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Things and social practices

March 26th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

One of the issues which intrigues me about the Learning Layers project is the role of physical tools and objects. We are seeking to develop apps to support informal learning in the construction trade. And one of the big things about construction is that they use a lot of tools, machinery and materials – things that can be difficult to represent in a digital world. Indeed, that is one the the reasons I think elearning has been slow to take off in the workplace, despite the increasing power of mobile devices.

In past work we have tried to understand the learning and work eco-structures through the lens of activity theory. To an extent it is useful, but the bucket category of tools fails I think to represent the central role that artefacts play in work processes.

This morning I stumbled on a paper called ‘Towards a Theory of Social Practices‘ by Andreas Reckwitz. It is not an easy read, at least for me with my limited understanding of social theory. But i find his section on things interesting, particularly the idea that the objects – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices.

This is an excerpt from the section of the paper entitled ‘Things':

For practice theory, objects are necessary components of many practices – just as indispensable as bodily and mental activities. Carrying out a practice very often means using particular things in a certain way. It might sound trivial to stress that in order to play football we need a ball and goals as indispensable ‘resources’. Maybe it is less trivial, meanwhile – after studies of the history of communicative media – to point out that writing, printing and electronic media ‘mould’ social (here, above all, discursive) practices, or, better, they enable and limit certain bodily and mental activities, certain knowledge and understanding as elements of practices (cf. Kittler, 1985; Gumbrecht, 1988). When particular ‘things’ are necessary elements of certain practices, then, contrary to a classical sociological argument, subject–subject relations cannot claim any priority over subject–object relations, as far as the production and reproductions of social order(liness) is concerned. The stable relation between agents (body/minds) and things within certain practices reproduces the social, as does the ‘mutually’ stable relation between several agents in other practices. Moreover, one can assume that most social practices consist of routinized relations between several agents (body/minds) and objects. At any rate, the social is also to be located in practices in which single agents deal with objects (besides, also in practices in which a single agent deals only with himself, with neither other subjects nor objects) and in this sense also the objects – television sets, houses and brownies – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices. There is no necessary link between the observability of social orderliness and ‘inter- subjectivity’.

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