Anthropology and Practice

Anthropology and Practice

The impact of practice theories, particularly those of Foucault and Bourdieu (who was trained in anthropology as well as sociology, and whose early work focused on the Berber-speaking Kabyle peasants of the Maghrib of North Africa), on cultural anthropology has been profound and far-reaching, sufficiently so that Sherry Ortner (1994) claimed it as the most important general paradigm of cultural anthropology of the 1980s as a whole. This should not be surprising; after all, participant-observation is a matter of observing and participating in practices. Theories that privilege practices—both as forms of communication and as the bases on which social relations are structured—provide a means of theorizing the connections between the "imponderabilia of daily life" and the larger questions about structures of power and social change.

Attention to processes of the transformability of social systems, indeed, distinguishes much practice-based ethnography from the practice theories of Bourdieu and Giddens. As Dirks, Eley, and Ortner point out, for Bourdieu, the habitus is a virtual mirror of the social order, thus the ethnographic project is "largely a matter of decoding the public cultural forms within which people live their lives … that already encode the divisions, distinctions, and inequalities of the society as a whole. And the aim is to get as close as possible … to the practical ways in which, in enacting these forms, the subject/agent comes to embody them, assume them, take them so utterly for granted that 'it goes without saying because it comes without saying'" (1994, p. 16).
Indeed, practice theory can provide a framework for examining the reproduction of inequality in general. Works such as Paul Willis's Learning to Labor (1981) or Phillippe Bourgois's In Search of Respect (2003) are more closely aligned with neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony than practice theory as such. Nevertheless, these studies portray their disempowered subjects (working-class British teenagers and New York crack dealers, respectively) in a double bind: the social practices through which they express their resistance to their subjugated status (resistance to school or participation in the illegal economy) ultimately reproduce the set of social relations that binds them to those statuses. In general, however, practice-based ethnographies have been equally interested in the culturally situated practices that lead, intentionally or not, to social change.
Marshall Sahlins's (1930–) influential Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981) is a case in point. Using the episode of Captain Cook's death at the hands of the Hawaiians, Sahlins argued that the Hawaiians' complex response to Cook's arrival—ranging from exchanges of material goods and sexual relations up to and including Cook's murder—took place within the cultural logics of the Hawaiian prestige systems. These practices (seen, from the Hawaiian point of view in terms of circulation of mana, or "vital force"), however, applied to a novel context (from the English point of view, trade), ultimately undermined the bases of the indigenous prestige system by incorporating English trade (goods and relations) into that system. Social change, in Sahlins's model, happens as a result of "structures of conjuncture": changes in the systems of meaning, which are, in turn, the unintended consequences of the deployment of social practices, rooted in a traditional system of relations, to novel circumstances.
Sahlins's method—tracing out relationships between changes in practice, changes in systems of meaning, and changes in structures of power—has been applied to shed new light on processes of social change. In his study of the village of Gapun, New Guinea, for example, Don Kulick convincingly argues for the importance of attention to local practices in the process of "modernization." In his account of the disappearance of the local vernacular, Taiap, in favor of the Melanesian pidgin, Tok Pisin, he shows that changes in linguistic practice are motivated by traditional ideas linking gender, linguistic practices, and prestige. The conjunction of local systems of value with missionization and temporary wage labor led to a number of unrecognized effects. The incorporation of Christianized cosmological theories and the language Tok Pisin into indigenous categories, coupled with local ideas about first-language acquisition, led to the systematic suppression of Taiap competence among young children and changes in patterns of (adult and child) sociation. Gapuners came to devalue Taiap not as a rejection of local symbolic practices in the face of outside forces, but of their resignification, the process of which, nevertheless, undermined the basis of reproduction of traditional forms of social action and authority.
Second, because practice provides the basis of the construction of categories of identity along with power, practice theories have been important (explicitly or implicitly) in anthropologies of gender. Roger Lancaster's 1994 study of Nicaraguan machismo as a discourse of embodied practices and Don Kulick's 1998 study of the construction of gendered identities through linguistic practices among Brazilian travestís are cases in point. Anna Tsing's 1993 analysis of discourses of power among the Meratus of Indonesia shows how gendered inequalities are constructed through practice, even where such inequality lacks an ideological basis. Sherry Ortner's (b. 1941) work (1989, 2001) shows the complex and sometimes contradictory character of the gendered projects of Sherpas in general, and Sherpa women in particular, in relation to their engagement with Western mountain climbers and Buddhist monasticism. Finally, practice theory has been important to the ethnography of science, the doxa of modern societies. The work of Bruno Latour (1947) and Steven Woolgar (1979) on the social construction of "facts" or Rayna Rapp's (2000) work on amniocentesis problematize the authorizing discourses of science through the examination of its practices.

Practice theory has, indeed, been of central importance in anthropology since the 1970s, because it links different levels of social analysis. In defining social structure as the outcome of the practices of (socially constructed and constrained) actors, it avoids the contradiction between objectivist and subjectivist, synchronic and diachronic accounts of society and culture.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Bourgois, Phillippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Dirks, Nicholas B., Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, eds. "Introduction." In Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, 1–14. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Foucault, Michel. "Afterword: The Subject and Power." In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
——. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
Giddens, Anthony. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Kulick, Don. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self, and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
——. Travestí: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Lancaster, Roger N. Life Is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979.
Ortner, Sherry B. High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
——. Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
——. "Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties." In Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Nicholas Dirks, George Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, 372–411. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Rapp, Rayna. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Sahlins, Marshall D. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Willis, Paul E. Learning to Labor: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

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