A Heideggerian reading of Margaret Archer

There are many reasons I drifted away from social theory. One of the most irritating was how pervasively people would misread Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity (the biggest inspiration for my theoretical project) and how fruitless conversations which attempted to correct these misunderstandings would often be. Its not that I thought the work was faultless, far from it… my own PhD with her was in many ways a rounding out of areas where I thought her original account was underdeveloped (with regards to dispositions, embodied interaction and cultural resources) and she was accepting of anything I could justify in conversation with her. But it often felt like there was something deep at work in the misreadings, difficult to correct through conversations which inevitably remained on a relatively superficial level.

With the benefit of hindsight I think part of the problem was a failure of British sociology to recognise the Heideggerian streak in her work. I don’t mean that she was directly drawing on Heidegger but two of her main theoretical resources (Charles Taylor and Merleau-Ponty) were deeply influenced by the German philosopher. Furthermore as a social theorist with a deeply temporal sensibility, though not I think a sociologist of time in any straight-forward sense, Archer has a sense of the world as always in motion with the overarching thrust of her methodological project being how we unpack the sequences of that motion without lapsing into a pure processualism which merely affirms constant change. Alistair Mutch somewhere contrasts strong with weak processualism and I think this is very useful for understanding Archer’s project. In this sense I think while she does not explicitly refer to the Heideggerian category of thrownness (and its relation to project) it is a useful way of understanding how she conceives of agency. This is how Martin Seel describes it on pg 85 of Philosophical Romanticism:

We find ourselves thrown into concrete conditions of life, which have determined us, and which continue to determine us … In this historically disclosed world, human beings are attuned to the general framework of their praxis, long before they determine courses of action, or design particular projects through imagination and reflection.

His point is that we need “a real balance between the vectors of self-determination” in the sense of recognising how our capacity to give shape to our life (self-determination) intersects with how our life is determined by forces outside of our control (other-determination). This is what Archer’s conception of reflexivity opens up in a sociological register, particularly with regards to the question of how much of the social gets ‘inside’ of us in relation to other conceptions of social agency. My point in quoting Seel is that Archer shares this Heidegerrian sensitivity to the unchosen conditions of our agency, even if her preferred vocabulary would be something more akin to Marxist humanism. The point is not just that we make our lives in conditions not of our choosing but rather that how we do so is a matter of coping with those conditions in which we have found ourselves. This isn’t a Kantian subject at a mysterious remove from the world but rather a being-in-the-world with at least some capacity (which Archer sees as variable, reflecting the structural conditions we encounter particularly in early life, rather than a fixed property) to step back from the world and gain a fleeting distance from it. But those moments of disengagement take place against a background of engagement, what she tends to describe in terms of the quotidian character of reflexivity and the extremely mundane things which much of our internal conversations are about.

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