Launch Event: Spaces to care, May 2016

Our launch event was on 04/05/16 in central Brighton.

Many thanks to the 45+ people who came from a very diverse range of institutional contexts and made for such rich and thought-provoking discussions.

Below is a short time lapse video of the event:

The seminar series overall has a particular aim, to consider whether academic theories of ‘social practice’ have anything to offer civil society organisations.

The aim of the launch event was to try to capture the work that civil society organisations – community and voluntary groups – do: their practices in relation to care, ‘peopling’ (volunteering and peer support) and learning; how complex they are, what is visible, what is often invisible and even overlooked; what seem to be intractable problems. We wanted to provoke dialogue between different organisations about points of connection and difference in their work and in the challenges they face. We wanted the day to provide a reflective ‘thinking space’ in which everyone felt valued and that what they brought is recognised and acknowledged.

The work we did will provide important empirical evidence that we will continue to consider and work with in future events.

Timetable for the day

9.45 Arrival, registration.

10 am welcome and introductions to each other

11 am presentations by some of our key community partners – Community Works , the Real Junk Food Project, the Hangleton and Knoll Youth Project, Mothers Uncovered and Brighton Housing Trust  – with time to reflect and respond to them.

For more on our partners and our collaborative working with them, see

1pm lunch

2pm presentation by Professor Vicky Singleton, Centre for Science Studies and Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Lancaster University. Vicky sent this information about herself and her paper:

I trained and worked as a Registered General Nurse before completing my degree and PhD and have had an enduring concern that my research speaks with, and to, professional practice. In particular my research has explored how policies and guidelines relate to embodied, located practices of care. It contributes to the field of Science and Technology Studies and in particular to Feminist Technoscience Studies. I carry out qualitative case studies that explore and make visible how programmes, knowledge-claims, policies and guidelines work in practice.

I have completed case studies in several locations including:

  • Women’s (non) participation in the UK Cervical Screening Programme.
  • The making of healthy citizens in the New Public Health: case study of a grass roots initiative to train members of a rural community in Cardio-pulmonary Resuscitation.
  • The complexity of clinical decision making around the management of acute Alcoholic Liver Disease: the experiences of patients and clinicians (with John Law).
  • Mothers’ implementation of recommendations to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
  • Women’s choice and Caesarean Delivery by Maternal Request.

There are two central ways in which my research aims to make a difference. Firstly, it aims to develop conceptual tools that articulate the complexity of the work of caring and the ‘productive ambivalence’ of publics and practitioners. Secondly, it aims to make visible the (often) hidden and unacknowledged practices and processes through which knowledge/interventions/people/materials are perpetually changing through caring practices, and the implications of this for policy development.

In this session I will introduce some of the key ideas that frame my work: Materiality, Relationality and Practices. I would then like to tell you some fieldwork stories and introduce an analytical concept that I am currently finding useful – Critical Caring. I will describe what I think this concept enables me to see, what it draws my attention to and what I think it allows me to articulate and to appreciate. My hope is that we can then explore how these ideas resonate (or not) with your experiences, whether and how they could be useful in your work and whether in making some things more visible they make other things less so.


below is a short video of her presentation on the day:

3.30pm collective reflection on the day

Here is what people said:

4.15 – looking forward to our next event on June 22/23, and evaluations.

4.30 end and move to pub

 We invited our partners to bring any materials that explain their work. We also asked them to take photos of a ‘day in my life’ before the launch, to try to capture something of the work that they do.

We received these comments from one participant, Paul FLynn:

I was very pleased to be accepted to join the seminar, and whist the initial sense was that my interests were tangential to the main discussion (sports volunteering, events and tourism) I was quickly able to recognise some important generic themes that come from my own background in systems thinking. This also links to the conference that I went onto the following week which was on ‘rethinking eventul cities’, where again there are some overlaps.

As I commented in the review session before I had to (too quickly) leave for my next train journey, I feel that there is perhaps a need to be more explicit about what we mean by social practice theory, and where this fits into the conversations about civil society organisations. This is not at all to ignore the very beneficial and positive outcomes of the day in respect of ‘transforming through learning, sharing and doing’.

Having been relying on the e-book version of Shove et al’s Dynamics of Social Practice, my hard copy purchase arrived the weekend after the conference, and I was able to spend my remaining travelling time digesting the ideas more fully. The book overall is quite accessible for colleagues ‘less immersed’ in academic writing book and is very rich in content. However, only through some quite judicious note taking was I able to distil some quite important ideas that might go unappreciated. From that perspective, there may be a need to elucidate a more accessible summary for the benefit of colleagues from the community sector who perhaps have less time and energy. This could also bring in related perspectives.

There are a number of Shove’s ideas that (for me) relate easily to the discussions in the conference. We might suggest that organisations at the start of the day were ‘co-existing and co-located’ much as ‘bundles of practice’. By the end of the day, there were high degrees of integration and synthesis, which we might suggest is indicative of ‘complexes of practice’. One question for me is what the existing collaborations and structures were amongst the organisations present, and how these might be being strengthened through the series. Quite clearly there is an ‘ecology of practice’, and this overlaps between state, private and not for profit provision, and includes funding bodies and donors as well as interested academics (!).

The discussions on Evaluation, Monitoring and Impact (EMI) fatigue clearly resonates with Shove’s discourses and technologies of monitoring, and these reflect constraining forces that impact on the practice of service delivery (whilst monitoring is itself a practice). One question which this provokes for me, is whether there is so much emphasis on externally driven EMI that organisations may be overlooking (or at least be unaware of) their own internal practice monitoring. At the least there is a question (partially addressed on the day) as to how organisations reconcile the two. Certainly one of the benefits of the eclectic mix of attendees was that colleagues had to constantly ‘unpack and decode’ their practice to fit the reference frames of others, and other contexts. There was a fair degree of ‘academic counselling’ in evidence in support of organisation colleagues clearly overwhelmed in their own practice.

From that perspective, the day had ‘a practice career’, as the series has a ‘career’ – is this perhaps a cue to think about the practice careers of civil society organisations, and those who compose them? Following Shove, how do practitioners find their way into civil society practice? What does it take to become a practitioner, and what makes practice rewarding (or at least attractive)? What are the apprenticeships, and how does identity emerge ? How are those careers defined by others, and how and when do identity, commitment and judgement emerge as practitioners and organisations move (consciously or unconsciously) from the periphery to the core? Is one of the roles for academics to support practitioners in understanding how to unpack and decode what they do, and to understand how practitioners, and the organisational practice complexes of which they are a part, emerge and evolve over time? In other words, can we, as academics, provide organisations with a map and compass, and a toolbox? Are we just to record, or also to intervene, and what are the parameters, and limits, of any action research approach?

Whilst the focus is often on the practices of caring and coping, are these the only practices in which we should be interested? The commercial world has ‘dominant designs’ which have become game changers, from the perspective of operations, resource management, financial management etc. What are the ‘dominant designs’ across everything that a civil society organisation does in terms of ‘best practice’ that could be applied by others. As an example, fundraising and membership models have (with some negative press) become quite sophisticated. What about strategy practice within civil society organisations?

Shove et al bring in the concept of dominance – to what extent would it be useful (for the seminar attendees) to hear academic accounts of how the policy systems which affect their organisations so much acquired their dominant status? Is it the case that within policy practice there is a lack of coherence across different areas (justice, health, education …) and would an increased policy coherence work for, or against, civil society organisations?

In ‘Dynamics of Social Practice’ Shove suggests a recursive relationship between the actions or practices of individuals and ‘the structural properties of social systems’ – clearly the significant and deeply felt issues that emerged at the end of the day cannot be ignored, and need to be articulated and legitimated to policy makers. I would take a more conservative (small C) view that, in parallel to the higher level discussion, the value in the series is in helping practitioners understand their own practices, and the practices of ‘significant others’ that already impact what they seek to achieve, or that might have the capacity to positively influence their achievements in the future.

Looking to the future of the ‘New Practices’ series, having been humbled by hearing about the significant community based work that is being undertaken, in a very difficult resource and policy environment, I’m not clear that my own capacity to contribute justifies taking up a place that might be used more effectively by someone else (My spouse, for example, whose interests are in Public Health).

At the same time, I felt that there were areas where I was able share perspectives, particularly from systems thinking, which contributed to colleagues reframing and reshaping their real world issues. There is, for me, a thread of discussion around the idea of ‘affordances’, which fits in with the evidence that community based agencies find themselves ‘fulfilling human needs’ for which they were certainly not funded and which often drew on their limited resources, certainly in respect of time. One area which seemed relevant to conceptualising the difference between ‘what was funded’ and ‘what was needed’ was Gerald Midgely’s view of boundary critique (see below and reference).

Perhaps the sign of a good conference is more in its ability to generate questions, than to generate answers, in which case this was a highly successful event for me.