What is praxis?

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).

This combination of reflection and action is at the heart of praxis. For example, in adult education Zuber-Skerritt (2001) defines praxis as

The interdependence and integration – not separation – of theory and practice, research and development, thought and action. (p. 15).

In youth work, White (2007) suggests praxis is

Ethical, self-aware, responsive and accountable action. In other words, praxis involves knowing, doing and being” (p. 226).

In Praxis, theory (in the simple terms, the way we understand things) is embedded in reflection and action, and action is embedded in reflection and theory. It can thus be seen as cycles of action, reflection and theory building. (See the image at the top of the post.)

Praxis is sensitive to, and expressed in, particular contexts and thus can “never be proceduralised or specified in advance” (White, 2007, p. 226). White goes on to identify five assumptions about knowledge and knowing that underpins her praxis:

  1. Knowledge/knowing is inherently social and collective
  2. Knowledge/knowing is always highly contextual
  3. Singular forms of knowledge/knowing (e.g. empirical or experiential) are insufficient for informing complex, holistic practices like [youth, family work and community work)
  4. Different knowledges/ways of knowing are equally valid in particular contexts
  5. Knowledge is made, not discovered. (p. 232)

While these assumptions would not necessarily underpin everyone’s approach to praxis, they demonstrate the way in which praxis challenges traditional approaches to research and theory. Praxis rejects the notion of objective, neutral research and practice, and instead is built on a commitment to social justice and creating change, and recognises the importance of considering the social, political and economic implications of practice and research (Burke & Lumb, 2018; Freire, 1972; Zuber-Skerritt, 2001).

For researchers, praxis emphasises the important of using research and theory to create change, and reflecting on whose interests are served by current theory and research. For practitioners, praxis emphasises the importance of critically reflecting on practice, ensuring that practice is grounded in theory and ensuring that practice contributes to how we understand theory and the context in which we operate.

For some more on praxis in:

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Evidence-informed practice and the integration of research, policy, teaching and practice in family services
  2. Rethinking the roles of families and clients in evidence-based practice
  3. Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. 4 types of power: What are power over; power with; power to and power within?
  6. More posts in the What is…? series (Key concepts related to working with families and communities)

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

References

Allen, K. R., Lloyd, S. A., & Few, A. L. (2009). Reclaiming feminist theory, method, and praxis for family studies. In S. A. Lloyd, A. L. Few, & K. R. Allen (Eds.), Handbook of feminist family studies (pp. 3-17). Sage.

Breunig, M. (2005, 2005/09/01). Turning Experiential Education and Critical Pedagogy Theory into Praxis. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(2), 106-122. https://doi.org/10.1177/105382590502800205  

Burke, P. J., & Lumb, M. (2018). Research and evaluation equity and widening participation: Praxis-based frameworks. In P. J. Burke, A. Hayton, & J. Stevenson (Eds.), Evaluating Equity and Widening Participation in Higher Education. Institute of Education Press.

Coburn, A., & Gormally, S. (2015). Youth work in schools. In G. Bright (Ed.), Youth work : histories, policy and contexts. Palgrave Macmillan. https://hull-repository.worktribe.com/OutputFile/1094731

Connor, M. J. (2004). The practical discourse in philosophy and nursing: an exploration of linkages and shifts in the evolution of praxis. Nursing Philosophy, 5(1), 54-66. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1466-769X.2004.00152.x  

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving “Pedagogy of the oppressed”. Continuum.

Glass, R. D. (2001, 2001/03/01). On Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Praxis and the Foundations of Liberation Education. Educational Researcher, 30(2), 15-25. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X030002015  

Greene, D. E. (2017). Marxism: The philosophy of praxis. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/marxism-philosophy-of-praxis  

Kagan, P. N., Smith, M. C., Cowling III, W. R., & Chinn, P. L. (2010). A nursing manifesto: an emancipatory call for knowledge development, conscience, and praxis. Nursing Philosophy, 11(1), 67-84. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1466-769X.2009.00422.x  

Parton, N. (2000). Some thoughts on the relationship between theory and practice in and for social work. The British Journal of Social Work, 30(4), 449-463. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/30.4.449  

Rolfe, G. (1993). Closing the theory—practice gap: a model of nursing praxis. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 2(3), 173-177. www.garyrolfe.net/documents/closingthetheorypracticegap.pdf

Smith, M. K. (2011). What is praxis? In The encyclopaedia of informal education. https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-praxis/  

Song, H. (2019). Action Research as a Praxis for Transformative Teaching Practice in ELT Classrooms. Contact Magazine (November), 7-15. http://contact.teslontario.org/action-research-as-a-praxis-for-transformative-teaching-practice-in-elt-classrooms/

Upton, D. J. (1999). How can we achieve evidence‐based practice if we have a theory–practice gap in nursing today? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(3), 549-555.

White, J. (2007). Knowing, Doing and Being in Context: A Praxis-oriented Approach to Child and Youth Care. Child & Youth Care Forum, 36(5), 225-244. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-007-9043-1  

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (2001). Action learning and action research: paradigm, praxis and programs. In S. Sankara, B. Dick, & R. Passfield (Eds.), Effective change management through action research and action learning: Concepts, perspectives, processes and applications (pp. 1-20). Southern Cross University Press, Lismore, Australia. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/23a6/89ad465ddfe212d08e4db3becca58bdbf784.pdf  

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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