How can we reconcile the psychoanalytical and the reflexive? One way is to deny there’s a tension and the work of someone like Ian Craib illustrates how this can be so, excavating reflexivity as a site of fantasy that is itself acted on reflexively. We find the image of a powerful and boundless self intoxicating but sustaining it necessitates reflexivity in defence of this object. Rather than scrutinising our assumption that life should be without disappointment (Craib’s catch all term for the negative emotions which inevitably emerge from our engagements with a recalcitrant reality) we move into the next job, the next partner, the next home in the earnest hope that this time we can elude the mess of life which has followed us up till now. In this case, reflexivity misidentifies itself, mistaking a fallible and constrained capacity to calibrate our becoming in the world for a powerful and boundless capacity to build the life we aspire to. There is no tension between the psychoanalytical and the reflexive because we can’t understand one without the other.

However what about our super ego? What about injunction we feel to behave a certain way and meet specific standards? I think someone like Adam Phillips can be read in a similar way to Craib, concerned with the space of freedom which is closed down through our misidentification of these demands; a freedom which can only be embraced by recognising our own limitations. But  what about the pleasure we find in subordinating ourselves to these injunctions? This is something Žižek discusses on pg 195-196 of Like A Thief In Broad Daylight:

This, then, is what makes millions of us seek refuge in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects, but unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects –the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction?

From a realist perspective on reflexivity (Archer, Donati, Sayer et al) these pressures arise from our concerns. It’s because facets of our world matter to us, unavoidably moving us to action, that the question of which action becomes so thorny and difficult. This pressure comes from a relation of concern to the world, even if this is inflected through the cultural coding which is situationally available to us. However for a figure like Žižek this would seem like an escape from the real issue, a lofty rationalisation which obscures the obsene core of ‘what matters to us’ . Even if we see ‘servitude to a cause’ (a phrase he uses later in the book) as a psychoanalytical reading of a reflexive commitment, there nonetheless seems to be a profound tension here.

Can these perspectives be reconciled? Is it possible to accept the existence of cultural injunctions which capture us on a psychic level while recognising the capacities of agents to (fallibly!) calibrate the relationship between themselves and their world? I suspect is isn’t and I’m not sure what this means for my broader interest in recognising the reflexive and the psychoanalytical.

In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.

I’ve just cut this out of a paper I’m working on. It’s not up to scratch and it doesn’t really contribute anything to the development of the paper. But it’s an idea I’m planning to return to in future, so I’d be interested in any thoughts people have about it. I hadn’t actually compiled the bibliography for this yet but get in touch if you’d like info about a reference in the text. 

In this section I provide an overview of Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity, focusing upon the role of cultural variety in shaping reflexive deliberation. To do this, I wish to borrow a metaphor from the Bourdieusian theorist Will Atkinson and use this to consider the role of categories in internal conversation. Atkinson invokes the metaphor of a flashlight to illustrate the disjuncture between the objective and subjective fields of possibility which confront a subject. His phenomenological reconstruction of habitus[1] seeks to explain “the limits of the conceivable range of possibilities” in terms of the power of habitus for “illuminating in consciousness, like the beam from a torch, only a circumscribed arc of social space and leaving the rest in the unknown, unthinkable darkness” (Atkinson 2010: 104). My contention is that this metaphor can be usefully be reclaimed from the use made of it here and that what Atkinson (2010: 52) describes as “the full weight of accumulated categorization” can usefully be reconceptualised in terms of the generative mechanism through which cultural variety influences reflexive deliberation. If we understand culture, following Archer (1985, 2011: loc 3696), as the “repertoire of ideas for construing the situations in which [subjects] find themselves”, we are left with the question of how their ensuing influence accumulates biographically. Atkinson’s (2010) metaphor of the flash light nicely captures this as a synchronic relation, in which the subject’s perception of the possibilities available to them are filtered through a prism of ‘accumulated categorization’[2], but it lacks an account of the diachronic i.e. past ideas which subjects have incorporated into their mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders[3] exercise a conditioning influence upon present action, one result of which will be the reproduction or transformation of the stock of mental representations influencing future deliberations. 

The question remains however as to how this ‘categorization’ accumulates. As Atkinson (2010: 52) admits, the “precise contents of the habitus and how it generates conscious thought and intention … is never really elaborated in a systematic way, leaving it open to the charge of being an explanatory black box”. I’d suggest that Archer’s (2003, 2007) account of communicative reflexivity cracks open this black box by elaborating upon how the stock of mental representations is reliably reproduced through the dynamics of external conversation: trusting similar others, circumscription of internal dialogue and privileging the shared present (Archer 2007: 270-281). The decline of the contextual continuity necessary for communicative reflexivity[4] progressively erodes the shared mental representations which are necessary for internal conversation to be externalised, seeking confirmation and completion by trusted others, in a manner experienced as subjectively worthwhile (Archer 2007: 84-85). The decline of contextual continuity exercises an independent influence upon the likely stock of potential interlocutors, given the time taken for relationships of this sort to be established and the relative immobility likely necessary for them to be retained[5]. This accounts for the fragility of communicative reflexivity in contemporary circumstances. Even were someone is born into circumstances precipitous to it, the likelihood of those circumstance both remaining stable and a subject remaining within them is increasingly low. As Archer (2012) and Carrigan (2014) both illustrate, one important vector of change is the transition of students to university, leading to a transformation of the students themselves and implications for their web of familial relations and ‘home’ friends at the time of entry.

With the decline of communicative reflexivity comes the necessity of recognising the different modes through which cultural structures are mediated at the level of personal reflexivity. The failure to do this can be seen in debates out the ‘split habitus’ and ‘intra-habitus’ contradictions. For instance Mouzelis (2007) invokes the ‘intra-active processes’ then can ensue when a subject finds themselves under the influence of a habitus with ‘two fundamental aspects’. Friedman (2015) discusses Bourdieu’s ambivalent treatment of ‘long-range social mobility’ and its implications for reflexivity, something which he recognised in his own life when writing in an auto-ethnographic mode but relegated to the periphery of social analysis in the lives of others in his description of ‘hysteresis effects’: mismatches between habitus and field, a disjuncture between objective demands and subjective capacities, leading to negative sanctions from others within it. The notion of hysteresis has natural scientific origins, gifting the term with connotations of change and time lag (Grenfell 2014: 128). As Friedman (2015) notes, Bourdieu began to explore hysteresis effects at the level of personal life in his later work, leaving it an open question as to whether this investigative thread might ultimately have led to a revision of the concept of habitus. After all, Archer’s (2007) account of the ‘demise of routinisation’ could be translated into Bourdieusian terminology as a thesis about the normalisation of hysteresis[6]. Rosa’s (2013) notion of an intra-generational pace of change describes the same trend. In Archer’s words: “change is now too rapid and appropriate practices now too evanescent for inter-generational socialisation to take place” (Archer 2007: 41).

While Bourdieu implicitly maintains the stability of the field and relegates a mismatch to an ‘effect’ at the level of subject, Archer (2003, 2007) instead conceives of changing characteristics of the social context (continuity, discontinuity and incongruity) and their relation to the different modes through which the reflexive capacities of subjects can be exercised. In doing so, the relation between the objective and subjective is opened up in  way much more amenable to investigating their interplay than is the case when a homology is assumed and its absence is regarded as an outlier. Under conditions of contextual continuity, there tend to be a mutually reinforcing relationship between cultural variety and social circumstances. Our repertoire of ideas for construing our situations find confirmations in the characteristics of those situations and in the ideas of those with whom we discuss the choices faced in them. Dependence upon concepts does not entail determination by concepts and so there’s not necessity here but rather conditioning influences operative via a number of pathways (structural, ideational, relational, biographical). The result is that our access to cultural variety is heavily circumscribed, something which practitioners of communicative reflexivity are liable to accept and work to reinforce[7]. With the emergence of contextual discontinuity, this mutual reinforcement between the socio-cultural and the cultural system begins to loosen, as novel opportunities force subjects to look beyond interlocutors for guidance. Furthermore, the influence of established variety within a stable context diminished because of the growing tendency for subjects to move beyond and between milieu as they sought to take advantage of these opportunities. In some cases, new ideas encountered might support established ways of doing things within a milieu, but in others cases they might lead a subject to feel they have no choice but to move beyond it. Under these circumstances, cultural variety may still be circumscribed within a particular milieu but subjects are more likely to move between milieus and thus ‘take’ variety with them when they move. With the growth of contextual incongruity, cultural variety began to be encountered within a milieu, such that subjects are confronted with the necessity of evaluating mutually incompatible ideas. Archer (2012) investigates the implications of this for the development of reflexivity but what I wish to stress here is how this encourages some subjects to look towards the cultural system in order to find ideas which help reconcile the conflicts they face. Increasingly, the activity of subjects within a context contributes to an expansion of cultural variety, as opposed to being something brought about by moving between contexts.

This is a brief sketch at a high level of abstraction, conducted in a micro-sociological register. My focus is on how changes in contextual features generate different modes of mediation of cultural variety which subjects then orientate themselves towards in variable ways. To return to the flashlight analogy: the ‘default’ setting of the beam is heavily circumscribed under conditions of contextual continuity, unevenly circumscribed under contextual discontinuity _ and highly expansive under conditions of contextual incongruity. But why does this matter? It matters because how cultural variety is mediated for any given subject shapes how their objective field of actual opportunities contracts into a subjective field of perceived possibilities. As Archer (2012: 62) notes, increasing cultural variety leads to a greater stimulus towards innovative commitments. But it also increases the challenge of choosing from available opportunities, developing sustainable courses of action and committing to ongoing projects. The wider the ‘beam’ of the ‘flashlight’, the more work that is required to make choices about one’s own future, a predicament generated by the process of cultural morphogenesis described here, to which subjects contribute in turn when they seek more variety in order to resolve it.

[1] Resulting in something which looks even closer to Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity than that seen in Crossley’s (2001) parallel attempt to use the intellectual resources of phenomenology to open the ‘black box’ of habitus. However Crossley (2001) takes reflexivity more seriously than Atkinson, who ultimately dismisses it as ‘faux reflexivity’ representing “nothing more than mundane consciousness operating within the subjective field of possibilities given class positions and dispositions but masquerading at the narrative level as action without limits of history.” (Atkinson 2010: 114). He essentially concludes that the concept of ‘reflexivity’ necessarily entails taking professions of agency at face value, as Thomson et al (2002) put it, oddly drawing this conclusion with little scrutiny of how concepts of reflexivity are actually operationalised in empirical studies.

[2] Though even then the interruption of contingency can lead to outcomes which lead the subject to look beyond the beam of their present flashlight. Brock and Carrigan (2012) analyse a case study in which the highly contingent unfolding of a ‘riot’ will likely lead to personal change for those involved. For more on personal morphogenesis see Alford (1995) and Carrigan (2014).

[3] See Archer (2000) for a full account of these concepts. My intuition would be that mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders exhibit ascending degrees of durability from the former to the latter, though the unfolding reality of intra-generational climactic change might falsify this assumption.

[4] Something which begins to fragment with what Harmut Rosa’s (2013) describes as an intergenerational rate of social change and is largely absent with the advent of an intragenerational rate of social change, beyond pockets of sub-culture which have (reflexively) sought to shield themselves from social morphogenesis, as with the religious sub-cultures invoked by Gorski (2016).

[5] Though of course personal connections can be established and reproduced through digital technology (Baym 2010). Nonetheless, many would raise questions about the meaningfulness of these connections, such as Hill (2015), Keen (2012, 2014), Slade (2012), Turkle (2011) and Zimbardo (2015). Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethnographic accounts paint a more nuanced picture of digitally mediated social relations. See Miller (2013), Miller and Slater (2000), Miller and Sinanan (2013).

[6] Though this would gloss over other relevant differences, such as a preference for the concept of ‘routine’ given it has no comparable connotation of the social getting ‘inside’ of us.

[7] By seeking out the similar and the familiar and, to varying degrees, turning away from the dissimilar and disfamiliar. The more contextual continuity recedes, the more active this process by necessity becomes.

One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is her interest in how people sometimes seek to ‘blot out’ their experience. Her overarching concern is with the variability of reflexivity, something which I think is hugely important against an intellectual background in which most   thinkers impute a uniform deliberative capacity to subjects, assuming they do recognise this capacity at all. 

For instance while some people, at least some of the time, reason autonomously in a confident and detached way, addressing the question “what should I do?” quickly and effectively, others find that attempts to deliberate intensify affect rather than provide answers. These are perhaps the people most likely to seek to ‘blot out’ experience, to evade reflexivity through deliberate distraction. But I’ve argued elsewhere that the competitive busyness of the self-striving utility maximiser can represent a comparable form of ‘blotting out’, avoiding difficult questions of what really matters to them by throwing themselves into the events of the day.

Before we have a fully developed sociology of reflexivity, we need a sociology of ‘blotting out’ experience: a systematic understanding of the different ways in which people can seek to evade reflexivity and why they might pursue them. I was thinking about this today after encountering the description of the ‘machine zone’ at the start of the stunning book Addiction By Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll, pg 2:

Mollie recounts how her play began, and how it escalated. It started soon after she moved to Las Vegas with her third husband in the 1980s, when he taught her to play video poker on a miniature, handheld machine. “I became hooked on that amazing little machine. And then I graduated to the real thing.” Short stints at video poker on weekend visits to casinos turned into sessions of hours and then days. Her financial expenditure grew in step with her play, to a point where she was spending entire paychecks over two- day binges at machines. “I even cashed in my life insurance for more money to play,” she tells me. When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win .” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing— to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there— you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

When placed in this context, we can see how a concern with the experience of ‘blotting out’ takes us beyond psychology by placing this evasion, in which people seek the embrace of a zone in ‘which nothing else matters’, within the broader development of digital capitalism and the declining capacity of non-elite collective agency to shape long-term political and economic trends.

The Amazon page just went live for this book I’m editing with Tom Brock and Graham Scambler. As well as the titular selected papers, it will include an interview with Archer, an annotated bibliography, a foreword by Doug Porpora and an extended introduction to her work.

This edited collection of papers seeks to celebrate the scope and accomplishment of Margaret Archer’s work, distilling her theoretical and empirical contributions into four sections, capturing the essence and trajectory of her work over almost four decades. Long fascinated with the problem of structure and agency, Archer’s work has constituted a decades long engagement with this perennial issue of social thought. Through an initial empirical study and two expansive trilogies, Archer has developed an explanatory framework that comes to grips with the complexity of social processes at different levels of analysis over time. The Morphogenetic Approach and, later, her work on the Internal Conversation, together, provide a detailed account of the interrelated processes by which structure, agency and culture come to take the forms they do. However in spite of the deep interconnections which unify her body of work, it is rarely treated as a coherent whole. Though its range and depth has been widely acknowledged, it nonetheless has an unclear place within the cannon of sociological theory. The proposed collection seeks to address this relative neglect through collating a selection of papers, spanning Archer’s career, which collectively elucidate both the development of her thought and the value which can be found in it as a systematic whole. It seeks to illustrate the empirical origins of her later ideas in her early work on the sociology of education, as well as foregrounding the diverse range of influences which have conditioned her intellectual trajectory: the systems theory of Walter Buckley, the functionalist Marxism of David Lockwood, the critical realist philosophy of Roy Bhaskar and, more recently, her engagement with American pragmatism and the Italian school of relational sociology.

I’m trying to put together a comprehensive list of critiques of Margaret Archer’s work. Any help would be appreciated! If you could e-mail me, leave them as a comment or tweet a link then I’ll add them to this list:

  1. Defining personal reflexivity: A critical reading of Archer’s approach. European Journal of Social Theory
  2. Reflexivity as Situated Problem-Solving. A Pragmatist Alternative to General Theory. Sociologica
  3. Fully Unconscious and Prone to Habit: The Characteristics of Agency in the Structure and Agency Dialectic Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
  4. For “Central Conflation” A Critique of Archerian Dualism Sociological Theory
  5. Reflexivity, relative autonomy and the embedded individual in economics Journal of Institutional Economics
  6. Relational sociology, agency and interaction European Journal of Social Theory
  7. Melancholia and the Radical Particular: Against Archer’s Realism Graduate Journal of Social Science–06-Allen.pdf
  8. Relational Sociology, Theoretical Inuhmanism and the Problem of the Nonhuman
  9. Interests and Structure in Dualist Social Theory
    A Critical Appraisal of Archer’s Theoretical and Empirical Arguments Philosophy of the Social Sciences
  10. Social Causation: Between Social Constructionism and Critical Realism
  11. Emotional Reflexivity: Feeling, Emotion and Imagination in Reflexive Dialogues Sociology
  12. Reflexivity and social change: A critical discussion of reflexive modernization and individualization theses Portuguese Journal of Social Science
  13. A Return to ‘the Inner’ in Social Theory: Archer’s ‘Internal Conversation’
  14. The Poverty of Ontological Reasoning Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
  15. The Reflexive Habitus
  16. Personal reflexivity and biography: methodological challenges and strategies International Journal of Social Research Methodology
  17. Questioning Contingency in Social Life Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
  18. Situierte Reflexivität: Margaret Archers Entwurf eines kritisch-realistischen Subjektverständnisses (seems to be published in English and German)
  19. Realist Social Theory and Its Losing Battle With Concepts
  20. For a Social Ontology with a Self-Reflective Knowing Subject: Towards the Articulation of the Epistemic Criterion of Reflexivity
  21. On reflexivity and the conduct of the self in everyday life: reflections on Bourdieu and Archer British Journal of Sociology
  22. Ultimate concerns in late modernity: Archer, Bourdieu and reflexivity British Journal of Sociology

I’ll be adding to this list myself. But any suggestions are greatly appreciated! At present the above list contains everything (in English) I could find via Google Scholar published from 2011 onwards, with the criteria being pieces that took Archer’s work as their overwhelming or exclusive focus.

Dave Elder-Vass has sent me a helpful list of items to add:

  • Elder-Vass (2007) ‘Reconciling Archer and Bourdieu in an Emergentist Theory of Action’ Sociological Theory, 25:4, 325-46.
  • Elder-Vass (2008) ‘For Emergence: Refining Archer’s Account of Social Structure’. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 37:1, 25-44. (Also see the responses by Porpora, Varela, and King in the subsequent issue).
  • Archer, M. and D. Elder-Vass (2012) ‘Cultural System or Norm Circles?’, European Journal of Social Theory 15:1, 93-115
  • HEALY, K. (1998). Conceptualising Constraint: Mouzelis, Archer and the Concept of Social Structure. Sociology, 32, 509-522
  • KING, A. (2004). The structure of social theory. London: Routledge
  • KING, A. (2006). How Not to Structure a Social Theory: A Reply to a Critical Response. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 36, 464-479
  • Depelteau (2008) ‘Relational Thinking: A Critique of Co-Deterministic Theories of Structure and Agency’ Sociological Theory 26 (1):51 – 73.

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen argued that the intellectual axis of contemporary sociological theory has shifted from a concern with individualism and holism to what he terms dualism and anti-dualism. I’m not convinced as to the accuracy of this as a claim about the state of the field given the degree of sophistication which can be seen in some of the work analytical sociologists are doing. However I think it’s useful as an expression of a core distinction between those theorists who see ‘structure and agency’ as a dualism to be transcended and those who see it as reflecting the ontological reality of two relatively autonomous aspects of the social world. I also really like how he sets this up because it helps me locate both my PhD research on personal morphogenesis and my post-PhD research on the sociology of thinking in terms of wider trends within sociological theory:

This leads us to what I think is the main battleground between dualists and antidualists, the mind of the individual. The question is: how social is it?


No one could question that there are singular organisms we call members of the biological species Homo sapiens, but the antidualists wish to remind you that these are not distinctly human individuals, not to mention social scientifically interesting agents, until they are in sociocultural relations with other people and thus components in sociocultural wholes that contribute enormously to their being the kinds of individuals that they are (see e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Dewey [1920] 1988:187–94, [1922] 1983, [1927] 1988:351–53; Elias 1978; Fuchs 2001; Giddens 1984; King 2004; Mead 1934; also Kivinen and Piiroinen 2013). As John Dewey put it a hundred years ago:

The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there. . . . [For, actually,] social arrangements, laws, institutions . . . are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Dewey [1920] 1988:190–91)

For central conflationist antidualists like myself, indeed, the “micro” focus is not the individual so much as specific encounters and other small-scale situations involving specific kinds of people-in-relations and their interactions (see Collins 2004:3). In effect, “the stuff of the social is made of relations, not individuals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:179). But Archer, in contrast, needs to keep individuals free from their social relations in order to pull those relations away from agency and turn them into the essence of structures. So relations and thus structures must be external to individuals and their beliefs and concepts, according to Archer, and relational roles, institutions, concepts, and ideas cannot be allowed to “invade” or “determine” individuals’ identities and decision-making processes. Basically Archer is saying that we must not stuff too much of the sociocultural world into people’s heads

(Piiroinen 2014:84-85)

I think he’s misunderstood Archer’s specific point slightly but he’s certainly correct about the general intention here. My PhD research on personal morphogenesis was intended to flesh out how people change in relation to social and cultural influences in a way that sustains the distinction between the personal changes and the social influences. We become ‘the kinds of individuals’ that we are in relation to others but if we cleave self and others too closely together, we obscure the variability in how these changes unfold. In essence I’ve argued that we understand relationships in terms of intersecting biographies and the changes brought about by them. So I’d insist on maintaining individual biography as a unit of analysis, with this representing a ‘chunk’ of one person’s biography in which we they undergo a change:

However we can’t understand the changes without analysing the intersection of biographies, as any number of other persons (Px) contribute to the unfolding of P1’s biography over this period of time. The interaction between P1 and Px contributes to the reproduction or transformation of the relations themselves but also the persons party to them:

I would accept that we are only “distinctly human individuals” when we are “in sociocultural relations with other people”: I just want to be specific about which sociocultural relations contribute to which aspects of our individuality and when they do so. I think this is important because actual biographies are messy. My empirical case study concerned undergraduate students. For instance I’m interested in understanding how interactions between a person and their new university friends can transform how they relate to their ‘home friends’. The personal changes emergent from one set of sociocultural relations can have a huge impact on another set of sociocultural relations and I think the central conflationists can’t (consistently) account for this because they have no concept of ‘outputs’ from relations. In other words: relations change people but people change relations and these processes are not concurrent. We are enmeshed within socio-cultural relations from birth but, as Laing once put it, while “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”.

So when we ask how social is the mind it connects us to a much wider network of questions, as Piiroinen adroitly illustrates. I see my project on the sociology of thinking as having an outward facing component (in the sense of what a sociological perspective can contribute to the study of thinking from other approaches) but also an inward facing one, in the sense that understanding thinking – as an activity but also the contents of thought – is integral to clarifying the dualisms upon which so much of sociological theory has tended to pivot: individual/relations, individual/society, agency/structure, micro/macro. I would like to critique what I see as a tendency towards disciplinary imperialism in how sociologists treat thinking and to critically engage with work in other fields with the intention of (cautiously) applying their insights to the clarification of these questions of social theory.

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen suggests that “if we all just suddenly lost our memories and other relevant neural dispositions—if no one was able to remember his or her own name, let alone relatives, friends, possessions, occupation, place of residence, and so on—there would be nothing left of social relations and structures”. This is a science fiction scenario I actually find extremely interesting. Consider that one day, as a result of a natural disaster or fiendish scheme by an evil scientist, “memory and neural dispositions” were suddenly erased at one moment in time. What would the world look like afterwards? I think it would briefly look very similar to the world before the event. For instance the spatial positioning of people within a workplace would be structurally conditioned, likewise how they were co-located (or not), how they were dressed, the length of time they had been present at the workplace that day and what they had been doing up until the memory wipe. It’s certainly unlikely that these structural features of the workplace would be reproduced after the memory wipe but this simply reflects the activity-dependence of social structure i.e. they rely on agential doings for their reproduction or transformation. The enduring causal power of past structures is precisely the point that social realists are making against the central conflation that Piiroinen espouses. I’d maintain that you couldn’t explain the unfolding of events in this scenario without reference to the causal power of past structures i.e. the responses would be patterned rather than atomistically chaotic.

But a lot also depends upon precisely how many “relevant neural dispositions” have been lost in the mind wipe. In a workplace that has card based access systems, the physical possession of the card and its power to enable access to certain locations within the workplace would be unaffected by the mind wipe. People would still have credit cards, mobile phones and personal computers which with sufficient remaining ‘neural dispositions’ could be leveraged to make sense of the undoubtedly confusing situation in which they now found themselves. In fact if the memory wipe were not worldwide but rather something localised to a particular region, or even a workplace, it’s not difficult to imagine how aggregated individual actions of those subject to the mind wipe would provoke collective intervention by authorities that could in turn lead to the reproduction of those structures Piiroinen suggests would be ‘lost’. In short I think there would be something left of social relations and structures. We wouldn’t be able to see it directly but we would be able to see its effects. This obviously hinges upon the acceptance of the causal criterion but even so it seems that Piiroinen hasn’t grasped the point that’s being made here in an otherwise interesting and sophisticated critique of social realism.

I’ve recently blogged about the role which obsessiveness plays in constituting differing modes of reflexivity. To recap: there is no logically necessary end point to deliberations and thus we must all negotiate, in different ways, the need to draw deliberations to a close so as to reach decisions about what to do and then actually do it*Some rely on trusted interlocutors to complete and confirm their tentative decisions. Others act decisively, trusting themselves sufficiently to commit to the conclusions they’ve drawn. Others still will tend towards the perpetuation of rumination, considering alternative answers or different ways of looking at the question. Finally, some will tend towards the growth of distress, as contemplating the question brings them no nearer to an answer while simultaneously intensifying affect. However these are synchronic characteristics of internal conversation. To understand their diachronic formation requires a relational frame of reference which considers the subject’s past history of translating internal conversation into external conversation.

To seek the completion and confirmation of one’s tentative decisions necessitates that those we express our deliberations to are able to understand where we are coming from. Yet the nature of inner speech can often preclude this. Our inner speech is radically contracted with complex sense frequently condensed into single words or conjunctions of words. For instance the word ‘Gaslight’ is richly significant to me as a contraction of the name of my favourite band. It is the focal point of a web of memories, experiences and meanings. Between seeing the band live on countless occasions, listening to them obsessively and sharing my passion in different ways with those close to me, the term is deeply resonant. But outside of my own mind or a few particular friends, the word ‘gaslight’ will likely bring to mind the literal dictionary definition. Internal speech is faster and more economical than external speech partly because of what Archer (2007: 79) describes as this ‘semantic embedding in our biographies’. But our biographies are always intertwined with others. The personalisation which characterises our inner speech** is characterised by a contextual dependency, with our particularism and idiosyncrasy developing in relation to contextual referents. The degree to which these reference points are shared conditions the ease with which subjects find themselves able to articulate their internal conversations to external others:

So many factors are shared by them – common acquaintances, history and biography, unchanging geography, familiarity with the same schools, hospitals, churches, factories, employers, pubs, buildings and a common fund of anecdotes, idioms and local knowledge. These furnish a mental landscape with the same topographical features. Provided that people retain and sustain this ‘contextual continuity’, their communality of landmarks together with their experiential overlap facilitates the sharing of their internal conversations. To use Piaget’s term, ‘decentering’, or the cognitive ability to assume the perspective of each other in external speech, is rendered much easier. Someone’s conversational extensions (the translations of their internal conversations) may be unintentionally ‘egocentric’, as is usual, but the difference here is that their egocentricity also happens to be very similar to that of their interlocutors. (Archer 2007: 84)

This is what Archer means with her concept of ‘similars and familiars’: “they speak in the same way, share the same word meanings, draw upon a commonwealth of references and a common fund of relevant experiences” (Archer 2007: 85). This commonality is a property of the relations between persons. Their biographical intertwinement, which I’d define fuzzily as a recurrent participation in the same social situations***, leads to the ‘converging egocentricity’ invoked by Archer. Contextual continuity is a relational property emergent from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate ‘similarity and familiarity’. This in turn has important developmental consequences:

For a young subject confronted with new decisions (such as school leaving) and seeking to clarify her concerns in life (such as the choice of her first job), her ‘contextual continuity’ represents a major resource. As she internally fumbles through the infinite variations upon the ineluctable questions (‘What matters?’ and ‘What to do about it?’), she receives two gifts if she shares her incomplete reflections with her ‘similars and familiars’ . These gifts are external ‘confirmation’ and ‘completion’ of her internal conversation. Regular acceptance of them make for what I have called a ‘communicative reflexive’: someone whose reflexivity is instantiated through internal conversation, but is not finished until nascent conclusions have been confirmed and completed through external dialogue. (Archer 2007: 85)

In contrast contextual discontinuity is a relational property which emerges from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate dissimilarity and disfamiliarity. Or in other words subjects who have grow up in conditions of contextual discontinuity will tend to lack the ‘similars and familiars’ whom make it much easier to translate internal conversation into external speech. Their biographies have involved particularistic experiences through confronting novel situations and, as a consequence, they lack (to varying degrees) the shared reference points with those they find themselves biographically intertwined with in their day-to-day life. The processes do not operate mechanistically. Communicative reflexivity emerges if and when a subject values the goods they encounter as a consequence of contextual continuity and there are many reasons biographically why they may not do so. Similarly, nascent autonomous reflexives encounter difficulties in translating internal conversations into external ones but they also have to recognise and respond to these difficulties:

For those people who gradually learn that their internal conversations do indeed ‘make sense only to themselves’, this discovery has far-reaching consequences. Attempts at spoken interchange about one’s internal deliberations are rebuffed by incomprehension or misunderstanding. Since renewed efforts to make oneself clear usually involved greater self-revelation, continued failure is doubly hurtful and self-defence consist in withdrawal … And to stop (or possibly never to begin) throws one back on one’s own mental resources. In turn, that makes significant tracts of a person’s internal conversation self-contained and knowingly not for traffic in spoken conversation. (Archer 2007: 86)

*There’s an important issue here about transcultural and transhistorical variability. I’ve pretty convinced by Archer’s argument that there could never be a society without some reflexivity but that this was often truncated, communicative and orientated towards conventionalism. So to say that obsessiveness is a challenge is also to acknowledge that it is one which was easily met for large tracts of human history.  

**I’m also planning to blog on the relationship between ‘thought’, ‘internal speech’ and ‘internal conversation’. Two books on Buddhism I read over the summer were quite thought provoking towards this end, particularly in so far as they reacquainted me with the refined phenomenology of mental events carried within certain Buddhist traditions. In short I want to elaborate upon the idea that thought is associative, internal speech is declarative and internal conversation is dialogical. I increasingly understand mindfulness as a practice of attentiveness in relation to associative thought which has important implications for declarative internal speech and dialogical internal conversation.

***I mean this in Goffman’s sense. There’s a section in my thesis which I might have to cut about this but if I do, I’ll try and develop it into a paper.

In the previous post of this series I explored Archer’s arguments about relational reflexivity: on this view the socialisation process should be understood as an active and ongoing engagement by a individual that is profoundly shaped by the matrix of relations within which they were embedded at any given point in time. There are two key concepts Archer uses to make sense of this biographical process:

  1. The necessity of selection that obtains when morphogenesis impinges on the social context(s) a subject inhabits: “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). However the novelty which characterises these opportunities also precludes any authoritative source of normative guidance. While the subject might not confront them alone, either in the sense of the opportunity being unique to them and/or lacking others from whom an attempt can be made to solicit guidance, these others are similarly situated vis-a-vis the novelty as novelty. There is no ‘common sense’ view to turn to where such novelty is concerned and, as a consequence, confrontation by it constitutes an initial spur towards reflexivity. Though, as discussed in the last post, the form this takes is empirically variable. In a natal context characterised by established ‘relational goods’ and a relative degree of normative consensus, the necessity for selectivity will tend to be low given the subject’s likely investment in their (highly valued) present circumstances. However as they begin to explore beyond this context, encountering variety will increasingly necessitate selectivity: other things to do and other ways to be poses the challenge of either recommitting themselves to their initial investment in their natal context or beginning to look beyond its normative horizons.
  2. Shaping a life refers to the ongoing and unavoidably provisional attempts made by subjects to establish a satisfying and sustainable form of life for themselves. This involves inventorying, accommodating, subordinating and excluding concerns: working out, under our descriptions, what matters to us and how to live life in a way which expresses these concerns. We have limited time, energy and resources. We find ourselves situated within a stratified social world which leaves some opportunities available and others foreclosed. The practical projects we might otherwise form on the basis of our concerns could require resources we do not or are never likely to possess. Furthermore such projects, as well as the underlying concerns themselves, exist in relation to each other. Some are mundanely compatible or incompatible but others are complementarity or contradictory. We can enjoy rich food & fine wine while seeking to preserve a certain level of physical fitness (incompatible) – there is a tension between them but it can be negotiated reflexively. On the other hand, our love of fine wine cannot be sustained alongside, say, a religious commitment to teetotalism (contradictory). Ultimately, one commitment or the other has to be surrendered by us given the necessity of ‘shaping a life’. It’s important to recognise that this is not the pursuit of an isolated ‘Sartrean Self’: our placement within the social world is integral to the challenges we confront in ‘shaping a life’ and, in turn, individual or collective projects of modifying that placement (or the overarching structures within which we are ‘placed’) can be well understood within this framework. Furthermore, as per the notion of relational reflexivity, “the reflexive practical reasoning involved is shaped by the networks of relations within which it takes place because these profoundly affect what does and can satisfy the subject and be sustained by each of them” (Archer 2012: 97)

Shaping a life is a messy and complex process. This is particularly true during adolescence where subjects are preoccupied by discerning and deliberating about their nascent concerns because they are learning about their selves and their circumstances. Archer places great stress upon novelty at the biographical level and this is integral to her project of linking an account of social change at the macro and micro levels in a non-reductive way. Any encounter with novelty is understood as producing a response in the individual, with the nature of this response being a variable matter conditioned by the subject’s relational-reflexively shaped pre-dispositions towards their context and the personal concerns which act as the normative ‘sounding board’ through which novelty is ‘filtered’:

Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

The notion of ‘concern’ here is emphatically not that of wanting or desiring. The things I want can matter to me but, from Archer’s perspective, it’s the concern in virtue of which they matter that is important here. When we experience things as mattering in this way, it leads naturally to the challenge to commit presuming circumstances allow. On this view, our relations with the world are unavoidably evaluative: what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ cannot be ignored if we want to provide an adequate explanation of social action. However the fact things matter to us does not, in itself, provide guidelines for practical action and we can be sure about a concern while still later coming to feel we’ve mischaracterised or misunderstood what mattered to us and why. Even with a clear understanding of what matters to us, the process of subsequently shaping a life is a complex task:

Yet this is of real concern to students, who at least want to make lasting commitments and are quite capable, for the most part, of projecting ten years ahead and describing the contours of the life they would then like to b leading. this means their undergraduate years will also be the time (for some) when the necessity of selection meets the need to shape a life. Why is this described as a ‘need’? Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. This is why subjects (excepting the ‘fractureds’) actively though fallibly seek to dovetail their concerns. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

On Archer’s account, the process of shaping a life necessitates the prioritisation of some concerns as qualitatively more important than others. In committing ourselves to such final ends, these may then serve to filter novelty much more powerfully than our other concerns e.g. the ramifications for one’s family becomes the immediate frame of reference through which any new opportunity is assessed. Establishing final ends in this sense does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of other concerns – though sometimes it can do this and it’s an issue which fascinates me at the level of individual biography – but it does provide a principle which allows for their relativisation, as an ultimate concern implicitly subordinates other concerns without negating their value. Archer’s extremely sympathetic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt rests on their occlusion of the relational dimension to these existential questions:

The process of shaping a life is necessarily a matter of relations, but these are not approached relationally by most philosophers, even when they are dealing with careers or, more blatantly, with friendship, romance of parenthood. Instead, they are considered unilaterally, from the standpoint of a single lover. My argument will be that the social relations, within which the designation of ultimate concerns is enmeshed, are indispensable to explaining the life that is shaped. Taylor will be of considerable help here, but his approach will need supplementing by relational considerations. (Archer 2012: 112)

The particular argument of Taylor’s she refers to here is that “in the end, what we are called upon to do is not just carry out isolate acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human being” (Archer 2012: 112). The crucial question here is how our concerns ‘fit, or fail to fit, together in the unfolding of our lives’. However Archer argues that without a ‘sense of unity’, such that we do not know what kind of life we wish to lead and what sort of person we wish to be, such considerations cannot adjudicate on the present dilemmas we confront. Instead she proposes that this process be seen relationally and cautions that, contra Taylor, the fact that an “internal, subjective sense of what gives unity to his or her own life” must be a personal property by definition does not mean that it is a personal achievement. From a relational perspective,

 it is the relationships accompanying and surrounding her concerns that promote both the subjective sense of computability and objectively make concerns compatible, or the opposite. how do relational considerations help in answer the question Taylor has effectively posed: what does complementarity require, such that it can give rise to the ‘sense of unity’ of a life?


The difficulty for most students at the point of university entry (and usually aged eighteen) is that their concerns are fluid and often incomplete. In other words, they provide insufficient guidance for shaping a life. Whilst ever concerns can be displaced and replaced (without such shifts being prompted by dramatic contingencies), this indicates that discernment and deliberation are still ongoing and thus cannot provide the necessary traction for even being preoccupied about coherence amongst the components that the subject has started to flag up as important to her. This is where the majority of university entrants find themselves.

It is obvious that the eventual constituent concerns giving unity to a life must not be blatantly at odds with one another, such that it is volitionally impossible to serve both (wishing to remain a teetotaller and seeking to become a sommelier). Yet, something more than bald compatibility seems called for if the shape of a life is to prove durable and if it is to be more than one of several designs that ‘on paper’ might seem to yield the same ‘life goods’, to use Taylor’s term. The ‘constituent goods’ endorsed also need to be mutually reinforcing in a manner that requires further clarification. For instance, a concern to continue playing football during someone’s career as an engineer appears neither complementary nor contradictory, but the two do not reinforce one another in any self-evident way. This is where introducing relations and relationality can assist with both of the problems posed above; how to shape a life non-arbitrarily and how to cope with having two final ends. This is because both relations and relationality generate emergent properties whose effects exceed terms like ‘reinforcement’ or ‘deterrent’. They can make a life possible or impossible rather than simply being neutral towards it, as in the above example  (Archer 2012: 115)

The text then offers an extremely detailed example which, for the sake of getting something else done today, I won’t try and summarise. In brief: Archer’s point is that ‘final ends’ can be shared between people and that plural final ends can be incorporated into the ‘unity of a life’ which Taylor invokes. The broader message is that relations and relationality (relations between relations) are integral to understanding the biographical process of shaping a life because, without such a frame of reference, it becomes difficult to understand  at an empirical level the complementarity or contradiction between concerns which we can say at a theoretical level to be necessary for ‘shaping a life’. In successive posts (communicative reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, meta reflexivity, fractured reflexivity) I’ll try and show what this means in practice.

In the third part of this series of posts covering The Reflexive Imperative I will unpack in more detail what Archer means by the notion of ‘internal conversation’. As discussed in the previous post on The Reflexive Imperative and Social Change, an integral part of her account is a denial of the homogeneity of reflexivity. She argues that there is variation in its practice and that, furthermore, this variation is conditioned by historical circumstances. In the first study of the trilogy (Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation) she conceptualised a number of ‘modes’ of reflexivity to account for the variation in the practice of reflexivity she encountered within her sample, these then formed the basis for the subsequent and much larger study Making Our Way Through The World. Crucially, these are not presented as ideal types. Instead she identifies generative mechanisms in the past circumstances of practitioners of each which incline them towards that mode and, in turn, the mode itself operates causally through the trajectories of action it conditions. The concept is not deterministic, in the sense that a mode of reflexivity ‘makes’ an individual do something. Instead modes of reflexivity are seen to engender orientations towards novelty, stances towards constraints and enablements and styles of decision making. Early in the Reflexive Imperative she offers a brief schema of different modes:

Communicative Reflexivity: Internal Conversations need to be confirmed and completed by others before they lead to action.

Autonomous Reflexivity: Internal Conversations are self-contained, leading directly to action.

Meta-Reflexivity: Internal Conversations critically evaluate previous inner dialogues and are critical about effective action in society.

Fractured Reflexivity: Internal Conversations cannot lead to purposeful courses of action, but intensify personal distress and disorientation resulting in expressive action.

(Archer 2012: 13)

We all exhibit each of these to varying degrees on different occasions and in different situations but, she argues, the majority of people exhibit a dominant mode at any particular point in time. The mode of reflexivity helps us conceptually ‘open up’ many everyday mental activities: “‘mulling-over’ (a problem, situation or relationship), ‘planning’ (the day, the week or further ahead), ‘imagining’ (as in ‘what would happen if…?’), ‘deciding’ (debating what to do or what is for the best), ‘rehearsing’ (practising what to say or do), ‘reliving’ (some event, episode or relationship), ‘prioritising’ (working out what matters to you most), ‘imaginary conversations’ (with people you know, have known or known about), ‘budgeting’ (working out if you can afford to do something, in terms of money, time or effort) and ‘clarifying’ (sorting out what you think about some issue, person or problem)” (Archer 2012: 13). Through the concept of ‘modes’ we can begin to see more clearly how, say, ‘budgeting’ can  vary across persons: the communicative reflexive who goes home to talk to their partner before making an expensive purchase, the autonomous reflexive who confirms internally that they can afford it and do indeed want it before making the purchase on the spot, the meta-reflexive who wonders whether there might be better things to spend their money and decides against it or the fractured reflexive who struggles to make a decision either way before impulsively coming back later and buying it on a whim.

It’s important to recognise that Archer intends this to be an account of those mental activities which are orientated towards action. Her focus is on particular sorts of mental activities and it does not entail that these activities are predominant in first-person experience. It also doesn’t deny the reality of “the days and times when, though we wish to concentrate upon some particular issue or activity, our inner conversations are distracted and flit around like midges or are leadenly unproductive through fatigue” (Archer 2012: 14). She is careful to avoid any latent sociological imperialism here, such as would appropriate mental life to be nothing more than the staging ground of social action. She also recognises the potential value of psychology to our understanding of reflexivity: holding that modes of reflexivity are not psychologically reducible but nonetheless recognising the role of psychology in their constitution, particularly in terms of individual propensities towards a particular dominant mode.

One common misconception about the notion of ‘internal conversation’ is that it is rationalistic. This is certainly true of the notion of ‘reflexivity’ offered in the later Giddens, with individuals approaching ‘fateful moments’ in a calculative fashion. However Archer’s approach understands decision making in terms of ‘concerns’, drawing on Taylor’s notion of strong evaluation and Frankfurt’s account of care, in terms of which the potential outcomes we see as attached to choices matter to us. As she puts it,

Our ultimate concerns are sounding-boards, affecting our (internal) responses to anything we encounter, according to it resonating harmoniously or discordantly with what we care about most. It is these reactions that affect what we do, not because we have complete or accurate discursive penetration of the situation. Instead, discordant elements have the capacity to move ordinary people because they are emotionally registered as offensive. They are shunned, repudiated or negatively sanctioned since they are antipathetic … Conversely, elements harmonious with the ultimate concerns are felt as congenial. They are welcomed, encouraged or positively sanctioned because this is what subjects’ emotions, as transvalued by their commitments, motivate people to do. (Archer 2012: 22-23).

In the next post I’ll explore the biographical aspects of this in further depth, particularly the notion of ‘shaping a life’ which is integral to how Archer sees reflexivity as operating given the ‘situational logic of opportunity’. Then I’ll address in turn: reflexivity/habitus, Archer’s critique of Mead, socialisation as reflexive engagement and fractured reflexivity. I’ll also likely post a selection of miscellaneous extracts which didn’t fit into these broader themes but that I thought were worth recording nonetheless. These posts are taking rather a long time to do – I’ve now read up to page 90 since I started but have still only blogged to page 25. However it is starting to feel like a worthwhile exercise. I think I’ve sharpened my understanding of some of the concepts and I suspect I will find these posts a useful resource for various post-PhD writing projects I have planned. I’m considering trying the same approach in future for the Genesis of Values by Hans Joas which is the next (in this case figuratively) ‘big’ book on my list of things I want to read closely.

If we bracket the time dimension in order to focus on hierarchically organized social space, we have to take into account that agent X, in pursuing specific goals, is faced with external institutional and figurational structures which, from his/her perspective, present a mix of manipulable and non-manipulable features or properties. This structural mix is both real and eternal to agent X. But despite this reality and externality, structural features change from the perspective of a more powerful agent Y who is also  involved in the same space-time matrix. For actor Y, the structural mix of changeable and non-changeable features is transformed: what was non-changeable for X becomes changeable for Y. It is precisely this type of variability that Archer does not take seriously into account. In so far as she underemphasises, she ascribes to the properties of structures a fixity, an intransivity which they do not possess. This underemphasis leads to a partial hypostatisation and reification of structural features, since the relation between agent and structure in examined in a hierarchic vacuum. (Mouzelis 2008: 204-205)

It took me a while to get to grips with the critique Mouzelis is making here but increasingly I think it’s an  important one. In Archer’s earlier work structures impinged causally on agents through conditioning the situations which agents involuntarily confronted. On this view structures are activity dependent but rather than, as with the structurationist perspective, seeing present structures as the medium and outcome of present action, structures are emergent from past interaction. As Cruickshank (2000) observes the activity dependence is construed in past tense rather than present tense terms. This places temporality at the heart of the morphogenetic approach:

In structural conditoning, systemic properties are viewed as the emergent or aggregate consequence of past actions. Once they have been elaborated over time they are held to exert a causal influence upon subsequent interaction” (Archer 1995: 90) [emphasis added]

However this then poses a problem. If the causal powers of structures only operate through their constraining or enabling influences upon the doings of agents then the ‘situation’ begins to look like something of a cypher. As Mouzelis observes, any given situation will be characterised by a balance of manipulable and non-manipulable features which are, to a certain extent, relative to the individuals within it. Such a claim is perfectly consistent with Archer’s approach, in fact it is a logical corollary of it, though it has yet to be fully elaborated. Doing so would require a much more thorough concept of the situation: of a sort which has been sidelined given the subsequent turn to individual reflexivity which has characterised her later work.

What I think Mouzelis points to is the way in which the morphogenetic approach has tended to obscure spatiality and how the ‘situation’ is a rather complex thing given the multiplicity of how conditioning social structures play themselves out, impinging directly on the participating actors but also indirectly shaping the unfolding of interaction. I don’t mean the morphogenetic approach obscures this in the sense of denying it but rather in the more subtle way that, much as Giddens loses time as an actual variable while affirming it theoretically, Archer loses spatiality as an actual variable while recognising it in the abstract. Spatiality and embodiment are integral to the account she gives of practice and nature in Being Human (Archer 2000) but the turn to relationality in recent work, partly influenced by Donati’s relational sociology, still leaves the social construed in a curiously disembodied way. Relations take centre-stage within her sociology but there’s little theory of interaction per se at this level (as opposed to the level of [collective] agents where interaction is what the morphogenetic approach is about) and this is where I think there’s room for a thorough realist engagement with Goffman which, as far as I’m aware, only Dave Elder-Vass and Chris Shilling have made any attempt at.

Back when I planned to do a PhD in political philosophy, I was extremely interested in Michael Sandel’s critique of John Rawls. Particularly his attack on what he claimed was Rawl’s notion of an ‘unencumbered self’:

Now the unencumbered self describes first of all the way we stand toward the things we have, or want, or seek. It means there is always a distinction between the values I have and the person I am. To identify any characteristics as my aims, ambitions, or desires, and so on, is always to imply some subject ‘me’ standing behind them, and the shape of this ‘me’ must be given prior to any of the aims or attributes I bear.

I had a vague idea that my thesis could be a historical study of the rise and fall of this view of the self. It almost certainly wouldn’t have held my interest for 3 years but it’s been an ongoing thread at the back of my mind. It’s been on my mind recently because a few conversations have left me struck by the sense in which many sociologists seem to see Margaret Archer’s work on internal conversation as postulating precisely such a self. In her work on the subject, our inner speech is seen to be the mechanism through which we exercise our capacity for reflexivity: “the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their social contexts and vice versa”. Our decision making operates through such internal conversations, constituting a ‘back and forth’ between objective and subject (our situation & our concerns) rather than something which can be construed in ‘flat’ terms.

Epistemic contraints operate at both levels – the individual’s knowledge of their selves and their circumstances is profoundly fallible, both in terms of the capacity to be mistaken and also sheer limits to possible knowledge. Likewise the internal conversation always takes place under their own descriptions i.e. our framing of a situation in the terms we use to describe it  shapes what we know and how we can act, in a manner which is partly explicable by looking at the path-dependent cultural history of the individual concerned.

Now this all sounds abstract. But my interest in it comes from what I’d argue is it power to gain explanatory purchase on how actual individuals actually make the decisions which shape their lives (and I’m obviously not suggesting they voluntaristically ‘shape their lives’ – in fact the whole point is that a notion of ‘shaping a life’ which doesn’t take account of structural contraints and enablements would be meaningless!). The empirical question of degrees of fallibility are bracketed in order to make the higher level discussion possible. Because the answers to these questions are empirically quite complex. But their are, nonetheless, reliable answers. It seems profoundly hubristic to deny this, symptomatic of a disciplinary imperialism driven by insecurity rather than triumphalism. But I digress. As Thaler and Sunstein point out,

Hundreds of studies confirm that human forecasts are flawed and biased. Human decision making is not so great either. Again to take just one example, consider what is called the ‘status quo bias,’ a fancy name for inertia. For a host of reasons, which we shall explore, people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.

However it would be a mistake to move to the opposite extreme, inverting homo economicus by affirming a view of human decision making as irredeemably erroneous. Instead we need to recognise the empirical nature of the question at two levels: the underlying cognitive capacities that are deployed in decision making and the contextual variability in how these capacities are actualised within concrete action situations.

How well people choose is an empirical question, one whose answer is likely to vary across domains. It seems reasonable to say that people make good choices in contexts in which they have experience, good information, and prompt feedback – say, choosing among ice cream flavors. People know whether they like chocolate, vanilla, coffee, licorice, or something else. They do less well in contexts in which they are inexperienced and poorly informed, and in which feedback is slow or infrequent

The latter level strikes me as one which sociology is uniquely well suited to addressing. Not least of all because it can encompass structural questions within its purview, in a manner which I imagine social psychology would tend to struggle with: how structures shape the concrete action situations individuals confront and how ensuing actions contribute, both aggregatively and emergently, towards the transformation or reproduction of those structures. However doing this adequately necessitates getting over hangups about the findings of behavioural science and cognition + agency more broadly.

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.

After the initial section of my first round of PhD interviews (discussion of different deliberative mental activities) I asked participants what Porpora (2003) calls ‘the caterpillar’s question’: “who are you?” I had two intentions in asking the question. Firstly I hoped that it would frame the subsequent discussion (centring around their life in university) in at least somewhat existential terms. Secondly the answer to the question potentially offers insight into how an individual orientates themselves towards questions of identity. As Porpora (2000) puts it “most people approach identity entirely in terms of social space, the space of personal relations and social categories”. However rather than focusing on the underlying existential aspects of the question my intention was to unpack the elements Porpora identifies (social space, personal relations and social categories) in order to explore the tacit concepts of individuality, identity and sociality drawn upon by participants in answering the question.

The following elements were drawn upon by participants in answering the question:

  1. Biographical facts and personal attributes
  2. Relationships with others (normative and descriptive)
  3. Demographic categories
  4. Position within socially defined trajectories
  5. Concerns
  6. Theorising about the question

The three communicative reflexives in the group all answered the question in terms of biographical facts and personal attribute. The two fractured reflexives in the group were the only participants to draw on demographic categories and socially defined trajectories in answering the question. Three of the four participants who theorised about the question were meta reflexives. The only two participants who invoked their concerns when answering the question were meta reflexive.

It seems plausible that the practice of different modes of reflexivity leaves subjects tending to orientate themselves towards the question in different ways; both in terms of their active deliberations about issues of identity and “ideas that have been questioned or actively reflected on but which then become familiar and lapse into the taken for granted” (Abbey 2004: 3).

I asked the question again at the start of the third round of interviews (a year later) though I haven’t yet collated the responses and analysed them. This isn’t exactly a precise instrument (to say the least) but I do think it is getting at something interesting and important. The transcripts of the responses to the question are very interesting but, as is rather fresh in my mind given I transcribed it relatively recently, the audio itself is even richer: “who are you?” is a strange question, which we’re infrequently asked, but it is meaningful and provokes a very specific form of reflection.

I’m not really sure if this really actually end up in my thesis. It doesn’t really sit anywhere in my structure as it stands. But I wanted to preserve the line of thought – although I’m unwilling to post the data on my blog – because I’ve been fascinated by this ever since I read Porpora’s book. There’s definitely a starting point in my data for a theoretical sociology of identity paper somewhere down the line.