Social practice theory and social marketing: Acknowledging how the human and more-than-human affect social change

Fiona Spotswood, Ross Gordon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference Contribution (Conference Proceeding)


Aim This workshop will explore the potential for ideas, concepts and thought tools from theories of practice to contribute to the effectiveness and ethics of social marketing to achieve social change in organisations and communities, and explore how social marketing can contribute to the applicability of theories of practice. Lefebvre (2012) has noted that social marketing needs to “regain its soul. One of the key criticisms of social marketing is that it often focuses on individual behaviour change, with insufficient focus on the dynamics of routinized patterns of action which exist, evolve and interrelate in society, shaping more unreflexive patterns of behaviour (Shove et al., 2012). From this perspective, focusing on individual behaviour change will risk being ineffective in the long term as other institutional, political and material forces keeping problematic routines and patterns locked in place are left unchanged. A focus on individuals has also attracted criticisms of responsibilising risk through individuation (Fullagar, 2002), particularly in the health field (Blue et al 2016; Cohn, 2014; Delormier et al., 2009). It is possible to trace the individualising tendencies of social marketing to the theories that often underpin its programmes, which are based on psychology and assume a ‘deficit’ model of action which can be overcome with the right incentives, support and exchange (Lefebvre, 2011; Truong, 2014). Opening up the theoretical base of social marketing to include ideas from sociology, including theories of practice, offers the potential for social marketing to shift its focus away from “the individual behavior change business” (Lefebvre, 2012, p.122) and consider the potential for social marketing to shape cultural transition by focusing on how it can help shape the practical routines embedded in society. Theories of practice Practices are the routine accomplishment of what people take to be “normal” ways of life (Shove, 2010), which could be understood as the social arrangement of habits (Shove, 2012). PT purports that social life is organised according to practices which people perform in the accomplishment of everyday activities, such as showering, eating meals, going to work, physical recreation and so on. Much of this activity is largely routinised by the people who perform it; there are sets of quietly understood and largely unspoken rules about how, when and with what these various activities are undertaken. This understanding of routinised patterns of practice as “entities” performed by practitioners (Welch, 2016) is theoretically significant for the way behaviour is conceptualised and changed, and for how it differs from “wider determinants” and “individualist” approaches. The first is that the practice, not the individual, is the unit of study. Behaviour change starts with an understanding of how practices are constituted. There are various models seeking to label the components of practice but the clearest is the three-elements model (Shove et al., 2012), according to which practices comprise material things (“stuff”, equipment, infrastructure), competences (interchangeable with skills and know-how) and meanings (images, symbolism, understandings). Every practice arises from the configuration of these elements and an analysis of the elements can help identify the reasons a problematic practice, such as unhealthy snacking, has taken hold, as well as helping identify how the links between elements might be broken or changed. For the practice of commuting to become commonly performed by bicycle, requirements might include the competences of navigation and riding a bike; the material stuff of a bike, roads, panniers, helmet, locks and showers at work; and the meanings of cycling being acceptable at all career levels, supported by organisational leadership and by other road users (Spotswood et al., 2015). If the existing practice of cycle commuting falls short, as it does in the UK (DfT, 2014), then intervention will be required across multiple elements to significantly reconfigure how, and to what extent, it is undertaken. We begin to see the multiple intervention approaches which a practice approach might inspire. However, theories of practice have not been systematically applied to the development and implementation of interventions and have been criticised as lacking practical application (Sahakian and Wilhite, 2014). Rather, they are characteristically used to explain changes in consumer and other behaviour over time (e.g. showering, using the freezer, smoking, heart rate monitoring). However, there are a growing number of calls from academics working at the interface between theory and applied social change to explore the potential for theories of practice to shape real-world interventions (Spotswood et al., 2016; Gordon et al., 2018; Vihalemm et al.; 2015). Furthermore, it is important to note that social marketing and social practice are not in opposition, and although the theoretical assumptions underpinning social marketing might be individualist in the main, its power and efficacy may have the outcome of helping to shift social practices, particularly when the social marketing programme intervenes across the whole marketing mix. For example, different pillars of a practice might be shaped through an intervention which achieves changes in the “unspoken norm[s] into public debate” or “by demonstrating different ways of performing everyday practices” (Sahakian and Wilhite 2014, p.37) as well as providing the means or opportunities to perform new practices. It is also important to note that increasingly, social marketers are drawing on ideas beyond individual, downstream social change in their approaches, such as from systems theory (Domegan et al., 2016), social movements (Daellenback, 2017) and influencing policy (Gordon, 2013). This fuller interpretation of social marketing offers a huge potential for making theories of practice applicable in communities and organisations seeking to achieve social change. Workshop focus The workshop will use two contexts for considering the role of social marketing in practice transitions. The first is school-based physical activity intervention in the UK. One of the workshop leads has been piloting a school-based intervention which focuses on achieving school physical activity cultural transition. Theories of practice underpin the pilot. The UK social change team have focused on a range of practices in the school from which physical activity emerges, and use these to work with the school to identify goals for each practice transition, and elements of the practices which constrain or enable physical activity. This understanding is used as the basis for an interdisciplinary range of social change activities, including social marketing. The second case study used to focus the interactive workshop focuses on energy usage by older people in Australia… Method The workshop will take the following format: - Brief overview of key tenets of practice theory, particularly focusing on how practices change and can be changed. - Brief overview of the two ‘focus’ case studies that have used practice-oriented ideas to underpin the intervention. - Structured discussions around the following questions: o What are the benefits of a practice-oriented intervention approach? o What are the limitations of applying practice-oriented theoretical principles in practice? o What are the key ways that social marketing can facilitate the application of practice-oriented intervention in organisational social change? o How can evidence best be collated about the efficacy of a practice-oriented intervention approach? The goal would be to draw on delegates’ experiences working in organisations and communities using social marketing to consider the potential mutual benefits of blending these approaches. References Blue, S., Shove, E., Carmona, C., & Kelly, M. P. (2016). Theories of practice and public health: Understanding (un)healthy practices. Critical Public Health, 26, 36–50. doi:10.1080/09581596.2014.980396 Cohn, S. (2014). From health behaviours to health practices: An introduction. Sociology of Health & Illness, 36, 157–162. Daellenbach, K. (2017),"A useful shift in our perspective: integrating social movement framing into social marketing", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 7 Iss 2 pp. 188-204 Delormier, T., Frohlich, K.L. and Potvin, L. (2009) Food and eating as social practice-understanding eating patterns as social phenomena and implications for public health, Sociology of Health & Illness, 31, 2, 215–28. Domegan, C., McHugh, P., Devaney, M., Duane, S., Hogan, M., Broome, B.J., Layton, R.A., Joyce, J., Mazzonetto, M. and Piwowarczyk, J. (2016), “Systems-thinking social marketing: conceptual extensions and empirical investigations”, Journal of Marketing Management, Vol. 32 Nos 11/12, pp. 1123-1144 Fullagar, S. (2002) Governing the healthy body: discourses of leisure and lifestyle within Australian health policy. Health: The social study of health, illness and medicine, 6, 1, 69–84. Gordon, R. (2013) "Unlocking the potential of upstream social marketing", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 47 Issue: 9, pp.1525-1547, Gordon, R., Moodie, C., Eadie, D. and Hastings, G. (2010), “Critical social marketing – the impact of alcohol marketing on youth drinking: qualitative findings”, International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 265-275. Gordon, R.; Waitt, G.; Cooper, P.; Butler, K. (2018) Storying energy consumption: Collective video storytelling in energy efficiency social marketing, Journal of Environmental Management, 213, pp.1-10. Lefebvre, R.C. (2011), “An integrative model for social marketing”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 54-72. Lefebvre, R.C. (2012), “Transformative social marketing: co-creating the social marketing discipline and brand”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 118-129. Sahakian, M. and Wilhite, H. (2014), “Making practice theory practicable: towards more sustainable forms of consumption”, Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 25-44. Shove, E. (2010), “Social theory and climate change: questions often, sometimes and not yet asked”, Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 27 Nos 2/3, pp. 277-288. Shove, E. (2012), “Habits and their creatures”, in Warde, A. and Southerton, D. (Eds), The Habits of Consumption, Vol. 12, Collegium, Helsinki, pp. 100-113. Spotswood, F., Chatterton, T., Tapp, A. and Williams, D. (2015), “Analysing cycling as a social practice: an empirical grounding for behaviour change”, Transport Research Part F, Vol. 29, pp. 22-33. Spotswood, F.; Chatterton, T.; Morey, Y.; Spear, S. (2017) "Practice-theoretical possibilities for social marketing: two fields learning from each other", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 7 Issue: 2, pp.156-171, Truong, V.D. (2014), “Social marketing: a systematic review of research 1998-2012”, Social Marketing Quarterly, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 15-34. Vihalemm, T., Keller, M. and Kiisel, M. (2015), From Intervention to Social Change: A Guide to Reshaping Everyday Practices, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham Welch, D. (2016), “Social practices and behaviour change”, in Spotswood, F. (Ed.), Beyond Behaviour Change: Key Issues, Interdisciplinary Approaches and Future Directions, Policy Press, Bristol, pp. 237-256.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe 6th World Social Marketing Conference Proceedings Book
Publication statusIn preparation - 2019
Event6th World Social Marketing Conference - Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jun 20195 Jun 2019


Conference6th World Social Marketing Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • practice theory
  • social marketing
  • workshop


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