Pragmatism, Mead and the Practice Turn by Barbara Simpson

article title
Pragmatism, Mead and the Practice Turn
Barbara Simpson

‘Practice’ is a familiar term in everyday language but it also has a long history of scholarship. What then does it mean to ‘turn’ towards practice, and how would we know when a practice turn has occurred? To answer these questions, this article develops a theoretical view of practice as a transactional social process involving experience and action as mutually informing aspects of human conduct. This perspective is elab- orated in detail by drawing on the ideas of the pragmatist philosophers, especially George Herbert Mead. In particular, it is asserted that ‘transactionality’ and ‘temporality’, when taken together, offer a theoretical perspective on practice that is dynamic, emergent and socially agentic. The utility of this pragmatist approach is illustrated using a published study of a strategizing episode. The article concludes that a practice turn is indeed underway in organization studies, but there is still some distance to travel before the full potential of this turn is realized.
Keywords: emergence, pragmatism, social agency, temporality
Organizational scholars have always been interested in what people actually do, but it is only in the past decade or so that the subject of practice has really gained momentum. This trend is especially evident in the sub-fields of strategy- as-practice (Johnson et al. 2003; Jarzabkowski et al. 2007) and organizational learning (Nicolini et al. 2003), where the dynamics of human practices are every bit as important as the outcomes that they produce. Whittington (2004, 2006) has argued that this movement reflects a ‘practice turn’ that has arisen in response to mounting frustrations with the disconnect between academic theorizing and the practical experiences of organizing and organization. But what do we actually mean when we talk about a ‘turn’, and how would we know when a ‘turn’ has occurred?
A turn in theory (e.g. the cognitive turn or the linguistic turn) is usually taken to imply a movement of thought into a new ontological and epistemological realm (Chia and MacKay 2007). Kuhn (1975) referred to this type of movement as a paradigm shift, as exemplified in science when Newtonian mechanics was supplanted by the Einsteinian view of the universe. Importantly however, a turn is not just a matter of overthrowing ‘normal science’; it also opens up new intel- lectual frontiers, invites new ways of seeing and suggests new questions to be

Barbara Simpson
University of Strathclyde Business School, UK

Organization Studies
30(12): 1329–1347 ISSN 0170–8406 Copyright © The Author(s), 2009. Reprints and permissions: http://www.sagepub. permissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0170840609349861
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answered. It demands the rigorous contestation of ideas and a deep probing of the philosophical assumptions that shape our intellectual discourses. Indeed, I would suggest that such debate is a healthy sign of a ‘turn in progress’.
In organization studies, the emerging debates on practice have been charac- terized by a search for appropriate master theories and theorists to inform new perspectives. So for instance, new and valuable insights have been drawn from the thinking of Giddens (Jarzabkowski 2004; Whittington 2006), Bourdieu and Heidegger (Chia and Holt 2006), Vygotsky (Miettinen 1999; Jarzabkowski 2003), Wittgenstein (Shotter 2006), Foucault (Ezzamel and Willmott 2004) and the science and technology studies agenda (Pickering 1995; Orlikowski 2000). My objective in this article is to add another voice to these debates, the voice of pragmatist philosophy. I argue that this perspective adds new dimensions that are at risk of being overlooked in the debates as they are currently informed. In particular, it offers a way of drawing together the habitual and creative aspects of practice, while at the same time transcending the problematic separation between individual and social levels of analysis.
This is a theoretical article, the purpose of which is to track the progress of the turn towards practice in the field of organization studies. In particular, my inquiry seeks to understand how a pragmatist perspective on practice might further this progress by bringing new ways of seeing and new questions to ask. The next section provides a brief, and necessarily selective review of the devel- opment of practice theory, identifying the creative and agentic dimensions of prac- tice as areas that require further theoretical development. I then go on to propose a view of practice that draws on the ideas of the American Pragmatists, espe- cially George Herbert Mead. The distinctive feature of this pragmatic view is its holistic approach to practice, which challenges the dominance of those ‘rational action’ and ‘normatively oriented action’ theories that pervade much of the con- temporary debate on practice (Joas 1996). Pragmatism, though, is of little use without practical application, so I then go on to examine a published empirical study from the strategy sub-field, as a vehicle to uncover possibilities for new insights that might be drawn from this pragmatic view of practice. Finally, I discuss the potential for this pragmatic view to enhance current understandings of practice and to add new momentum to the practice turn.
Practice in Theory
In contemporary usage the word ‘practice’ has become an ambiguous term that Bernstein (1972) characterized as having both ‘low’ and ‘high’ interpretations. On one hand we are concerned with the mundane practicalities of just getting on in the hurly burly of a dynamic and uncertain world where there is little call for theory; on the other hand we have philosophically and theoretically informed dis- ciplines and activities that constitute the praxis of a socially responsive and responsible life. Bernstein (1972) traced the development of practice theory from various philosophical endeavours of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In par- ticular he pointed to those efforts that aimed to go beyond the limitations of the Hegelian dialectical principle, which frames human action as a temporal unfolding
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from potentialities, along a pathway of doubt and struggle, towards self-realiza- tion and the wisdom of a well-lived life. Specifically, Bernstein considered Marx’s comprehensive societal theory of practice, the very different approach of the existentialist philosophers (Kierkegaard and Sartre) who framed action in terms of consciousness and existence, the pragmatists (Dewey and Peirce) whose central concern was to develop a philosophy of practical action, and finally the analytical philosophers who built upon the Wittgensteinian notion of human speech as a form of action. Despite profound differences in their assump- tions, emphases and approaches, all four of these intellectual currents are nev- ertheless grappling with the same experiences of living in the everyday world.
Joas (1996) argued that the quest for an adequate theory of human action is by no means restricted to these philosophical realms. Of particular relevance to organization studies, the fields of sociology, psychology and economics have each developed theoretical perspectives on human action, but often with little cross-referencing. In a wide-ranging exploration and critique of these develop- ments, Joas has meticulously unpicked the classical theories of action to reveal an underlying dualism that permeates our contemporary understandings of prac- tice. Theories of ‘rational action’ such as those that characterize the discipline of economics, suggest a voluntaristic orientation in which individual actors exer- cise freedom of choice, while sociological theories have tended to emphasize structural determinism in ‘normatively oriented’ theories of action. This theo- retical divide is certainly underpinned by questions of agency and the free- dom to act, but in Joas’s opinion, neither of these theoretical positions engages adequately with the creative dimensions of human agency.
The current state of practice theory is also assessed by Schatzki (2001) in his critical review of the practice turn in social theory. He classified the field into three categories. Firstly, there is a cluster of theories that originate from philo- sophical and sociological concerns with the establishment and maintenance of stable and enduring social structures (see also Reckwitz 2002). This privileging of the social has become particularly evident in post-structuralist writings that, under the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger, have adopted a deeply sceptical attitude towards the human capacity for agentic action. The defining dynamic of this cluster is one of convergence towards equilibrium. In organization studies, we can see this dynamic reflected in recent thinking about, for instance, the cultural view of organizational learning (Cook and Yanow 1993; Yanow 2000), communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 2000), and the dura- bility of socially constructed identities (Kärreman and Alvesson 2001). Schatzki’s second category identified a micro-perspective on human activities that is also characterized by a convergent dynamic. In this, the focus is more on the psychological dimensions associated with the embodiment of meaning, and the dispositions and tacit understandings that both shape and are shaped by practice. Surprisingly, this perspective appears to be less well represented in the organiza- tional literature although there are certainly significant efforts to get much closer to people in their real-time activities. For example Johnson et al. (2003: 3) argued for a much closer ‘understanding of the myriad micro-activities’ of practice, such as is evidenced in Samra-Fredericks’s (2003, 2004) work on real- time talking.
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In his third category Schatzki located those practice theories that are informed by post-humanist writers, especially those in science and technology studies (e.g. Harvey and Haraway 1985; Callon 1986; Latour 1987; Pickering 1995; Knorr Cetina 2001). Unlike the first two categories, this is characterized by divergent dynamics of emergence and transformation that resonate with Joas’s demand for theory that accommodates creative action. Examples from the orga- nizational literature where this approach has been used include applications of activity theory (Miettinen 1999; Blackler et al. 2000), and studies of objects as mediators in meaning-making processes (Orlikowski 2000; Engeström et al. 2003; Simpson and Carroll 2008). Although these examples undoubtedly engage with the dynamics of process and the functioning of objects in creative meaning-making, they often do so in a somewhat disembodied way that tends to devalue the subjective experience of agency.
These various approaches to theorizing practice highlight two over-arching themes. Firstly, practice is a dynamic, temporal process that both converges and diverges. In this respect, practice can draw on ideas from the closely related lit- erature on process (Rescher 2000; Linstead 2002; Tsoukas and Chia 2002; Jarzabkowski 2004). However practice is more than just a temporal process; it also necessarily involves human conduct and the exercise of agency. By this, I do not mean the self-centred, intentional and excessively psychologized agency that has been greatly criticized in recent years. Rather I intend to suggest a form of embodied social agency that transcends traditional boundaries between individual and social (see also Emirbayer and Mische 1998). A major challenge for the progress of the practice turn, then, is to develop new perspectives that engage with both temporality and social agency.
It will be apparent from the discussion so far that practice theory is peppered with dualisms: theory vs practice, ‘low’ vs ‘high’ practices, rational action vs normatively oriented action, convergent vs divergent dynamics, individual vs social levels of analysis, and the list goes on. Joas (1996) maintained that a com- prehensive theory of practice cannot be founded on dualisms because human action, correctly conceived, transcends all those boundaries that dualisms impose on our thinking. Indeed, he suggested that dualisms are a major shortcoming in contemporary social theory (see also Kilpinen 1998; Knights and Mueller 2004). This problem has been well recognized in Giddens’s theory of structuration, and Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, both of which critique the dualistic separation of the individual and the social. In both cases it is practice that draws together these dualistic opposites, but neither structuration nor habitus really engages with the embodied social actor, without whom practice has no vehicle.
There are also examples within organization studies that tackle this issue of dualisms in practice theory. For instance Whittington (2006) took on the chal- lenge of what he described as a bifurcation in the strategy literature that sepa- rates intra-organizational and extra-organizational activities, and Jarzabkowski (2004) engaged with the tension that she observed between recursive and adap- tive tendencies in strategic management. Both authors located their arguments within the contemporary debates about practice theory as they sought new ways to overcome the difficulties associated with these dualisms. Whittington con- structed a model based on three key constructs, namely Practices, Praxis, and
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Practitioners, while Jarzabkowski proposed that ‘practices-in-use’ would be the appropriate unit of analysis in empirical studies. However, neither article actively re-theorizes agency in the context of the new insights offered, so details of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of practice remain under-explored. Without such com- prehensive and deliberate re-theorizing, it is inevitable that prevailing ‘normal science’ notions of human conduct and agency (e.g. ‘rational action’ and ‘nor- matively oriented action’ theories) will frustrate progress towards the full accomplishment of the practice turn in organization studies.
My conclusion, then, is that there are still significant gaps in our theoretical understandings of practice, particularly with respect to questions about ‘how’ practices unfold. In searching for a way forward, I have chosen to follow the pragmatist path suggested by both Bernstein and Joas. This philosophy is char- acterized by a trenchant opposition to dualisms and as such, provides a potential means of resolving this key problem in current practice theories. In the next section, I will outline those aspects of pragmatist thinking that relate most closely to practice, paying particular attention to social agency and temporality, which have emerged from this brief review as key issues for advancing the practice turn.
Practice from a Pragmatist Perspective
American Pragmatism arose between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries and is attributed primarily to the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Their common commitment was to the development of a philosophy of science that is relevant to, and informed by, human experience and practice. Much of their thinking revolved around the assumption that we are all active participants (practitioners) in our social worlds. It is through our participation that we continuously construct and re-construct the social meanings that shape our thoughts and actions. The key themes of this original pragmatist thinking have lost none of their potency in today’s intellectual climate. Indeed, these ideas have recently enjoyed something of a neo-pragmatist revival as their relevance to contemporary, trans-disciplinary and postmodern debates has been increasingly recognized (e.g. Bernstein 1972; Burkitt 1993; Cook 1993; Dunn 1997; Joas 1997; Emirbayer and Mische 1998; Aboulafia 1999; Rorty 1999; Powell 2002).
In this article I have chosen Mead as my principal informant. Throughout his professional life he worked very closely with John Dewey and there are many parallels in their intellectual trajectories. However, Mead’s specific contribution lies in the precision and analytical detail that he brought to complement Dewey’s broader pragmatist agenda (Morris 1934). His empirically descriptive ideas, especially as they relate to human action, expanded the scope of pragmatism well beyond the usual bounds of philosophy. Before proceeding to discuss these ideas, though, there is an important caveat. Mead is often associated with sym- bolic interactionism, which developed in the decades following his death in 1931, but this movement only ever appropriated his ideas in a partial and frag- mented way. Blumer (1969: 1) confirmed this when he said ‘I rely chiefly on the thought of George Herbert Mead who, above all others, laid the foundations of
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the symbolic interactionist approach, but I have been compelled to develop my own version’. In so doing, Blumer lost sight of the truly radical underpinnings of Mead’s philosophy, which are only now beginning to resurface in contempo- rary scholarship. I suggest, therefore, that Mead’s ideas are better understood through direct engagement with his considerable oeuvre of more than one hun- dred articles and documents, than through any posthumous connection to sym- bolic interactionism.
Mead’s intellectual efforts were directed towards developing a theory of sociality that encompassed dynamic process, emergence and evolutionary change. His fundamental assumption was that the ‘social act’ is the basis of all human meaning-making. Through our social engagements and actions, we not only reinforce the commonalities of social structure that we share, but we also probe, explore and creatively reconstrue meanings. In order to capture this process in all its complexity, Mead realized the need to locate social actions within the flow of time. His quest for a temporally integrated theory of sociality remains his most enduring contribution towards a dynamic theory of social action. In what follows, I will draw out the details of his argument as they per- tain to practice using two thematic headings: transactionality (Mead 1925; Mead 1934, especially Chapters 3, 9, 21, 22 and 33) and temporality (Mead 1932; Mead 1938). Although the separation of these themes is a convenient device in laying out my argument, transactionality and temporality must be understood as deeply intertwined and inseparable aspects of Mead’s theory of sociality.
According to Mead, social meanings are constructed through our social actions. He famously described the ‘social act’ as a conversation of gestures whereby one person’s gesture calls out a response in another person, which in turn calls out another response, and so on. These gestural conversations are where social meanings are constructed, reinforced and disrupted, and at the same time they are the means by which we come to understand each other and ourselves as mutually and socially constituted. Although Mead himself used the word ‘interaction’ to describe this conversation of gestures, this creates potential for confusion with ‘interactionist’ theories. Dewey and Bentley (1949[1991]) subsequently made a distinction between inter-actions and trans- actions, which they saw as two discrete levels in systems of inquiry. They defined the distinction between these levels on eight different dimensions, providing a richly elaborated understanding of their differences (Dewey and Bentley 1949[1991]: 113–115). For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to say that whereas an inter-action is something that happens between actors who are physically and mentally independent, a trans-action happens across actors who are aspects of a relationally integrated whole; whereas meanings are transmitted between actors in an inter-action, the actors are the continu- ously emerging meaning in a trans-action. This concept of ‘transaction’ is entirely consistent with the intent of Mead’s ‘conversation of gestures’. Accordingly, I will use ‘transaction’ in preference to the less precise ‘interaction’ for the remainder of my argument here.
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The transactional cycle of gesture and response is, of course, enabled by language, where Mead viewed language as not merely verbal, but as a multi- plicity of signs and symbols that evoke social meanings. In particular, he stressed ‘significant symbols’, which are those gestures that call out the same response in the gesturer as in the responder. Symbols become significant in this sense when they have meanings that are mutually accepted. For instance, if you and I were having a conversation about the nature of academic work, we might draw on notions such as ‘student’, ‘computer’ and ‘citations’ as signif- icant symbols in our efforts to co-construct meaning. These significant sym- bols mediate our transactional processes of meaning-making by identifying understandings that we hold more or less in common. Conversely, in the absence of such significant symbols, our conversation would be reduced to a series of reflex reactions that could not produce new meanings. Transactional engagement offers the opportunity for actors to explore differences in the meanings that they attach to particular symbols. It is these ambiguities that admit the possibility of new insight and learning.
Significant symbols are the essence of sociality as they allow us to stand in someone else’s shoes during our transactions, and to anticipate likely responses to our own gestures. Importantly they function not only to mediate transactional meaning-making, but also to moderate social conduct. For instance, when I make the gesture of standing up in front of a class, the class members and I understand that teaching is about to begin, so we all conduct ourselves accordingly. However, this does not necessarily mean that the class members will all sit in rapt attention, because although a significant symbol indicates the conduct that might be anticipated in a given social situation, individuals ultimately make their own choices about how to act. Even these choices, though, are socially moder- ated by significant symbols. Mead explained this social regulation of conduct in terms of the ‘generalized other’, which is the organized system of significant symbols that reflects the generalized attitudes, or discourse, of a social group or community. Social habits of conduct are constituted as the generalized other, and membership of a community is demonstrated by an ability to conduct one- self according to these generalized attitudes. It would not be possible to undertake complex coordinated activities without such a generalized system of significant symbols.
The generalized other can also engage as an actor in transactional conver- sations. So for instance, when I telephone my bank I invariably speak to someone I don’t know (indeed someone who is probably located at a call centre in another country), but from my perspective I am conducting a trans- action with ‘the bank’ and my meaning-making is mediated by my under- standing of ‘the bank’ as a generalized system of significant symbols. The person I speak to is the voice of ‘the bank’ and I anticipate his conduct based on my past transactions with banks. In this way, Mead’s conversation of ges- tures accommodates the possibility of extra-personal transactions, including transactions involving two or more generalized others, such as when two organizational cultures collide. The commonality among all these different types of transactions is that meanings are being continuously constructed and reconstructed through these processes.
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So far I have suggested that transactions can involve actors as either specific individuals or as generalized others, but they also occur intra-personally. Mead explained this by invoking two mutually constituting aspects of the self: the objective ‘me’ and the subjective ‘I’. The ‘me’ is the organized set of others’ attitudes that are embodied as significant symbols. This embodied ‘me’ equates to habits of conduct that have been acquired reflexively through transactions. It is this aspect of self that is accessible to conscious, reflexive examination. Once the ‘me’ begins to arise, then the actor is able to adopt a reflexive attitude towards the self, in effect conversing with self and transacting meanings in the same way as with others. The subjective ‘I’, on the other hand, is the actor’s anticipatory response to the social conventions and habits of conduct repre- sented by the ‘me’; it is the active principle of forward movement that intro- duces divergence and novel possibilities into the processes of the self. The consequences of any action by the ‘I’ may reflexively form part of the embod- ied ‘me’; thus the ‘I’ both calls out, and responds to the ‘me’ in an internalized conversation of gestures. Mead argued that the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ are inherently social, mutually informing resources in the construction of social selves. Without the ‘I’ principle, the self would be nothing more than a stable and con- vergent reflection of social structure, and there would be no potential for cre- ative or reconstructive activity.
To summarize this part of my argument then, social action is understood in terms of transactional meaning-making, where transactions occur in real time and at all levels of the social system, from the intra-personal upwards. In all cases, the actors are the meanings that emerge out of transactions, and they exercise a form of agency in shaping these meanings. Because this agency is both medi- ated and moderated by significant symbols, it has an inherently social quality. This then brings me to a definition of social agency, which is one of the two key dimensions of practice that I identified from my earlier review of the practice literature. Social agency is the capacity to influence the meanings of social actions. Transactions are the sites where social agency is exercised, and because transactions are mediated by significant symbols, social agency can never be attributed to any singular actor. In other words, a gesture has no agentic capacity unless it calls out some sort of response.
Mead argued that transactions alone cannot provide an adequate formulation of human sociality. The ‘social act’ is also necessarily temporal. In particular, he saw sociality as more than a mere succession of transactional moments; it also involves the continuous narration of unfolding social selves. In this, Mead was influenced by Henri Bergson (1919) who made an important distinction between the moment-by-moment spatialization of time, and the continuous flow of dura- tion (see also Linstead 2002; Tsoukas and Chia 2002). Bergson argued that the meaning of time lies in the introspective experience of duration, whereas spa- tialized time is a mere distortion of authentic temporality. Although Mead undoubtedly agreed with the need to reject the dogmatic, classical conception of spatialized time, he did not follow Bergson by privileging introspective experience
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(Mead 1963–4). Rather, he conceived of objective events and subjective experiences of continuity as intricately interwoven and synthesized through human conduct. He argued that objective events are essential for structuring the flow of time, and that time can only be experienced when its flow is interrupted by the occurrence of an event that thrusts itself forward creating new, emergent possibilities. In this respect, Mead’s thinking differs significantly from that of other process philosophers whose theorizing is concerned primarily with the dynamics of flux and flow (Whitehead 1920; Rescher 2000).
A detailed articulation of Mead’s thinking with respect to the dynamics of human action is to be found in Philosophy of the Act (Mead 1938). His point of departure was to observe that we are always engaged in some sort of action, much of which is directed by the habits of conduct that have already been imported into the ‘me’. Reflexive thinking, which he saw as a fundamentally social process, may be stimulated when some obstacle arrests or inhibits this flow of action. The objective then is to find a way of continuing the activity in some form or another. It is possible to resolve such situations by means of purely reflex reactions that do not involve thinking. However Mead, like Dewey, was more interested in the analytical process of deliberate, reflexive thinking, which he elaborated in the following four stages (1938: 3–25):
1. Impulse
A problem arises that inhibits or arrests the continuation of some habitual form of conduct. The problem indicates a mismatch between what the actor anticipated in response to her gestures, and what was actually experienced.
2. Perception
Perceptions of this mismatch are examined to develop a more sophisticated diagnosis of the problem and its causes. This analysis identifies the conditions that need to be resolved before the action may be continued.
3. Manipulation
Alternative hypotheses for how to correct the problem are formed and evaluated. In this stage, Mead’s thinking is closely aligned with Peirce’s (1903[1998]) notion of abductive reasoning, by means of which creative solutions may be generated.
4. Consummation
The problem is addressed, at least for the present moment, and activity continues albeit differently from the initial pattern of conduct. The effectiveness of this change, however slight, is demonstrated by the actions that ensue, which in turn will be subject to further reflexive analysis when the next problem arises.
This staged process of reflexive thinking strongly parallels Dewey’s (1925[1988]) notion of Inquiry, which he described in terms of five phases of reflective thought and action. In both these models of real-time human activity, the stages or phases are dynamically interdependent. As Miettinen (2000) points out, this char- acteristic distinguishes the pragmatist approach from others, such as Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning, which is more a typology of different modes of learning than a dynamically linked learning process.
Mead’s view of temporality is that both the past and the future are in the actions of the present. The past is the multiplicity of social attitudes that are constituted
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as significant symbols in any given social setting, while alternative futures are abductively anticipated and enacted. Of course the importance of linking past, present and future is well recognized by process theorists (e.g. Pettigrew 1990; Van de Ven and Huber 1990), but Mead’s unique insight comes from the way in which he weaves social agency into this temporal dynamic. Actors located between the past and the future are obliged to continuously reconstruct their histories in order to understand their present transactions. At the same time, they project these understandings into the future to infer the likely outcomes of present actions.
It is the ‘I’ that provides the dynamic principle in Mead’s theory as it perfor- matively enacts the future. When the ‘I’ projects forward into the future it is informed by the embodied habits of conduct of the ‘me’. As such, the ‘I’ is the source of creative alternatives for action that account for emergent possibilities in transactions. This notion of emergence presents a challenge to conventional teleological assumptions because if the future is already determined then there is no scope for novelty or creative action. Realizing this, Mead argued for a non- intentional teleology in which the ends and the means of social actions are co-constituting and co-evolving within social contexts that are themselves continuously changing. At best, then, he regarded social actions as only loosely guided by deliberate designs and plans.
What Does All This Mean for Practice?
For the pragmatists, living implies active and reflexive engagement in the trans- actions that constitute experience. Here, ‘experience’ has a very precise and par- ticular meaning (Bernstein 1972) connoting the transactional, social, reflexive and projective or anticipatory aspects that I have outlined above. Practice, then, is the conduct of transactional life, which involves the temporally-unfolding, symbolically-mediated interweaving of experience and action. This definition of practice evokes a dynamic and emergent process that sustains routines while also admitting possibilities for creative action. A key implication of this is that the outcomes of practice cannot be predicted in a teleological sense. Rather, they are enactments of the future that emerge as actors anticipate the likely outcomes of their social actions. These anticipatory acts shape actors’ choices regarding their ongoing conduct, and ultimately shape their worlds as well.
A second key implication of this pragmatist perspective is that practice and identity are co-constituting processes. That is, actors derive their meaning, sig- nificance and sense of self through their transactional engagements; their ‘me’s are continuously becoming as the meaning of their conduct is reflected back to them in their transactions. Mead argued that we are impelled to engage in trans- actional practice in order to see ourselves; it is only through our social conduct that consciousness of the self can arise. The process of constructing identity is, therefore, intimately associated with this notion of practice, but current trends in the organization studies literature tend to locate practice and identity as distinct and separate sub-fields. The pragmatic perspective offers a potentially more fruitful approach that sees both identity and practice as co-constituting, transac- tional, meaning-making processes.
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A third implication is that practice is dynamically both convergent and divergent. Convergence towards norms of social conduct may be explained by invoking ‘significant symbols’ that are embodied in the ‘me’ and provide a means of establishing and regulating social expectations of conduct through the ‘generalized other’. Equally, divergence towards novelty and emergent differ- ence is addressed by the performative qualities of the ‘I’, which draw on the creative principle of abduction. Thus Mead’s approach offers ways of under- standing practice that are significantly different from other theories of social action. In particular, Joas (1996) noted that ‘rational’ and ‘normatively oriented’ perspectives both relegate creative action to the status of an externality. Arguably however, both perspectives might be treated as special instances within a pragmatist-inspired theory of creative action. By thus subsuming these two currently dominant areas of theory, Joas has highlighted the potential inclu- siveness of the pragmatist view.
This set of implications highlights the main features of a pragmatist approach to practice, but how might this inform a practice turn? Does it invite new ways of seeing, and does it raise new and interesting questions? In my view, the cen- tral focus on transactions as the location of meaning-making provides a non- dualistic way of framing practice that privileges neither agency nor structure. At the same time the anticipatory dynamic that links past and future in the present moment offers a conception of temporality that is not limited to either the real- time present or the historical past, and neither is it constrained to a unitary sequence of events in spatialized time. These elements of theory combine to pro- vide a very different way of seeing practice as a dynamic process of social meaning-making, and at the same time they suggest different types of empirical questions that might motivate research. For instance, how is practice constituted through the combination of experience and action; how does identity shape prac- tice, and vice versa; what are the social processes that influence the emergence of outcomes; and how is social agency expressed in different types of transac- tions? To demonstrate the potential utility of this pragmatic approach to practice, I now turn to an illustration that draws on a published case study about the prac- tice of strategy. In this, my purpose is neither to critique the published work, nor to reanalyze the empirical material (to which in any case I do not have access), but rather to highlight the different types of questions that might motivate a more pragmatist-oriented inquiry.
A Strategizing Episode
The example I have chosen is the case study presented by Maitlis and Lawrence (2003) in which they described the strategizing processes of a British symphony orchestra. The reason for this choice is that the authors have provided a richly detailed ‘decision story’ that follows this strategizing episode over more than two years. The episode occurred at a time when the orchestra faced diverse pressures for change including a string of new senior appointments (Chief Executive, Principal Conductor, Marketing Director and Artistic Director) and new commer- cial imperatives to justify Arts Council funding. Major stakeholders, including the
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orchestra’s Board, senior management and players, all recognized a clear need for a new strategy that reflected the orchestra’s artistic identity, and indeed the formulation of this strategy was part of the job specification for the new Artistic Director. However, by the time this study was completed, there was still no agreed, commercially viable and formally documented artistic strategy in place. Maitlis and Lawrence interpreted this as a failure in strategizing, which they explained in terms of ‘the interplay of certain elements of organizational dis- course and specific kinds of political behaviour’ (2003: 109).
The argument that the authors presented appears to reflect particular assumptions about the nature of strategizing as a unitary, goal-oriented, rational process. For instance, the assertion of ‘failure’ seems to imply some pre- determined benchmark of success against which the strategizing efforts of the orchestra were evaluated. Such assumptions will have inevitably shaped both the research questions that motivated this inquiry and the interpretation of data. If, however, this strategizing episode were to be framed using a pragmatist approach to practice, then the assumptions underpinning the research would be quite different. In particular, Mead’s non-intentional teleology would direct the inquiry towards unexpected rather than pre-determined outcomes, and emer- gent rather than rational decision-making processes. While I realize that this approach may, on first appearance, be deeply unsatisfying for results-oriented strategists, it is the unexpected and the emergent that undo the best laid plans, and as such, I would see these types of questions as a significant area for devel- opment in the strategy literature.
Methodologically, this case draws on a large and varied qualitative data set including observations and official minutes from over 60 meetings of the various stakeholder groups, 40 fully transcribed formal interviews, field notes from numerous informal conversations and archival documents from both public domain and internal sources. The authors’ treatment of the data involved three stages of analysis, beginning with the crafting of a ‘decision story’ that chronicled all those events they deemed pertinent, followed by open coding of this secondary story to identify two broad explanatory themes, and finally an iterative process to develop a conceptual framework explaining the events of this strategizing episode in terms of these two themes. The effect of this approach to analysis is to move very quickly away from the actual data (and practice) towards a progressively more abstract interpretation that privileges the researchers’ voice.
The same data set might equally be interrogated from a pragmatist perspective by focussing on the transactional nature of the strategizing episode. This approach might ask which transactions were more or less influential in the strategizing process, and how did these transactions contribute to the ongoing construction of meanings in this strategizing episode? The observation of meetings should provide abundant opportunity to study interpersonal transactions and to identify the habits of conduct of different stakeholder groups. Close attention to transac- tions at this level could potentially reveal the dynamics of convergence towards commonly held attitudes and divergence towards novel alternatives. Transactions between the various internal stakeholder groups, or between the orchestra and its funders or audiences, may equally be productive in terms of analytical insight into the practice of strategizing. For instance, Maitlis and Lawrence mentioned conflicting views between different stakeholder groups; a pragmatist might ask
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how these conflicts were carried between stakeholder groups and with what consequences for meaning-making across the organization?
Interviews and conversations may also be productive as an empirical way of accessing practice. They offer an opportunity to explore the significant symbols that individuals are using in their own efforts at meaning-making. However, because these symbols are revealed by gestures that comprise verbal, emotional and physical actions, the data collected in interviews will be more useful if it extends beyond transcriptions to include sound recordings and observational field notes. In addition, interviews also invite reflexivity; the asking of questions is a gesture that might arrest the flow of an interviewee’s conduct, providing an opportunity to reflect; at the same time, an interviewee’s responses may also prompt reflection on the part of the questioner. The reflexivity of this process in which interviewee and interviewer co-construct meanings is made explicit in this pragmatist approach to practice.
The issue of the orchestra’s artistic identity lies at the heart of this strategiz- ing episode. The players observed, for instance, that ‘the programmes for the [1998/99] season did not appear to have an artistic identity at a time when a number of orchestras were presenting cycles [of works by a particular com- poser]’ (Maitlis and Lawrence 2003: 117). However, the theoretical model pro- posed by the authors does not explicitly engage with identity issues, focussing instead on discursive resources more generally. The pragmatist approach would suggest that if strategizing is framed as practice, then strategizing and identity are intimately related as mutually constituting processes. That is, actors are not only constructing meanings of their strategic environment, but at the same time they are also elaborating their understandings of their selves. This perspective invites an approach to data collection that focuses not only on situated meanings, but also on the construction of social selves in context.
In this section of the article, I have indicated some of what this pragmatist approach might offer to enhance our understandings of practice, thereby con- tributing to the ongoing practice turn debates. Staying close to the data and close to the transactional practices of the research site, the interesting questions invited by this approach revolve around the linkages between practice and iden- tity, and the ‘how’ of social action rather than the ‘what’ of design. This is not to suggest, however, that this pragmatist view of practice is unconcerned with outcomes and the results of strategizing; but whereas ‘rational’ and ‘normatively oriented’ theories of action focus purely on designed or intended outcomes, the pragmatist approach is also concerned with emergent outcomes. Clearly there are some parallels here with ethnographic approaches to research, but the distinguishing feature of pragmatism is its integration of transactionality and temporality into a holistic description of social practice.
Turning Towards Practice
The objective of this article is to strengthen the voice of pragmatist philosophy in the debates that are currently fuelling the turn towards practice in organization studies. In particular, I have argued that Mead’s comprehensive formulation of social action as a temporally emergent, transactionally based expression of
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social agency offers rich potential for new conceptualizations and understand- ings of what it is that people actually do in organizations. There are, of course, some examples of pragmatist thinking already in the organizational literature, but these most often focus on John Dewey’s work (e.g. Elkjaer 2004; Miettinen 2006; Cohen 2007). Mead is far less evident, and when he is cited it is most often as a mere historical footnote to symbolic interactionism.1 Any depth of analysis of his works is conspicuously absent. A rare exception to this pattern is an article by Hatch and Schultz (2002) that attempts to build on Mead’s ‘me’ and ‘I’. However these authors erroneously locate Mead’s ideas at an individual level of analysis, missing the crucial point that the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ are aspects of a self that is ineluctably social. The first contribution that this article makes, then, is to re-visit Mead’s ideas and to explain their potential as a source of fresh insight into human conduct and meaning-making.
Secondly, from a theoretical perspective, a pragmatist approach offers new and different ways of engaging with practice. In particular, it explicitly links practice and identity as mutually constituting social processes. Emirbayer and Mische (1998: 992) observed that ‘identity’ and ‘strategy’ have been artificially sepa- rated in theory since the 1970s, and this ‘has had the effect of severing two intrin- sically linked dimensions of projectivity: strategies are stripped of meaning and reflexivity, while identities are temporally flattened out and shorn of their orient- ing power’. I suggest, then, that theories of organizational practices such as strategizing can only be enhanced by the restoration of this vital link to identity.
The pragmatist approach also directly tackles the theoretical problem of dualisms. Schatzki’s (2001) framing of contemporary practice theory in terms of ‘Practices and social order’, ‘Inside practices’ and ‘Posthumanist challenges’, reveals two pervasive dualisms, namely the separation of individual and social levels of analysis, and the separation of habitual and creative actions. Mead’s formulation of practice transcends both of these dualisms. The social self is seen as emerging continuously from transactions that span the individual/social divide, and this self is conceived as engaged in perpetual action that is both con- vergent and divergent, but never static. Thus even long held traditions are sub- ject to reconstructive modification over time (Simpson and Hibbert 2008). Further, by focussing on the ‘social act’ rather than actors or events, Mead’s the- ory eliminates those dualistic distinctions between theory and practice that con- tinue to characterize much of the contemporary practice literature.
Thirdly, pragmatism is ontologically, epistemologically and methodologi- cally distinctive, offering an alternative perspective to the practice turn debates. The fundamental unit of ontology in this approach is the transaction, whether this be intra-, inter- or extra-personal. In effect, any transaction offers a per- spective on practice provided the focus of inquiry remains upon the agentic and temporal dynamics of meaning-making, rather than on specific meanings or par- ticular meaning-makers. This transactional view resonates with other relational ontologies. For instance, Shotter’s ‘withness-thinking’ is concerned with the relationality of our meaning-making transactions. In his view, moments of insight become ‘available to us from within the unfolding dynamics’ of engaged, responsive relationships (Shotter 2006: 599).
Epistemologically, pragmatism is opposed to what Dewey called the ‘specta- tor’ theory of knowledge, which separates the observer from the observed
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Simpson: Pragmatism, Mead and the Practice Turn 1343
(Dewey 1917[1980]). Rather, we are participants in worlds that we come to know through our social actions. Knowing does not take precedence over acting; the two are inextricably intertwined dynamics of human conduct. This partici- pative epistemology is echoed, for example, in Pickering’s view of the perfor- mative and emergent nature of scientific research, as opposed to the more conventional view that the goal of science is to capture and accurately represent the world we live in. His performative idiom starts ‘from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency’ (Pickering 1995: 6).
Methodologically, pragmatism provides a different approach to seeing practice, and at the same time it opens up new and interesting questions to explore. In particular, it offers a way of engaging with ‘how’ practice emerges in real-time rather than ‘what’ practices are in use. Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967) is similarly concerned with everyday practices in real-time social situations (see for instance Samra-Fredericks 2003, 2004), but in this case the purpose of study is to discover the sources of social order and regu- lation. Thus there is an inherently stabilizing intent in ethnomethodological studies that leaves little opportunity to understand the reflexive and creative qualities of divergent practice (Miettinen 2006).
Finally, in writing this article, I have often chosen the field of strategic management as a site to develop my argument. However, I do not wish to give the impression that this is the only sub-field in organization studies that might benefit from this pragmatist approach. I suggest that it may equally apply in any area of practice, whether it be knowing and learning, leadership, innovation, change management, or any of the myriad other practices that comprise organizational experience. Interestingly, the theory also applies to our own practices as scholars and researchers, and as such, it offers us a very useful means of reflecting on our research activities. Certainly it draws attention to our role as actors, and the inevitability of our agentic influence at the sites of our research. At the same time, our own research identities are being shaped as we engage transactionally with other actors.
The pragmatist position that I have outlined here is compelling because it offers a comprehensive alternative to the representational philosophies that have tended to dominate thinking about practice. I am not suggesting, however, that pragma- tism is a universal panacea; rather I offer it as another voice in the ongoing debates. If we are to accomplish the full potential of a turn to practice in organi- zation studies, it is now timely to raise the level of this debate. Through the trans- actional practice of debating, we may hope to eventually achieve the clarity and reflexivity that a practice turn would entail. There is still much work to be done.
This work has emerged (transactionally) out of many conversations, with many different people. I am grateful to all who have contributed to this process, but I would particularly like to acknowledge Gerry Johnson and Bente Elkjaer, each of whom walked part of the way with me, and also John Sillince and Lee Edwards, whose provocative feedback pushed my thinking further. I am also indebted to the four anonymous reviewers and three guest editors, all of whom contributed signifi- cantly to the final shape of this manuscript.
1 An analysis of Mead citations in 22 of the top journals in the organization and management domain reveals that over the past 10 years, 97% of citations were passing references to his 1934 book, and offered no further critical insight.
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Barbara Simpson
Barbara Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Organization Studies at Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow. Her PhD was awarded by the University of Auckland for her work on transformational change in government-owned science research companies. Her current interests revolve around the dynamics of organizational change, innovation and the processes of creativity, especially in small, fast-moving, knowledge-intensive companies. She approaches this work through the theoretical lens of American Pragmatism and its more contemporary manifestations.
Address: University of Strathclyde Business School, Department of Management, 199 Cathedral Street, Glasgow G4 0QU, UK.