Becoming Who We Are: theorising personal morphogenesis in a changing world

This was a phrase suggested to me by my friend Holly Falconer in the early stages of my PhD. It resonated with me strongly and, since then, the working title of my PhD has been Becoming Who We Are: Theorising Personal Morphogenesis. What I’m trying to convey with this is a process (how people become who they are) and what’s needed to study this process (a theory of how persons change). These sound like obviously theoretical questions and they’re ones which I first began to be able to articulate when I was a philosophy MA student reading a great deal of Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre. It was this interest which led me towards the literature on individualization and detraditionalization when I was beginning to explore sociology. I was gripped by Modernity and Self-Identity, as flawed though I now think the book is. Bauman in particular fascinated me. Again, it’s now the case that I find much of his work problematic (not least of all the fact he’s been writing the same book again and again for years) but I criticise him respectfully from the position of someone who has read a majority of his books from the 90s and 00s. Another book which really expanded my horizons as I made this transition from philosophy to sociology was Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. This is yet another author I now find myself critical of, though if you redefine what he does as ‘sociological journalism‘ then I’d call it the outstanding example of the genre.

My point is that these books began to change how I saw the underlying theoretical question that obsessed me: how we become we we are as a ‘self within moral space’ cannot be understood if we abstract too far from the social context. Addressing the theoretical questions I was drawn to necessitated understanding what Mills called “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”. These theories of social change that so gripped me as a disenchanted philosophy student did so precisely because of their attentiveness to (wo)man, biography and self within a changing world. What is it like to be a person now? It doesn’t take much sociological musing to see what’s wrong with this question. It’s an empirical question being asked at a level of generality which precludes an empirical answer. So sweeping accounts of social change, such as those offered by Giddens and Bauman, both invite and need empirical investigation. Conversely empirical researchers investigating specific topics (such as family, youth, sexuality etc) often find a great deal of value in what Carol Smart describes as the “the broad canvas” found in general theories of social change. The problem is the interface between them: how do theories of social change get used in empirical research and how does empirical research help elaborate theories of social change? This is the third and final top of my thesis.

  1. What is a person? How do persons change?
  2. How is social life changing in 21st century?
  3. How can general theories of social change condition empirical research and vice versa?

These are big questions. They’re ones which I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of in my PhD. But I’ve had a serious go at addressing them. My conviction has been that the answer to (2) and (3) rests on (1). Or in other words, an understanding of real persons undergoing real changes is a crucial aspect of theories of social change – given it is a theory it will unavoidably abstract from said persons but it needs to be explicable in terms of them. Furthermore, its utility as something which can be drawn upon in empirical research depends on its underlying assumptions about what persons are and how they change. Theories of social change can provide a focal point for empirical refutation (e.g. there are pervasive constraints and inequalities in gay and lesbian lives which are obscured by the Giddensian account of personal life in late modernity), a fulcrum to help gain purchase upon data and begin to interpret it (e.g. the psychic distress caused by an intensification of social pressure to take responsibility for oneself), a conceptual toolkit to help clarify the framework for investigation (e.g. exploring ‘fateful moments’ encountered in the biographies of participants) and all manner of sensitising devices which can drawn upon in the shift from description to explanation.

In my thesis I’ve addressed Giddens and his writing on detraditionalization as one particular example of a theory of social change which has proved widely popular in all manner of sub disciplinary areas. Given the general fragmentation of sociology, I think it’s important to take this body of work seriously, if only because it a common frame of reference for many people working in otherwise disparate areas of social research. The first few chapters of my thesis concern what I think the problem is with it. Namely, its overly psychoanalytical concept of the person. I argue that the absence of a theory of how particular persons respond to particular changes, as the Giddensian subject vacillates between instrumental rationality and existential angst, causes problems when the broader theory is drawn upon by social researchers. Obviously people do some sterling work while using this theoretical perspective but they do so, I argue, in spite of rather than because of it. I argue that the work on detraditionalization will only tend to thematise data, contextualising micro findings in terms of putative macro trends – it amalgamates the micro and the macro rather than drawing them together.

My point is not merely to attack Giddens. I’m arguing that if we’re drawing on these general theories of social change to make sense of research data then it’s important that we be clear about the former is and is not doing in relation to the latter. General theory doesn’t determine what people do with it during the analysis. But it does incline us in some directions and disincline us from others. It foregrounds some things while others retreat into the background. For qualitative researchers, this is often a matter of persons and their lives – not to be treated individualistically but nonetheless to each be acknowledged as specific persons with specific attributes and specific histories. My problem with Giddens in general, as well as ‘fateful moments’ in particular, is that his work lacks ‘hooks’ through which we can connect the general to the specific, the universal to the particular, the macro to the micro. The tendency if we use this stuff is that we vacillate between making very general claims and making very specific ones, rather than trying to systematically trace out the connections between the participants in our research and broader social and cultural processes. If we accept the Millsian mission (and many don’t) to understand “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world” then, it can’t be stressed enough, what that ‘interplay’ is and how it works becomes utterly crucial. This question in turn points towards our theory of the person (or subject , or actor, or individual – it’s the acceptance of the meta-category which matters most for my argument). The issue of how we theorise this ‘individual unit’ is one caught up in disciplinary politics about the division between psychology and sociology, as well as the issue of individualism. However recognising individuals does not entail being individualistic. We can accept the meta-category of the ‘individual unit’ while still thinking at population level. The only insistence I’m making here is that individual persons have properties and powers which cannot be dispensed with or brushed aside because they ‘belong’ to psychologists. But it certainly can have this individualistic ramification and that’s why it’s so important that we get the underlying questions right. However, if we avoid these questions then the answers we tacitly give to them will have consequences nonetheless. If we are interested in the ‘interplay’ then we must seriously address what our theory of the person entails for that interplay. This I argue is why Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is so valuable. It’s a theory of the person conceptualised in terms of this interplay, emerging relationally as we make our way through the world. I’ve written lots about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t repeat myself here.

So all that ^^ is the intellectual context in which this apparently abstract question (how do we become who we are?) that obsesses me so becomes important. The second half of my thesis attempts to pin down much more explicitly what ‘personal morphogenesis’ is. I’ve argued that accounts of social change implicitly and explicitly make claims about ensuing changes in persons which contribute, in many ways, towards the reproduction or transformation of the context itself. So what are these changes at the most basic level? Abstractly: they are biographical sequences through which a particular person is elaborated in some way. Concretely: it depends who we’re talking about. My concern is to get away from a focus on transitions qua transitions (so as to categorise personal changes in terms of convergent/divergent responses to the same biographical event) and instead elucidate the changes in terms of the lived life of the individual while nonetheless explaining how and why these changes occurred. My thesis uses an empirical case study, recurrent qualitative interviewing of 18 students identified and selected through a survey instrument, in order to develop this analytical approach. It uses Margaret Archer’s understanding of morphogenetic analysis to delineate cycles of change in the my research participants. The second half of my thesis presents the empirical case study, exploring their biographies typologically (what sort of changes do students undergo in the process of becoming students) while nonetheless drawing out the divergent trajectories within the group of participants. It then looks at four in depth case studies, delineating morphogenetic cycles of personal change from the longitudinal interviews – in most cases there was 1 full cycle and 1 incomplete one, perhaps unsurprisingly given I finished the research at the end of their second year at university. The research question for each is: how did they become the person they are at the end of the fieldwork? So these case studies are intended to be illustrative of the approach, as well as being (partly) the basis through which I developed it.

The final section draws upon the first two and offers a full statement of the concept of ‘personal morphogenesis’. It’s an analytical construct, informed by a particular account of the person, which is nonetheless intended to be methodological. In short, it offers a framework within which the variable influences of different factors (personal, relational, cultural, structural) can be analysed without abstracting away from the person concerned and their lived life. In the final chapter I address some of the broader objections which many might raise to the approach, aim to situate it an broader context and particularly to suggest some of the uses to which it might be put. It’s an intensely ideographic approach which is also intensely theoretical; a combination which makes it the most intellectually unfashionable thing I could imagine. But I’ve spent years making it and intend to use it. It worked well for my asexuality research, in the sense that constituted a second case study through which I was trying to refine this approach to analysis.

Unfortunately I’m no closer to answering the underlying philosophical question which drove the whole thing. But at least I’m much clearer about what the question is. Plus now I’ve sat down and written this post, satisfactorily describing “what my PhD is about” for the first time whereas previous attempts have made me wince, it’s probably time for me to go and actually finish it. It is now a thing. It is written. It is final. So now it’s time to finish polishing it up before I hand it over to the world and get on with the rest of my life.

2 responses to “Becoming Who We Are: theorising personal morphogenesis in a changing world”

  1. Although you have not answered the deeper philosophical questions, your approach at the question is interesting. My thesis is also concerned with change but I am trying to address the more abstract notion of continuity (how something appears to maintain a constant ontology) in spite of the inherent changes. I focus on the systemic process meaning construction, but I started out with much of the same inspiration that you have (Bauman, Giddens, individualisation etc), so it is rooted in the notion of the self. Unlike you I found little help in these works, and I agree that Gidden’s has done more than most.

    I look forward to reading you work on it.

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