Event 4: Practice theory for social change, December 2016

This event took place on 14th December in Sheffield. We were delighted that Margit Keller from the University of Tartu, and Matthew Watson and David Evans from the University of Sheffield, spoke at this event, which related to ways of using practice theory in conversation with policy makers or other people trying to effect social change.

Practice-based approaches have sometimes been seen as aiming to help effect positive social change and to provide a more encompassing and grounded conceptualisation of change processes than a focus on attitudes, values and behaviours. To what extent does practice theory help understand how and why practices recruit people, how new practices emerge, thrive and travel and why others fail to ‘catch on’?

Matt, David and Margit  discussed their experiences of practice theory in relation to efforts and programmes to bring about social change.  These talks were followed by a workshop, led by Margit and Peter Jackson (University of Sheffield), which allowed us to work through how to draw on practice theory when trying to develop and implement changes, drawing on local examples.

Using practice theory for social change

Date: Wednesday 14th December 2016

Matt Watson, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

Lessons from practice theory for tackling energy demand: Matt  considered what a practice theory approach means for seeking change in the context of home energy use, drawing on his current projects. Seeing energy consumption as part of a nexus of interwoven practices, he argued that we need to understand the practices of policy and other institutions as much as of householders if we’re to tackle thorny issues that are bound up in much more distributed sets of relationships between practices.


You can watch a film of Matt’s presentation here:


His slides can be downloaded here: Matt Watson slides-2h11yd1


David Evans, Professorial Research Fellow, Human Geography, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

Theories of practice and policies for sustainable consumption:  Whilst theories of practice are multiple, the lines developed by Elizabeth Shove, Matt Watson and others (see Shove et al. 2012) have proved influential in sustainability research and policy. In addition to providing a strong critique of the ‘behaviour change’ agenda, these ideas are starting to be picked up by policy makers and other stakeholders. Drawing on his own experiences of engaging with government departments and delivery bodies, David presented a number of reflections and provocations related to the practical applications of practice theories. He considered the spaces and conduits that exist for dialogue, issues of translation and dilution, and challenges related to the nature of ‘evidence’.

you can see a short film of David’s presentation here:

His slides can be downloaded here: DE_Sheffield_practices policy-sppnzl

Margit Keller, Senior Researcher of Social Communication, and Head of Institute, Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu

Making practice theory practical: reflections and hands-on experiences from Estonia:  The talk touched upon the strengths and weaknesses of (a version of) social practice theory from the point of view of policy makers and various change agents. It focused on experiences of working with professionals’ and academic colleagues’ teams in Estonia on social change programmes. It highlighted both the difficulties of and benefits from a practice based approach in the context of fairly deeply entrenched awareness-attitudes-behaviour thinking both in non-academic and academic settings.

Slides from her talk are available here: Margit Keller_slides-1rtgh7c

You can watch a short film of Margit’s talk here:

Workshop on reshaping everyday practices, led by Margit Keller and Peter Jackson – Professor of Human Geography, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

The workshop took a local case as an example and a) analysed it based on some of the tools outlined in Margit’s co-authored book* on reshaping everyday practices – looking at socio-material networks, coordinating agents, and elements of practice, and b) speed-designed a change programme that took different practice elements and connections between different practices into account. This brainstormed ideas what could be done in practice beyond just analysing and without aiming for a utopian complete reconfiguration of the social system that would be beyond the reach of local policy-makers or commissioners.  In other words it tried to come up with a realistic, pragmatic and perhaps modest intervention drawing on some tools derived from practice theory.

*Vihalemm, Keller and Kiisel (2015) From intervention to social change: a guide to reshaping everyday practices, Ashgate: Farnham, Surrey.