Understanding How Change Happens

Social Practice Theory

We have held a series of workshops to explore different ideas about change. Our first workshop was led by Dr. Stanley Blue, who is an expert in ‘Social Practice Theory’ and one of the authors of Blue, Shove, Carmona, and Kelly. (2014). ‘Theories of Practice and Public Health: Understanding (Un) Healthy Practices’, Critical Public Health.

Summary Video from Dr Stanley Blue

What are social practice theories?

There are lots of theories about social practices. They’re all interested in ‘how things get done’ in the world. For instance, the following things might be thought about as social practices:

  • Cooking
  • Teaching
  • Travelling by train
  • Getting married

In our project, we’re particularly interested in the social practices that either DO or DON’T include disabled people. For instance, some practices might be set up in such a way that disabled people face barriers in taking part. All the ones listed above might pose problems for some people, if we simply take at face value the ‘way things are normally done’.

In our project, we have looked at Shove’s Social Practice Theory to see how it might be useful for us in thinking about change.

How might Social Practice Theory be useful?

Elizabeth Shove has developed Social Practice Theory, and she has lectured about its relevance.

Briefly, she suggests that social practices can be understood by thinking about the different elements that form social practices. The elements are abstract things that are made visible only when they come together in a particular social practice. For instance, a whiteboard might now be part of the technology of teaching, and is associated with the cultural value of imparting and sharing information in the way we do teaching in many Western countries. However, this may not be an accessible practice for those who have problems with vision.

Shove’s theory suggests that there are three sorts of elements, and they are all things we need to consider in any social practice:

1. Competences (the things people know how to do - embodied skills,)

2. Materials (the technology – the actual things that we use when we’re doing stuff e.g. objects, infrastructures)

3. Meanings (the significance of the practice, and how it relates to wider ideas in society, whether the practice is seen as empowering, healthy, environmentally friendly, cool, problematic, etc.)

It is easy to see immediately how social practices change and morph over time. Sometimes this happens in a gradual way, as things evolve. Other times, changes are more specific. In our workshop, Stan Blue told us about social practices and freezers, and how this might affect the meanings we give to cooking!

How could Social Practice theory be useful in making changes for disabled people?

One of the strands in our research will be about making reasonable adjustments in health services. We are interested in how doctors assess patients, how they make adjustments to their practices to meet the needs of different disabled patients, and how they care for people in hospital. All of these things can be seen as social practices.

We can change things for the better by changing the materials and resources we use. So for instance, a reasonable adjustment would be an accessible appointment letter, that people with learning disabilities might be able to understand.

By making changes like this, we can (bit by bit) perhaps change the basic social practice and adjust it so that everyone can understand better.

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