Ways of Phi-ing and Social Groups


In his seminal text, Techniques of the Body, Mauss (1934) takes the following observation as a starting point: “Walking or swimming, for example, and all sorts of things of the same type, are specific to determinate societies […] the Polynesians do not swim as we do, […] my generation do not swim as the present generation does”.

The aim of my presentation is to provide a conceptual analysis of the object Mauss is interested in, namely: the way of “phi-ing” which is characteristic of a group of people (were “phi” stands for a given type of action or activity).

My analysis is based on Tuomela’s book The philosophy of Social Practices. First, I will discuss the distinction between social practices and instrumental practices. Second, I will discuss the idea that a practice can be fashionable.


7 thoughts on “Ways of Phi-ing and Social Groups

  1. Taillard, Antoine says:

    Hi Antoine,

    Thank you again for the great talk and discussion.

    Since I couldn’t ask you my question during the live Q&A, here is it on comment form:

    You build on Tuomela’s definition of social practice as “an action repeatedly performed by someone (in part) because it is repeatedly performed by other people.” During the Q&A, you said this definition may not always work. However, if I got you right, you think it applies to ‘ways of walking’. However, I am not so sure that it does. Consider the following example.

    I recurrently store my spoons in the right-hand side of my kitchen drawer because my parents (or, say, my whole family) use to do so. According to Tuomela’s definition, that would make my storing of spoons a social practice. But that is stretching the notion. We want to make a distinction between social practices (such as baptism and funeral rites) and mere individual habits borrowed from other people…

    But now: if you exclude my storing of spoons for the definition, shouldn’t my way of walking be excluded as well?

    1. Vuille, Antoine says:

      Hi Antoine. Thanks for your comment !
      OK that’s a very good point. As a matter of fact, Tuomela’s definition of social practice (i.e. an action repeadly performed for a social reason) does not fit very well with the ordinary meaning of social practice. The ordinary meaning probably has a stronger requirement.
      However, the point of Tuomela’s definition is to distinguish between two distinctions : (1) collective vs individual ; (2) social versus non social. The second distinction concerns the kind of reason at play.

      Your spoon example is an example of collective practice (after all, it is the Taillard’s familly practice to put away the spoons in a specific place). It is also your individual practice. But the reason why you have this practice is for a social reason (your put away your spoon in a specific place because it is the collective practice of your family). Does it make sense ?

    2. Taillard, Antoine says:

      OK, thank you. I understand the point much better now! The distinction between “collective/individual” on the one hand, and “social/non-social” on the other hand, is very useful actually.

  2. Schaffer, Jonathan says:

    Thanks Antoine, fascinating stuff! I won’t be awake for your talk so thought to leave a question here, which is a version of Judith Martens’s first question about degrees.

    I was thinking that when one has multiple reasons, one reason can still have more force than another. So suppose I open my umbrella *both* to stay dry *and* to fit in. But still I might mainly be interested in staying dry and only secondarily interested in fitting in, in that my umbrella behaviors largely covary with the weather save in a few borderline cases where the rain is very light, and only then do I follow the herd. Or I might mainly be interested in fitting in, in that my umbrella behaviors might largely covary with the majority around me, save in extremal cases where there is zero rain or a massive downpour. Would you be opposed to saying that when an action is both instrumental and social, it might still *primarily* be one or the other, or it might be one only to a given *degree*?

    I think this is important because virtually every action I can think of involves at least some instrumental and social components. When I (as an American) walk a certain way, there is of course the instrumental component that this way of walking is not an utter failure (I do not simply topple over…), but there is also the social component that I am not wildly out of sync with those around me. If the people around me were suddenly to start moonwalking or walking in some dramatically different fashion, I might become very conscious of my walking and perhaps even try out this other way of walking out of curiousity. So I think that if you had degrees then you could still mark important different between cases.

    1. Vuille, Antoine says:

      Hi Jonathan,
      Many thanks for your comment ! I think that you are right: an action / a practice may be primarily instrumental and secondarily social (and vice versa). However, I am not sure how one knows which reason is the stronger (except in the obvious cases). Which criterion enables one to evaluate the force of one reason ?
      I am not sure to agree when you say that each action/practice involves a social and an instrumental component. I can choose if I want to climb stairs or take the elevators in my building. I always take the elevator because I am lazy and it is more convenient – is there any social reason at play here ?

  3. Martens, Judith says:

    Hi Antoine,

    Thanks for your talk!

    I was wondering whether you understand the distinction between social practices and instrumental practices to be binary/strict or on a spectrum? And how you would connect that to the kind of reflexivity that seems connected to the habitus ideas we find in Mauss’ work?

    Looking forward to your response!

    1. Vuille, Antoine says:

      Hi Judith, thanks for your questions !
      It seems to me that an action / a practice can be both instrumental and social. An action is social if it is performed for a social reason ; an action is instrumental if it performed for an instrumental reason. But one may have different reasons to perform an action. I wear a mask in the public transport for two reasons at least : (1) I don’t one to be the only one without a mask (social reason), (2) I do not want to spread the virus (instrumental reason).

      I think that the kind of reflexivity at play dépends from a case to another. To take Mauss’ examples : american people walk in a specific way, but they are probably not reflecting on it (it is just the way they are used to walk). But frenchpeople who try to imitate the american style of walk are probably reflecting on it : it is not something they do spontanously. I do not know how to characterise exactly the form of reflexivity at play here… Maybe something like an implicit /background reflexivity ?

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