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Practice Theory

In the 1970s and 1980s, practice and practices came to be seen as the object of theorization in certain branches of critical sociology and cultural anthropology. Practice theories, in general, seek to integrate objectivist theories of society (such as structuralism, functionalism, or Marxism) with theories that view social life as the contingent outcome of decisions, actions, and interpretations of competent (albeit not fully conscious) social actors. Prior to the 1970s, the dominant paradigms in both fields were objectivist, and shared a tendency to develop models of social life in which all social action could be seen as an outcome of underlying structures. Functionalist approaches derived from the sociology of Émile Durkheim viewed social behaviors as determined by the social structure, a set of interacting, mutually dependent institutions. Followers of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–), on the other hand, understood social action to be the expression of conceptual structures. Structure, in Lévi-Strauss's sense, consists of cultural grammars, themselves the outcome of the structured categorizing activity that is a universal feature of the human mind. Materialist approaches (including Marxist and crypto-Marxist approaches such as U.S. cultural ecology) likewise saw social action as determined by a structure of social relations that are themselves determined by the exigencies of the natural and human environment.

In all three paradigms, then, some larger entity—a system or structure—is abstracted from the activities of social agents. The actions and intentions of social actors remain outside of the model in all three cases (with the partial exception of some varieties of Marxism). Finally, their coherence as paradigms depends on the suppression of the dimension of time (again, with the partial exception of Marxist paradigms). For example, functionalist approaches tend to be ahistorical. They portray society (or societies) as a set of relations among institutions as if they maintained a state of homeostasis. Likewise, for Levi-Strauss and his followers, the object of analysis is always the relationship among and between conceptual elements that exist, as it were, outside of the flow of time. On the other hand, phenomenological approaches, such as Harold Garfinkel's (1917–) ethnomethodology or Erving Goffman's (1922–1982) symbolic interactionism took a processual view of society that accounted for both the temporal dimension of social life and the intentionality of subjects. Their account of society as the product of ongoing interactions could not, however, account for inequalities in power, status, or effective agency of those same subjects. The question raised by practice theorists in the 1970s, then, was how to reconcile objectivist and subjectivist accounts of society: to explain the reproduction of power and inequality as both ground and effect of quotidian interaction.

Practice theory (or action theory) has been associated primarily with four theorists: Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), Michel DeCerteau (1925–1986), and Anthony Giddens (1938–).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPractices - Practice Theory, Practice And Discourse: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu And Anthony Giddens, Practice As Resistance: Michel De Certeau