Between subjectivity and subjection: untangling the confusion about reflexivity

Heaphy, Brian (2012) Reflexivity sexualities or reflexive sociology? In: Sexualities: Past reflections, Future Directions. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

There are two main ways in which the term ‘reflexivity’ is used within contemporary social theory. The first refers to the self-monitoring and self-management of individuals. The second to critical self-reflection on the part of researchers about their own social positioning, how it impinges upon the practice of their research and how the whole endeavor of research is implicated within wider networks of power and inequality within society. As someone who works on issues related to the former and is, partly as a result of this work, critical of the latter, it was interesting to stumble across this paper because I don’t recall ever previously having seen the two theoretical meanings of reflexivity addressed in such a direct and sustained way before.

Heaphy takes issues with a pervasive tendency to hold up LGBT lives as exemplars of reflexivity in the first sense, identifying a range of strands in the sexualities literature of which this is true (Heaphy 2012: 17). He argues that, as a whole, these represent a “powerful story” about LGBT lives as “reflexively achieved forms of existence that are the exemplars of the life politics of self-fashioning” (Heaphy 2012: 19). Furthermore he suggests that the appeal of such accounts stems from the affirmation of LGBT agency implied by them, in contrast to the previously dominant Foucauldian vision of sexualities which tended to stress disciplinary subjection. Arguments about LGBT reflexivity, as perhaps did Foucault’s account in an earlier political era, have an intuitive plausibility because of the wider social circumstances in which they are articulated. As Heaphy observes, “it seems clear, after all, that lesbian and gay sexualities hare more ’empowered’ and visible in the culture than ever before, and recent legislation in Britain and elsewhere (such as the Civil partnership and other Acts) seems to promote and defend the legitimacy of same-sex relationships” (Heaphy 2012: 19).

However Heaphy raises a number of problems with such accounts. He suggests that these prevailing narratives of LGBT reflexivity have been characterised by a “blurring of arguments about theoretical possibilities and empirical actualities” i.e. a theoretical affirmation of agency leads proponents to make claims about agents which are empirically inaccurate. In doing so the realities of difference are occluded, such that “exclusive and well-resourced lesbian and gay experience is valorized while other experiences are made invisible”. This, he argues, is a consequence of insufficient attention to power, particularly in an indifference to the “relationship between power and sociological narration” (Heaphy 2012: 20). He goes on to argue that in order to take the “differences that are shaped through the intersections of class, race and ethnicity, generation, geographical location and like” seriously we must acknowledge “that there is no one lesbian and gay experience or forms of existence, and that lesbian and gay living should be studied in their diversity of forms”. In doing so, we might come to ask “how significant resources (economic, social, cultural and corporeal) are in shaping different possibilities for lesbian and gay living, and how their embodiment gives rise to different possibilities for identification, relating and life political practice” (Heaphy 2012: 21). Heaphy argues that a move towards reflexive sociology within sexuality studies, as part of a Bourdieusian turn which moves the study of LGBT lives away from Giddens and Beck, would help rectify this worrying tendency to homogenise the lived experience of LGBT individuals and treat their lives as if difference didn’t matter.

While applauding Heaphy’s broader aims and accepting elements of his critique, this direction of travel is nonetheless revealing of profound conceptual confusions relating to what reflexivity is and how it operates. The broader shift he identifies from Foucauldian conceptions of sexuality (excessively structural) to voluntaristic accounts influenced by Giddens (excessively agential) reveal an inability within sexuality studies, as well as social theory more broadly, to come to terms with the problem of structure and agency. One approach elucidates the role of structure while obliterating agency. The other elucidates the role of agency while obliterating structure. The two approaches each contain an element of truth but, in their inability to proceed beyond their own theoretical terms of reference, neither is able to do justice to the ambivalence of human experience.

Both freedom and constrain co-exist in our daily experience. We choose and yet we are denied choice. We shape our circumstances and yet our circumstances shape us. We make our way through the world and yet the maps we use and the paths we choose from forever elude our full understanding, let alone our control. We are subjects and we are subjected. In fairness to Giddens, attempting to reconcile this duality is at the heart of his theoretical project. Yet the empirical inadequacies which so often result from attempts to adopt his approach as an explanatory framework are indicative of the conceptual error at its heart. Unless we conceptualise reflexivity in a properly mediatory manner, as being the human power which allows us to pursue courses of actions by  (fallibly) taking stock of our objective circumstances and our subjective concerns, the problems Heaphy correctly identifies will inevitably ensue. But if we do understand reflexivity in such a way, these problems do not occur. The issue here is not reflexivity as such. The issue is conceiving of reflexivity in a way which detaches it from the constraints and enablements we are contingently subject to at any given moment. If we conceive reflexivity in a manner which is fundamentally relational, such that our degree of freedom or constrained is an empirical matter of our circumstances at a particular moment in time and the biographical pathway which led us to them, then these contrasting images of human life (LGBT or otherwise) as either overly-free or overly-constrained simply do not emerge.

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