Anthropology of Practice Research Paper

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The word practice carries a clear meaning in everyday English. A practice is a convention or institution, and in anthropological discourse the word often appears in its ordinary sense. Tibetans follow the practice of sky burial or South Indians practice cross-cousin marriage. But the word also enters anthropological discourse in more theoretized ways.

1. Sources

The idea that human action takes place against a background—constituted or tacit knowledge, intersubjective meanings, a form of life, or practice—has sources in Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Polanyi. But the notion has mostly influenced students of human behavior, from Merleau-Ponty to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, by way of Heidegger’s Being and Time. For Heidegger, the epistemological question— how do we know our understanding of the world matches the world itself—cannot be asked as Descartes did, by making the question of truth a matter of beginning with what a conscious subject can know of the world with absolute certainty and working from there. The Cartesian subject on Heidegger’s account can know that he or she exists only because of the presence of a set of background practices which make knowing (or acting, judging, laughing, and so on) possible. The intelligibility of the world in other words depends on the actor’s prior ‘being-in-the world.’

Heidegger argues that understanding human action requires recognizing that it is practical twice over—it depends on this background of practices and it is purposive. In Heidegger’s language intentionality is always practical rather than cognitive, but practices are purposive in an extended sense of the word. The actor may not have any purpose in mind because being-in-the world is a skilled activity that goes on whether the actor is aware or not (1962, p. 405). Intrinsic to human activity is the actor’s comportment with things in the world, and everyday being resides in his or her doing, intending, and coping. Human beings are socialized into these practices relative to their historical moment and culture, yet the practices themselves cannot be made explicit. If such is the case, the idea of practice challenges hopes for a scientific account of behavior.

Mainstream political science, for instance, assumes that the actor’s point of view is a thing in itself. It consists of beliefs, attitudes, and evaluations. These states of mind are an objective social reality and capable of furnishing the brute data on which the political scientist constructs a science of politics. The problem is that the actor’s point of view cannot be reduced to that which can be attributed to him as a belief, attitude, or evaluation if the content of consciousness depends on intersubjective belief or practices that stand behind these mental states and make them possible (Taylor 1971). The intersubjective beliefs Japanese villagers hold about reaching public consensus, Taylor says, must be understood as residing in the relationship between actors and the society they inhabit. Critics of positivism argue that no amount of questioning could elicit these intersubjective beliefs from the Japanese themselves because they are ineffable and depend on still other practices. Yet without accounting for the bottomless matrix of practices in which those beliefs, attitudes, and evaluations are embedded, no comparative science of politics is possible.

2. Habitus, Practice, And Time

Another example of Heidegger’s influence is Bourdieu’s use of the word practice in the sense of praxis, action, or agency. While Taylor reacts to the assumption that social action can be explained by focusing on an actor’s consciousness, Bourdieu denies that it can be understood as consciousness reduced to rules and norms. In his view, action is relational, recursive, and reflexive. Behavior has a cultural referent, but is considerably more complicated than the execution of a blueprint. Bourdieu’s attempt to accommodate strategy and innovation as part of an account of social behavior appeared as nearly as his Algeria 1960 which he organized around the distinction between dispositions and economic structures (English trans. 1979). He theorizes that relationship in a full-blown way in his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977). Dispositions, Bourdieu writes, have two parts—the habitus—the ensemble of dispositions towards action and perception that operates from within social agents—and the practice which the habitus generates. The habitus is ‘the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations’ (1977, p. 78). Those structured, objectively unified practices are subjective and changing, but they follow from the habitus in the same way a jazz band improvizes on a familiar melody.

Where a traditional anthropological account of kinship focused on genealogical rules and the constraints those rules exert on some activity such as marriage choice, Bourdieu saw genealogical forces in relation to other variables (1977). To regard Kabyle marriage as the realization of a parallel cousin rule for arranging a match is to remove one source of determination from the relationship in which it operates. Any calculation that an anthropologist might make of how often Algerians marry their parallel cousins depends on the extent of the social unit in relation to which the calculation is made. The size of that social unit is itself a strategic variable (1990, p. 15). Other variables pertain to the couple (age and age difference, previous matrimonial history, sibling order, relationship to the family authority-holder), but a great many more are family matters (the economic and social status of the families, their social affliations, ability to defend themselves, as well as sheer numbers). For Kabyles the habitus includes parallel cousin marriage as one disposition among many, and the strategies that emerge from all of those dispositions—weighing each in relation to others—constitute practice.

Families strategize by considering all of these considerations, and as they learn more about the other side, their strategy evolves. Because human behavior is recursive as well as relational, its analysis must take time into consideration. Bourdieu insists that detemporalizing science fails to understand what constitutes social behavior. Time gives behavior ‘its form, as the order of succession, and therefore its direction and meaning’ (1990, p. 98). Where Levi-Strauss thought the gift exchange was organized according to deep principles unknown to the actor, Bourdieu argued that it was driven by 100 small calculations, idiomatic to actors who re-evaluate and change their strategies as the situation unfolds in time. Those calculations may be intuitive, but theory misconstrues its object when it takes the actor’s agency as simply applicative.

There is a third part of practice where Bourdieu turns Heidegger in a sociological direction. Practices are reflexive. They carry with them their own interpretation, which means that they organize the relationship between individuals and society in a way that is circular. Heidegger puts the matter in distinctive language—existence is an understanding of being shared by individuals and society. Because practices are shared, they are the basis of mutual intelligibility, but this same condition means that there is never anything like a subjective inner sphere (1977, pp. 80–1). Individuals, whatever their self-conception, are social creatures. Individuality cannot be absolute, but a variant on the local class habitus and other dispositions.

In this sense Bourdieu blurs the distinction between the individual and society. ‘The habitus—embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history—is the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product. As such, it is what gives practices their relative autonomy with respect to external determinations of the immediate presence. This autonomy is that of the past, enacted and acting, which …, makes the individual agent a world within a world’ (1990, p. 56). Symbolic interactionists and ethno methodologists assume that social action derives from individuals responding to immediate circumstances, and Bourdieu too wants to account for circumstances. But he does so by insisting that the actor’s course is guided by a dialectic. He is always a social being subject to the orientations and limits of the habitus’ ‘operations of invention’ as they develop amidst those objective structures (1977, p. 95).

That practices are reflective of larger social understandings (of what it is to be a person, a teacher, a woman) has implications for the way Bourdieu understands agency: ‘it is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know’ (1977, p. 77). It also has implications for the way Bourdieu understands agency as organized in time. He says that gift exchange is one of the social games that cannot be played unless the players ignore ‘the objective truth of the game … and unless they are predisposed to contribute, with their efforts, their marks of care and attention, and their time, to the production of collective misrecognition. Everything takes place as if the agents’ strategies and especially those that play on the tempo of action … were organized with a view to disguising to themselves and from others the truth of their practice, which the anthropologist brutally reveals simply by substituting the interchangeable moments of a reversible sequence for practices performed in time and in their own time’ (1990, pp. 105–6).

3. Practice And Domination

The notion that the actor’s point of view entails his or her misrecognizing the social game derives from a tradition of concern for consciousness that has affinities to both Marx and Heidegger. What Bourdieu takes from Marx (and what separates him from Heidegger) is the idea of structure, and specifically the economic structures in which actors act. The world is prior to the actor’s agency in the world, but it bears on individuals relative to their position in the social organization of production. It is the objective character of social conditions that produces a class habitus, the harmony of dispositions, ethos, taste, and what he calls body hexis—while individuals are thoroughly social, they are related to society in ways appropriate to their peculiar identities.

Bourdieu has studied how relations of domination shake an actor’s subjective aspirations in an extraordinary variety of contexts—from the Kabyles of Algeria, peasants in the region of Bearn in southwestern France, the academic establishment, systems of classification in educational settings, museums, class relations, sports, to high fashion and the production of other cultural goods in modern industrialized societies. In its most cunning form domination operates in systems of classification. Whether he turns his attention to anthropological concerns with kinship, ritual, calendars, and domestic space or more sociological matters such as fashion, taste, and educational systems of classification, Bourdieu dismisses Kantian and Levi-Straussian assumptions. All such classifications are not folk epistemologies but ideological mystifications of political realities.

Because Bourdieu assumes the nondistinction of the material and the symbolic, he rejects ‘the spurious alternatives of social physics and social phenomenology’ (1990, p. 140). In the same way that charisma is not a particular form of power, contra Weber, but the condition of all power, meaning grounds all human action. In studying taste as a discriminating practice in modern France, Bourdieu draws the study of culture in the normative sense of refinement or cultivation into the realm of culture understood anthropologically (1984). The endless conversion of economic capital into symbolic capital uses taste to enunciate class differences but requires the complicity of the entire society. That conversion is the condition which makes possible the continuation of domination, yet it ‘cannot succeed without the complicity of the whole group … As Mauss puts it, the whole society pays itself in the coin of its dream’ (1977, p. 195).

4. Practice And Its Applications

Seen against the background of anthropological theory, practice theory was a response to the profession’s recent discontent with the notion of culture, especially its neglect of power and strategy. Seen against a Heideggerian background, it was another critique of the error with which Western philosophy began, objectivism (1962, pp. 41–9). Anthropologists found much to admire in Bourdieu’s work—his even-handed concern for both the actor’s point of view and structure, efforts to transcend the conventional antimonies, and recognition of temporality as figuring in social life. Exploiting practice theory as a way to tie together consciousness and structure, action and its temporal horizon, as well as Weber and Marx, theorists have applied Bourdieu’s thinking to case studies that range from gift-giving, saving, and consuming to gender, sexual difference, class relations, and colonial encounters.

If one counted anthropologists invoking the importance of practice, temporality, or simply Bourdieu’s name, his influence would be striking. Counting only scholars who fully pursue his research program, the number would shrink to people who publish in the journal he founded, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, or work with him at the Centre de Sociologie Europeenne in Paris. The most vibrant tradition occupying the space between these extremes are anthropologists who have seen practice theory as a vehicle for coping with history and temporality. Marshall Sahlins’ work on Hawaii and Fiji carries on Bourdieu’s interest in social reproduction, here fixed on situations where European actors intruded on South Pacific systems of domination. In accounting for the circumstances that surrounded Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, Sahlins characterizes events in a way that melds agency and structure, showing how mutual misrecognition created changes that look in retrospect entirely predictable (1985). In dealing with Hawaiians’s initally worshipful attitude to Cook and his eventual murder, Sahlins pushes Bourdieu’s commitment to agency and structure in a historical direction, arguing that those incidents evolved in a way better understood not as misrecognition and disaster, but the reproduction of culture—Hawaiians thought Cook was their god Lono—and its transformation. Sherry Ortner melds practice theory, structure, and history in characterizing the relationship of ‘big’ people and ‘small’ people and monks and nuns in Sherpa society and relations among that society, the Nepal state, and the British Raj (1989). Her confidence in the Bourdieuan project also organized her important article evaluating the state of anthropological theory (1984).

Arjun Appadurai’s attempt to theorize globalization has even more inspirations, but Bourdieu’s work is critical. Approaching consumer capitalism as a system as much symbolic as material, Appadurai extends the analysis in several directions. He understands consumption as a transnational phenomenon, which finds its locus at the level of body hexis, the individual, class, and nation-state. Stressing the way the media have unleashed the imagination, Appadurai argues that in the transnational world the habitus has been replaced by self-conscious choice, justification, and representation, often intended for far-flung diasporic communities and capitalist frontiers (1996, p. 44). But the role agency, strategy, and innovation play in Appadurai’s account of local societies negotiating modernity would strike Bourdieu as the operations of the habitus under new circumstances.


  1. Appadurai A 1996 Modernity at Large. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN
  2. Bourdieu P 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice [trans. Nice R]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  3. Bourdieu P 1979 [1963] Algeria 1960 [trans. Nice R]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  4. Bourdieu P 1984 Distinction [trans. Nice R]. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, UK
  5. Bourdieu P 1990 The Logic of Practice [trans. Nice R]. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  6. Heidegger M 1962 Being and Time. Harper and Row, New York
  7. Heidegger M 1981 Basic Problems of Phenomenology [trans. Hofstadter A]. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  8. Ortner S B 1984 Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1): 126–66
  9. Ortner S B 1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  10. Sahlins M 1976 Culture and Practical Reason. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  11. Sahlins M 1985 Islands of History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  12. Taylor C 1971 Interpretation and the sciences of man. Review of Metaphysics 25(1): 3–51
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