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The Reflexive Imperative and Habit(us)

One of the most contentious arguments made in Margaret Archer’s recent work is the critique of habit(us). What she’s saying here often seems to be misunderstood. She’s not expunging habit from social ontology, only suggesting that its putative role in socialisation needs to be relativised to an account of particular social conditions. As she notes, she’s far from the first person to observe that “the workability of Bourdieu’s habitus is dependent both upon social stability and high social integration” (Archer 2012: 80). However the relationship between the concepts of reflexivity and habit has a long history in social theory, not least of all in the pragmatists, from some of whom (Peirce and to a lesser extent James) her recent work takes much inspiration. As she notes, “the great American pragmatists had always maintained that reflexivity (exercised through ‘internal conversation’) came into its own when habitual action was blocked by problematic circumstances” (Archer 2012: 48). The concept was also important to Durkheim and Weber but, argues Archer, the extent to which each understood habit in a contextual fashion has often gone unrecognised. Both were interested in the role of habit within “early societies (or ancient civilisations)” but they were “equally riveted by the transition to modernity and the discontinuities, differentiation and diversification of mental orientations and institutional operations that it represented” (Archer 2012: 58). She argues that, for instance, Durkheim’s prescriptive writings, offering solutions for the ills of modernity, have often been inadequately distinguished from his descriptive work with the consequence that his analysis of how to restore social integration in modernity has sometimes been confused with his views on the constitution of the social pathologies he seeks to ameliorate.

Underlying contemporary debates is a concern that “the influences of the social order upon agency should not be located fully within agents or entirely outside them” (Archer 2012: 49). This is why debates about habit cannot ultimately be separated from the question of how we conceptualise socialisation: what is at stake is how much of and in which way the social gets ‘under the skin’ of actors. In her earlier work (viz Realist Social Theory) Archer has offered an account of the ‘double morphogenesis’, the process through which “actors themselves change relationally in the very process of actively pursuing changes in the social order”, which she contends is “one of the principle ‘non-Median’ ways by which the social gets inside us” (Archer 2012: 51). In brief I take her point to be that it is too frequently assumed that we have to internalise social influences for them to become ‘interior’ when, instead, the same outcome can be reached through social processes conditioning the elaboration of actors over time. This is integral to the morphogenetic cycles through which Archer analyses social processes:

When a morphogenetic cycle is completed, by issuing in structural elaboration, not only is structure transformed but so is agency, as part and parcel of the same process – the double morphogenesis. As it reshapes structural relations at any given T4, agency is ineluctably reshaping itself in relation terms: of domination and subordination, of integration, organization, combination and articulation; in terms of the vested interests of some but not of other agents; in terms of what has become normalised and taken for granted; in terms of the new roles and positions that some occupy and others do not; and in terms of the novel situations in which all agents now find themselves, which are constraining to the projects of some and enabling to the projects of others, yet of significance for the motivation of all. (Archer 2012: 53) .

It’s from this perspective that she finds the terms in which the present debate is conducted to be unhelpful. If we accept the realist principle that prior structures, elaborated or reproduced through past action, condition rather than determine the action of present actors which, in turn, contributes to the form of future structures then there are two relations at work here: how structural/cultural condition influences interaction  and how different kinds of interaction result in the elaboration or reproduction of structures. It is through addressing these relations that we can move beyond the ahistorical generalisations which too frequently characterise these debates:

A timeless, placeless, and societally unspecific debate on mediatory processes is futile, that is, one seeking a show of hands on the universal motion that ‘habit is more important than reflexivity’ or vice versa. Of course, most would rightly respond ‘sometimes one and sometimes the other’. Quite properly, they are hedging their bets until the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘under what conditions’ have been specified […] Strong defenders of habitual action almost uniformly assign a high and universal importance to the pre-reflexive (years, practices, experiences, sociality and socialization) upon habit formation. Alternatively, strong advocates of reflexivity attribute the same high and universal importance to people’s ability to scrutinise, monitor and modify acquired habits through the internal conversation. These, too, are generalisations and call for the same specification as the blunt ‘sometimes one and sometimes the other’. (Archer 2012: 54-55).

The first of the two relations “works through shaping the situations – from the accessibility of resources to the prevalence of beliefs – in which agents find themselves, such that some courses of action would be impeded and discouraged while others would be facilitated and encouraged” (Archer 2012: 55). These emergent powers operate in relation to “any end, however inchoate, that can be intentionally entertained by human beings”, existing congruously or incongruously in relation to human doings. So this first relation is seen by Archer as establishing context whereas the second relation concerns the kinds of action which will tend to be engendered by that context and its propensity to reproduce or transform it for future actors.The respective variability of habitual action and reflexivity can therefore be understood in terms of the kinds of contexts within which action occurs and how the forms of action they engender work to reproduce or transform that context. Or in other words: what social conditions are most likely to generate habitual or reflexive action and what consequences does this have for the reproduction or transformation of these social conditions? This is what the concepts of contextual continuity/discontinuity/incongruity, discussed in previous posts, are fundamentally concerned with.

As far as I understand her position, her objections to the notion of habit are three fold. Firstly, it often does too much work as a consequence of accounts it is embedded within paying little attention to other means through which the social ‘gets inside us’. Secondly, it tends towards generalisation in a way she finds problematic, given that certain contextual conditions will tend to generate a propensity for habitual action and conversely be amenable to it on the part of individual actors, whereas others will not. Thirdly, there’s an underlying disagreement at the level of how the person is conceptualised:

There are two fundamental ways in which the relation between habits and reflexivity can be conceptualised: one sees the two in tension and producing intra-personal struggles, whilst the other views reflexive, innovative action as built upon habitual dispositions. The first is antipathetic to ‘hybridisation’; the second endorses it. The former is hospitable to people’s purposeful commitments, the latter is hostile. The one can accentuate macroscopic ‘contextual discontinuity’ as a spur to reflexivity; the other emphasises minute quotidian continuities at the micro-level. (Archer 2012: 61)

The former Piercian notion of self sees the relation between the two in terms of a “struggle on the part of the committed and innovative ‘I’ to overcome the inertia of the habitualized ‘me’ (or critical self), as Peirce pictures in his famous courtroom analogy where the advocate of change marshals his case against the deepest dispositions that have been developed biographically”. On this view imagination plays a crucial role in realising our commitments in a way which is expanded by the degree of “social variation and cultural variety available to ponder upon reflexively” (Archer 2012: 59-61). So reflexivity is not seen as something which intervenes only when habitual action fails due to the intervention of unforeseen and/or unfamiliar obstacles. There is a relatively independent life of the mind which, nonetheless, remains bound up in the social because of its reliance on social and cultural variety as the ‘raw materials’ of its imaginings. The latter post-Median notion sees reflexive responses as elicited solely by situational novelty, construing the social in terms of a ‘flat’ ontology of recurrent situations (unlike, argues Archer, Mead himself). Underlying these debates are important questions about the ontology of the person from which they cannot be separated:

Only by striking the right balance between personal, structural and cultural emergent powers is it possible to explain precisely what people do, rather than falling back upon correlations between group membership and action patterns, which are necessarily lacking in explanatory power. To account for variability as well as regularity in the courses of action taken by those similarly situated means acknowledging our singularity as persons, without denying that our sociality is essential for us to be recognisable as human persons. (Archer 2012: 67).

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