A few years ago I did an interview with Andrew Sayer about his book Why Things Matter To People. It’s one of my favourite books but the podcast got lost twice amidst transitions from one computer to another, as well as forgotten about for a long period of time midway through my PhD. I’m pleased I’ve managed to recover it and it can now go live:
I was recently intrigued to encounter Nietzsche’s evolutionary account of consciousness and find how completely I agreed with it. I would use different language but the point is pretty much the same: a faculty slowly emerges from our biological nature which, as we attain awareness of it, comes to be seen as constituting our essence (partly because, as I’d add, it becomes increasingly important for everyday life as human systems grow in complexity):
Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, “exceeding destiny,” as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgements and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity – in short, of its consciousness; rather, without he former, humanity would long have disappeared.
Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during in the interval it is subjected to some tyranny. Thus consciousness is tyrannised – least by our pride in it. One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate and most original in him. One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude. One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the “unity of the organism”.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11
What I find more difficult to understand is the normative account Nietzsche develops on the back of this. He seems to argue that taking “consciousness for a determinate magnitude” which is the “unity of the organism” leads to a lack of attentiveness to the possibilities inherent in the capacity of being conscious. In taking consciousness as self-present and self-grounded, we fail to recognise the potential for change and growth (self-transcendence?) inherent in possessing this capacity:
This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it; and things haven’t changed much in this respect. To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehend that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11
What really intrigues me is this notion of the “task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive”. Surely this was the psychological foundation of virtue ethics? My understanding of Aristotelian ethics is that it rests on the cultivation of virtuous dispositions i.e. becoming someone who habitually acts in ways which embodiy the virtues. So the point is not that virtue rests on a passive reproduction of dominant norms (i.e. being socialised to act ethically and then consistently doing so) but rather that it is an achievement, in which we develop the right habits of action but also our understanding and enjoyment of them. It’s an active process in which we cultivate our character, rather than an escape from activity through the inculcation of habit. There’s a nice passage in Andrew Sayer in which he discusses the projects of self which such activity can give rise to:
We may intermittently “take stock” and evaluate our virtues and vices, or more simply our character […] We may feel we must be more assertive, more outgoing, less lazy, etc, and try to change ourselves through repeated practice in the hope that we become habituated to acting in these ways, so that it becomes “second nature”. This can be difficult not only because of the inertia of our existing embodied dispositions but because it may fail to bring the hoped-for effects and positive feedback.
– Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to people, Pg 131
Everyone who has attempted to change their behaviour has likely experienced difficulties in doing so. We are not infinitely malleable. We are often not malleable at all. It is our character, this assemblage of embodied dispositions, which enables and constrains this malleability. I can’t make any sense of Nietzsche’s discussion of “incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive” unless this is what it’s talking about: we can act back on ourselves and change who we are. For instance this is what I take him to be doing in Ecce Homo. Furthermore, the notion of consciousness as the “unity of the organism” undermines our propensity for doing so, with the ghostly subjectivity it implies working to hide this (limited) mailability of our character.
But these aren’t new ideas. Surely Nietzsche the philologist would be very much aware of this fact. So have I missed his point? Is this simply overstatement on his part? Are the distinctively neo-Aristotelian concepts through which I’m making sense of this much more modish than I realised, such as to be unrecognisable to Nietzsche when he looked back through the history of ideas? If that passage were rewritten as a claim about ‘modernity’s man’ then I can understand it perfectly. As it stands, I’m slightly baffled. I’m fine with things I don’t understand. I’m fine with things I do understand. I get intellectually frustrated when I feel I understand something and yet also feel that I don’t.
The same is true of the talk of ‘errors’ at the end of the passage. Am I just too wedded to the ideas through which I can’t help but interpret this? If so that would be an interesting example of dispositionality. But the only sense I can make of “we have incorporated only our errors” is an accusation that character-cultivation has thus far been entirely a matter of prohibitions, encompassing what we should not become rather than what we should. But again, it’s the same problem. This seems obviously untrue to me.
Underlying this book is a simple proposition: things matter to people. As well as the thought and interaction which have been traditional objects of the human sciences, we also evaluate – our relation to the world is one of concern. Andrew Sayer’s book is concerned with drawing out the theoretical and methodological implications for social science of recognising this irreducible dimension of lay normativity:
The most important questions people tend to face in their everyday lives are normative ones of what is good or bad about what is happening, including how others are treating them, and of how to act, and what to do for the best. The presence of this concern may be evident in fleeting encounters and mundane conversations, in feelings about how things are going, as well as in momentous decisions such as whether to have children, change job, or what to do about a relationship which has gone bad. These are things people care deeply about. They are matters of ‘practical reason’, about how to act, and quite different from the empirical and theoretical questions asked by social science. If we ignore them or reduce them to an effect of norms, discourse or socialisation, or to ‘affect’, we produce an anodyne account of living that renders our evident concern about what we do and what happens to us incomprehensible. (Sayer 2011: 2)
Sayer contends that the pervasive misdescription of lay normativity has contributed to the production of a social science which is both alienated and alienating. The tendency to treat concern “as if it were merely an incidental, subjective accompaniment to what happens” manifests itself in the hegemony of external description and the marginalisation of internal description. In doing so we “miss people’s first person evaluative relation to the world and the force of their evaluation”. However this is not a plea for the reintroduction of subjectivity and, in understanding why Sayer opposes this, we begin to apprehend the sophistication of the arguments which run through the book. His positive account has its roots in a meta-theoretical critique of the “whole series of flawed conceptual distinctions that obstruct our understanding of the evaluative character of everyday life”:
- Fact and value
- Is and ought
- Reason and emotion
- Science and ethics
- Positive and normative
- Objective and subjective
- Body and mind
- Animal and human
For instance the conceptual distinction between is and ought obscures their interpenetration in the evaluative aspect of everyday life. We are, as he puts it, “needy, vulnerable beings, suspended between things as they are and as they might become, for better or worse, and as we need or want them to become” (Sayer 2011: 4). We might say that our subjective evaluative responses are objectively part of any state of affairs that can be studied and they are subjectively meaningful responses to objective circumstances. But in doing so the limitations of these concepts becomes clear, with clarity of expression rapidly lost as we strain against the tendency of these distinctions to foreclose certain ways of thinking and speaking. Another related example is the distinction between facts and values. Some try to avoid value judgements because they are understood to preclude objective assessment of facts. Others critique the ambition of an ‘objective assessment of facts’ because such an endeavour is seen to be impossible because unavoidably value-laden. Both these positions start from the assumption that objectivity and values are incompatible. Thus Sayer seeks to shed the conceptual structure which generates the problems rather than engaging in what he has elsewhere terms a ‘PoMo flip’ where a reaction to a problematic position involves a simple inversion and retains the conceptual structure which generated the problem in the first place.
One aspect of the book I found particularly thought provoking was Sayer’s account of value. On his view values should be understood as past evaluations sedimented as present dispositions which we believe to be justified. This view sees value as “based on repeated particular experiences and valuations of actions” while also tending “recursively, to shape subsequent particular valuations of people and their actions, and guide that person’s own actions”. They are “habits of thinking to which we become committed or emotionally attached” (Sayer 2011: 26-27). This goes hand-in-hand with a broader argument that “we should think of normativity more in terms of the ongoing flow of continual concrete evaluation, and less in terms of norms, rules, procedures, or indeed decisions and injunctions about what one ought to do” (Sayer 2011: 97). This puts Sayer in conflict with someone like Elder-Vass who, despite a somewhat similar theoretical starting point, offers an account of normativity in terms of the causal power of social groups. As a number of people have pointed out, his concept of norm circles lacks a diachronic account. It might offer useful insight into whose action contributes to which social injunction at a particular point in time but it struggles to explain how this propensity to enforce norms comes about over time. To adequately explain the endorsing of norms requires an account of value. Without this it becomes difficult to comprehend what motivates normative behaviour unless we wish to argue that the norm circle effectively brings itself into being.
That said I’m still not sure precisely where I stand in relation to Sayer’s account but I find it interesting that three competing theories of normativity (Archer, Elder-Vass, Sayer) have emerged from within critical realism in the last decade. I find Sayer’s contribution extremely thought-provoking, partly because of the nuanced hostility to disciplinarity which pervades it. Early in the book he contrasts the often over-socialised view of individual action within social science to the under-socialised view of the individual which tends to dominate within philosophy. His intention in the book is to move beyond the conceptual frameworks which produce such methodological tendencies and to avoid the temptation to deal with the explanatory symptom rather than address the underlying theoretical malaise. But he does so through a careful unweaving of the meta-theoretical thread, rather than seeking to ‘philosophize with a hammer’. This becomes possible because of his sensitivity to the lay normativity of social scientists as persons i.e. he seeks to understand how and why, for instance, actual social scientists are moved to invest themselves in problematic notions of ‘objectivity’. In doing so the ‘carving up’ of the social world in terms of different disciplines comes to seem deeply problematic:
We need a ‘postdisciplinary’ perspective (Sayer, 200a). The conceptual problems that make it difficult to understand evaluative being are partly a product of the emergence of a division of academic labour in which each discipline imperialistically seeks to extend its parochial concerns to the exclusion of others, and each imagines that it is the most fundamental and insightful social science. The mutual hostilities between sociology (and anthropology), psychology, politics and economics serve to support various kinds of disciplinary reductionism that prevent us understanding the social world. The polarisation between oversocialized and undersocialized conceptions of individuals is the most obvious example. The divorce of normative from positive thought about society, through the separation of philosophy from the rest of social science, is another. A plague on all disciplinary imperialism and parochialism! If ‘postdisciplinary’ sounds a bit pretentious, it’s actually little different from the familiar pre-disciplinary social science of the eighteenth – and nineteenth century founders (Sayer, 200b). Although a social scientist myself, this research is based on a lengthy search within philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, for ways of overcoming social science’s difficulty with lay normativity in general, and ethical being in particular. I ask readers to be open to ideas and orientations from outside their own disciplines. (Sayer 2011: 14)
Why Things Matter to People is a rich and complex book. It is unavoidably filled with abstract terminology and at times Sayer’s frustration with the constraints of theoretical discourse is almost palpable – he deserves eternal credit for acknowledging early in the book that ‘lay normativity’ is a rather alienated way of describing its object. Nonetheless the entire project is animated by his concern to understand this everyday yet so frequently overlooked dimension of human life. For something so intrinsically abstract it’s also weirdly readable. I find the sensitivity with which Sayer does theory deeply admirable, as well as the clarity with which he writes about what it is he has done. The book is a pleasure to read and that’s something I have rarely found to be true of social theory, regardless of how accomplished the works in question might be. In short I can’t praise this book enough. Now I need to resist the urge to reread the whole thing when I only picked it up again to check a reference and ended up writing this post.
The problem for social scientists is that our jargon, like that of the natural scientists, is heavily biased towards nouns and noun phrases. Our big words are nearly always nouns, such as “re-ethnification”, “mediatisation”, “deindividuation” and all the other “isations” and “ifications” that dominate so much empirical and theoretical writing. […] The preference for nouns is found across the social sciences, affecting the writings of both postmodernists and old-style empiricists. We can see it in the current fashion for using the definite article to transform adjectives into nouns, thereby creating a seemingly endless supply of new things to study: “the comic”, “the homely”, “the pastoral” and so on. What next? The grumpy, the drizzly, the pretentious? […] by using big nouns, analysts can avoid describing people. If we assume that there is something called “nominalisation”, then we need not specify what exactly people might be doing if they are said to “nominalise”. In fact, statements, with active verbs and small ordinary words, generally contain much more information about actions than do the big nouns, which supposedly describe such acts. According to critical linguists, that is precisely why those in power like to use big nouns: they can transform the uncertain world of human acts into a world of necessary things
This great article by Michael Billig (HT Dave Beer) makes an incisive point which echoes a powerful argument in Andrew Sayer’s last book. Sayer argues that the pervasive disregard for ‘lay normativity'[*] within social science (i.e. what matters to people and why) helps produce a vision of the social world which is alienated and alienating. Perhaps the pervasive tendency for social scientists to nominalise as part of their process of conceptualisation helps entrench this situation, as every occasion of linguistically distancing ourselves from concrete actors leaves us ever further from the ethical texture of everyday life. The result is an eviscerated view of the social world, with an apparent explanatory plausibility belying the loss of a significant part of the first person experience of being human. One of the things that most interests me is the possibility of sustaining the capacity for abstraction which brings about this state of affairs but doing so in a way which preserves lay normativity. Without the former, sociology becomes merely descriptive (in which case I’d much rather read essayists, journalists and novelists thanks) but without the latter its explanatory function is, at best, truncated.
However I don’t think the problem can be reduced to questions of theory or methodology. Nor even is it a matter of style per se. Instead is there a problem of the value placed on communication? Or rather the lack thereof. One of the thoughts that I’m untangling in my own mind (and likely will be for some time) is the status accorded to the communication of sociological knowledge and whether ‘public engagement’ represents a potential avenue through which the communication of knowledge is rescued from its longstanding relegation to a secondary status. If communication were valued more would people write in such a rush? Though I can’t escape the irony that I am rushing to finish writing this post so that I can get on with other things. This contradiction, between an increasingly attractive idea of ‘slow theory’ and ‘slow scholarship’ in my head and the reality of what I actually do, does kind of bother me. It’s little things like returning to blog posts to edit them. It’s so easy and quick to do. But it’s often difficult to get myself to do it and it feels like a chore, in spite of the difference I know it makes to the quality and coherence of the writing.
Though another way of looking at this occurs to me. Perhaps the ‘rushing’ is a consequence of the value I place on writing rather than the lack thereof. Or rather the expression of an idea, using writing as a medium to move it from something inchoate to something which I have articulated (and will inevitably do so again and again in an iterative process of saying what I’m trying to say). I feel rushed when an idea is live in my mind and beyond speculating that this is because I really enjoy the process of expressing it, I’m not really sure why this is. It’s also when writing becomes indescribably easy, as words flow when an idea is at the forefront of your mind and gradually cease to flow as the idea comes to feel something more external (objectivised in text) than internal. I find it extremely difficult to write without a live idea in this way. For a long time I had a file of ‘blog post ideas’ which I eventually gave up because I almost never wrote any of them.
*Which to his eternal credit he acknowledges as a rather alienated way to express the idea.
Faced with theoretical or philosophical positions that seem untenable, it is tempting to counter them by reversing or inverting them, for example, responding to empiricism’s belief in the rooting of knowledge in empirical observation by claiming knowledge to be independent of observation and observation to be wholly dependent on discourses. This strategy retains the problematic structures which generated the problems in the first place […] Defeatist postmodernism typically defines itself in opposition to ‘foundationalism’, ‘objectivism’, and those who claim privileged access to ‘the truth’. In reacting against this, it then flips over into an anti-realism which rules out any possibility of empirical/practical evaluation and makes truth relative to discourse.Realists also reject naive objectivism, but as we argued in the previous chapter, this need not make us flip over into relativism or idealism, or make us doubt the possibility of scientific progress or abandon the Enlightenment project. I shall call the former reaction a ‘pomo flip’, but there are other pomo flips too: from a rejection of grand narratives or totalizing discourses to an incapacitating fragmentation of the world and its discourses; and from a rejection of ethnocentrism, androcentrism and imperialism to an equally self-defeating cultural and judgmental relativism.
Andrew Sayer, Realism and Social Science, Pg 67-68
- What cultural resources play a role in the lives of participants?
- How do they enable and constrain the commitments, projects and modus vivendi of participants? This constraint and enablement is mediated through internal conversation.
- Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphogenesis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?
- Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphostasis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?
These are the core questions I want to address through my data analysis. At present I have theoretical definitions of the concepts I’m drawing on here (developed from the work of Archer, Elder-Vass, Layder, Sayer and others) but my intention is to use the empirical case study (five interviews with 18 participants over two years) to elaborate upon these concepts in an iterative fashion. In a way my particular focus is the relations between the concepts.
Given the necessity of a conceptual architecture in explaining social outcomes, even though much or all of this is often tacit, it stands to reason that the empirical adequacy of those concepts is key to the explanatory utility. Yet even if we explicitly design a conceptual architecture, unless it is (a) relational (b) empirically adequate then it is going to be unhelpful when we use it in our attempts to explain empirical phenomena which are intrinsically relational. So the concepts have to be fleshed out and revised in dialogue with empirical data but so too do the relations between those concepts, otherwise modes of causation through which the empirical phenomena we’re attempting to conceptualise interrelate risk being occluded because our the range of objects and relations admitted within our conceptual architecture exclude to some degree the objects and relations we’re actually studying. We either exclude them entirely or impute characteristics to them conceptually because there’s no place within our framework for them. It’s impossible to operate without some kind of conceptual architecture, a simplified map of the kinds of things we’re studying and the kinds of relations that obtain between them:
Even if someone claims they don’t have this, they do. If we’re capable of talking about X in a way which gets beyond a finite set of descriptive statements about X then we do so on the basis of some underlying conceptualisation of X, even if we remain blissfully ignorant of what these concepts are. Even descriptive statements themselves presuppose concepts (e.g. “describe what you see when you look up”… “the sky is overcast, it looks like it’s about to rain” ) in that they move from the particularity of the object being described to some general(ish) statement about the kinds of characteristics embodied by said object. However at this level, it’s not really architecture as such. Or at least not most of the time.
However when it comes to explanation, not merely describing X but offering some account of how X subsequently became Y, the architecture comes into play. In so far as that we’re offering an account of a transition, it necessitates some statement of the objects party to that transition, as well as the relations which obtain between them. It’s at this point that the conceptual architecture we’re working with becomes crucial. Imagine this is a representation of the process we’re studying:
If we try and explain the process depicted above in terms of the conceptual architecture depicted previously then a problem occurs. If the process under investigation involves objects of a kind we have no place for in our conceptual architecture and/or relations between objects which we have no conceptual account of then one of two things happens: the object and/or relation doesn’t enter into our explanation OR the process of explaining our empirical data leads us to impute or ignore characteristics to the objects/relations because we make sense of them in terms of concepts that are fundamentally incongruent with them.
I realise this all sounds very abstract. But the difficulty in talking about this kind of issue is quite interesting in its own right. There’s a general history of neglect within sociology when it comes to explanatory methodology. I’m not talking about methods, methodology or theory. I’m talking about the practice which links those things together in a reflexive way in the process of conducting social research. We all do it, we all engage implicitly with the meta-theoretical issues entailed by it and yet the lack of a clear and well-grounded discourse about how to do this is a major impediment to good social research. I think people obviously still do good social research in spite of this problem.
Some of the reasons for the problem are pretty obvious. The weird attitudes towards social theory that’s way too common (at least anecdotally) is an issue, as unless people actually engage properly with theory they’re never going to get beyond the stage of seeing it as pointless abstraction. Conversely, theorists who do actually engage in pointless abstraction (also far too common) and particularly the pointless self-congratulatory obfuscation that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with this obviously doesn’t help. I think there’s also some really interesting historical reasons for this, in terms of the changing institutional structures and cultural significance of sociology inquiry, not to mention the way various antinomies of enlightenment thought have worked themselves out over the intellectual history of sociology. Definitely stuff I want to write about properly at some point. But more immediately, explanatory methodology needs to be made a part of research methods training.