The Advent of Practice Theories in Research on
Sustainable Consumption: Past, Current and
Future Directions of the Field
Filippo Corsini 1, *, Rafael Laurenti 2, Franziska Meinherz 3, Francesco Paolo Appio 4
and Luca Mora 5
1Istituto di Management, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, 56127 Pisa, Italy
2ITM School of Industrial Engineering and Management, KTH Royal Institute of Technology,
SE-100 44 Stockholm, Sweden; email@example.com
3Laboratory for Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de
Lausanne EPFL, Station 2, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland; franziska.meinherz@epﬂ.ch
4Research Center, Léonard de Vinci Pôle Universitaire, 92916 Paris La Défense, France;
5The Business School, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh EH14 1DJ, UK; firstname.lastname@example.org
Received: 7 December 2018; Accepted: 7 January 2019; Published: 11 January 2019
The application of practice theories in the domain of sustainability research in consumer
studies is increasingly advocated based on the premise that this allows to analyse consumption
as a social phenomenon. Consequently, the applications of social practice theories to this ﬁeld are
expanding geometrically and to date, little retrospective work on this evolution has been made.
We conduct a bibliometric analysis of applications of practice theories in the domain of sustainability
research in consumer studies. Our results show a temporal succession of research trends: ‘consumer
identity’ dominated the ﬁeld between 2009 and 2012, ‘business and governance’ between 2012 and
2014, ‘sustainable consumption and production’ between 2013 and 2014, ‘urban living and policy’
between 2014 and 2015 and ‘household energy’ from 2015 until the present. We see a high potential
of future applications of practice theories in the ﬁelds of the sharing and circular economy, as well
as in research on smart cities. We provide new insights into the evolution and future trends of
applications of social practice theory to domains that are relevant for research on sustainability and
sustainability; sustainable consumption; bibliometric analysis; practice theory; circular
economy; sharing economy; smart city
Several actors in society have acknowledged that we are facing a global sustainability crisis
that is likely to have major negative impacts on the natural, social and economic foundations of
society. The global demand for ecosystem services is beyond what the planet can provide, and human
activities in various domains are on the verge of profoundly altering the underlying earth systems [
These sustainability challenges emphasise the urgent need to better understand consumption patterns
as a means to shape the societal sustainability transition [5–7].
Consumer studies thus increasingly address unsustainable consumption patterns. Amongst the
many approaches that ﬁnd application in the study of consumption, social practice theory seems to play
an increasingly important role and has inspired recently published research [
]. The application
of practice theories to the ﬁeld of consumption has notably been advocated as a means to analyse
Sustainability 2019,11, 341; doi:10.3390/su11020341 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 2 of 19
consumption as a social phenomenon [
]. Unlike methodologies inspired by social psychology,
such as the theory of planned behaviour (TPB), which look at consumer behaviour as individual
decisions in a set context, approaches drawing on practice theories look at how elements such as norms,
values or material constraints coevolve with consumption practices. Practice theories have proven
useful to study the often observed path dependence and stickiness of consumption practices [16–19].
Originally, practice theories have had a very conceptual focus and were aimed at overcoming the
structure–agency dichotomy [
]. They thus need to be operationalised for empirical work [
However, there is little knowledge on whether such efforts of operationalising practice theories have
also been made for domains others than consumer studies, but where lifestyles, behaviour or practices
also play an important role. Indeed, the question of the domains in which practice theories have found
empirical application remains, to date, unanswered. Such knowledge would, however, allow the
identiﬁcation of potential grounds for synergies and cross-fertilisations across different streams of
research. Given the complexity of sustainability issues and their interdisciplinary character, exploring
these grounds seems essential.
Furthermore, there is currently no understanding as to how the ﬁeld of practice theory
inspired approaches to consumer studies is evolving. So far, practice theories have found
application in numerous areas of consumer studies, such as mobility, hygiene, nutrition and energy
However how far are these different applications draw on each
other or develop relatively independently of each other and whether there are transversal topics or
authors that connect all these different domains are still open questions.
With this article, we aim to bring some light into these questions. This should allow us to provide
not only insights on core research trends and the key publications in the different domains in which
practice theories have found application, but also to identify future directions that applications of
practice theories to consumer studies in the domain of sustainability research can take—based on the
insights already gained through research that has already been conducted and based on the emerging
ﬁelds in sustainability research.
To do so, we use a bibliometric mapping approach to analyse where theories of practice have
found application in research dealing with sustainability issues in consumer studies, whether and
how the focus of applications of practice theories to the domain of sustainable consumption has
evolved over time, the degree to which such applications of theories of practice are fragmented and
whether there are potential yet unexplored synergies across different ﬁelds of application. The resulting
overview of applications and operationalisations also provide a guideline for future work that draws
on theories of practice for its analysis.
This paper is structured as follows. In Section 2, we present practice theories and how they are
increasingly used as a counterpoint to theories inspired by social psychology. In Section 3, we present
the method by which we selected the papers for the bibliometric analysis, as well as how we conducted
this analysis. In Section 4, we present the results of our analysis, which we illustrate by means of
bibliometric maps. In Section 5, we discuss the implications of our ﬁndings regarding the evolution and
possible future developments of applications of practice theories to the ﬁeld of sustainability research
in consumer studies. In Section 6, we brieﬂy conclude and present the limitations of our research.
2. Theoretical Background: Practice Theories and Their Development
2.1. Practice Theories: Their Origin and Intellectual Legacy
Practice theories can be traced back to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, and more prominently
the interpretations of his work by Schatzki, as well as to sociologists Bourdieu and Giddens.
They are the result of the endeavour to overcome the structure–agency dualism, which for a long
time characterised and divided social theory. With this, practice theories marked a departure
from individualist, structuralist and poststructuralist approaches, as well as from the opposition
between constructivism and essentialism [
]. Practice theory overcomes this traditional duality of
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 3 of 19
individualism and structuralism in that it neither conceives of the social by placing the individual
and her agency at the centre, nor by superposing social structure onto individual agency. The human
is neither seen as an isolated, independent actor, nor as a passive entity subjugated to social forces
that she cannot comprehend. In practice theories, the human is active and reﬂexive, but it must not
be looked at as the centre object of social theory. Indeed, practice theory conceives of the social as
being built of practices. This makes the social a continuously changing composition of interconnected
human activities, and of what these activities embody [26,27].
Practice theoretic approaches inspired theoretical reflections in domains as diverse as social
theory, cultural theory, discourse theory and theory of science. They significantly contributed to the
contemporary understanding of social life and human activity, subjectivity, human rationality and
meaning. Corresponding to this multitude of fields that have integrated practice theories in their
reflections, and the wealth of concepts they have been applied to, it is no surprise that already at an
early stage, there was no unified practice theoretic approach [
]. Practice theories should therefore be
considered more of an analytical turn, rather than an agreed upon theory [
]. What all these different
reflections have in common is that practices embody the tacit understandings that motivate human
activities, the practical understanding that enables human activities, and the meanings that are attached
to these activities. Correspondingly, it is through practices that meanings and understandings are enacted
and have an existence in the world. It is through practices that social order manifests itself. This motivates
the assertion of practice theorists that the social has to be understood as a nexus of practices [21,26,28].
However, authors differ in how they conceive of practices, and of the interrelations between
practices. In Bourdieu’s perspective, practices are actions that are largely shared amongst individuals,
and which go largely unquestioned. They contain the tacit and collectively shared experience of what
is possible in a given context, and thus constitute a form of shared contextual rationality, which in
turn motivates the individual actions of which practices consist. Practices are thus the result of the
internalisation of the conditions of a given context, and are shared amongst the people who share these
experiences. For Bourdieu, these internalised experiences depend on people’s position in the social
structure—meaning on how people are embedded in power relations. These structures or relations
and a person’s position in them are thought to be shaped by the volume, structure, distribution and
evolution of economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital. People who occupy similar positions in the
social structure thus likely share the same internalised experiences [
], and it is these experiences
that shape practices. At the same time, it is through practices that these social structures are enacted
and order the social world .
In Giddens’ view, practices are constituted by practical knowledge, which is tacit and implicit,
and by discursive knowledge, of which people are aware [
]. Giddens emphasises the importance
of routines in the structure of everyday social activity, and in the continuous enactment of social
]. Just like Bourdieu, Giddens therefore also emphasises how structure is simultaneously
created through its enactment in practices, and at the same time constitutes these practices.
Giddens looks at social systems as structured insofar as the relationships of which they consist
are stabilised across time. He conceives of social structure as being constituted of rules and resources
which are mobilised in the reproduction of the structure. Resources can be both of an authoritative
nature, resulting from the coordination of human activity, and of an allocative nature, given by control
over the material world [
]. Routinised practices simultaneously hold this system of rules and
resources together, and are the means through which it is transformed. Practices, situated in this
structure, are concerted and thus reproduce the structure .
2.2. The Revival of Practice Theories in Consumer Studies
Practice theories have recently been operationalised for empirical ﬁeld work related to consumer
studies in an attempt to overcome the lacunae found in the theoretical approaches which have
dominated the ﬁeld. In consumer studies, just like in other ﬁelds of research looking at behaviour,
the most commonly used approaches to conceptualise human agency and decision-making build,
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in one form or the other, on theories that focus on individual behaviour and personal responsibility.
Such individualistic approaches see individuals’ actions as goal-oriented, with people being perfectly
autonomous and free to set their goals and choose the means to pursue them. Translated into policy
measures, such approaches focus on individual agency and choice [
]. As Shove [
] notes, this
analytical frame prevails not only in policy documents, but also in academic research on behaviour.
One of the most commonly used approaches in the domain of individualistic approaches is the
rational choice theory. Rational choice theory assumes perfectly rational individuals, who strive to
maximise their individual wellbeing, and do so based on personal cost–beneﬁt calculations. Rational
choice theory has however been criticised for not accounting for social dynamics, given that its key
assumption is ceteris paribus [
]. Furthermore, rational choice theory has proven weak to hold
up to empirical evidence, and consequently, a number of alternatives, although still individualistic,
approaches have developed .
The theory of bounded rationality is one of these alternative individualistic approaches. It starts
out from the observation that in the context of complex decisions, there are oftentimes too many factors
to take into consideration, and too high degrees of uncertainty, for a human to be able to process
rationally. Drawing heavily on experimental research on people’s decision-making patterns, the
theory of bounded rationality explores the simplifying heuristics which people apply in situations of
information overﬂow, uncertainty and urgency. Research inspired by the theory of bounded rationality
currently inspires most environmental policies, which consequently focus on changing the cost–beneﬁt
structure of environmental problems, or on improving the availability and quality of information [
However, approaches inspired by the theory of bounded rationality have been criticised
for not considering the complexity that arises due to conﬂicting motivations and values that
individuals uphold. Approaches inspired by social psychology have been proposed as an alternative.
They explicitly include individual value systems, the complexity inherent to conﬂicting goals and
motivations, and perceived and actual loci of action in the analysis of individuals’ decision-making
]. The theory of planned behaviour, developed by Ajzen [
], stands out as one
example. In this view, for an individual to act pro-environmentally, it is necessary that she can
consolidate her individual motivations with the prevailing social norms, that she is aware of the need
for action, that she perceives her actions as impactful, and that she can act in her desired way given
the circumstances [
]. The theory of planned behaviour does however not provide any insights on
how individuals’ motivations, perceived or actual loci of action, and social norms are formed [
Indeed, just like other individualistic approaches, the theory of planned behaviour does not allow for
studying changes in the rules of the game, so to speak [10,23,25].
Theories of practice have been advocated as a response to these lacunae. They mark a departure
from individualistic approaches. By assuming the context in which practices are enacted and the
practice as mutually constitutive and constituting, practice theories focus on the mutual reproduction
of the practice and its context of enactment. Practice theories therefore provide insights into the
dynamics of social norms, motivations and perceptions, and how they are formed and transformed
through their continued enactment [10,15].
However, this originally purely conceptual focus of theories of practice means that to be applied
to the analysis of a speciﬁc case study, theories of practices need to be operationalised for empirical
]. Furthermore, the very general nature of theories of practice implies that they could be
applied to a number of ﬁelds, with sustainability research being but one of them. To our knowledge,
there is however no work that provides an overview of the ﬁelds of application of theories of practice,
and that looks at how they have been operationalised in these different ﬁelds, and in how far its
operationalisations in different ﬁelds are coherent. Gram-Hanssen [
] provides an overview over four
different operationalisations of practices; her analysis is, however, conﬁned to two conceptual works,
and two papers which apply theories of practice to sustainability.
The aim of this paper is to overcome this gap, and to complement the existing theoretical and
conceptual work on theories of practice with an overview of their application to different research
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 5 of 19
ﬁelds and foci. It is analysed in which ﬁelds of research theories of practice ﬁnd application, and how
the theoretical notions are translated into operationalised concepts in these different ﬁelds. With this,
the paper aims to explore to which degree applications of theories of practice are fragmented, and
whether there are potential yet unexplored synergies across different ﬁelds of application. The resulting
overview of applications and operationalisations should also provide a guideline for future work
that draws on theories of practice for its analysis. For this purpose, the following research questions
To which ﬁelds of research have theories of practice been applied, and how have they been
operationalised in these different ﬁelds? And is sustainability one of a main focus of social
2. Are there interlinkages between how theories of practice are operationalised in different ﬁelds?
3. How has the application of theories of practice evolved over time?
In particular, the paper aims at helping scholars and practitioners in understanding the main
areas of interest and the knowledge produced by social practice theory research.
The methodological approach we used in order to answer to the before mentioned research
questions is represented by a bibliometric mapping technique.
A bibliometric mapping technique considers scientiﬁc literature in order to build maps that are
able to visualise the relationships among diverse items of interest [
] and can be quite useful for
supporting a systematic literature review. This approach has been applied in several ﬁelds to explore
static and dynamic structures of the academic research. Bibliometric mapping techniques deliver a
visual delineation of the state of the art in a ﬁeld of research, but can also be used to provide orientation
for scientists in developing their area of interest on a certain topic, potentially representing inspiration
for future theoretical and practical approaches to expand a certain ﬁeld of the literature [37–41].
3.1. Data Collection
To carefully select the publications to include in our analysis we used a straight forward multistep
procedure. The ﬁrst step concerned the identiﬁcation of a robust academic citation indexing service.
Scopus, which is widely acknowledged as solid and appropriate [
], was adopted for the identiﬁcation
of the dataset of literature.
As many authors underline [
], practice theory was recently reintroduced in consumer studies
inspired by earlier work of Schatzki [
], further developed based on his later work [
] and discussed
and expanded by Reckwitz [
] and Warde [
]. We used these four references for conducting the
research of the academic literature limiting the dataset to papers matching at least two of the four
references we identiﬁed as fundamental for the examination of practice theory in consumer studies.
By doing so, we aimed at excluding those research papers that are too generic for our aims (i.e., not
exactly dealing with practice theory in consumer studies). This decision excluded, for example, a paper
like the one written by McFarlane and Silver [
] dealing with the dialectics of everyday urbanism and
that is thus only marginally related to our research aims.
Then, we decided to exclude the grey literature on the topic (i.e., report, working paper, etc.)
relying only on manuscripts accepted in peer review journals and papers presented and discussed
in conferences. By doing so, as suggested by Light and Pillemer [
], we improved consistently the
quality of the analysis.
In order to ground our analysis on consistent data we ﬁnally performed a systematic review of
the titles of the papers to remove those too generic. This ﬁnal check allowed conﬁrming the goodness
of the selection procedure.
This procedure found a total of 1519 articles in peer-reviewed journals matching the
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 6 of 19
3.2. Term Maps of the Research Domain
After having prepared the dataset of scientiﬁc publications we performed the bibliometric map
analysis in order to generate a visual representation of noun phrases occurring multiple times in titles
and abstracts. The VOS algorithm mapping technique implemented in the software VOSviewer [
was then used to produce the term maps. Once we produced and analysed the ﬁrst map we reﬁned it
by using a thesaurus ﬁle to iteratively exclude terms that are too generic such as “methods”, “aims”,
“results ”, “conclusions”, etc. The map generation process requires VOSviewer to (1) identify the
noun phrases by performing part-of-speech tagging through the use of the Apache OpenNLP toolkit
], (2) assess the Kullback–Leibler distance [
] and select the most
relevant noun phases, (3) map and cluster the terms by using the uniﬁed framework [
] and (4)
visualise the results of the mapping and clustering exercise.
The resulting maps illustrate the relations between relevant terms. In particular, the map makes it
possible to capture the following features.
1. Clusters: words belonging to the same cluster are depicted in the same colour.
Dimension of the words: words in larger fonts are those occurring most frequently across the
sample of publications, while those in smaller fonts are those occurring less frequently.
Distances: between words: the higher is the distance between two terms and the smallest is their
co-occurrence, while the smaller is the distance between two terms the higher their co-occurrence.
Linkages: connections between words show the bonds between words mostly occurring together
in the database of scientiﬁc publication.
3.3. Co-Citation Analysis of the Research Domain
In order to obtain a deeper understanding of how interlinkages between theories of practice are
operationalised in different knowledge ﬁelds, a document co-citation analysis is conducted. Co-citation
analysis is an effective method for discovering the intellectual structure of research domains and
its deployment makes it possible to measure similarities between documents by means of citation
]. Co-citation was ﬁrstly deﬁned by Small [
] as the “frequency with which two
documents are cited together by other documents”. A co-citation exists when two references appear
together in the same publication and the more co-citations two documents have, the higher the degree
of similarity between them [54,55].
The data collected were elaborated with BibExcel [
]. BibExcel assist in the analysis of
bibliographic data by generating ad hoc ﬁles which can be uploaded onto any software program
that takes tabbed data records for further processing. Then, we decided to use the VOS algorithm
mapping technique implemented in the software VOSviewer to produce the maps [
algorithm aims at locating the items in a low-dimensional space so that the distance between two
items is an accurate indicator of their relatedness. Take two items iand j, the input for VOS is a
non-negative similarity s
(treated on a ratio scale). These similarities s
are calculated using the
following equation [57,58].
VOSviewer determines the position of the items in the map by minimising the weighted sum of
the squared distances between all pairs of items:
V(x1, ..., xn) = ∑
where the squared distance between item pairs is weighted by their similarity, a constraint is imposed
in order to avoid the trivial solutions in which all items have the same location:
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 7 of 19
The resulting co-citation map illustrates the relations between the relevant literature cited in this
ﬁeld. In more detail, the map captures the following features.
1. Clusters: authors belonging to the same cluster are depicted in the same colour.
Dimension of the references: references in larger fonts are those occurring most frequently across
the identiﬁed publications, while those in smaller fonts are those occurring less frequently.
Linkages: connections between references show the bonds between references co-occurring
together in the database of scientiﬁc publication; the size of the linkage is larger when the number
of co-citations is large while is smaller when the number of co-citations is small.
3.4. Overlay Representation of Journals in a Global Map of Science
In addition, in order to further explore the interrelation in the ﬁeld of research, we used the
Leydesdorff et al. [
] overlay framework. Such framework allows plotting the journals containing the
1519 academic papers on a global map of science based on 20,554 academic journals. In more detail,
such process allows to counts the number of occurrences of each journal title in the dataset composed
by the 1519 academic papers matching the journal titles with the positional information of the base
map . The resulting journals map is as follows.
The journal names under investigation are highlighted with colour in the map; on the contrary
all other nodes are depicted in grey.
2. The size of each journal as a node is depicted proportionally to the number of occurrences.
Finally, we used also the Rao–Stirling diversity index as a measure of interdisciplinarity in the
sets under investigation [60–62].
4.1. Static Analysis
The visual representation based on the overall set of 1519 academic publications (Figure 1) presents
the connections between different research areas.
Figure 1. Term map of the research ﬁeld.
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The term analysis identiﬁed seven clusters, represented by colours in Figure 1. The pink colour
cluster group keywords relate to the use of social practice theory in the energy ﬁeld. Most of those
studies deal with household practices. An example of a study conducted in this ﬁeld is represented by
the work by Shove & Walker [
]. The authors contrapose the common understanding of energy as a
resource base, of which the management and organisation depends on various interconnected systems
(i.e., economic, political and technological) to a different perspective viewing energy supply and energy
demand as part of the continuous reproduction of bundles and complexes of social practice.
The yellow colour cluster groups keywords related to sustainable behavioural change in general
terms and policy interventions needed to fully address the transition to more sustainable lifestyles.
An example of published research in this ﬁeld is represented by the work of Hargreaves [
]. Making use
of social practice theory, the author provides insights into pro-environmental behaviour adoption
using an ethnographic case study of a behaviour change initiative. The article enlightens the barriers
encountered in attempts changing practices and underlining issues to be addressed to overcome
The green colour cluster groups consumer and consumption studies using a social practice theory
approach; it is worth noting that one of the aspects related to consumption is connected with food.
In this case, one representative example is the work conducted by Delormier et al. [
]. The authors
illustrate a framework for the analysis of eating patterns as a social phenomenon trying to understand
how food choice practices are routinised by families, showing how family rules and resources act as a
driver or a limit condition under which family members develop food choices.
The light blue cluster groups keywords of studies in the ﬁeld of education and learning. In this
case, one representative example is the work conducted by Keller & Ruus [
]. In their research the
authors examine the co-shopping practices of children and parents in supermarkets providing several
implications for consumer education.
Finally, the blue cluster groups keywords related to pure business aspects (e.g., accounting,
value creation and marketing). A relevant study in this area is represented by the work of
Echeverri & Skålén
]. In this case, the authors using a practice–theory perspective analyse the
interactive value formation at the provider-customer interface. In particular, with their analysis the
] characterise four types of interactive value formation cases corresponding with four
subject positions which practitioners’ step into when engaging in interactive value formation.
The red cluster groups several keywords that are widely used in different research areas and
which are consequently difﬁcult to categorise properly.
As for more a general overview, two patterns seem evident. First, a signiﬁcant share of research
has focused on change, interactions between practices, agency and strategy and on the domains of
household practices, food and energy, relating to consumers and policies. Second, many applications
of SPT tackle sustainability related issues. Some of the sustainability issues have been close and related
to education research as well as food consumption.
4.2. Dynamic Analysis
Figure 2shows how the application of SPT in research domains has varied over time. The ﬁrst
applications appear to be in domains related to pure business-related aspects, in blue colour, in 2012.
More in detail, social practice theory research in this period contributes mainly to the discussion on the
relationship between identity and consumption [
] and the dynamics and transitions of practices
in everyday life [
]. Then, in 2013, SPT was stated to be applied to innovation issues, marketing
research and business strategy. There are several studies dealing with strategic and innovation
management theories and applications [
] and applied marketing research [
studies related to change, behaviour, consumer and sustainability seem to be predominant topics
around the years 2013 and 2014. The application of SPT to policy, food and travel use dominated the
years 2015 and 2016. The energy related ﬁeld of research seems actually the hot spot of current research
related to SPT.
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Figure 2. Temporal term map of the research ﬁeld.
4.3. Co-Citation Analysis
To analyse the application of SPT to consumer studies in more detail, we also produced a
co-citation map grouping the 50 most cited academic publications in the ﬁeld of analysis (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Co-citation map of the research ﬁeld.
In this case there are four main clusters of interest. The green cluster, which represents one of the
biggest in the ﬁgure, groups several studies related to sustainable consumption patterns and energy
related issues. The work conducted by Shove & Walker [
] and Røpke [
] are clear examples of
the kind of researches related to sustainable consumption and energy related issues. The red cluster
groups general literature on practice theory. It is worth noting that three out of four references used for
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 10 of 19
conducting the research of the academic literature [
] belong to this cluster. The blue cluster
groups the third largest area of research. Literature listed in this cluster deals also with general aspects
on practice theory but more on a theoretical and methodological perspective in comparison to the
previous one. For instance, Halkier [
], grounding his argumentation on practice theory, contributes
to the discussions about generalising, by way of exemplifying some of the methodological practicalities
in analytical generalisation.
The yellow cluster, which is the smallest one in comparison to the others, groups just ﬁve studies
dealing mostly with consumer and marketing research issues [
]. This cluster is located in a complete
opposite position with respect to the green one and very few linkages are depicted between the
4.4. Overlay Representation
Moreover, in order to further explore the interrelation in this ﬁeld of research we produced a map
showing the journals containing the 1519 academic papers plotted on a global map of science (Figure 4).
As presented in the map, most of academic researches related to social practice theory were made in
journals dealing with psychology and social science, economic and management and environmental
sciences. Only a smaller number of publications were made in journals related to human health-related
journals. The scarce interdisciplinarity of the area of research is also conﬁrmed by the Rao–Stirling
diversity index [60–62] of 0.11.
Figure 4. Overlay representation of journals.
From a theoretical perspective, it is evident from the term map how practice theoretic approaches
in consumer studies have bridged to other theoretical frameworks. There are, indeed, several references
to technology and innovation (respectively on the central and lower part of the maps). This shows how
some scholars link practice theories to different aspects of sociotechnological transitions [
study how interconnected practices play into sociotechnological change [
]. In this domain, links
have also been created between theories of practice and transition theories, which study transitions
in sociotechnological systems [
]. Other authors also focus on technology, but emphasise the
agentive aspects of technology in the reproduction of practices, and on how technologies are embedded
in practices [
]. However, still under this theoretical perspective, surprisingly both in the
term maps (Figures 1and 2) and in the co-citation map (Figure 3) only very few links could be found
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 11 of 19
to the theory of reasoned action [
] or the theory of planned behaviour [
] that are often used as
framework to analyse sustainable behaviours related to consumption.
Several other considerations can be taken into account when analysing past and current research
trends; indeed, building on the static analysis that identiﬁed ﬁve main streams of research topics
(Figure 1), the dynamic analysis on the evolution of the ﬁelds in which SPT found application
(Figure 2) and the co-citation analysis which allowed us to identify inﬂuential publications in each
ﬁeld (Figure 3), a framework of potential near-future directions in the application of social practice
theories in sustainability research is proposed and shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Framework linking past and current to future application areas of social practice theories.
As mentioned in the results section, sustainability emerged as a predominant topic around the
years 2013 and 2014. In this time period, social practice theory research was used mainly to study
what plays into the emergence of sustainable consumption and production practices or what keeps
unsustainable modes of consumption and production in place [
]; as well as to shed light on
how practices are intertwined in different contexts of consumption [15,87–89].
With time, applications of social practice theory to consumer studies increasingly focused on
analysing the potential for achieving a shift to more sustainable practices in the context of urban living
and policy development (2014–2015). Such applications include work on sustainable eating [
community, infrastructure, technology [
] and how practices play into the interface between
consumption and sustainable policy [99–107].
Finally, the application of social practice theory from 2015 to date has been largely in the context
of household energy use and demand; more speciﬁcally related to electricity consumption and
usage [108–119] and thermal comfort [120–129].
Based on these insights, we identify some ﬁelds in which social practice theory could be applied
in future research.
Circular economy and sharing economy are fertile and promising areas for future applications of
social practice theory. Indeed, the commonly used linear production model has been recently contested
by developments in the ﬁeld of circular economy, a concept that conceives of production systems by
extending the useful life of goods, materials and resources beyond their use as consumer goods (e.g.,
by means of reusing and sharing practices [
]) and waste management conscious behaviour [
(e.g., such as waste prevention behaviours [
]). Within this ﬁeld of research, a signiﬁcant body
of research related to sharing, repair and reuse behaviour seems to be emerging from the streams
‘business and governance’, ‘sustainable consumption and production’ and ‘urban living’ (Figure 4).
More in detail, we envisage a signiﬁcant stream of emerging research dealing with the diffusion of
access-based consumption and business models, and examination of its dynamics in the context of the
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 12 of 19
sharing economy as represented by the few recent publications already available [
investigation of behavioural practices and circular business models related to replacement, repair and
reuse in the context of the circular economy could also represent a future trend supported, also in this
case, by few recent publications already showing such tendency [136–141].
Another promising area for the application of social practice theory is represented by smart
cities. The concept behind making a city smarter has been widely explored by researchers during
the recent years [
]. Within this context, as a derivation of the more recent research focused
on the streams ‘urban living and policy’ and ‘household energy’, it appears that the application of
social practice theory is heading to the direction of reframing the challenges and potentials of orienting
citizens’ behaviour in the context of energy consumption and production in smart cities [
During the last decade, we assisted also to a wider interest in promoting sustainable decentralised
energy production fostered by citizen participation is a number of local projects implemented in
smart cities contexts [
]. Such projects comprehend a wide range of activities ranging from
energy generation projects to energy conservation projects (e.g., renewable energy generation from
locally-owned infrastructures, refurbishment of community building, programs fostering behavioural
change, etc.) which take the appellative of energy communities [
]. Within this ﬁled of research,
practice theory could represent the theoretical approach, in the future, to analyse how community
engagement programs can change over time the response to the rapid deployment and adoption of
locally-owned renewable energy systems.
With this research we have mapped the emerging trend of applications of practice theories
to consumer studies, and put these applications in relation with applications of practice theories
in other domains. We found that sustainability research represents one of the main foci of social
practice studies. In particular, there is extensive literature dealing with sustainable behaviour change
and a recently also an increasing application of practice theory to research on energy consumption.
Our results revealed that sustainability issues in practice theory started to be predominant topics
around the years 2013 and 2014 and that the energy related ﬁeld of research represent the newest
ﬁeld of research related to practice theory. Over time, consumer identity (2009–2012), business and
governance (2012–2014), sustainable consumption and production (2013–2014), urban living and policy
(2014–2015) and household energy (2015-present) were the areas in which the social practice theory
has been extensively applied to.
This analysis has allowed us to identify synergies that could be explored between different
ﬁelds of application of practice theories to open up possible future ﬁelds where an application of
practice theories could be promising. This notably concerns two emerging ﬁelds in the domain of
sustainability research—the sharing economy and circular economy, as well as smart cities—both
ﬁelds where applications of practice theories could usefully contribute to already ongoing work and
fruitfully draw on previous applications of practice theories to different but closely related ﬁelds of
research. Such applications could, in the case of the sharing and circular economy, focus for instance
on replacement, reusing and repairing practices, and in the case of smart cities, on the practices related
to the deployment and adoption of locally-owned renewable energy systems.
Some limitations need to be taken into consideration in the interpretation of our results.
Those notably concern the data. The produced sample depends on the assumptions which guided
the paper selection process, and which we have documented in the methods section. Lastly, since
they constitute a simpliﬁed depiction of the bibliometric analysis, the produced maps might create
Finally, knowledge about which are the major ﬁeld of analysis of the practice theory research could
be helpful in complementing and confronting the ﬁndings of the presented paper. More speciﬁcally,
how the ﬁndings from the application of the competing practice theory differ from those concerning
sustainable behaviours is a salient gap needing attention. Bridging the gaps between these research
Sustainability 2019,11, 341 13 of 19
ﬁelds would represent an important contribution in the pursue of addressing (un)sustainable
consumption patterns in consumer studies.
Writing—original draft, F.C., R.L., F.M., F.P.A. and L.M.; Writing—review & editing, F.C.,
R.L., F.M., F.P.A. and L.M.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂicts of interest.
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