A lot depends on consumer behavior. Not only the success of businesses or new technology, but also to solve societal problems such as climate change. Attempts to understand or change our behavior, however, rely too much on the notion of choice and the assumption that we’re continuously making (deliberate) choices to do (or not do) something. An alternative, and possibly more fruitful, perspective is offered by so-called practice theory, which stresses the importance of routines and the (material and symbolic) structures in which our behavior is embedded.

Our observations

  • Consumers are key to national economies (i.e. accounting for 70-80% of GDP in developed economies) and shifts in consumer spending make or break industries. Many policy reports also conclude that consumers (or citizens) are crucial in solving a number of wicked societal problems such as climate change, pollution and global inequality.
  • In practice, policy-making is limited to either financial measures (placing penalties on “bad” behavior), mandates or bans (e.g. on smoking in public space), or awareness and information campaigns. It mostly fails to address the underlying structural factors that shape our (harmful) everyday practices. Attempts to nudge behavior (unobtrusively) by providing more desirable “default” options (e.g. placing healthy food in the most easily accessible supermarket shelves) can be understood as micro-interventions to reshape these structural factors.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, scholars have sought to introduce so-called practice theory in the policy domain. Their basic claim is that we should not try to understand human behavior as a matter of choice-making, but rather focus on the practices in which behavior is embedded. Perhaps the biggest takeaway of practice theory is that much of what we do every day is highly routinized and not so much the result of (deliberate) choice.
  • As our team member Sjoerd Bakker demonstrates in his book From Luxury to Necessity, technological innovation tends to radically change existing practices (e.g. of commuting) and inspire altogether new ones (e.g. watching television or online gaming).
  • Regarding food: eating habits are embedded in structures of social class, family and social relations, time constraints (due to other practices) and technology (e.g. processed food, microwaves). Promoting healthier diets thus requires not only the provision of (convincing) information, but should also include efforts to make healthy food more socially acceptable (among specific groups in society), additional (financial) resources and possibly technological innovation.
  • The same is true for practices of mobility, which are rooted in structural factors such as urban form and the availability of infrastructure (e.g. quality of roads, cycling lanes, or railways) and technology. They are also shaped by “soft factors” such as cultural connotations with specific modes of transport (e.g. “public transport is for the lower classes” or “biking is unsafe”).
  • Practices of hairdressing among African(-American) women (e.g. relaxing and weaving) are a recurring theme in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. She describes these as costly, time-consuming and downright unhealthy. However, not engaging in these practices (and letting one’s hair be “natural”) results in an afro, which is often (and in many cases wrongly) considered a political statement.

Connecting the dots

Studies of consumers (and/or human) behavior have been subject to change. At first, i.e. in the 1950s and ‘60s, they were dominated by economic reasoning and models of (changing) behavior hinged on the image of man as being rational and utilitarian; consumers seek to optimize utility and hence choose the best price/performance ratio in goods and services. From the 1970s onwards, the so-called cultural turn led to an emphasis on specific individual (and group) preferences, attitudes and hence a model that was less about utility and more about identity and self-expression. To illustrate, an economist would base predictions about a consumer’s car purchase on price and a range of utility variables (e.g. engine power or safety features), while a psychologist would focus on the consumer’s attitude and identity and how they fit a specific brand or model. Despite their differences, central to both of these approaches is the assumption that choice is central to our behavior in general and especially when it comes to consumption. All sorts of factors may be taken into account as drivers of specific choices, but in the end, it all boils down to individual agency.
Practice theory, by contrast, maintains a fundamentally different perspective. It asks which practices we engage in, how these practices have come about and which structures constitute them. Citizens (or consumers), in this perspective, are merely “carriers” of these practices and what they do is the result of routines that have taken shape over the course of

time and are heavily influenced by technological development and institutional and cultural change. To illustrate, in relation to the automobile, the question is then why people buy cars, rather than what the details of the model are. In short, one could say that practice theory leans towards the structure-side of the structure-agency debate. Our behavior is not so much the result of agency (i.e. the kind of choice-making advocated in earlier models), but is shaped to a great extent by existing (material and cultural) structures. From this perspective, our behavior is a derivate of (mostly routinized) practices and changing behavior thus requires changing structures.
In the literature, practices are understood as constructs of three elements (materials, meanings and competences) and studies seek to analyze these elements and devise ways of changing them. Materials include technology, infrastructure and also the physical environment. Meanings include the symbolic meanings of certain practices and how these tie in with cultural values and norms. Competences include the skills and know-how required to engage in a specific practice. Interventions may target individual elements, but may be most effective when they cover multiple elements at once. To illustrate, as one paper argues, cycling to work is sometimes hampered by the idea that it is not “professional”. Installing bicycle storage and showers in workplaces (i.e. material interventions) could convey the message that cycling can very much be part of professional life.

Implications

  • When assessing (a priori) the impact (or chances of commercial success) of new consumer technology, one should not ask whether or not consumers will decide to buy it, but rather how it may (or may not) fit existing practices, how it could transform them and how it may inspire altogether new practices. By implication, one must assess practices as a whole and, for instance, consider the meaning a new device may acquire within a practice (e.g. whether or not VR goggles will be accepted in social settings).
  • From a policy perspective, the main message of practice theorists is that a singular focus on behavior-change (e.g. financial incentives or awareness campaigns) will not suffice to change behavior that is deeply rooted in multi-dimensional practices.
  • When considering practices, which tend to be shared across a large spectrum of consumers, those who do not engage in these practices (e.g. non-users of the internet) become all the more relevant. Given that practices are embedded in a set of norms and meanings, not participating can easily be understood as a form of deviant behavior or even rebellion. E.g. not taking showers every day, not taking the car to work, not using smartphones or social media may be regarded as statements that may even require someone to explain him- or herself.