A. Hoffmann-Ocon u.a. (Hrsg.): Praxeologie in der Historischen Bildungsforschung

Praxeologie in der Historischen Bildungsforschung. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen eines Forschungsansatzes

Hoffmann-Ocon, Andreas; De Vincenti, Andrea; Grube, Norbert
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What do heating installations, sandpits, porcupines, and obituary notices have to do with the history of education? Making sense of this odd enumeration—from technical equipment to animals to obituary notices—and trying to connect some of these objects and their role in school life to the field of the histories of education may be a challenging affair. However, the reason I started this review with this list is twofold. On the one hand, it demonstrates the wide range of objects, practices, and sources that the volume under review focuses on; on the other hand, it hints at the “messiness” and banality of the histories told.[1] These two characteristics, which are often given a pejorative or negative connotation, are in fact essential to the interdisciplinary and heterogeneous praxeological approach (aka practice turn or practice theory), which has gained a strong foothold in social sciences within the German-speaking world over the last two decades. Interestingly, the practice turn (PT), which is often presented and hyped as innovative—that is, as a radical break with traditional research approaches—seems to have quite a lot in common with other, older “turns” that have defined our field over the past decades and that have left us with catchy phrases and undertakings such as “doing archaeology and ethnohistory of schooling” or “doing anthropology of the educational past”, writing micro-histories, or exploring histories of mentalities and realities. Indeed, as the editors of this volume state in their far-ranging introduction, the PT is partly a “return to turns”, or an attempt to revive short-lived turns (e.g., the material turn, the cultural turn).

For readers unfamiliar with this “fuzzy phenomenon”[2], let me give a short summary of the four basic assumptions underlying the practice turn, inspired by readings of Tim Ingold and Bruno Latour, which I have found extremely helpful for thinking in terms of meshworks. First, if you want to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the social world, you must leave behind existing analytical categories (such as structures, systems, actors, etc.), as these often constitute an a priori explanation of the social world. Second, practices play a fundamental role in social life and are not “mere articulations, actualizations or manifestations of an already existing underlying structure”; rather, they are permanently shaped, negotiated, mediated, appropriated, etc. by and within the social world while simultaneously shaping the latter.[3] Third, practices function metaphorically as translucent and refractive prisms through which we can observe and think about the social. Practices are thus merely the aids or tools that “refract, redirect, and guide our observations, analysis and thinking”.[4] The task of the researcher, then, is to follow the diverging multi-colored light beams produced by the practice-prism. This wider interpretive horizon may open up new, as yet unexplored, and even surprising perspectives. Fourth, practices can be best defined and operationalized as a “meshwork” of interacting—routinized or disruptive—doings, thoughts, and sayings, a meshwork of actual people, objects, and events that can be retraced in time and space. It goes without saying that engaging with and unraveling the fluid assemblages or “bundles of interwoven lines” that constitute practices is a risky and messy business.[5] The practice turn within the field of history (of education) could therefore be called a “history of associations” (cf. Latour’s sociology of associations[6]) or a “history of lines of becoming, of knots and loose ends”.[7]

Eight of the book’s eleven chapters are historical case studies that focus on a variety of educational practices in kindergartens, primary schools, teacher training colleges, and universities, from key practices in daily school life to rather marginal phenomena, which at first sight appear to be unrelated to everyday school matters. Divided into two parts, these chapters make up the bulk of the book. The first five chapters deal with everyday life and crises at teacher training colleges in Zurich in the 19th and 20th centuries. Adrian Juen’s “Von Heizung und Hund” (On heating and dogs, pp. 53–80) draws attention to the (shifting) role of janitors in the colleges’ everyday life, a role that clearly goes beyond heating the buildings and patrolling the college grounds with a guard dog. The two cases analyzed by Juen illustrate that janitors were part of the colleges’ social tissue—not always in a conflict-free manner—and that their role was up for negotiation, especially in times of change (e.g., technological progress) and disruptive events (e.g., unwanted visitors or conflicts). Moments of crisis and change are thus knots or “places where many lines of becoming are drawn tightly together”[8]. Deaths among students or staff also have a disruptive quality, as is shown by Jennifer Burri’s chapter “Die Seminarfamilie” (The college family, pp. 81–111). Burri’s chapter focuses on a variety of mourning and commemoration practices that have been used to reinforce the teacher training institutes’ values as well as to reaffirm the social bonds between staff and students and to regain emotional stability after a death in the college family. Various approaches towards the social question of alcohol consumption—seen as hastening the drinker’s moral decline and affecting the reputation of the college—is the subject of Andrea De Vincenti’s chapter on drinking practices in student associations in Küsnacht during the 20th century (“Praktiken des Trinkens in Schülervereinen der Küsnachter Seminaristen zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts”, pp. 113–138). Interestingly, De Vincenti shows that there was no unified policy and that double standards were applied when it came to judging (excessive) drinking and sentencing drinkers. Norbert Grube (“Kontrollregime und Eigensinn am Züricher Lehrerseminar und an Erziehungsanstalten im späten 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert”, pp. 139–170) explores how institutional as well as public expectations, control regimes, punitive practices, along with student conformity or stubbornness, are reflected and staged in documents such as autobiographical novels and committee minutes. By broadening the corpus of sources, triangulating various sources, and thus approaching the same phenomenon from different angles, Grube’s contribution highlights the infinite “becoming of regimes” as a result of ongoing negotiation processes as well as the stakeholders’ permanent task of self-positioning and self-staging. A (non-behaving) porcupine appears in a sarcastic input in a future teacher’s self-reflection report about her own teaching practice, which was part of the many suitability assessments for future primary school teachers. The latter, as well as the question of how students dealt with these assessments, are discussed in Andreas Hoffmann-Ocon’s contribution (“Praktiken der Eignungsabklärung von angehenden Zürcher Primarlehrpersonen (1940–1960)”, pp. 171–203).

The volume’s second part deals with the interplay between preached norms and lived practices. The first of the three chapters, by Sabine Reh and Kerrin Klinger (“Perspektiven einer bildungshistorischen Praxeologie”, pp. 207–242), analyzes notes taken by university students as tools to gain insight into what teaching looked like at universities, and how students kept track of and made sense of the lectures. Interestingly, the authors go beyond a content analysis to also take into account the texts’ material quality (e.g., the way the notes were kept together) and specific traces in the texts (e.g., the styles of handwriting, the appearance of drawings in the margins, markings such as underlining). Circulating knowledge about school discipline and punishment techniques in the second half of the 18th century is the subject of Rebekka Horlacher’s contribution (“Fehler- und Strafpraktiken am Ende der Frühen Neuzeit am Beispiel von Schule und Unterricht in der Deutschschweiz”, pp. 243–268). By juxtaposing educational guidelines with teachers’ reflections about their own disciplinary and punishment practices (Stapfer-Enquête), Horlacher manages to highlight the tremendous scope for negotiating between higher and lower pedagogies, or so-called expert knowledge and the teachers’ practical and everyday knowledge. Anja Sieber Egger and Gisela Unterweger, in “Da ist die Frage, ob man’s steuern kann, seinen Körper” (The question is whether one can really control it, control one’s body, pp. 269–295), analyze the educational choreography—from human interactions to the spatial arrangements of bodies and objects—to introduce kindergarten children to a sandpit as an educational training device. Their contribution not only attempts to reveal the underlying script of norms applied by the kindergarten teacher but also how the implementation of this script may have impacted the children involved.

The third and last part of the volume, titled “Konzeptionelle Reflexionen und theoretische Ausblicke” (Conceptual reflections and theoretical outlooks), contains two chapters. In his “Registrieren oder Verstehen?” (To register or to understand?, pp. 299–308), Christoph Maeder reflects on “how (…) chains of action can be understood as practices” (p. 300). Understanding practices as actions makes it possible to start the ethno-methodological search for their indexicality, sequentiality, reflexivity, and reciprocity, which goes beyond the mere registering and recording of acts and facts and instead seeks for a deeper, situated understanding. Tomas Bascio’s “Die normative Kraft des Praktischen” (The normative power of the practical, pp. 309–326) wraps up the volume by searching for commonalities in the different case studies. In order to do so, Bascio looks at how the practices described and analyzed have functioned as a normative order. Interestingly, this exercise of zooming out and trying to find meta-structures and patterns seems difficult to reconcile with the praxeological approach, which is all about zooming in and showing complexity and singularity. This move, which can be detected in several of the contributions, seems to be symptomatic, signaling a sense of discomfort or dissatisfaction with a(n overly) banal or messy account.

As should have become clear, this volume is not a methodological handbook providing a clear definition of the practice turn—which would have been helpful for the unprepared reader. Instead, readers will be introduced to the turn’s plurality without receiving clear-cut suggestions on how to turn to practices within the field of the histories of education. Rather than delineating the practice turn, this volume keeps its interpretative horizon wide open and, through its rich variety of well-chosen and well-written case studies and theoretical and methodological reflections, offers readers the opportunity to critically and creatively “think with” the practice turn, its potential, and its limits. The plea by the volume’s editors and authors to write histories of the banal is convincing, not least because the acts, statements, and thoughts of the essays’ protagonists allow one to see the social at work and as something that is permanently becoming. However, the “messiness” of history sometimes gets lost as the authors pull rather straight storylines out of the meshwork. In fact, one may be tempted to ask whether academic conventions of article writing actually allow history to be messy at all.

[1] Peter Viereck, Clio is no cleo: The messiness of history, in: Society 14 (2004), pp. 10–14.
[2] Julian Genner, To everything, turn, turn, turn? Taking stock of the practice turn in social theory, sociology, and media studies, Siegen 2020, p. 2.
[3] Genner, To everything, p. 3.
[4] Annette Caroline Cremer, Zum Stand der Materiellen Kulturforschung in Deutschland, in: Annette Caroline Cremer / Martine Mulsow (eds.), Objekte als Quellen der historischen Kulturwissenschaften. Stand und Perspektiven der Forschung. Cologne 2017, pp. 9–21, here p. 18.
[5] Tim Ingold, Bindings against boundaries: Entanglements of life in an open world, in: Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 40 (2008), pp. 1796–1810; Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, archeology, art and architecture, Oxon 2013.
[6] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory, Oxford 2005.
[7] Ingold, Making, p. 132.
[8] Ingold, Making, p. 132.

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