Behaviour or practice

I posted a longer version of this entry on the Information Reseaarch blog in response to a prompt by editor Tom Wilson who is stirring debate around the differences between the concept of ‘behaviour’ and ‘practice’ in the information field. Here is my first thinking on this distinction. But more thinking is certainly needed!

Behaviour as a concept incorporates social, cognitive and physical dimensions; behaviour draws more strongly on (social) psychology while practice draws more on sociology and social philosophy. I also do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition – I view behaviour and practice (without the adjective ‘information’) as slightly different and differently ‘pitched’ concepts. Gherardi defines practice initially as the domain “where doing and knowing are one and the same” – and of course this looks very much like the social/cognitive/physical idea of behaviour just noted ;-). The distinctive feature of practice, however, which Gherardi adds and then emphasizes is the dimension of material connectivity or relationship that binds activities and behaviours together in material ways – similar to Latour’s process of translation. Practices are connections of subject-object activities that become habitualized and habitualizing at the same time as they are destabilized and destabilizing. Activities are constantly changing and thus the notion of practice while perhaps more visible through rules and routines is more accurately ‘structured’ by its constant stance towards change and learning. Practice is the “’figure of discourse’ that allows the processes of “knowing’ at work and learning in organizing to be articulated” (Gherardi, 2007, xiv). Behaviours on the other hand are not necessarily constituted by the same array of connections between subjects and objects institutionalized across the time-space field. Practices are made up of behaviours. I acknowledge this is a fine distinction – requiring much more research within our discipline – but which I put out here for further talk and study. From my perspective, I understand behaviours as more individual and mentalistic, discrete, not necessarily material and they tend to be more susceptible to a process of unitization or transactionalization, even as they are situated in complex social contexts. Whereas practices are more difficult to bound, and rarely ‘end’ or ‘begin’. In my study of public library reference service, I observed many, many behaviours and activities (putting pencils beside public internet machines, moving books on and off book trucks, using the computer, answering the telephone, standing up and talking to patrons), but I also observed a complex array of actions and interactions that entailed specific relationships between and among subjects and objects – at its most basic, the interaction between patrons and library staff around questions which are asked and then answered. I argue that these interactions are micro-practices and that the reference service as a whole is more visible in its entirety when understood as a practice. Like Savolainen, in his work on everyday information practices, I also use the term ‘everyday’ to characterize the public library reference service. And is a ‘reference interaction’ also identical conceptually to an ‘information behaviour’? I think it would be difficult to argue this. I moved to practice-based theory because that’s what my data and analysis were suggesting – that the more relevant ontological unit of study is not the information behaviour but rather, the practice – for understanding how knowing and learning occurs at the public library’s reference desk. We could say that the difference between these terms is simply a historical-political turn by schools of academics. However, the renewed prevalence of practice-based study and theorizing in the philosophy, organizational and managerial studies suggests that it is a concept which is useful where behaviour simply is not, and is not enough. From an information studies perspective, I would argue for the relevance of practice-based theory as another lens through which we can learn more and learn differently about the field of information. And I am now waiting for Savolainen’s book to arrive in my mail.


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