the meaning of those involved before (see Knoblauch 2008: 217). On the other hand, there is the subject that, according to Schütz, only achieves subjective meaning through consciousness (which, according to Reckwitz, is very prerequisite and culturally conditioned) and subjective understanding (cf. ibid .: 219). From the outside, the typical meaning can be reconstructed in order to determine similarities or to establish typifications and rules (cf. ibid .: 224). In this way, the concrete subjectivity can also be physically located in the historical-cultural space. However, the valuable idea of ​​contextuality, of universal concept formation as well as of intentional and conscious internal perspective or “positionality” (ibid .: 226) is not sufficiently located. The cultural analysis, on the other hand, proves that some subjects do not have a clear first-person perspective in their self-image, that certain cultures do not ascribe “I” with “my hand and my actions”, but rather an expression of a cultural subject or a universal model of consciousness of the western world Modern is.

The theory of social practices thus provides the decisive knowledge for the emergence of social innovations that were previously not possible in other sociological approaches (cf. Schatzki 1996: 89, Reckwitz 2003: 294), especially in the ambivalent logic of practice as a field of tension between cultural context and subjective execution, between routine and reproduction on the one hand and unpredictability and innovation on the other. Social practices are thus culturally imprinted and internalized in the subjects, but can be changed through individual execution. Innovation and creativity seem to reconstruct the postmodern creative subject that opposes organized and hierarchical modernity (cf. Reckwitz 2006: 575).


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About the author:

Benjamin Köhler, B.A. in sociology, studies European cultural history at the European University of Frankfurt / Oder and is a scholarship holder of the Hans Böckler Foundation. His main interests are: comparative social and economic history, sociology of culture and knowledge, urban and regional development.