This was originally published in Brock, T., Carrigan, M., & Scambler, G. (2016). Structure, culture and agency: Selected papers of Margaret Archer. Routledge. Please use this reference if you’re citing this interview.
Part 1: The London School of Economics
Mark Carrigan: What was the experience of graduate school like? How did it shape you intellectually?
Maggie Archer: It was a huge disappointment. The whole process, how I ended up with the supervisors, which was a matter of allocation at LSE. I turned down the first one allocated to me. Then it was made perfectly clear that this is an exception; that people could refuse what was graciously offered to them. I was told I was being given the great honor of having David Glass. This was a sort of cognitive disruption for me. Because the paradox of LSE was that it was so authoritarian about this issuing of supervisors. You didn’t even have the option of naming preferences or anything. Or, you could name an area, but not your topic within the area.
The incongruity was between this sort of virtually dictatorial process and the freedom we’d had on the curriculum. For example, the second year you had almost total freedom. It was the ultimate cafeteria. I spent the entirety of my second year doing lots of philosophy of science, philosophy of social science. Brilliant experience with people like Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos – who obviously was a lifelong influence – John Wisdom, John Watkins. It was the last of the really quality star-studded LSE and it was great
I kept that mindset that discipline with boundaries are totally unimportant. You can’t do sociology without also doing implicit or explicit philosophy of social science. There was a huge amount of social science that hadn’t actually penetrated to some of the philosophers, whereas others like Watkins – the classic example – had nailed his place unassailably as the doyen of methodological individualism and its philosophical underpinnings. With that background, it was rather hard to confront one of Britain’s leading empiricist demographers whose hinge linking him to sociology was social mobility.
Already I was interested in, I call it reflexivity now though I’m not I’d even met the term then, in parents’ subjective wishes for their children. I’d not see these as determined by anything in particular. Probably more by their own life courses and happenstance events than anything else. But compared to sociology education at the time… I once spent an incredibly boring 2 weeks on my father’s long carriage imperial typewriter typing up the factors. That was the approach, factorial not multivariate. Just factorial. Reaching the dizzy heights of the partial correlation coefficient. A list of the factors that had been established as having some correlation or relationship to any indicator of kids’ school achievement, which could go from their results to the class teacher’s assessments, et cetera, et cetera.
This was very much David Glass’s approach to things. It was the beginning of a real introduction to empiricism at work. If it moved, measure it. If it spoke, scale it. Graduate seminars, yes, I resisted them, though we had to do them. They taught us a variety of scaling techniques and things you could do with maths to clean up your data.
All of which just intensified my hostility towards empiricism. This growing unease that this was missing out on whole tracts of life that were important, as well as statistically mashing the ones they did include into a simple list of variables. It was all a search for the golden dream, which was never ever reached, of finding the factor. I think it is, I thought this within the next 10 years, that this was the overwhelming appeal of Bourdieu and the concept of habitus. I’m not saying this critically at the moment. I have many criticisms of it, as you well know. But it was such a broad and let’s face it, diffuse, concept that it could provide an umbrella under which all these factorial theorists could dwell and from which they could draw. It looked as though progress was being made.
It was an extraordinarily dissatisfying time doing the PhD. Its title tells you everything about me giving into the pressures that were bigger than I was: the educational aspirations of working class mothers for their children’s school attainment and future careers. It’s the only piece of work I’ve been entirely ashamed of. I’ve never published a word from it. On empiricist terms, I don’t know there’s much wrong with it. In every other respect, there was everything wrong with it.
It all came down to one interview in Leytonstone with a young woman, clearly living under considerable stress with 4 children and as far as I could tell or guess, an absentee father. It was clearly the center of the house, the only room that physically accommodated them. With damp stains running down the wall, wallpaper hanging off, the kids’ main idea of entertainment being running around with colored chalks all the way around the room making stripes on the wall. In the middle of this was the mother, who was kind to the kids. She was not shouting, she was not doing anything the least bit abusive to them. But when we got on to talking about aspirations, “Well, I would like this one to be a doctor, and if that one could be a lawyer or maybe an engineer, a really big engineer who’ll build bridges and QE2’s and that sort of thing, that’s what I’d really like for them.”
This discontinuity between her private dreams, the reality in front of me, and the general pretty low performance of working class kids in Leytonstone. It was just so great, I wanted to go down the track of, in some polite way, asking where the dreams had come from. What sustained them in the face of pretty obvious difficulties, financial and care-taking, that she was facing? How had she sustained this and did she have any network of friends who were also living in some kind of educational dream world?
Mark Carrigan: But the influence of your supervisors left you feeling unable to pursue these questions?
Maggie Archer: They were never dissatisfied. As long as I went on cross-tabbing. We then reached the wonderful day, that was supposed to make me overwhelmed with joy, when the first computer was installed in LSE. If I could get the data punched in, how many cross-tabs could we run? That took another 3 months and you had to walk in with your shoe box of punched cards. Again, you weren’t allowed to have the lateral thought of what on earth is the life of a card code puncher like?
That was the thesis. Any robot could have done it. It was so formulaic. Provided you didn’t stray from the straight and narrow and your partial correlations did check out, you couldn’t go very wrong with it. Basically: get that out and work out a scale. Which I did.
Again, I’ve never been more ashamed of anything in my life, particularly when it was taken up by various educational research institutions and used because it simply asked them to record, “I want my son to be a doctor.” No supplementaries, no nothing. You just had to write down the answer. Out came this metric. Then, I was told to cross-correlate it with anything I could think of that was objective. These are the days where we’re into things like Chapin’s Living Room Scale.
Mark Carrigan: Were you thinking about what would come next after your PhD?
Maggie Archer: I systematically evaded answering the question. There were plenty of vocation jobs, night jobs, weekend jobs. One of them, Glass himself put me on to, which was rather nice of him. It was sitting at the library of the department of the health, manually calculating for each borough, what the take up had been on the government’s free offer of installation of a toilet and running water in your kitchen.
I didn’t want to stay around LSE because I had no qualification to go on with the philosophy of social science. I’d always had a love of France. Nothing to lose. Just go.
Mark Carrigan: It sounds like the philosophy of social science at LSE was a more important intellectual influence than your PhD in some ways.
Maggie Archer: In terms of critique, yes. In terms of how to do something else, that wasn’t methodologically individualist, no. It was Lakatos, a huge influence still to this day, who introduced me to the idea there is no ultimate proof or disproof. There are only progressive and denigrating research programs. The sign of a degenerating, deteriorating one was the more it shifted over into ad-hoc hypotheses to prop up the central proposition. This idea that were was an inner core to a theory which was protected by concentric circles of greater and greater specificity. The idea of theory of something growing rather than just being additive in the ways that these positivist indicators were additive.
Part 2: Educational Systems
Mark Carrigan: Did Paris prove to be a more intellectually stimulating environment than London?
Maggie Archer: I was very lucky in having god parents in Paris. It didn’t cost me anything to stay. It didn’t cost me anything to eat. My godfather was professor in administrative law at the Sorbonne. I started attending classes and there structure arrived. It was almost like one of those gestalt experiences. It arrived in the form of an accumulation of experiences over a very short period of time.
So for example, it was now 1966, Raymond Aron and his 18 lessons on industry in society. He was a huge name and he was writing a little box everyday that was on the front page of Le Monde, about some social question of the moment. He was giving a series of lectures and obviously I went, I’d never set eyes on him. I went into a small amphitheater that was three quarters empty. I thought this was bizarre, as he’s even better known in Paris. Maybe they’ve all done it before?
I asked some fellow students, “Where are all the others? Why such a small turnout?”. It’s actually typical for lecturers in Paris. Why would you come to the lecture when you go around the corner to Press Universite de France and you can buy the course booklet? The course booklet even contained student answers to particular questions. You could get the content and you could get the form and you could splice the two together. Most students, according to my companion, decided why bother getting out of bed when you can do it the easy way?
These experiences just accumulated. Yes, you can call it selective perspective, perception, and actually that came into it. Aron was about to retire, so I set off asking fellow students very benign questions such as, “Will his replacement go on teaching to the same booklet? How free are they to change the course, change the reading, change the arguments?” They said, “Well, you know, it’s not as bad as school.”
It’s a national curriculum. Mid-60’s. It’s the same everywhere. Haven’t you heard about this apocryphal Minister of Education who looked at his watch and said, “Ah, it’s 10:45, every pupil in a French Lycée throughout the country, will be looking at page 94 of Virgil.” I laughed and they said, “Yeah, we laughed, too, but it’s really rather a sick joke”. It means no teacher, school teacher certainly, could come across a novel that impressed them greatly and say let’s give a couple of lessons to reading a chapter of this and discussing it. No space for that whatsoever. It was all regulated.
On the ground, I began to learn what centralization felt like. Very different from my year two of freedom at LSE, pick what you like and do what you like with it. It was following up on that which gave me the central idea for Social Origins because the difference between a decentralized structure and a centralized structure was obvious phenomenologically, it was obvious experientially over a tract of time, and it was obvious in some of its effects on who got in, what happened to them when they were inside, what they came out and did, or were directed to do at any rate. In other words, the main questions that the first book actually sought to try and answer.
Mark Carrigan: What happened next? Was the idea just in a nascent stage? Or was it a nascent form at this stage?
Maggie Archer: It was. But it was more and more directing my reading. I actually did find administration interesting. The reason I found it interesting was because you got exactly the same picture there. Highly centralized administrative structures, with a whole raft of bureaucratic regulations for how anything was done from sewage to hospital injections. Compared with, and the timing is very important here, this is probably the heyday in Britain of the Local Education Authority. So we’ve got places like Leicester, which went Comprehensive without asking any permission from the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education was rather like an accountancy office, whereas in France it was directed, dirigiste. How that had come about was I was reading on. I was actually enrolled by that stage for a French doctorate. One I was awarded but could never collect because I never succeeded in fulfilling their residential requirements.
Mark Carrigan: Did you get funding for this?
Maggie Archer: I did eventually, but in a sort of perverse way. I always seem to have had 2 jobs. Ernest Gellner had asked me to teach in Cambridge. At the time, there was no sociology degree at all, but there was a sociology module under the economics Tripos. That was how I was actually supporting myself again, night work. Or in this case, weekend work, because Christ College took me on. I tutored all the Christ men, they were all men in those days, who had opted to take the sociology module.
They did extraordinarily well. I suppose most of the other supervisors, who were the lowest form of life at Cambridge, paid 2 pence an hour, wouldn’t have been Sociologists at all. Just needed the cash and so on. They didn’t only keep me on, they increased my rate of pay, which was rather nice. That plus continuing to live with my god parents in parents, enabled me to go as a post doc and be admitted to Bourdieu’s équipe.
Mark Carrigan: What was that like, as a working environment?
Maggie Archer: Hilarious. Quite hilarious. For instance we would break for coffee at about 11 o’clock in the morning, and we’d go across the road to the Lutetia Café, which is huge. Clearly they’d been doing this for ages. There was actually a nearly complete circle, a horse shoe of chairs that were acknowledged to be where the équipe came in to take coffee in the morning. There was also a seating plan. Bourdieu was at the head of the table. There was also a conversational plan. Today, we will discuss… we were only staying there 20 minutes, 30 at most.
To his eternal credit, he was a theorist who always did an empirical, not an empiricist, back up to whatever he was writing on. He had a wealth of interests that all came off this central concept of habitus, which I saw as the inviolable theoretical core in the Lakatosian sense, but the concentric circles were up for grabs.
Mark Carrigan: Did you have a sense then of an unwarranted generalization from the social condition of Bourdieu’s France to the capitalist world at large?
Maggie Archer: Yes, there was. I tried to do something about it. I had a flat and then a house in Notting Hill Gate. He and Luk Boltanski used to come over on the train and stay for a couple of days. We would have seminars in Reading about allied topics.
I was very cautious. He wasn’t the kind of guy you met head on. Certainly I wasn’t feeling secure enough in developing this thesis to engage with him, but certainly I was secure enough in my incipient critique to try and expose him when he came to England to the equivalent of my first experiences in France. He didn’t know England at all. So it was as strange for him wandering into a British university or school as it had for me walking into the amphitheater and finding no one wanted to listen to Raymond Aron.
I tried to make it live for him without making it into a verbalized critique. It wasn’t cowardly. Again, it was one of those things that’s very hard to communicate these days because the practice has ceased. This huge gap between the full professor and the post-doc researcher, even though he was an incredibly kind man, and occasionally we would start a discussion that was so interesting he’d say, “Oh, come on, let’s go out for lunch or for dinner.” He would always pay. Personally, he was as kind as anybody could have possibly been, and to be fair, he tried to minimize the distance, this huge gap.
I could have gone further, but I didn’t want to damage this relationship because I was just getting so much out of working with him and his people. They were really giving me French education, French sociology on a plate. It was like being at the most glorious buffet where you didn’t have to go out looking and searching and making connections. You just sort of took a bit of this and a bit of that.
Mark Carrigan: But you were also working at Reading during this time?
Maggie Archer: I got a lectureship at Reading. No good reason except it was close to London and very close to Heathrow. It made a bizarre life of 3 days a week in Paris and 3 days a week in London possible. Total cost of air round trip: 14 pounds. I suppose these days it would be absolutely outrageous for anybody to do that even if their workload allowed them to do it, which it wouldn’t with all these add-ons and extras and expectations.
That was the next three years, which were mainly devoted to clarifying this project. Social Origins of Educational Systems became clearer and clearer, at least in its theory. There was still the enormous historical slog through the various histories of.
Nark Carrigan: Did you work on other projects while you were doing this?
Maggie Archer: I published on the growth of public administration in France. We did a lot of work at Reading editing volumes on European things. Then came May 68. I re-read it about 6 months ago for some purpose or other. It’s not bad. Certainly, the ideas are more than half-formed by them.
Mark Carrigan: Did those events then feed into the bigger projects, as well?
Maggie Archer: In order to get this mob of the streets, all kinds of verbal promises were made. All of them were about autonomy, de-centralization, specialization. Participation, reduction, dilution of central control. It was a perfect spontaneously given critique by the agents themselves of what was wrong with the structure. Then what happened during the next year? Everything that had been given was clawed back. Centralisation was back, assured and re-assured. Then the concessions that had been made to get them off the streets and back behind their desks were simply ratted on.
Part 3: The International Sociological Association
Mark Carrigan: How did you first come to be involved in the International Sociological Association?
Maggie Archer: How did it come about? In the strangest of ways. I have to back track a bit to LSE, to my second great friend, who I mentioned, Tom Bottomore, who I’d met via CND. We had always been very friendly and he had taught sociological theory.
I was quite surprised when Tom said to me, “I’d like to talk to you about a proposition because you’ve been in France. You know French. You clearly like travel. How about a drink tonight?” I said, “Absolutely fine.” He came straight out with it and it struck me as wonderful. He said, “We have this journal covering sociology. How do you feel about editing it?”
Absolutely gobsmacked. I just couldn’t imagine that this offer was there. He said, well, “It’s not such a wonderful deal as it maybe sounds to you. Let me tell you the downside. It’s 9 issues behind and we’re in danger”. It came under the United Nations social science framework, it was in great danger of getting its funding cut if we didn’t get it quickly up to date. I said, “Yeah, I’ll take it on gladly. You say the current editor is in Paris?” He told me where to go. I said, “Do ask him for me, the back documentation, because it could be that he’s sitting on 9 issues that the writers have delivered but he hasn’t got around to editing.”. He went to a drawer and he brought out 2 cardboard folders, which had precisely one piece of paper in them each. I tentatively said, “No manuscripts in course of editing?” On one of these pieces of paper turned out to be the list of planned and future issues.
Mark Carrigan: Did taking over the editorship lead inevitably to further involvement in the ISA?
Maggie Archer: In the course of doing all this editing, and then these additional projects that I started floating, they said “You must come to our meetings.” I went to a meeting every year for about eight years, saw the world, which was nice, and had a real feel for how decisions are made and so on. There was no vice chairman in charge of publications, and by then I got quite a raft of publications that I was responsible for: Current Sociology, a book series with Sage, we had other plans. We ought to have had a fourth vice president for publications, which was obviously designated for me. I’ve always enjoyed editing. I mean, in general. It’s a way of keeping up. You really do have to read it very carefully, indeed, to be able to edit it. Simple as that.
I went to Delhi with the mindset that if they made a fourth VP for publications then, yes, I would be delighted to do that and continue with pushing forward these two projects. That was the expectation when I went off to India, which came crashed down on about day three when the committee reported back that the frontrunner for President was ineligible for reasons which are a long and technical story.
Mark Carrigan: What was the experience of being president like from 1986-1990?
Maggie Archer: The experience was great. One year we went to Varna in Bulgaria and ended up bringing back clandestine articles that we published. We met regularly in Poland, both in Krakow and Warsaw, which even then was outstanding. I’d like to write a chapter on why Poland was ahead of the rest of Europe. Ljubljana in Slovenia. Intellectually, it was extraordinary bright. There are endless funny stories I could tell you. Funny and sad. But you don’t want this to be a kind of rambling travelogue do you?
Mark Carrigan: How did this intersect with your work at Warwick?
Maggie Archer: Perfectly well. Nobody much cared. If anything, this was a feather in their cap that they had the president of the ISA on their teaching staff.
Mark Carrigan: Were you working on Culture & Agency at the time?
Maggie Archer: Yes. That was my salvation in a way, as far as work was concerned. I was looking the other day down the list you’ve done on our website of my biographical items. I thought that was really interesting because you cannot spot the years 1986 to 1990, when I was very heavily involved in working for the ISA. You can’t spot it in terms of publications because I’d written all but the last chapter of Culture and Agency. Before that summer meeting in 1986, I’d only done two things. I wrote the last chapter and sent it off to Cambridge University Press and I took my intensive Spanish course.
Mark Carrigan: And it was in your early years at Warwick that you finished Social Origins of Educational Systems?
Maggie Archer: Yes. I was pregnant with Kingsley in 1975 and I had never encountered a baby in my life. Had some totally unreal expectations that they slept all the time and you just worked on. The reason, quite honestly, why that book became so long was because I was writing it in hand at the side of his cradle and I had no idea it was growing so much.
Mark Carrigan: But it was always going to be a massive undertaking though, right? To not only write analytical histories of emergence for such complex systems but to then compare them.
Maggie Archer: Yes. I couldn’t do two countries because what did that say? They were different, so I had to find another centralized system, which was Russia, and another decentralized system which was Denmark. I played with the States, but with it being a Federal system, you would have had to have done a history of each one of the states and you’d needed a research team for that.
Mark Carrigan: And the morphogenetic approach was developed in the course of this undertaking?
Maggie Archer: The theory was born in the course of explaining how these systems got the structural characteristics that they did and how they kept them and what difference it made to action in and around education. If you look at the book, you don’t have to read it, but if you look at it, there’s actually a table that says this table summarizes the chapters in the book and it names the cycles on the bottom line.
Part 4: Structure and Culture
Mark Carrigan: How did Culture & Agency, your next big project, emerge from the Social Origins of Educational Systems?
Maggie Archer: From what are simple questions, particularly in the centralized system. If culture is the football, what appears in schools and universities on the curriculum is a golf ball inside the football. So the football is a cultural system and so is the golf ball, but how does that boundary get defined? You can ask the same question about a decentralized system. All these forms of knowledge are out there. Some of them particular to a specific area or activity and so on.
How do they actually get in to schools? In the schools or in the night schools in a particular area?
Mark Carrigan: So it’s the selection of a particular range of elements from the whole cultural system and how that happened socio-culturally? That’s substantively the question that came straight out of your earlier work.
Maggie Archer: It was a very substantive question. The moment you start digging into that question, that question almost … It doesn’t recede, but it becomes very retractable. The bigger problem is, what the hell is culture? I read and read and read, it was just like throwing books over the left shoulder. All these people had something to say on it and nothing to be gained from nothing having said it. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or pretentious or anything like that. You’ve got to go back to square one and get a working definition of culture to answer your football to golf ball question because what is the football?
There are no units of culture. There still aren’t. That’s how that book starts. I think the first paragraph says something like culture’s always been the poor relation of structure. For example, we have no units. We have no equivalents of roles, of institutions, et cetera, et cetera. What are its boundaries? Is mythology part of culture? Is a scientific theory? Is a painting? Where do you stop? It seemed to be quite pointless to have a concept which is coterminous with everything because all you’re doing is putting a name or label on everything.
Since I wanted to talk about processes and action and saw these as being structured, the differentiation between culture and structure seemed to me to be imperative. As it had done to everybody, particularly from Marx onward, talking about the difference between the material mode of production and the ideological devices used to try and buttress it or change it. That’s what that book was all about and that’s why, quite rightly, people like Dave Elder-Vass jumped on my use of Popper’s World 3 as a stepping stone towards performing this delineation exercise.
Mark Carrigan: So was that something you drew upon as you were solving the problem? So the notions developed as you went along?
Maggie Archer: Yes. They’re always the residual problems left by the preceding book.
Mark Carrigan: The theme underlying them is objectivity and subjectivity?
Maggie Archer: I wasn’t aware of that, at the time. It’s easy to pretend that you’re all knowing in old age and looking back, “yes, it was obvious it was this trajectory”. On the other hand, I wouldn’t resist anybody like you saying looking back, without your view being obscured by going to teach this and that, cope with another baby, then yes, that line, that theme is that.
Mark Carrigan: It’s kind of an animating thread? Part of the process of doing this work is that your understanding of what you’re doing becomes clearer as it goes on?
Maggie Archer: Yes. Exactly. It’s just like going back to standing on, I think it was Pont Neuf, or one of the bridges over the Seine, and thinking reflexively and subjectively, my goodness, universities are different here. The learning process is different. The book, assimilation process, the career building. Everything is different. Yes, that was the whole initial impetus. I can almost see my feet standing on that bridge now.
Mark Carrigan: It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but it occurs to me the language you use in it is more systems theoretical. I think you say, at one point, it’s a general theory of cultural dynamics.
Maggie Archer: Yeah. Because there wasn’t one. I’m not saying this is the greatest and the terminus. But it was better than anything that was there before. Which is why I picked out that part of it and published it, long before the book was finished in the British Journal of Sociology, called the Myth of Social Cultural Integration, which I hold true to this day. Cultures are things you can share, they are naturally delineated and if you say I’m a Muslim and you say you’re a Muslim, we mean the same thing and share the same beliefs from it.
I thought it was absolutely wrong, inane, and didn’t match anything I’d ever encountered in my travels. Countries are as varied as parts of England are varied. I suppose this is the Marxist thread, as well as the resistance to Foucault, because some particular faction or class faction or whatever you want to call them, took up a particular ideology; a term I still like and still regret because it maintains the nexus between interest and ideas. They’re two different things, but they certainly play a very interesting role in relation to one another, whereas narrative and discourse just assume power.
Mark Carrigan: And David Lockwood’s distinction between social integration and system integration was crucial to developing your argument?
Maggie Archer: If I had to do Desert Island Disks those 14 pages would probably be number one. I’ve got more and more out of that article the longer I’ve lived.
Mark Carrigan: How did your work develop in relation to critical realism? It was around the time you were writing Culture and Agency that there was the latent CR community in the UK.
Maggie Archer: Well, there was, but I wasn’t part of it, precisely because of what we’ve been talking about. The ISA and two babies.
It was only when the ISA was over. I’ve always taken the view that when you stop being president of something, the kindest thing you can do for all concerned, if you care about the organization, is just walk away, so I did. I walked away into the Centre for Critical Realism. Though it wasn’t called that in those days.
Mark Carrigan: Had you been reading CR work before that? My sense was that Realist Social Theory is explicitly framed as a contributed to CR and Culture and Agency isn’t.
Maggie Archer: That’s right. I think when I wrote Culture and Agency, I didn’t know the first thing about CR.
Mark Carrigan: But there does seem to be a compatibility?
Maggie Archer: Loads of compatibility. I thought afterwards, after I’d become part of CR organizations that I could have written Culture and Agency slightly differently. It wouldn’t have taken any doing, really, to make it a directly CR book. In a way, it’s a pity I didn’t, because somebody will come along and talk about epistemic breaks and the way they love handling dead authors.
Mark Carrigan: When did you first encounter CR?
Maggie Archer: If you’re asking me when did I first read the Possibility of Naturalism, which was the first CR book I read, I really cannot remember. Very, very shortly after Culture and Agency was published.
Mark Carrigan: I’m rather intrigued by that in particular because one of the concerns in Culture and Agency is about how you theorize cultural compatibility. But the relationship between that book and CR is a great example of such a compatibility.
Maggie Archer: Yes. I loved Possibility of Naturalism. I think I’m unique in not having read a Realist Theory of Science first. I should have done. I probably at the time didn’t know it existed. I just went on from it to reading out around everything I could find on that.
I made great friends with Roy from the beginning and that was a lovely, long friendship. We never had a cross word, ever, even though I think he was sometimes a little bit bemused by things like reflexivity. But he was very open minded, he had a very generous disposition. He was ready to entertain anything and see if he could fit it in or accommodate it. I was amazed but in reading his posthumous book, there are any number of references to reflexivity in it.
I know I gave him the books. But I had no confidence he ever read them. Sometimes, it’s obvious from footnotes in later ones of his that he had, but he always said, I think it’s footnote 54 or page 54 of the Dialectic, that I saved him from getting sucked into Giddens and structuration theory.
Mark Carrigan: How did this feed into Realist Social Theory?
Maggie Archer: I always saw Realist Social Theory as a pot boiler. Going back to it, it’s not as easy reading as I thought it was at the time I wrote it. The intention in writing it was not to say one original thing. It was just to bring my own thoughts together with the CR that I had been busy assimilating and mentally playing with.
Mark Carrigan: It’s just a continuation in a way, then?
Maggie Archer: A continuation. A clarification for self and others.
Mark Carrigan: Were there particular reasons why you chose the targets you did in Realist Social Theory? Was it the prominence of Giddens in British Sociology?
Maggie Archer: Well, you see 1979, retrospectively, it was such a key year. Social Origins of Educational Systems, which contains every element of the morphogenetic approach and uses it for 2 cycles. The Possibility of Naturalism. The Central Problems of Social Theory. That was historically pretty important. It distanced me from Giddens, made morphogenesis and structuration two entirely different approaches. The fact that they were concurrent in 1979 didn’t make an impact at the time. In other words, I’m sure none of the three of us read all three books that year, but cumulatively it did. That was one of the things Realist Social Theory really wanted to lay on with a shovel.
Part 5: Human Agency
Mark Carrigan: How did your books on reflexivity follow on from your earlier work? Some people have seen it as a radical break.
Maggie Archer: Well I’d written a book on culture, another that really concentrated on structure, then I surveyed the field of CR. At the time, it was bloody weak on agency. It doesn’t say a thing about people.
Mark Carrigan: Was it intellectually challenging to do that kind of move because you’re going from the big, historical sweep to the individual and everyday.
Maggie Archer: They were all challenging and daunting. I think if you start writing a book and you don’t feel as if you’re drowning, it’s not worth doing. It’s always been the same. One thing that’s become easier is purely the knowledge that “I’ve been here before and this is what the process involves”. All you’ve got to do is sit tight, wait for one of those wonderful times when you went to sleep with a problem and you wake up, and there it is all clear before you.
So, yes, challenging. Not so much at the level of things like oppositional social movements because that flowed on from how to change a structure and what legitimation devices you drew upon from the pool available to you to try and advance your end
But very challenging when it came down to the ‘what is a person’ level. I don’t believe in disciplinary boundaries. I never have done and I’ve always broken them. The one I’ve always maintained, not out of principle but out of practice, is the sociology-psychology one: resist all attempts at reductionism because the being in a context is quite different from the being pushing buttons or cancelling digits in a laboratory.
Mark Carrigan: Realist Social Theory raises the question of the variability of how subjects respond to their contexts. So was the subsequent work an exploration of what that variability entailed?
Maggie Archer: It was a question I’d often pose: how does structure influence agency? There has to be an answer to that because we don’t want hydraulic pressures or determinants or pushes and pulls. It was a totally mechanical model of the human agent. That was all out. But what was going to get rid of it? Then, the internal conversation just hit me. It’s not my name, it’s from Charles Peirce. Then, we’re back to putting objectivity and subjectivity together again. We’re back to structure and agency and the two have completely distinct emergent properties and powers. How does it work for particular people?
Mark Carrigan: And how that plays out over the lifecourse?
Maggie Archer: Yes, well, that part of the lifecourse that I was able to reconstruct with them in Making Our Way Through The World. Mature subjects on the whole, from Coventry. Then the Reflexive Imperative, apart from the theoretical argument about reflexivity having overtaken habit, what it’s like when you begin to do this? Taking students, it’s an easy way out. They’re available. But they are at that crucial age of entering to university. To do what and why. Crucial questions they have to answer. How do they find it? That’s very much Andrew Sayer territory. Discovering what matters to them. It’s a lovely book, Why Things Matter To People. It’s an act of exploration for each and every person. Many things, unless you’ve done them, you can’t understand. It’s society’s catch 22. You can’t know whether you’d be a surgeon, unless you’ve been repeatedly into an operating theater, by which time of course you are changed and so is your view on what you prioritize and what you want to pursue.
Mark Carrigan: At what point did you decide you needed to study this empirically?
Maggie Archer: It began in Structure, Agency & the Internal Conversation. The sheer realization that, yes, you can mine yourself, your friends and your family. That’s a closed world. But there was the surprising discovery, which you’ve experienced too, how ready and generous interviewees and subjects actually are. I was gobsmacked, at first, the things that they will tell you and even more gory detail if you wanted to know.
I think I was a very good interviewer and I’ve got no idea why. Other than being very interested, which is probably the most important thing. Good on supplementary questions, good on picking up cues, good on not pushing people too far when you’re manifestly getting into emotional depths. You have to give the whole time. If they want to talk about their childbirth experiences, you trade with them, you swap yours, but all the time, you keep saying, “Only tell me what you’re comfortable to.” You know this as well as I do. There is a lot of trade in it.
Mark Carrigan: You were very influenced by Doug Porpora’s book and the approach he took to it. Maggie Archer: Yes, yes! Get rid of the bloody clipboard and stop treating yourself like a white coated lab technician or medical person or psychiatrist or whatever. If you disagree with them, say so. I loved it in Landscapes of the Soul. If some subjects said something Doug disagreed with, he’d say “Well, I don’t think that, what makes you think that?” They’d end up having a wonderful interchange. There is a footnote that says something about treat them as real, don’t dehumanize them. What you ask of them, be prepared that they have every right to ask of you.