Getting inside people’s frames: reflexivity and cultural sociology

In recent months I’ve been slowly working through some of Jeffrey Alexander’s work. I’m interested in what cultural sociology has to offer as I begin to try and extend my PhD research on internal conversation & biography into my planned post-doctoral work on the sociology of thinking. However I’ve found Alexander’s work slightly hit and miss, occasionally leaving me wondering whether I’ve misunderstood his project or perhaps overestimated its potential relevance to my own. This post on Daniel Little’s book has clarified my sense that cultural sociology is highly relevant to me but also something I need to be critical when engaging with:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.


The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront.

I think these internal constraints and enablements are underemphasised in Archer’s work on reflexivity. They are integral to her account of meta-reflexivity, in the sense that such individuals come to orientate themselves to a cause they have encountered or jury-rigged together from elements in their environment, but she lacks a comprehensive theory of what these resources are. The elements necessary for such a theory, an extremely sophisticated one in fact, can be found in her wider body of work – the distinction between the cultural system and socio-cultural relations, as well as the various situational logics that obtain at this interface, simply needs an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of everyday life to flesh out this aspect of human experience.

I’ve conceptualised this in terms of recurrent relations between ‘me’ and ‘I’ – at any given moment, my repertoire of routine responses is conditioned by the cultural elements I reflexively orientated myself to at a previous moment in time, in turn shaping how I respond to present cultural variety and coming to constitute the ‘me’ to my ‘I’ at some future point in time. In other words, I’m always constrained by my past but presently able to act freely* within them. I like this framework and it seems to work quite effectively, with my intention being to flesh it out at much greater length when I extend my PhD thesis into a monograph.

I’m hoping cultural sociology will be very useful for this purpose but thus far it hasn’t been. Little helpfully sums up what is of value in cultural sociology but also why I don’t like what I’ve read thus far:

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

My problem here is with the failure to conceptualise the interface between the personal and the cultural – it’s a parallel to what I earlier referred to as the lack in Archer’s work of an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of reflexive individuals (it’s there in parts, it just hasn’t been worked out thoroughly). Little refers to this as a need for cultural sociology to pay “more attention to the interface between frame and actor”. I don’t think this is simply an oversight but something which would constitutively reorientate the entire approach – I think it would involve an engagement with the ontology of media (e.g. books), biographical questions about how culture reorientates lives and an analysis of the cognitive processes by which ideas are appropriated. At the very least ‘cultural frames’ are inflected through the path-dependent orientation of particular individuals but I think I’d argue for the stronger claim that they are transformed through this appropriation or rejection by individuals – with this individual action contributing to the reproduction or transformation of the frames themselves which are more broadly in circulation within the social world.

*I’m talking purely about internal constraints and enablements here for sake of brevity. Obviously external constraints/enablements, as well as the relations between those operating internally and externally, would be considered in practice.

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