This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.
Much work across academic disciplines has sought to describe and explain human life at two levels, emphasising either: natural laws, group life and social structures; or individual behaviour and personal life. When natural laws and social structure is emphasised we tend to see individual actions and meanings as being primarily determined by forces outside of individual control. On the other hand, when individual behaviour is emphasised, we tend to focus on how people make up their lives through their own free will, creatively negotiating interactions with each other in everyday spaces to maintain social organisation and order.
There are also those theories that try to make sense of both sides of the coin, individual creative freedom and social determination. Such theories try to understand how forces outside of individual control shape the patterns of social life whilst also maintaining the importance of individual differences and spontaneity. How such theories try to do this varies considerably. Indeed, within some of the social science disciplines, like sociology and anthropology, there are a wealth of approaches that can be used to think about the links between individual and group behaviour.
‘Practice theory’ is one such approach. Since around 1970 a number of scholars in sociology, anthropology and related disciplines have tried to develop accounts of how social structures shape individual behaviours whilst also attending to how those individual behaviours help to create the very structures that shape them. In this regard these thinkers have tried to explain how both levels reciprocally construct each other: how individual action and group patterns are made of the same kind of stuff. In short, it is ‘practices’ that make up the world for this approach. We can roughly understand practices to be things that individuals and groups routinely do in the world. Practices are patterns of actions that for most participants are just second nature.
Like driving a car. Indeed, although what counts as a practice is quite varied, examples often emphasise things we clearly do with our bodies, like riding a bicycle, but also extends to less clearly bodily-oriented actions, like talking to a doctor, reprimanding an infant, singing a hymn in church, buying groceries, taking a shower and so on and so forth.
Given some initial training, whether formally (through parents or teachers, for example) or informally through every day participation in group life, practices become part of how we do our lives day-to-day. So part of learning a new practice involves learning the rules so that it becomes second nature to do things in one way and not another. We rarely question the rules of how we do everyday life. Imagine if you were constantly challenging how to greet each other, eat, work or sleep. You would be hungry, unemployed and exhausted, and people would quickly get annoyed with you. Many practices come with quite clearly legitimate and illegitimate ways of doing the practice. Like the rules of the iGEM competition that enforce how you should use the standard biological parts and how to submit your parts to the library. These rules help to shape how people do the practice and most iGEM teams don’t think to question them because they’re just essential to how iGEM is currently done.
Theories of practices often place an emphasis on how skilful people are in their everyday encounters with each other and with the world. We seem to get by without much problem once we have learnt how to do something, even when practices are very complex, like flying an aeroplane. So theories of practice emphasise skilful routine and habit. As an iGEM team member you will become or will have already become very skilful at a whole bunch of different practices that are relatively new to you. Think about what it was like early on in your lab experiences to pipette very small amounts of fluids, at speed, from one tube to another, mixing them in appropriate quantities, in order to follow a protocol. By the end of iGEM many of you will have become so skilled at doing this that you will not need the protocols anymore, and may not even have to think about how much of the different substances you need to mix, in what order, for how long, and so on. You’ll also be far more dextrous with your pipetting.
The knowledge and skill you are acquiring is ‘embodied’ – it is knowledge that is habituated in your body through situated training. A mini-prep has likely become part of your routine and habitual behaviour. Because the knowledge involved in practices is tied up with embodied abilities, these routines and habits become part of our background or ‘tacit’ knowledge, and it is very difficult to explain exactly where that knowledge is or what it is that you know in order to be able to do it. A classic example involves trying to communicate how it is that you ride a bicycle so that someone who hasn’t ridden a bicycle can then get on one and ride around based on what you’ve told them. It is extremely difficult – and some argue impossible – to tell someone how to ride a bike without actually getting them on a bike and showing them, and indeed guiding them as they learn practically how to do it. When we are riding a bicycle there a lots of techniques that we are unconsciously using through embodied skills that can be described mathematically, having to do with how we balance and so on. But most of us would be completely incapable of producing those equations, and yet many of us can still ride a bicycle. So the emphasis in practices is on how everyday, taken for granted skilled actions, knowledge and meanings are practical – they only make sense and can be communicated within the doing of the practice.
Putting these two last points together, we can say that some of the rules of a practice are tacit too, so we cannot always easily identify why things are done in the way that they there are, and why they have the meanings that they do, even when we are proficient in the practices in question. Mostly we don’t learn the rules of a practice by sitting down and memorising them, instead we learn by doing it ourselves and watching others do it. Just like we learn language from being within practices of using language from birth.
Moreover, there are lots of rules that shape our basic movement through the world and how we relate to each other and organise social space. Think about the rules involved in choosing a seat on the bus. It can tell us quite a lot about some of those more invisible, tacit rules of everyday living in the world. Why do you go for one seat and not another? There are variety of rules that people seem to use to make a decision that only really become visible when they’re broken. The rule that roughly goes “don’t sit immediately next to someone if there is no one else on the bus” is an important one. Imagine how the person would react! We just seem to know these rules from having been brought up within the culture that we live within. They’re just part of the accepted practices for doing life in our culture. But some of these basic rules change from culture to culture and can help explain why we do life differently in different countries. Americans, for example, are often bemoaned by British people, because although we share much of the same rules about social space, many Americans are more comfortable with physical intimacy and cheeriness in their greetings than are British people. This is clearly an embodied norm of social interaction and when these two different forms of greeting conflict it feels palpable to the participants. British people experience discomfort and Americans presumably experience rejection or offence when a warm proffered American hug is met with a frosty British handshake. But this practice is currently changing and hugging seems to be more acceptable and frequent here in the UK than it used to be. At the same time, gender norms around doing masculinity and femininity seem to be changing. There may well be connections between these shifting practices, so how men hug each other might be changing in response to or alongside changes in what it means to be a man and how doing manliness is understood. So we can begin to see how practices are connected and how changes in some practices might result in changes elsewhere. It is also true that some practices are difficult to change because of their connections to other practices.
In the context of iGEM there are a whole bunch of practices, from the lab to the wiki to the jamboree and the competition itself. In the lab, practices include doing a PCR or running a gel, designing a BioBrick or cleaning a work surface. On the wiki they involve presenting the team, describing the research in a particular way, and so on. The jamboree involves lots of practices around celebration and cheerleading. Of course the competition has all of its practices, involving presentations, judging, awarding prizes, congratulating and so forth. And these are changing slowly, so what was expected of a team to be able to earn a gold, silver or bronze medal shifted over the years that the competition has been running. The judging practices are in flux and this shapes some of the lab practices that teams engage in across the world.
In my last post I described how the meanings of human life are myriad and complex and why human behaviour is so difficult to explain. In this post I hope it is clear that these meanings are helpfully understood from within a practice theory perspective. It helps us orient our thinking to what people are trying to do, skilfully, within a given situation. So ‘human practices’ in iGEM should be about understanding the meaningfulness of human life from within the practices in which we are all engaged. Remembering, of course, that iGEM and synthetic biology are themselves human practices, too. They are made up of smaller practices, and themselves contribute to broader human practices of doing science and making knowledge and training people and so on and so on. So human practices work in iGEM can be about how iGEM practices are taught, stabilised, change or are challenged. In my next two posts I’ll begin to identify how a human practices approach to iGEM work in synthetic biology can be a powerful way to think beyond the often used notions of ‘public understanding’ and ‘social and ethical implications’. Using a human practices approach we’ll be able to ask different kinds of questions and so provide different kinds of answers to the common concerns that scientists have about how their work is understood and judged.