It is generally acknowledged that science studies underwent a change that began in the 1970s and was later often called the “turn to practice” (or “practice turn”). This occurred in one form or another in all studies that take science as their object, whatever their perspective (philosophical, historical, sociological, or other) and whatever the field of interest (physics, biology, mathematics, engineering sciences, etc.). In this talk, I attempt an overall characterization of this practice turn. The aim is to point to general trends, beyond the diversity of orientations and the possible particularities depending on the fields of interest. The corresponding trends are framed in terms of shifts, so as to emphasize the contrast with anterior so-called “traditional” ways of approaching science against which actors of the practice turn have motivated and defined their aims, methods, and views. The analysis of the shifts specify and disentangle different uses of the term “practice(s)”, associated with different messages conveyed by the appeal to practice(s), that are more or less explicitly involved in the practice turn.
After some preliminary remarks about problems of delimitation and the status of the proposed characterization, each shift is successively introduced and clarified through a number of pivotal constitutive contrasts. Three shifts are identified as central and are analyzed in detail – through each covers aspects that could be conceptualized as other shifts, possibly as sub-shifts. The first shift consists in moving away from accounts of science that are based on a priori conceptions of science and are “too” idealized, and in looking for empirically-based and empirically-adequate accounts of science. This shift can be viewed as the most general formulation of the criticism directed by the practice turn against traditional studies of science. All the other shifts convey a particular version of the first shift. The second shift moves from scientific products to scientific processes (relying on senses of “product” and “process” that will be examined). And the third shift moves from science as contemplation and re-presentation of the world, to science as intervention and transformation.
For each shift, I specify the sense(s) of “practice(s)” that are at stake, I analyze the main substantial and methodological messages conveyed by referring to “scientific practice” in these senses, and I consider some paradigmatic ways in which the shift in question has been instantiated in the science studies. I also indicate some important relations between the different shifts and between the different uses of the term “practice(s)”. Finally, I sketch some more or less generally accepted lessons about science that can be learned from the practice turn.