Theories of practice shift the focus of program designers and managers away from our traditional engagement with individuals as decision-makers, capable of changing their behaviour. Instead, it regards practices, such as heating, cooling, washing or cooking. In each instance, we do these things not thinking much about the contribution to climate change; we cook because we need to eat, we turn on the air conditioner to stay cool and so on. In talking to people about their energy use as a result of these practices, we run the risk of them not understanding us at all.
In this view, practices are comprised of elements, such as the materials required to undertake the practice, skills on the part of the individual and meanings surrounding the practice. As an example, think about someone wanting to start cycling to work. They need materials, such as a bike, helmet and perhaps appropriate clothing. They also rely on other materials outside their control, such as roads, cycle paths and parking facilities.
They need skills, such as ability to ride a bike, a certain degree of physical fitness, perhaps confidence and navigation. Finally, they will attribute different meanings to the act of cycling to work, and these meanings may shift over time. The person may start with a fair degree of fear and trepidation, but ideally this would change to meanings of self-efficacy and control, as well as expressions of physical fitness, health and/or concern for the environment.
Within this perspective, the focus shifts from the individual as decision-maker solely responsible and with the power to enact changes in their behaviour to the practice as a whole, and potentially opens new avenues for intervention.
The challenge for supporters of practice theory is that it is currently a good theory to analyse behaviours, but has made only small steps towards developing interventions based upon this theory. There’s a growing literature if you want to read more. The Sustainable Practices Research Group in the UK has a good summary of practice theory and what it might be able to contribute.
For my research, it looks likely that practice theory might be an intervention to be developed and tested with practitioners, next year. What are your thoughts on this approach?