The Reflexive Imperative and its Relationship to the Morphogenetic Approach

Over the next week I’ll be rereading Margaret Archer’s The Reflexive Imperative and, partly because I’ve never done it before, I’ll be blogging my engagement with each chapter. I’m interested to see how it goes, how long it takes and how much it adds to the depth of my engagement with the book. I found myself writing near immediately indecipherable notes in the margin earlier today, having already failed to read most of the equally indecipherable notes I made when I first read the book two years ago, which really made me question why I was doing it. So instead I’ll write a blog post on each chapter (or something along those lines) which I’m sure will prove much more useful to me in future and, assuming it doesn’t take too long, might be something I do on other occasions when I want to do a really in depth reading of a book.

The Reflexive Imperative brings to a close Archer’s trilogy investigating human reflexivity which she has defined throughout as the regular exercise of the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their (social) contexts and vice versa. So reflexivity is understood here in terms of mental capacity (to apprehend our subjective concerns and objective circumstances, fallibly and under our own descriptions, before connecting them in the mind) but also its regular exercise in the process of making our way through the world. Part of the confusion that can arise here is because ‘reflexivity’ has another more common meaning within sociology (a confusion which Brian Heaphy helpfully unpicks here) but Archer’s use is closer to that of Giddens and Beck, albeit one which shares much less than might initially appear to be the case. This is a big issue and one which I won’t touch here, partly because I intend to write something substantial on it post-PhD, apart from to highlight one difference – Giddens and Beck see the relationship between traditionalism and reflexivity in zero-sum terms, as part of a ‘destructuring’ of society, as enduring social forms dissolve into unstable flows, requiring narratively orientated reflexivity on the part of newly individualised actors. In contrast, Archer argues that reflexivity has always been part of society. In fact going so far as to say: “no reflexivity; no society“. She offers a number of arguments for this:

  1. Reflexive first-person awareness is indispensable in even the simplest society because without it, no rule, expectation, obligation and so forth could be incumbent upon anyone in particular without the ‘sense of self’ that is needed to bend such injunctions back upon oneself and know if the cap fits or not. 
  2. Traditional practices require reflexive monitoring for competent performance, for coping when things go wrong and for meeting unexpected contingencies. Since all social life is lived in an open system, the very workability of tradition depends upon resort to reflexive ingenuity in order to cover unscripted eventualities, which often entail the elaboration oft he tradition itself.
  3. Traditional guidelines may be in conflict with one another because there is no guarantee that all norms are complementary at any given time. (Archer 2012: 2) 

These arguments are integral to understanding the relationship between her work on reflexivity and her earlier work on both educational systems and sociological theory. The turn to the ‘individual’ was not a repudiation of her macro-sociological concerns but a logical extension of them. The three books of the previous trilogy (Culture and Agency, Realist Social Theory and Being Human) sought to elucidate the distinctive properties and powers of culture, structure and agency as part of a broader project of offering an emergent and relational ontology of the social and a explanatory framework (the morphogenetic approach) through which this could be studied empirically. Frederick Vandenberghe provides an excellent summary of what is a deeply practical, though undeniably complex, project:

Unlike Giddens, who is an eclectic thinker and a theoretical opportunist, Archer is more of a systematic theorist who carefully crafts out a series of fundamental concepts (e.g. analytical dualism, the morphogenetic sequence, the stratification of society and agency), and resolutely sticks to them. Wary of fads and fashions, the grand lady of British social theory has developed her own distinctive approach through a theoretical synthesis that tightly integrates the concomitant complementarities of the morphogenetic systems theory of Walter Buckley, the functionalist Marxism of David Lockwood and the critical realism of Bhaskar into a unified morphogenetic social theory. Even if the idea of analytic dualism and the morphogenetic sequence were already twinned and put to good use in the Social Origins of Educational Systems (1979), an 800-page comparative analysis of educational policies in France, England, Russia and Denmark, it would nevertheless take another four books to fully spell out the details of the morphogenetic theory of social, cultural and personal change. Early on, during her stay at Bourdieu’sCentre for European Sociology in Paris, Archer had acquired the strong conviction that in order to properly analyze the emergence, reproduction and transformation of cultural systems and social structures, one should focus on the dynamics between the system and socio-cultural interactions. Borrowing some insights from Buckley’s cybernetic study of the feedback mechanisms of “deviation-amplification” that trigger systemic change, she decomposed those dynamics in a series of endless morphogenetic cycles of systemic conditioning, socio-cultural interaction and systemic elaboration whereby the particular configuration of the system (at T1) conditions the practices of the life-world (at T2), which aim to reproduce or transform the system and lead, eventually (at T3), to a new elaboration of the system, which will be contested and modified in a second cycle, and so forth.

The morphogenetic project was structured around an underlying focus on the distinctive properties and powers of ‘structure’, ‘culture’ and ‘agency’. Only through an adequate conceptualisation of each is it possible to understand the reciprocal implications which it holds for the others. Each is dependent on the other but also distinguishable from it and, Archer argues, a failure to make such distinctions is partly responsible for the intractable methodological and theoretical disputes which have long plagued sociology. Without a stratified social ontology, social explanation inevitably slides into various forms of conflationism. The turn from the first trilogy to the second rested on the distinctive properties and powers of agency:

Being Human is the pivotal work. It “descends” to the personal level in order to conceptualise unique human persons — the ultimate moving agents of all that is social, though not the only constituents of society. Thereafter, the theoretical trajectory begins its “re-ascent” into the social world of positions, roles, organisations, institutions, and, eventually, the global social system. But, as in mountaineering, one proceeds in short pitches and, in fact, by securing even smaller handholds and footholds.

Society is different in kind from its component members. On that we can all agree, even if it is conceptualised as being no more than the aggregate effect of people’s conceptions and doings. The crucial difference is that no society or social organisation truly possesses self-awareness, whereas every single (normal) member of society is a self-conscious being. Thus, however differently the social maybe be conceptualised in various schools of thought — from an objective and emergent stratum of reality to a negotiated and objectified social construct — the social remains different from its component members in this crucial respect of lacking self-consciousness. It follows that a central problem for social theorists must be to provide an answer to the question: “What difference does the self-awareness of its members make to the nature of the social?” (Archer 2007: 40)

This trilogy of books is an attempt to climb back ‘up’ from the level of the individual to the macro-sociological vantage point from which Archer began. It leads to her current project exploring the Morphogenetic Society. The Reflexive Imperative completes the project of the previous two books and places reflexivity at the heart of historical change:

Does reflexivity have a history? It seems that, like language, upon which reflexivity depends – without being entirely linguistic – it must have a pre-history. That is, there must have been a time before which homo erectus or  his kinfolk had learned to speak and to be capable of mentally reflecting about their intentionality. In other words, there was a before and an after. What is not obvious is whether or not ‘afterwards’ was a long, continuous and unfinished process of constant elaboration, or if reflexivity’s biography consisted of distinct and discontinuous periods. Another way of putting the same question is: does human reflexivity show distinct variations in the modes through which it is practiced and, if so, were such modalities subject to change over time in response to changing historical circumstances? (Archer 2012: 10)

This question runs contrary to a pervasive tendency to treat reflexivity as a homogenous phenomenon such that “either people exercised it or they didn’t but, when they did they were engaging in much the same kind of practice and for much the same kind of reasons” (Archer 2012: 10). The only variation conceivable on this homogenising view is whether people practiced it more or practiced it less, as suggested by the proponents of the individualization thesis. In contrast Archer has used two previous empirical case studies (Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation and Making Our Way Through The World) to identify distinctive mode of reflexivity and, through the analysis of the biographies of those who practiced such modes, theorised as to the distinctive configurations of structure and cultural factors which will tend to produce practitioners of each mode. These are offered as an explanation at the biographical level (i.e. how the style with which X practices reflexivity, with all that entails for the life they lead, has been conditioned by the situations they’ve previously encountered) but also at the social level. The approach Archer has developed simultaneously offers conceptual resources for explaining the particularity of individual lives in a non-reductive and hermeneutically sensitive way but also explain how this is shaped by larger processes of social and cultural change and how these are, in turn, reproduced or transformed by the aggregate tendencies they have conditioned at the level of individual lives. The two trilogies between them offer an integrated social ontology, explanatory framework and theory of social change which operates at the micro, meso and macro levels while steadfastly avoiding any sort of reductionism. Unless you immerse yourself in the books, it’s difficult to see how astonishingly systematic and conceptually sophisticated a project this is – it’s also one which has been developed pretty much entirely for empirical application.

In the next post I’ll discuss the concepts Archer offers for understanding the shaping of the situations individuals encounter and what this entails for how we approach biographical research.

3 thoughts on “The Reflexive Imperative and its Relationship to the Morphogenetic Approach

  1. Provided it doesn’t involve you in what might be – for the purposes of the blog – minutia, I’d be especially interested in what you make of Archer’s (limited) engagement with Andrew Sayer on the possibility of an rapprochement between Archer and Bourdieu, especially as it might relate to biographical research. BTW, I have read The Reflexive Imperative, but undoubtedly without the acumen of a well-trained sociologist. (I’m bold, but hopefully neither arrogant nor ignorant).

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