Practice: An Anthropological Look at the Game of Life

By Dante Tanjuakio

The sociologist Craig Calhoun offers a useful analogy to introduce Bourdieu’s concept of practice.  When someone is adept at playing a sport, they simultaneously do several things.  First, they know the rules of the game: the formal statements about points and penalties, the composition of teams, the game’s objectives, the limits of play, and so on.  Every player is also aware of her or his performance – the sprint to the finish line, the diving catch in center field, or the left-handed punch that came from nowhere.  The rules of the game and the player’s performance are linked by strategy: walking a power hitter to first base, running down the time on the shot clock, waiting for a key moment to cycle ahead of the pack.  All these domains indivisibly comprise the “game”.  The game is not the rules.  The game is not the individual player’s actions.  The game is not solely strategy since strategy relies on using the rules and employing specific players to achieve a goal.  The game is all of these things, and players move between rules, individual behaviour, and strategy without confusion.  And finally, the outcome of a specific game – though limited by rules, performed by individuals, and realized via strategy – is not at all predetermined. 

Borrowing a line from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire starring Tom Cruise, this excerpt from Visions of Culture had me at “practice.” Pierre Bourdieu’s An Anthropology of Practice appeals to me as a wonderful compromise between the anthropologists’ endless dichotomy regarding super-organic culture, emic insiders versus etic, cultural classifications, etcetera.

Bourdieu outlined a “theory of practice” in which cultural rules and actions of individual social agents are constantly re-ordered but never separable. In the area of disaster management, disaster risk personnel often query flood victims why they waited too long before evacuating to a safe shelter. The most frequent responses are they are used to the flooding, it is not flooding if the water is not chest-level, and that they did not want to leave their personal belongings. Relating it to the excerpt, the flood victims are well aware of the “game,” and their individual performances are in concert with their strategies.

As a member of the DOST Project NOAH team, I am always asked if I am a geologist or a meteorologist. My usual response is that I am a manager with a degree in anthropology, and that my role is to influence my teams to humanize the hard science. An example is converting hard facts regarding rain accumulation and flood metrics to a language people can easily understand without a conversion process. A major part of this is understanding the rules of the game, the composition of teams, objectives, and limitations. It is much easier said/stated than done.

As disaster risk managers/practitioners, we understand that there are natural hazards – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, subsidence, and typhoons. All of these processes have been occurring all throughout history, but have become hazardous only because of their effect on human beings. These hazards do not turn into disasters when no human beings or properties are threatened. A natural hazard becomes a natural disaster after having a negative effect on humans and their properties. It is important to note that there would be no natural disasters if it were not for human beings. Without humans, these are only natural events.

Risk is a characteristic of the relationship between human beings and natural hazards. People take risks every day, from crossing the street to driving on the way to school/work, or staying in flood-prone areas. The risk from natural hazards, while it cannot be eliminated, can sometimes be prevented or mitigated. To do this, we need to understand how the process operates and what is required to meet its objectives. Going back to the excerpt, we need to understand the rules of the game. In disaster management, that translates to being intimate with natural hazards and how they operate. In flooding, there are three basic lessons that we preach. First, flood water does not need to be chest-high to cause damage; second, flood water can rise within seconds and kill; and third, knowing the first and second points could prevent a deadly situation.

Next, we need to recognize people’s concerns regarding their safety and their properties. It is essential to comprehend their behaviors and practices. What strategies/risks are they using/taking in navigating through flood-prone areas? Why do they think that “It is not flooding if the water is not chest-level?” Can this be explained by way of the “rules” of the game? They may be used to getting flooded every year so the outcome of the game is surviving the natural hazard/disaster. The game and their strategies are linked but not pre-determined. These responses to calamities can be attributed to the theory of practice.

Although humans can sometimes prevent or mitigate the influence of natural disasters, the outcomes are not always the same. In playing the game of chess, the objective is to “checkmate” the opponent’s king by putting it in a certain position. One of the players wins and the other loses. Playing the game of basketball, football, or any sport will lead to winners and losers. The outcome for playing sports is usually determined by wins and losses. In disaster risk management, one lost life is one too many. It may be too ambitious to have a goal of zero casualties when it comes to natural disasters, but knowing the rules of the game and its strategies can lead to more positive consequences. Finally, from my many years in the airline industry, I never heard an aircraft pilot state that they should be allowed more than one plane crash. Bourdieu’s theory of practice is practical. It is very simple and it makes sense. One may not fully appreciate his ideas but we all live in a world where we play the game; the game of life.

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