The Reflexive Imperative, Social Change and Cybernetics

One unexpected aspect of the Reflexive Imperative was Archer’s return to cybernetics in its conclusion. Though having long seen herself as a critic of this theoretical tradition, the systems theory of Walter Buckley was an important influence on the Morphogenetic Approach. In the Reflexive Imperative she critically engages with the ‘second cybernetics’ of Magorah Maruyama in order to try and develop her account of ‘variety’ which has become integral to her approach. This concept has come to play a crucial role in linking the predominately macro social perspective of the first two books of the Morphogenetic trilogy (Culture and Agency, Realist Social Theory) with Being Human and her three books on reflexivity (Structure Agency and the Internal Conversation, Making Our Way Through The World, The Reflexive Imperative). To understand the questions raised in the final chapter of the latter book, it’s essential to have some grasp of how her broader project fits together:

Moreover, this trilogy on reflexivity has not been undertaken out of an intrinsic interest in one aspect of human subjectivity per se. It began from seeking to answer the theoretical question about how structure and culture got in on our personal acts for those of us who were dissatisfied with both positivistic ‘social hydraulics’ and Parsonian ‘internalization’. In their place, ‘reflexivity’ was advanced in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation as the process responsible for mediating between structural and cultural ‘conditioning’ and human agents, without entailing the obliteration or suspension of the agential properties and powers of persons.

In the second volume, Making Our Way Through The World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility, which did use a sample of the local population of Coventry, stratified by age, gender and socio-economic position, the aim was to ascertain whether or not a personal emergent property (in this case dominant mode of reflexivity practiced) governed the type of social mobility desired and achieved under people’s own descriptions. These patterns of mobility (i.e., social stability, upwards mobility or lateral volatility) were held to result from actions arrived at through the reflexive deliberations of singular subjects in social contexts not of their own making. Reflexivity thus acquired a stronger claim for mediating between one macroscopic aspect of the social order – the patterning of social mobility – and the personal ‘projects’ pursued by subjects through their reflexive internal conversations, which defined the precise courses of action taken by them.  (Archer 2012: 294)

My understanding of this book is that it’s an attempt to build upon this elaborated notion of reflexivity as mediating between the macro and the micro in order to better understand the consequence which the proliferation of ‘variety’, deposited as contextual incongruity in the situations concrete persons confront, has for how they in turn act in relation to this increasingly varied social order and contribute, as a consequence of both their actions and their own elaboration as persons, to the intensification of the social changes generative of variety. Reflexivity is integral to understanding the “differential and selective take-up of new opportunities” which is itself generative of greater variety (Archer 2012: 2999). It’s an initial attempt to get beyond what Archer identifies as the chronic empiricism which characterises the contemporary theoretical literature on social change and instead get to the generative mechanisms which are producing these empirically observable phenomenon of ‘flows’ and ‘liquidity’. Her point here can seem contentious, given the affection with which many (including myself) hold the work of people like Bauman, but I think it’s an important critique. Liquidity is a metaphorical characterisation of an empirical phenomenon, beguiling because of the incisiveness with which Bauman has been able to analyse and convey what seems to be the inner nature of a whole range of disparate phenomena. But no matter how sophisticated our measures, tracking flows is like seeking to ‘explain’ the tides by intricately charting their movements. I’m entirely with Archer in her argument that sociology needs to move from metaphors to mechanisms:

Today, the leading trope is “liquid modernity,” but metaphors explain nothing and often mislead (remember the mechanical, organic and cybernetic similes). Particular theories of change have accentuated one element of SAC alone: “culture” for “Information Society;” “structure” for “Globalized Capitalism” or “Empire;” and “agency” for the “institutionalized individualism” of “Reflexive Modernization.” Each seizes upon one (empirically striking) component, considers it to be the leading part and wrongly equates it with the generative mechanism of change. Instead, we need to examine the SAC synergies and positive feedbacks making social morphogenesis the process responsible for intensifying change – in a non-metaphorical manner.

It’s to this end that the final chapter of the Reflexive Imperative turns. It marks a transition point between her previous two projects (developing the morphogenetic approach and the three empirical studies of reflexivity plus their associated volumes) and her next major project, which is being conducted with a really interestingly international and interdisciplinary group, on the morphogenetic society. This is how she describes the project,

The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety.  All change is ‘activity dependent’, but the new social relations and relations between relations that accelerate innovation, opportunities and choices await adequate theorization. The danger in the new millennium is that social solidarity could be further reduced by new hierarchies based upon differential expertise. The challenge isto identify ways of integrating variety as diversity throughout the population. Hence the particular interest of the burgeoning Third Sector and Cyber Sector as means for transforming civil society.

  1. Understanding the mechanism at the micro-level. Morphogenesis fosters a new situational logic for action. During late modernity the latter remained a logic of competition, whose outcomes were zero-sum. Conversely, the new logic of opportunity associated with the unbinding of morphogenesis could, in principle, represent a ‘win-win’ situation for many more people. In turn, the Reflexive Imperativeapplies to all because given the acceleration of change, past experience is no guide to action. Such ‘contextual incongruity’ means that socialization can no longer prepare young people for working life or life-style through the inter-generational transmission of a ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu), operating quasi-automatically. Instead, agents’ guidelines personal concerns become their courses of action are determined and realized through reflexive deliberation – both individual and collective.
  2. Understanding the mechanism at the meso-level. Here, network theory requires re-conceptualization to embrace not only how connectivity fosters the flexible production of knowledge but transforms social relations and the generation of new relational goods (indivisible, non-material goods and services). Hence considerable interest attaches to  developing ‘Relational Realism’.
  3. Understanding the mechanism at the macro-level. How do Market ‘exchange relations’ and State ‘command relations’ become reconfigured into more dispersed and participatory social forms, no longer based upon instrumental rationality but on social engagement?

However, the project must start at the beginning with a theoretical clarification of the morphogenetic process itself. Since the concept of morphogenesis began in biology, EPFL with its prominence in neurobiology is the ideal venue to promote interdisciplinary conceptual advances.

This is why ‘variety’ is such an important concept. It’s at the heart of everyday and journalistic discussions of the “increasing pace of social change, the novelties people have already encountered in their lifetimes, and their expectations for new variety to continue to grow during those of their children” (Archer 2012: 295). However variety can be a tricky concept to put into practice. The first cybernetics construed variety in terms of the distinguishable elements within a set: it was an objective property of an aggregate. If ‘variety’, which I do think she’s convincingly operationalised at the level of biography, will be used for social analysis then we need to rethink the concept of it that can be found in information theory. Aggregate variety of this sort can actually diminish with new innovations because new items can displace old ones e.g. all the many businesses which smart phones have destroyed. Furthermore this concept of variety is atomistic and precludes the recognition of ‘relational goods’.  This atomism also leads to a failure to consider the distribution of variety. What’s important about variety from a sociological perspective is not just the number of discrete elements within a given set but the relations between them and their distribution across the social order.

Archer engages with the later cybernetics of Maruyama precisely because he was, given his interest in deviation-amplifying feedback within systems, concerned with the distribution of variety. However she argues that Maruyama was preoccupied with heterogeneity (differences) at the expense of homogeneity (similarities). She argues that the latter is responsible for the “bonding that links together members of a group (community, team or enterprise) that accentuates their human commonalities and makes their belongingness something more than rational instrumental opportunism” (Archer 2012: 301). The biographical accumulation of variety which can be seen in the lives of meta-reflexives (and to a lesser extent the fractured and autonomous) serves to ‘differentiate’ them from their peers, generating an increasingly particularistic inner life which precludes the ‘similarity and ‘familiarity’ upon which communicative reflexivity depends. Left unchecked this means that “association with other social units becomes less and less rewarding and prompts a multiplication of the number of smaller and smaller social units that follows” (Archer 2012: 303). Underlying the Morphogenetic Society project is a concern to understand “the generation of new variety that in one sense carries society (now one and global) forward” but also the neglected topic of “what holds it together or pulls it apart” (Archer 2012: 304).

Social morphogenesis “destroys the modus vivendi continuous from the past but also defies the re-establishment of new continuities on the basis of residence, community, occupation, religion, ethnicity and kinship” (Archer 2012: 305). It’s for this reason that Archer sees the decline of communicative reflexivity as going hand-in-hand with a reduction in social solidarity. The normative conventionalism which was secured through the ‘thought and talk’ of communicative reflexivity, as the reliance on others to complete and confirm one’s inner deliberation exposed them to immediate censure before they got beyond the planning stage, increasingly lacks purchase beyond the pockets of contextual continuity which communicative reflexives now have to work to maintain. Normative conventionalism has no long term future as a basis for social integration because the conditions underlying its efficacy are rapidly disappearing and the intensification of social change precludes the easy establishment of new norms because “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it” (Archer 2012: 306). Even when norms do develop, as can be seen for example in the stabilisation of standards relating to social media platforms, the efficacy with which they can be enforced is severely curtailed because of these underlying changes in the relational dynamics of reflexivity. Norms can function on the basis of intersubjective negotiation and collective self-regulation yet “negotiated norms lack the binding power of the generalized normativity that communicative reflexivity used to promote” (Archer 2012: 306).

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