Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

This looks like a very interesting panel:

We are looking for a few additional people who might be interested in contributing to an AoIR panel exploring critical questions and issues surrounding algorithmic agency, power and publics.

Researchers and media commentators alike are seemingly fascinated with the magic-like and opaque properties of algorithms. Algorithms are touted as responsible for, or implicated in, a range of diverse outcomes and opportunities – from the mundane to the transformative – for individuals, corporations and communities.

Questions around how to critically frame and understand algorithmic agency in contemporary life and where and how to situate questions about power and accountability are raised. This panel is interested in addressing and reframing some of these issues, including the challenges in locating agency in the first place, the politics of making agential claims, and the possible social, political and ethical implications of algorithmic agency (however defined) within and towards publics.

If you are interested in participating please send a 1200 word abstract following the AoIR template to Michele (m.willson@curtin.edu.au<mailto:m.willson@curtin.edu.au>) and Taina (wfg568@hum.ku.dk) by the 25th February outlining your specific contribution to a discussion of algorithmic agency, power and publics.  Short queries about the suitability of topic can be sent to either one of us before that date.

Those contributors whose topic fits the panel mix will be contacted  by late 27th Feb. (given the impending deadlines, it is a tight turnaround). Depending on the range and mix of submissions,  we may also  explore a possible special issue publication. Please only submit should your attendance at the conference be a likely outcome.

Apologies for this very short notice, we tried sending this message out a week ago but it somehow got stuck along the way.

I’m very interested in the way ‘laziness’ now tends to be used to describe procrastination: it’s often a loaded term to covey that someone is driven by their own interests rather than institutional ones. Here’s an example of what I mean, from Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler, pg xiii:

The interview started. Hearing a friend tell an old story about you is not an exciting activity, and hearing someone praise you is always awkward. I picked up something to read and my attention drifted—until I heard Danny say: “Oh, the best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he is lazy.” What? Really? I would never deny being lazy, but did Danny think that my laziness was my single best quality? I started waving my hands and shaking my head madly but Danny continued, extolling the virtues of my sloth. To this day, Danny insists it was a high compliment. My laziness, he claims, means I only work on questions that are intriguing enough to overcome this default tendency of avoiding work. Only Danny could turn my laziness into an asset.

Another startlingly illuminating point in Retrieving Realism by Dreyfus and Taylor. At loc 665, they observe how Heidegger’s early work “undercuts another basic feature of the classical picture: that the primary input is neutral, and is only at a later stage attributed some meaning by the agent.” This is a familiar point but I’ve never encountered it stated so lucidly before. It has important connotations for how we conceive of digital distraction. Broadly, we could take two paths:

  1. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information to which they must attribute meaning, or forgo this with potential consequences 
  2. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information, which is already meaningful due to the relations of complementarity and contradiction which obtain between this novelty and already encountered variety (or forgo this with potential consequences)

The first view sees digital distraction as an information processing challenging. The second view sees digital distraction as an existential challenge. This has important implications for how we make sense of it sociologically.

 Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Surveillance, pg 64:

By definition, the idea of ‘transition’ stands for a finite process, a time- span with clearly drawn starting and finishing lines – a passage from a spatial, temporal, or spatial and temporal, ‘here’ to a ‘there’; but these are precisely the attributes denied to the condition of ‘being a refugee’, which is defined and set apart from and in opposition to the ‘norms’ by their absence. A ‘camp’ is not a mid- station, or a road inn, or a motel on a voyage from here to there. It is the terminal station, where all mapped roads peter out and all movement grinds to a halt – with little prospect of parole or of the sentence being completed: more and more people are born in camps and die there, visiting no other places in their lifetime. Camps ooze finality; not the finality of destination, though, but of the state of transition petrified into a state of permanence.

Acceleration is often framed as a problem. Things are speeding up. We never have enough time. We’re always falling behind. These will be familiar experiences to most. While the problem is more complex than may initially appear to be the case, with little quantitative time squeeze actually registering, it nonetheless leaves us with a sense of late modernity as a ‘runaway world’ in which things are accelerating beyond our capacity to cope with them. This diagnosis tends to identify the causality at the systemic level and occludes the role of agency: it’s ‘modern life’ which is running away from us while we’re left merely struggling to catch up.

The difficulty here is that the role of agency is crucial if we are to understand the time-pressure paradox. If we have roughly the same amount of time, what is it about how we orientate ourselves towards temporality that accounts for the pervasive sense that we are perpetually running out of time? It’s important that we resist the urge to do what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘pomo flip’ and respond to the systemic bias of the acceleration thesis with a corresponding bias towards agency. The motor of acceleration cannot be seen as straightforwardly arising from the social system, in the sense that it produces changing circumstances to which agents can do nothing but adapt or fail. But nor should it be seen as something that arises from people ‘using time badly’ (whatever that would mean) or any other account of (implicitly pathological) responses by agents leaving them feeling more harried while the objective availability of time remains constant.

Instead we need to understand acceleration in terms of the interface between the social system & agency. Crucially, this doesn’t mean ‘agency’ in a schematic sense: we need to understand how embodied people, with capacities & liabilities, live through the temporal horizons obtaining within the system and, through doing so, contribute to the transformation or reproduction of those (temporal) structures. One useful concept I’m thinking about at the moment which helps in this respect is that of the pleasures of acceleration. For all that people complain about time pressure – particularly, it should be noted, when responding to researchers studying the time-pressure paradox – there are also pleasures to be found within it:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

We need to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of acceleration. Through doing so, it becomes possible to flesh out the rather anaemic conception of agency usually found within the acceleration literature and instead look at speed as something which matters to people, in ways that are complex and often contradictory. We don’t just have first-order responses to our circumstances (whims and desires) but also second-order responses (concerns and commitments) which are themselves shaped by our cumulative experience of circumstances past. Understanding how people cope with acceleration requires that we attend to the former and the latter. We can’t treat agency as a cypher in the analysis of acceleration.

Nonetheless my point isn’t that people are embracing acceleration because they (secretly) like it. I’m only suggesting that there are pleasures to be found in it, alongside the many pains, which need to be recognised before we can even begin to grasp the agential dimension of social acceleration.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.


Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapse has left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article (from which the picture is taken) puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian
Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.


Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46

The notion of microfoundations emerged from within Marxist theory as a claim that “macro explanations of social phenomena must be supported by an account of the mechanisms at the individual level through which the postulated social processes work” (Little 1991: 196). I first encountered this idea on Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society and I’ve started reading his books with the hope of clarifying my feelings about it. I find it an immensely attractive idea but one which troubles me given its obvious connection to methodological individualism. As Little describes the concept:

These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus, in explaining the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we also need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce this outcome.

More specifically, the microfoundations thesis holds that an assertion of an explanatory relationship at the social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge of what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort. (Little 1991: 196)

This places great importance upon “individual choice and action”, reintroducing the micro-social into macro-explanation but also challenging micro-sociologists to offer accounts of the macro-sociological implications of situated action. In this sense I find the microfoundations thesis immensely promising as a potential basis for the unification of sociological inquiry and as a counterweight to reinforcing negative tendencies inherent in both micro-sociology and macro-sociology. The problem I have with the notion comes in how we conceptualise the basis of these microfoundations. As Little wrote about the issue in 1991,

Once we accept the point that macroexplanations require microfoundations, we must next ask what types of individual-level processes we should look for. And here there are two broad families of answers: rational choice models and social-psychology motivational models. The first approach attempts to explain a given social process as the aggregate result of large numbers of individuals pursuing individually rational strategies. The second approach attempts to explain the social phenomenon as the complex outcome of a variety of motives, rational and nonrational, that propel individual action. (Little 1991: 198)

My difficulty here is with how the ‘individual-level processes’ are conceptualised. This is where I think the methodological individualist baggage attached to the notion of microfoundations begins to pose a problem. I’m convinced that, as Archer puts it, “an insistence upon the activity-dependence of each and every social structure” is “indispensable to a non-reified ontology of society”. However it’s also crucial to recognise that:

  1. a structure being dependent upon the activity of agents does not entail structure being reducible to agency
  2. a recognition of the role of agency as such in the emergence of structure as such does nothing to address the much more interesting question of “upon whose activities the development of a particular structure depended” (Archer 1995: 72).
  3. agency itself is structured, in the sense that individuals figure in macro-social processes both aggregatively and through their participation in collective agents (which themselves invite microfoundational analysis)

If these premises are accepted then the notion of microfoundations begins to look rather different. Our focus turns from the explanatory gaps in macro-social processes (where we offer microfoundations to explain how constant conjunctions hold together) to the manner in which macro-social processes are relationally constituted by micro-social processes. While Little (1991: 200) accepts that “it is entirely compatible with the microfoundations thesis that a microfoundational account of the determinants of individual action should refer to social relations, structures, etc”, claims (1)-(3) above have important consequences for the manner in which microfoundations figure into social explanation. While Little frames it as a problem “that for a given class of social phenomena there often are no clear regularities visible at macro-level at all”, relational realism would see this as inevitable – only tendential claims obtain at the macro-social level and microfoundations enter into the explanatory endeavour in order to explain the relational constitution of the mechanisms underlying these tendencies.

In other words I’m actually quite drawn to a strong version of the microfoundations claim: “social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them” (Little 1991: 196). Or rather they should be. But these microfoundations are intrinsically relational and biographical – looking at the biographical trajectories that lead people ‘into’ and ‘out of’ situated interaction, as well as the way in which this interaction reproduces or transforms the individuals party to the interaction and the social relations obtaining between them:


My point is that a genuinely comprehensive explanation of something like the UK student protests would encompass (a) a macro-social account of the protests, their context and the relevant history (b) an account of the relational contestation that took place within each of the collective agents party to the unfolding of events (c) narratives of participation in the protests and the personal and relational changes which ensued from them. Furthermore, these accounts would be mutually consistent – this is a less stringent demand than might initially seem to be the case case because, if points (1)-(3) are accepted, then the (a), (b), (c) all figure into their reciprocal explanation. So while I see individual biography and relations as providing microfoundations – my interest comes from the possibility that, purged of its individualistic connotations, this notion can help point us towards a unification of sociological inquiry. What fascinates me are the sorts of questions Nick Crossley indicates in relation to social movements below:

We would all agree that social movements are ‘collective’ ventures, for example, but what makes a venture count as collective? Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many? Is it a matter of a type of interconnection between people, an organization or network? If so, how is that interconnection itself defined? Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest? And if the latter, what counts as protest? Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard? 

– Nick Crossley, Making Sense of Social Movements, Pg 2

However I find his later relational approach to addressing them unsatisfactory (focused on the T2-T3 of the above diagram) but I also find methodological individualism problematic on a variety of levels (remaining confined to the T1 and T4 of the diagram). My (mis?)appropriation of the microfoundations concept is an attempt to think through a way out of this impasse that incorporates the micro-social into the macro-social (and vice versa) in an emergentist manner.

I read an interesting paper by Ros Gill earlier which nicely frames one of my main theoretical interests. It’s a reflection on shifting fashions in how the relationship between culture and subjectivity has been conceptualised within cultural studies. This bit in particular caught my attention and the clarity with which it diagnoses this common explanatory tendency is commendable:

A recent article by Duits and van Zoonen (2006) is in many ways typical of this latter trend. It examined the moral panics in Dutch society occasioned by two articles of clothing – the Islamic headscarf and the ‘‘hypersexualized’’ (their term) g-string. Duits and van Zoonen assert that public reaction to these garments denies girls and young women ‘‘their agency and autonomy’’, and they argue that the proper response from feminists and other critical intellectuals is that all girls’ sartorial decisions should be understood as autonomous choices. Such a position, they argue, is respectful of girls’ own agency.

Their call for empirical research that listens to and respects young women’s voices is clearly important. But I am sceptical of the terms ‘‘agency’’, ‘‘autonomy’’ and ‘‘choice’’ that are mobilized so frequently in their argument. To what extent do these terms offer analytical purchase on the complex lived experience of girls and young women’s lives in postfeminist, neoliberal societies? Moreover, what kind of feminist politics follows from a position in which all behaviour (even following fashion) is understood within discourse or free choice and autonomy? The girls in Duits and van Zoonen’s argument seem strangely socially and culturally dislocated. They neither seem to operate in a world in which there are authoritarian parents or teachers, or in which organized religion or fashion exert any influence. Indeed, in the desire to ‘‘respect’’ girls’ ‘‘choices’’, any notion of cultural influence seems to have been evacuated entirely. Yet how can we account for the dominance of a fashion item such as a g-string without any reference to culture? Why the emphasis on young women pleasing themselves when the look that they achieve – or seek to achieve – is so similar?


On one level I don’t think this is a particularly difficult problem. We make choices but we do so in circumstances not of our own choosing. But to actually put this theoretical postulate into practice is much trickier. Nonetheless it frustrates me how frequently people seem to assume that voluntarism follows inevitably from an attentiveness to individual agency. This is a methodological problem not a theoretical one.

Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person.Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

Needless to say, the rise of the Internet has proven a boon for neoliberals; and not just for a certain Randroid element in Silicon Valley that may have become besotted with the doctrine. Chat rooms, online gaming, virtual social networks, and electronic financialization of household budgets have encouraged even the most intellectually challenged to experiment with the new neoliberal personhood. A world where you can virtually switch gender, imagine you can upload your essence separate from your somatic self, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site is a neoliberal playground. The saga of dot.com billionaires, so doted over by the mass media, drives home the lesson that you don’t actually have to produce anything tangible to participate in the global marketplace of the mind.

The Incredible Disappearing Agent has had all sorts of implications for neoliberal political theory. First off, the timeworn conventional complaint that economics is too pigheadedly methodologically individualist does not begin to scratch the neoliberal program. “Individuals” are merely evanescent projects from a neoliberal perspective. Neoliberalism has consequently become a scale-free Theory of Everything: something as small as a gene or as large as a nation-state is equally engaged in entrepreneurial strategic pursuit of advantage, since the “individual” is no longer a privileged ontological platform. Second, there are no more “classes” in the sense of an older political economy, since every individual is both employer and worker simultaneously; in the limit, every man should be his own business firm or corporation; this has proven a powerful tool for disarming whole swathes of older left discourse. It also appropriates an obscure historical development in American legal history—that the corporation is tantamount to personhood—and blows it up to an ontological principle. Third, since property is no longer rooted in labor, as in the Lockean tradition, consequently property rights can be readily reengineered and changed to achieve specific political objectives; one observes this in the area of “intellectual property,” or in a development germane to the crisis, ownership of the algorithms that define and trade obscure complex derivatives, and better, to reduce the formal infrastructure of the marketplace itself to a commodity. Indeed, the recent transformation of stock exchanges into profit-seeking IPOs was a critical neoliberal innovation leading up to the crisis. Classical liberals treated “property” as a sacrosanct bulwark against the state; neoliberals do not. Fourth, it destroys the whole tradition of theories of “interests” as possessing empirical grounding in political thought.

– The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism By Philip Mirowski

In the previous few posts on Being Human, part of a broader project to blog thematic overviews of all Margaret Archer’s major books, I’ve been looking at her account of the emotions. This is absolutely integral to her understanding of reflexivity, it’s covered in less depth in the reflexivity books and, unless it’s understood, it’s easy to get the impression that she has a rationalistic view of human agency. Whereas in actuality she has a rather subtle understanding of deliberation as being underwritten by (and also responding to) a complex  structure of affectivity which arises from the emergent relations between our own constitution (bodily, cognitively, socially) and the constitution of the world (natural, practical and social). The previous posts have looked at her understanding of emotions as commentaries on human concerns, the different forms of affectivity and their embedding within everyday life. In this post I’ll discuss the notion of transvaluation and Archer’s account of personal identity as arising through the reflexive transmutation of first-order emotionality into second-order emotionality.

So far, three clusters of emotions have been discussed as emergent commentaries, relating to our physical well-being, performative achievement and self-worth in the natural, practical and discursive orders respectively. Matters do not end there with a series of immutable first-order emotions, ranked as it were, simply by their relative intensity. They do not because of our human powers of reflexivity; our capacity to reflect upon our emotionality itself, to transform it and consequentially to re-order priorities without our emotional sets. That there is some second-ordering process involved commands broad agreement. (Archer 2000: 222)

As is often the case with her style of argument, Archer chooses two contrasting perspectives on an underlying question which she critiques and uses to develop her own account. The first view is one which sees second-order emotionality “as a matter of cognitive reflection in which reason is brought to bear upon the beliefs underpinning first-order emotions, whose revision then leads to emotional re-direction (second-order)” (Archer 2000: 222). On this account reason is the arbiter of emotion, reflecting on our first-order reactions and ‘weeding out’ those which have insufficient basis to justify survival into the second-order. The second view is one of evaluative reflection in which the “subject asks, if emotions are affective commentaries upon our situations, which of these have the greatest import for our greatest concerns?”. Instead of “trying to rationalise our first-order emotions, we evaluate them as guides to the life we wish to lead, and thus end up embracing some and subordinating others” in a process which is not the “rational optimisation in which the desired life is selected according to reason and then emotions are assessed for their goodness of fit” but rather one in which “pathos and logos work hand in hand at the second-order level” (Archer 2000: 233). The second view is that adopted by Charles Taylor and, by way of a sympathetic critique, Archer adopts his terminology of ‘transvaluation’ while nonetheless distancing her own account from his:

There is much that can usefully be gleaned from Taylor’s discussion of transvaluation per se to contribute towards an account of the emergence of second-order emotionality. (This is particularly the cause because transvaluation paradoxically dwells upon our emotional fallibility rather than upon the intuitive acuity of emotions.) Tranvaluation entails progressive articulations of our first-order emotions,. To begin with many initial feelings may remain fairly inarticulate, such as a diffuse feeling of guilt about our relations with an elderly parent. In such cases we may seek further understanding, by interrogation of self and of circumstances, and through this the feeling may be transformed one way or another. It might dissipate upon further inspection; it may intensify as we appreciate the significance of neglect; or it could diminish if we find that to do more would be to the detriment of other duties: ‘hence we can see that our feelings incorporate a certain articulation of our situation, that is, they presuppose that we characterise our situation in certain terms. But at the same time they admit of – and very often we feel that they call for – further articulation, the elaboration of finer terms permitting more penetrating characterisation. And this further articulation can in turn transform the feeling.‘ (Archer 2000: 226) [italics are Archer quoting Taylor’s Human Agency and Language pp. 63-4).

What I find so compelling about this view is its nuanced relationship to language. On this account “the movement from first-order to second-order emotionality entails a shift from the inarticulate to the articulate, from the less adequate to the more adequate characterisation and from initial evaluation to transvaluation” (Archer 2000: 227). It’s something I’ve used to make sense of the experience of people who identify as asexual who, prior to coming to encounter the notion of asexuality, are struggling to articulate something about themselves and finding that the articulatory repertoires currently available to them are entirely inadequate. It’s this sense of what someone is trying to say which is, I think, a profound aspect of the human condition. Both because of its ineffable core of first-person experience (that exceeds what we are able to say to ourselves in inner speech, let alone to external others through external speech) but also because the attempt itself frequently changes us: 

The very act of offering oneself a second-order articulation serves to ‘open up the question whether this characterisation is adequate, whether it is not incomplete or distortive. And so from the very fact of their being articulate, the question cannot but arise whether we have properly articulated our feelings, that is whether we have properly explicated what the feeling gives us a sense of.’ Second-order revision can thus be indefinitely elaborated as we analyse further our understanding of imports and discard previous interpretations, both of which are transformative movements in this process. From feeling rejected by our teenage children’s obvious preference for the company of their peers, we can reflect upon the restrictiveness of our own dependence and then take pleasure in their new independence, new things to talk about and new social skills. (Archer 2000: 227)

For those familiar with the notion of a morphogenetic sequence: first-order emotionality is the T1, internal conversation is the T2-T3 and second-order emotionality is the T4. These cycles are seen to be a continual and overlapping feature of our embodied human being-in-the-world but ones which can, nonetheless, be analysed through isolation their prior conditions, interaction and ensuing elaboration. It’s just that unlike the other morphogenetic sequences Archer has been concerned with, these are intra-personal (with the partial exception of communicative reflexivity).  In part 2 of this post I’ll explore the intra-personal interaction in more detail and then move onto transvaluation (in a substantive sense) and Archer’s account of personal identity.

This is the second of four posts in which I’ll explore the modes of reflexivity which are so integral to the argument Archer makes in The Reflexive Imperative. Underlying these concepts is an understanding of social morphogenesis as leading to the ‘situational logic of opportunity’ given the generative mechanism of variety to produce more variety. The arguments made to this end are quite intricate but their main ramification for understanding modes of reflexivity relates to the patterning of individual responses to this expansion of choice: 

For some (the communicatives), it can be partly but not entirely evaded, for others (the autonomous), it can be seized upon and fallibly exploited, and for yet others (the meta-reflexives), it presents a new horizon of novel possibilities. However, not everyone can practice one of these three reflexive responses towards the ‘logic of opportunity’, all of which seek to match life outcomes to subjects’ life concerns. (Archer 2012: 249)

These people are the fractured reflexives and, for a wide range of reasons, their deliberations tend to intensify distress and disorientation rather than bringing them to any conclusion about what to do or who to be. Their common denominator is that their self-talk intensifies affect rather than producing an action orientation. Those whose internal conversation takes this form regularly “admit to huge difficulties in making decisions, in defining courses of action to be consistently pursued and, above all, in engaging in anything more than the survivalist’s day-to-day planning” (Archer 2012: 248). The point is not that these people are somehow unable to function but rather than the fractured nature of their reflexivity makes ‘functioning’ intensely onerous, characterised by an intensity of introspection that is both a response to the stress and anxiety which circumstances provoke but also a cause of it, as the absence of any consistent orientation towards the practical question life poses will tend to cumulatively add to an individual’s problems. They accrue objective penalties through prevarication, indecisiveness or avoidance because the necessity of selection doesn’t go away simply because they struggle to respond to it purposively and “subjectively, they undergo profound mental distress and experience a disorientation that is qualitatively distinct from the anger and unfairness experienced by many in modernity” (Archer 2012: 290). But the reasons for fractured reflexivity and the precise form it takes are variable:

Displaced reflexives previously exercised one of the other three modes of reflexivity but the interruption of negative contingency led to its suspension. So for instance a communicative reflexive who struggles to adjust to the university environment when deprived of the friends and/or family who served as interlocutors. In these circumstances they are thrown back upon their own resources when left without those on whom they depended to complete and confirm their internal conversations. However they may find new interlocutors who can play this role or they may begin to move towards the practice of another mode of reflexivity, as the individualism thrust upon them situationally leads them to reorientate themselves towards the social. As Archer puts it, “subjects ‘displaced’ by contingent occurrences could return to their earlier mode of reflexivity if circumstances became more favourable and provided that their relations supported their return” (Archer 2012: 290).

Impeded reflexives are those who have yet to develop the practice of a particular mode of reflexivity to the extent required to complete deliberations in an action orientated way. Nonetheless they show a propensity towards and share a similar relational background with practitioners of another mode. So for instance an impeded autonomous reflexive might formulate plans and strategies while lacking the capacity to enact them in any sort of consistent way, as the demands of everyday life come to occupy their self talk in a way which crowds out the longer term planning which they nonetheless have a propensity for. In such cases their relational circumstances have proved necessary but insufficient for the development of a particular mode, engendering a tendency but also failing to provide the conditions for it to fully develop and/or being characterised by contingencies which have interrupted its development.

Expressive reflexives are those who tend to rely on ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the choices which life presents them with. This is a refinement of the generic category of ‘underdeveloped reflexivity’ which Archer used in the previous two studies. Quantitatively those falling into this category do not register as any mode of reflexivity (including fractured) on the survey instrument which asks about self talk and qualitatively their mental processes are deeply express in a way which distinguishes them from other subjects: “their expressive rather than dialogical responses mean they exercise their agency solely in relation to the present moment and current circumstances, rather than assuming any reflexive governance over the shape of their lives” (Archer 2012: 250). These are people for whom life is deeply episodic, who Archer speculates may be responding to being overwhelmed by their difficulties by seeking to “blot out their problems by refraining from reflexive activities that defeat them, thus quasi-volitionally opting for a passive agential status in which circumstances are allowed to determine outcomes” (Archer 2012: 278). This only has a speculative basis in her data, as only two of the survey respondents exhibiting this pattern volunteered for interview, with Archer suggesting that expressives “live by ‘presentism’ because to them there is no ‘big picture’ but simply a succession of events that command their attention from day to day”. Unlike the manner in which communicate reflexives evade the necessity of selection by embracing normative conventionalism, expressive reflexives “produce ‘bounded variety’ simply by limiting selection to dealing with situational ‘chunks'” (Archer 2012: 279). They use ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the options which are situationally available in an ad hoc way, “subordinating the cognitive to the ‘gut reaction’ through a selective perception that picks out only those parts of information that confirm the inerrant nature of their emotive responses” (Archer 2012: 283). The problem with living expressively in a manner governed by contingency is that “there is nothing to guarantee any coherence between these sequential outcomes and yet the subject has to live with or deal with their consequences” (Archer 2012: 250).

In the next two posts I’ll discuss autonomous reflexivity and communicative reflexivity. Then I’m planning to write something on Archer’s critical engagement with Maruyama’s cybernetics and, if I don’t give into the temptation to avoid a debate which frustrated and preoccupied me for the entire second year of my PhD, I’ll write something on habit(us) and reflexivity.

One important objection to the notion of ‘internal conversation’ rests on a broader trend within contemporary social theory that is concerned with the possibility that theoretical claims about agency lead proponents to make claims about agents which are empirically inadequate. So too that these ensuing claims might find themselves implicated, knowingly or otherwise, in broader political contestations within wider society (though the suspicion persists that those most vocal about the purportedly intrinsically political nature of social science and social theory systematically, indeed hubristically, overestimate the influence of social scientists and theorists outside the academy). On such a view, affirmation of a  choosing, reflective and deliberative self is unavoidably embroiled within a broader project of neoliberal governmentality (Rose 1998, 1999, 2007). Nonetheless, it seems profoundly mistaken to therefore expunge conceptual talk about subjects from the admissible range of contemporary social theory. Recognising this as a mistake is entirely compatible with the methodological move Miller and Rose (2008) make in their genealogical investigations into ‘technologies of the self’: “what understandings of the people to be acted upon – whether explicit or implict – underpinned these endeavours, and how did they shape or reshape the ways in which these individuals understood and acted on themselves?” (Miller and Rose 2008: 7).

While it might be objected from a realist standpoint that such an investigation presupposes a theory of the subject, it is important that we nonetheless understand the ambiguous role such an account occupies within a broader inquiry of this form. As the author’s themselves observe, “that question could only be answered on the basis of some explicit or implicit assumptions about human mental processes. Yet for us, the historical forms taken by those presuppositions were exactly what we were studying” (Miller and Rose 2008, 7). It is perfectly possible to accept the validity of such an injunction, construing it as an exercise in bracketing to facilitate a specific form of inquiry, while rejecting the more radical implication that all claims about the underlying properties and powers of human subjects are, in actuality, claims about the cultural resources and reflexive technologies which are distributed within a given social context at any given time. Such an absolute injunction would involve a failure to distinguish between what Bhaskar (2011: 21) terms the transitive and intransitive objects of scientific inquiry: the “changing cognitive objects that are produced within science as a function of scientific practice” and “the unchanging real objects that exist outside the scientific process” respectively.

Bracketing the real properties and powers of human subjects may be a useful move for investigation into the empirical variety of reflexive technologies over time, insofar as that it minimises the role that our prior (transitive) commitments play in the empirical investigation. In doing so it facilitates a largely descriptive, though nonetheless valuable, mode of investigation which traces out the socio-cultural factors involved in empirically observable changes in how human beings “recode variations in moods, emotions, desires, and thoughts” (Rose 2006, 223). In doing so it can lead to empirically rich accounts of how, for instance, the rise of a “psychological language of self-description: the language of anxiety, depression, trauma, extroversion, and introversion” was connected, inter alia, to the use of psychological tests of intelligence and personality from vocational guidance to military promotion” and the rise of “psy technologies for marketing commodities” or the “proliferation of psychotherapies” (Rose 2007, 187-188). Within the framework of this thesis, the objects of such investigation are understood as cultural resources (ideational objects) and reflexive technologies (the socio-cultural application of these objects). It is necessary to understand the properties and powers of such cultural objects in order to explain socio-cultural variation in modes of “seeing, judging, and acting upon human normality and abnormality” and how we “our desires, moods, and discontents” are mapped onto differing images of the human (Rose 2006, 187-193).

Through investigation into such objects, whether or not it takes a genealogical form, it becomes possible to empirically flesh out the sense in which, as Archer puts it, “our reliance upon the public domain for thinking can be upheld, without this determining what we do with it – that is the contents of our mental activities” (Archer 2003, 69). The difficulty with Rose’s work, as well as the broader corpus of sociological thinking of which it is an outstanding exemplar, lies in its inability to make sense of how such cultural objects (which it has mapped in a highly detailed and sophisticated manner) are mediated at the level of an individual subject. Such subjects are perpetually implied within Rose’s work, with continual references to reflexivity in Archer’s sense (i.e. the relationship of a self to a self) implicit in the substantive claims made about shifting constellations of technologies of selfhood, yet remain curiously absent. Unfortunately this absence precludes the possibility of gaining concrete explanatory purchase on how particular cultural objects are mediated by particular subjects – Rose’s account is laudable in its detail at the level of the former yet conspicuous in its generality at the level of the latter.

Rose actually does offer something analogous to a theory of the subject, though unsurprisingly it is framed in terms which deny this. He writes that his engagement with the question of subjectivity is offered “not in terms of the effects of ‘culture’ upon ‘the person’, or in terms of a ‘theory of the subject’, but by seeking to characterize the mode of action, as it were, of the diverse psy technologies of subjectification that I have discussed” (1998, 170). As well as the tacit admission that the lack of engagement with subjectivity was the glaring omission in his otherwise accomplished body of work, his explicit framing of the ensuing account in terms of the mode of operation of ‘psych technologies’ is telling, in that it leaves the subject as little more than an explanatory lever, invoked merely to flesh out the absent subjective moment of his broader account. What explains this continual hostility to abstract models of the subject?

Archer (2000) addresses the same question in an exploration of a body of work which is undergirded by a similar cultural politics. As she observes of Richard Rorty’s anti-humanism, his injunction against substantial conceptions of the human has a normative component to it. Given Rorty’s desire to nonetheless make normative claims pertaining to human beings, it is inevitable that the human resurfaces and, with it, so too does the problem of structure and agency (Archer 2000, 40-43). So too with Rose and his Deleuzian account of the subject, as well as its concomitant insistence that “the ‘question of agency’ as it has come to be termed, poses a false problem” (Rose 1998, 186). On the one hand, it is denied that the human is “an actor essentially possessed of agency” and on the other that they are a “passive product or puppet of cultural forces”. The reintroduction of agency into Rose’s ontology leads him to make a move surprisingly reminiscent of structurationist theory, transcending the dichotomy of structure and agency through central conflation (Archer 1995). His attempt to avoid an affirmation of agency leads instead to a particular understand of the bridge between structure and agency, such that former is understood to continually shape the latter through an ongoing process of ‘enfolding’, only to be reproduced and sometimes transformed by the latter, as a consequence of the radical contingency and therefore underdetermination which characterises the process.

However the point here is not to critique Rose but to elucidate the difficulties inherent in the treatment of subjectivity within contemporary social theory. I have suggested that there is a methodological objection to abstract treatments of subjectivity, which can be relativised to a particular mode of inquiry and dismissed when claimed to apply more broadly. There is also a normative objection, a broad discomfort with are assumed to be unavoidably normative implications of talk about ‘humans’ and ‘subjects’, as well as the belief that academic thought and talk about such matters entrenches the hegemony of the ‘liberal self’. But there is also a concern about the empirical difficulties which are seen to be contained within theoretical accounts of human properties and powers. Such difficulties become more pronounced when the issue is framed within a particular substantive area of investigation. For instance Heaphy (2012) adroitly identifies the implications which the widespread uptake of Giddens et al within sexuality studies has had on the empirical portrayal of the lives of LGBT individuals within contemporary Britain.

Heaphy takes issues with a pervasive tendency to hold up LGBT lives as exemplars of reflexivity in the first sense, identifying a range of strands in the sexualities literature of which this is true (Heaphy 2012: 17). He argues that, as a whole, these represent a “powerful story” about LGBT lives as “reflexively achieved forms of existence that are the exemplars of the life politics of self-fashioning” (Heaphy 2012: 19). Furthermore he suggests that the appeal of such accounts stems from the affirmation of LGBT agency implied by them, in contrast to the previously dominant Foucauldian vision of sexualities which tended to stress disciplinary subjection. Arguments about LGBT reflexivity, as perhaps did Foucault’s account in an earlier political era, have an intuitive plausibility because of the wider social circumstances in which they are articulated. As Heaphy observes, “it seems clear, after all, that lesbian and gay sexualities hare more ‘empowered’ and visible in the culture than ever before, and recent legislation in Britain and elsewhere (such as the Civil partnership and other Acts) seems to promote and defend the legitimacy of same-sex relationships” (Heaphy 2012: 19).

However Heaphy raises a number of problems with such accounts. He suggests that these prevailing narratives of LGBT reflexivity have been characterised by a “blurring of arguments about theoretical possibilities and empirical actualities” i.e. a theoretical affirmation of agency leads proponents to make claims about agents which are empirically inaccurate. In doing so the realities of difference are occluded, such that “exclusive and well-resourced lesbian and gay experience is valorized while other experiences are made invisible”. This, he argues, is a consequence of insufficient attention to power, particularly in an indifference to the “relationship between power and sociological narration” (Heaphy 2012: 20). He goes on to argue that in order to take the “differences that are shaped through the intersections of class, race and ethnicity, generation, geographical location and like” seriously we must acknowledge “that there is no one lesbian and gay experience or forms of existence, and that lesbian and gay living should be studied in their diversity of forms”. In doing so, we might come to ask “how significant resources (economic, social, cultural and corporeal) are in shaping different possibilities for lesbian and gay living, and how their embodiment gives rise to different possibilities for identification, relating and life political practice” (Heaphy 2012: 21). Heaphy argues that a move towards reflexive sociology within sexuality studies, as part of a Bourdieusian turn which moves the study of LGBT lives away from Giddens and Beck, would help rectify this worrying tendency to homogenise the lived experience of LGBT individuals and treat their lives as if difference didn’t matter.

While applauding Heaphy’s broader aims and accepting elements of his critique, this direction of travel is nonetheless revealing of profound conceptual confusions relating to what reflexivity is and how it operates. The broader shift he identifies from Foucauldian conceptions of sexuality (excessively structural) to voluntaristic accounts influenced by Giddens (excessively agential) reveal an inability within sexuality studies, as well as social theory more broadly, to come to terms with the problem of structure and agency. One approach elucidates the role of structure while obliterating agency. The other elucidates the role of agency while obliterating structure. The two approaches each contain an element of truth but, in their inability to proceed beyond their own theoretical terms of reference, neither is able to do justice to the ambivalence of human experience.

Both freedom and constrain co-exist in our daily experience. We choose and yet we are denied choice. We shape our circumstances and yet our circumstances shape us. We make our way through the world and yet the maps we use and the paths we choose from forever elude our full understanding, let alone our control. We are subjects and we are subjected. In fairness to Giddens, attempting to reconcile this duality is at the heart of his theoretical project. Yet the empirical inadequacies which so often result from attempts to adopt his approach as an explanatory framework are indicative of the conceptual error at its heart. Unless we conceptualise reflexivity in a properly mediatory manner, as being the human power which allows the pursuit of courses of actions by (fallibly) taking stock of objective circumstances and our subjective concerns, the problems Heaphy correctly identifies will inevitably ensue. But if we do understand reflexivity in such a way, these problems do not occur. The issue here is not reflexivity as such. The issue is conceiving of reflexivity in a way which detaches it from the constraints and enablements an individual is contingently subject to at any given moment. If we conceive reflexivity in a manner which is fundamentally relational, such that our degree of freedom or constraint is an empirical matter emergent from our circumstances at a particular moment in time and the biographical pathway which led us to such circumstances, then these contrasting images of human life (LGBT or otherwise) as either overly-free or overly-constrained simply do not emerge.

Some can remain at the mercy of their first-order pushes and pulls, drifting from job to job, place to place and relationship to relationship. Drift means an absence of personal identity and the accumulation of circumstances which make it harder to form one. Its obverse is not some kind of generalised conformity: its real opposite is the personal adoption of a distinctive lifestyle. The downwards spiral of homelessness and addiction, is downward precisely because it condemns people to being pre-occupied with the satisfaction of first-order commentaries – the next night and the next fix.

Margaret Archer, Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Pg 246