The Reflexive Imperative and Autonomous Reflexivity

In contrast to the fractured reflexives (deliberation leads to the intensification of affect) and the meta-reflexives (deliberation tends to problematise self and society) autonomous reflexivity is constituted through purposeful, self-contained and instrumental deliberation. It is promoted by situations where instrumental rationality tends to advance the concerns of subjects:

These situations are distinctive because they confront subjects with ‘contextual discontinuity’, which means that conventional responses deriving from their natal repertoire are no longer appropriate guides to action. Because of the intrinsically competitive nature of these situations, subjects must determine where their own best interests lies and deliberate about the best means to achieve these ends – doing both fallibly and under their own descriptions. In other words, extreme practitioners of autonomous reflexivity come closest of all to acting like the ‘rational man’ of Rational Choice Theory. (Archer 2012: 34)

The families of the autonomous reflexives in Archer’s study show a much greater degree of geographical mobility and a higher propensity towards divorce, separation and living apart. Nonetheless she suggests that these are empirical indicators and that the underlying mechanisms productive of autonomous reflexivity can be found in the emergent relations within the familial group, which is what quantitative measures of the above trends would be tracking. These emergent relations were characterised not by the presence of relational harm (as was the case with the fractured reflexives) but by the absence of many, if not all, the relational goods which could be found in the backgrounds of communicative reflexives. Autonomous reflexives faced ‘mixed messages’ with little, if any, shared orientation by parents towards collective projects of the sort needed for the emergence of relational goods. It was not possible for them to seek to replicate their natal context in the manner of communicative reflexives because the lack of normative consonance precluded the identification of what it was that would be replicated:

Either their parents had split up over their differences, were preoccupied with negotiating their own relationships or had engaged in commitments that distance themselves from their offspring. This group of students had been strangers to ‘contextual continuity’ from the start. None had normative consensus as part of their natal backgrounds but were presented with necessary of selection as a normal ingredient of their life worlds whilst growing up. All were confronted with the need to shape a life as an everyday occurrence, evidenced by their parents’ doings and struggles, and all absorbed the lesson that this was a personal responsibility to be undertaken without a template. (Archer 2012: 170)

This amounted to ‘enforced independence’ albeit of a variable form: “common exemplifications are children assuming domestic responsibilities that are usually associated with adult roles and certainty taking charge of their own personal practical needs. Not infrequently, this extended to providing support for one parent or intermittently for both, thus seeking to compensate for the interpersonal deficiencies in the parental relationship. They phoned home to check that everyone was all right rather than to reassure their parent(s) that they were” (Archer 2012: 168). The autonomous subjects had observed their parents engaging in selection and, in turn, their response to the necessity of selection was to meet it head on – unlike the communicative reflexives who evaded it through projects that sought to replicate their natal context, meta-reflexives who problematised it through their searching for and/or enactment of a ’cause’ and fractured reflexives who were simply disorientated by it. Furthermore, every practitioner of autonomous reflexivity in the study had a much deeper investment in the practical order than could be observed within the other groups:

Significantly, every member of this group had a deep self-investment in the practical order – in music, languages, competitive sports, car mechanics, cookery and property development. For most, in their independence at home, such interests had already been discovered and honed. Although some were put on hold at university, for the greater part they were continued and other practical interests added to them. This proved important for their friendship patterns, which were interest-led, and for the use they made of university activities – the autonomous reflexives proving one of the two most intense user groups of all entrants. (Archer 2012: 169)

In contrast to the intensely face-to-face friendships of communicative reflexives, the friendships of autonomous reflexives were mediated through their practical interests. Thus the social order is subjugated, to a certain extent, to the practical order: the friendships are valued because they enhance and extend the practices they enjoy. This is paralleled by their willingness to separate out the necessity of selection from shaping a life, approaching the former in an instrumental fashion and engaging with the latter once their career is established. Archer suggests that “autonomous reflexives do not appear adept at dealing with the plural final ends that are inescapable if and when they seek to become a couple” and that “when they attempt to counter their individualism by subordinating their own goals, they seem to do so unilaterally, without establishing what kind of reciprocity the other entertains or would welcome” (Archer 2012: 201). Or in other words: it’s difficult to sustain an instrumental orientation to the world alongside genuine reciprocity with significant others. One strategy is to evade the problem through wilful preoccupation with one’s own goals before turning to the challenge of shaping that life in a way which allows it to be genuinely shared with another. This trend is important in understanding the reproduction of autonomous reflexivity in conditions which are increasingly incongruent with it:

These natal backgrounds supplied neither relational goods nor normative consensus, and the independence induced in their offspring was immediately deployed to sieve parental values and lifestyles for what was deemed worthy of retention. Given the increasing rates of divorce, separation and re-partnering together with relatively novel arrangements such as ‘living apart but together’, Europe appears to guarantee a continuing output, if not growth, of ‘enforced independents’ in the coming decades.

On the other hand, it is because some of these young autonomous reflexives appear more concerned to establish their careers first and not to be distracted from the pursuit of this goal by friendship or serious relationships, which coincides with the European tendency to marry later. These appeared to be the readiest recruits to internships in both public bureaucracy and financial services. Others who contracted partnerships during their undergraduate years were distracted but seemingly undeterred from the same type of career destination. In other words, late modernity does not appear about to suffer from a crisis in recruitment because of a shortage of autonomous reflexives – if only because of the ‘rocky’ state of marriage. (Archer 2012: 202-203).

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