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)

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