This presentation was given at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester on September 1st, 2014.
Understanding health through social practices: performance and materiality in everyday lifeThe social context is recognised as playing an important role in understanding and improving health outcomes as evidenced by international recognition of the social determinants of health. However, although this recognition has guided the way health promotion is addressed globally, the aim of the Ottawa Charter to create health for all by the year 2000 has not been achieved. Further, in post-industrial societies it is now evident that existing health promotion approaches have not averted large scale health problems such as obesity. This presentation will delve into contemporary theories of social practice as used in consumption and sustainability research to provide an alternative, and more contextualised means, of understanding and explaining human action in relation to health and wellbeing. To progress incorporating social theory into health, researchers have used Giddens’ and Bourdieu’s conceptualisations of ‘social practice’ to understand relationships between agency, structure and health. However, social practice theory(ies) have more to offer than has currently been capitalised upon. The paper will reconsider how health can be understood and interpreted by drawing on theories of social practice as developed by Theodore Schatzki, Andreas Reckwitz and Elizabeth Shove among others. Two key observations are made. First, the latest formulations of social practice theory distinguish moments of practice performance from practices as persistent entities across time and space, allowing for empirical application and explanation of practice histories and future trajectories. Second, they emphasise the materiality of everyday life, foregrounding things, technologies and other non-humans which cannot be ignored in a technologically-dependent social world. By using practices as the entity of enquiry rather than the behaviours of individuals, and by exploring these and other aspects of health and wellbeing as socio-technical phenomena, the paper expands how health can be understood and highlights what future health promotion might entail for understanding and addressing current problems.