Cecily Maller seminar report

Health as an outcome of social practices: Re-conceptualising health education through a socio-technical lens: report of a seminar held at the University of Brighton on 15/10/15

Cecily Maller is Senior Research Fellow and Co-Leader Beyond Behaviour Change Research Program, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Australia. She researches human-environment interactions, everyday life, sustainability and health using theories from sociology and human geography. She currently holds a five-year VicHealth Research Practice Fellowship in Community Development and Residential Planning (2012-2015).

Cecily Maller’s seminar was inspired by our ESRC seminar series on practice theory, although she was visiting the UK outside the official dates that the series is running.

You can view her complete presentation here.

Cecily argued that sociological theories of social practice are at the cutting edge of sustainability and consumption research. They help us reframe problems differently, starting with practices rather than with behaviours or individuals.

Social practices are routinised action, involving interconnected elements of bodily and mental activities, objects/ materials and socially shared competencies, knowledge and skills (Reckwitz 2002a). Shove et al. (2012) describe 3 elements: meanings, materials and competences or skills

For example the practice of eating breakfast is described as:

  • Meanings of what to eat for breakfast, when, with whom, where, why
  • Skills relating to how to source/shop for/store, prepare/cook and eat breakfast foods and drinks, cleaning up, treatment of waste.
  • And the particular materials and infrastructures involved – the food, beverages, condiments, shops, recipes, kitchens, appliances, cooking utensils, crockery, tables, seating, etc.

Theories of social practice recognise the active role of technologies, materials and things in the construction of everyday life. In this sense they are ‘post-human’ and focus on socio-technical not just social relations.

Individual behaviours are moments in the performances of practices – and are the tip of the iceberg (Spurling et al 2013). When the practice of eating breakfast is performed, we can only observe the actions involved in the moment of performance – we wouldn’t see the meanings, the shopping and food preparation that would have gone into it, nor necessarily take notice of the tables, kitchen etc where it takes place. Equally, smoking or drinking – which are often designated ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and targeted by health promotion campaigns – would not necessarily qualify as practices in their own right because they are a small observable part (tip of the iceberg) of a wider practice such as going out with friends, seeing a band or often other types of socialising.

Theories of social practice decentre individual humans and move away from looking for linear or causal relationships for what people do explained by attitudes, behaviours and choices (Shove 2010). The unit of analysis becomes the practice rather than individual performers. Of any social problem the question can be posed: what are the practices that go to make it up?