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)

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