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What is a Social Practice?

  • Sally Haslanger (a1)


This paper provides an account of social practices that reveals how they are constitutive of social agency, enable coordination around things of value, and are a site for social intervention. The social world, on this account, does not begin when psychologically sophisticated individuals interact to share knowledge or make plans. Instead, culture shapes agents to interpret and respond both to each other and the physical world around us. Practices shape us as we shape them. This provides resources for understanding why social practices tend to be stable, but also reveals sites and opportunities for change. (Challenge social meanings! Intervene in the material conditions!)

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1 Shelby, Tommie, ‘Racism, Moralism, and Social Criticism’, DuBois Review 11 (2014), 63.

2 In some cases, the term ‘coordination’ is used as a success term when we have achieved a solution to a coordination problem, defined in the game-theoretic sense (e.g., where the outcome of an action depends on others, there is uncertainty about the other's course of action, and more than one equilibrium). I am not assuming in my use of the term that coordination is always a solution to such a problem.

3 Rawls, John, ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Philosophical Review 64 (1955), 332.

4 Rawls, ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, 25.

5 Kukla, Rebecca and Lance, Mark, ‘Intersubjectivity and Receptive Experience’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 52 (2014), 2242.

6 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958); Kripke, Saul, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). For useful discussion see Rouse, Joseph, ‘Practice Theory’, Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, Volume 15: Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology, (eds) Turner, S. and Risjord, M. (Oxford: Elsevier, 2007), 499540.

7 McGeer, Victoria, ‘The Regulative Dimension of Folk Psychology’, in Folk Psychology Re-Assessed, (ed.) Hutto, D. and Ratcliff, M. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007); Zawidzki, Tadeusz, Mindshaping, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

8 Martin, John Levy, Social Structures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Also Haslanger, Sally, ‘Social Meaning and Philosophical Method’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 88 (2014), 1637.

9 Martin, Social Structures, 7.

10 This debate goes back to Weber, and is discussed in virtually every text in philosophy of social science through the 1990s. For a clear and classic characterization of the issues, see Little, Daniel, Varieties of Social Explanation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

11 Martin, Social Structures, 6.

12 Frye, Marilyn, The Politics of Reality (Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press, 1983), Ch. 2.

13 Haslanger, Sally, ‘What Is a (Social) Structural Explanation?Philosophical Studies 173 (2016), 113130; and Theorizing with a Purpose: The Many Kinds of Sex’, in Kendig, Catherine (ed.), Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (New York: Routledge, 2006) 129144).

14 Garfinkel, Alan, Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). Risjord, Mark W., Woodcutters and Witchcraft (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000).

15 Zawidzki, Tadeusz, ‘The Function of Folk Psychology: Mind Reading or Mind Shaping?Philosophical Explorations 11 (2008), 198.

16 Sterelny, Kim, The Evolved Apprentice, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), xi.

17 Sterelny, The Evolved Apprentice, Ch. 2–3.

18 Coordination may be a fundamental role of culture, but as J. M. Balkin suggests ‘… [cultural] tools are not always mere adjuncts of instrumental rationality. They are used in many different ways… The first is to get about the world, to understand and make use of it. The second is to interact with other people, and the third is to express and articulate human values’. (Balkin, Cultural Software, 25).

19 Zawidzki, Mindshaping, 41.

20 Sewell, William Jr.The Concept(s) of Culture’, in Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn, (ed.) Spiegel, Gabrielle M., (New York: Routledge, 2005), 49.

21 Sewell, ‘The Concept(s) of Culture’, 49.

22 Lessig, Lawrence, ‘The Regulation of Social Meaning’, University of Chicago Law Review 62 (1995), 9431045.

23 Stalnaker, Robert, ‘What Might Nonconceptual Content Be?Philosophical Issues 9 (1998), 339352.

24 This remains very vague and needs development. I want to avoid saying, however, that the members of the community ‘follow’ a rule or ‘draw’ the inferences. The kind of information processing in question should be available also to non-human animals. Dogs, for example, are capable of communicating and coordinating with humans by processing learned signals and signs in ways that reflect inferential patterns. One way of spelling this out is in terms of an enhanced intentional stance (Zawidzki, Mindshaping, 14–15, 38). See also Brandom, Robert B., Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Williamson, Timothy, ‘Blind Reasoning’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 77 (2003): 249293.

25 Sewell, ‘The Concept(s) of Culture’, 44.

26 Zawidzki, ‘The Function of Folk Psychology’, 204–5.

27 Rouse, ‘Practice Theory’, 530.

28 Zawidski convincingly argues that sociocognitive competence ‘falls short of high-level mindreading because it requires no attribution of concrete, unobservable mental states with content represented via individually variable modes of presentation and holistically constrained causal influence on behavior’ (Zawidzki, Mindshaping, 15).

29 Sewell, William Jr., ‘A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation’, The American Journal of Sociology 98 (1992), 129.

30 Swidler, Ann, ‘Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies’, American Sociological Review 51(1986), 273

31 Balkin, J. M., Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 19.

32 Balkin, Cultural Software, Ch. 2.

33 Ibid., 25.

34 Richardson, Sarah, Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 221.

35 Sewell, ‘The Concept(s) of Culture’, 51.

36 Kukla and Lance, ‘Intersubjectivity and Receptive Experience’.

37 Ibid., 26.

38 Kukla and Lance, ‘Intersubjectivity and Receptive Experience’, 36.

39 Caroline Winter, ‘Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For’, Bloomberg Businessweek, September 21st 2017.

40 Anderson, Elizabeth, Value in Ethics and Economics (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Satz, Debra, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

41 Sewell, ‘A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation’, 13 (my italics). The quoted part from Sewell is his definition of structure, that I have previously employed in an effort to analyze the practices that make up the structures. It seemed to me plausible not only that practices are self-sustaining, but that once we have this notion of practice, structures can be easily understood in terms of networks of practices.

42 This point was raised in a discussion of this paper at Stanford University in May 2017. Unfortunately, I cannot recall who raised the question. Nevertheless, thanks to the questioner!

43 Sterelny, The Evolved Apprentice, 174–177; Zawidzki, Mindshaping, 17–18

44 Hacking, Ian, ‘The Looping Effects of Human Kinds’, in Sperber, Dan, Premack, David, and Premack, Ann James (eds), Causal Cognition: A Multi-Disciplinary Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 351383; Mallon, Ron, The Construction of Human Kinds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

45 For helpful input and discussion, special thanks to Amalia Amaya, Lanier Anderson, Axel Barceló, Michael Bratman, Ruth Chang, Angeles Eraña, Maite Ezcurdia, Kit Fine, Fernando Rudy Hiller, David Hills, Rachel McKinney, Anthony O'Hear, Carlos Pareda, Faviola Rivera, Miguel Ángel Sebastían, Kenneth Taylor, Moisés Vaca, and many others, including audiences where material in this paper was presented at the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Stanford University, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Institute of Philosophy. Thanks also to Adam Ferner for his help and patience.


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