Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive

I’m finally reading Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive by C Wright Mills. As I expected I don’t actually like it very much. I have a strange relationship to Mills, in that I find him an inspiring figure but I’m not particularly interested in his work. In this case, I don’t accept the methodological premise that social action should be explained ‘from the outside’, I don’t accept the theoretical premise that reflexivity only intervenes when action is impeded and thus it’s hard for me to engage with the paper, given that these aren’t really argued for and the rest of his case depends upon them.

This is a shame because ‘vocabularies of motive’ is a concept that really interests me. There’s much here I agree with:

Individualistic, sexual, hedonistic, and pecuniary vocabularies of motives are apparently now dominant in many sectors of twentieth-century urban America. Under such an ethos, verbalization of alternative conduct in these terms is least likely to be challenged among dominant groups. In this milieu, individuals are skeptical of Rockefeller’s avowed religious motives for his business conduct because such motives are not now terms of the vocabulary conventionally and prominently accompanying situations of business enterprise. A medieval monk writes that he gave food to a poor but pretty woman because it was “for the glory of God and the eternal salvation of his soul.” Why do we tend to question him and impute sexual motives? Because sex is an influential and widespread motive in our society and time. Religious vocabularies of explanation and of motives are now on the wane. In a society in which religious motives have been debunked on a rather wide scale, certain thinkers are skeptical of those who ubiquitously proclaim them. Religious motives have lapsed from selected portions of modern populations and other motives have become “ultimate” and operative. But from the monasteries of medieval Europe we have no evidence that religious vocabularies were not operative in many situations.

A labor leader says he performs a certain act because he wants to get higher standards of living for the workers. A businessman says that this is rationalization, or a lie; that it is really because he wants more money for himself from the workers. A radical says a college professor will not engage in radical movements because he is afraid for his job, and besides, is a “reactionary.” The college professor says it is because he just likes to find out how things work. What is reason for one man is rationalization for another. The variable is the accepted vocabulary of motives, the ultimate of discourse, of each man’s dominant group about whose opinion he cares. Determination of such groups, their location and character, would enable delimitation and methodological control of assignment of motives for speqfic acts.

I just think you fundamentally misrepresent the process if you exhume interiority from the picture. I don’t find it plausible that the growth and entrenchment of vocabularies of motivate can be explained in entirely relational and/or structural terms. I think the approach Mills advocates, rooted in Meadean pragmatism, can offer a lot of insights into the interactive aspects of vocabularies of motive (how these operate between persons) but that it inevitably fails as an account of socio-cultural change at a macro level.

Part of my interest in this stems from a desire to better understand the causal powers which vocabularies of motive can exercise intra-personally. This is what I was trying to get at here. The vocabulary we use to make sense of our own motivations has important consequences. I can parse the same impulse, or lack thereof, in very different terms (“that’s wrong”, “that’s normal”) with importantly divergent consequences. I’m arguing that these terms, deriving their meaning from the broader network of terms in which they are embedded, exercise causal powers in the sense that their meaning makes a difference. To introspectively designate an impulse as ‘wrong’ can serve to intensify distress, producing a deepening of what Mouzelis describes as an ‘intra-habitus contradiction’:

Reflexivity may focus less on interactive and more on intra-active processes. In other words, reflexivity may be enhanced not only when there are contradictions between dispositions, positions and figurations, but also when the subject has to handle intra-habitus conflicts. For instance, Trevor Butt and Darren Langdridge (2003) studied the diaries of the well-known comedian Kenneth Williams (1928-1988) and found a deep contradiction between his homosexual dispositions on the one hand, and his deeply conservative, anti-libertarian mentality on the other; the latter predisposed him to consider anything related to homosexuality as “filth”. These two fundamental aspects of K. Williams’ habitus both products of differing and varied socialization processes were obviously linked to his overdeveloped reflexivity which a reading of his diaries makes very obvious.

Whereas designating the impulse as ‘normal’ can encourage the resolution of this ‘contradiction’. I’m sure I can think of many examples that fall into this category (not least of all from my asexuality research) and perhaps I need to sit down and do this in order to get a better grip on this conceptually. What interests me is:

  • How cultural resources (words, tropes, concepts, images, motifs) exercise causal power vis-à-vis intra-personal deliberation.
  • How the exercise of this power serves to condition the individual’s orientation towards these cultural resources over time e.g. how people become invested in certain vocabularies which have done affective ‘work’ for them in the past.
  • How these divergent orientations serve to contribute, directly or indirectly, towards the transformation or reproduction of these vocabularies of motive.

My point is not to counterpose an exhaustive focus on interiority to the interactionist focus upon the social. Rather I think we have to incorporate both within our frame of reference if we are to achieve an adequate grasp on the dynamics of cultural change which are observable with regards to ‘vocabularies of motive’. So to use a concrete example: with my asexuality studies hat on, I’m very interested in how what could be described (fuzzily) as a vocabulary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ came to be replaced by a vocabulary of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ in relation to sexual impulses and sexual acts. I simply don’t see how you can explain this sort of temporally extended cultural change if you reduce, due to a prior methodological commitment, any deployment of such a vocabulary to the situational dynamics in play. What these vocabularies felt like to different persons and groups (including those reactionary groups who felt threatened by the erosion of moral certainties) isn’t just epiphenomenal froth. It’s an important part of the causality at work here.

3 responses to “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive”

  1. I don’t think it’s mine! I think it’s something I picked up from philosophy of mind actually…

  2. I employed a very similar notion and phrasing along the same lines just once about the existential status of liminal identity…a couplet of which reads: “Tis the wish and will, holding like seamen to the ropes, great gales n frothing nothingness storming on.”

    Aspects of the Alchemical Opus treat of ‘froth’, ‘fermentation’ and ‘distillation’ as something along the lines of skimming dross (ineffective theory as cognitive constructs?) off the volitized Negrido, or First Matter (unconscious urgency of instinct or the framing of the egocentric awareness, however derived?); which seems to me, if anything, a process whereby the heat (attention/focus) applied the vessel (ego latency?) transforms by sublimation the Matter under seal, vaporizing the condensed or ‘hardened’ ego structures (self-conceptions, latent projections or interiorizations) so as to get a clear look at their First Principles, whether dependent or essential to the ‘thing’ being volitalized, ie…can ‘it’ stand the heat (sun) of fiercest criticism, in a manner, or dissolve to substanceless ash in the end (telic)? They referred to such process as dangerous for the insubstantial and shadowed ego as, having no essential value valence but barest awareness, could be rendered utterly vacuous as to purposiveness, like an empty walnut shell, with zero [re]generative impetus on fundamental grounds; which I may suppose to be how Alchemists of the Jungian persuasion (“spiritual alchemy”) might interpret certain noxious elements (ego orientations) as ‘dangers’ of close work here. Some ‘truths’ of perspective being too overwhelming for any single ego construction, wherefore compartmentalization becomes the bookshelf cognitive architecture of partial integration, faux science and construed evidence in quest of underlying ‘laws’ (a theoretical method/dynamic). Is the personal mind (a tentative proposition) a fortress or a nest…the truths of one’s being: a citadel or a rising phoenix…a concretion of the ready at hand, or an essential and universal Fire (organic intelligence-world soul)?

    Hermits can get away with this, and Ravens bring them bred upon the looking-glass mountain side, a little covert apart from the melee of streaming event, situation and intrusive experience. Honey, Locusts and Camel hair will do, so long as there is Fire.

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