Looping Effects and the Stability of Social Practices


In my presentation, I will discuss Sally Haslanger’s claim that social practices are stabilized by looping effects. On her account, practices are constituted by resources and schemata. Resources can be agents and material objects involved in the practices, the schemata are the ways in which we conceive of them. A practice coordinates us with respect to the use and treatment of a resource, and this is encapsulated in the socially accepted ways of thinking and feeling about these resources, i.e., the schemata.

Haslanger claims that practices are held stable by looping effects between schemata and resources. Two causal connections constitute these loops. First, the fact that there is a collectively accepted schema has an effect on the resources, insofar as they are shaped according to the schemata (cf. 2017, p. 12f). For example, the streets are built such that they facilitate driving in cars, while ruling out other possible uses. Second, there is a causal connection going from the resources to the schemata: we observe the resources and find that they conform to our schemata which then reinforces them.

In my presentation, I want to take a closer look at this second causal connection. I will argue that there is a connection, but that it is more complex than Haslanger assumes.

Haslanger’s claim that observation leads to the reinforcement of communally shared schemata presupposes that all members of the society experience the resources in the same way. This seems implausible because, in general, different individuals have different views, depending on their interests, prior experience, social position, etc. So, observation will not lead to shared schemata, even if the resources have been shaped in their light.

However, another phenomenon Haslanger ignores in her account of the looping effects might explain how communally shared schemata are reinforced. Haslanger assumes that first-hand observation is the main source of reinforcement, but it seems more plausible to assume that the testimony of others plays an important role here, too, because our schemata are subject to public debate. These debates are characterized by testimonial injustices. In particular, some speakers will be given excess credibility based on their social position (Fricker 2007). In ‘favorable’ cases, it can happen that a group that is given excess credibility also has a common view of the resource. This view will then be testimonially reinforced among the other members of the society, resulting in the reproduction of a shared schema.

So, according to more complex view developed here, the causal chain from the resource to a collectively shared schema runs as follows: the resources impinge on the experiences of the members of all social groups, though members of different groups will have different experiences. In the case of powerless social groups, the causal chain ends here; in the case of powerful social groups, it continues testimonially to the other agents.


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