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.

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