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“No of course the roof won’t cave in”: ontological security and reflexive poise

There are many things I dislike about 90s self-help Giddens. However one aspect that has stuck with me is his discussion of ‘ontological security’. This is established relationally between child and care-giver through the durability of trust, acting to “‘bracket out’ potential occurrences which, were the individual seriously to contemplate them, would produce a paralysis of the will, or feelings of engulfment” (Giddens 1991: 3). As I understand him, Giddens sees this as a response to a radical openness which characterises our relation to the future*: everyday life and everyday interaction presents us with a potentially infinite range of responses which are filtered through a sense of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. The great majority of possibilities simply don’t occur to us because our experienced participation in a “shared – but unproven and unprovable – framework of reality” which is “simultaneously sturdy and fragile” leaves us treating the world around us as if the qualities it spontaneously manifests to us are durable and enduring features (Giddens 1991: 36). As Giddens puts it, “To live our lives, we normally take for granted issues which, as centuries of philosophical enquiry have found, wither away under the sceptical gaze” (Giddens 1991: 37). There are many issues we don’t ponder because of the practical business of everyday life. The former is the condition for the latter, securing our capacity to function purposefully in the social world. But what secures this ‘turn away’ from existential rumination? 

Giddens places great stress on the capacity of routines which ‘answer’ existential questions on the level of practice. Through our routines, we treat the world as if it is stable and enduring. We answer questions with our practice and so avoid ruminating upon them through our reflections. It constitutes a “protective cocoon” which we “carry around” with us leaving us “able to get on with the affairs of day-to-day life” (Giddens 1991: 40). But a blind adherence to routine as a source of security can become compulsive if not coupled with the trust upon which ontological security depends. This compulsivity emerges from unmastered anxiety, with repetition constituting a performative attempt to dispel this anxiety rather than routine simply reflecting an ability to ‘get on with things’. However even when ontological security is well entrenched within the personality structure of the individual, it is not an impenetrable psychic shield. Ontological security brackets out possibilities, things which could happen but almost certainly won’t, preoccupation with which would quickly become debilitating. Like worrying that a helecopter will crash into the venue when we’re out seeing live music. But of course such things do happen:


We rely on ontological security to avoid obsessiveness. It is a psychological achievement which allows us to ‘let things go’. Rather than attempting to ‘think our way out’ of something which troubles us, it is what allows us to simply stop thinking and start doing. But it is recurrently challenged throughout our life course, sometimes in ways which are edifying and instructive:

“the protective cocoon is essentially a sense of ‘unreality’ rather than a firm conviction of security: it is a bracketing, on the level of practice, of possible events which could threaten the bodily or psychological integrity of the agent. The protective barrier it offers may be pierced, temporarily or more permanently, by happenings which demonstrate as real the negative contingencies built into all risk. Which car driver, passing by the scene of a serious traffic accident, has not had the experience of being so sobered as to drive more slowly – for a few miles – afterwards? Such an example is one which demonstrates – not in a counter-factual universe of abstract possibilities, but in a tangible and vivid way – the risk of driving, and thereby serves temporarily to pull apart the protective cocoon. But the feeling of relative invulnerability soon returns and chances are that driver then tends to speed up again” (Giddens 1991: 40)

But what matters is our capacity to immerse ourselves in activity once more. To recognise a risk but avoid obsessing about it. To take stock of possibilities inherent in our situation without allowing awareness of those possibilities to preclude the possibility of negotiating the situation itself. To instinctively recognise lines of thought worth pursuing, distinguishing between those which are symptomatic and those which lead towards a potential resolution. This is what I mean by reflexive poise.

*It’s on this level that the accusations of voluntarism against 90s Giddens ring most true. However 80s Giddens lurks beneath the surface of the 90s books if you read them closely, occasionally pulling him back from some of his more absurd conclusions.

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