Social Change and Reflexive Guidance

If a subject relies on interlocutors to sustain and confirm reflexive deliberations, it leaves them open to conversational censure in a way in which autonomous reflexives and meta-reflexives are not. If their interlocutor objects, mocks or fails to understand what they are saying then the possibility of reaching a conclusion, at least in that instance, is foreclosed; this need for conversational confirmation leads individuals to keep their deliberations in conformity with the conventions of the local context. Their internal deliberations are often restricted to gut reactions which are subsequently raised in dialogue with others, rather than coming to provisional conclusions which might later be ‘shot down’ by others. The reflexive deliberations of the communicative reflexive are constrained by the transactional dynamics of the dialogues through which they are enacted. As Archer describes the consequences:

“What the practice of communicative reflexivity does it to privilege the public over the private, shared experience over lone experiences, third-person knowledge over first-person knowledge. Through the tendency for every issues to be reduced to the experiential common denominators of its discussants, communicative reflexivity is inhospitable to the innovative, the imaginative or the idiosyncratic. In short, the speculative realm is severely truncated in favour of common sense, common experience and common knowledge.”

So what are the socio-cultural consequences of the decline of this mode of reflexivity? The normative conventionalism enacted through such dialogues shouldn’t be understood merely as censorious; it also offered guidance and orientation through the experience and knowledge, however fallible, which were reproduced conversationally as well as the socio-cultural immediacy with which they were available. The questions faced by the communicative subject which led them to seek guidance through conversation (i.e. how to order their concerns and work out a stable modus Vivendi – as well as the social knowledge and self knowledge necessary to accompany this task) persist in spite of the absence of those cultural resources which would previously have directly or indirectly given answers.

However the hegemony of such common sense, entrenched through the reliance of the communicative reflexive on conversational confirmation, meant that the answers given were routine: there were socio-culturally available answers to existential questions which were possessed of both immediacy and expansiveness. One’s dialogical partners were usually able to provide common sense answers to questions which usually effectively answered the question. While it might seem from a contemporary standpoint that such traditionalism is inherently limited – perhaps being seen to represent a subjective standpoint being falsely presented as objective fact – in fact the very conditions which gave rise to its stable reproduction also underwrote its objectivity; when common sense is being reproduced like this, its mode of reproduction (through substantive webs of dialogical partnership) relies on a grounding in shared experience, landmarks and reference points – a shared mental topography – which ensures its relevance  as a source of answers to existential questions. So the absence of such a shared mental topography and the seeming irrelevance of common sense are two consequences of the same underlying cause: the decline of contextual continuity.

Though such common sense was reproduced through communicative reflexivity, it was available to practitioners of other modes and contingently useful in so far as it informally codified habitual repertoires. However structural and cultural morphogenesis mean that “socialization has been decreasingly able to ‘prepare’ for occupational and lifestyle opportunities that had not existed for the parental generation” (Archer 2010: 136). So the decline of contextual continuity and, with it, the stock of common sense has an impact beyond the experience of communicative reflexives. Though the extent and manner in which they drew upon it varies across different modes, its  rapid erosion deprives all subjects of a source of reflexive guidance that was previously present.

A formerly important source of reflexive guidance is being eroded by the same morphogenetic processes which are multiplying the opportunities facing subjects. This leaves four possible outcomes:

  1. The subject must work to try and (re)produce contextual continuity within their socio-cultural environment. However such subjects are unlikely to be encountered at university unless they live locally and thus were able to stay with or near family.
  2. The subject must look further into their socio-cultural context – for authoritative figures and/or prescriptive organizations – as a source of guidance.
  3. The subject must look to the cultural system – for understandings, ideas, ideals and theories – which help them make sense of their situation as so provide a source of guidance.
  4. The subject must fall back upon their own resources to negotiate a path through their situation without relying on outside guidance.

The first is characteristic of communicative reflexivity. As discussed this is increasingly difficulty as the costs associated with ‘staying put’ become ever steeper and the opportunities to avoid embracing novelty ever fewer (Archer 2010: 140). My further analysis will focus on how participants look to these different spheres (socio-cultural, cultural systemic and personal), biographical factors underlying these tendencies and how they relate to the changing practice of reflexivity. Through my continuing analysis of the first year of interviews I intend to elaborate the notion of ‘reflexive guidance’ further and explore the relationship between the practice of reflexivity and sources of guidance in relation to that practice.

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About Mark