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A Smartphone Praxeology

Exploring Digital Practices. Analysing the Ways Smartphones Constantly Train 'Beneficial‘ Attitudes. Discovering Transformations of Contemporary Modes of Subjectification.

Published onNov 02, 2022
A Smartphone Praxeology

Typing the words ‘How the smartphone’ into a Google search box reveals – in the algorithmic auto-completion of the text – the scope of change and impact these internet-enabled mobile devices seem to mark for people in their everyday lives1 (Fig. 1):

Figure 1: Screenshot Google search, PW.

They are time thieves, revolutionising photography, changing our language, our thinking, our daily lives, and are ruining our sex lives. Moreover, smartphones are the first thing most of us reach for when we get up in the morning and the last thing we look at before falling asleep. We use them to buy and sell things, to get to know other people, to maintain relationships, to communicate. They navigate the way when we feel lost and they are our entertainment centres. Smartphones are devices with which we record and share experiences. In short: “The smartphone is the signature artefact of our age” (Greenfield 2018: 9).

Research Interest

But why is this relevant for a sociological understanding of everyday life? The widespread distribution and use of technologies is an indication that the constitutional relations of people and society are in a state of change (Carstensen et al. 2014: 11). For that reason, it is necessary to sociologically contextualise and analyse how subjects use smartphones. The aim of this article, which summarises my bachelor’s thesis, is exploring what contribution these devices make to our self-understanding in the present – in other words, answering the question: ‘How do we become who we are?’. 

Focussing on the relation between materiality, practices, and subjectification it is examined to what extend the use of the smartphone introduces changes on these levels. Moreover, it is analysed how these changes inform a transformation of the subject in the present. To address these research interests, two narrative problem-centred interviews are conducted and supplemented by a smartphone use diary. Theoretically, the research is rooted in practice theory. In connection with the transitive methodology, they form the theoretical-analytical framework of the study and are synthesised into an analytical model. The findings from interviews and the diary reveal, among other things, that digital practices are characterised by the meaningful connection of formerly diverse practices (Schäfer 2021: 3f.). Furthermore, the analysis shows that the smartphone has become the central point of passage for social practices in the present. Based on digital practices, the smartphone serves as a governmental agent (Prinz 2014: 151) and enables constant exercises of flexibility, simultaneity, and availability. These exercises train the subject in an attitude of instant gratification and allow entrepreneurial rationalities to increasingly enter all areas of subjects’ lives (Bröckling 2003: 90, 2019: 131, 135).

Practice Theory

Practice theories are characterised by overcoming common social science dichotomies – micro and macro level, action and structure, society and the individual. This is achieved by decentring (Fig. 2). In doing so, the analysis reveals “the connection between practices and subject forms, relations between subject and object cultures, the nexus between subjectivity and affectivity as well as the instability of subjectification processes” (Reckwitz 2016: 68; translation PW). Additionally, decentring discloses the knowledge required for it and exposes the integration of all the components presented in discourses and power dynamics.

Figure 2: Analytical square of praxeological culture analysis (Reckwitz 2016: 41; translation PW).

The smallest unit of analysis are practices that take shape in dynamic processes and diverse contexts (Schäfer 2013: 18, 2016a: 11f.). They are defined as a “temporally unfolding and spatially dispersed nexus of doings and sayings” (Schatzki 1996: 89). They represent a routinised form of bodily behaviour that includes implicit knowledge in the form of know-how, interpretations, motivations, and emotions (Reckwitz 2003: 289, 2021: 186). “By virtue of the understandings and intelligibilities they carry, practices are where the realms of society and individual mentality/activity are at once organised and linked. Both social order and individuality, in other words, result from practices” (Schatzki 1996: 13). Practices, however, are more than routine recurrences. If we look at them in the context of their occurrence, practices are never identical replicas of an action. Their repetition takes place constantly under varying conditions and represents a repetition in the sense of a – a' (Schäfer 2016b: 140). Consequently, practices repeat themselves. Subjects do not control practices, nor are they their origin. Practices confirm their cultural relevance, as they are available as a circulating cultural repertoire subjects can use. Practices thus pre-exist the subject and allow the subject to become the vanishing point of analysis. Moreover, practices are repeatable and universally understandable. They are always subject to change through different interpretations or changes in meaning – however marginal or severe those may be. In addition, practices are repeated by subjects. The subject is the point of passage, since without it a repetition of practices is unthinkable (Schäfer 2013: 323ff., 2017: 37f.). It is thus to be understood as a bundle of dispositions, as a

social-cultural form, as a contingent product of symbolic orders that model in very specific ways what a subject is, what it understands itself to be, how it has to act, talk, move and what it can want. The individual – as a bodily-mental entity – becomes a subject solely within the framework of collective symbolic orders that subjectify, in other words, that define subject positions in specific ways and form entire subject cultures” (Reckwitz, 2020:47; original emphasis; translation PW).

To grasp repetitions in their time and space-spanning motions, temporality serves as a further structural feature of practice theory – even more so: as a central principle of its analysis. The social order can thus be conceived as a process in time, which is to be examined in the course of time as well as questioned in terms of its constant production of the social (Schäfer 2016a: 13). It becomes possible to explore the temporality of social practices as well as concrete temporal practices (Reckwitz 2016: 116f., 123). The former contain their own logics and describe the temporal sequence of practices to achieve a specific goal. Hence, social practices structure time. They have their own rhythms and conceptualise possible futures (ibid.:124). Time practices represent specialised and focused ways of organising time, which include both widespread and in-depth time practices (calendars, apps, clocks) as well as highly specialised techniques of forecasting that differ according to the field of expertise (finance, scientists). A third distinction concerns so-called discourses of time, which are defined as representational practices. They produce argumentations, narratives and visualities (discourses of the future, optimisation) (ibid.:126).

Materialities and artefacts2 are, in addition to the subject, considered as point of passages for practices. It is essential to understand bodies and artefacts as crucial categories since they stabilise repetitions and serve as starting points for the analysis. This way, deterministic views of technology and corresponding assumptions can be circumvented (Schäfer 2016b: 148). Artefacts are objects,

“whose meaningful use, whose practical application is part of a social practice or the social practice itself. In this meaningful use, actors treat objects with a corresponding understanding and know-how that is not itself determined by the artefacts. On the other hand, and at the same time, the facticity of an artefact does not permit arbitrary use and arbitrary understanding” (Reckwitz 2003: 291; original emphasis; translation PW)3

As part of practices and their repetitions, artefacts are central to praxeological decentring (Fig. 2). They are neither purely material nor purely cultural-symbolic (ibid.). This is ensured particularly by the analytically prolific connection and overlapping of, respectively, relational sensibilities for social, cultural, and material practicesSocial practices comprise variations of knowledge and are materially anchored in bodies and things through incorporated knowledge (ibid.). They are further structured by cultural codes and thereby shape behaviours and tacit knowledge of cultural orders of things (Reckwitz 2021: 188). Social practices are thus always cultural practices anchored in bodies and/or artefacts. Material practices unfold from the interplay of bodies and objects (Reckwitz 2003: 290f.). In so doing, practice theory – especially through decentring and relationality in comparison to other sociological approaches ­– succeeds in undermining techno-determinisms while meaningfully connecting bodies and things in the nexus of the material. 

To round off central practice theory assumptions, it is important to include the already mentioned relationalities to aspects of power and make them usable for praxeological research. Michel Foucault provides a rich approach, as he also conceptualises power and its dynamics focussing on practices. He also takes their historical development through and against powerful discourses into account. Qualitative changes in practices can be presented and analysed based on practices as technologies of the self. With these, it is possible to grasp how reflexivity is practically produced (Saar 2005: 281) – in other words: how subjects are simultaneously objectified and subjectified in their constitution. For Foucault, the notion of training or exercise is both a technique for disciplining and for producing aesthetic conditions of the self (Menke 2003: 284). As Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, disciplinary actions succeed in making “[a] shapeless dough, an unfit body [...] into the machine one needs” (Foucault 2019c: 173; translation PW). This is achieved by disciplinary power, which has the body as its central object. Through calculated force, it is possible to manipulate, train and shape bodies to make them utilisable, functional, and useful (ibid.: 173ff.). The special characteristics of this power technique is that it takes on a twofold productive form: on the one hand, it equips individuals, prepares and raises them towards specific goals, so that on the other hand they can be skimmed off more efficiently (ibid.:220). With the technologies of the self (Foucault 2017b: 289), productive effects of power can be described that allow the subject to shape practices and thus themselves, their thinking, acting, feeling, and their desires (ibid.:283). It is precisely the double of disciplining and producing or shaping subjects that is understood as objectification and subjectification, as doing subjects (Reckwitz 2020: 48). Disciplinary power aims to develop skills that are useful in supporting the subject’s conduct of life through constant exercise. This is achieved by training them along the norm in force and its evaluation. Aesthetic training, on the other hand, produces abilities that are conducive to the individual shaping of life. Its practices can be described as creative and do not aim at a final state4. Through repetition, they can be discovered, changed, adapted, manipulated, disrupted, or perfected again and again (Menke 2003: 288f.). They become effective in that subjectification both imposes and enables possibilities for action (Paulitz 2014: 4). Regarding these trainings, the dominant form of power is so-called governmentality5. Governmentality allows us to combine statistical techniques of power with technologies of the self. In doing so, aspects of self-government (Lemke 2020: 303) are combined with ways of instructing and guiding subjects more freely (Foucault 2005: 286). As a result, the subjects’ thinking, behaviour and feelings no longer must be enforced. Power rather operates by choreographing, channelling and indirectly guiding the actions and experiences of subjects (Prinz 2014: 149). These modes of steering are characterised in their entirety by an economic rationality that permeates all forms of behaviour (Lemke et al. 2019: 16). Disciplinary standardisation is based on statistics and datafication of the subjects and aligns them with norms that are in force (ibid.: 13). Governmental disciplining, however, is flexible and allows for regulated deviations (Foucault 2019b: 37). In context of an artefact-focussed analyses, Prinz states that governmental power enables a government of things (Prinz 2014: 151). In other words, a consistent control of things and people that are used to shape the reality of life (Foucault 2019a: 50ff.). Things, including various forms of media, are agents of governmentality and produce bodily practices, affective experiences, and certain perceptions (Prinz 2014: 151). Technologies of the self and the government of things thus play a central role in digital culture. They are the drivers of social practices and the starting point for participation on the internet. On the one hand, subjects follow rules, formats, and technical conditions, the ‘rules of the game’ of the artefact, and on the other hand, they transform their own subject status in practices and actions using things and media (ibid.: 4). 

The analysis of transformation processes of both practices and subjects when using smartphones demands a qualitative research design. The following chapter is dedicated to the methodological apporach of the study.


“What the hell is going on here?” (Geertz cited in Lüders 2019: 301) is the fundamental question of all research, which focuses on the question of the practical production of reality as well as the means of constructing social occurrences and orders (ibid.: 390). Practices, therefore, are recorded in detail in their materiality and motivations for action, knowledge, and affectivities are made describable. For this purpose, the research process is designed according to grounded theory and narrative-problem-centred interviews are conducted. The interviews are accompanied by a smartphone use diary kept by the author6. Using transitive methodology, the insights gained are made accessible for a praxeological analysis of the smartphone.

Interviews alone are insufficient to analyse transformations of both practices and subjects when using smartphones in a meaningful way since the materiality of practices is not verbalised. However, it must be the task of sociological research to make aspects of the social that cannot be verbalised accessible (Hirschauer 2001: 446). This is achieved by co-articulation: different data types and formats are brought into dialogue to minimise the silence of the social in pure descriptions. In doing so, the gap between what can be said and social silence is narrowed down (ibid.: 448). Studies of digital contexts in particular must resort to a co-articulative approach in order to analyse “the never-really-random clicks and searches of everyone's everyday life” (Kozinets 2015: 7). For “[t]o be human today is to make approximately one hundred and seventeen discrete choices on our devices every day – more or less” (ibid.). In context of qualitative analyses of online cultures, Kozinets argues for the combination of interviews and internet diaries (ibid.: 59-62). Although interviews are particularly suitable for researching the meanings subjects ascribe to their actions and their environment, they are not sufficient to capture the complexities of artefact use (Boellstorff et al. 2012: 92f.). Only by connecting interviews with insights from the use diary is it possible to capture and analyse material practices. Furthermore, the connection of interviews and use diary circumvents challenges of purely auto-ethnographic research. The co-articulated combination ensures an immersive participation of the researcher in the field (Boll 2019: 31), but without allowing reflexivity to become merely an end to itself (Ploder and Stadlbauer 2013: 381). Co-articulation guarantees that the use diary and its entries are far more than narcissistic reflexivity. They explicitly contribute to “refine and reinforce the means of understanding” (Bourdieu 1993: 366; translation PW). In addition, it thus succeeds in fulfilling the aspiration to record and analyse the handling of artefacts (practices of use) in situ (Marres 2019: 55). Writing about oneself also follows a tradition in which writing becomes a mode of self-problematisation and self-examination (Balke 2020: 333). Diary entries are

“»practical« texts that are themselves the object of ‘practices’ insofar as they were written to be read, learned, thought through, used, tested, and insofar as they were ultimately intended to form the armoury of everyday behaviour. These texts were intended as operators that would allow individuals to question themselves about their own behaviour, to watch over it, to shape it, and to shape themselves as ethical subjects; they have an »etho-poetic function«” (Foucault 2017a: 20f.; original emphasis; translation PW).

The findings from the interviews and the use diary pass through an analysis model (Fig. 3) that results from the synthesis of central praxeological assumptions as well as the transitive methodology. It unfolds in a movement from the inside to the outside. It is ideal-typical structured as follows:

Figure 3: Model of analysis. Own illustration.

Transitive methodology addresses the heterogeneity of relationalities. “Not a singular object, not an isolated action, but a bundle of relations connecting different times, places and entities needs to be taken into account” (Schäfer 2016c). The methodology follows five principles: The principle of relationality describes that agency is not to be located in the goals and intentions of subjects, but in the networks of relations in which the subject is integrated. Recalling ANT, according to the principle of heterogeneity, all elements of the network of relations have specific characteristics and construct the entirety of the social. Using the principle of gradual differences, it is possible to analyse nuances and differences in practices and to contextualise them within the principle of time-space constellations. Referring to the elaborated understanding of temporalities, the latter principle allows to include a historical perspective in the analysis as well as to bring forth an understanding of transformations of practice complexes throughout time and space. The principle of shifts is used here to describe central qualitative changes of practices in the relational network of all entities of the social. This enables us to grasp their significance for the transformation of the social order in a detailed and consistently relational way. (Schäfer 2017: 42f.). In its application, the transitive methodology is able to understand practices as space-time repetitions that are analysed in their specific contexts of knowledge, bodies and artefacts (ibid.:44). Furthermore, it becomes possible to contextualise material practices from their nexus of body and thing in their social and cultural properties as well as occurrences, to take into account assumptions of iterability as well as to apply transitive principles.

In the following, this is illustrated by the transformation of the profile and the emergence of instant gratification as a fundamental attitude of contemporary subjects.

Analysis: Subject Transformation by Swipe?7

The contemporary profile ­– frequently used by almost everybody e.g., on social media, when entering our bank account or checking emails on the tube ­­­­– is a central node as well as an instrument that needs to be permanently maintained and improved for the subject to prevail and succeed both in the realms of professional and private life. (Bernard 2017: 200-203). As a socially and individually accepted form of representation of subjects and their characteristics, profiles – following the principle of time-space constellations – go back to practices in psychiatry, criminology, and psychology. Whereas the profile was, by the beginning of the 20th century at the latest, an instrument for the external recording of deviations, today the use of the profile is completely integrated into ludic, communicative, amorous, and economic practices and processes. It represents their central interface. This qualitative shift renders the online profile no longer a static means, but rather a communication tool as part of a productive representation of the self (ibid.: 9ff.). It is characterised by the simultaneity of the greatest possible individuality and connectivity (ibid.: 29). Its purpose is to form an interpretative flexibility, a reflexive self, in order to deal productively with indeterminacies as well as to respond to ever new signs and formations. In the digital culture of the present, it is the common form of representation (ibid.: 41). At the same time, the profile is a central node for gathering quantifiable aspects of self-evaluation and external assessment.

Taking these characteristics into account, the profile serves as a central interface between subjects and corporate infrastructures on a material level. This becomes evident when B1 states that

“a ‘like’ via push notifications always happens in the moment. I am pulled into this cosmos and these logics at every moment in my life. This exactly makes me always expect to get feedback on everything instantly” (B1; translation PW)8.

Likes and push notifications (Fig. 4)9 “are meant to guide us gently but firmly; supported by flashes, beeps or vibrations, we see what others think of us, our statements and emotions as well as how others behave” (Breljak 2019: 43, translation PW).

Figure 4: Overview of all push notifications on one morning taken from the diary.

By means of constant repetition, they enforce a corporal and behavioural disciplining. Thus, the checking of activating push notifications becomes both a disciplinary habit and a material practice.

“Reaching for the smartphone in my pocket, turning the smartphone in one hand, activating the screen by pressing the lock button on the right edge of the phone, the quick glance at the screen and putting the phone back in my pocket. It has become a choreographed habit” (use diary, translation PW).  

The push notification further is a reaction to received likes on the curated identity performance of the self, which enables and promotes an individual-aesthetic arrangement of life in distinction to other subjects. By making profiles both available and accessible it becomes possible to link self-expression – taste, locations, etc. – back to the profile by using by-product data (Marres 2019: 52)10. The profile then further advances as the central node of linking subjects back to entrepreneurial strategies, to align subjects with them, and to train needed rationalities on the daily – all of which is achieved by relations of instructive self-government, disciplinary force, and economic extraction. By making rating practices and their quantification of taste publicly visible ­– for example, by showing the number of likes under videos or photos as well as the number of views of stories (fig. 5, red frame) – it becomes possible to spread entrepreneurial rationalities in form of management regimes and feedback processes further throughout processes in which subjects are constituted (Bröckling 2019: 131ff.): 

Figure 5: Visualisation of quantification taken from the diary.

All areas and contexts of the subject's life are consequently tied to business efficiency criteria. Additionally, feedback behaviour is oriented toward constant and conditioned gratifications in form of recognition (ibid.: 153f.). By quantifying feedback and making it visible, a visible comparability and thus a benchmark for surpassing performances is introduced. Thereby, the ambition of subjects is stimulated, and it becomes evident which previous ‘best performances’, whether their own or those of others, must be exceeded (ibid.: 148f.). “Because you are always seen by everyone, you have to present yourself favourably; the consequences: impression management, aestheticization, identity work” (Neuberger quoted after Bröckling 2003: 85; translation PW). Self-representation, compulsion to interact and feedback turn into the central post-disciplinary control respectively governmental steering mechanisms. Starting with push messages, the smartphone advances as the medium of availability that guides these processes. The push mechanism itself continues to serve as training in simultaneity, constant availability and flexibilisation of the subject. It succeeds in directing subjects to constantly produce data as well as in transferring entrepreneurial rationalities to all areas of subjects' lives. By means of push notifications, a playful feedback of interaction compulsions, the compulsion to perform and recognition practices takes place, which evoke an attitude of instant gratification: By practising feedback processes, the subject learns to receive instant and permanent appreciative feedback on their behaviour, their taste, et cetera – and even more so, due to these processes they increasingly expect it in all areas of life (quote B1). An analysis of the significance of an instant gratification attitude is crucial.

Praxeological zooming (Alkemeyer and Buschmann 2016: 125; Hirschauer 2016: 47) enables us to take a closer look at structural social phenomena: Based on his theory of acceleration for example, Hartmut Rosa points out that the functioning and acceptance of democracies depend to a great extent on recognising collective interests in good time, articulating them and transforming them into draft legislation. These are then brought to the processes of decision-making as well as legislation and implemented by the executive. For this to succeed, it is essential that these processes are compatible with the time structures, the rhythms and demands of social developments and their processes. If time-intensive democracies now drift away from the time-specific expectations of subjects, citizens will become increasingly dissatisfied with democracies, as they no longer see their demands fulfilled (Rosa 2016: 392-396).

A permanent training of instant gratification by using smartphones massively intensifies this process. The impression is created that democracy is no longer efficient because it cannot satisfy the needs of the subjects by providing instant feedbacks. The ubiquitous training of instant gratification thus poses the justified danger, 

“that the political project of modernity might prove ultimately incompatible with the social conditions [...] of ubiquitous simultaneity and a situational form of identity” (ibid.: 396; original emphasis; translation PW).

Findings & Summary

This article explores the extent to which the permanent use of smartphones transforms practices and modes of subjectification (fig. 6, overview of all transformations11).

Figure 6: Overview of all analytical findings. Own illustration.

It is shown that by means of constant repetition of valuation practices as well as its feedback into the activating, material push mechanism, subjects are trained in an attitude of instant gratification – the expectation of constantly and instantaneously receiving appreciative feedback regarding their behaviour and expressions of taste. This attitude is ideal for constantly linking subjects to managerial feedback processes, for permanently forcing entrepreneurial action (Bröckling 2019: 131, 135) as well as for playfully triggering, creating, and establishing a constant compulsion to perform. In terms of governmental steering, central processes are guided in this way: Management regimes of an entrepreneurial self are purposefully transferred and extended not only to employees, but to all subjects and domains of life (Bröckling 2003: 80). At the same time, subjects are consistently bound to the revenue of data skimming processes while their generated data are instantaneously re-utilised. 

The smartphone and the apps installed on it are “the new control centres of subjectivity” (Preciado 2020: 66). As a governmental agent, the smartphone serves as a medium for making subjects available, manifesting a sense of self-expression, as well as disciplining subjects. As such, it transforms central practice complexes and modes of subjectification. Modus operandi of subjectification in the present is creativity (Reckwitz 2016: 250f., 2020: 443-456), which guides the formation of a thoroughly entrepreneurial profile-self. However, the compulsion to be creative (Reckwitz 2013: 23) is subordinated to the compulsion to interact (Schulz 2019: 141) as much as it is under managerial rationalities.

At present, the impact of instantaneous modes of subjectification on temporal challenges of democracies raised by Rosa is undergoing further research, based on the findings presented in this article.


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