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Poststructuralist Theories of Practice and “Critical” Interventions

With the advent of poststructuralist thinking, there has been great reluctance to conceptualize human behavior as conscious rational actions, and in most poststructuralist literature the term action is generally avoided. Systematic content analysis would probably reveal a shift in the discursive use of the term even in those poststructuralist writings that do not explicitly address this change in conceptualization. Foucault’s early work, for example, shows a preference for the term practice rather than the term action. In a seminal paper on this change, Schatzki et al. (2001) even coined the expression practice turn. Talking about practice instead of action indeed amounts to a novel picture of human agency and rationality (Reckwitz, 2008, p. 98) and opens up a certain way of seeing and analyzing social phenomena, which inevitably also imply a certain political and ethical dimension. For lack of a better word, Reckwitz, writing about theories of practice, describes this poststructuralist endeavor as textualism. In contrast to Benno Werlen, with his subjective mentalist approach of geographical action theory, and to Zierhofer (2002), who advocated the language-pragmatics approach in geography, poststructuralist thinkers do not tend to place structures inside the mind or in pragmatic procedures of interaction but rather “outside” it—in chains of signs, in symbols, discourse, or text. The subject is thereby decentered even further, that is, into discourses about sign systems. These discourses are seen not as mere representations of mental qualities behind them but as a sequence of external events from which symbolic structures are manifested. In a similar way, but with different arguments, Geertz’s (1973) symbolic anthropology and Luhmann’s (2002/2013) constructivist theory of social systems also focus on the structural aspects of society outside the subject. What all these textualist approaches have in common is their critical perspective on the essentialization of a universal and fixed principle of rationality and their celebration of the contextually and historically dependent logics of structuration and discursive meanings. But that is then their only critical thrust, and one could ask whether it spells the end of critical rational deliberations or what will be next? To a certain degree the view of poststructuralist thinkers is not that different from the late-modernist view of action theory or from language pragmatics. The poststructuralists proceed along the same line, only going a bit further. They, too, advocate a plurality of kinds of rationality, and list a wide range of possible frames for action but do not describe them as types of rationality but rather as systems of meanings and logics of structurations of power. Furthermore, poststructuralists emphasize that there is no single standard version of a given rationality, that each rationality contains multiple paradigms, each establishing its own set of principles, institutions, and lines of conflict that need to be taken into account.

In this context it is important to be aware that relationships between different players within this language game are described only in terms of power relations, which make it difficult to imagine some kind of metarationality regulating this plurality of differences. The relational sense in which Foucault and most of his poststructuralist followers use the concept of power makes clear that power is everywhere and that it is not an attribute of individuals. Yet that understanding subsumes almost all relational issues under the highly ambiguous concept of power, reducing it to a merely descriptive term and sapping most of its critical potential. Both late-modern and poststructuralist approaches thus lack of a metanarrative.

However, what started as a reconceptualization of human actions as practices—a change that began in early poststructuralist approaches in order to counterbalance the mentalist roots of action-theoretic approaches—ultimately overstated structuralist effects of discursive systems of meaning and obscured rationality’s critical potential to solve struggles of difference. Full-fledged theories of practice as discussed by Schatzki et al. (2001) and Reckwitz (2002) are bids to find a real balance between body and mind, things and knowledge, discourse and language pragmatics, structure and process, and the agent and the individual.

Current theories of practice constitute an effort to reformulate the Aristotelian conception of phronesis, which implies that practice is seen as the basis and purpose of theoretical knowledge (Flyvbjerg, 2001). That conception also implies an escape from the dualism of the subjective and objective (Bernstein, 1971 ; Stern, 2003, p. 185). Schatzki is seen as one of the leading thinkers in this approach, and he bases his practice theory on a new societal social ontology in which the dualism of ontological individualism and holism is overcome (Schatzki, 2006). He calls his new ontology site ontology, defining site as a type of context in which human coexistence takes place and which also includes the social entities themselves. Social events can thus be understood only through an analysis of this site. The close relationship between this concept of site and the geographic concept of place (Tuan, 2001) is evident:

Practice theory places practices at the center of the socio-human sciences instead of traditional structures, systems, events, actions. None of the practices can be reduced to a sum of its elements, which are of a complex character: they are mental and material, factual and relational, human and material, individual and supra-individual, etc. This conception also overcomes the dualism action/structure,...Each practice then operates in a typical regime, according to particular scenarios, it has its inherent normativity, etc. (Visnovsky, 2009, p. 391)

Because these particular practices are interlinked and intertwined, there arises the issue of how one can rationally deal with this host of situations. With this question in mind, it is worthwhile to explore some of discourse theory’s new developments that may be able to offer important answers.

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