Some critical thoughts on psychosocial research

One writer who made a huge impact on me during my transition from philosophy to sociology was Ken Plummer. There are many aspects of his work which I now have problems with but I think my engagement with his work (particularly Sexual Stigma, Telling Sexual Stories and Documents of Life) had a big impact on how I approach sociological inquiry. It’s on the question of the individual where we part ways and I think this can make me seem a lot less interactionist than I seem: 

Certainly the concrete human must always be located within this historically specific culture – for ‘the individual’ becomes a very different animal under different social orders. This is not a book that champions looking at the wonderful solitary human being: my conception of the human subjects and their experiences is one that cannot divorce them from the social, collective, cultural, historical moment. But in the face of the inherent society-individual dualism of sociology, I argue that there must surely always remain a strand of work that highlights the active human subject? And in the face of a constant tendency towards the abstract and the linear in modern thought, surely there is also always a need for the creative, imaginative and concrete? (Plummer 2000: 7).

This seemed radical and provocative to me when I first read it. Now it simply seems mistaken. I don’t think the society/individual dualism represents some intractable problem and my enthusiasm for Margaret Archer’s work stems largely from my conviction that she has largely solved this problem (in so far as one really does ‘solve’ theoretical ‘problems’) in a way conducive to empirical research. Lots of substantive theoretical and empirical work remains to be done but there’s an astonishingly expansive research programme incipient in the work she’s done, particularly in the last fifteen years. My point in writing this isn’t to sing the praises of her approach but simply to explain how, from my point of view, her work offers a much more powerful way to approach the exact same things I was interested in when I was a symbolic interactionist.

If I’d encountered psychosocial approaches at the time I was entering sociology, I doubtless would have been attracted to them too, given that they work from an understanding of  “research subjects whose inner worlds cannot be understood without knowledge of their experiences in the world, and whose experiences of the world cannot be understood without knowledge of the way in which the inner worlds allow them to experience the outer world (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 4). However the difficulty with these approaches arises because of their construal of the subject as psychic and social such that the underlying gap between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ which Plummer sees as intrinsic is not bridged in any meaningful way. The general trajectory of psychosocial approaches is animated by a critique of ‘naive’ models of subjectivity which is simultaneously methodological and ontological:

Taking a research subject’s account as a faithful reflection of ‘reality’ similarly assumes that a person is one who: 

  • shares meanings with the researcher; 
  • is knowledgable about him or herself (his or her actions, feelings and relations;) 
  • can access the relevant knowledge accurately and comprehensively (that is, has accurate memory); 
  • can convey that knowledge to a stranger listener; 
  • is motivated to tell the truth” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 11-12)

Some of the methodological aspects to this are perfectly acceptable from a realist perspective. There is a sense in which the resolution of the ‘individual-social paradox’ (described by Hollway and Jefferson (2000: 13) as “how individuals come to have experiences supposedly at odds with the norm for their social position, the fearless woman, the fearful man etc”) is precisely Archer’s  point when she contends that reflexivity should feature in our explanations because,

without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all. (Archer 2007: 133).

The correct recognition that “once methods allow for individuals to express what they mean, theories not only have to address the status of these meanings for that person and their understanding by the researcher, but they must also take into account the uniqueness of individuals” licenses a deeply problematic ‘drilling down’ into the (supposed) psychic life of the subject. The plausibility of this move rests largely on the (false) assumption that the only available alternatives are to treat the subject as ‘self-transparent’ or collapse their particularity into their socio-demographic placement.

Instead the strategy offered is essentially one of psychoanalytically ‘reading’ the subject in a socially situated fashion, such that psychic phenomena are understood as a “feature of individuals” but without being “reducible to psychology”. For instance ‘anxiety’ is construed in a way that is “psychic because it is a product of a unique biography of anxiety-provoking life-events and the manner in which they have been unconsciously defended again” and it is social because “such defensive activities affect and are affected by discourse (systems of meaning which are a product of the social world)”, “the unconscious defences that we describe are intersubjective processes (that is, they affect and are affected by others)” and involves “real events in the external, social world which are discursively and defensively appropriated” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 24).

Leaving aside the many questions which can be asked about the application of these conceptual frameworks outside of a clinical context, the difficulty here is the lack of space between the social world ‘out there’ and psychic life ‘in here’. It is an attempt to solve the ‘individual-social’ paradox by peering into the inner depths of particular individuals, armed with a toolkit cobbled together from items borrowed from psychoanalysts based on meta-theoretical criteria which are vague at best, rather than Archer’s work which systematically bridges the two sides of the dichotomy in a way orientated towards empirical inquiry at the micro, meso and macro levels.

Any thoughts on this much appreciated. It’s intended as a friendly engagement – until starting the Hollway and Jefferson book recently my interaction with psychosocial approaches had come predominately through conferences and online videos. I often feel I have more in common with people who work in this way in terms of my interests than I do with anyone else I meet in sociology. I also think I get the general trajectory of it as an intellectual current and am largely in agreement. My problem is with its response to this problem – plus I find the appropriation of psychoanalytical concepts very problematic over and above my broader theoretical disagreement.

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