Following the action: An approach for studying the coordination of practice

by | May 19, 2017 | All posts, Practice theory | 0 comments

A principle methodological challenge for any research is the identification of the core unit of analysis and the ‘entry point’ for empirical enquiry. Both depend on the research questions to hand. For the study of practices these challenges are particularly acute.

Studies of practices can range from relatively discreet bundles of activities (such as showering or cycling) to compounds of practices as described by Warde (2013) in relation to eating, which, depending on the question being asked, might or might not encompass cooking, shopping, or entertaining. Where the practice begins and ends is both a theoretical and a methodological problem. Within the conceptual repertoire of practice theories the term ‘coordination’ is often evoked, as something representing the binding together of ‘entities’ (e.g. Shove et al, 2012), of people performing practices (Southerton, 2006), or of actions in time and space (Schatzki, 2010). Despite the critical conceptual role in theories and studies of practices, coordination raises sets of methodological conundrums: what exactly is being coordinated and over what spatial, temporal and societal scales is this coordination occurring?

We encountered each of these methodological challenges in our recent study domestic laundry practices in the UK. Demonstrating that methodological dexterity when studying practices (proposition 2) is essential, our study required consideration of various forms of personal and social relations (or interactions between different actors) across different scales of analysis (proposition 4). This is not simply because laundry is an activity that remains highly gendered; it is also a practice that happens within and beyond households. While households form their own laundry regimes, when aggregated to a societal scale those regimes represent clearly patterned, and we would argue socially ordered, practices. Our study therefore immediately threw up some fundamental methodological problems: First, how can we identify our unit of analysis: Is laundry practice the act of washing and drying items or should we also include the use of laundry services, dealing with items that have already been worn (including airing, deodorising, fluff removal) or the preparation of clean items before use (by ironing, folding, hanging). Second, where should we start: Many studies focus on the use of washing machines but is that the core of the practice? And, finally, what is being coordinated: The laundry items, the laundry needs of people within households, or the whole practice with other temporal rhythms of daily life?

Central to our approach, and our resolution to the methodological challenges we encountered, is an understanding of practices as comprised of multiple non-dependent activities. Together these activities form what is often referred to as a ‘practice as entity’. From this perspective understanding the form a practice takes, and how it changes, requires insight into how these multiple activities relate to one another. The ways in which laundry activities are coordinated thus becomes the entry point for our study.

We suggest that multiple forms of coordination can be studied through analysis of the linkages between the performances of tasks over time and in spaces, as they unfold in sequences of action. In short, we suggest an approach built on ‘following the action’. Following the action and the linkages between activities does not restrict the researcher to any particular type of data or approach to data collection. The principle remains the same whether data is generated through qualitative ethnographic observations, or quantitative survey-based methods. The aim is to analyse the connections between one moment of doing and the next – sequences of action and the flexibility or stability in the observable patterns. Identification of forms of coordination is achieved through comparison of multiple accounts to an ideal-typical sequence of activity. Through comparison, the scope of variation within and between various activities, and their connections, can be established.

In our study of domestic laundry we used data from individuals’ descriptions, generated through in-depth interviews, of dealing with dirty and clean clothing through the course of everyday life. Interviewees were selected on the basis that they took responsibility for doing the laundry, and were asked to describe how they did this. Initial respondents’ step-by-step descriptions of the sequences of tasks that constituted ‘doing the laundry’ served to build the ideal typical sequence of activities. In the case of laundry the typical sequence was: designation of unclean items; storage; washing; drying; and, preparation of items for use. Each was performed in relation to different domestic objects and evoked a range of cultural understandings to explain (and justify) senses of appropriate action. Taken together, these activities represent the boundaries of the practice. The performance of each activity was explored in relation to the spaces where they were performed, the domestic objects that were used, and the personal relationships in which they were embedded. The second step was to analyse the ways in which individual performances differ from ideal-typical sequences. The typical sequences thus served as a heuristic device to interrogate accounts of individual performances. It was through the comparison between sequences, and observation of the variation in actual performance, that the mechanisms of coordination could be identified. We examined the relationship between activities – across temporal (duration, tempo, frequency), spatial (where and when activities took place through the home); material (the objects and infrastructures that were used, or shaped what was done); and socio-cultural dimensions (including household composition and personal relationships which influenced who did what for whom).

Our account of ‘following the action’ through sequences of activities as they unfold over time and space, responds to, and develops proposition 3 (‘considerations of space, time and embodiment are essential aspects of practice theory methodologies’). The approach enables the researcher to systematically analyse the consequences of these dimensions for performance of practice at multiple scales of analysis (individual, household and societal). We suggest that an important benefit of this approach is that it works toward the identification of ‘mechanisms’ which are evoked and work in relation to one another in the coordination of activities, interactions within personal relationships, and cultural meanings. This type of mechanism-based explanation avoids the pitfalls of relying on rule-based explanatory frameworks (which can work to ‘bracket out’ key factors shaping practice identifying them as ‘context’), while generating greater explanatory power than can be found in purely ‘thick descriptions’ of performances in context. As such, we suggest that the methodological orientation we have described, which can be used to uncover mechanisms of coordination, offers a useful starting point for studying practice – whichever method you choose.

This blog first appeared on the Practice Theory Methodologies website.