Identity, experience and meta-categories in social theory

I’ve just started reading Ian Craib’s Experiencing Identity. I’ve intended to read his work for a while and I’m already quite taken with it. It seems to be exactly the sort of realist engagement with the psychosocial that I’ve been looking for, after getting increasingly frustrated by ‘psychosocial studies’ but nonetheless being profoundly aware that the kind of social theory I do like has an inadequate account of the psychic. The introduction alone has sparked off some thoughts on an issue I felt my PhD helped me better understand but didn’t really offer me any answers to:

We certainly have social identities: I am a university teacher, a father, a husband, a psychotherapist, a supporter of the English cricket team and so on. Some of these (especially the last one) could disappear without my experiencing any great loss. I would have lost an identity, not my identity. If I suffered a major tragedy in my family life, ceasing to be a husband an becoming a divorced man or widower, my identity would have changed in an excruciatingly painful way but I would still have an identity. Social identities can come and go but my identity goes on as something which unites all the social identities I ever had, have or will have. My identity always overflows, adds to, transforms the social identities that are attached to me. (Craib 1998: 4)

The point here is not simply one of recognising interiority for philosophical reasons. Craib’s argument is that failing to recognise experience precludes the explanation of identity. However a broader point can be made here, namely that we foreclose the possibility of explaining biographical trajectories if we fail to account for personal identity. Consider Craib’s example: why would it be ‘excruciatingly painful’ to get divorced but not to lose interest in cricket? There are various vocabularies we could deploy here but the underlying point here is one of investment. One identity matters to him in a way that the other does not. He is invested in one in a way that is not the case with another.

But what does this mean? This depends on the vocabulary we’re working with. It could be explained in terms of preference, libido, attachment, concern or evaluation. Each of these has consequences but we can detach this issue from the underlying meta-theoretical point: if we ignore ‘experience’, as Craib describes it, we are left with a “gap” in “sociological understanding and explanation” (Craib 1998: 1). One of the most obvious manifestations of this ‘gap’ is the difficulties it creates for explaining biographical trajectories. The meaning of changes undergone by individuals, anchored in their identifications with roles and identities, drops out of the picture. So too does action ensuing, however directly or indirectly, from the meaning held by this change. Once more, it is possible to deploy various vocabularies to describe and conceptualise what is missing when we confront this ‘gap’. But I think it’s important to recognise the extent to which the meta-theoretical point, concerning the basic dimensionality of the social world, can be conceptually detached from substantive questions concerning our characterisation of those dimensions.

My point is that ignoring interiority (which is my habitual term for what Craib means by ‘experience’) when attempting to explain the social world* is like drawing in 2D versus drawing in 3D. There are occasions where 2D might actually be better and there are certainly many occasions where nothing is lost. But we need to be aware of this abstraction as a technique because there are methodological and theoretical risks attached to its ontologization. Furthermore, there are many occasions where it’s outright mistaken, such that ‘drawing’ in this way cannot help but produce lopsided and deficient accounts of the process in question. Craib makes this point well,

even where sociology attempts to grasp elements of subjective experience, as in the sociology of the emotions, the understanding remains limited and stereotyped, working primarily as if individuals were only cognitive beings. One might argue that this does not matter – sociology is the science of society so why should it concern itself with the inner worlds of individuals? This would be fair enough if sociologists are trying to explain the decline of feudalism, or changes in the contemporary class structure, the large scale shifts in social structures. An understanding of experience in these cases would add a dimension of intelligibility and of colour but would not be essential. However, when sociologists lay claim to talking about identity, the self and emotions we need to know what we are talking about and experience, the subjective, the inner world, is a vital part of this discussion. (Craib 1998: 4)

I think we can identify a ‘dimension’ in this sense as a recurrent meta-categorical feature of theoretical discourse. ‘Meta’ in the sense that it might not be explicitly stated but instead emerges in the exchange of theoretical arguments, arising in relation to denials and affirmations, characterisations and disagreements. Sociological theory, at its best, helps render these meta-categories in an explicit form: structure/agency, objective/subjective, macro/micro, social/individual etc. But the career structures of the academy and the attendant pressures towards specialisation often leaves these theoretical accounts insufficiently grounded in empirical research. Part of what I’m trying to work out at the moment, not so much for any publication purpose as because it’s something I realise I’m genuinely conflicted about**, concerns the role of general theory. I’m haphazardly moving towards an understanding of the sociology of social theory which sees general theory as a problem, in so far as that it is inherently generative of intellectual fragmentation given its tendency to amplify disagreement over a priori issues,  but also a potential solution. Perhaps a different sort of general theory? One that is provisional and iterative, emerging dialogically rather than developed monologically. But when I get to this point, I’m not even sure what I mean. The question is becoming clearer to me though: I want to study the formation of theoretical movements in different disciplines in order to feed into a normative account of trends within sociological theory. Not so much as another move within the game but as an analysis of the game in order that we might play it a bit better.

*Obviously many people wouldn’t seek to ‘explain’ but addressing that issue risks derailing this blog post.

**If I could go back and tell my anarchist punk self of my early 20s that this is what I would be “genuinely conflicted about” by my late 20s, would I still have done a PhD? Hmm.


  1. This is a very rich and suggestive read, approaching the crux of deeply synthetic experiential forces that go to inform the Existential Field, principally at a nexus of interior-exterior Identity that seems to emerge both as and from a matrix of awareness both cognitive and affective (the chicken or the egg?) dispositions to and orientations within-even construction of the renewing-EF. This will spur me to attempt another go at my static Models of Personal Agency later today, but after several attempts at 3 hour expansions, revisions, clarifications, I’m succeeding mostly in making a weekly 1500 nicely crafted step on the stage into a 6000 word+ foray still begging for clarification and expansion.

    What lies beyond theory would be experience, as when there’s nothing left to dissect appears as a regulative factor with very direct valence to determine events, as equally negative in retrospect of its exploitative potential as positive in the preservation and advancement of learning (always? emphasis of paradigmatic orientations, rationalizations, half spoken justifications (meta-cognitive field cohesion, welded by shared experiences once allied)), or emerging personae as the many mythopoetic identities aloft in our social field-aether, breathing, imbibing, digesting identities as field mice do grain, oftimes grown heavy with too much of one preference…rounded upon itself (ego constriction and ossification) in simplest objectified terms or lauded fame monsters, power brokers, candle-wick intellectual…and sometimes, hopefully in an experiential dialogue whose values truly justify shared interests well established, as with many concurrent means to cooperate in full gratification of these. With the most important and immediate of experience, this is all one knows, or can know…as Keats would have it:…Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth. I nicked the name of Argos Panoptes on my theoretical Perception of the EF, picking still at instinct and reason in their special applications as to Value, having not completed the Personal Models…yada yada. Aesthetic Theory and Intelligence…I see a first draft of thee on the horizon, some way out yet. Salute! Such are my ruminations this piece prompts in me for amusement and instruction. Thanks…keep us in the loop.

    **An anarchist ‘punk’ might have a bias for discovery on oppositional grounds, when compared with a post doctoral skeptic, but are familiar on deeper purposes and orientations both would recognize as their own province of learning, critique, hesitation, enthusiasm or despair. Some relish what others will not, cannot or care not affect as experience, determining orientations of conviction or suspicion while forging new grounds for new experiences as hatchlings from the psychosocial nest of Value one encounters or generate, maintain, as their own and/or beloved others. An angry anarchist may forget to forgive what they come to understand of themselves in the mirror of others, or post doctorate fellow fall to fallow ground in comfortable agonies of imprisonment, but while we live to feed ourselves and enrich our environments with the nutritive instincts of our essential functions, including play, refreshment, static potential kept dynamic (keep your theoretical engines nicely humming, needing also fine tuning under altering circumstances and exigencies of the moment-whatever surprise awaits the unwary sometimes makes capitulate to stronger forces and determinations other than one’s own, not the least: professional. Who is paying the Piper, after all? If an anarchist means being free from such entanglements of power, all being mostly soft in a thousand ways-torture by tiny swords, or as Prometheus, talons and claws-then may he exist still, help free the captive thoughts from their many erstwhile hasty conclusions–long live the skeptic doctor in him as well.

    1. I’m intrigued, why is it ‘static’? You make it sound anything but. Though perhaps I’m reading too much into one word.

      1. terms are tricky, and I’ve been skirting relations on the finest edge…obverse/reverse catagories, a dual momemtum or relevence…personal/institutional, a dual field catagory (EF) with value valence (plus static, relating to potency, or what we could call passive/active readiness (not indifference or analytical, but urgent affect held in reign or ‘stasis’, as a disposition or intensive orientation of awareness, such as to respond to or under certain nexus of stimuli, evidence, momentum, opposing value valence orientations in others (heightened state of alert with defensive strategies (laid up as in ‘store’ for execution)), and volition freely entered upon instinctually as to sensed interests (empirical intuitions): urgent curiosities, cravings, play; vocalization, gestures, postures (symbolic language); cooperative social contributions, symbiotic and sympathetic defensive/offensive strategies (germinal influences of nutritive/threatening environments, cognitive/affective) and consequent humane/inhumane solutions to Perception, Intelligence and Purpose for the Existential Field.

        One can register countless subtle influences from two sides of the same Field, or having two categories (Personal/Institutional), concentrate on the Instinctual (Obverse) aspect of the evolutionary imperative of adaptation, thriving of essential functions with the gratification of matured faculties inherent, tacit (static), intensive and fundamental to the species and their kinds across the whole gamut of life on our planet, even so far as to delve Intelligence as Organic and Learning a cross-species contract with Perception among those with Field awareness at shared Field levels (synthetic memory, directed attention), with adaptation strategies lending credibility to a symbiotic learning field as much as shared by all life inhabitant or conscious there (more of the spontaneous intuitions of Kant for sensible perception, or empirical intuitions in my emphasis). The mistake of empirical ‘studies’ here is that they are virtually ‘after-the-fact’ epistemic constructs, reflective and somewhat arbitrary…can’t think outside the box…so cognition halts at a kind of chasm of instinctual urgency, as much conscious or more so than reason claims for the determinations of a personal volition (avoiding praxis as an orientation here, viewing humorously an aetiology of the will based on interests accrued from an historical psychosocialism, or hand-me-down cultural iconography of ideas, as distinct from the punctuated equilibrium’s instinctual, fundamental, essential functions and capacities as being nutritive for the purpose of thriving (instinctual joy), maturation of full faculties for Perception (organic intelligence) and even active evolution (adaptation, mutation, extensive learning strategies, new levels of synthetic cognitive/affective field developments (Perception, conscious empirical awareness of Progress in hand with fundamental value orientations of Personal Identity (humane pragmatism in league with Institutions of Family, Faith, Education, Law, Science), expansions, creations (!), ultimately achieving gratification of Instinctual Interest in each dynamic valence (two directional momentum) of every conceivable cognition of Purpose proper and evident to it’s ‘kind’ (Obverse relation of EF, Reverse being Reason).

        Once I flesh this out more this weekend, I may be able to clarify the Models of Personal Agency I’ve been fermenting since last WP post at CC blog. Intelligence, as our Principal Existential Value, having the dual directional momentum of the Field Categories, serves also to ‘actuate’ the latent interests of other value nexions emergent from instinct as with and also from the psychosocialism of the human terrain, at bottom (value nexions) the driving determination of Nature and Nurture, whether macrocosmic/microcosmic…stardust, withal (the Coin of great worth, hidden in the floor boards of the common habitation).

        My guarded optimism for laying clear ground for others to follow here is, as I often admit, a tentative first-step on the quest for Science, admitting every urgent cognition to the test, or legitimized (integrity) affection based on the historical narrative (“Commentariate” of Academy) of Progress for the whole terrestrial sphere and cozy inhabitants, as easily and exhaustively identified objectively as uncoverable, recoverable subjectively (facts in context with understanding).

        Is a pupating field of experience for any ‘kind’ of organism a dynamic actuation of latent potentialities, fundamentally determined based on essential functions, the vitality of their valence as a nexus for one or several instinctual telics (are they static or active based on cognition of their urgency as awareness, or have pre-conscious interest, desire, motivational impetus, volition spontaneously justified by gratification, satisfied curiosity, rewarding play, aesthetic or ritualized enactments of meaning?).

        Ontology/Epistemology…Subject, Object; Synthetic: Personal/Institutional Value…Instinct, Reason; Identity: Essential/Optional…Obverse, Reverse; Value Valence: Instinctual, Reasoned…Spontaneous, Determined; Intuitive, Cognitive Perception.

        The dichotomous architecture is helpful, and fits a complimentary assumption of the Field Dynamics of the two principal paradigms: Objective/Subjective, with a Synthetic solution answering the evolutionary imperative of adaptation, survival, thriving, with necessary mutations not at all limited to accident, tragic or beneficial (one ugly turn in the process may unleash any manner of self-destructive monster, perhaps depending on how many and how long people in the environment concentrate on the pattern, infecting the psychosocial orientations (that which a man fears shall suddenly come upon him*)…psychopathic predators, for instance, who lay siege to a business enterprise, school, police department, department chair, city counsel, legislative arm, or heaven forbid an arsenal. Thus, the science of Cultural Criticism.

        Your read on this can be gentle, as my treatment of it is yet with cautious optimism…clarifications still the paramount focus, as you’ll see with the Prolegomena and Interludes. I welcome your reflections on common grounds and variant perspectives of complimentary manner for the topics. These are often turbulent waters, and seemingly problematic for clear sailing…then again, it’s a stormy voyage no matter how one cares to phrase the issues, yes?

  2. “but while we live to feed ourselves and enrich our environments with the nutritive instincts of our essential functions, [our process of enthusiastic discovery is matured, honed to precision and largely gratified], including play…(keep your theoretical engines nicely humming), needing also….”

    Yeah…plenty to get lost adrift in. Keep your sails up and in good trim…”…set sail for deeper waters, brave the depths of judgement yet retain a stern relief ‘gainst piercing cynicism, which has cleft many good hull upon the Siren’s reef.

  3. Oh…this is funny: The way I used ‘static’ in the first…”my static Models” etc, was ironically referring to the fact that it’s been two weeks since I’ve attempted clarifications of certain movements in the analysis. I can see this expanding, already at over 6000 words, when I meant only 3000 and drafted notes for three hours on only 1500 words. The piece has become more like a notebook on the problematic ideational constructions, the cognitive form of the persuasion being communicated, so that I can refer to it more as an “attempt” at rationalizing Cultural Criticism as a new Science and Method of Criticism, slightly less an argument against any opposing propositional schools on the same Matter; though I slight Materialist (not the same as Realist, methinks), Empiricist and the Positivist conceits identifiable at certain nexi contrived to justify some ‘modern’ frames in this Field. But your right, stasis/tacit/intensive terms sees at odds, while static electricity and noise, or even attention, awareness, disposition imply readiness potential at abeyance of sorts, more like a loaded spring ready to purpose in the right moment/movement/momentum the EF may elicit, as an emergent spontaneity of action directed by attention and interest from the instinctual/cognitive matrix/ground/environ of experience…one can see the mountain crumbling before the tidal wash of its collapse buries the valley, so to speak; or anticipate the rare and subtle perceptions available and streaming from the field valence of values in which we live, move about, and have our being, exploiting their every legitimate (integrity) relation as fundamental/optional elements in our decisive inclusive or exclusive operations of play, plan and their terminations/gratifications. Curiosity for Intelligence leads the way across the gamut of species, perhaps as simple as the slime molds, and so constitutes the PEV upon which the synthetic values of the Personal or Institutional Identity is justified, rationalized and instantiated in evidence of experience, perhaps habitually legitimated as the ‘stuff’ of its kind: Humane vs Inhumane; Cooperative vs Competitive; Peaceful vs Bellicose, Scarcity making vs Abundance, Thriving vs Deprivation, etc.

    I almost ever feel hurried when puzzling-out a diagram, and this one promises many interesting looking-glass perspectives to clarify, focus in on closely. Now, back to the straw pile.


  4. Yes, translation but also reflection of the communicability of tradition, under whatever guise of historical evidence, however arrived, derived, contrived to press the envelope of distinction, terms of use, analogies, metaphors, ideational jetsam or conceptual flotsam, mostly preparing for the day of battle, or as Carlyle would have it: “…for what is it properly, but an altercation with the Devil before one honestly begins fighting…?”

    My criticism of HP in the opening salvo of Censorship at CC refers somewhat to Voice in the framing of Agency; while as we know, we flesh-out our rationalizations like hammer on the anvil.

    Take a peek at the ‘mapping’ onto my own of this theoretical orientation, in the tradition of Byron, Keats, Milton, Pope, Gibbon, Graves, at Google+:

    Translation, ever translation, till the theoretical ground is set and one can get on with the further methods’ analysis of content and qualities acquisition for experience…sought (volition), unsought (response), reflective (static absorption of field dynamics and values), all lending sway to Perception and the EF. Fun to follow, elaboration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.