Notes for a Sociology of Thinking 1.4

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen argued that the intellectual axis of contemporary sociological theory has shifted from a concern with individualism and holism to what he terms dualism and anti-dualism. I’m not convinced as to the accuracy of this as a claim about the state of the field given the degree of sophistication which can be seen in some of the work analytical sociologists are doing. However I think it’s useful as an expression of a core distinction between those theorists who see ‘structure and agency’ as a dualism to be transcended and those who see it as reflecting the ontological reality of two relatively autonomous aspects of the social world. I also really like how he sets this up because it helps me locate both my PhD research on personal morphogenesis and my post-PhD research on the sociology of thinking in terms of wider trends within sociological theory:

This leads us to what I think is the main battleground between dualists and antidualists, the mind of the individual. The question is: how social is it?


No one could question that there are singular organisms we call members of the biological species Homo sapiens, but the antidualists wish to remind you that these are not distinctly human individuals, not to mention social scientifically interesting agents, until they are in sociocultural relations with other people and thus components in sociocultural wholes that contribute enormously to their being the kinds of individuals that they are (see e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Dewey [1920] 1988:187–94, [1922] 1983, [1927] 1988:351–53; Elias 1978; Fuchs 2001; Giddens 1984; King 2004; Mead 1934; also Kivinen and Piiroinen 2013). As John Dewey put it a hundred years ago:

The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there. . . . [For, actually,] social arrangements, laws, institutions . . . are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Dewey [1920] 1988:190–91)

For central conflationist antidualists like myself, indeed, the “micro” focus is not the individual so much as specific encounters and other small-scale situations involving specific kinds of people-in-relations and their interactions (see Collins 2004:3). In effect, “the stuff of the social is made of relations, not individuals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:179). But Archer, in contrast, needs to keep individuals free from their social relations in order to pull those relations away from agency and turn them into the essence of structures. So relations and thus structures must be external to individuals and their beliefs and concepts, according to Archer, and relational roles, institutions, concepts, and ideas cannot be allowed to “invade” or “determine” individuals’ identities and decision-making processes. Basically Archer is saying that we must not stuff too much of the sociocultural world into people’s heads

(Piiroinen 2014:84-85)

I think he’s misunderstood Archer’s specific point slightly but he’s certainly correct about the general intention here. My PhD research on personal morphogenesis was intended to flesh out how people change in relation to social and cultural influences in a way that sustains the distinction between the personal changes and the social influences. We become ‘the kinds of individuals’ that we are in relation to others but if we cleave self and others too closely together, we obscure the variability in how these changes unfold. In essence I’ve argued that we understand relationships in terms of intersecting biographies and the changes brought about by them. So I’d insist on maintaining individual biography as a unit of analysis, with this representing a ‘chunk’ of one person’s biography in which we they undergo a change:

However we can’t understand the changes without analysing the intersection of biographies, as any number of other persons (Px) contribute to the unfolding of P1’s biography over this period of time. The interaction between P1 and Px contributes to the reproduction or transformation of the relations themselves but also the persons party to them:

I would accept that we are only “distinctly human individuals” when we are “in sociocultural relations with other people”: I just want to be specific about which sociocultural relations contribute to which aspects of our individuality and when they do so. I think this is important because actual biographies are messy. My empirical case study concerned undergraduate students. For instance I’m interested in understanding how interactions between a person and their new university friends can transform how they relate to their ‘home friends’. The personal changes emergent from one set of sociocultural relations can have a huge impact on another set of sociocultural relations and I think the central conflationists can’t (consistently) account for this because they have no concept of ‘outputs’ from relations. In other words: relations change people but people change relations and these processes are not concurrent. We are enmeshed within socio-cultural relations from birth but, as Laing once put it, while “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”.

So when we ask how social is the mind it connects us to a much wider network of questions, as Piiroinen adroitly illustrates. I see my project on the sociology of thinking as having an outward facing component (in the sense of what a sociological perspective can contribute to the study of thinking from other approaches) but also an inward facing one, in the sense that understanding thinking – as an activity but also the contents of thought – is integral to clarifying the dualisms upon which so much of sociological theory has tended to pivot: individual/relations, individual/society, agency/structure, micro/macro. I would like to critique what I see as a tendency towards disciplinary imperialism in how sociologists treat thinking and to critically engage with work in other fields with the intention of (cautiously) applying their insights to the clarification of these questions of social theory.

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