Practice theory for practice change: Policy making to changing collective conventions

FionaSpotswoodFiona Spotswood

At the recent cross-government Behavioural Insights (BI) network conference, delegates were introduced to the idea of theories of practice as a way of framing policy making for behaviour change. BI network members design and test policies using principles from behavioural economics, which is as far removed from the sociological routes of ‘practice’ as it is possible to be. However, the limits of behavioural economics for achieving meaningful behaviour change are well documented. For example, critics have highlighted its narrow scope and low ambition in the face of intractable problems such as climate change and obesity.

Theories of practice underpin the work of an increasingly large number of academics who aim for systemic, cultural change, not just better choices. Some government social researchers (GSRs) are aware of the ‘practice’ approach, although the lack of evidence base has so far stunted its adoption. However, most GSRs are unfamiliar with its potential.

Behavioural economists and practice theorists have an important similarity. Neither would agree that people weigh up what is best for them before acting. However, whereas both are interested in patterns, for practice theorists the most interesting patterns are those in society, not the human brain. Practices are entities existing in society which we perform routinely, collectively and repeatedly.

Practice theory shows us how behaviours emerge from the way society is organised. An example is why so many people are locked into patterns of car driving for short trips. One answer is to see driving as the result of a flawed decision. An alternative is to see the practice of driving as competing and winning against other more sustainable practices. In temporal patterns, the materials, meanings and competences of driving for short trips coalesce to support a practice which recruits practitioners more readily than walking, cycling or bus travel. Even taking the materials alone, we can see how a road layout may favour drivers over walkers or cyclists, with out of town shopping centres, multi-lane roads and few cycle lanes. Then we can see how the meanings associated with cars come from heavy promotion of their status symbolism. Meanwhile, the competences of car driving are embedded into the transition to adulthood, as those required for cycling become forgotten.

Analysing competing sets of practices opens a theoretical route into the complex social context which locks us in to patterns of behaviour. As such, practice theory can help policymakers raise their ambitions, from changing discrete choices to changing the way society works. An app might reward smoother driving and reduce emissions, but it will never change our collective conventions about getting to work. Commuting by car would still be related to status and fit better with the way we lead our lives, which are shaped by how and where we work, where our children go to school and how we shop for food.

Raised ambitions are required to tackle intractable problems like climate change and obesity. A ‘nudge’ from an app, the plastic bag charge or a carefully worded tax demand letter will work because consumers are not asked to change the fundamentals of their known routine – they are already ‘in the room’ when the nudge happens (thanks to Andrew Darnton for the analogy). To shift sedentary populations into physical activity, the natural order of their lives may have to be dramatically shifted. In deprived communities, a person’s ‘taste’ for sedentary leisure is shaped by an ingrained cultural worldview in which physical activity is something for other people with other lives living in other places. The practices of urban design, education, marketing, housing and healthcare might be as culpable in shaping that worldview as the practices of the inhabitants themselves. When ‘behaviour’ change is not enough, unravelling the social scaffolding (or practice architecture) which supports the way things are is a first step in understanding how to change it.

There is a little published on how practices can be changed (e.g. Spurling et al., 2013; Vihalemm et al., 2015), although much more on how practices have changed (see Shove et al., 2012) and how practice theory can be fruitfully used to frame the policy change problem (see articles in this Social Business double issue for more on this). There is little about how theories of practice might be used by policymakers to demand and shape interdisciplinary policy solutions, which offers the greatest potential of the approach. Interdisciplinarity has been established as a way out of complex societal problems (House of Lords, 2011). Practice change might need social marketers, health psychologists, behavioural economists, urban designers and engineers to trigger the full suite of footholds for change made visible though practice theoretical analysis. Policymakers cannot afford to avoid engaging with the potential of practice theory, and practice theorists must become better at communicating and demonstrating this potential.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

The politics of behaviour change: nudge, neoliberalism and the state

Matching policy tools and their targets: beyond nudges and utility maximisation in policy design

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