How to Conduct a Practice-based Study

How to Conduct a Practice-based Study

Problems and Methods

Silvia Gherardi

The practice-based approach to the study of work and organizing has been widely adopted in recent years, yet its theoretical and methodological systematization has only just begun. Silvia Gherardi expertly provides an overview on the topics and issues addressed by practice-based studies. By means of a series of examples drawn from the best-known analyses using this approach, the book provides methodological guidance on how to conduct empirical research on practices, and how to interpret them from three perspectives: practices ‘from outside’ practices ‘from inside’, and the social effects produced by practices.

Chapter 4: Sociomaterial practices and technological environments

Silvia Gherardi

Subjects: business and management, organisation studies, research methods in business and management, research methods, research methods in business and management


In this chapter we take a step forward in the empirical study of practices by considering the materiality of the relations which are woven together as a practice unfolds. In order to frame this way of looking at practices, we must take a step back and specify what is meant when practice is described as epistemological rather than as an ‘object’ or a privileged locus of learning and knowing. To gain better understanding of the epistemology of practice–and therefore move away from analysis that privileges action as the product of actors in a given context–it is useful to recall how Ira Cohen (1996) distinguishes between theories of action and theories of practice. We may say that whilst the theories of action privilege the intentionality of actors, from which derives meaningful action (in the tradition of Weber and Parsons), the thoeries of practice locate the source of significant patterns in how conduct is enacted, performed or produced (in the tradition of Schütz, Dewey, Mead, Garfinkel and Giddens). Hence theories of practice assume an ecological model in which agency is distributed between humans and non-humans and in which the relationality between the social world and materiality can be subjected to inquiry. Whilst theories of action start from individuals and from their intentionality in pursuing courses of action, theories of practice view actions as ‘taking place’ or ‘happening’, as being performed through a network of connections-in-action, as life-world and dwelling (as the phenomenological legacy calls them, see Chia and Holt, 2006; Sandberg and Dall’Alba, 2009).

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