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)

4 thoughts on “The Reflexive Imperative and Social Change

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

  2. 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

  3. 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)

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