In defence of the individual

The individual is an unpopular category within contemporary social thought. To be concerned with the individual is taken to imply individualism, something which falls outside the range of acceptability for the cultural politics prevalent within British sociology. This is amplified by an intellectual impulse to transcend the individual as a unit of analysis, bound up within the formation of sociology as a science of social facts in distinction to the psychological domain of facts about specific individuals.

Yet my interests have always led me towards the individual as a unit of analysis, the main category within which I think and the reference point for any explanations of the social world I offer. I spent six years working on a PhD about personal morphogenesis: conceptualising what it is for someone to change and what it is for them to stay the same, as well as developing a framework through which we can study these processes in a sociological way. It’s something which I largely stopped thinking about, reflecting the exhaustion of spending so long preoccupied by it within the occasionally stultifying institutional confines of the PhD process. But it underlies pretty much everything I do, furnishing my deliberations with the essential categories through which I analyse the world around me.

My claim is not only that there is a specificity to human life which is missing in most accounts, this detail is crucial to understanding the fine-grained aspects of how history unfolds rather than being an enticing epiphenomenon which risks distracting us from the real business of politics and economics going on elsewhere. This is something which Ann Oakley expresses beautifully on loc 567 of her Father and Daughter:

Its credo (or theory) is that only through the lives of individuals are we really able to get a hold on all those complexities of experience and motivation which make up human history.

Far from the individual being a retreat from sociological explanation, it is a condition for any thorough explanation. There are many questions which do not invite direct reference to individual lives but all adequate explanations are consistent with the reality of such lives, holding out the promise that the abstractions in which these explanations proceed could in future be rendered concretely in a way faithful to the experience of those concerned. As Oakley goes on to write:

My heroine, the social scientist Barbara Wootton, once pointed out that: ‘Life stories are never easily told, even when their authors are genuinely concerned more with accuracy than with self-exculpation; and the biographies of those who defy the standards of their own society are doubly difficult to get straight’. 2 Biography and autobiography are vehicles for exhibiting an age; they help us to understand processes of social change through the medium of individual lives.

This is still what I want to do. I’ve realised recently that I’m going to have to return to the themes of my PhD if I want to develop as an analyst of social life, as much of part of me doesn’t want to go back to what felt like a unfinished project even after six years.

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