BIRDS OF A FEATHER

A glimpse on the world of the practice theory reading group.

The short walk from the train station to the reserve takes just a few minutes. While everyone is still deep in conversation, we enter the ‘visitor centre’ and we see birds- on postcards, maps, cups and books. A range of binoculars and telescopes are displayed along the centre’s front window. As we buy our tickets, we learn about the benefits of becoming a member. We make our way through the shop and to the back door, into the reserve.

The nature reserve Leighton Moss is located very close to Lancaster; it just takes a 15 minutes train ride to Silverdale and a short walk to the visitor centre, the entrance of the reserve. Located at the edge of Morecambe Bay, Leighton Moss covers the largest area of reed beds in the Northwest and is therefore home to a variety of bird species.

The Practice Reading Group (now the “Anteater Reading Group”) not only engages in discussion but occasionally also gains insights into the actual performance of specific practices. In the past this has included, for instance, a session on fire lighting. The surprising fact that lighting British fireplaces involves specific tools and competences one may have to learn made us gather for some understanding about this practice. This time, the fact that some participants of the group have insider-knowledge of birdwatching made the rest of us curious to find out more about it.

Our “birdwatching-in-practice” had already started when we prepared to wear warm and waterproof clothes and organised to bring at least a few binoculars. As we found out, the latter are quite significant for the accomplishment of birdwatching. Moreover, the reading of Law and Lynch’s (1988) text on birdwatching served as a very good preparation for our exploration. The text illuminates the relationship between observing and identifying birds and thereby created awareness that seeing birds and recognising species is very much related to guide books that classify and categorise them by pointing out relevant characteristics. In so doing, these books somewhat extend the moment of observation in favour of identifying bird species.

Entering the reserve we decided to go along a short trail since the sun was already getting down. Leighton Moss features three ‘nature trails’ and seven hides, these hides are shelters that simply cover from the rain and cold, they also have benches in front of the windows. The windows may be tilted up, especially necessary when observing birds with binoculars. Our first stop along the trail was Lilian’s hide where everyone was quite excited to look at maps and bird-classifications hanging on the wall. At the second and third hide, we sat down and silently exchanged binoculars while trying to see and identify the birds in front of us. This involves, first of all, adjusting one’s eyes to the environment so as to be able to distinguish between, for instance, grass or reed and the bird. Secondly, especially as an apprentice, one has to follow the gaze some of the insiders in order to see the bird and to identify relevant features. Obviously, this is the moment where maps and books (and possibly postcards, etc.) become of importance again. But at this stage our group was mainly engaged with the seeing-part of birdwatching which appeared in our case almost like a shared meditative observation. In fact, the focus on recording and collecting bird species, a focal element of the practice of birdwatching, was rather let aside.

Nevertheless, some of us fortunately listed the birds we saw and recognised: a grey heron, a little egret, a robin and a starling (both along the trail), a pheasant, a marsh harrier, a blackbird- just to name a few. We also saw a great variety of ducks and wetland birds and, to our great excitement, a big stag appearing at dawn. Back at the train station, while waiting for the train, we heard a tawny owl somewhere close in the dark.

Acknowledgements:
Thanks again to Marton Fabok who organised the trip and provided the necessary details on the variety of bird species for this text.

The text appeared in “The Lancaster Sociologist”, Michaelmas 2013. Thanks to Lizzie Houghton for editing the text.

References:
Law, J. and Lynch, M. (1988) “Lists, Field Guides, and the Descriptive Organization of Seeing: Birdwatching as an Exemplary Observational Activity”. Human Studies 11(2/3): 271-303.

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Visiting student in the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

From January until March I am a visiting PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. This stay is part of a six month fellowship I received from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). During the upcoming weeks I will be working on my thesis, in particular on its contribution to recent developments within the realm of theories of practice. I am supervised by Elizabeth Shove.

The Department of Sociology currently accommodates five visiting PhD students from Canada, Denmark and Germany. We received a warm welcome from staff and students alike. This open and encouraging environment gives us the opportunity to get in exchange about our work and questions related to our research.

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Viewpoint above Windermere train station

Apart from courses, talks and lunch time meetings in the Department and on campus, there are lots of events in and around Lancaster. So far we’ve organised a trip to the Lake District around Windermere and Bowness which became this time a very snowy and soaky affair but nevertheless a great adventure!

Taking into account current weather conditions, our next practice theory reading group will focus on fire…

EASST/4S II: post-conference thoughts

Copenhagen welcomed us with great weather and a huge conference bringing together a variety of interests, research topics and focuses. Most importantly, it created a space to get in exchange about these and the divergent positions emerging from distinct research areas and concerns. Copenhagen Business School was a great location to concentrate the vast number of people in a city that tempted to be explored.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conference and in particular, to participate in the session on “comparing and connecting concepts of practice”. It gave insight into the variety of understandings relying on distinct notions of practice and, moreover, presented a number of empirical research projects contributing to these different understandings. Above all, it showed theories of practice currently receive great attention within STS.

We enjoyed our talk and were overwhelmed by the feedback we received during the session and afterwards, in several conversations and still via email. Thanks to everyone once again, also for participating at our session. You may download a preliminary version of the talk here, we plan to revise the text for publication in 2013.

Post-conference happiness – with Emily, Alex and Stefan

We hope to stay in touch with everyone who is interested in the discussed topics. A session review on our panel will appear in the EASST Review (March 2013 issue). In addition, we are going to review the book “The dynamics of social practice”, published this year by Elizabeth Shove, Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson. The text is scheduled to appear in the recently re-launched journal Science and Technology Studies in 2013.

Design and Displacement – EASST/4S Annual Conference in Copenhagen

From October 17th until 20th the annual conference of the European Association of Science and Technology (EASST) takes place in Copenhagen, Denmark. This year the conference is jointly held with 4S, the American Society for the Social Studies of Science.

I am going to present a paper with my colleague, Stefan Laube (University of Constance/IFK Vienna) as part of the workshop “Connecting and comparing concepts of practice”, hosted by Prof Elizabeth Shove and colleagues from Lancaster University. We discuss the work of two famous scholars in the realm of practice theories, that of Annemarie Mol and Karin Knorr Cetina. Apart from stating differences and similarities between the two concepts, we illuminate methodological implications with reference to our dissertation research. You may download the talk here soon.

Brainstorming EASST - with Stefan

Brainstorming EASST/4S – with Stefan

The overall conference topic – Design and Displacement – lays emphasis on the design of new and old objects and their participating and shaping effects. It also asks how objects are appropriated, possibly displaced, in different contexts, globally as well as on a local scale. Thus, artefacts are understood as enabling but also disabling social inclusion and may become objects of political significance. These issues and much more will be discussed during the conference.

More than 1700 papers have been submitted, an ‘unprecedented number’, as the organiser says. Registration is already closed. Approximately 1352 papers are going to be presented in 320 sessions. Please check the website for more information or have a look at the conference programme.

PhD Sociology Summer Conference, Lancaster University, plus Lake District Trip

From the 1st until the 4th of July I was at Lancaster University for the PhD Sociology Summer Conference and intellectual party, organised by Prof Elizabeth Shove and students from the Sociology Department. The conference entailed not only a wide range of presentations and talks but also a spectacular finale staging departmental members as well as students ‘cooking’ a variety of sociological terms and theory into a tasty as well as amusing meal (‘Ready-Steady-Theory’). You can find more details on the programme and the book of abstracts here.

Lancaster Library

On day three we took a ride to the Lake District in Cumbria where we made a fabulous walk from Grassmere via Rydal Hall to Ambleside along beautiful green mountains, accompanied by lovely sheep and some refreshing periods of rain. This is the Lake View at Ambleside:

Lake View

Sociology Summer Conference and intellectual party, Lancaster University

Lancaster University

I am going to attend this year’s PhD Sociology Summer Conference at the University of Lancaster, 2-4 July 2012. The conference gathers PhD students to present and discuss their work as well as to participate in a variety of workshops. It is organised by the Department of Sociology which assembles leading scholars working in the area of science and technology studies (STS), drawing in particular on actor-network theory (ANT) and practice-theoretic approaches.

I present my work in one of the so-called ‘Salons’ on Digital intra/interactions. The sociality of virtual mobilities. Politics. Work. Cherishable media. Agile publics, hosted by Monika Büscher. Please check out our blog on tumblr. You may also read my abstract here; more information on the programme soon.

On the dynamics of social practice

In February, Elizabeth Shove from the Sociology Department at Lancaster University visited us as a Guest Professor. Apart from discussing her forthcoming book ‘The Dynamics of Social Practice’, we made a one-day ‘crash course’ on how to think and work through a dissertation: from developing conceptual thoughts and carrying out empirical field work to the final writing up. The current practice of bag-carrying served as a starting point for this endeavour imagining the future of the plastic bag. Altogether, we developed four distinct futures in which different elements – infrastructure, competences, meaning, materiality – altered. Below you see future no. 4 where only one bag survives and may be found in the (IHS-) museum:

Last bag preserved

The seminar has been part of our post-graduate programme ‘Sociology of Social Practices’ at the IHS. Previous Guest Professors have been Dvora Yanow from the University of Amsterdam, Adele Clarke from the University of California SF, Marianne de Laet from Claremont, Andreas Reckwitz from Viadrina University and Ted Schatzki from the University of Kentucky.