A ‘culture’ is often seen as a rigid system with relatively fixed components highlighted in traditions, values, norms etc. Where, even ways of greeting, meeting and eating become unconscious and mundane motor reactions, to be carried out as a form of protocol. The ‘agent’ within this system then, far too often resemble a mere cog in a — detached — machine of culture. A machine with perhaps a big warning sign that reads “CAUTION: Do not touch! This is how it has always been done.”

Paradoxically however, humans are as often considered the producers of culture and not just its heirs and scions. Where agents are not mere pawns in a system – and sheer bearers of action – but also its craftsmen. Cultural theorists have for the most part, viewed culture and the agent in light of either the former or the latter, never wholly seeking to resolve the structure and agency problem. Only one of these could be true; either the (wo)man was a product of culture, or culture a product of the (wo)man. Some post-modern critical theorists, however, tried to address the issue with practice theory. Recognising the constraints of a powerful system, they argue that the system can be made and unmade through human action. Practice, then, is the impetus [i.e. mechanism and force] behind the production and reproduction of such self-constraining systems epitomized in Ortner’s aphorism “history makes people, but people make history.” The text that follows will try to illustrate this very theory; typified by a few examples. The aim of the body of text that follows is to demonstrate the workings of a constraining system, as well as the human agency, in conjunction with each other. Just as a grammatical conjunction links two components into a complex sentence [logically true if and only if each of its components is true] practice theory links the structure and the agent without contradicting the powerful role of either of them.

I wondered for long whether cultural practices and traditions are able to endure the test of time or they are only imagined to be so — morphing through space and time in actuality; neither dead static nor radically transforming. Yet, claiming some sort of originality, some primordial truth; tradition for the sake of tradition. Practice theory then helps explain this production and reproduction of cultural traditions as well as a change in their functioning over time. Furthermore, it incorporates the constraining role of the structure and the active role of the agent.

Traditions maintain the illusion of an essence, that remains recognisable in some way, often taking up a new meaning and purpose. Over time, they can even start to serve a completely novel function and meaning. Like a vampire that does not age, but figures out a way to live and survive in different times. Perhaps my analogy would make more sense to someone acquainted with vampire myths, movies and books, where one cannot help but see a recurrence of the said dynamic. Vampires never get old and can hardly stop their need for blood; that is their essence if you will. This can never change drastically, or they will cease to be vampires. Yet, their function and purpose in their immortal life is anything but fixed. They keep assigning different meanings to what a blood thirsty, undying entity entails. From warriors protecting a particular human race (allowed to drink the blood of only the enemy or peasants in time of peace), and careless monsters who enslave humans for blood to — the more post-modern depictions of vampires as — civilised citizens who have learned to co-exist with humans (only consuming blood from a blood bank or better yet, animal blood). Pick-up any vampire movie or novel and you see this struggle; an essence that is stable and its function and meaning evolves with time and space; giving a new purpose and meaning to the vampire, and traditions are no less than a vampire for me.

Traditions then evolve ever so slowly behind a veil of primordialism – an illusion of something fixed that has always existed. Practice theory can perhaps help us unpack why that may be so. Practice theory is sometimes seen as a reconciliation path between methodological individualism/interactionism — the idea that we can explain social phenomenon on the basis of individual’s/agent’s action — and Structuralism — the existence of social phenomenon explained via structures or social wholes; that produce the cultural value and meaning of things.

Why many practice theorists sought this path as a means to explain socio-cultural phenomenon is straight forward. Their primary aim was to liberate agency — an individual agent’s ability to bring about change — from the constraints of a strict structuralist model without the pitfalls of methodological individualism (as has been the case in many other attempts). Hence, neither the structure nor the agent is the sole bearer of social power in such a model. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was perhaps one of the first people to develop practice theory as a concept in order to understand power. Shedding new light on the evasiveness of social power he noted that neither the structure nor the agent were somehow in complete control of the dynamics of power. In his theory, even though our structural constraints form ‘permanent dispositions’, these dispositions are the permanent internalisation of the social order in the human body (habitus) rather than some ‘deeper’ repressive (or worse; external) structural force. Furthermore, even though he defines habitus as a “permanent internalisation” – he does so whilst recognising the “agent’s practice, his or her capacity for invention and improvisation”. I would then call habitus a ‘permanent internalisation of the social order that is susceptible to praxis’ rather than just a ‘permanent internalisation’. Similarly, Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society (1984, p.374-76) tried to demonstrate the unity and interplay between structure and agency with the idea that structure is both “the medium and outcome it recursively organises.” In what he called “structuration,” social relations are structured across space and time because of a duality of structure where “principles of order could, both, produce and be produced at the level of practice itself” and not because of [some] structural “ordering” acting repressively(from above) upon the agent.

At about this time another genesis of practice theorists took place. These practice theorists continued to stress the importance of the “body as a vessel” — but — at the same time gave greater thought and consideration to questions of culture, tradition, history and power. They started to reflect upon new areas where they could apply practice theory (such as issues of gender, race, class, sexuality and resistance), developing new concepts and terms such as but not only Judith Butler’s  'performativity ́ and James C. Scott’s  ́transcripts ́. It can be said that it was really at this time that the field of anthropology took its “turn to practice”. Ortner – in her famous 1984 essay Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties scrutinised the main theories of the time that emphasised structural constraints for not including “the process that produces and reproduces societal constraints – social practices” i.e. individual agency within a [constraining] social context. Ortner (1984, 2006) drawing upon works of the above mentioned Bourdieu and Giddens who had already put the agent into the equation of social processes — and that too without disregarding the structures that constrain the very agent ́s actions — incorporated the concepts of culture, power and history to practice theory; which she drew from the works of Gramsci and Sahlins.

In short, practice theory is a body of work about the role of [agent’s] bodily practice in our social systems/lives [the structure]. As such, it helps us deconstruct the workings of praxis — acts which shape and change the world. The embodiment of a certain practice then leads to a production and reproduction of social systems that thereafter try to restrict the agency of the individual practitioner. In the same manner where boys start drinking beer at a relatively young age and this practice becomes an the norm. At an individual level, this practice ensures that one starts to like beer and continues to like it in most cases. If a person has not gone through this practice, it will be fairly hard to like beer. And if you have gone through this practice it will be fairly hard not to like beer! Folk understanding sees this as ‘acquired taste’ but let us not delve into the superficial psychology of it; what is important here is that an individual internalises a certain characteristic through practice — you may refer to this internalisation as the ‘embodiment’ of that particular characteristic. May it be the preference for something trivial, such as a particular drink — coffee, tea, perhaps wine — or the preference for something consequential such as gender, sexual orientation and religion.

At the social level, the practice of the individuals ensures the production and reproduction of a social system that then starts to dictate and constrain the [group] practices; men drink beer, biological males should become men, heterosexuality is the ‘right’ kind of sexuality etc. This, in turn, makes individuals practice a certain routine which shapes a particular habitus. Thus, there is no higher system that controls our practices, but our practices that create a system which in turn starts to restrict them [practices].