Introduction: Updating Practice Theory
Thanks first to Timothy Taylor for speedy, insightful, and extremely helpful comments on
several drafts of this introduction. In addition I presented earlier versions of this intro-
duction, then titled ‘‘Serious Games,’’ to the Department of Anthropology at Stanford
University and to the ‘‘Cultures of Capitalism’’ group at ucla. In both cases I received very
probing comments (that also reinforced some questions raised by one of the anonymous
press readers), and that caused me to change the direction of the essay substantially. I
thank them all.
1. Because of the longstanding historical opposition between ‘‘structure’’ and ‘‘agency’’
in the social sciences, and the ways in which this opposition seems to function as a
deep structure in the Lévi-Straussian sense, there was and continues to be a tendency
to view practice theory itself as a kind of covert revival of theories that underempha-
size the real and deeply sedimented constraints under which people live. I have been
opposing this view at least since my monograph on the founding of Sherpa monas-
teries, High Religion (1989:11–18) and can only say again that nothing could be
further from the truth. Indeed most readers of (especially the early works of) Bour-
dieu and Giddens would argue that in the end both of these pioneers of practice
theory tended to overemphasize structural constraint, even as they viewed structures
as produced through (never-free) social practices.
2. Marshall Sahlins kindly sent me the manuscript of Historical Metaphors . . . when I
was writing that paper. At the time I read it mainly for ‘‘data.’’ It was only on a later
rereading that I focused on his theoretical framework and its resonances with other
practice theory work coming out in that era. I made the connections in Ortner 1984.
3. Scott casts his argument against an exaggerated version of Gramsci’s position on
hegemony, taking ‘‘hegemony’’ to be something that totally controls the minds of the
dominated party.
4. Most recently William H. Sewell Jr.’s very important Logics of History (2005) has
provided a theorization of ‘‘events’’ that not only illuminates Sahlins’s ‘‘possible
theory of history’’ (as Sahlins had called it), but provides a powerful theorization of
the relationship between historical thinking and social and cultural theory much
more broadly.
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