I feel as if I have 101 blog titles going around in my head at the moment. It’s getting hard to know which one to focus on. But I guess starting somewhere is better than not starting at all.
This blog is actually based on part of my PhD thesis (Wilding, 2021, chapter 3). The key points are the same but I focus a little more on my story of grappling with ideas that I did to reach the explanation and claims I made there. It illustrates how my traditions of systems understandings supported the development of a set of ideas about practice and its development. Hopefully, those familiar with systems thinking ideas and tools will recognise the bricolage of ideas that I draw on – I don’t want to explain or reference them all in detail as this blog would never get written.
My thesis presents an understanding of ‘policy work practice’ so I realised early on that I needed to get to grips with the word ‘practice’ and how to understand that generally before being able to analyse my data and present my findings. There is quite a lot of practice-focussed literature out there – it informs what has been called the ‘practice-turn’ in social research. Practice theory isn’t unified but it does offer a range of lenses through which to understand and study practice (Nicolini, 2012). The earliest generation of practice theorists were people like Boudieu, Giddens and Foucault and their work has been built on by others, such as Schatzki and Knorr Cetina, since. However, Nicolini (2012) also highlights that some studies of practice are very ‘weak’ in their use of any form of practice theory.
The problem I had was that the many books I opened on practice theory seemed to be complex and theoretical and very distant from the way I and my research participants talked about it. Each time I attempted to use these complex ideas to sensitise myself to particular aspects of the action research data, I felt alienated from that data and could feel its richness fading away. I knew I needed something different, something that resonated with my traditions of understanding and something that seemed to resonate (slightly more) with every-day understandings.
There was one exception to this general experience that I had with practice literature. This was the theory of practice architectures which was first articulated by Kemmis and Grootenboer in 2008 and has continued to evolve since. For various reasons, I decided there were limitations of using this analytical framework in its original form. But, I drew a lot on the language and points made by those who have used and developed it over the years.
Key idea 1: Practices have purpose
One thing the practice theorists highlight is that practice is distinguished from behaviour because it has intention or meaning within a social context. It’s being done for a reason. For example, Kemmis et al (2014a) talk of practice having telos or purpose. Biesta (2012) goes further to say that some practices are teleological in that they only exist in relation to what they are trying to achieve. This becomes evident when people talk about their practice in terms of what it achieves, rather than just what it entails. As quick examples, an educator may say “I help people learn” or a doctor may say “I help people get better”.
So this was my first ‘aha’ moment. The key that enabled me to connect with my knowledge of systems thinking. It went like this:
Practices have purpose…..mmmmm…..
Systems are made up of a collection of entities perceived by someone as working together for a purpose…mmmmmm…..
Systems thinking has tools to help me represent systems as expressions of purpose. There are different tools with different levels of granularity…..mmmmm…..
Ding! I can use these tools to help me describe a practice in terms of its purpose
The most basic level of granularity to express purpose is ‘snappy systems’ so I started to use this as a way or articulating the purpose of a practice. As an example, the purpose of academic research practice could be ‘to make a contribution to knowledge’. We can of course then unfold that expression of purpose further using tools such as PQR, root definitions (both tools in soft systems methodology) or even full critical system heuristics.
Key idea 2: Practices have different scales and levels of complexity
Schatzki (2002) distinguishes different forms of practice. There are dispersed practices which are relatively ‘simple’ but appear in many areas of social life. An example would be the practice of questioning….or blogging! Then there are integrative practices which bring together dispersed practices in characteristic ways. Kemmis (2009) highlights that professional practices are integrative practices. Furthermore, examples can be identified using different scales and levels of complexity (Rönnerman and Kemmis, 2016).
So I starting thinking about these integrative practices and the idea of different scales and realised that this is similiar to the way systems practitioners use the notion of systems and sub-systems and sub-sub-systems. We can shift focus to different levels in a recursive structure – zooming in to examine details and zooming out to consider elements that were previously considered as context.
That was my second connection. I could pick up on the way in which viable system model uses technology (doing different things) as one possible way of unpacking complexity and utilise systems maps to represent a practice and its sub-practices and its sub-sub-practices (etc) alongside drawing attention to their inter-linked purpose statements.
By now I was beginning to realise that I had an unarticulated working definition of professional practice as a system of sub-practices and activities that interact to achieve a purpose. Or perhaps, I should turn that on its head….I was finding it useful to understand a professional practice as if it is a system of sub-practices and activities that interact to achieve a purpose (this picks up on Ison’s 2017 points about the risk of reification).
Key idea 3: Practices co-exist with other practices
The theory of practice architectures does make a direct connection with systems here. Kemmis et al (2012; 2014b) uses Capra’s principles of ecology to draw analytical attention to how different practices co-exist in a site and can “leav[e] residues or creat[e] affordances that enable and constrain how other practices can unfold” (Kemmis et al, 2014b, p.43).
This resonates with the idea outlined above – it is possible to zoom out to consider other practices that are present in a site and then consider how they may influence the practice-in-focus. For example, it could lead you to examine how a university’s administration practices influence and shape how educating practice in the same site unfolds.
Key idea 4: Practice is situated
This idea I was familiar with from Ison (2017) and it was reinforced in practice literature. Schatzki (2012) emphasises that when we enact a practice it is temporally and spatially located and therefore shaped by conditions in the site. The conditions mean that some ways of enacting a practice are more possible than others.
The challenge then comes in how to ‘tease’ apart and identify those conditions. This is a key focus of the theory of practice architectures which proposes that those architectures take three forms (see Mahon et al, 2017 for further elaboration).
- Cultural-discursive arrangements – shapes what it is possible to say while doing or talking about a practice
- Material-economic arrangements – shape how and when something can be done
- Social political arrangements – shape how people relate to each other people and ‘things’
These analytical categories whilst interesting didn’t work for the way my data was collected so instead I focussed on a supplementary idea that there is a proximal context (those in the site of the practice) and a distal one (wider elements that are reflected in the site).
I noticed that participants quite naturally talked about the elements that would make their practice easier as compared to harder. So decided to draw out and represent that data through the use of attribute maps – a form of diagramming based on Kelly’s personal construct theory that uses bipolar constructs to add meaning (they are similiar to SODA’s cognitive or causal maps but take more of the form of a spray diagram and consider attributes rather than actions).
Key idea 5: Practitioners enact practice
It can be easy to overlook the agency of the practitioner when focussing on the phenomenom of practice and the conditions in the site. But I carried this key idea with me from my systems thinking in practice studies (particularly Ison, 2017). We can’t think about our practice without acknowledging the role we play in how it is enacted. Practitioners make different choices about how they understand and engage in the site of a practice – these will be shaped by an individual’s historical trajectory and positionality through which their worldview and tradition of understandings have developed.
Practice can be habitual but conscious awareness of choices being made is more likely to lead to praxis. Ison (2017) refers to praxis as ‘theory informed practice’. Kemmis takes it further in a way that really resonates with me as a systems thinking practitioner:
Praxis is not a matter of following rules or priorities or routines. It is a matter of deliberating in the face of uncertainty about how to act rightly, taking into account moral, social and political considerations, not just prudential questions, and then acting for the good – acting rightly or as one should under the circumstances
Kemmis (2012, p.88)
Key idea 6: Practice is a performance
At the point a practice is enacted, it is shaped by different elements in the context, the practitioner and the interactions between them. Any ‘happening’ of a practice is an emergent property of the interactions between a practitioner and the conditions that shape practice. My thesis therefore includes an influence diagram of the elements that (I perceive) as giving rise to a practice performance. I’ve covered all the different elements above – co-existing practices, proximal conditions, distal conditions and the practitioner.
Key idea 7: Practices develop and are developed
Drawing on a distinction I met in studies of institutional development, I offered two different perspectives on practice development – Practice development as history and practice development as intervention.
Practice development as history draws attention to the changes that are emergent properties of social interactions over time as practitioners constitute and reconstitute the practice. It means it is important to understand the history of a practice in a site as that history forms part of the context for what is possible in the future. These emergent changes could be perceived as ‘better’ and therefore welcomed. Equally they could be unwelcome in that they could constrain possibilities for good quality practice. Although I didn’t do this in my thesis, I would suggest that one way of picking apart these dynamics would be to use causal loop diagramming (system dynamics).
On the other hand practice development as intervention involves an intentional, purposeful act by individuals or groups to change or improve a practice. It is important to remember that what is possible is shaped by the conditions in the site. So there is a constant negotiation between what is desirable and what is feasible and different stakeholders may also make different judgements about that. It’s important to note that practice development can’t be achieved simply by new training or education because this does not take into account whether the conditions constrain or enable the implementation of new ways of working. Practice development therefore also involves conscious effort to shape the culture and context within which we do what we do – chipping away to change what is feasible gradually over time. In other words, managing systemic change.
Why this post?
If you want a fully worked example of these ideas/tools in action, then you’ll have to head to my thesis I am afraid! The reason I wanted to right this blog was that I am often asked whether my PhD research was ‘about’ systems thinking or ‘used’ it ‘or ‘contributed’ to it.
My PhD was in public health so my research practices were strongly influenced by accepted practice in that field of study (see what I am doing here?). However, I didn’t leave STiP alone, how could I when it is such a strong part of my identity. It was research practice enacted by a systems thinking practitioner in a set of conditions that didn’t always enable systems thinking. Ison’s (2017) isophor of a juggler – the ideal-type model of a systems practitioner – comes to mind. I contextualised my practice to that situation, I worked with those ideas and methods that I could get accepted, I engaged with the phenomenom I was studying as something messy. My b-ball was forever in my mind. I did what I felt was right and just by my participants. This wasn’t an easy journey – but then perhaps (aiming for the ideal of) praxis never is.
Biesta, G. (2012) ‘The future of teacher education: Evidence, competence or wisdom?’, Research on Steiner Education, 3(1), pp. 8–21.
Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: How to act. Second Edition. London/Milton Keynes, UK: Springer Publications/The Open University.
Kemmis, S. (2009) ‘Understanding professional practice: A synoptic framework’, in B. Green (ed.) Understanding and researching professional practice. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, pp. 19–38.
Kemmis, S. (2012) ‘Pedagogy, praxis and practice-based higher education’, in J. Higgs, R. Barnett, S. Billet, M. Hutchings, and F. Trede (eds) Practice based education. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, pp. 81–100.
Kemmis, S., Edwards-Groves, C., Wilkinson, J. and Hardy, I. (2012) ‘Ecologies of practices’, in P. Hager, A. Lee, and A. Reich (eds) Practice, learning and change: Practice-theory perspectives on professional learning. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, pp. 33–49.
Kemmis, S. and Grootenboer, P. (2008) ‘Situating praxis in practice’, in S. Kemmis and T.J. Smith (eds) Enabling praxis: Challenges for education. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, pp. 37–62.
Kemmis, S., Wilkinson, J., Edwards-Groves, C., Hardy, I., Grootenboer, P. and Bristol, L. (2014a) ‘Praxis, practice and practice architectures’, in Changing practices, changing education. Singapore: Springer, pp. 25–43.
Kemmis, S., Wilkinson, J., Edwards-Groves, C., Hardy, I., Grootenboer, P. and Bristol, L. (2014b) ‘Ecologies of practices’, in Changing practices, changing education. Singapore: Springer, pp. 43–54.
Mahon, K., Kemmis, S., Francisco, S. and Lloyd, A. (2017) ‘Introduction: Practice theory and the theory of practice architectures’, in K. Mahon, S. Francisco, and S. Kemmis (eds) Exploring education and professional practice. Singapore: Springer, pp. 1–30.
Nicolini, D. (2012) Practice theory, work and organization. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Rönnerman, K. and Kemmis, S. (2016) ‘Stirring doctoral candidates into academic practices: A doctoral course and its practice architectures’, Education Inquiry, 7(2: Article 27558). Available at: https://doi.org/10.3402/edui.v7.27558.
Schatzki, T.R. (2002) The site of the social: A philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. Pennsylvania, USA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Schatzki, T.R. (2012) ‘A primer on practices’, in J. Higgs, R. Barnett, S. Billett, M. Hutchings, and F. Trede (eds) Practice-based education: Perspectives and strategies. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, pp. 13–26.
Wilding, H. (2021) Opening up possibilities for health in all policies: An action research study to understand local level policy practice and its development. PhD Thesis. Lancaster University. Available at: https://doi.org/10.17635/lancaster/thesis/1371.