Tradition, Common Sense and The Emotional Burden of Reflexivity

One of the key concepts I’m trying to elaborate in my PhD is what I term the emotional burden of reflexivity: the difficulty of knowing what to do and who to be, given the lack of normative guidance in  what Giddens terms a ‘post-traditional order’. However contra Giddens and others, I don’t think this state of affairs can be understood in terms of a transition from a ‘traditional order’ where reflexivity is rarely necessary to a ‘post-traditional order’ where reflexivity is always necessary, with all the confusions and anxieties which flow from the latter state of affairs. This misconstrues tradition as something which negates individual reflexivity whereas, I wish to argue, the reality is much more complex. Tradition can be something with which we engage reflexively: in deciding what to do, ‘common sense’ in whatever form we encounter it, can shape our decision making process. In this sense an individual might act in accordance with tradition* but so in a way that is entirely reflexive. This may simply be to avoid sanction or censure given the tendency of others to endorse and enforce these common sense attitudes, so that the individual subjectively disavows but objectively obeys the behavioural injunctions encoded within them. Or the individual’s reliance on dialogical partners to complete reflexive deliberations (e.g. someone who wants to talk to their best friend or trusted family member before making a decision) can ‘enforce tradition’ in a manner which in no way negates the reflexivity of the initiating party by invoking ‘common sense’ (e.g. “only weirdos would do that”) to scuttle a plan which has been proposed. While I’m not denying that tradition can be reproduced unthinkingly, in a manner which is devoid of reflexivity, I’m suggesting that this is much less frequently the case than theorists like Giddens seem to assume.

However while see a large conceptual problem at the heart of these accounts of detraditionalization, I nonetheless think that the broad outlines of the account are correct. But rather than see it in terms of a transition from a unreflexive ‘traditional order’ to a reflexive ‘post-traditional order’, it is more useful to explore how different social conditions give rise to, or impede, the reproduction of common sense which is authoritative and applicable. What conditions lead to a stock of lay knowledge which can be construed as ‘common sense’ and, in turn, what conditions make that ‘common sense’ seem somewhere between blindingly relevant and laughably anachronistic to different people in different circumstances in relation to different sectors of their life. The necessity of reflexivity to negotiate life, quite literally working out what to do with ourselves and how our days fit together into some meaningful hold, entails an emotional burden. Tradition is one way people have sought to cope with that burden though, for reasons which are another blog post in themselves, such a stock of common sense is becoming increasingly fragmented and ever more irrelevant for ever larger groups of people. So what do people do when they can’t look to tradition for support in managing the emotional burden of reflexivity?

*I really dislike the use of the word ‘tradition’ in social theory given how frequently it is used in profoundly circular ways. I use it in this instance, as well as in my thesis, because of its prevalence within the individualisation literature.

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