Why ‘Practices’?

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.

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http://2011.igem.org/Team:Potsdam_Bioware/Safety_Ethics

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.

 

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What’s “Human” about Human Practices?

This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing over the next couple of months 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.

Human beings live within cultures, and have social relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and indeed with strangers. How we each live with these relationships and how they change over our lifetimes is an inescapable dimension of social life, so that how we view ourselves and others similarly shifts as these connections change and develop. Imagine how strange it would be to think of your friends in the same way now as you did as a toddler. In this regard, we are ‘socialised’ into the cultures in which we grow up, so that how we learn to relate to each other (through more or less formal social norms, rules, laws and so on) is culturally specific by virtue of how we are taught to do this. Whilst the family unit and friendship group might seem natural for many readers of English, how we conceptualise family and friendship changes from culture to culture, and over time. These elements of our lives thus only seem ‘natural’ to us because that is how we were taught to think and relate to each other. And indeed, what constitutes a family in America, Europe and elsewhere is currently contested.

cg_image2We are also embedded in networks or webs of materials, including such things as trees, atoms of oxygen, food, trains, genes, pharmaceuticals, bodies, oceans, and an ever expanding number of consumer goods. The list of things involved in human life is already incomprehensibly long and we’ve only just got going. Just think about how many things you can now buy in a large supermarket store and how all of those things have to be constructed from other materials, which have to be mined or manufactured themselves. The chains of connection between various materials in our lives help to organise how we do everyday life so much so that they can often become essential to how we view the world and each other: what would life be like now without computers? But materials and technologies are also shaped by existing structures and practices of everyday life. We can see this, for example, in how designers of mobile phones have sought to better mimic co-presence between speakers – as would normally occur in everyday life conversations – by improving sound quality, introducing the use of emoticons and pictures in text, and by the addition of video cameras.

In the first stage of the study, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of the same person of the opposite sex shown with one of four different facial expressions. Moreover, because we ourselves are material bodies we’ve got feelings and emotions, psychological and physical states, as well as habits, routines, reflexes and so on, all of which are essential to our experience. These too are socialised so that how people experience love and anger, how they taste and eat food, how they sleep and so forth all differ according to their positions within culture and across cultures. For example, how women are taught to experience love and anger may be quite different from how men are taught to experience these dimensions of life. Moreover, some of these differences may now be partly because of differences in the kinds of materials that we surround ourselves with and make sense of ourselves through. So the equipment we use to cook and eat food, the kinds of clothing we wear, and the arrangement of rooms in houses differs from culture to culture.

In the mix of these cultural relations and material chains there are thoughts, ideas, concepts, stories, books, advertisements, news reports, TV shows, films and a plethora of other textual and visual features to everyday life. These texts help us to describe and organise our everyday lives but they also serve to shape them. When President Barack Obama campaigned with the slogan “Yes we can!” he wasn’t only trying to describe a state of affairs but actually trying to bring about the situation through which the imagined social change might become possible. In the same way, promises made by synthetic biologists about how the future will be driven by a biological industrial revolution are not just descriptions they are part of how we try to bring about those situations that we imagine.

Then there are a whole bunch of different structures of social life that bring together these cultural and material relationships into stable patterns. This is one of the ways in which the ‘practices’ element of human practices becomes important. One example of a complex set of human practices that show some stability would be the assemblage of trained professionals, friendships, rivalries, family traditions, rules and tactics, bodies and exercise, habits and creativity, food production and consumption, entertainment reporting, and advertisements that all have to be orchestrated together to make up the individual games of football[1] in a local, national or international tournament. At the same time as these orchestrated assemblages of relationships, texts and materials are shaped into a game of football, so too does the game of football shape the meanings of individual actions within the game and its appreciation.

When a player makes a ‘dive’ to claim an undeserved penalty, the meanings of that dive to the player, her team mates and opponents, the supporters, the referee and managers and so on is informed by their role or position within the whole orchestration. And so how they subsequently feel about and act in relation to the dive will differ. In this regard, single actions only make sense as part of larger projects of social practices and will have different meanings for participants given their position within the network of relationships assembled into the ongoing project. For the referee the dive is just one more instance of a game gone sour, for the player it’s a calculated risk, whilst for the fans of the opposing team it is a travesty of quite epic proportions. So the referee sighs and holds up a yellow card, whilst the player feels a swell of satisfaction and relief, as the opposing fans growl, shout and chant in disgust.

We humans are thus powerfully complex. The meanings of our whole lives and everyday individual actions are interwoven with relationships, materials, bodies, texts and social practices. So much so that they are impossible to disentangle. Add to this the dimension of social change, so that the meaning of a given action, material or text might change over time, and we have a picture of human life that truly boggles the mind.

All this means that when we talk of human practices we have to remember that there is all of this going on for the human beings we’re referring to, whether they’re scientists, politicians, football players, members of ‘the public’[2] or whatever. So in order to appreciate how synthetic biology might figure amongst all of this we have to take synthetic biology to be just one amongst many ongoing projects in the lives of all of the humans involved. What it means to envisage, create, produce, use or contest the development of an engineered microorganism will be shaped by the complex of other ongoing human practices involved for the many different people brought together to make these practices of imagination, creation, production, use and contestation possible.

Imagine how much meaning and complexity there is going to be at the 2014 jamboree when people from all around the world, from many different cultures, speaking many different languages, and familiar with many different practices, come together with their individual life histories and recent team experiences in order to compete for a range of trophies in the assemblage of people, relationships, materials, bodies, texts and social structures that make up the iGEM competition!

And, finally, let’s think about how complicated things would get if even just a few of the projects that teams bring to the competition are taken forward in some way and developed into novel technological and social changes. How might those future projects be made up of relations, materials, texts, structures and so forth? How will these technical developments borrow from or change existing patterns of social life? How will we all, scientists, politicians, football players and members of the public alike, make sense of all of this change and with what consequences for how we do things in our everyday lives?

If iGEM teams are going to start making human practices into something that can be more about the human of human practices then we need to take seriously all of these dimensions of what being a human is about when we are considering our synthetic biology innovations. We need to be adventurous in how we use social research methods, how teams collaborate, how we imagine what synthetic biology can be, who it can work for, and how we might try to change social relations for the better through it and with it.

In a series of posts, of which this is the first, I’ll be writing accessibly about some of the dimensions of human practices work in the context of iGEM and synthetic biology. My hope is to be able to help some iGEM teams to think a bit more broadly about what human practices could be about and what they might do as part of their own human practices work. Some of the information might help to inspire teams to think creatively about how their proposed technical innovations might be shaped by existing social forces, and also in what ways they might think about the possible futures in which their proposed innovations might play a role.

Suggestions of topics that you’d like to see me cover are very welcome – though no promises.

[1] Or soccer, for our American friends.

[2] I’ll come to this term in a later post I’m hopefully going to write: What’s “public” about ‘public understanding’?