This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Theodore Schatzki is Professor of Geography and Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky. His latest book is Social Change in a Material World.
I would say that the importance of individuals for social life is twofold. They play an important constitutive role and also an important causal role. The constitutive role goes as follows: practices are made up of activities, and activities are the activities of individual people, so the activities of individuals and, in that sense, individuals help make up practices. Moreover, practices are linked with material arrangements, not only the built environment but also those elements of the natural environment that our practice activities are connected to. Practices and arrangements, in my view, provide the ingredients out of which social phenomena of all sort consist. If that’s true, then that gives individuals, or at least their activities, a very important constitutive role vis-à-vis social life. Now, individuals, in particular, their activity, also play a very important causal role. Chains of activity —the way the activities of individuals link together and pass through individuals— are central to social phenomena and to bringing about social change. The activities are always the activities of individuals and so individuals remain a necessary background-like component of social life. But even though chains of activity are made up of the activities of individuals, this does not mean that individuals are responsible for social changes. That is why I speak of chains passing through individuals. Only under two conditions can individual people be sort of responsible for social changes. One is that some activities of theirs establish what I call a new heading for a chain of activities. The second is that other people react to these activities in such ways that significant changes result in social life. But that type of situation is not how social change occurs most of the time.
That’s sort of a summary of my view of the importance of individuals. There was another part of your question; you said, “the importance of individuals as compared to the importance of institutions and other social entities”, and what I’ll say about that will be quick. To me, institutions, like other social entities, are aspects or slices of practices and arrangements. Practices and arrangements are the basic ingredients out of which social phenomena are composed, and individuals come to be the individuals they are —they are formed within practices. So practices and arrangements, one might say, are the common medium in which both individuals and social entities develop; and they, and not individuals or institutions, are the key phenomena. Nonetheless, without individuals, there would be no practices simply because there would be no activities. There is a kind of mutual dependence between practices and individuals. People’s capacities, their understandings, their desires, all depend in different ways on the practices in which they participate, in which they mature, and, reciprocally, it is by virtue of the activities that they perform that practices are maintained. But I would not say that the same kind of mutual dependence exists between practices and institutions. Part of the problem with the word institutions is that there is a great diversity of different sort of things that people mean by it. Whatever people mean by it, to me, there could be practices without institutions, but not practices without individuals.
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