Recently I was attacked for being “out of touch with the real world” with the person going on to say that “many academics have a profound inability to communicate with the less ‘enlightened.’” It seems to me that the attack was at least partly based on a perception that academics live in a world of theory and are out of touch with practice and the “real world.” People, including academics and practitioners, often see a clear distinction between theory and practice with a perception that academics put theory on a pedestal and see it as “real” knowledge (see also Smith, 2011). While this separation is frequently challenged (e.g., Parton, 2000; Upton, 1999; Zuber-Skerritt, 2001), too often there is still a wide gulf between theory and practice. (For example, some approaches to evidence-based practice help reinforce this gulf.)
One approach to theory and practice that challenges this separation, is praxis.
The separation of theory and practice can be linked back to Aristotle (384–322 BCE) who differentiated between theoria (thinking or contemplation), poiesis (making or production) and praxis (doing or activity) (Smith, 2011). Praxis was not mindless activity, but “deliberative, responsible, human‐moral action” which involved “the process of wise judgement” (Connor, 2004, p. 56). Smith (2011) suggests that, for Aristotle, praxis was “guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly; a concern to further human wellbeing and the good life” (para. 8).
When praxis is used in the modern context of education, nursing, family or youth work and other human services, it is generally based on how Paulo Freire understood praxis in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 1972) and other writing (e.g., Freire, 1994) which, in turn, was built on a Marxist philosophy of praxis (White, 2007). (For more on praxis in Marxism, see this article by Doug Enaa Greene (2017)).
Freire (1972, p. 52) described praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it”. He argued that it was not enough for people to study the world, they also had a responsibility to act to create a more just world. For Freire, praxis was “a central defining feature of human life and a necessary condition of freedom” and he argued that “human nature is expressed through intentional, reflective, meaningful activity situated within dynamic historical and cultural contexts that shape and set limits on that activity” (Glass, 2001, p.16).Continue reading