Practice as Foundational

May 23, 2011

This post will continue the blog’s habit of taking N Pepperell’s ideas and rephrasing them in a Brandomian idiom. I really can’t stress enough the debt to N Pepperell here; I’m not sure how best to emphasise this other than by repeating it; I’m dead serious: reader take note.

I discussed in my last post the variegation of the social field. What does this understanding of the social give us, in our work of analysis? Here I want very briefly to discuss two things that this approach enables.

First – and here, again, N Pepperell has written about this more incisively and knowledgeably than I can, so I’ll be brief – it gets us out of a set of problems associated with many other forms of social theory, where the social is (tacitly or overtly) understood as homogeneous. I’m basically going to defer entirely to N Pepperell’s work on this issue, and move on – I may return to this at some later date.

Second, this approach allows us to short-circuit a set of oppositions around the appropriate level of analysis for social analysis. On my former blog, Praxis, I posed the problem in the following rambling terms (in a post called Between Totality and Individualism):

There’s a big problem with the sort of Lukacsian stuff oriented toward a general (hypostatised) social entity, which has, apparently, powers of agency…. How the fuck is the identity and nature of this social being determined – is it just a Durkheimian social apriori big blob of jelly, floating around, influencing individual actions? Obviously some kind of ‘social’ needs to be posited if you’re not going to end up with wacked up monadic individualism – but a lot of the political-economic stuff I’m looking at seems to alternate between either wacked-up monads or frankly mystical Hegelian-Durkheimian hypostatisation of ‘Society’.

The way out of this opposition, I now suggest, is to take not individuals but practices as the basic unit of analysis. The framework I was discussing in my last post begins ‘below’ the level of the individual – it takes the individual not as a simple unit, but as a complex entity made up of practices that are potentially contradictory in their implications. These practices can, further, only be understood (as normative practices – their normativity being the (emergent) feature that makes them practices, associated with some or other agent, rather than ‘simply’ natural events) in their relation to a broader (and similarly variegated) social field (itself of course composed of practices). This approach doesn’t deny the existence of individuals, obviously (it’s individuals doing the practices). But it doesn’t take individual intentionality as simple or pre-given; the approach is, instead, capable of tracking the emergence of such intentionality from a larger set of complexly interacting (scientifically analysable) actions. This approach allows us to, in principle, give enormously detailed microfoundations to our social (and economic) analyses, without those microfoundations privileging individualism as a theoretical approach (even methodologically). The approach gives us ‘microfoundations’ that are capable of talking about the formation of the individual by a larger social field, without that larger social field being understood in any even slightly mystical (or hypostatised) way.


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