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Title: Politicising practice theory : exploring the potential of a practice ontology for debates on sustainable consumption
Author: Scheurenbrand, H. K.
ISNI:       0000 0004 7428 4480
Awarding Body: University of Liverpool
Current Institution: University of Liverpool
Date of Award: 2017
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This practice-based ethnographic thesis advances knowledge about sustainable consumption through the use of practice theory as ontology. Consequently, this study accounts for consumption not exclusively through human entities but through practices as a relational compilation of different (non-) human entities. In centring practices as unit of analysis instead of the consumer, this study joins an existing family of what might be termed materially oriented –flat– ontologies in consumer research. This study further stresses that committing to practices as ontological units of analysis is not enough on its own to account for phenomena because practices themselves are merely the fabric through which social phenomena transpire (Schatzki, 2012, 2016). Therefore, the practice approach of this study is innovatively paired with Gramsci’s (1971) and Laclau and Mouffe’s (2001) political theories of hegemony and social antagonism to better account for the understudied relations between, or politics of, (un-)sustainable practices (Hargreaves, 2011, Hargreaves et al., 2013, Gram-Hanssen, 2011). The empirical part of this study looks at urban cycling in Las Palmas, Spain, where car driving is the unsustainable dominant form of transport. According to a practice ontology, the research question was reframed from ‘why don’t people choose to cycle’? to ‘why is the sustainable practice of urban cycling marginalised?’ Guided by two definitions of practices from social theory (Schatzki, 1996, Shove et al., 2012), and a research design from organizational studies (Nicolini, 2009a), fieldwork and data analysis were of a hybrid inductive nature in exploring the detailed and relational character of the practice elements ‘meanings, competence and materials’. Methods included mobile visual ethnography, historical analysis, participant observation, unstructured (group) interviews, netnography and documentary data analysis. Findings suggest that to understand why urban cycling as a sustainable practice is marginalised we need to first examine the relationship between practice elements inside practices and second the politics of relations between related practices. Consequently, the evolution of urban cycling is hindered by both, internal and external conflicts between practices. Several practices compete with urban cycling for material, skilful, and symbolic resources, such as stealing, policing, schooling and lobbying. These seem to bundle together supporting the dominant unsustainable practice of car driving, the most obvious resource-rival to urban cycling. Building on concepts taken from Gramsci and Laclau and Mouffe, this study introduces the term ‘synergist practices’ to show that the existence of a sustainable (antagonist) practice is conditioned by several practices (synergists) instead by a mere dualist relationship with unsustainable practices (agonist). The introduction of a practice ontology for the study of sustainable consumption yields three essential contributions to Consumer Culture Theory (CCT), Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) and Macromarketing. Firstly, this study reveals how hierarchies and partnerships among practices iv have the ability to constrain or enable sustainable consumption. This study thereby extends the notion of ‘flattening’ out consumption studies as it assesses how the equal split of agency among practice-elements, i.e. material, competence and meanings does not necessarily indicate the absence of hierarchies and domination among practices as entities. Secondly, understanding (un-)sustainable consumption as the outcome of complex relationships between different competing practices instead of agentic consumer choice, deconstructs empirically the underlying neo-liberalistic assumptions of CCT, Macromarketing and TCR and accompanying beliefs about behaviour change. Sustainable consumption, the study suggests, depends on the (im-)possibilities of sustainable practices and their constitutive resources not on the will of the individual. This offers an alternative view on the ‘green behaviour gap’ (Moraes et al., 2011, Claudy and Peterson, 2014) in that consumers, although deliberately wanting one thing, are not always able to follow through with their ‘beliefs’ Thirdly, transformational research to achieve well-being might best target the well-being of practices primarily to achieve effective social change for humankind. This innovative thinking also contributes to Macromarketing in that it provides a way out of the ‘Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP)’ (Kilbourne et al., 1997) arguing for a form of ‘post-capitalistic thinking through practices’. Sustainability as priority for human kind should not be framed around choices, profitability or attractiveness to consumers, which merely perpetuates the commodification of sustainability. A practice based view of sustainability then requires a rejection of a market ideology and may possibly provide a workable alternative framework.
Supervisor: Parsons, Elizabeth ; Patterson, Anthony Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral