The Meaning of 'Practice' in the Age of Sustainable Development: Part I (from Aristotle to the MDGs)

04/24/2015 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

This post is co-authored by Chloé Denavit

Practice has become a key concept in the policy process. In September 2015, the United Nations will hold a summit to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) meant to challenge the globe to grow economically and socially in an environmentally responsible way. These goals will build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to look beyond subsistence and poverty alleviation in both low- and middle-income countries as well as high-income countries. As the MDG end date approaches, a list of SDGs is currently being negotiated to set the post-2015 development agenda for issues such as reduction of inequality, promotion of well-being for all, and edification of peaceful and inclusive societies.

The eight MDGs, which range from "halving extreme poverty rates" to "halting the spread of HIV/AIDS" and "providing universal primary education", have in the last fifteen years been requiring a strong focus on practical solutions-based approaches capable of connecting local needs with national and international policies. Some of the tools, skills and techniques necessary for a development practitioner include problem analysis, spatial mapping, data collection, analysis and visualization, benchmarking, planning and cross-cultural communication.

Practice, however, has not always been regarded as relevant to high-level policy-making and goal setting. The conceptualization of practice has been evolving throughout the centuries and even today many do not fully grasp its meaning and role in the build up of political, economical and social reality. What is, after all, the meaning of practice in the age of sustainable development?

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) broke down human activity into two modes: technical and practical. On one hand, "technical reason" - techne - referred to the art or knowledge involved in the doing or making of a product or state of affairs, which can be specified by the maker prior to its making. On the other hand, "practical reason" - phronesis - refers to one's wisdom or intelligence to deal with other agents and contextual circumstances.

While for Aristotle there is no hierarchy, nor tension, between modes, for the founder of Sociology, Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857), however, the concept of practice is viewed in direct opposition to thinking. To Comte, there was a clear distinction between the world of practitioners and the world of theorists. Labor, Comte's term for the realm of action, was considered an inferior activity lacking imagination and temporal by definition. Thought, on the contrary, was universal and aimed at discovering the timeless laws of nature and society. Comte's dichotomy is still found nowadays in discussions between legislators and administrators or grassroots organizations. The same divide still characterizes many of the relationships between academics and practitioners in the field of development.

Under this dichotomy, there is an assumption that action - or practice - will follow logically and automatically from knowledge. However, Wagenaar and Cook (2003, 140) argue that, "the notion of action as an appendix to knowledge has resulted in an almost total neglect of its central role in the way in which humans understand and value their world". Take, as an illustration, Pierre Bourdieu's (1930 - 2002) example of the "impulsive decision made by the tennis player who runs up to the net, to understand that (...) the conditions for rational calculations are practically never given in practice: time is limited, information is restricted, etc." (1990, 11). Bourdieu's perspective on practice is derived precisely from Aristotle's concept of "practical reason". It is the interplay of knowledge and practical skills that shapes the idea of rightness and determines the outcome of the policy process. For this author, sole reliance on theory is insufficient!

More recently, the value of practice was further elevated by Charles Taylor (1931 - ). This Canadian political philosopher argues that practices are broader than institutionalized configurations of cooperative activity, but rather the texture of social reality. Practices such as bargaining, greeting or accepting a gift must be rooted in the set of activities, conventions, mutual relations, and standards of rightness that confer a shared meaning to those practices. All these elements are very important for the policy process because, as MacIntyre (1929 - ) argues, they are the precursors of institutions, both informal and formal. In his logic, institutional development occurs through new practices that sustain them.

With Jean Lave, the theory-practice dichotomy is reimagined and turned circular: practice itself becomes theory. In her 'theory of action', actors and policy issues stand in a purposeful, dialectical relationship with each other. In trying to solve problems that come up in the course of their everyday work, policy makers, analysts and practitioners improvise with the material, social and experiential resources at hand. Dialectical means here that problem and solution are not given, but bring each other into being in the process of acting upon the world.

Lave is inspired by John Dewey's (1859 - 1952) notion of "inquiry". Dewey rejects the general theory/action dichotomy and argues for a unified account of doing and knowing in which inquiry is an ongoing action in and upon a situation that has become indeterminate by some sort of blockage or opportunity. Inquiry, or practice, is thus always transformative. It precipitates mental and social processes towards a new equilibrium between actors and environment. In Dewey's portrayal of a strong continuity between actor and environment, knowledge and practice are the two sides of the same coin: one could not exist without the other and there is no hierarchy between them. Similar to Bourdieu, this is Lave's ecological view of the relation between knowledge and practice: "a living system with some sort of built-in impetus towards self-maintenance" (Burke 1994, 27) in which both co-evolve in parity.

For Wagenaar and Cook (2003, 141) practical reason cannot be wholly or effectively displaced by scientific, technical reason. They argue that practice...
[...] in which the concept of action is embedded, is not just the executive arm of rational knowledge, but instead is a way of engaging with the world in its own right.
[...] is an important and distinct dimension of politics, with its own logic (pragmatic, purposeful), its own standards of knowing (interpretative, holistic, more know-how than know-that), its own orientation towards the world (interactive, moral, emotional), and its own image of society (as a constellation of interdependent communities).

The concept of practice is here lifted above mere doing and elevated to the central position in a democratic, pragmatic, problem-oriented policy analysis. Coincidently, around the same time Wagenaar and Cook's words were being written, the Millennium Project was being commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General to develop a concrete practical plan for the world to achieve the MDGs and "meet the needs of the world's poorest".

For the last fifteen years - the period of time during which we have been working to meet the MDGs - the concept of practice has been about applying the existing knowledge in locally contextualized approaches to poverty alleviation. To accomplish their work, development practitioners have been required to apply several technical and soft skills to problem appraisal (e.g., logical framework analysis, geographic information systems, human-based design thinking), program design (e.g., writing, theory of change development, data collection, budgeting), program implementation (e.g., projects management, language and cultural awareness, social-media, leadership) and monitoring and evaluation (e.g., quantitative and qualitative information gathering, analysis, and visualization).

The SDGs, and the age of sustainable development, require, however, a different conceptualization of practice and an even more differentiated and more holistic set of development practice skills, which we will explore in part II of this post. Articulated to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development", SDG 17 sets the stage for what will be absolutely central for both a new reinterpretation of the meaning of practice for the next fifteen years and a successful pursuit of the SDGs. Practice needs to shift its focus from technical and social skills to skills capable of building lasting trust and reciprocal altruism between development actors. More than creating new knowledge or ranking best practices, the SDGs need to be about partnering and negotiating skills. And this requires the dissemination and training of new skills in behavioral psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, negotiation and mediation, strategic reasoning, social cognition, neuro-leadership, team coaching and embedded empathy.

Chloé Denavit is pursuing an MPA in Development Practice at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She has several years of experience in global health programs and policy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and is specializing in health systems approaches to maternal and reproductive health.