Beyond Berger and Luckmann's Concept of "Recipe Knowledge:" Simple versus Standardized Recipes

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper argues that the concept of "recipe knowledge," first articulated by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) as an extension of Alfred Schutz's (1960) concept of "cookbook knowledge," should be further refined. There are two distinguishable ideal types of recipe knowledge, called "simple recipes" and "standardized recipes," which differ from one another in terms of specification, applicability across situations, and reliability. Simple recipes are "rules of thumb" for handling typical situations passed along during socialization, while standardized recipes reflect Weber's concept of rationalization and are currently associated with the advancement of technology. The paper ends with a plea for sociologists to study both types of recipe knowledge as a contribution to the sociology of everyday life and to the sociology of knowledge.

Beyond Berger and Luckmann's Concept of "Recipe Knowledge:" Simple versus Standardized Recipes

The term recipe knowledge was first used in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's influential book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966). In describing the mind-set of the average person doing daily tasks, Berger and Luckmann wrote the following:

Since everyday life is dominated by the pragmatic motive, recipe knowledge, that is, knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performance, occupies a prominent place in the social stock of knowledge. For example, I use the telephone everyday for specific pragmatic purposes of my own. I know how to do this. I also know what to do if my telephone fails to function-which does not mean that I know how to repair it, but that I know whom to call on for assistance....All of this telephonic lore is recipe knowledge since it does not concern anything except what I have to know for my present and possibly future pragmatic purposes. I am not interested in why the telephone works this way, in the enormous body of scientific and engineering knowledge that makes it possible to construct telephones. Nor am I interested in uses of the telephone that lie outside of my purposes, say in combination with short-wave radio for the purpose of marine communication. Similarly, I have recipe knowledge of the workings of human relationships. (p. 42)

The last sentence of this passage contains a promissory note: sociologists' efforts to develop a sociology of everyday life should be facilitated by exploring the analogy between the pragmatic knowledge needed to use products of technology and the pragmatic competence people develop in order to live successfully with others. But this promise remains largely unfulfilled; despite the occasional references to the concept of recipe knowledge to be found in textbooks, little systematic exploration of the concept of recipe knowledge has been published (Shaffer, 1981). Part of the reason for this neglect, I suspect, is that the topic of recipe knowledge receives only passing attention in Berger and Luckmann's analysis: their commentary is contained in about three paragraphs scattered throughout the book. Berger and Luckmann were content to write a seminal, rather than a complete account of their thinking. With so little to work from, it is remarkable that the concept is mentioned in textbooks as often as it is.

However, there is a second reason for the neglect of the study of recipe knowledge which is related to a difficulty in the original analysis. Berger and Luckmann trace the origins of their ideas through the writings of Alfred Schutz and his discussion of the common stock of knowledge, and they credit his concept of cookbook knowledge as a precursor of their own term. But in reflecting on both sources, I believe that Schutz is actually describing a different type of recipe than Berger and Luckmann. There are actually two forms of recipe knowledge that must be distinguished: I will call them "simple recipes" and "standardized recipes." Therefore, the second reason for the neglect of this concept is the confusion that has existed in the past whenever a sociologist tried to apply this concept to the analysis of any particular case. I will argue that the writings of Schutz describe simple recipes, while the writings of Berger and Luckmann describe standardized recipes.

Conceptually, recipe knowledge refers to the attempt to transfer practical abilities or "know-how" from a skilled or knowledgeable performer to a novice by offering step-by-step directions in terms that are familiar to the novice and by utilizing behaviors already within the repertoire of the novice. The intention of the socializer is to permit the novice to approximate skilled performance without the need for apprenticeship, classroom instruction, or personalized feedback. In a simple recipe, the "know-how" necessary to complete an action is encoded in very general terms; the novice is often required to engage in considerable social learning in order to know how to apply-or in some cases adapt-the recipe to a particular concrete situation. By way of contrast, a standardized recipe is an ordered set of steps to be accomplished in the carrying out of a task where the major parameters of the activity, such as measurements and preparation times, are exactly specified. The implicit claim of the standardized recipe is reliability: if the user follows directions precisely, the user understands that the quality of the outcome is assured. The replication of activities by following the directions should lead to practically identical results with each use.

In this essay I will describe both of these forms of recipe as ideal types, and make a plea for more concerted effort to study the growth and development of recipe knowledge. I believe that the distinction between simple recipes and standardized recipes will be a valuable addition to the theoretical tools used by sociologists engaged in the study of the sociology of everyday life, sociology of knowledge, sociology of work, sociology of education, and sociology of medicine, to name a few subspecialties of our discipline. In giving examples relevant to each of these areas, I will try to suggest some useful avenues of research and hypotheses concerning both the use, and the limits, of recipe knowledge.

The Distinction between Simple and Standardized Recipes

My initial reading of Berger and Luckmann led me to assume that their use of the term "recipe" was substantially the same as that of Schutz, but, as I indicated earlier, I have come to believe that I was substantially incorrect in making that assumption. Table 1 describes the two different types of recipes I have come to recognize: simple recipes and standardized recipes.

One type of recipe knowledge held in common by all members of a society is what Schutz (1964) called the "stock of social knowledge," and in his analysis, Schutz likened the stock of social knowledge to a cookbook. Of course, he also believed that"...The cookbook has recipes, lists of ingredients, formulae for mixing them, and directions for finishing off. This is all we need to make an apple pie, and also all we need to know to deal with the routine matters of daily life." (pp.73-74) But in describing these recipes, Schutz observed that:

...the rules we apply are rules of thumb [italics added] and their validity has never been verified. The principles we start from are partly taken over uncritically from parents and teachers, partly distilled at random from specific situations in our lives or in the lives of others without our having made any further inquiry into their consistency. Nowhere have we a guarantee of the reliability of all these assumptions by which we are governed. On the other hand, these experiences and rules are sufficient to us for mastering life. As we normally have to act and not reflect in order to satisfy the demands of the moment, which it is our task to master, we are not interested in the "quest for certainty." We are satisfied if we have a fair chance of realizing our purposes, and this chance, so we like to think, we have if we set in motion the same mechanisms of habits, rules, and principles which have formerly stood the test and which still stand the test. Our knowledge in daily life is ...of the approximate and the typical [italics added]. The ideal for everyday knowledge is not certainty nor even probability in the mathematical sense, but just likelihood. Anticipations of future states of affairs and conjectures about what is hoped or feared, or at best, about what can be reasonably expected. ....The consistency of this system of knowledge is not that of natural laws, but that of typical sequences and relations. (pp.72-73)

I believe that this common stock of knowledge that Schutz is describing is best characterized as simple recipes which are summarized in the second column of Table 1. The simple recipes are transmitted as "rules of thumb" that are based on assimilations of past experience into the recognition of "typical" patterns and relationships. These ideas are the residue of what contemporary psychologists would characterize as automatic information processing and implicit memory (Gardner, 1991; Sternberg, 1988). Often times, these rules of thumb are incomplete or inadequate descriptions of all that the person knows in performing an adaptive act; to paraphrase the philosopher Michael Polanyi (1966), users of tacit knowledge often know more than they can say. One might say that their knowing is "in action," and observers might be likely to describe the person as practicing an "art' rather than a "science." (Schon, 1983) When the people do try to articulate the skills underlying their performance, their reports are likely to be the pithy sorts of maxims often associated with wisdom literature-sayings which cannot be followed except when accompanied by physical demonstrations of the activity. Examples abound from the sociology of sport. Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton was once asked by a Philadelphia Phillies' teammate to show him how Carlton threw his famous slider. Carlton reportedly picked up a baseball, showed the teammate his grip on the ball, and said "I just throw the hell out of it!" The aphoristic style of the comment illustrates how much additional understanding is needed by another pitcher to "follow" Carlton's advice. Indeed, most people do not so much follow a simple recipe as they adapt it to fit themselves and their situation.

As Berger and Luckmann noted, simple recipes are instrumental; their content is selected for its potential for adaptation to the challenges of living. Cookbook knowledge is not information for information's sake; the practical man or woman described by Schutz is not a naive philosopher or scientist. Cookbook knowledge is pragmatic knowledge; the most important criterion is that it works. But it is not knowledge that has been put to any systematic test; it is rather born out in the conduct of life and articulated enough to be shared with others. The reliability of the maxims of recipe knowledge is ordinarily taken for granted; it becomes problematic in the mind of the user only when it "fails to produce the goods"-as Berger and Luckmann express the standard.

The concept of the recipe has undergone a great transformation within the last one hundred years, and the changes in the form and content of recipes have created what I am calling standardized recipes, which are described in the last column of Table 1. The transition from simple recipes to standardized recipes is best understood as a byproduct of the process of rationalization, and the recent proliferation of recipe knowledge spurred by the rapid development of technology.

Following Weber's analysis, I would argue that recipes are the principal tool for accomplishing the rationalization of any area of human endeavor. (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Kalberg, 1980; Ritzer, 1993) The general approach was one of establishing procedures for accomplishing bureaucratic goals (such as the rational-legal rules of the government or an organization), fragmenting work or services into a sequence of steps assigned in to a constricted role in a complex division of labor (such as the limited tasks required of each worker on an assembly line), and refining each link in organizational chain into its most efficient form. In every case, the creation of explicit, step-by-step procedures became the principal means by which the roles of the rational organization were defined.

One important expression of recipes as an approach to implementing rationalization was the development of so-called scientific management practices in business and industry. Frederick Taylor invented the technique of "time-and-motion" studies which were used to identify the most efficient manner of doing any particular job (Kanigel, 1996). For any type of work, Taylor would find skilled workers, observe their every activity no matter how small, time each of the elementary steps in the desired process in order to identify the fastest way to accomplish each step, eliminate any motions that were slow, useless, or detrimental to efficiency, and then combine the most efficient sequence of actions into what he called the one best way to perform each task. (Braverman, 1974; Kanigel, 1996; Schon, 1983 and 1987; Ritzer, 1993) Charles Babbage demonstrated the power of this analysis by studying a factory that made straight pins and showing that, by turning the manufacture of pins into a series of steps of detail work, a factory could reduce its labor costs by half compared to a factory of experienced workers producing pins in the craft model of one pin at a time. (Braverman, 1974; Kanigel, 1996)

One of the accomplishments of the time and motion studies was the demonstration of the reliability of the standardized recipe. Prior to Taylor, only a few workers in a factory could produce high voulmes of output with demonstrated consistency, and their superior productivity was explained by these workers' skill. But after Taylor it is clear that managers believed that the study of many such "skilled" performers could yield an even better routine. Thus, all skilled labor, according to the beliefs of scientific management, could be reduced to detail work and taught to any generally intelligent, diligent, and cooperative worker. The success of this approach, especially in production of goods needed for the defense of America during World War II, was seen as proof of the superior reliability of the standardized recipe. (Drucker, 1991) Braverman, whose background in the trades as well as in sociology led him to be very sympathetic to the lost arts, referred to this trend as the "degradation of skill" (Braverman, 1974).

This penetration of rationalization to virtually every part of everyday life has led to a change of expectations: people seeking advice now expect to get standardized recipes where simple recipes were once offered and accepted (Shaffer, 1981).

While the initial applications of Taylorism were to manufacturing, the principles were eventually applied to service based jobs as well. (Levitt, 1972) George Ritzer (1993) has recently written about the "McDonaldization of America, " where the Taylorist model of one best way was applied to the fast-food industry first, but then to all types of service organizations as well. But this was possible only with the standardization of the equipment and the ingredients used to prepare each item on the menu. There are no "typical" kitchens at McDonalds; they have been replaced with standardized equipment and uniform raw ingredients that allowed jobs at McDonaldized to be reduced to piece work with each worker performing a simplified role by applying a well-studied recipe to the task. The uniformity in McDonaldized businesses allow them to be sold as "recipes for success" with franchise owners receiving detailed operating manuals detailing how each task in the franchise should be done.

Ritzer noted that there is no cooking being done by workers at McDonalds, if by cooking one means the skillful process of creating a dish. An experienced chef may be guided by a vision of a dish that can be captured descriptvely as a recipe, but "cooking" requires a great deal of tacit knowledge-from knowing how to select ripe fruit for a flan to knowing how to judge when a steak is done "medium rare." But the recent growth of franchised businesses can be traced to acceptance of the truth of Taylor's well-publicized belief that there is no such thing as skill. (Drucker, 1991) If performances that are called skilled in one generation can be broken into their components, passed on to novices in the next generation without need of the experience of an apprenticeship, and replaced generation by generation with recipes, then truly skill would be dead. The skilled workers of whom Taylor wrote were workers who, at best, followed simple recipes in the pursuit of their craft. As Schutz argued, their actions were guided by rules of thumb which were transmitted to new workers informally as part of the stock of knowledge for their trade. Taylor was undoubtedly correct that these rules of thumb were not optimally efficient; since efficiency was never a value in handicraft production, these steps were probably retained on the simple criterion of success. But Taylor's transformation of the workplace can be understood as an attempt to standardize the workplace, with his emphasis that the one best way should become the only way that work be done. The new routine, then, represents a standardized recipe, and one specifically designed to eliminate the need for tacit knowledge.

This penetration of rationalization to virtually every part of everyday life has led to a change of expectations: people seeking advice now expect to get standardized recipes where simple recipes were once offered and accepted (Shaffer, 1981).

A Plea for Study of Both Types of Recipe Knowledge

There is no shortage of simple recipes for sociologists to study: examples include "homemade" medicines and cures, "do-it-yourself" books, advice for finding a romantic partner, "self-help" books on popular religion or psychotherapy, and various forms of magical practices. But it is equally important for sociologists to realize that the development of standardization has created a whole new set of standardized recipes that are worthy of study as well: examples of these include instructions for operating automated telling machines (ATMs) at a bank, expert systems for diagnosing medical conditions, behavior modification systems for toilet-training (such as Foxx & Azrin, 1973), operating manuals for electronic equipment (such as VCRs), textbooks with step-by-step instructions for performing laboratory procedures or mathematical computations (often called "cookbooks"), or manuals of policies and procedures for operating a business franchise.

There are many issues surrounding the use of recipe knowledge that are worthy of study. recognition or identification, judgments, and skilled movements (Schon, 1983). Often, upon reflection, actors cannot introspect on their skilled performance and account for all of the proficiencies they possess that make them effective. It follows, then, that the existence of tacit knowledge stands as a natural barrier to the processes of articulation and standardization of both types of recipe knowledge. To the degree that a recipe is intended to produce the same result as skilled performance, the inability of a performer to articulate his or her tacit knowledge means that a description of the performer's conscious awareness during a performance cannot capture all of the "know-how" that sets the performer's accomplishments apart as skilled. Inability to articulate tacit knowledge means that neither the performer nor a close observer can capture all of the knowledge necessary to standardize the performance. Thus, the most likely result of the attempt to capture skilled performance in a recipe will be to construct a simple recipe which cannot guarantee that its product will be reliable. It is the implicit recognition of this limitation, I believe, that is behind the cultural distinction between "art' and "science." It would also be valuable to be able to document empirically the relative contribution of the "surface structure" of what can be verbalized as a recipe and the corresponding "deep structure" of the tacit knowledge required to put the recipe into action.

One key idea in my argument is that there are limits to the development of recipe knowledge that are imposed by nature on the process of standardization (Shaffer, 1981). Simple recipes are intrinsically low in reliability because they describe approaches to pragmatic competence in a set of situations which are typical, but unstandardized. Such recipes are necessarily imprecise and general in statement in order to be meaningfully applied in a wide variety of situations. In order for the following of recipes to produce reliable results, all aspects of the situation, equipment, or technique must be standardized. But the result of standardization limits the range of applications for any particular recipe. The way groups perceive the trade-off between reliability of performance and breadth of situations to which a recipe is applicable is well worth closer study. For example, in the field of sociology of medicine, the current public debates concerning managed health care are often unrecognized debates about the scope and reliability of recipe knowledge. The American Medical Association has planned for the development and publication of 1600 medical "practice guidelines" to standardize health care for a variety of diseases and conditions. This has triggered a debate among physicians concerning whether these guidelines will lead to the practice of "cookbook medicine," a pejorative term to describe a deskilled form of medical practice (Harding, 1995). One way of stating many physicians' objections to practice guidelines is that there may be "typical" patients, but not "standardized" patients, and there is concern that canons of sound medical practice may be legalistically narrowed so that deviation from a standardized approach to patient practice may be defined as malpractice. I believe that the concept of recipe knowledge, and especially the recognition that there are two types of recipes, can be a fruitful way to clarify the nature and issues of this debate.

The forces of standardization set in motion by Taylor and his colleagues have also penetrated the home in many ways of interest to sociologists of the family. Lillian Gilbreth was an influential writer applying Taylorist principles to the home. One of her suggestions for time management was for the organized homemaker to begin with a detailed log recording the tasks of housework, examining the entries for inefficiencies, and writing out a new, prescriptive schedule budgeting time for high priority activities by eliminating wasted actions and using shortcuts. Such applications of time-and-motion studies were regularly recommended in home economics textbooks (such as Lewis, Burns, & Segner, 1969). But in their influential study of "experts'" advice to women, Ehrenreich and English (1978) noted that Taylorist principles of efficiency through the standardization of work roles only paid off because of principles of enonomies of scale. For that reason, it was true that factories employing hundreds of workers at common tasks might receive measurable economic benefits to employing standardized recipes, but that few women found any pay-off in the savings of time or effort despite a diligent pursuit of efficiency at home. It would be of great theoretical interest to understand the differences between macro-level and micro-level applications of recipe knowledge.

Sociologists who study religion will recognize that many religious traditions offer both simple and standardized recipes to their followers. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic form of prayer called the "novena." Catholics frame these prayers and devotions around a pattern requiring repetition of the prayer over nine consecutive days; this is the source of the name "novena", since the term is derived from a Latin word meaning "nine each." But there are similar special prayers and devotions which are unmistakeable as recipes, even when they vary from the pattern of nine repetitions. Here is an example which deviates from the pattern of nine repetitions which was reprinted in a local newsletter:

PRAYER TO THE BLESSED VIRGIN

(Never Known To Fail)

O Most Beautiful flower of Mount Carmel, fruitful vine, splendor of Heaven, Blessed Mother of the Son of God, Immaculate virgin, assist me in my necessity. O Star of the Sea, help me and show me here you are my mother. O Holy Mary Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Earth, I humbly beseech you from the bottom of my heart to succor me into my necessity (make request). There are none that can withstand your power. O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee (three times). Say this prayer for three consecutive days, then you must publish and it will be granted to you.

F. P.

Such devotional or petitionary formulae exemplify the general features of recipe knowledge. The prayers are standardized; the words are to be recited verbatim, just as the liturgical prayers (identified colloquially as "our Fathers," "hail Marys," and "Glorias") are to be memorized and repeated in ritual fashion. The specific wording of the prayers is not presented as necessary to secure the granting of the request; after all, the appearance of new formulae from week to week implicitly argues that there is no single combination of words that is required for success. However, these prayers are presented as sufficient, since they are offered by grateful supplicants whose initials-in conjunction with the claim that this formula has "never been known to fail"-are testimonials to the efficacy of each novena. There is no sense that understanding the theological content of each prayer is important in any way to the successful use of these formulae; it is not necessary, for example, to understand the allusion to St. Jude as the "near kinsman of Jesus Christ" (ref.) or to the Blessed Virgin as the "Most Beautiful flower of Mount Carmel" (ref.) to avail oneself of the power of these devotionals. These prayers are presented as fully testable in experience; the steps (reciting or reading a written prayer, reciting familiar liturgical prayers, the promise of publication, and so forth) are behaviors already within the behavioral repertoire of the believer. They are impersonal; the supplicant who publishes the novena neither identifies him or herself in transmitting the prayer nor claims to be the author of these efficacious words. Like urban legends, the wording of these novenas are presumably passed anonymously from one community or one generation to another, and are passed along as "true" through the implicit testimonials of others who presumably have witnssed the efficacy of each prayer first hand. Finally, these recipe prayers are certain; they are "never known to fail." Recipe knowledge is also to be found in magic. Applying an understanding of recipe knowledge to the study of religion and magic has much promise in clarifying how adherents translate the sacred into everyday life.

Operating instructions for products of technology such as computers are frequently cast as standardized recipes and quickly allow users to quickly harness much of the capabilities of such equipment. But one problem is that people who use recipe knowledge to operate a computer often fail to understand the nature of the operations being performed by the machine. Catherine Renner and I recently (1997) detailed the limited understanding of statistics shown by students in a formal statistics course who use computer software packages to perform their calculations. We found, for example, that it is common for students to judge whether or not they have obtained the correct answer to an assigned problem by noting whether or not the program "runs." That is, they will interpret a warning icon or an error message as a sign that they have failed to use the software correctly, but assume that receiving output from the program means that they have followed the recipe correctly. The equipment represents a "black box" to them, but they will often falsely believe that being able to follow a standardized recipe means that they "understand" the operations being performed by the machine. As I have argued elsewhere (Shaffer, 1981), recipe knowledge is a means of allowing a person to successfully utilize technology while remaining completely ignorant of its workings. Users are aware of this limitation at some level, as the popularity of the IDG Books series of computer primers written "for Dummies" eloquently attests. But as the amount of recipe knowledge in society proliferated with the growth of technology, it will become increasingly important to be clear about what a user does and does not understand from having followed recipe knowledge.

[Reference]

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[Author Affiliation]

Leigh S. Shaffer

Professor Emeritus, West Chester University

Editor's Note: Leigh S. Shaffer is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at West Chester University. His research interests include sociological theory, sociology of knowledge, and sociology of work. He has recently published a series of articles on advising college students in developing human capital, and has authored a series of articles on the subject of recipe knowledge. Dr. Shaffer is also the editor of The NACADA Journal, which is the official publication of the National Academic Advisors Association. NACADA includes over 11,000 members. This article first appeared in the Fall 1998 edition of Sociological Viewpoints.