07 April 2009

The behaviour/practice debate - reply to Reijo

Reijo’s response is helpful in moving the debate on and we begin to converge, I think. However, there are one or two places where I think that further clarification is necessary. First, Reijo notes, “the exact definition of the concepts of behaviour, action, activity and practice is very difficult, due to their generic nature.” However, to my understanding, these concepts are not generic. The generic concept is behaviour – hence, for example, the ‘behavioural sciences’ – we do not speak of the ‘action sciences’ or the ‘practice sciences’: the others are elements of behaviour – actions, activities – or a mode of behaviour – practice. Our behaviour in the world is composed of cognitive, physical and social activities, which, in terms of activity theory, are composed of actions. The lack of consensus to which Reijo refers seems to me to have more to do with ideological differences, fads and fashions, to which the human and social sciences are prone, rather than because of any intrinsic semantic problems.

Reijo also notes, “I do not focus on the limitations of behaviourism to undermine the credibility of the concept of ”information behaviour”, but, in his book, it is these limitations that are put forward as the main reason for rejecting the concept of behaviour in favour of practice. The section on pages 21 to 23 is concerned essentially with this argument, and my point was that this is a rather laboured argument because behaviourism does not have the strength of support it did in, say, the 1950s.

In referring to my comment about “triggers”, when I draw attention to the pervasive nature of behaviourist ideas, Reijo comments: “However, I would like to understand the ”triggers” here more broadly, not merely as stimuli since this view reminds us of the behaviourist approach. For example, consumption issues (as triggers of information seeking) are not reducible to immediate stimuli experienced and reacted to in the supermarket. The triggering factors may also incorporate values, interests and norms that orient habitual ways to prefer individual products, for example.” There is a problem here: I am no behaviourist (in spite of the fact that some commentators (not Reijo) appear to align me with that school) but “stimulus” is much more widely understood within behaviourism than Reijo suggests. For example, within behaviourist learning theory, values and social norms, play a key role – there is no suggestion within behaviourism that the individual is some kind of isolated organism, unaffected by the surrounding society. Rather, it is understood that learning is a social process as much as it is a cognitive process. What Reijo calls “triggering factors” would be understood in behaviourism as stimuli and values and other elements would be understood to be part of those stimuli. However, I drew attention to the statement, to point out that, whatever one’s position vis-à-vis behaviourism, the fact is that the concepts have become deeply embedded in our discourse.

Again, Rejio comments, “Behaviour draws more strongly on the tradition of psychology (or social psychology) while the conceptualizations of practice draw more on sociology (Bourdieu, Giddens) and social philosophy (Schutz, Schatzki, Wittgenstein). From this perspective, information behaviour and information practice complement each other.” This may be the opinion of the practice theorists mentioned by the Reijo in his text, but I think it would be rejected by many sociologists, political scientists and social anthropologists today, who do not limit their understanding of ‘behaviour’ to the psychological use of the term. The sociological literature is full of references to behaviour, without limiting the concept to a psychological context. Indeed, sociology could not study social behaviour as a purely psychological phenomenon without being charged with reductionism. This leads me to the belief that the practice theorists themselves are setting up the straw man argument, simply to bolster their own positions – and, given the era in which practice theory emerged (Bourdieu’s Outline of a theory of practice was published in 1972), it was, perhaps, understandable, since Bourdieu, Schutz, Schatzki and others were reacting against what had been until then, a prevailing orthodoxy.

The difficulty that practice theorists have is that by deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour, they lose all possibility of developing a distinctive, coherent theory. As Reijo notes, practice theory has its own problems of confusing and conflicting definitions and, rather than clarifying, its application appears to further confuse. Quite significant differences exist among the main protagonists of practice theory – perhaps Bourdieu can be credited with its invention, and he wrote of social practices and from his early work on a theory of practice derived his possibly better-known concepts of habitus and social capital. Giddens also sees society as being the result of structured practices, while both Bourdieu and Foucault are also interested in the embodiment of practice – that is, how the body is used in the performance of a practice and how the practice shapes the use of the body. Needless to say, there are other practice theorists who would hold different views of what ‘practice’ may be.

This leaves us with a problem – if we are to adopt ‘practice’ in place of ‘behaviour’ – which theory of practice will we use, and how will we use it to explore what I call ‘information behaviour? We cannot tell this from Reijo’s work at this stage of its development, since his empirical work was conducted within the framework of phenomenological sociology – a move I’m very happy to see – and use of the term ‘practice’ does not seem to perform any analytical purpose. As Reijo notes, his results provide further support for previous work – virtually all of which was carried out as explorations of information behaviour.

Reijo concludes that, “To clarify the meaning of key concepts, it is important to continue the analysis of conceptual issues by scrutinizing how information behaviour and information practice are related and how they may be understood as diverse (complementary) aspects of a common phenomenon.” Clearly, I have ideas on how that might be achieved. However, although I would conceive of the concepts as related, I would not see them as aspects of a common phenomenon.

In my understanding the common phenomenon is human behaviour, which is composed of cognitive, physical and social actions, which constitute activities. For example, “information searching” is an activity which includes a variety of actions to accomplish the task or operation – actions such as logging on to a computer, launching a Web browser, entering a search term and so on. Before the introduction of the Web, the actions would have been different: visiting the library, locating an abstracting journal, searching the subject index, noting item numbers on paper, searching for those item numbers, recording potentially relevant items, and so on. Bourdieu sees things similarly when he talks of the ‘elementary units of behaviour... in the unity of an organized activity’. In fact, examining some representations of practice theory, there is a very close resemblance to activity theory. Of course, Bourdieu could not acknowledge this as he was presenting an anti-Marxist view of relationships in society.

I would define a practice, on the other hand, as a customary activity and, in Bourdieu and others this formulation is limited to socially determined and/or socially sanctioned activities – where the social aspect may be explicit (as in legally sanctioned activity) or implicit, as in social mores.

In other writings on practice theory, practices are seen as characteristic routines and habits. I would associate routines with work tasks, and habits with personally constructed behaviour. On this definition, work practices would be associated with routines and everyday practices with habits.

Reijo notes: “However, as I suggest in Fig. 3.3. (p. 65), practices may also incorporate non-routine elements (actions). Practices are not necessarily composed of frozen habits since habituated actions evolve, too. From this perspective, defining practice as habituated behaviour may narrow its meaning.

I do not see this as a significant issue: like all aspects of human behaviour routines and habits are malleable, the adoption of the terms does not imply that the actions incorporated are never subject to change. Circumstances alter cases, as the saying goes and there are many City of London bankers and traders whose eating and drinking ‘habits’ will have changed significantly in recent months.

With this model there is no opposition of practice and behaviour: behaviour is the totality of human activity in society, while, on the individual level, practices are aggregations of routines and/or habits towards the accomplishment of some goal. Social practices, on the other hand are discussed in terms of how the structures of society result from practice. If we wish to incorporate the notion of social determination or sanction, we are probably looking at a higher level of aggregation with the aim of understanding how our relationships with information are constructed in society and what role they play in society. Some practice theory at this level is concerned with power distributions and there might be fruitful areas to explore in the relationship of information and power.

It will be obvious that I do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition, but neither do I view them as having equal theoretical status. If we are to use practice as an analytical concept we need to define it rigorously – not for all time, of course, but at least for the purposes of any given investigation. If we wish to emphasise the social dimension of practice, it would give rise to different questions than if we chose to explore routines or habits and, as I hinted in my review, by introducing practice as an analytical concept we can begin to ask interesting questions, such as: How does habitual behaviour in respect of information develop? What role does information play in the development of work routines? How do changes in habitual information seeking occur? And so on. However, those questions cannot arise if we simply propose that the word practice should replace the word behaviour in our discourse.

I shall now give Reijo the last word: we publicized the discussion in the hope that others might join in and comment. But that appears to have been a vain hope, but I imagine that someone is making a note of the URL for future reference in a paper ☺


  1. Michael Olsson (Michael.Olsson@uts.edu.au)8 April 2009 at 03:35

    I have not yet had the opportunity to read Reijo’s book, so my comments must perforce be based on the debate here and my reading of Reijo’s previous work in this area, such as his 2007 LQ article. So I may be somewhat ill-equipped to wade into this debate – however, since Tom has invited others to comment, I thought I’d chime in with my two penn’orth.

    At the outset, it seems to me that it might be useful to point out that one of the things that makes this debate between Tom and Reijo so interesting – but also so complex - is actually their fairly high level of agreement. Implicit in their discussion, for example, seems to be an assumption that information research is essentially sociological. While this is a viewpoint I wholeheartedly share, I wonder if, in an inter-disciplinary field which over the last few decades has seen much influence from cognitive science, psychology, HCI, communication, this view is actually as widely held as the debate so far might imply? I also wonder if discussions and definitions of ‘behaviour’ in our own field have given as much attention to the social as the sociological debate Tom refers to? It seemed to me on reading Reijo’s LQ article that one of the key features he was identifying with an emergent ‘information practices’ paradigm was a more overtly sociological approach to information research.

    Of course, even if we agree that information research is, as I remember Tom telling me as an impressionable Ph.D student, “essentially applied sociology”, there remains the question as to what kind of sociology it is. Perhaps one of the difficulties we face in understanding the implications of ‘practices’ theorists like Bourdieu, Giddens, Foucault etc for our field is that their work is largely macro-sociological in orientation, looking at long-term historical/cultural/epistemic trends, whilst information research is essentially micro-sociological. It does strike me however, and I believe that this is part of Tom’s point, that information research into these issues must perforce be very different - in methodology, in focus – from that of much work in sociology etc usually associated with a ‘practices’ orientation. Indeed Reijo’s own empirical work is an example of this.

    Perhaps if there is a distinction to be made between an ‘information behaviour’ and ‘information practices’ paradigm, it is a subtle one of orientation: the former sees the object of research as the individual information seeker/user (often characterised in terms of their cognitive structures) and examines how they may be influenced by social factors; while the latter sees information users as ‘social beings’.

    I was particularly struck by the fact that in the course of the discussion Tom has raised three major areas that have been largely unexamined by information researchers: the information use; the relationship between information and power; and the embodiment of knowledge. Why is it that these key issues have been largely unexplored in our field? Are these questions that, as Reijo suggests, an ‘information practices’ orientation equips us better to engage with? Certainly my own research in this area has been heavily influenced by Foucault. – exploring, for example, Foucault’s ‘battle for truth’ as it is played out in the everyday lives (behaviours? practices?) of individuals in their interactions with information.

    Dervin has been known to describe Sense-Making as a “methodology between the cracks” and perhaps something similar is needed here? A ‘sociological’ approach to information research which draws on multiple traditions to explore these under-examined issues?

  2. I would like to wade into this friendly debate about the concepts of behavior and practice. Before I proceed with a comparative discussion of these terms from my current (read emerging) analytic perspective, I will first respond to comments made by both Professors Savolainen and Wilson in their commentaries already posted. The direction of my argument will very quickly be exposed. I will also acknowledge up front that I have not (yet) read Professor Savolainen’s book and therefore I cannot comment on his use of the terms in that work. I have, however, recently completed my doctoral thesis titled ‘Making the invisible visible: the public library reference service as epistemic practice’; I am closely attuned to and interested in the notions of behavior and of practice in the larger field of library and information science.

    That the works of Bourdieu and Giddens are deemed to be “so 19 th century ... as to be totally untenable in the 21 st ” seems to me to be an argument about an apparent simplicity in Bourdieu and Giddens, not about the idea of practice and its contemporary contributions which emerged only partially from these earlier ideas of structuration and practise – consider please the recent writing of (yes primarily) sociologists such as Knorr-Cetina, Schatzki, Gherardi and Antonocoupolou or even Latour’s actor-network theory. Understanding how subjects and objects variously act, interact and/or behave together, both habitually and unpredictably across time-space fields is a much more complex line of study and argumentation. Moreover understanding precisely what is, behaviourally, a subject or an object in our technology-girded, online societies is also a wider debate (Knorr-Cetina, Wittel, Turkle).

    I accept that behaviour as a concept incorporates social, cognitive and physical dimensions and also want to agree with Professor Savolainen’s observation that behaviour draws more strongly on (social) psychology while practice draws more on sociology and social philosophy. Perhaps there’s some basis for that difference, some rationale that matters to our business of information seeking, finding, using and sharing. Perhaps we should follow this difference a little further and see what we learn.

    And given that words “triggers” and “stimuli” provoke such strong responses and counter-responses from both Wilson and Savolainen suggests to me that the terms are not nearly as ‘transparent’ or definitionally rigorous as any behavioural or a practice-theorist might believe. I would also throw the word “mechanisms” (from management / organizational literature) into this conceptual bowl of soup.

    Like both writers, I also do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition – I view behaviour and practice (without the adjective ‘information’) as slightly different and differently ‘pitched’ concepts. I would like to introduce a view from organizational studies via Gherardi because I think it could add to this discussion. She defines practice initially as the domain “where doing and knowing are one and the same” – and of course this looks very much like the social/cognitive/physical idea of behaviour just noted ;-). The distinctive feature of practice, however, which Gherardi adds and then emphasizes is the dimension of material connectivity or relationship that binds activities and behaviours together in material ways – similar to Latour’s process of translation. Practices are connections of subject-object activities that become habitualized and habitualizing at the same time as they are destabilized and destabilizing. Activities are constantly changing and thus the notion of practice while perhaps more visible through rules and routines is more accurately ‘structured’ by its constant stance towards change and learning. Practice is the “’figure of discourse’ that allows the processes of “knowing’ at work and learning in organizing to be articulated” (Gherardi, 2007, xiv). Behaviours on the other hand are not necessarily constituted by the same array of connections between subjects and objects institutionalized across the time-space field. Practices are made up of behaviours. I acknowledge this is a fine distinction – requiring much more research within our discipline - but which I table for further talk and study.

    From my perspective, I understand behaviours as more individual and mentalistic, discrete, not necessarily material and they tend to be more susceptible to a process of unitization or transactionalization, even as they are situated in complex social contexts. Whereas practices are more difficult to bound, and rarely ‘end’ or ‘begin’. In my study of public library reference service I spent 170 hours at four different reference ‘desks’ taking notes on 480 reference interactions including all the activities, behaviours, and talk that occurred between and among reference staff and library users. I observed many, many behaviours and activities (putting pencils beside public internet machines, moving books on and off book trucks, using the computer, answering the telephone, standing up and talking to patrons), but I also observed a complex array of actions and interactions that entailed specific relationships between and among subjects and objects – at its most basic, the interaction between patrons and library staff around questions which are asked and then answered. I argue that these interactions are micro-practices and that the reference service as a whole is more visible in its entirety when understood as a practice. Like Savolainen, I also use the term ‘everyday’ to characterize the public library reference service. And is a ‘reference interaction’ also identical conceptually to an ‘information behaviour’? I think it would be difficult to argue this. I moved to practice-based theory because that’s what my data and analysis were suggesting – that the more relevant ontological unit of study is not the information behaviour but rather, the practice – for understanding how knowing and learning occurs at the public library’s reference desk.

    We could say that the difference between these terms is simply a historical-political turn by schools of academics. However, the renewed prevalence of practice-based study and theorizing in the philosophy, organizational and managerial studies suggests that it is a concept which is useful where behaviour simply is not, and is not enough. From an information studies perspective, I would argue for the relevance of practice-based theory as another lens through which we can learn more and learn differently about the field of information. And I am now waiting for Savolainen’s book to arrive in my mail.

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