An Archerian reading of Bourdieu: the reflexive imperative as the normalisation of hysteresis

I’ve just cut this out of a paper I’m working on. It’s not up to scratch and it doesn’t really contribute anything to the development of the paper. But it’s an idea I’m planning to return to in future, so I’d be interested in any thoughts people have about it. I hadn’t actually compiled the bibliography for this yet but get in touch if you’d like info about a reference in the text. 

In this section I provide an overview of Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity, focusing upon the role of cultural variety in shaping reflexive deliberation. To do this, I wish to borrow a metaphor from the Bourdieusian theorist Will Atkinson and use this to consider the role of categories in internal conversation. Atkinson invokes the metaphor of a flashlight to illustrate the disjuncture between the objective and subjective fields of possibility which confront a subject. His phenomenological reconstruction of habitus[1] seeks to explain “the limits of the conceivable range of possibilities” in terms of the power of habitus for “illuminating in consciousness, like the beam from a torch, only a circumscribed arc of social space and leaving the rest in the unknown, unthinkable darkness” (Atkinson 2010: 104). My contention is that this metaphor can be usefully be reclaimed from the use made of it here and that what Atkinson (2010: 52) describes as “the full weight of accumulated categorization” can usefully be reconceptualised in terms of the generative mechanism through which cultural variety influences reflexive deliberation. If we understand culture, following Archer (1985, 2011: loc 3696), as the “repertoire of ideas for construing the situations in which [subjects] find themselves”, we are left with the question of how their ensuing influence accumulates biographically. Atkinson’s (2010) metaphor of the flash light nicely captures this as a synchronic relation, in which the subject’s perception of the possibilities available to them are filtered through a prism of ‘accumulated categorization’[2], but it lacks an account of the diachronic i.e. past ideas which subjects have incorporated into their mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders[3] exercise a conditioning influence upon present action, one result of which will be the reproduction or transformation of the stock of mental representations influencing future deliberations. 

The question remains however as to how this ‘categorization’ accumulates. As Atkinson (2010: 52) admits, the “precise contents of the habitus and how it generates conscious thought and intention … is never really elaborated in a systematic way, leaving it open to the charge of being an explanatory black box”. I’d suggest that Archer’s (2003, 2007) account of communicative reflexivity cracks open this black box by elaborating upon how the stock of mental representations is reliably reproduced through the dynamics of external conversation: trusting similar others, circumscription of internal dialogue and privileging the shared present (Archer 2007: 270-281). The decline of the contextual continuity necessary for communicative reflexivity[4] progressively erodes the shared mental representations which are necessary for internal conversation to be externalised, seeking confirmation and completion by trusted others, in a manner experienced as subjectively worthwhile (Archer 2007: 84-85). The decline of contextual continuity exercises an independent influence upon the likely stock of potential interlocutors, given the time taken for relationships of this sort to be established and the relative immobility likely necessary for them to be retained[5]. This accounts for the fragility of communicative reflexivity in contemporary circumstances. Even were someone is born into circumstances precipitous to it, the likelihood of those circumstance both remaining stable and a subject remaining within them is increasingly low. As Archer (2012) and Carrigan (2014) both illustrate, one important vector of change is the transition of students to university, leading to a transformation of the students themselves and implications for their web of familial relations and ‘home’ friends at the time of entry.

With the decline of communicative reflexivity comes the necessity of recognising the different modes through which cultural structures are mediated at the level of personal reflexivity. The failure to do this can be seen in debates out the ‘split habitus’ and ‘intra-habitus’ contradictions. For instance Mouzelis (2007) invokes the ‘intra-active processes’ then can ensue when a subject finds themselves under the influence of a habitus with ‘two fundamental aspects’. Friedman (2015) discusses Bourdieu’s ambivalent treatment of ‘long-range social mobility’ and its implications for reflexivity, something which he recognised in his own life when writing in an auto-ethnographic mode but relegated to the periphery of social analysis in the lives of others in his description of ‘hysteresis effects’: mismatches between habitus and field, a disjuncture between objective demands and subjective capacities, leading to negative sanctions from others within it. The notion of hysteresis has natural scientific origins, gifting the term with connotations of change and time lag (Grenfell 2014: 128). As Friedman (2015) notes, Bourdieu began to explore hysteresis effects at the level of personal life in his later work, leaving it an open question as to whether this investigative thread might ultimately have led to a revision of the concept of habitus. After all, Archer’s (2007) account of the ‘demise of routinisation’ could be translated into Bourdieusian terminology as a thesis about the normalisation of hysteresis[6]. Rosa’s (2013) notion of an intra-generational pace of change describes the same trend. In Archer’s words: “change is now too rapid and appropriate practices now too evanescent for inter-generational socialisation to take place” (Archer 2007: 41).

While Bourdieu implicitly maintains the stability of the field and relegates a mismatch to an ‘effect’ at the level of subject, Archer (2003, 2007) instead conceives of changing characteristics of the social context (continuity, discontinuity and incongruity) and their relation to the different modes through which the reflexive capacities of subjects can be exercised. In doing so, the relation between the objective and subjective is opened up in  way much more amenable to investigating their interplay than is the case when a homology is assumed and its absence is regarded as an outlier. Under conditions of contextual continuity, there tend to be a mutually reinforcing relationship between cultural variety and social circumstances. Our repertoire of ideas for construing our situations find confirmations in the characteristics of those situations and in the ideas of those with whom we discuss the choices faced in them. Dependence upon concepts does not entail determination by concepts and so there’s not necessity here but rather conditioning influences operative via a number of pathways (structural, ideational, relational, biographical). The result is that our access to cultural variety is heavily circumscribed, something which practitioners of communicative reflexivity are liable to accept and work to reinforce[7]. With the emergence of contextual discontinuity, this mutual reinforcement between the socio-cultural and the cultural system begins to loosen, as novel opportunities force subjects to look beyond interlocutors for guidance. Furthermore, the influence of established variety within a stable context diminished because of the growing tendency for subjects to move beyond and between milieu as they sought to take advantage of these opportunities. In some cases, new ideas encountered might support established ways of doing things within a milieu, but in others cases they might lead a subject to feel they have no choice but to move beyond it. Under these circumstances, cultural variety may still be circumscribed within a particular milieu but subjects are more likely to move between milieus and thus ‘take’ variety with them when they move. With the growth of contextual incongruity, cultural variety began to be encountered within a milieu, such that subjects are confronted with the necessity of evaluating mutually incompatible ideas. Archer (2012) investigates the implications of this for the development of reflexivity but what I wish to stress here is how this encourages some subjects to look towards the cultural system in order to find ideas which help reconcile the conflicts they face. Increasingly, the activity of subjects within a context contributes to an expansion of cultural variety, as opposed to being something brought about by moving between contexts.

This is a brief sketch at a high level of abstraction, conducted in a micro-sociological register. My focus is on how changes in contextual features generate different modes of mediation of cultural variety which subjects then orientate themselves towards in variable ways. To return to the flashlight analogy: the ‘default’ setting of the beam is heavily circumscribed under conditions of contextual continuity, unevenly circumscribed under contextual discontinuity _ and highly expansive under conditions of contextual incongruity. But why does this matter? It matters because how cultural variety is mediated for any given subject shapes how their objective field of actual opportunities contracts into a subjective field of perceived possibilities. As Archer (2012: 62) notes, increasing cultural variety leads to a greater stimulus towards innovative commitments. But it also increases the challenge of choosing from available opportunities, developing sustainable courses of action and committing to ongoing projects. The wider the ‘beam’ of the ‘flashlight’, the more work that is required to make choices about one’s own future, a predicament generated by the process of cultural morphogenesis described here, to which subjects contribute in turn when they seek more variety in order to resolve it.

[1] Resulting in something which looks even closer to Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity than that seen in Crossley’s (2001) parallel attempt to use the intellectual resources of phenomenology to open the ‘black box’ of habitus. However Crossley (2001) takes reflexivity more seriously than Atkinson, who ultimately dismisses it as ‘faux reflexivity’ representing “nothing more than mundane consciousness operating within the subjective field of possibilities given class positions and dispositions but masquerading at the narrative level as action without limits of history.” (Atkinson 2010: 114). He essentially concludes that the concept of ‘reflexivity’ necessarily entails taking professions of agency at face value, as Thomson et al (2002) put it, oddly drawing this conclusion with little scrutiny of how concepts of reflexivity are actually operationalised in empirical studies.

[2] Though even then the interruption of contingency can lead to outcomes which lead the subject to look beyond the beam of their present flashlight. Brock and Carrigan (2012) analyse a case study in which the highly contingent unfolding of a ‘riot’ will likely lead to personal change for those involved. For more on personal morphogenesis see Alford (1995) and Carrigan (2014).

[3] See Archer (2000) for a full account of these concepts. My intuition would be that mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders exhibit ascending degrees of durability from the former to the latter, though the unfolding reality of intra-generational climactic change might falsify this assumption.

[4] Something which begins to fragment with what Harmut Rosa’s (2013) describes as an intergenerational rate of social change and is largely absent with the advent of an intragenerational rate of social change, beyond pockets of sub-culture which have (reflexively) sought to shield themselves from social morphogenesis, as with the religious sub-cultures invoked by Gorski (2016).

[5] Though of course personal connections can be established and reproduced through digital technology (Baym 2010). Nonetheless, many would raise questions about the meaningfulness of these connections, such as Hill (2015), Keen (2012, 2014), Slade (2012), Turkle (2011) and Zimbardo (2015). Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethnographic accounts paint a more nuanced picture of digitally mediated social relations. See Miller (2013), Miller and Slater (2000), Miller and Sinanan (2013).

[6] Though this would gloss over other relevant differences, such as a preference for the concept of ‘routine’ given it has no comparable connotation of the social getting ‘inside’ of us.

[7] By seeking out the similar and the familiar and, to varying degrees, turning away from the dissimilar and disfamiliar. The more contextual continuity recedes, the more active this process by necessity becomes.