Co-evolution and practice theory: Focusing on technologies but not on technological change

In a previous post, I considered how accounts of change over time often identify multiple processes or sites of change that stitch together – in some way – as part of an overall pattern of interest to the researchers. Whilst these processes or sites could be studied in their own right as relevant contributors to, or aspects of, that change a co-evolutionary account is one that investigates and describes their interactions and mutual shaping. I elaborated this by drawing on an account of how domestic space and energy demand have evolved, developed by Kuijer and Watson (2017), and asked what kinds of relationships or interactions were evident and necessary to identifying co-evolutionary processes. In particular, I asked whether and when it is important to identify sequences.

In this post, I continue to inquire into co-evolution, and what it implies for thinking about societal change. But this time I have a different question in mind: I want to consider whether there is a distinctively ‘practice theory’ approach to ‘co-evolution’. The term, ‘co-evolution’ is widely used, but may be most familiar from the literature on ‘transition’ theories of socio-technological change (such as the multi-level perspective, see for example Geels, 2005). Practices feature as one of many components in such accounts; but what happens if they are given centre stage when thinking through how large-scale, systemic change takes place? Are ‘transitions in practice’ necessarily co-evolutionary? Do co-evolutionary accounts of practices highlight other considerations that tend to be missed or underplayed in other kinds of co-evolutionary account? And what does a co-evolutionary ‘framing’ offer for developing practice-centric accounts of the dynamics of ‘large’ social phenomena?

In tackling some of these questions, I focus on another recent paper arising from DEMAND Centre research by Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove and Mattjis Smits (Rinkinen et al. 2017). It investigates how the use of fridge-freezers at home, in Hanoi and Bangkok, is positioned within ‘complex and evolving processes of urbanisation and food provisioning’ (p. 1). Unlike Kuijer and Watson (2017), it does not strongly identify as being a co-evolutionary account (referring only in passing to the ‘ongoing co-evolution and hybridisation of concepts like those of ‘”tradition” and “modernity” and the intertwining of global and local arrangements’ (p. 4)). But it can be interpreted in this way: it makes frequent reference to multiple and evolving phenomena such as ‘household practices, patterns of consumption and systems of food provisioning’ and how they ‘connect and change’ (p. 2).

In fact, it is the very grounding in practice-centred understandings of consumption that leads the authors to take an interest in how practices, infrastructures and systems of provision hang together and change:

“In so far as consumption is an outcome of practice, understanding changes in the demand for energy or for different types of food… is essentially a matter of understanding how configurations of practices, infrastructures, appliances and systems of provision cohere and evolve, especially in contexts of rapid urbanisation” (Rinkinen et al., 2017, emphasis added)

This quote also implies a further step: rather than thinking about the separate changes within these different kinds of phenomenon and how they interact, the authors suggests that they are always already related in some form of (evolving) configuration. This is subtle but if configurations of household practices, systems of provision and infrastructures are foregrounded, there is less emphasis on the evolution of these ‘parts’ and how they might connect to one another through a series discrete interactions. Instead, interest lies primarily in the characteristics of configurations into which those parts are already woven, as if of a larger whole. This difference in emphasis may be why the authors do not describe their analysis outright as co-evolutionary.

Configurations in the spotlight

But how can configurations of practices, systems of provision and infrastructures be studied and analysed in themselves, rather than as parts and their interactions? Rinkinen et al. (2017) use at least two strategies.

The first is to undertake a comparative analysis across two different cities. Although there are many similarities in the pattern of urban development between Bangkok and Hanoi, which are associated with longer food supply chains, dependent on cold storage, and distribution through supermarkets, small stores and markets, there are also differences. Bangkok expanded faster and earlier than Hanoi, and the Westernisation of diets and food production and supply is more extensive. Reflecting this, there are different histories of fridge freezer ownership and use that continue today: household ownership levels are higher, and took off earlier in Thailand than in Vietnam. This comparative backdrop allows the authors to focus on the use of fridge freezers in households whilst also situating them within configurations that clearly differ at city and national levels.

The second strategy is to conceptualise appliances or technologies as pivot points between patterns of urban development, food supply systems and ways of household provisioning. This allows the authors to foreground configurations across these different ‘registers’ of practice. It depends on a move that extends (and indeed challenges) what has been a common approach within practice theory-inspired work: that is, to conceptualise particular products or technologies as if they exist primarily (or only) as part of single, discrete practices, at any one time. Instead the authors argue that fridge-freezers are multiply and simultaneously positioned, not only within households, where they are physically located, and as part of the practices of eating, cooking and shopping, but also as ‘part of bundles of practice that extend across different scales and periods of time’ (p. 2).

This echoes arguments I have made elsewhere: that automated technologies, just like other technologies, are positioned as elements within wider systems of practice, just as much (if not more so in some cases) as within single practices (Morley, 2017). A similar re-conceptualisation is crucial in the article by Rinkinen et al. (2017) because it justifies the ambition to consider multiple scales and periods of time at once; and to do so by attending to one particular appliance.

Roles and Dependence

What unites these varied registers of practice is the idea that fridge-freezers play a role, if not many roles, within the configurations in which they are positioned. These roles are simultaneously shaped by “forms and sources of supply and diet entwined with practices of shopping, cooking and eating” and “notions of taste, quality, freshness and safety” (p. 8). Indeed, it is the changing roles of the fridge-freezer which form the empirical focus of the article. This is the primary analytical hand-hold by which configurations are approached and investigated. It allows the authors to show how the same technology can be differently yet still pivotally positioned, both within the same broad city-scale configuration and across them.

Fridge by Janine Morley

These roles are described as “dynamic interpretations of the need for a fridge freezer” (p.8). The main overall argument of the paper is that “fridge freezer dependence” comes about through multiple and different routes in ways that are embedded within broader configurations of systems of provision and eating, as they evolve alongside processes of urbanisation. The fridge freezer comes to occupy a central and unavoidable status both as being necessary to participate in urban systems of provision and as part of strategies to resist and circumvent them. For instance, the research observed that the same sorts of food arrived in fridge-freezers by very different supply systems: in Bangkok, they observed eggs purchased from a nearby supermarket; in Hanoi, eggs were also kept in fridge freezers but they came from a home village. As the authors summarise:

“For consumers caught up in processes of rapid urbanisation, fridge
freezers are ‘needed’ to avoid what are seen as the risks of processed food, or food from unknown sources, just as they are needed by those who consume mass produced ready-meals, or who do a bit of both”. (p.14)

The fact that both kinds of roles exist speaks to the reliance on the fridge-freezer that holds across “so many different lives” (p.14).

Practices Vs Technology

Overall, to focus on the role of a particular appliance, or technology, is to place centre-stage the question of how it is used. The article by Rinkinen et al. (2017) illustrates that roles can be ambivalent, multiple, and dynamic, and that it is the relationships within broader configurations of practice that define them. Some such relationships might only indirectly relate to the appliance in question (such as anxieties about food quality and understandings of freshness) but are nevertheless instrumental to understanding the organisation of wider configurations within which that appliance ‘sits’. Yet since the roles of a technology depend on a range of relationships within configurations of practice, there may be considerable change or ‘innovation’ over time that is not technological in nature, i.e. that is, not dependent on changes in design or operation of fridge-freezers.

So even though a technology is at the very heart of the narrative developed by Rinkinen et al. (2017), it is not an account of ‘technological change’ itself. Nor is it an account of the co-evolution of a technology with social practices, or more broadly, society. Instead, the technology is treated almost as a window into other aspects of society that are co-evolving; a tactic for investigating them by following how the technology is positioned within, and mediates, relations between practices. This is one of the ways in which a focus on practices can help to develop a distinctive account of how ‘large’ systems change: it helps reveal how technologies, as relative phenomena, continue to be implicated in ongoing change even if the ‘technology’ itself does not change.


Geels, F. W. (2005). Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Kuijer, L., & Watson, M. (2017). ‘That’s when we started using the living room’: Lessons from a local history of domestic heating in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science, 28, 77-85.
Morley, J. (2017). Technologies within and beyond practices. In A. Hui, T. Schatzki, & E. Shove (Eds.), The Nexus of Practices: Connections, Constellations, Practitioners (pp. 81-97). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Rinkinen, J., Shove, E., & Smits, M. (2017). Cold chains in Hanoi and Bangkok: Changing systems of provision and practice. Journal of Consumer Culture.

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