In recent decades the trajectory of young learners into higher education (HE) has become increasingly linear, with elective ‘gap years’ standing as the only usual interruption amongst those who move on to HE. However as Stevenson and Clegg (2012) observe the transition of adult learners into HE is “significantly less linear and more unpredictable, often involving multiple breaks and transitions”. The absence of the biographical convergence which can be witnessed amongst young learners is reflected in the fact that “mature students in these sites generally comprise a highly diverse group of students who may have complex and fragmented pasts” (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 1). While much research has explored the sociodemographic dimensions to this transition, strikingly little attention has been paid to the temporal aspects i.e. how do individuals moving into HE later in life orientates themselves towards the future. They construe this process in terms of Archer’s (2007) work on reflexivity, arguing that “it is especially useful in exploring the forms fo reflexivity students express when thinking about their past and futures” because of its recognition that reflexivity can take multiple forms (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 2). This helps us escape a tendency towards privileging an often implicitly normative conception of reflexivity which construes individuals as reflecting rationally upon their circumstances and formulating plans which will mould an open and empty future in line with their desires.
The authors draw on the notion of ‘possible selves’ as a way of “connecting how the personal projects of individuals come to be articulated, and how these might impact on future outcomes which are both constrained and enabled by students’ social positions”:
“Possible selves are future representations of the self (Markus and Nurius 1986)
including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experienced
singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to
those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both
a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by
facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by
functioning as incentives for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the
achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More
significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their
actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less-desirable selves. As
representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form,
specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears (Markus and
Nurius 1986). In other words, elaborated possible selves influence the development
of specific strategies for action, focus an individual’s activities, give direction in the
pursuit of those goals and energise the person to achieve them. Not unsurprisingly
research has shown that those with highly developed career-possible selves are more
motivated, goal-oriented and energetic than those with less or unelaborated ones
(Stevenson and Clegg 2011a; Plimmer and Schmidt 2007). These individuals are also
more likely, when confronted with a threat to the possibility of achieving a desired
career-possible self, to either persist with their goals and strategies or develop new
career-possible selves (Pizzolato 2007).
(Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 3).
Though Archer frequently stresses that internal conversations should not be construed in an overly cognitive or linguistic way, the introduction of the ‘possible selves’ concept helps flesh out the ways in which is the case. The exercise of reflexivity always implies some orientation towards the future, even if that is little more more than an expressive repudiation of this future as an object of concern. If we are, in whatever sense, acting on the basis of reasons then those reasons, however fallibly, contain within them some understanding of consequences i.e. how our actions will take us from where we are before them to where we will be afterwards. In some cases, this might be an entirely explicit process, susceptible to clear verbalisation e.g. (“I’ve made this decision for reasons x,y,z”) but more often it is not.
However it is a mistake to equate the reasonableness of the decision with our capacity to verbalise what led us to decide. The concept of possible selves helps flesh out the ways in which this is so. Our deliberations about a course of action are often shaped by some sense of the possible self which seems to be entailed by it. In some cases be a description of a future ‘I’ which we can spell out propositionally, reeling off the attributes we shall possess and how they were shaped by our present actions. However it is much more likely to just be an image . Or even a feeling. When faced with multiple choices, as we juggle overlapping but distinct ‘issues’ in our life, we find ourselves facing forward towards different images of who we might become. Our resolution of our predicament can often be as much about moving further towards or away from this representations of ‘possible selves’ as it is about cooly and calmly reflecting upon the choices available to us. We experience the decisions that matter to us as path-dependent, though this is mundanely true of all our decisions, in part because of our idea of the possible selves which await us further along the paths. In some cases these might be incredibly detailed images which, when recalled, renew our commitment to a decision. In other cases they may be correspondingly vague and insubstantial. Our fallible knowledge is encoded within them (i.e. how x leads to y) but so too are our hopes, dreams and fears.
On the basis of their empirical study, Stevenson and Clegg (2012: 7) observe that “when we begin to look in more detail at the trajectories and at how past, present and future relate and at how constraints both continue to impact on choices, particularly in relation to locality and place, we can see how different forms of reflexivity account for the ways participants are envisaging their futures”. I would argue that, as well as shaping how possible futures are construed by subjects, the style of reflexivity also shapes how they tend to move towards or away from these possible futures.