Evading the necessity of selection

In her The Reflexive Imperative, Margaret Archer presents an idea she terms the necessity of selection: the necessity of selecting from the options available to us. These options are always structurally and culturally circumscribed, albeit to wildly varying degrees, however they remain options. The nature of our ‘selections’ vary wildly but they are always a matter of discriminating between possibilities. If we accept that selection in this sense is an unavoidable challenge we encounter biographically then we can begin to look for trends in how this challenge is met or evaded. For instance I think ‘everythingism’ is a (privileged) attempt to evade the necessity of selection and reading the comments on the original Guardian article gives an entirely anecdotal basis for speculating that it is a trend. This interesting article about Millennials and Sex perhaps suggests another trend in how people are coming to evade the necessity of selection:

Instead, Kristina hopes to graduate and spend a few more years playing the field before getting married. In the process, she says, she hopes she never has to go on an actual date. “I’m obsessed with wedding crap, like I Pin wedding stuff all the time, and I love [celebrity-wedding planner] David Tutera and Say Yes to the Dress. Like, I’m obsessed with the idea of getting married, but I want to skip the dating part and just know who I’m going to marry.” She believes hookup culture might actually make this possible for her generation. “We’ll be so experienced in all the people that we don’t want, when we find the person who we do want, it’s just going to happen.”


I think the ‘necessity of selection’ is a very useful concept to help make sense of this approach to intimate life. To reject the ‘necessity of selection’ in this sphere would be to reject the underlying premise of long term monogamous partnership as stated here (though this would in turn intensify the necessity of selection in other aspects of her life). However she is “obsessed with the idea of getting married”: she intends to select in this way but hopes to avoid the difficulty of selection by embracing variety prior to this. I guess what I’m interested in here is the way in which any middle ground between ‘playing the field’ and ‘getting married’ drops out of the picture. My point is not that there’s something intrinsically necessary about this ‘middle ground’ but rather that the preoccupation with the commitment of marriage sits uneasily with a desire to “just know who I’m going to marry”. What’s lost are the ambiguities, uncertainties and fallibility that are entailed by any such commitment: a present refusal of selection is juxtaposed to a future embrace of selection. Obviously this is just a quote from a magazine article but I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to emerging adulthood and how realist sociology can help explain some of the tendencies that have been identified in terms of the romantic and sexual lives of millennials. I think the necessity of selection could be a very useful concept to make sense of these trends, rooted as it is in a broader theory of social change, however I’m still at a very early stage of thinking this through. This is how Margaret Archer describes the process of selection in the face of variety in The Reflexive Imperative: 

Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

One of the themes I discussed in my PhD data was the manner in which young adults embrace variety in an attempt to equip themselves to select from variety. Obviously they don’t use this terminology to describe or think about their own behaviour. The behavioural trajectories I mean are commonly referred to with phrases like “working out what I want”, “finding out what matters to me”, “working out who I am”. The most obvious manifestation of it is the inclination to move contexts in the absence of any specific intentions: desperately seeking something ‘new’ without being able to articulate what it is they’re looking for. If we expose ourselves to variety, exploring different possibilities of what to do and who to be, it becomes easier to actually select from these possibilities in the manner necessary to shape a life. That at least is the plan. In practice, it can have the opposite effect, as these patterns of movement have implications for the spatial distribution of variety and the embrace of variety can multiply awareness of the available options (or confront them with unavailable options) even as it better equips an individual to choose from them (or entrenches awareness of the constraints upon their choice). I’d like to work with a very specific theme, like sexual & romantic partnering, in order to help flesh out this analysis because at present it’s still much woolier than I would like it to be. This would also help refine the concepts of necessity of selection and the need to shape a life in terms of one very specific aspect of that life:

Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. (Archer 2012: 108-109)