Updating Practice Theory
hen practice theory came on the scene in the late 1970s,
theoretical landscape was dominated by three
major paradigms: interpretive or ‘‘symbolic’’ anthropology,
launched by the work of Cli√ord Geertz; Marxist political
economy, whose leading practitioner was probably Eric Wolf;
and some form or other of French structuralism, launched by
Claude Lévi-Strauss, but by that time beginning to be re-
placed by various poststructuralisms.
All of these represented important moves beyond an ear-
lier hegemonic functionalism. Where functionalists asked,
how do things hang together?, Geertz asked, what do they
mean? Where functionalists viewed social systems as largely
benign and tending toward stability, Marxists emphasized the
exploitative nature of capitalism and other social formations,
which provokes ongoing movements for destabilization and
change. And where functionalists asked about the practical
function of institutions, Lévi-Strauss showed that both prac-
tical institutions, like kinship, and seemingly impractical
ones, like myth, operated according to an underlying logic or
At one level these were very di√erent enterprises, and to
some degree were opposed to each other. But from another
point of view they all had one thing in common: they were
essentially theories of ‘‘constraint.’’ Human behavior was
shaped, molded, ordered, and defined by external social and
cultural forces and formations: by culture, by mental struc-
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