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  • Mark 4:24 pm on July 31, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    Call for research participants: being single in Britain today 

    Forwarded call for participants. Please forward on to your networks and contact Eleanor (details below) for further information.

    Call for research participants: Single spaces: Single-life in Contemporary Britain


    We are conducting a large-scale, British Academy-funded research project into single-life in contemporary Britain. The research will provide an overview of what it’s like to be single in Britain today and the findings will add an important dimension to understanding the changing patterns of intimate life in contemporary society. The research has two stages:

    1.  The first stage is an online questionnaire: this is open to everyone who is single, lives in Britain, and is aged 18 or over. The questionnaire should take no more than 10 minutes to complete.
    2.  The second stage consists of individual interviews with a sample of single people: this is currently only open to single people who are 35 or over and who do not have children. At least half of these interviews will be conducted with people who identify as LGBTQIA (as minoritized sexualities are still frequently under-represented in social science research)

    Please note, we don’t want to rigidly define what the label ‘single’ means, as being single means different things to different people, so we leave it up to you to define this term.

    Please visit the website above for further information about the project, and for links to help you share the project via Twitter and Facebook.
    Many thanks,

    Dr Eleanor Wilkinson
    British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow
    School of Geography
    University of Leeds
    LS2 9JT

  • Mark 11:39 am on July 31, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The Reflexive Imperative and Fractured Reflexivity 

    This is the second of four posts in which I’ll explore the modes of reflexivity which are so integral to the argument Archer makes in The Reflexive Imperative. Underlying these concepts is an understanding of social morphogenesis as leading to the ‘situational logic of opportunity’ given the generative mechanism of variety to produce more variety. The arguments made to this end are quite intricate but their main ramification for understanding modes of reflexivity relates to the patterning of individual responses to this expansion of choice: 

    For some (the communicatives), it can be partly but not entirely evaded, for others (the autonomous), it can be seized upon and fallibly exploited, and for yet others (the meta-reflexives), it presents a new horizon of novel possibilities. However, not everyone can practice one of these three reflexive responses towards the ‘logic of opportunity’, all of which seek to match life outcomes to subjects’ life concerns. (Archer 2012: 249)

    These people are the fractured reflexives and, for a wide range of reasons, their deliberations tend to intensify distress and disorientation rather than bringing them to any conclusion about what to do or who to be. Their common denominator is that their self-talk intensifies affect rather than producing an action orientation. Those whose internal conversation takes this form regularly “admit to huge difficulties in making decisions, in defining courses of action to be consistently pursued and, above all, in engaging in anything more than the survivalist’s day-to-day planning” (Archer 2012: 248). The point is not that these people are somehow unable to function but rather than the fractured nature of their reflexivity makes ‘functioning’ intensely onerous, characterised by an intensity of introspection that is both a response to the stress and anxiety which circumstances provoke but also a cause of it, as the absence of any consistent orientation towards the practical question life poses will tend to cumulatively add to an individual’s problems. They accrue objective penalties through prevarication, indecisiveness or avoidance because the necessity of selection doesn’t go away simply because they struggle to respond to it purposively and “subjectively, they undergo profound mental distress and experience a disorientation that is qualitatively distinct from the anger and unfairness experienced by many in modernity” (Archer 2012: 290). But the reasons for fractured reflexivity and the precise form it takes are variable:

    Displaced reflexives previously exercised one of the other three modes of reflexivity but the interruption of negative contingency led to its suspension. So for instance a communicative reflexive who struggles to adjust to the university environment when deprived of the friends and/or family who served as interlocutors. In these circumstances they are thrown back upon their own resources when left without those on whom they depended to complete and confirm their internal conversations. However they may find new interlocutors who can play this role or they may begin to move towards the practice of another mode of reflexivity, as the individualism thrust upon them situationally leads them to reorientate themselves towards the social. As Archer puts it, “subjects ‘displaced’ by contingent occurrences could return to their earlier mode of reflexivity if circumstances became more favourable and provided that their relations supported their return” (Archer 2012: 290).

    Impeded reflexives are those who have yet to develop the practice of a particular mode of reflexivity to the extent required to complete deliberations in an action orientated way. Nonetheless they show a propensity towards and share a similar relational background with practitioners of another mode. So for instance an impeded autonomous reflexive might formulate plans and strategies while lacking the capacity to enact them in any sort of consistent way, as the demands of everyday life come to occupy their self talk in a way which crowds out the longer term planning which they nonetheless have a propensity for. In such cases their relational circumstances have proved necessary but insufficient for the development of a particular mode, engendering a tendency but also failing to provide the conditions for it to fully develop and/or being characterised by contingencies which have interrupted its development.

    Expressive reflexives are those who tend to rely on ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the choices which life presents them with. This is a refinement of the generic category of ‘underdeveloped reflexivity’ which Archer used in the previous two studies. Quantitatively those falling into this category do not register as any mode of reflexivity (including fractured) on the survey instrument which asks about self talk and qualitatively their mental processes are deeply express in a way which distinguishes them from other subjects: “their expressive rather than dialogical responses mean they exercise their agency solely in relation to the present moment and current circumstances, rather than assuming any reflexive governance over the shape of their lives” (Archer 2012: 250). These are people for whom life is deeply episodic, who Archer speculates may be responding to being overwhelmed by their difficulties by seeking to “blot out their problems by refraining from reflexive activities that defeat them, thus quasi-volitionally opting for a passive agential status in which circumstances are allowed to determine outcomes” (Archer 2012: 278). This only has a speculative basis in her data, as only two of the survey respondents exhibiting this pattern volunteered for interview, with Archer suggesting that expressives “live by ‘presentism’ because to them there is no ‘big picture’ but simply a succession of events that command their attention from day to day”. Unlike the manner in which communicate reflexives evade the necessity of selection by embracing normative conventionalism, expressive reflexives “produce ‘bounded variety’ simply by limiting selection to dealing with situational ‘chunks'” (Archer 2012: 279). They use ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the options which are situationally available in an ad hoc way, “subordinating the cognitive to the ‘gut reaction’ through a selective perception that picks out only those parts of information that confirm the inerrant nature of their emotive responses” (Archer 2012: 283). The problem with living expressively in a manner governed by contingency is that “there is nothing to guarantee any coherence between these sequential outcomes and yet the subject has to live with or deal with their consequences” (Archer 2012: 250).

    In the next two posts I’ll discuss autonomous reflexivity and communicative reflexivity. Then I’m planning to write something on Archer’s critical engagement with Maruyama’s cybernetics and, if I don’t give into the temptation to avoid a debate which frustrated and preoccupied me for the entire second year of my PhD, I’ll write something on habit(us) and reflexivity.

  • Mark 8:59 pm on July 30, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , digital communications, , digital turn,   

    Technology, Not Tenure: The Politics of the Digital Turn in #HigherEd 

    An absolute must read in the Chronicle of Higher Education for those interested in digital change within higher education:

    Last year, a former Princeton University president, William G. Bowen, delivered the Tanner Lectures at Stanford, continuing a long tradition of college leaders’ using the top floors of the ivory tower to speak difficult truths about academe.

    When the dot-com craze was sweeping the nation, back in 2000, Bowen—an author in the 1960s of the original “cost disease” diagnosis of labor-intensive industries­—kept his eyes on the evidence. He didn’t yet see reason to believe that colleges could use technology to save money. But another decade of progress changed his mind. “I am today a convert,” he said. (The lectures were published this year by Princeton University Press as Higher Education in the Digital Age.) Bowen’s random-trial-based research suggests that “online learning, in many of its manifestations, can lead to at least comparable learning outcomes relative to face-to-face instruction at a lower cost.”

    With MOOC mania showing no signs of abating, such strong conclusions from an esteemed scholar have drawn notice.

    Less attention has been paid to what Bowen said next. Increasing labor productivity is one thing in theory, something else in practice. Less face-to-face instruction can mean fewer faces on the faculty side. It also means routinizing aspects of the student learning experience and thus reducing the day-to-day academic discretion of individual professors.

    Bowen was a university president long enough to know how faculty are likely to respond, and what mechanisms of structural power and appeals to tradition will be employed to divert productivity gains to “gild the educational/research lily.” “I wonder,” he said, “if the particular models of what is often called ‘shared governance’ that have been developed over the last century are well suited to the digital world.”

    Nor does Bowen believe that this an issue of academic freedom: Freedom of expression “should not imply unilateral control over methods of teaching. There is nothing in the basic documents explaining academic freedom to suggest that such control is included. It is not.”

    These are the battle lines of early-21st-century higher education. Or at least they will be if the professoriate chooses to fight for traditional totems and privileges.


    It’s an infuriating set of arguments being proffered by the “Director of Education Policy Program” at a think tank which has Eric Schmidt as the chairman of the board of directors. But I think he’s correct about the ‘battle lines of early-21st-century higher education’:

    Total academic freedom in the classroom is just ridiculous. If an organization is focused on doing something, like education, it ought to have theories and standards and practices about that something. As the University of Chicago’s longtime president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, said in another lecture-series-turned-book-length provocation, the system of letting students choose among classes taught by wholly autonomous professors “denies there is content to education, so the organization of the modern university denies that there is rationality in the higher learning. The free elective system as applied to professors means that they can follow their own bents, gratify their own curiosity, and offer credits in the results.”

    Hutchins was concerned with curriculum back in 1935, but the same laissez-faire approach is applied, then as now, to the practice of teaching. Student evaluations provide little useful information other than an inverse correlation to academic rigor. Teaching varies as professors see fit, which is widely, and so learning varies as well, and far too much.

    Digital technology in contemporary higher education is janus faced. It risks being a means through which an unprecedented disciplining of academic labour can be enacted while simultaneously holding out unprecedented possibilities for expanding the autonomy of networks of academics vis-a-vis the institutions within which they operate. It’s for this reason that I think there is an incipiently political dimension to digital scholarship. The technology which is increasingly implicated in the politics of higher education is also reshaping the circulation of research, as Dave Beer has pointed out:

    What I would like to suggest is that this blog post, like other social media content, will be subject to the politics of circulation that defines contemporary media. The data that is produced as a by-product of contemporary cultural life does not just stop when it is produced, rather data fold-back into our everyday lives in variegated and often unseen ways. Similarly the destiny of this blog post will be shaped by the material infrastructures that it has been placed within. In this sense, academic knowledge is being opened up to social media’s politics of circulation. As such, these transformations in the communication of research are likely to have profound implications for the way that we encounter and discover knowledge. All of which will then, in turn, implicate the knowledge that we go on to produce. There is the potential then for social media’s politics of circulation to influence both the communication and production of knowledge.

    Using social media to communicate academic knowledge is not a problem in itself, it actually opens up vast new possibilities, but it forces us to ask what will happen as more and more researchers use social media and other open-access outlets for their work. How will we cope with the din? And, most importantly, who will get heard? If we don’t understand the politics of data circulations that define contemporary media cultures then we may also find that academic practice is reshaped without sufficient reflection and reaction.


    The way in which digital technology is being deployed, in a partly rhetorical fashion, as part of a project to discipline academic labour is a distinct process from the politics of circulation described by Beer. But the unpredictability of this circulation potentially throws a spanner into the works. All the more so if digital scholarship is embraced with the aim of securing the agency of scholars in a rapidly changing knowledge environment. The available options are radically expanding. The only one that is untenable is passivity and a retreat into comfortable certainties:

    We can no longer imagine that we are communicating research in an environment in which our ideas, or data, amble continually forward in a slow linear stroll. Rather our findings, even those published in old fashioned journals – which now have blogs and Twitter feeds attached and whose publishers are looking to increase impact factors through predictive recommendation and the like – are also being introduced to the chaotic maelstrom of contemporary media. The result is that our research will take on this vitality and will be caught in the currents, which might be simultaneously unnerving and invigorating. Some ideas will be washed away, unnoticed, others will find a significant audience, others may have a profound and surprising journey through networks. The outcomes will be unpredictable, but all will be a product of the politics of circulation that defines contemporary media forms.


  • Mark 8:25 pm on July 30, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    BSA Realism Study Group Seminar: Contemporary Issues in Realist Thought- 6th Sept 

    BSA Realism Study Group Seminar: Contemporary Issues in Realist Thought
    Friday 6 September 2013
    BSA Meeting Room, London. 
    We are pleased to announce our speakers for the forthcoming seminar to debate contemporary issues in realist thought. Please see attached flyer for further details and abstracts.

    Graham Scambler, University College London

    ‘Taking interdisciplinarity seriously: realism and explanations of health inequalities’ 

    Sue Clegg, Leeds Metropolitan University

    ‘Realism as a theoretical resource’

    Mark Cresswell, Durham University

    ‘PEDAGOGY of the PRIVILEGED: Elite Universities and Dialectical Contradictions in the UK’

    Dave Elder-Vass, University of Loughborough

    ‘Disassembling actor-network theory’

    Bob Carter, University of Leicester

    ‘Realism and the Posthuman’  

    To book, please visit:

    For more information on the BSA realist study group please visit:

    Hope to see you there
    Tom Brock, Mark Carrigan and Michelle Farr

    Study group website address: http://www.criticalrealism.org

    • Roy Wilson 8:45 pm on July 30, 2013 Permalink


      You “should” find some poor soul who is willing and able to allow call-ins to the Realism seminar via Skype or some such technological wizardry. I might volunteer if I were there, but (luckily?) I’m not. 🙂

    • Mark 2:10 pm on July 31, 2013 Permalink

      trying to get skype to work as part of an event is one of the most stressful things i’ve ever experienced! never to be repeated.

    • Roy Wilson 2:50 pm on July 31, 2013 Permalink

      I expected such. 🙂

    • Mark 3:17 pm on July 31, 2013 Permalink

      though we did manage to sustain a conversation between someone on american west coat, someone on american east coast and someone in canada – all relayed through a room in the UK. it was v cool.

  • Mark 8:24 pm on July 30, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    BSA Education Study Group Study Day 17 September 

    BSA Sociology of Education
    Study Group one day Conference & re-launch
    Young Peoples Educational Identities in Challenging Times

    Tuesday 17 September 2013, 10:30-16:30
    BSA Meeting room, Imperial Wharf, London
    Keynote Speaker – Sara Delamont (Cardiff University), Winner of the 2013 BSA Distinguished Service Award

    Over the past 70 years the field of the sociology of education has continually focused on how education affects young people’s life chances and social mobility, and the ways in which social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability influence access to educational opportunities, as well as how schools and other educational institutions are organised both internally and externally. The continued relevance of the discipline in analysing the ways in which sociological theories and research help us to understand the sorts of issues which confront students, teachers and parents, as well as policy-makers, is extremely important in the current climate. While much has changed in the last 70 years social class (and other) inequalities remain strong and are evidently increasing under the current coalition government. This one day conference seeks to discuss the ways in which these issues are being explored sociologically, and how these approaches relate to and differ from classical studies (e.g. Jackson and Marsden 1962; Lacey 1970; Delamont 1976; Willis 1977). The scope of the day is extremely wide and we encourage empirical and accessible theoretical papers that consider the changes, challenges, and continuities in young people’s educational identities in contemporary society.

    Conference registration cost: BSA members £25 & Non-members £30, includes lunch and refreshments. To register please go to:http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10288
    Places are limited so early booking is recommended. For further information please contact: events@britsoc.org.uk or telephone: (0191) 383 0839

    For academic queries please contact: Dr Mike Ward or Dr Nicola Ingram:  wardmr@cf.ac.uk

    Find out more about the BSA Sociology of Education Study Group at: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/study-groups/education.aspx

  • Mark 5:59 pm on July 29, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    Making love, making gender, making babies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s 

    Making love, making gender, making babies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

    6-7 September
    CRASSH, Alison Richard Building West Rd, Cambridge

    Registration is now open. Please visit

    By the end of the twentieth century, a combination of profound social
    changes and major techno-scientific innovations had reorganized ‘the sexual
    field’ into three separate systems. The early twentieth century distinction
    between sexual pleasure and reproduction was supplemented by one between
    biological ‘sex’ and social ‘gender’, in which the figures of ‘the
    transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ were central, with the category of ‘gender’
    eventually peeling off to have an entirely different historical destiny.
    While the phrase ‘Sexual Revolution’ once evoked changes in sexual mores
    and contraceptive practices of the 1960s and after, this ‘revolution’ may
    have been part of a larger reconfiguration of the pleasure-, gender- and
    reproductive-systems – the last of which became an autonomous medical
    industry assisting reproduction by the end of the century. This conference
    will allow a comparison of the political and ethical debates over medical
    and cultural innovations in ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘reproduction’ over the
    period 1950-1970.

    Presenters: Dagmar Herzog (Graduate Center City University of New York),
    Gert Hekma (University of Amsterdam), Richard Green (Imperial College
    London), Ilana Löwy (Centre de Recherche Medicine CNRS), Naomi Pfeffer
    (University College London), Lisa Downing (University of Birmingham),
    Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck University of London).

    For further details, including online registration and programme, visit

    Supported by Generation to Reproduction and the Centre for Research in the
    Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

  • Mark 10:16 am on July 29, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: meta reflexivity,   

    The Reflexive Imperative and Meta-Reflexivity 

    After much prevaricating, I’ll start today on posts which discuss each of the four modes of reflexivity in turn. I’ve chosen to begin with meta-reflexivity, which is the initial focus of my data analysis at present. For practitioners of meta-reflexivity, the social order is problematized rather than internalized or normalised. Circumstances have conspired developmentally to inculcate selectivity at a young age, not in the sense of the independence which was situationally forced upon the autonomous reflexives but rather in a critical detachment from their natal context and a disassociation from the modus vivendi which they saw played out within the family. It is this withdrawal which necessitates selection, as the recognition that one does not want to reproduce the way of life into which was one was born prompts the inevitable question “so what should I do instead?”. In some cases this can be a deliberate intention of parenting, not simply expressing support for the choices of the children (“we’ll support her whatever she choose to do”) but actively seeking to raise their child as someone who makes their own decisions and formulates their own beliefs.

    This critical detachment might be provoked by ‘mixed messages’, as Archer describes in the case of a participant in her research born to a practicing Catholic Polish mother and an ardently atheistic English father, each with a extremely strong set of moral and social beliefs which were rarely, if ever, in accord with each. In such a situation, “it was impossible to satisfy both parents simultaneously because of their lack of normative consensus. In her own words, she cannot agree with her parents on everything ‘because they don’t agree with each other on everything” (Archer 2012: 216). Selecting between the ideational options available to her was unavoidable because of the brute fact of their being options. There wasn’t a consensus to be reproduced and thus the ideational variety which all subjects eventually encounter was ‘built in’ to the natal context. However the participant in question denied that “her own views are not the lowest common denominator of parental consensus because they were sharpened as much by the books she read and the speakers she encountered at school” (Archer 2012: 217). For meta-reflexives, the cultural system takes on a pronounced importance at an early age because it offers the ‘raw materials’ with which to make sense of the normative dissensus which characterises familial relations that, in turn, intensifies the necessity of selectivity that is experienced outside the family. This often manifests itself in the seriousness with which meta-reflexives come to approach academic work:

    Hence, too, the especial seriousness with which the meta-reflexives took their degrees, not in an instrument rational fashion but because the academic issues, arguments and material to which they were exposed were their raw materials for articulating precisely where they stood in relation to what they cared about most. This also accounts for the meta-reflexives being the one sub-group whose members continuously entertained taking a higher degree or even undertaking a university career. To them academic debates were not a sterile rehearsal and regurgitation of pros and cons to obtain certification but the resources for attaining some (fallible) certitude about the issues their parental dissension had prioritized. In other words, they provide the best exemplification that self-socialization in trans-modernity is a life-long undertaking. Only in this way can they achieve the clarification and discursive substantiation of their own values and inclinations towards courses of action that underline their practical reasoning in the social order. (Archer 2012: 247).

    It is this searching of the cultural system and the socio-cultural experimentation with which it is often associated that accounts for the propensity of meta-reflexives to embrace a ’cause’. This may be inchoate and inarticulate, perhaps a vague expression of a value rather than a substantive commitment, but nonetheless it provides a sounding in board in virtue of which self and circumstances come to matter. It is through this lens that we can usefully think about the biographical consequences of ideas. For instance, I’m personally convinced that being exposed to Buddhism by a Religious Studies teacher at 16 had an enormous influence on my life but not, crucially, in that it made me a Buddhist – instead the encounter set off a long exploration of the cultural system which led me to many of the things which fascinate me and give my life meaning in the present. Similarly, this was on my mind when watching Luther at the weekend when the main characters ex-wife describes her driven and trouble ex-husband, opining that “if he’d read a different book by a different writer at just the right time in his life he’d have been a different man”. This is the terrain of meta-reflexivity: the role ideas and commitments play in sifting the options available to us at particular moments in time and, as a consequence of this, conditioning the people we become over time.

    It is this ideational idiosyncrasy and normative attentiveness which generates the propensity for meta-reflexives to seek vocations rather than career, compelled by a need to ‘make a difference’ rather than simply meeting their immediate needs and wants. It also engenders an indifference to normative conventionalism which goes hand-in-hand with an intense propensity to deliberate about their own position in relation to the social order:

    When entering university young meta-reflexives declared themselves to be immune to group pressure and indifferent to group expectations, whether these stemmed from the natal background or the student collectivity […] a major consequence of their critical disengagement from their natal backgrounds is their adoption of an exploratory outlook towards the social. They approach the social order interrogatively rather than through a repertoire of internalized responses that have already divided up the social world in what should be shunned and what sought […] their quest is for difference rather than for the ‘similarity’ and ‘familiarity’ after which the communicatives craves and also need in order to exercise this type of internal conversation as their dominant mode of reflexivity. It follows that their openness to new experiences, their search for otherness and responsiveness to new variety is what draws meta-reflexives towards the situational logic of opportunity from the beginning. (Archer 2012: 208)

    Meta-reflexives are intensely selective in their orientation towards the social order:

    Most are avid for new experiences and new people with whom to share them. However, they are not ready to settle for the first people to hand tand take scant advantage of the random allocation of those have been assigned to the same hall of residence on arrival at university. They are friendly with their co-residents but these relationships do not mature into important or lasting friendships. Similarly, those who plunge themselves into university activities are experimenting and will withdraw if they learn that these are not a source of like-minded people. (Archer 2012: 222)

    However it is precisely this selectivity, an obverse of the introspective idiosyncrasy which produces it, which can often render the social order a lonely place where young meta-reflexives have to “drill [themselves] into meeting the demands of friendship” in order to find companionship which they may nonetheless continues to find unsatisfying (Archer 2012: 226). Likewise the intensity of deliberation which often characterises this mode can pose problems in its own right, as Archer quotes one of her research participants:

    “there have actually been times when I went out and I knew I had an essay hanging over me and everyone would be on the dance floor and I’d be dancing and I’d just suddenly start thinking about what I’d got to do and so I was not into it. I’d sort of be moving my body but my mind could be somewhere else and they’ve like ‘are you ok?’ and I’d be like, ‘oh I’m not enjoying this anymore, I’m going home’.” (Archer 2012: 226)

    • Glenda 11:32 am on October 10, 2013 Permalink


      Can you give me the reference for the article by Archer? What is the title of the paper?


    • Glenda 11:44 am on October 10, 2013 Permalink

      From her book right?

    • Mark 12:15 pm on October 10, 2013 Permalink

      the reflexive imperative – it’s the book from the picture

    • Mark 12:15 pm on October 10, 2013 Permalink

      yep! sorry read your comments one at a time 🙂

  • Mark 9:17 pm on July 28, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    “So what is it I’m trying to say exactly?”: Iteration and Articulation 

    Earlier today I was writing a paper for the International Association for Critical Realism conference next week. It was intended as a final statement of what my PhD is about, drawing the threads together and getting some feedback before I finish writing up over the next month or two. I’ve struggled endlessly to ‘frame’ my PhD over the last few years, while nonetheless being quite clear practically about what I’m doing and rarely being short of ideas about why I’m doing it. It left me thinking about the role of iteration in coming to understand what it is you are trying to say.

    My experience is of repeatedly trying to express an idea and, through doing so, gradually coming to feel I have much more of a grip on what it is I’m trying to express. The clarity with which you understand what it is you’re trying to do emerges through simply trying to do it. Hence the value of writing as much as possible while censoring as little as you are able. I tend to think of this process in terms of what Taylor calls articulation:

    Much of our motivation – our desires, aspirations, evaluation – is not simply given. We give it a formulation in words or images. Indeed, by the fact that we are linguistic animals our desires and aspirations cannot but be articulated in one way or another […] these articulations are not simply descriptions, if we mean by this characterisations of a fully independent object, that is, an object which is altered neither in what it is, nor in the degree or manner of its evidence to us by the description.

    In this way my characterisation of this table as brown, or this line of mountains as jagged, is a simple description. On the contrary, articulations are attempts to formulate what is initially inchoate, or confused, or badly formulated. But this kind of formation or reformulation does not leave its object unchanged. To give a certain articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important in a certain way.

    • Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers Vol 1, 36

Writing isn’t simply a matter of externalising something which exists pre-linguistically within your mind. The very act of trying to ‘externalise’ transforms what exists embryonically and this is why writing works best when it is iterative. Perhaps this also points towards a way to understand creativity as non-linear:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

  • Mark 4:43 pm on July 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    Beyond ‘fateful moments’ and ‘turning points’: a realist approach to biographical research 

    Advocates of biographical research talk of it offering a “dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other” which expresses an idea of “human beings as active agents in making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces” (Merrill and West 2009: 1). While biographical research has a long and multifaceted history, its recent impetus seems largely to derived from an interest in contemporary processes of social change (late / liquid / second modernity etc) and a sense that an adequate understanding of these social and cultural changes necessitates paying much greater attention to agency. What some have called the ‘biographical turn’ or the ‘subjectivist turn’ in reaction against what is perceived to be a prior neglect of agency in  social research. The accumulation of this body of scholarship and the popularity it enjoys should be understood in the context of the empirical questions being encountered within particular substantive fields of inquiry, as Rachel Thomson and Janet Holland observe in the case of youth studies:

    “As a discipline, youth studies has been centrally concerned with transitions: from education to work; leaving the parental home; starting a family. But ultimately the concern is with transitions from youth to adulthood. There is debate about the usefulness of the focus on transitions, when youth transitions at least have become so fragmented, elongated, interrupted and reversible (MacDonald et al. 2001; Furlong 2006; Wyn and Woodman 2006, 2007; Roberts 2007), and calls for a more holistic approach to young people and their lives, of which the study discussed here in an exemplar (Coles 1995, 2000; MacDonald et al. 2005; Henderson et al. 2007). As the institutional shape of youth transitions becomes less familiar, there is a need to find new ways of mapping and conceptualising biographical patterns that attend both to the ways that young people describe and experience their lives, but also to the structural conditions that constrain individual responses.” (Holland and Thomson 2009)

    It is this concern to ‘map and conceptualise biographical patterns’ which has led many within youth studies to turn to the notion of fateful moments presented in Giddens. Fateful moments are “those when individuals are called on to take decisions that are particularly consequential for their ambitions, or more generally for their future lives”. So the concept fits, at least superficially, within an orientation to social change which sees increasingly individualised responses as underlying deviations from shared biographical trajectories which are produced by wider structural processes. These ‘fateful moments’ can be contrasted to other aspects of everyday experience:

    • Non-routinised and non-consequential time: ‘free’ time that we ‘kill’
    • Routinised and consequential time: ‘difficult decisions may often have to be taken’ but these can be ‘handled by strategies evolved to cope with them as part of the ongoing activity in question.
    • Non-routinised and consequential: fateful moments 

    Fateful moments are “times when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence”. these include things such as the “decision to get married”, “taking examinations, deciding to opt for a particular apprenticeship or course of study, going on strike, giving up one job in favour of another, hearing the result of a medical test, losing a large amount in a gamble, or winning a large sum in a lottery” (Giddens 1991: 112-113). When an individual stands at such ‘cross roads’ they may consult expert systems to help assess the risks attached to the different options which the individual now confronts. It is because of this “altered set of risks and possibilities” that fateful moments mean that the individual is “called on to question routinised habits of relevant kinds, even sometimes those most closely integrated with self-identity”.

    The concept has seemed to possess a certain intuitive plausibility to many who have sought to analyse biography in a sociological way. On obvious reason for this is because it appears to recognise agency without denying what Holland and Thomson describe as the “structural conditions that constrain individual responses”.  The concept places “individual choice” centre-stage but it does so in a way which sees those choices, driven by wider ‘global forces’ beyond the local context, as something characterising particular segments of everyday life.

    But it is precisely this sharp distinction between life as dramatic and mundane which should make us suspicious. The Giddensian subject in late modernity lives a strange double life, split between rational risk calculation and fatalistic resignation. The denial of second-order personal emergent properties leaves this subject normatively rudderless, without the concerns in virtue of which potential courses of action would actually matter to them. So we are left with an excessively rationalistic risk-calculator at fateful moments who ‘goes with the flow’ in a routinised way the rest of the time. This seems implausible at the level of folk psychology and it seems problematic at a conceptual level, leaving us with what Matthew Adams nicely describes as a “peculiarly arid picture of the processes we utilize to make sense of the world and of ourselves”.

    So what happens when you try and study fateful moments?

    My point is not simply to criticise the concept of ‘fateful moments’. One of the major strands running through my thesis has been an attempt to understand the value people have found in the work Giddens has done on late modernity and detraditionalization. In present circumstances this literature, as well as the work of Bauman and Beck in relation to whom similar but nonetheless distinct arguments could be made, occupies an important place in the sociological canon, not just in the literal sense that William Outhwaite elucidated in a thoughtful piece in Sociology a few years ago but also in the way these ideas have diffused throughout an increasingly fragmented field of sociological inquiry. There’s a sense in which this body of work serves as a conduit linking a range of sociological sub-disciplines – particularly in youth studies and sexuality studies which is where much of my own interests lie outside of sociological theory but I suspect in others as well. I have not demonstrated this empirically because it is, if anything, simply a matter of context for my project. I’m raising it largely to sign post the fact this is, in a very particular sort of way, an extremely sympathetic critique. One which finds great problems with the objects of its criticism but does so as part of a practical attempt to offer an alternative which can perform the functions to which many have sought to deploy the work of Giddens. But doing so requires an understanding of what happens when you put these ideas into practice.

    Rachel Thomson, whom I quoted earlier, co-authored two insightful papers (with different co-authors) reflecting on attempts to operationalise the concept of ‘fateful moments’ in the analysis of a qualitative longitudinal data set. The authors reported how they soon found that the concept “provided us with an interesting start point and some useful tools that we were able to operationalize in relation to empirical data, over time his framework became unsatisfactory both for descriptive and explanatory purposes”. The actual complexity of the lived life, which manifests empirically to a much greater degree in the context of qualitative longitudinal research bursts the boundaries of the notion of ‘fateful moments’. The provisionality of these moments becomes striking, as what can seem in one round of data collection as an instance can easily seem to be anything but in subsequent rounds. Furthermore Holland and Thomson note how “this theoretical approach to understanding the significance of life events obscures relationships, investments and the wider power structures that might constrain choice in practice” creating a tendency for researchers working within the model to take “professions of agency at face value” (Holland and Thomson 2009: 459-464).

    The problem in both cases is the actualist bias inherent in the concept. It deals with level of events rather than the underlying mechanisms productive of them. Furthermore, the identification of an event is made to depend on the subject’s apprehension of it as such. These moments are inferred retrospectively as a subject sifts back through past experience to find those which were ‘fateful’. This poses immediate challenges for any inquiry which seeks to avoid taking professions of agency and self-narratives of transition at face value. If the identification of ‘fateful moments’ is dependent on their subjective apprehension as such then their characterisation by the research will, necessarily, remain similarly dependent on the participant’s own characterisation. This becomes particularly problematic given what Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel describe as the “epistemological fallacy of late modernity”: the tendency for the diversification of individual experience to give rise to an individualised self-understanding of its underlying causes. Certainly, it is possible for those using the concept of ‘fateful moments’ to circumvent this tendency but they do so in spite of rather than because of the concept. Given this underlying tendency for individuals to construe their biographies in terms of individual factors (e.g. construing occupational success as a function of individual proficiency or unemployment as a function of individual lack) it becomes imperative that a sociology which proceeds at the level of the individual be adept at recognising the reality of the structural and cultural powers which shape individual lives.

    The point is not we should ignore such data, far from it, only that we must avoid engaging with it from within the actualist explanatory register that concepts like ‘fateful moments’ (and homologous notions such as ‘turning points’) leave us stuck within. We will face problems if the identification of objectively consequential ‘turning points’ is made to depend on the subject’s own subjective apprehension of them as such. We need another approach and this is where Archer’s recent work proves invaluable.

    The ‘three stage model‘ as alternative to ‘fateful moments’

    Underlying Archer’s work on reflexivity is a schematic understanding of human action, hinging upon the role that reflexivity plays as an interface between structure and agency:

    1. Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to 
    2. Subjects’ own constellation of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social 
    3. Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances (Archer 2007, 17)

    It is this emergent power of reflexivity which helps avoid the parallel moves made by the ‘subjectivist turn’ and the objectivist sociology it sees itself as reacting against. The underlying impulse  to recognise agency which animates biographical approaches is satisfied but in a way which avoids the voluntarism which will tend to characterise approaches of this sort. It is the properties and powers of the social which render this voluntarism untenable, as structural and cultural properties causally impinge upon the lives of agents regardless of how this causality is described or if it is recognised. But it is the properties and powers of the subject which ensure that the capacity of individuals to formulate and pursue projects, albeit not in conditions of their own choosing, isn’t reduced to being an epiphenomenon of structural and cultural forces.

    This allows us to step back from the actualism inherent to ‘fateful moments’ and ‘turning points’ while still retaining a focus on the role played by  human action in shaping biographical unfolding. It also allows us to take subjectivity seriously while avoiding the empiricist temptation to simply ‘give voice’ to the narrative of a participant. The realist approach to biography thus involves both understanding and explanation. From this perspective ‘fateful moments’ are particularly consequential instances of a much more pervasive phenomenon, much of which may be beyond the purview of a given research project.

    So what does this mean in practice? 

    Part of the difficulty with debates about individualisation and late modernity is a lack of clarity about the properties and powers of the individual whose existential experience is purportedly being reshaped. To this end, Derek Layder’s (1997) notion of psychobiography has proved useful in thinking through exactly what a biography is in an ontological sense. He offers this concept in an attempt to avoid conflationism in understanding individual transitions over the life course. Through recognizing the ‘linked series of evolutionary transitions’ which unfold at ‘various significant junctures in the lives of individuals’, the concept aims to tie together ‘both the subjective and objective facts of an individuals experience’ (Layder 1997: 47).

    Instead of asking the subject to make a retrospective judgement about the ‘fatefulness’ of particular event, this approach to interviewing involves the dialogical exploration of the ‘issues’ confronted by the subject given their present circumstances – those matters which recurrently occupy their internal conversations. This naturally encompassed both subjective concerns and objective circumstance because it is only in virtue of the latter that the former matters to subjects. In doing so it aims to identify biographically significant movements through the three stages of Archer’s model and explain how the “evolutionary transitions” invoked by Layder unfold and are, in turn, linked together in the emergent psychobiography of the research participant.

    • Roy Wilson 6:17 pm on July 28, 2013 Permalink



      A few years ago I consulted the “Handbook of the Life Course”, edited by Mortimer and Shanahan (2006). There I happily found several chapters that exhorted researchers to focus more on agency. Less to my liking was the fact that these chapters still seemed to be largely within the conceptual framework of “transitions” and “turning points”. My sense was that much of the life course research in the US is still framed by various formal models, such as event history models, even if no mathematics rears its head.

      I also looked at more the more subjectivist approach that valorizes the “life-course narrative” in which “life stories” unfold in a recorded dialogue between subject and researcher, with interpretation by the researcher (as in “Making a Life in Yorkville” by Gerald Mandel). While this approach seems less tied to the “transitions and turning points” framework I found in the Handbook, structural factors seem to do not much more than provide a stage for the action and a background for the narrative.

      I imagine that, as you point out, this is because both approaches remain at the level of the actual, though both yearn for the real.

      I also wonder if, in your opinion, there is any potential gain in doing biography in reverse time as in Alexander Masters’ “Stuart: A Life Backwards”. I am prompted to ask this question by observations from others that the narrative structure of language “imposes” a sense of causality.

    • Mark 1:08 pm on July 29, 2013 Permalink

      V nice comment to receive thanks! When I rewrite the thesis as a monograph I want to go into a lot more detail with this literature than I have – I’ve largely focused on Giddens & looked at the uses people have made of him.

      Don’t understand the ‘reverse time’ idea though.

    • Roy Wilson 1:50 pm on July 29, 2013 Permalink

      I mean that, instead of telling ‘the story’ from beginning to ‘end’, telling it in reverse order. For example, I just wrote this bit of text. What was the proximate cause? Rinse and repeat. By ’cause’, of course, I mean to include ‘reasons’.

    • Mark 1:54 pm on July 29, 2013 Permalink

      oh, yep, i think explanation MUST work that way for biography – less sure about stylistic merits, depends on context i guess.

    • Emmanuelle 1:47 pm on March 10, 2014 Permalink

      Sorry, I don’t get this. If you ask people to tell their story in reverse order they will still have to make connections between the different segments of their stories. Mark, I’m reading this months late as I’m currently writing a paper on sedentary behaviour and later life. I’d like to read Archer’s stuff on internal conversation but I’m not within distance of a library this week to get her stuff. So I’m relying on your blogposts to enlighten me! I hope you don’t mind. My starting point is that I think Foucault and Rose still have a lot to contribute to an understanding of the discourses which shape the conditions in which agency can be understood. How this is then linked to (interacts with?) social actors’ own decisions I agree is an issue that needs to be explored more actively. In relation to sedentary behaviour, we know because of the science that people are sedentary and that this is a behaviour which pervades the whole of everyday life. This leads to at least two questions:

      1. do people recognise themselves as sedentary and as having this as a behaviour?
      2. how they did get to be sedentary?

      The overarching concern is – how do we make people change this ‘behaviour’? My own ‘secret’ question is – should we? in what circumstances? how? etc…

      I don’t think we can understand the ‘problem’ of sedentary behaviour outside of the discursive tendency to medicalise what people do (with its ‘ideological’ encounter with neoliberalism). Similarly we cannot understand people’s reluctance to interventions outside of it either. However there might be circumstances which lead to people deciding to address their ‘behaviour’ as real and worthy of attention. or not. Or they might offer a counter argument (I am not sedentary, I am active or I am sedentary but so what? that’s how I like it, etc…).

      One other thought – turning points are of course post rationalisations which compress what might have been fairly long processes – for instance, people who undergo cardiac rehab need to have a diagnosis first, then treatment, the rehab and only then might they become receptive to the need or urge to embed physical activity into their lives. But going from rehab to the adoption of physical activity is itself fraught with pitfalls. Nevertheless if it does happen, the illness is still a turning point but several months and an internal conversation might have taken place/passed.

    • Mark 7:06 am on March 13, 2014 Permalink

      I completely agree re: Foucault and Rose. I take them to be talking about ‘reflexive technologies’ or ‘cultural resources’ – ideational constructs, often embedded in institutional forms, which inflect personal reflexivity and social reflexivity in certain directions, making some things more likely and other things less etc.

      Do you know Andrew Sayer’s recent work? It would raise the really interesting question of the ‘lay normativity’ of sedentary lifestyle – getting beyond the discursive construction of the social problem (though not abandoning it) and trying to look at the evaluative orientations which work to engender and entrench objectively sedentary behaviour.

      This does sound like one of those issues where studying reflexivity is essential. I don’t see how these questions could ever be addressed properly unless you can recognise the independent causal powers of the ‘sedentary’ individual and the cultural construction of the social problem.

  • Mark 11:14 am on July 27, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Christakis, Dirk vom Lehn, disciplinarily, Holmwood, interdisciplinary,   

    ‘Shaking Up’ the Social Sciences 

    A recent blog post by Nicholas A. Christakis on the New York Times site about the need for ‘shaking up’ the social sciences has provoked a great deal of debate online. The author argues that while the natural sciences have flourished in the last century, giving rise to “whole new fields of inquiry” resulting from “fresh discoveries and novel tools”, the social sciences have stagnated:

    They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.


    Christakis argues that social scientists “too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers” and instead plug away at the same old topics with diminishing returns. I’ve suggested elsewhere that we can easily find flaws in explanations of the lack of cumulative progress (i.e. the “the creation of new and useful knowledge” and “moving on” to new topics when we’ve “figured this topic out”) in sociology which locate it in the cultural tendencies of sociologists. Nonetheless his case is certainly a provocative one:

    So social scientists should devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields like social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics, most of which, not coincidentally, lie at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Behavioral economics, for example, has used psychology to radically reshape classical economics.


    It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science. Eventually, these departments would themselves be dismantled or transmuted as science continues to advance.

    Some recent examples offer a glimpse of the potential. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse social sciences to the study of international issues and offers a new major. At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology, which increasingly relies on modern genetics, was hived off the anthropology department to make the department of human evolutionary biology. Still, such efforts are generally more like herds splitting up than like new species emerging. We have not yet changed the basic DNA of the social sciences. Failure to do so might even result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.

    New social science departments could also help to better train students by engaging in new types of pedagogy. For example, in the natural sciences, even college freshmen do laboratory experiments. Why is this rare in the social sciences? When students learn about social phenomena, why don’t they go to the lab to examine them — how markets reach equilibrium, how people cooperate, how social ties are formed? Newly invented tools make this feasible. It is now possible to use the Internet to enlist thousands of people to participate in randomized experiments. This seems radical only because our current social science departments weren’t organized to teach this way.

    But is it plausible? From my perspective the (structural) incentivisation of innovation as an end in itself is one of the causes of a lack of cumulative progress rather than something which could act as its solution. An environment where ‘publish or perish’ reigns leads to an ideational arms race, with rewards going to those who can publish often while presenting novel ideas which shape the subsequent agenda. So we have to be very careful about matching this tendency with new (cultural) incentives disparaging work on the ‘settled subjects’ and shifting resources and acclaim to ‘new fields’: an intensification in the rate at which X studies and neuro-X proliferate would, at least as an aggregate tendency, make the situation worse not better. The picture Christakis paints of a culture gap between the disciplinarity of the social sciences and the transdisciplinarity of the natural sciences is also rather overdrawn, as Dirk vom Lehn argues on Org Theory:

    I am surprised Christakis puts forward the argument that “the social sciences have stagnated” over the past years. He gives no empirical evidence for such a stagnation of the social scientific disciplines and I wonder what the basis for this argument is. If he was to attend the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in New York in August he will see how sociology has changed over the past few decades, and he will be able to identify specific areas where sociologists have impacted developments in policy, technology, medicine, the sciences, the arts and elsewhere.

    His argument ignores also the long-standing cooperation between social scientists, technology developers, computer scientists, medics and health services providers, policy makers, etc. etc. etc. For example, for several decades social scientists, computer scientists and engineers have collaborated at research labs of PARCs,  Microsoft and elsewhere, jointly working to develop new products and services.


    Furthermore, argues vom Lehn, these fields give the impression of moving onwards while producing the “new and useful knowledge” Christakis calls for while ignoring much of the research that has been done elsewhere,

    Christakis refers to the development of new fields like neuroscience, behavioral economics and others that “lie at the intersection of natural and social sciences”. Because “behavioral economics” is popular also with policy makers let us take this new field as an example: one of the key findings of this new field is the importance of “non-rational action” for people’s decision making. I very much enjoy the creative research undertaken by scholars in this field, but it is quite surprising that it gets away with by-and-large disregarding 100 years of social scientific research. Critique of arguments that prioritize rational action over other types of action has been key to Max Weber’s famous work in the early 1900s, Talcott Parsons’ discussion of the utilitarian dilemma, Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments and many other sociologists’ research and teaching.


    The fields which Christakis sees as exemplars of what a ‘shaken up’ social science would look like are, in part, consequences of the very trends he decries. The superficial plausibility of such arguments needs to be interrogated. The common-sense tone underlying them only remains coherent by straightforwardly ignoring  what has largely been established within the social sciences and the impact which the earlier discussed  valorisation of innovation has had on underlying tendencies towards faddishness which are already deeply pathological:

    Articles like Christakis’ imply that current social sciences have little impact on society, policy makers and knowledge development more generally, whilst research in the natural sciences, in their view, has more “impact”. They, however, overlook and disregard social scientific research that has been forgotten because scholars and policy makers follow the latest fads and fashions, such as so-called Big Data research and the opportunities of brain-scans, rather than using and further developing the existing theoretical, methodological and empirical basis of the social sciences. Moreover, they pretend that the social sciences and the natural sciences basically could achieve the same impact, if only the social sciences would make appropriate use of scientific methods. Thereby, however, they ignore what social scientists have shown over and over again over the past 100 years or so, i.e. that the social is fundamentally different from nature; it always is already interpreted when the social scientist arrives. The ‘social’ requires interpretation of a different kind than nature as encountered and then interpreted by natural scientists. Furthermore, people often change their behavior in response to the research process and in response to social scientific findings. Nature remains nature. Apples keep falling down from trees.


    As vom Lehn observes, these presumably well meaning interventions can end up playing into the hands of those seeking to reshape the university and defund the social sciences. Particularly within the UK context, it fits within a political agenda that seeks ‘selectivity’ and ‘concentration’ in higher education:

    Two aspects of this drive for ‘efficiency’ are significant. The first is a concern to encourage ‘concentration and selectivity’. This involves the argument that not all universities should conduct research across all areas  (selectivity) and that research capacity should be concentrated in fewer universities (concentration). The  second is that economic and social impacts of research should play a larger part in the determination of which  projects should be funded (via the research councils) or should be rewarded with QR funding from the REF.


    It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the strategy suggested by Christakis for social science to establish a “small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields” coheres with the logic of concentration and selectivity. The overwhelming bulk of funding will be distributed towards the narrowly defined ‘priority areas’ with what funding, if any, remains for research outside these areas being provided from within wealthy institutions. Though institutions themselves will have an impetus to use ‘seed funding’ to help develop potential bids and hence there’s the possibility of the ‘priority areas’ coming to be reproduced internally. This broader political project has designs on reshaping disciplinarity, as Holmwood argues:

    In the language of science policy studies, it is clear  that the impact agenda is designed to reinforce the reproduction of what Nowotny et al (2001) call mode 2  knowledge. This consists in interdisciplinary, applied problem-based knowledge, which they contrast with discipline-based knowledge. Whereas the former involves the external beneficiaries of research drawn into the
    research process as its co-producers, the latter is frequently described in terms of disciplinary hegemony and  internal audiences.

    In line with those who think that the impact agenda can be shaped toward the ends of public social science,  Nowotny et al (2001) set out an attractive image of a new „public agora‟, drawing upon socially distributed  expertise. Yet the reality seems to be rather different, namely the rise of privately-negotiated user-researcher relationships and the replacement of disciplinary hierarchies by those of government strategic priorities operating though funding agencies (with individual universities increasingly mirroring those hierarchies with their own strategic priorities adapted to the priorities of funding bodies)


    There are beneficiaries of the shift to mode 2 knowledge. Indeed, Nowotny et al suggest that their identification of mode 2 knowledge has been used ‘politically’, writing that, “those with most to gain from such a thesis espoused it most warmly – politicians and civil servants struggling to create better mechanisms to link science with innovation; researchers in professional disciplines such as management, struggling to wriggle out from under the condescension of more established, and more ‘academic’, disciplines” (2003: 179).


    According to Abbott, a problem-based academic system would be “hopelessly duplicative” (2001: 135).  Disciplines are repositories of ‘problem-portabl’ knowledge, and “the reality is that problem-based  knowledge is insufficiently abstract to survive in competition with problem-portable knowledge” (2005: 135).  In fact, this is something that is very familiar from the ESRC‟s (2006) own engagement with perceived  problems of research capacity in applied interdisciplinary areas (for example, in management studies) and its articulation of a distinction between ‘exporter’ and ‘importer’ subjects to distinguish between academic  disciplines and interdisciplinary applied subject areas.


    Though it may be done with the best of intentions, drawing these sorts of boundaries between ‘settled subjects’ and the ‘new frontiers’ is politically dangerous. It misconstrues the failure to cumulatively ‘move on to new topics’ when we’ve ‘figured this topic out’ and risks intensifying the very deficiencies it purports to ameliorate. It also implies a view of “the creation of new and useful knowledge” which is homologous to that underlying the political project to instrumentalise and/or defund the social science (“if it’s not useful, why should we pay for it?”) and, though many advocates of the former would reject the latter, they nonetheless risk finding themselves  inadvertently acting as suppressive fire while the intellectual traditions they seek to equip for new challenges are instead dismantled around them.

  • Mark 9:28 am on July 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The Reflexive Imperative, Social Change and the Financial Crisis 

    As a precursor to the posts in which I’ll look in detail at each of the modes of reflexivity as discussed in the Reflexive Imperative, this post looks at one particular aspect of Archer’s arguments concerning autonomous reflexivity. Much as contextual continuity is argued to distribute communicative reflexivity among the population and contextual incongruity is associated with meta-reflexivity, Archer argues that context discontinuity is the generative mechanism underlying autonomous reflexivity.

    Contextual continuity obtains when the situations confronted by “one generation or cohort are much the same as they were for their predecessors” (Archer 2012: 20). Under such conditions “members know what to do because their repetition over time also means that appropriate courses of action have been defined intergenerationally – perhaps to the point of becoming tacit knowledge – and are readily transmitted through informal socialization” (Archer 2012: 6). This ensures a common experiential frame of reference and a low level of ideational diversity: conditions propitious to communicative reflexivity which are, in turn, reinforced by it given that ‘thought and ‘talk’ with ‘similars and familiars’ will tend to favour normative conventionalism. The reliance on others to complete and confirm deliberations reproduces the “norms of established custom and practice, because when they seek confirmation and completion of their initial thoughts and inclinations, convention is re-endorsed through external conversations” (Archer 2012: 21).

    Contextual discontinuity obtains when social change begins to undermine the commonalities which are the basis for communicative reflexivity. At a macro level, Archer argues that discontinuity is produced by the “simultaneous circulation of negative, structure-restoring feedback and positive, structure-elaborating feedback for structural, culture and agential properties” (Archer 2012: 6). On a biographical level, the key feature of contextual discontinuity is the absence of the ‘similars and familiars’ who would be able to complete and confirm one’s internal conversation. The increasing particularism which has come to constitute their experience makes their reflexive deliberations difficult to communicate and inculcates a tendency towards pursuing those deliberations to their end in a purely self-contained way as autonomous reflexivity.

    Contextual incongruity obtains when the intensification of social change means that “past guidelines become more and more incongruous with the novel situational variety encountered” (Archer 2012: 6). In a sense this can be seen as a radicalisation of discontinuity, such that the same process which precludes the emergence of durable commonalities of experience amongst the populace also increasingly makes the future intrinsically unpredictable. Under such conditions instrumental rationality, depending as it does “upon a calculability of pay-offs and sufficient knowledge about likely outcomes”, becomes increasingly untenable as a biographical strategy because “instrumental rationality cannot operate in an unpredictable environment where calculability goes out of the window” (Archer 2012: 35). So why does it still seem able to operate? Interesting answer below which I assume is a key thread running into the next book:

    If the intensification of morphogenesis spells a precipitous reduction in calculability, and if that, in turn, is inimical to instrumental rationality, should not a sharp and equivalent reduction in the practice of autonomous reflexivity also follow? This would seem to be the logic implication, but in practice the conditions that lead to this conclusion were, until the 2007 financial crisis, fairly effectively contained by the powerful interests involved. Specifically, the multinational corporations and finance capitalists tackled the root cause threatening their activities, namely incalculability. The former moved to an ‘assurance game’ in order to stabilise key aspects of their environment in which they operate. What this basically entailed was a series of mutual agreements that enabled those whose operations gained them a market advantage to continue to benefit from it for a number of years. This is why legal patents became crucially important. They served to ‘freeze’ uncertainty and, in guaranteed profitability ceteris paribus, thus freed up internal resources to make the next innovative development which, if successful, would then be protected in the same manner. Calculability had been restored, the old game could continue with no more than the old absence of guarantees that new lines of research and development might turn out to be dead ends. 

    However, the assurance game was not applicable to key areas, the most crucial being the finance market, but the latter had effectively tackled the incalculability of risk, from its own point of view, until the house of cards collapsed in 2007. Up to that date, the insurance game complemented the assurance game. Thus, the complex development of financial ‘derivatives’ and hedge funds represented forms of insurance by spreading risk over a variety of investments. If the development of ‘derivatives’ rendered risks calculable for the biggest players, investment supermarkets performed something of the same function for those with surplus capital. Assurance and insurance provided insulation against the quintessential unpredictability of morphogenesis and enabled the old game to continue – pro tem.

    They were complimented by other devices that manipulate consumption to ensure rising ‘demand’ and to underwrite increasing commodification. The proliferation of the credit card market, with a massive intensification of offers to transfer one’s balance (read: ‘debts’) to a new interest free card for a limited period, was a direct inducement to increase indebtedness, at an exorbitant interest rate, for those who frequently could not pay. An identical role was performed by sub-prime mortgages and unsecured loans. This complete reversal of cautious issuing and lending in the past, on the basis of established ‘credit-worthiness’ and earnings, artificially stimulated demand over an increasing range of products, from housing to holidays to cosmetic surgery, thus introducing greater stability in market demand and extending this to the tertiary sector.

    Market and state collaborated in buttressing finance capitalism […] as the expansion of public services in terms of benefits and employment  kept ‘demand’ buoyant in European countries, which increasingly produced nothing but consumed more and more. Whilst ever the game went on and the devices for concealing the manipulative aspects of marketization became more sophisticated, so too could many continue to work on the basis of instrumental rationality in planning their courses of action in the hope of becoming better off. With its collapse, and a few of the most audacious financial players going under, European states were more concerned to re-establish ‘business as usual’ than to introduce stringent regulation of the financial services, which had replaced the production of goods as the source of national wealth. In other words, there are few grounds for supposing that the associated mode of reflexivity – autonomous reflexivity – would undergo a sudden and sharp decline.

    (Archer 2012: 35-38)

  • Mark 11:40 am on July 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The Reflexive Imperative and Shaping a Life 

    In the previous post of this series I explored Archer’s arguments about relational reflexivity: on this view the socialisation process should be understood as an active and ongoing engagement by a individual that is profoundly shaped by the matrix of relations within which they were embedded at any given point in time. There are two key concepts Archer uses to make sense of this biographical process:

    1. The necessity of selection that obtains when morphogenesis impinges on the social context(s) a subject inhabits: “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). However the novelty which characterises these opportunities also precludes any authoritative source of normative guidance. While the subject might not confront them alone, either in the sense of the opportunity being unique to them and/or lacking others from whom an attempt can be made to solicit guidance, these others are similarly situated vis-a-vis the novelty as novelty. There is no ‘common sense’ view to turn to where such novelty is concerned and, as a consequence, confrontation by it constitutes an initial spur towards reflexivity. Though, as discussed in the last post, the form this takes is empirically variable. In a natal context characterised by established ‘relational goods’ and a relative degree of normative consensus, the necessity for selectivity will tend to be low given the subject’s likely investment in their (highly valued) present circumstances. However as they begin to explore beyond this context, encountering variety will increasingly necessitate selectivity: other things to do and other ways to be poses the challenge of either recommitting themselves to their initial investment in their natal context or beginning to look beyond its normative horizons.
    2. Shaping a life refers to the ongoing and unavoidably provisional attempts made by subjects to establish a satisfying and sustainable form of life for themselves. This involves inventorying, accommodating, subordinating and excluding concerns: working out, under our descriptions, what matters to us and how to live life in a way which expresses these concerns. We have limited time, energy and resources. We find ourselves situated within a stratified social world which leaves some opportunities available and others foreclosed. The practical projects we might otherwise form on the basis of our concerns could require resources we do not or are never likely to possess. Furthermore such projects, as well as the underlying concerns themselves, exist in relation to each other. Some are mundanely compatible or incompatible but others are complementarity or contradictory. We can enjoy rich food & fine wine while seeking to preserve a certain level of physical fitness (incompatible) – there is a tension between them but it can be negotiated reflexively. On the other hand, our love of fine wine cannot be sustained alongside, say, a religious commitment to teetotalism (contradictory). Ultimately, one commitment or the other has to be surrendered by us given the necessity of ‘shaping a life’. It’s important to recognise that this is not the pursuit of an isolated ‘Sartrean Self’: our placement within the social world is integral to the challenges we confront in ‘shaping a life’ and, in turn, individual or collective projects of modifying that placement (or the overarching structures within which we are ‘placed’) can be well understood within this framework. Furthermore, as per the notion of relational reflexivity, “the reflexive practical reasoning involved is shaped by the networks of relations within which it takes place because these profoundly affect what does and can satisfy the subject and be sustained by each of them” (Archer 2012: 97)

    Shaping a life is a messy and complex process. This is particularly true during adolescence where subjects are preoccupied by discerning and deliberating about their nascent concerns because they are learning about their selves and their circumstances. Archer places great stress upon novelty at the biographical level and this is integral to her project of linking an account of social change at the macro and micro levels in a non-reductive way. Any encounter with novelty is understood as producing a response in the individual, with the nature of this response being a variable matter conditioned by the subject’s relational-reflexively shaped pre-dispositions towards their context and the personal concerns which act as the normative ‘sounding board’ through which novelty is ‘filtered’:

    Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

    The notion of ‘concern’ here is emphatically not that of wanting or desiring. The things I want can matter to me but, from Archer’s perspective, it’s the concern in virtue of which they matter that is important here. When we experience things as mattering in this way, it leads naturally to the challenge to commit presuming circumstances allow. On this view, our relations with the world are unavoidably evaluative: what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ cannot be ignored if we want to provide an adequate explanation of social action. However the fact things matter to us does not, in itself, provide guidelines for practical action and we can be sure about a concern while still later coming to feel we’ve mischaracterised or misunderstood what mattered to us and why. Even with a clear understanding of what matters to us, the process of subsequently shaping a life is a complex task:

    Yet this is of real concern to students, who at least want to make lasting commitments and are quite capable, for the most part, of projecting ten years ahead and describing the contours of the life they would then like to b leading. this means their undergraduate years will also be the time (for some) when the necessity of selection meets the need to shape a life. Why is this described as a ‘need’? Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. This is why subjects (excepting the ‘fractureds’) actively though fallibly seek to dovetail their concerns. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

    On Archer’s account, the process of shaping a life necessitates the prioritisation of some concerns as qualitatively more important than others. In committing ourselves to such final ends, these may then serve to filter novelty much more powerfully than our other concerns e.g. the ramifications for one’s family becomes the immediate frame of reference through which any new opportunity is assessed. Establishing final ends in this sense does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of other concerns – though sometimes it can do this and it’s an issue which fascinates me at the level of individual biography – but it does provide a principle which allows for their relativisation, as an ultimate concern implicitly subordinates other concerns without negating their value. Archer’s extremely sympathetic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt rests on their occlusion of the relational dimension to these existential questions:

    The process of shaping a life is necessarily a matter of relations, but these are not approached relationally by most philosophers, even when they are dealing with careers or, more blatantly, with friendship, romance of parenthood. Instead, they are considered unilaterally, from the standpoint of a single lover. My argument will be that the social relations, within which the designation of ultimate concerns is enmeshed, are indispensable to explaining the life that is shaped. Taylor will be of considerable help here, but his approach will need supplementing by relational considerations. (Archer 2012: 112)

    The particular argument of Taylor’s she refers to here is that “in the end, what we are called upon to do is not just carry out isolate acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human being” (Archer 2012: 112). The crucial question here is how our concerns ‘fit, or fail to fit, together in the unfolding of our lives’. However Archer argues that without a ‘sense of unity’, such that we do not know what kind of life we wish to lead and what sort of person we wish to be, such considerations cannot adjudicate on the present dilemmas we confront. Instead she proposes that this process be seen relationally and cautions that, contra Taylor, the fact that an “internal, subjective sense of what gives unity to his or her own life” must be a personal property by definition does not mean that it is a personal achievement. From a relational perspective,

     it is the relationships accompanying and surrounding her concerns that promote both the subjective sense of computability and objectively make concerns compatible, or the opposite. how do relational considerations help in answer the question Taylor has effectively posed: what does complementarity require, such that it can give rise to the ‘sense of unity’ of a life?


    The difficulty for most students at the point of university entry (and usually aged eighteen) is that their concerns are fluid and often incomplete. In other words, they provide insufficient guidance for shaping a life. Whilst ever concerns can be displaced and replaced (without such shifts being prompted by dramatic contingencies), this indicates that discernment and deliberation are still ongoing and thus cannot provide the necessary traction for even being preoccupied about coherence amongst the components that the subject has started to flag up as important to her. This is where the majority of university entrants find themselves.

    It is obvious that the eventual constituent concerns giving unity to a life must not be blatantly at odds with one another, such that it is volitionally impossible to serve both (wishing to remain a teetotaller and seeking to become a sommelier). Yet, something more than bald compatibility seems called for if the shape of a life is to prove durable and if it is to be more than one of several designs that ‘on paper’ might seem to yield the same ‘life goods’, to use Taylor’s term. The ‘constituent goods’ endorsed also need to be mutually reinforcing in a manner that requires further clarification. For instance, a concern to continue playing football during someone’s career as an engineer appears neither complementary nor contradictory, but the two do not reinforce one another in any self-evident way. This is where introducing relations and relationality can assist with both of the problems posed above; how to shape a life non-arbitrarily and how to cope with having two final ends. This is because both relations and relationality generate emergent properties whose effects exceed terms like ‘reinforcement’ or ‘deterrent’. They can make a life possible or impossible rather than simply being neutral towards it, as in the above example  (Archer 2012: 115)

    The text then offers an extremely detailed example which, for the sake of getting something else done today, I won’t try and summarise. In brief: Archer’s point is that ‘final ends’ can be shared between people and that plural final ends can be incorporated into the ‘unity of a life’ which Taylor invokes. The broader message is that relations and relationality (relations between relations) are integral to understanding the biographical process of shaping a life because, without such a frame of reference, it becomes difficult to understand  at an empirical level the complementarity or contradiction between concerns which we can say at a theoretical level to be necessary for ‘shaping a life’. In successive posts (communicative reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, meta reflexivity, fractured reflexivity) I’ll try and show what this means in practice.

  • Mark 11:27 am on July 24, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    The Reflexive Imperative and Relational Reflexivity 

    In the next post of this series I’ll cover the theory of socialization offered by Archer in the Reflexive Imperative. She argues that existing theories of socialisation tend to assume a ‘normative consistency’ in the natal environment which, given the intensification of social and culture change, becomes increasingly impossible. As such socialisation can no longer be construed in largely passive terms as ‘internalization’ because there is less and less which can be internalized in this way. Or, in other words, the more dissension that exists about what ‘normal’ is then the more subjects are confronted with ‘mixed messages’ which begin to inculcate a need for reflexivity at a much earlier age than would previously have been the case. This is a claim about an empirical tendency – why I italicised the two ‘more’ statements in the previous sentence – rather than a theoretically posited move to a post-traditional society, in that it identifies variable features of the natal environment which subjects confront and postulates a mechanism through which that variance translates into observable trajectories of development as reflexive subjects.

    Central to this account of ‘relational reflexivity’ is, unsurprisingly, the notion of the relation. In recent years Archer has been heavily influenced by the Italian school of Relational Sociology founded by Pierpaolo Donati. Much of her interest stems from the theoretical resources offered by relational sociology to understand social integration in a way that critical realism, with its Marxist influenced preoccupation with social change, has thus far been unable to. Relational sociology offers a novel way of understanding the problem of order which centres upon the concept of the ‘relation’. In this approach society itself is seen to be constituted relationally in a manner which cannot be reduced to interpersonal interaction. Interpersonal interaction can help us understand the reciprocal effects of A upon B and vice versa but, unless we take the relation itself as a unit of analysis, the emergent effects of this interaction are obscured from view. In doing so, it becomes possible to focus on how ‘relational goods’ and ‘relational evils’ (e.g. trust, love, reliance and their obverse) emerge from interaction but then provide a context for subsequent interaction. The characteristics of relationships outstrip the control of those involved because they produce genuine emergents with real effects that those party to such relationships are orientated towards in relations of strong evaluation.

    Where the receipt of ‘relational goods’ is concerned, this has the generative tendency to create bonds and interdependencies at the empirical level amongst the persons involved that denote more than ‘good inter-personal relations’. They indicate something in excess of a degree of warmth and some regularity of contact. That ‘something’ refers to emergent properties, namely ‘internal goods’ (such as love, reliance, caring and trust) that cannot be produced by aggregation and are also deemed highly worthwhile in themselves. As ‘strong evaluators’, the young subjects from such close families recognise the value of what their parents have generated – also enabling them to become part of the generative process because the family does not remain a couple plus a child, but widens the dyad into a triad (plus). This recognition means respect for the relational goods produced and a concern for the preservation and prolongation of this worth that encourages a commitment to fostering the relationship itself. It spells endorsement of the family’s modus vivendi, without preventing the subject from contemplating the odd tweak. (Archer 2012: 99)

    In such cases, which were small within both Archer’s sample and my own, the ‘necessity of selection’ – which otherwise inculcates reflexivity given a climate of normative heterogeneity – had been substantially curtailed. This is not to suggest that ‘stable backgrounds’ precluded the development of reflexivity: individuals still confronted novelty outside of the family environment and particularly when they left for university. However the relational goods of the natal background precluded the proactive searching for experiential variety which characterised others within the sample:

    Thus, the receipt of high ‘relational goods’ prior to university entry yielded a group of ‘identifiers’ for whom the necessity of selection was minimised through decreasing the salience of new opportunities to them. In other words, the attractions of new opportunities were greatly reduced by subjects turning their backs upon morphogenetic novelty and variety and continuing to practise communicative reflexivity, exercised through ‘thought and talk’ with their similars and familiars. (Archer 2012: 100)

    The extreme opposite to such cases were those ‘rejectors’ whose experience of relational harm, characterised by things such as “excessive maternal dependency or domination as well as coercion, antagonism and exploitation” led them to repudiate their natal context and seek ‘escape’. However the escape rarely involved some clear end of what, where or how. In these cases, the characteristics of the relational background led to a diminished selectivity in parallel to that of the ‘identifiers’: it left them with an overriding concern to get away, in contrast to the overriding concern of the other group to stay, which meant that the reflexive imperative didn’t inculcate deliberative selection in the way that was the case with the further two sub-groups Archer identifies within the sample:

    However, the majority of interviewees fell into the sub-groups termed the ‘independents’ and the ‘disengaged’. The ‘independents’ had experienced much less server ‘relational harms’ than the rejectors but fell below the line of having received ‘relational goods’. All started university as autonomous reflexives and one family feature was disproportionately concentrated amongst them: divorced parents, ‘rocky relationships’ and parents effectively living apart. Almost uniformly, relations were quit cordial with the parent(s) with whom the subject was still in contact, cordial but uninvolved. From their accounts, disruptive family dynamics had induced an early independence amongst these subjects who recognised the need to take responsibility for themselves and to avoid become responsibility for the family situation or a particular parent. Nothing tied them to ‘mess other people had made’ and the dissention they breathed was met by an assertion of their individualism.


    Finally, the largest group was the ‘disengaged’, who had experienced and appreciated family stability as a ‘relational good’ but one mitigated by parental tensions from which subjects withdrew. they manifested a critical detachment from their parents and dissociation from the modus vivendi in which they had been reared. Reviewing the dissensus characterising their parents’ way of life, these subjects’ evaluation was that ‘there must be better than this’ and an avowed desire that their own would indeed be different. Distinctive of these meta-reflexives was that as teenagers they had already sought something better. Through their self-distancing they had found a ’cause’ with which to identify. Even if this was inchoate and rudimentary, as was not invariably the case, they did not withdraw their adherence to it when at university. It was more a case of fine-tuning their ‘vocation’ and the fact that some of the new opportunities coming into view had to be selected for compatibility with their ‘ultimate concern’ which was already being drawn into service as an architectonic principle. (Archer 2012: 101)

    Archer’s account of relational reflexivity isn’t suggesting that we’ve made a zero-sum transition from passive socialisation in modernity to active socialisation in late modernity or anything along those lines. Instead, it is unpacking the relational dynamics of the process itself and, through doing so, offering an account of tendencies in how the process is changing given social and cultural change. The ‘identifiers’ are the “only young people who could be said to approximate to the traditional image of socialization as internalizing both the normativity of their parents and identifying with the modus vivendi through which this was lived out” (Archer 2012: 101). The other groups experienced the ‘necessity of selection’ because they experienced the normativity of their environment as, for whatever reason, not something which they could sustain personally as concerns in their path through adolescence and beyond. These relational dynamics do not, in themselves, indicate the meaning which identification, rejection or the intermediate responses held for subjects. Nor does it tell us anything about the practical engagements with the world which followed from them. Instead Archer offers these categorise as “clusters of subjects who bring a particular pre-disposition to the task of shaping their lives rather than revealing anything this process itself or its outcomes in terms of different types of personal engagement” (Archer 2012: 102)

  • Mark 9:58 am on July 24, 2013 Permalink | Reply

    Contemporary Issues in Realist Thought – September 6th @BritSoci Meeting Rooms 

    This seminar intends to take a broad overview of contemporary realist thought within a variety of disciplines and consider current theoretical and methodological issues with respect to realism. We would like to initiate a broad discussion within the following areas:

    • Realist dialogues across perspectives and disciplines. How can realism engage with other schools of thought and traditions of research?

    • Using realism in substantive inquiry. How do key concepts within realism such as emergence, retroduction, generative mechanisms and a stratified ontology enable us to put realism to work within empirical research?

    • What difference does a realist perspective make? What can we learn about the application of realism across different disciplines?

    Our speakers and the areas they will be covering are as follows:

    Graham Scambler
    University College London

    ‘Taking interdisciplinarity seriously: realism and explanations of health inequalities’

    Interdisciplinarity involves more than talking across disciplines and sharing variables. In this session I draw on Bhaskar’s and Archer’s ‘basic critical realism’ to conceptualise and illustrate a possible research programme for understanding and explaining health inequalities. It is a programme that acknowledges the simultaneous activity of generative mechanisms at biological, psychological and social levels.

    Sue Clegg
    Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Research, Leeds Metropolitan University

    ‘Realism as a theoretical resource’

    In this presentation I will reflect on some of the ways I have drawn on realism in my own research and theoretical writing as a higher education researcher.  Critical realism has been an important resource in addressing a number of debates that are current in the field. I have drawn extensively on Margaret Archer’s work on agency, and the possibilities for corporate agency, in debating with colleagues writing in Gender and Education about the significance of agency for feminism and rejecting the more generally accepted post-structuralist accounts being offered. I have extended this line of thought more recently by elaborating what a critical realist account of intersectionality might look like compared to post-structuralist readings.   Similarly I have used a critical realist account of generative mechanisms  and a stratified ontology to offer a critique of the positivist assumptions that underpin many of the  arguments for evidence based policy and practice. In this writing the meta-theoretical tenants of critical realism are being drawn on as a way of exposing theoretical flaws in dominant theorisations. I have also drawn on critical realism in undertaking empirical work and in interpreting the forms of reflexivity on display. Many of the dominant pedagogical technologies prioritised in higher education and the dominant discourse of employability assume a form of autonomous reflexivity, however, across a number of empirical studies I have shown how many students do not appear to conform to these expectations. By extending Archer’s notion of the internal conversation to interview accounts of students own learning practices and their sense of imagined futures I have argued for the continued salience of forms of reflexivity which more closely approximate to communicative reflectivity and meta-reflexivity.  Drawing on critical realism in these studies represent a substantive effort to theorise the social rather than simply drawing on critical realism as a source of critique.

    Mark Cresswell
    Durham University

    ‘PEDAGOGY of the PRIVILEGED: Elite Universities and Dialectical Contradictions in the UK’

    This paper considers the role and function of Left academics within ‘elite’ (i.e. Russell Group) universities within the UK. Deploying Marxist theory and critical realism, it analyses the ‘dialectical contradictions’ experienced in such a role and reflects upon productive strategies for resisting the hegemony of neo-liberalism within those milieus.

    Dave Elder-Vass
    University of Loughborough

    Actor-network theory is increasingly influential in the social sciences. One of its apparently iconoclastic features is the surprising juxtaposition of the claim to be a realist perspective with denials that supposedly /natural/phenomena existed before scientists ‘made them up’. This paper explains and criticises such arguments in the work of Bruno Latour, examining their relation to his concept of assemblages. By combining referent and reference, Latour’s assemblages provide a superficially viable way to reconcile these apparently incompatible claims. This paper will argue, however, that ultimately Latour’s ontology is neither viable nor compatible with his wider agenda.

    Bob Carter
    University of Leicester

    ‘Realism and the Posthuman’

    I will talk about the various new forms of realism that are emerging, particularly in association with those currents of contemporary thought described as  ‘posthuman’. I will present a survey of these and point to some of the preoccupations that they share with critical realism as well as identifying some key differences.

    Seminar themes

    Within these different areas our speakers will be considering:

    • key current debates/ controversies

    • what holds realism back/ current problems/ sticking points

    • current trends in realist thought.

    We would like our discussions to inform a broad scoping exercise of the current issues of realist thought and which may help to inform future events that we will hold, developing an agenda for future sessions.

    To book, please visit:

    For further information please see the attached flyer, further details on speakers and abstracts to follow shortly.

    For more information on the BSA realist study group please visit:

    Hope to see you there
    Tom Brock, Mark Carrigan and Michelle Farr

    Study group website address: http://www.criticalrealism.org


  • Mark 9:48 am on July 23, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    The Reflexive Imperative and Internal Conversation 

    In the third part of this series of posts covering The Reflexive Imperative I will unpack in more detail what Archer means by the notion of ‘internal conversation’. As discussed in the previous post on The Reflexive Imperative and Social Change, an integral part of her account is a denial of the homogeneity of reflexivity. She argues that there is variation in its practice and that, furthermore, this variation is conditioned by historical circumstances. In the first study of the trilogy (Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation) she conceptualised a number of ‘modes’ of reflexivity to account for the variation in the practice of reflexivity she encountered within her sample, these then formed the basis for the subsequent and much larger study Making Our Way Through The World. Crucially, these are not presented as ideal types. Instead she identifies generative mechanisms in the past circumstances of practitioners of each which incline them towards that mode and, in turn, the mode itself operates causally through the trajectories of action it conditions. The concept is not deterministic, in the sense that a mode of reflexivity ‘makes’ an individual do something. Instead modes of reflexivity are seen to engender orientations towards novelty, stances towards constraints and enablements and styles of decision making. Early in the Reflexive Imperative she offers a brief schema of different modes:

    Communicative Reflexivity: Internal Conversations need to be confirmed and completed by others before they lead to action.

    Autonomous Reflexivity: Internal Conversations are self-contained, leading directly to action.

    Meta-Reflexivity: Internal Conversations critically evaluate previous inner dialogues and are critical about effective action in society.

    Fractured Reflexivity: Internal Conversations cannot lead to purposeful courses of action, but intensify personal distress and disorientation resulting in expressive action.

    (Archer 2012: 13)

    We all exhibit each of these to varying degrees on different occasions and in different situations but, she argues, the majority of people exhibit a dominant mode at any particular point in time. The mode of reflexivity helps us conceptually ‘open up’ many everyday mental activities: “‘mulling-over’ (a problem, situation or relationship), ‘planning’ (the day, the week or further ahead), ‘imagining’ (as in ‘what would happen if…?’), ‘deciding’ (debating what to do or what is for the best), ‘rehearsing’ (practising what to say or do), ‘reliving’ (some event, episode or relationship), ‘prioritising’ (working out what matters to you most), ‘imaginary conversations’ (with people you know, have known or known about), ‘budgeting’ (working out if you can afford to do something, in terms of money, time or effort) and ‘clarifying’ (sorting out what you think about some issue, person or problem)” (Archer 2012: 13). Through the concept of ‘modes’ we can begin to see more clearly how, say, ‘budgeting’ can  vary across persons: the communicative reflexive who goes home to talk to their partner before making an expensive purchase, the autonomous reflexive who confirms internally that they can afford it and do indeed want it before making the purchase on the spot, the meta-reflexive who wonders whether there might be better things to spend their money and decides against it or the fractured reflexive who struggles to make a decision either way before impulsively coming back later and buying it on a whim.

    It’s important to recognise that Archer intends this to be an account of those mental activities which are orientated towards action. Her focus is on particular sorts of mental activities and it does not entail that these activities are predominant in first-person experience. It also doesn’t deny the reality of “the days and times when, though we wish to concentrate upon some particular issue or activity, our inner conversations are distracted and flit around like midges or are leadenly unproductive through fatigue” (Archer 2012: 14). She is careful to avoid any latent sociological imperialism here, such as would appropriate mental life to be nothing more than the staging ground of social action. She also recognises the potential value of psychology to our understanding of reflexivity: holding that modes of reflexivity are not psychologically reducible but nonetheless recognising the role of psychology in their constitution, particularly in terms of individual propensities towards a particular dominant mode.

    One common misconception about the notion of ‘internal conversation’ is that it is rationalistic. This is certainly true of the notion of ‘reflexivity’ offered in the later Giddens, with individuals approaching ‘fateful moments’ in a calculative fashion. However Archer’s approach understands decision making in terms of ‘concerns’, drawing on Taylor’s notion of strong evaluation and Frankfurt’s account of care, in terms of which the potential outcomes we see as attached to choices matter to us. As she puts it,

    Our ultimate concerns are sounding-boards, affecting our (internal) responses to anything we encounter, according to it resonating harmoniously or discordantly with what we care about most. It is these reactions that affect what we do, not because we have complete or accurate discursive penetration of the situation. Instead, discordant elements have the capacity to move ordinary people because they are emotionally registered as offensive. They are shunned, repudiated or negatively sanctioned since they are antipathetic … Conversely, elements harmonious with the ultimate concerns are felt as congenial. They are welcomed, encouraged or positively sanctioned because this is what subjects’ emotions, as transvalued by their commitments, motivate people to do. (Archer 2012: 22-23).

    In the next post I’ll explore the biographical aspects of this in further depth, particularly the notion of ‘shaping a life’ which is integral to how Archer sees reflexivity as operating given the ‘situational logic of opportunity’. Then I’ll address in turn: reflexivity/habitus, Archer’s critique of Mead, socialisation as reflexive engagement and fractured reflexivity. I’ll also likely post a selection of miscellaneous extracts which didn’t fit into these broader themes but that I thought were worth recording nonetheless. These posts are taking rather a long time to do – I’ve now read up to page 90 since I started but have still only blogged to page 25. However it is starting to feel like a worthwhile exercise. I think I’ve sharpened my understanding of some of the concepts and I suspect I will find these posts a useful resource for various post-PhD writing projects I have planned. I’m considering trying the same approach in future for the Genesis of Values by Hans Joas which is the next (in this case figuratively) ‘big’ book on my list of things I want to read closely.

  • Mark 9:24 pm on July 22, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: collective, ,   

    What’s a Collective? The Ontology of Groups, Crowds and Crews 

    Session Organizers
    Frederic VANDENBERGHE, University State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, frederic@iesp.uerj.br
    Margaret ARCHER, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, margaret.archer@epfl.ch

    Session in English

    Half a century ago, we talked about the Proletariat, but without examining too closely the ontological status of collectives as distinct from collectivities: Does a collective exist? Is it just a name? Can it think as a group? Can it act, and if so, how? These questions remain and have re-surfaced in analytical philosophy and social theory. However, their conceptions are diverse and often represent incompatible ontologies of collectives and collective phenomena.

    Recent theoretical developments in systems theory, network analysis, actor-network theory, critical realism, pragmatism, phenomenology and analytic philosophy allow for a reconsideration of the question of collective agency and re-conceptualisation of collective intentionality, collective subjectivity, collective reflexivity, plural subjects, intentional communities, coordination of action, etc. There is an upswing in ‘Relational Sociology’ but as it not always clear whether it is persons, groups, things or even relations that are related, this term covers the same spectrum of ontological differences. There are some ‘relationists’ who want to keep their ontology flat and others who endorse a stratified ontology of relationships and their emergent properties and powers. Papers are sought that address these central issues thematically.

    At ISA 2014 – http://www.isa-sociology.org/congress2014/rc/rc.php?n=RC16

  • Mark 9:15 pm on July 22, 2013 Permalink | Reply
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    British Sociological Association Youth Study Group: Research Development Workshop for Research Students and Early Career Researchers 

    British Sociological Association Youth Study Group

    Research Development Workshop for Research Students and Early Career Researchers

    BSA Seminar Room, Imperial Wharf, London, Thursday 7th November 2013

    The BSA Youth Study Group invites research students and early career researchers working on or with an interest any aspect of youth research to attend a research development workshop.

    Building on similar previous events, the purpose of the day is to provide a platform for researchers to present their work in a supportive, constructive and intellectually stimulating environment. Researchers with work at any stage of the research process are welcome to present their ideas, findings or concerns of navigating the field.

    Whether planning to present at the BSA annual conference (or any conference or seminar for that matter!), refining ideas and questions through the literature review, or preparing to seek out avenues to disseminate your work in journals in the field, the day will provide a safe space for participants to receive feedback and help them develop their research in a range of different ways.

    The process will be supported by advice and guidance offered by established scholars in the fields of Sociology of Youth and Youth Studies.

    The day will also provide a useful networking opportunity to meet other people researching in similar fields. With this in mind, delegates not wishing to present but who would like to take part in an observational capacity or share and discuss their ideas more informally are very much encouraged to attend.

    Places are limited, but every effort will be made to include as many presenters as we can.

    If you are interested in presenting your work at this event, please email a very brief outline of your research (maximum 150 words) and an indication of your stage of research and the primary issues you would like to develop (presentation skills/ content, refining questions, dissemination etc) to s.d.roberts-26@kent.ac.uk before September 5th, 2013. This will enable us to cluster or stream the presentations effectively.

    Similarly, if you wish to attend without presenting or have any other questions about attending the event please feel free to email.

    Fee: BSA Member £15 / Non Member £25

    Hope to see many of you in November.

    Dr Steve Roberts, University of Kent

    BSA Youth Study Group Co-convenor

  • Mark 6:16 pm on July 22, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The Politics of Circulation, Human Agency and Building Your Own Information Environment 

    In the spirit of structured procrastination I thought I’d put some thoughts down which occurred when reading Dave Beer’s paper on the Politics of Circulation earlier today (weirdly enough, also in the spirit of structured procrastination, it’s like I have some impending deadline that is leading me to find ever more creative displacement activities). In this interesting discussion piece he observes a general tendency across the humanities and social sciences towards a new focus on public scholarship:

    It is becoming increasingly apparent that various academic disciplines, right across the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities, are trying quite hard to develop a more public profile. These struggles take many forms, as do the drivers and pressures that instigate them. Some are based upon governmental imperatives for research ‘impact’ – which is actually shorthand for having measurable impact (Burrows, 2012). Others are a result of cultural changes and the general feeling that public engagement is worthwhile. Alongside these, there are also some broader transformations in the media landscape that mean that researchers are forced to ask: what is stopping me from having a public face?

    This leads quite naturally to experimentation which the manifold possibilities afforded by social media for communication and engagement with those outside the academy. However the ensuing “integration of new media forms into research practices” has complex implications which the conceptual space opened up by the politics of circulation helps us begin to unpack. There has always been a politics of circulation for social research but digital communication entails a unprecedented increase in the visibility, complexity and rapidity which characterises this circulation:

    The outcomes and findings of social research have always circulated back into the social world in variegated and often untraceable forms (Savage, 2010). But the changing media through which research is being communicated opens this research up to a new range of possibilities for circulation and re-appropriation. If it gets any attention, it will be commented upon and rated (or ‘liked’) and, crucially, it will be re-appropriated through sharing, re-tweeting, re-blogging and as sections of the content (particularly visualizations) are cut-and-pasted into other posts for use by other ‘authors’.

    Many of the anxieties which surround the use of social media by academics can be usefully understood in terms of the politics of circulation. The article ends with the suggestion that “the greater our understanding of the politics of circulation then, the greater our chances of turning them to our advantage”. I couldn’t agree with this more. I’ve been trying for ages to conceptualise my intuitive sense of social media as at least incipiently political for social science given the present institutional and political environment it confronts. So perhaps what I’ve been grasping for is simply the notion that increased digital literacy amounts to an expansion of academic agency given contemporary politics of circulation? I find the range of free (or nearly free) possibilities currently available quite astonishing. It’s not simply a matter of social media platforms allowing new forms of communication but increasingly it is possible to build your own information environment to exercise what can be a quite significant influence over how your your work circulates.

    The two tools I have in mind here are Buffer App and IFTTT. I’m running it out of time for writing this post so here’s the explanation of IFTTT I wrote a while back:

    Do you find social media taking up too much of your time? If so then IFTTT could be incredibly useful for you. It allows different social media channels to be connected up using statements of the form IF [x] THEN [Y] – where X is an event occurring on one channel and Y is an action on another channel.When I found out about this, I was instantly fascinated but it can be quite tricky to work out how to actually use it. That said, I’ve been using it for months now and I was surprised to realise recently that I actually have 10 IFTTT statements running. These do things which previously were either impossible or only possible by hand. It’s an incredible time saving tool and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of it.

    Here are the ones I’m currently using:

    • Every new post on the LSE Politics Blog (via the RSS feed) gets saved as a new document on my Google Drive.
    • Articles I favourite on Pocket (Read It Later) get saved in Google Drive as a PDF
    • New posts on Sociological Imagination get their details entered on a spreadsheet archive in Google Drive
    • New posts on the Public University website get placed in my Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination
    • New entries on markcarrigan.net go into my Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination
    • New entries on markcarrigan.net go to the Sociological Imagination facebook wall.
    • New posts on Sociological Imagination go to the Sociological Imagination facebook wall
    • New posts on Sociological Imagination go to the Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination.
    • My favourited items on Google Reader go into the Sociological Imagination twitter buffer.

    With a very small amount of fiddling it makes it possible to make some quite complex things happen automatically. For instance every post I publish on this blog gets posted immediately on my own twitter account, on the sociological imagination facebook page and gets added to the Buffer for @soc_imagination to be posted at a later date – it also appears in a RSS feed which, when I sit down to ‘curate’ for the various Twitter feeds I run every few weeks, allows me to then add the post to the Buffers for these Twitter feeds with a single click. It might sound quite complex but the point I’m trying to get across is that it’s entirely automatic once you set it up. These tools make it possible to set up ‘pipes’ between ‘channels’ which ensure pathways of circulation, while also facilitating the easy collection and review of information about the further circulation which each ‘stage’ of this path gives rise to. I’ve been wondering for ages how to conceptualise what has, to me, seemed like an escalation of what online tools are offering and the politics of circulation certainly has promise in this respect. It’s also something I want to think more about in terms of agency in this novel information environment.

  • Mark 9:25 am on July 22, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The Reflexive Imperative and Social Change 

    In the second part of this series of posts, I explore Archer’s notion of the ‘Reflexive Imperative’ and how it relates to her theory of social change. In the previous post I explained how Archer sees reflexivity, the regular exercise of the mental ability to consider our selves in relation to our circumstances and vice versa, as something which varies in both quantitative and qualitative  terms. The extent to which individuals are reflexive varies but so too does the form this reflexivity takes. This propensity which exists at the level of the individual subject is seen to emerge biographically, as a consequence of the circumstances which the individual has confronted, as well as to then shape the unfolding of biography, through the orientations it engenders towards structural and cultural novelty as the individual moves through the life course. Towards the start of the Reflexive Imperative she offers a brief overview of how structural and cultural circumstances shape the situations which agents confront and, through doing so, engender propensities to certain styles of reflexivity at the individual level:

    Morphostatic configurations, those whose effects are structurally and culturally restorative of the status quo, exert this causal power through shaping everyday situations into ones that represent ‘contextual continuity’ for subjects. The recurrence of these situations means that members know what to do because their repetition over time also means that appropriate courses of action have been defined intergenerationally – perhaps to the point of becoming tacit knowledge – and are readily transmitted through informal socialisation. Conversely, thoroughly morphogenetic figurations would shape nearly all everyday situations as ones of ‘contextual incongruity’, where past guidelines become more and more incongruous with the novel situational variety encountered. Increasingly, each subject has to make his or her own way through the world without established guidelines – a process which cannot be conducted in terms of tacit knowledge or as ‘second nature’, but necessarily by virtue of internal deliberations. Between these extremes lies the vast majority of recorded history – that is modernity. Its hallmark was the simultaneous circulation of negative, structure-restoring feedback and positive, structure-elaborating feedback for structural, culture and agential properties and powers. The precise forms taken describe the contours of the multiple modernities that have been historically distinguished. As modernity advanced, these disjunctions constituted ‘contextual discontinuity’ for wider and wider sections of the population in any country. (Archer 2012: 7)

    So this ‘shaping’ effect is one which acts on individuals over time. The growth of home internet access creates a tendency for children of the 80s and 90s to encounter a much greater degree of cultural novelty than their parents could previously have imagined. The growth of service and finance in the British economy at the expense of manufacturing introduces occupational variety which makes past experiences unreliable guides for many who have already been in the labour market and lends working life a deeply unpredictable nature for those newly entering it. The argument Archer is making is fundamentally about the social shaping of biography. What I find so compelling about it is how it links the lived life of the individual to processes of socio-historical change but that, unlike Giddens et al – which merely amalgamate the ‘macro’ and the ‘micro’, connecting generalities about the former with generalities about the latter – Archer’s approach identifies mechanisms at all levels in order to explain rather than merely affirm the interconnections.

    This third book in the Reflexive Trilogy is primarily concerned with Generation Z. Like my own research, the initial results of which are featured in the methodological appendix to this book, it’s based on a longitudinal study of undergraduate students. As Archer describes the circumstances into which this generation were born:

    What makes them of absorbing interest are their dates of birth. These are young adults who were born and grew up in their last two decades of the twentieth century. their births were co-terminus with structural and cultural morphogenesis entering into synergy with one another, their natal environments were shaped and shaken by its initial impacts and their schooling was the earliest that could have registered the spawning new opportunities open to them. They are the first generation to grow up with the computer as a standard feature in the home and the first for whom going online was the readiest source of information. Now, in their early twenties, they confront the transforming social landscape that I will bet trying to describe with their help. (Archer 2012: 9)

    What makes their circumstances so interesting is the intensification of the Reflexive Imperative caused by this proliferation of structural and cultural novelty. Archer argues that “the extensiveness with which reflexivity is practiced by social subjects increases proportionate to the degree to which both structural and cultural morphogenesis (as opposed to morphostasis) impinge upon on them” (Archer 2012: 7). In other words, the more our social and cultural circumstances change, the more necessary it will be to exercise our reflexivity because past experience will be an ever less reliable guide to present choices. However, doing so does not simply involve the rational calculation of risk, as per the Giddensian subject confront a ‘fateful moment’, not least of all because the same processes which render reflexivity imperative also undercut the future predictability upon which rational calculation depends. Our concerns, those things that matter to us, thus “play an increasing role in guiding deliberations and the conclusions arrived at” (Archer 2012: 42). We may have, as Giddens once put “no choice but to choose” in late modernity, but we are our selves elaborated in the process of choosing – structural morphogenesis and cultural morphogenesis also give rise to personal morphogenesis. In the next post I’ll go further into this issue, exploring the nature of reflexivity and its different modes, before turning to the crucial sense in which we ‘shape a life’ and the biographical challenges that poses to individuals living within a climate of increasing structural and cultural variety.

    (Though I’m not sure if I’m going to make it all the way through with this live blogging a book idea. I’m only 13 pages in and this has taken ages! Hmm)

    • Roy Wilson 11:38 am on July 22, 2013 Permalink

      A noble idea, nevertheless. 🙂

    • Mark 7:33 pm on July 22, 2013 Permalink

      Lets see how far I get 🙂 I might just have to be less comprehensive than I was intending to be.

    • catrionao 1:11 pm on July 26, 2013 Permalink

      I’m glad you have Mark – spent most of this morning reading trough the various posts – it certainly makes Archer’s theories more accessible. Many thanks for sharing your thinking

    • Mark 2:34 pm on July 26, 2013 Permalink

      excellent, nice to know this is proving useful for others! it’s taking much longer than i expected but i’m finding it really helpful (and suspect it will be invaluable when doing post-phd writing which makes reference to the book)

  • Mark 10:04 pm on July 21, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Aneurin Bevan, anti-war,   

    If only Aneurin Bevan had been around in 2003… 

    4th November 1956, Trafalgar Square rally. Aneurin Bevan delivers one of the great anti-war speeches, condemning the government’s decision to take military action against Egypt in the Suez crisis.

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