Biographical approaches to studying subcultural social worlds

In his book on relational sociology Nick Crossley offers an account of ‘social worlds’ which I have found very thought provoking but ultimately quite problematic:

Social worlds are networks of interaction demarcated by their participants’ mutual involvment in specifiable sets of activites. They form around sports, art forms and genres, pastimes, occupations, locations, conflicts and controversies, and projects, anything that can become a focus for collective interest and action. Worlds are networks whose members manifest a shared orientated towards specific conventions and common adherence to a shared framework of meaning. They are generated by interaction but also function as a context and environment which shapes interaction. As actors ‘enter’ a world, interacting with others whom they recognize as members of it, they shift their orientation and perhaps also their identity, thereby collaboratively with the other (re)generating their part of that world. (Crossley 2010: 138) 

The difficulty arises with this concept because of its  reliance on the notion of a shared orientation towards specific conventions and common adherance to a shared framework of meaning. If we view culture as a community of shared meanings then we conflate the community and the meanings with the important consequence of leaving us unable to recognise the independent variability of each (Archer 1985). In my own area an example of this would be assuming that the existence of an asexual community implies a uniform asexual identity or that this identity has the same meaning in the lives of all individuals who identify as members of the group.

What I do find useful about Crossley’s concept is the extent to which it identifies ‘worlds’ as continually (re)constituted through patterns of mediated and/or face-to-face interaction and providing normative frames of reference which individuals can utilise outside the ‘world’. Crucially in offering a way to delineate (fuzzily or otherwise) a ‘world’, without reducing it to geographical territory or an essentialist understanding of group membership, it opens up a space of biographical questions i.e. how actors ‘enter’ and perhaps ‘exit’ the world in question, as well as how the nature of the underlying trajectory (its direction, velocity and meaning)  shape the constitution of the social world they subsequently enter it and is in term shaped by that world.

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