In the early pages of Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, he offers a cogent analysis of how initial public offerings lock tech companies into a growth imperative which ultimately proves destructive of the value they create. As he puts it on loc 169, “Having taken in this much new capital, however, Twitter now needs to produce. It must grow.” Problems emerge because what constitutes enough growth is something now defined by the investors who must justify the amount of money that’s been put into the company.

It’s easy to see this in systemic terms but what intrigues me is the biographical element. The problem arises because, as Rushkoff puts it, shareholders “expect to win back one hundred times their initial $20 billion bet” and to do this “Twitter must grow into a corporation bigger than the economy of many entire nations” (loc 184). Who are these investors and how do they come to be in a situation where they’re both able and inclined to make such an investment, with these sets of expectations? What about the founders themselves, how did they come to occupy these positions and what commonalities and differences can we find in their motivations?

My suggestion is that what Rushkoff calls “the growth imperative” can be usefully analysed in terms of the biographical entanglement between two distinct groups: aspiring founders and aspiring investors. The social dynamics can’t be reduced to individual biographies but these lived lives are, in an important way, the most basic social unit through which the dynamics become operative and are therefore key to understanding it. This of course entails that we understand the context within which these aspirations develop and each group sets out on this path, but the capacity of such groups to transform that context is something that is activated through the lives of individuals.

From Wasted Lives, by Zygmunt Bauman, pg 99:

No longer a part of human destiny that needs to be faced up to in all its majesty and duly respected, death has been demoted to the status of a deplorable catastrophe, like a pistol shot or a brick falling from a roof. With the horizon of mortality effectively removed from its vision and no longer orienting long-term projects or ordering daily pursuits, life has lost its inner cohesion. Life is lived from one day to the next ‘until by a curious coincidence there is no next day’.

This idea from Daniel Little really chimes with what I’m arguing in my chapter for the 5th CSO book. Life planning as blueprint is becoming ever less sustainable as the continuity of a subject’s context becomes ever less assured. This disrupts instrumental rationality because contextual assumptions about means become unreliable, while social and cultural change also throws up new opportunities which invite us to reconsider our ends:

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/deliberation-rationality-and-reasoning.html

What I’m interested in is how it remains possible to shape a life under these conditions. One response is to embrace shapelessness. The other is to temporise, dividing planning up into manageable chunks which facilitate instrumental rationality no longer sustainable over the life course as a whole. But the one that seems most sustainable is what Daniel Little details here as life planning as navigational guide.

I’ve been thinking a lot about themes from my PhD recently and how to introduce them into my current work. My overarching focus was on personal morphogenesis: how people change and how we understand this process sociologically. I’m particularly interested in cases where people seek to change, though having such a goal implies neither the possibility of success or clarity about the intended outcomes. In fact it’s the incohate examples, where someone seeks change driven by a nebulous sense of the possibility of something better or at least different, which fascinate me most of all.

The obvious way to map this issue of personal morphogenesis onto questions of social media is at inquire into how the different phases of the former are constrained or enabled by the latter. There’s a nice example of what this might look in Untangling The Web, by Aleks Krotoski, Pg 14-15. Though it focuses primarily upon the constraints:

I used to be able to completely reinvent myself once every five years. That’s on average how often I’ve moved cities. I started life on the road a week after I was born on a round-the-world trip that was part of my father’s work, and I’ve not been able to settle down since. This gave me a powerful sense of control over how others perceive me. I was able to explore something new about myself in every new place, and leave behind the history that I chose not to share with my new friends. I wasn’t escaping anything by not sharing, nor was I deceiving anyone; some things never come up. The Aleks I was in Louisiana was different from the Aleks I was in Washington DC, who was different from the Aleks I was in Glasgow, who was different from the Aleks I was in Brighton. And these were different from the Aleks I was when I was on holiday in Spain last year. But the web has eroded all of that. My online identity is a consistent, never-relenting backlog of “stuff” that I cannot get rid of, that –crucially –other people can see and that therefore I am accountable for even if I move to another city, country or planet. Because of my persistent online self, I, Aleks Krotoski, can no longer start over. This is a weird vulnerability that I’m not used to: when I’m looking for a job, an apartment to rent or a date, a quick Google search will uncover a trail of information about me and my past that I’ve put up and others have put up about me. It’s as if all my frequent flier miles have disappeared and I can never be anonymous or faceless again.

In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I’m a methodological individualist. The term carries intensely negative connotations within the areas of sociology in which I spend my time. I’m certainly not an individualist in an ontological sense: I think the social world is made up of many kinds of entities and that we can only understand their composition by recognising their plurality and the stratified relations that obtain between them. I also don’t think we can adequately understand individuals as individuals, in the sense that, to use R.D. Laing’s description, “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being”. However, as he goes on to say, “any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”: while “I” always exist in relation to a “We”, this does not entail that the identity of the former can be subsumed into the latter. Unless we recognise the independent variability of the “I”, it’s impossible to make sense of the pattern of the development of the “We”: the trajectory “I” take can only be understood in terms of the shifting constellation of constraints and enablements entailed by a “We” that is reconstituted through my actions but nonetheless retains a relative autonomy from me.

In this sense, my approach to studying individuals without being an individualist understands people as temporally extended and always in motion. In other words, I’m concerned with biography. In his account of “actor centred sociology”, Daniel Little talks about the “actor-in-formation”: this is the meta-theoretical function of my notion of personal morphogenesis. I’m suggesting we can best understand the role of the individual within social processes by analysing other social entities in relation to how people change and how people stay the same: personal change and personal stasis then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of other social entities (and in turn engender tendencies towards personal morphogenesis or personal morphostasis etc). This is an argument about biographical microfoundations. This is how Daniel Little describes the notion of microfoundations:

This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures require microfoundations.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/actor-centered-sociology.html

I think I differ with Little on what it means to say that we have “appropriately related” structure and agency. I also think there are problems with the notion of supervenience – as far as I can see, it locks us into an ‘aggregation dynamics’ view and precludes top-down causation. However I otherwise like this way of thinking. I’m suggesting that a biographical approach orientated to personal change is a useful way in which we can bridge the gap between micro-sociology and macro-sociology. In essence, I’m suggesting that we think in terms of biographical microfoundations and see the social world as constituted through the unfolding of biographies and their entanglement within situated milieux.

At present I’m leaning towards publishing my PhD as individuals papers rather than as a monograph. However these would be a contribution to a long term project, Becoming Who We Are, which will eventually be a monograph. My PhD has left me with an understanding of my project but I don’t feel intellectually capable of writing it yet. I would use the theory of personal morphogenesis developed in my thesis as a basis for (a) a theory of biographical microfoundations (b) a methodology for studying the lifecourse (c) a theory of the actor (d) a framework for actor centred sociology.

The last phrase is one I’ve encountered through Little and I find it a very helpful way of framing what it is I want to do. Though I don’t think she’d accept the terminology, I’d now understand Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity (including Being Human, as well as the trilogy of books on reflexivity) as developing a theory of the actor and a framework for studying actors. I think it’s very strong in many respects but that there are elements of it which need to developed further. These are the questions that Little suggests a theory of the actor needs to address:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/theories-of-actor.html

I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is very strong on (3) and (4). The account she offers is very promising on (2) and (5), underemphasising some of these aspects but providing a framework within which they can be treated substantively. I think much more work is needed for  (1), (6) and (7). In my PhD I developed a few ideas which could be used to address these points:

  1. Reflexive technologies are ideational constructs, sometimes encoded into a material device, which are used to extend our capacity for reflexivity. This concept orientates us towards (a) the relationality of reflexivity, in that a self-relation can itself stand in relation to a ‘reflexive technology’ (b) the ways in which particular ideational constructs have divergent effects for particular persons (c) how the assumed reflexivity of others enters into processes of design, marketing and learning i.e. when, how and why do people seek to construct reflexive technologies?
  2. Cultural resources are the raw materials of representational schemes. They are encoded into cultural items, often in incoherent and heterogenous ways, susceptible to purposive ‘extraction’ and non-purposive influence. They often, though not always, stand in complentary and contradictory relations to each other, which are subject to various dynamics of ‘activation’.
  3. Reflexive technologies and cultural resources operate by shaping internal conversation. They shape how we represent our situation, how we represent the range of possibilities within that situation, how we envisage the possible futures available to us and how we talk ourselves through the process of answering the question ‘what to do?’

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?

ON THE (SOCIAL) NATURE OF INDIVIDUALS

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.

I got briefly obsessed last year by the observation that at a rate of one book a week between the ages of 5 and 80, it will only be possible to read 3,900 books in a lifetime. This is a little over one tenth of one percent of all the books currently in print – obviously an overall figure that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. Around the same time, I came across this odd little insight into the understanding AC Grayling has of the finitude of his own life:

As a shake-up, the philosopher AC Grayling is fond of reminding people that the average span of human life is less than 1,000 months. “If a third of them you are asleep and a third you’re in Tesco’s,” he says, “the other third, about 25 years, is left to you to live well.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9035892/A-C-Grayling-the-master-of-positive-thinking.html

Much as I despise the man, it’s an orientation towards life which resonates with me. The reason that quantifying the number of books it will likely be possible to read in a lifetime struck such a chord with me (apart from the fact that I don’t naturally tend to think quantitatively and it just hadn’t occurred to me to place a number on it) was because I’d long noticed that my ‘to read’ list was becoming ever more problematic. At first it was a list. Then it was a stack. Now it’s a heap. This is a photo I took around last Christmas:

heap

Six months on and the heap is twice the size. Or perhaps it’s two heaps – I’m foregoing the impulse to make a geeky philosophers joke about the sorites paradox… my point is that it keeps growing and that this invites explanation. It may just be that I have a ‘book problem’. In some ways I clearly do, both in terms of my continuing to acquire them at a rate faster than I can read them and the problem of determining the ‘right’ thing to be reading when there’s so much from which to choose e.g. I recently found myself obsessively reading a 600 page biography unrelated to any research work at a point where I was in the final stages of writing a paper and should have been focusing my reading upon that task. Prioritisation is hard and so too is committing to reading a particular book when there’s always a further pile waiting for me that I’ve already selected  from a much broader pool of cultural variety.

However I think this example from my own life reflects a broader process. As soon as I try and write about my ‘book problem’ seriously I inevitably start using words like ‘prioritisation’, ‘commitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ – invoking social theoretical concepts that have been integral to my PhD research. Part of the problem is that my capacity to identify potential reading material and my inclination to select it both tend to increase with my reading and associated practices. I become more attuned to following references. As I read more, I read more literary publications (like the LRB and the culture bit of the New Statesman which I tended to skip in my early 20s) and identify more books to read, in turn inclining me to attend further to these sources of information about new books to read. The frame of reference I bring to books expands and so too does the range of what I extract from the books I read, broadening the range of things I might read in future and what I might take from them.

This is all taking place against the background of a necessarily finite lifespan. Time is literally running out. However our awareness of this finitude is always conceptually and culturally mediated. This might be a statement of the obvious but I think it’s very interesting to consider the implications of this for the variable ways in which we understand that finitude at different points in our life. One interesting way of looking at this is to consider ways in which it can be represented. This illustration from Wait But Why represents this in a way I find very powerful:

Weeks (1)

 

My point is that there is an existential challenge objectively encountered in the finitude of the human lifespan but that philosophical approaches to understanding this can often be insufficiently sensitive to the social and cultural factors shaping the ways in which people within a given social setting actually attempt to elude or build upon these inherent constraints. I think the mundane challenges of ‘time running out’ offer a very interesting way in which we can connect the everyday dimension to temporal finitude to the biographical dimension inherent in the limitation of the lifespan. I’ve talked about my ‘books problem’ simply because it’s familiar to me rather than it necessarily being a particularly typical or interesting example of what I’m suggesting is a broader trend.

However the lifespan itself is not fixed. Beyond the social and cultural factors shaping how it is understood, we have the similarly social and cultural factors shaping its temporal extension. Social institutions, relations, practices and ideas all contribute to conditioning the extent of the lifespan in complex and interconnected ways. So too does technology, though I’d suggest never in a way that can be abstracted from the relational framework within which technological interventions are enacted (the closest I can think of in relation to this is a nuclear destruction launched by one person accidentally pressing a button).

The social theorist Harmut Rosa distinguishes between the time structures of everyday lifelife time and that of the epoch in which they life. He argues that all persons continually struggle towards a degree of synchrony between these three dimensions to temporal experience. I think this is a really helpful perspective through which to address these issues. It’s from this perspective that I find the analysis of things like my ‘book problem’ so interesting – in identifying the mechanisms which lead to the intensification of the problem rather than its abatement, we get a fine-grained perspective on the temporal dynamics of the broader social system.

It also helps us understand what goes on in people’s lives when the struggle for synchrony backfires. A sudden awareness of mortality at the biographical level inculcates hedonism (live faster, live more) that proves destabilising at the level of everyday life. Or a concern to do work that matters leads to a day-to-day routines deprived of pleasures and so proves unsustainable. The strategies people adopt in the face of this central question (“my life is short, how do I make the most of it?”) necessarily play out in the three dimensions that Rosa delineates even if the person themselves does not recognise them. In fact many of the interesting unintended consequences emerge from the frequent disjuncture between the objectivity of these temporal dimensions and their subjective (mis)recognition. Things like productivity culture and self-help books can also be analysed in relation to a struggle for synchrony, as can their many failings. So too can religious practices which regiment time and social institutions which provide temporal structures that negate the existential pangs provoked by the absence of synchrony. Our attempts to get out of the mess of life are more temporally complex than we tend to realise.

It was just under a decade ago that the Iraq war began. I only realised this recently when reading the first volume of the Chris Mullin diaries, covering the bulk of the New Labour era and the first few years of the Iraq war. It’s fascinating to see a portrayal of these events from the perspective of someone on the periphery of government, pulled in different directions by competing impulses of scepticism, expediency and loyalty. I was surprised at how immediately I can place myself in terms of the events he describes. He recounts his experience at parliament as “relays of school children, protesting against the war, blocked the traffic in Parliament Square, hurling themselves against the police lines”. Immediately I remember seeing Anti-Flag at the London Astoria (RIP) on the night in question:

He describes the February 15th demo, laconically remarking “let no one say that politics is dead or that New labour has failed to mobilise the young and the idealistic” while nonetheless being drawn towards a ‘pragmatism’ that will look worse with each passing year. Meanwhile I remember shuffling through the streets of London, debilitatingly hung over and vacillating between a sense of amazement at the size of the crowd and a wish that they would just be a little more quiet… at least until I felt better. He describes the morning after the bombing began and I instantly recall a long drawn out conversation online with a friend from the other side of the country, despairing that so little difference had seemingly been made by all the activity enacted against it.

Like many on the left in their late 20s, I was radicalised by the Iraq war. I’d been on the fringes of anarchist politics previous to this but only really skirting around the edges, with the Iraq war engendering a commitment to a range of causes. But again, I think, like many others, it also inculcated a degree of detachment. It left me with the desire to sustain an intellectual distance because of how exhausting and excoriating activism can be without it. It’s a very impressionistic claim but there’s a political sensibility, for lack of a better term, which I sometimes see in others which I recognise in myself. At least in the case of myself, I attribute its formation to the experience of the Iraq war campaign and see it as something that’s been entrenched over time. With the exception of campaigning against the arms trade (I’m not sure why) I’ve always tended to find myself back, skirting around the edges, in a way which I’m sure is fundamentally defensive but, as I get older, becomes easier to attribute to the other demands on my time.

Being angry all the time is draining but sometimes, confronted with something jarring, I’m reminded that the anger is still there, in spite of my intellectual detachment from my own responses to it. As I was reminded when watching this new documentary on the Iraq War which shows how right we were and yet illustrates how utterly without consequence that rampant mendacity was for those perpetrating it, with many now being taken seriously as they preach the need for military intervention in Iran, Syria and even Russia.


With Leibniz, inevitably, as with almost all ageing philosophers, a certain amount of intellectual sclerosis set in, too. In his later years, the elements of the metaphysical system he first outlined in the Discourse became so self-evident to him that he often saw no need to argue for them. they became a fixed part of his reality, and his deepest philosophical pleasure came less from formulating his propositions than from seeing their truth reflected back to him in the statements and activities of others.

The Courtier and the Heretic, Pg 260

To what extent should we read philosophy in terms of the biographies of philosophers? I’ve been thinking about this question recently for a few reasons. One is that I’m about to hand in a PhD about studying biographies which has raised more questions for me than it has answered. Another is that I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche recently and am quite taken with his interest in the “hidden history of philosophers” (Ecce Homo: 3). I also read The Courtier and the Heretic, an excellent psychobiography of Leibniz, which in many ways embodied a Nietzschean understanding of how to study a philosopher’s life and work. What interests me is how you read someone’s work in terms of their life without reducing the former to the latter. I like the argument made in the quote at the start of this post because it ties intellectual tendencies to specific life course factors without reducing one to the other.

This was a phrase suggested to me by my friend Holly Falconer in the early stages of my PhD. It resonated with me strongly and, since then, the working title of my PhD has been Becoming Who We Are: Theorising Personal Morphogenesis. What I’m trying to convey with this is a process (how people become who they are) and what’s needed to study this process (a theory of how persons change). These sound like obviously theoretical questions and they’re ones which I first began to be able to articulate when I was a philosophy MA student reading a great deal of Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre. It was this interest which led me towards the literature on individualization and detraditionalization when I was beginning to explore sociology. I was gripped by Modernity and Self-Identity, as flawed though I now think the book is. Bauman in particular fascinated me. Again, it’s now the case that I find much of his work problematic (not least of all the fact he’s been writing the same book again and again for years) but I criticise him respectfully from the position of someone who has read a majority of his books from the 90s and 00s. Another book which really expanded my horizons as I made this transition from philosophy to sociology was Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. This is yet another author I now find myself critical of, though if you redefine what he does as ‘sociological journalism‘ then I’d call it the outstanding example of the genre.

My point is that these books began to change how I saw the underlying theoretical question that obsessed me: how we become we we are as a ‘self within moral space’ cannot be understood if we abstract too far from the social context. Addressing the theoretical questions I was drawn to necessitated understanding what Mills called “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”. These theories of social change that so gripped me as a disenchanted philosophy student did so precisely because of their attentiveness to (wo)man, biography and self within a changing world. What is it like to be a person now? It doesn’t take much sociological musing to see what’s wrong with this question. It’s an empirical question being asked at a level of generality which precludes an empirical answer. So sweeping accounts of social change, such as those offered by Giddens and Bauman, both invite and need empirical investigation. Conversely empirical researchers investigating specific topics (such as family, youth, sexuality etc) often find a great deal of value in what Carol Smart describes as the “the broad canvas” found in general theories of social change. The problem is the interface between them: how do theories of social change get used in empirical research and how does empirical research help elaborate theories of social change? This is the third and final top of my thesis.

  1. What is a person? How do persons change?
  2. How is social life changing in 21st century?
  3. How can general theories of social change condition empirical research and vice versa?

These are big questions. They’re ones which I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of in my PhD. But I’ve had a serious go at addressing them. My conviction has been that the answer to (2) and (3) rests on (1). Or in other words, an understanding of real persons undergoing real changes is a crucial aspect of theories of social change – given it is a theory it will unavoidably abstract from said persons but it needs to be explicable in terms of them. Furthermore, its utility as something which can be drawn upon in empirical research depends on its underlying assumptions about what persons are and how they change. Theories of social change can provide a focal point for empirical refutation (e.g. there are pervasive constraints and inequalities in gay and lesbian lives which are obscured by the Giddensian account of personal life in late modernity), a fulcrum to help gain purchase upon data and begin to interpret it (e.g. the psychic distress caused by an intensification of social pressure to take responsibility for oneself), a conceptual toolkit to help clarify the framework for investigation (e.g. exploring ‘fateful moments’ encountered in the biographies of participants) and all manner of sensitising devices which can drawn upon in the shift from description to explanation.

In my thesis I’ve addressed Giddens and his writing on detraditionalization as one particular example of a theory of social change which has proved widely popular in all manner of sub disciplinary areas. Given the general fragmentation of sociology, I think it’s important to take this body of work seriously, if only because it a common frame of reference for many people working in otherwise disparate areas of social research. The first few chapters of my thesis concern what I think the problem is with it. Namely, its overly psychoanalytical concept of the person. I argue that the absence of a theory of how particular persons respond to particular changes, as the Giddensian subject vacillates between instrumental rationality and existential angst, causes problems when the broader theory is drawn upon by social researchers. Obviously people do some sterling work while using this theoretical perspective but they do so, I argue, in spite of rather than because of it. I argue that the work on detraditionalization will only tend to thematise data, contextualising micro findings in terms of putative macro trends – it amalgamates the micro and the macro rather than drawing them together.

My point is not merely to attack Giddens. I’m arguing that if we’re drawing on these general theories of social change to make sense of research data then it’s important that we be clear about the former is and is not doing in relation to the latter. General theory doesn’t determine what people do with it during the analysis. But it does incline us in some directions and disincline us from others. It foregrounds some things while others retreat into the background. For qualitative researchers, this is often a matter of persons and their lives – not to be treated individualistically but nonetheless to each be acknowledged as specific persons with specific attributes and specific histories. My problem with Giddens in general, as well as ‘fateful moments’ in particular, is that his work lacks ‘hooks’ through which we can connect the general to the specific, the universal to the particular, the macro to the micro. The tendency if we use this stuff is that we vacillate between making very general claims and making very specific ones, rather than trying to systematically trace out the connections between the participants in our research and broader social and cultural processes. If we accept the Millsian mission (and many don’t) to understand “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world” then, it can’t be stressed enough, what that ‘interplay’ is and how it works becomes utterly crucial. This question in turn points towards our theory of the person (or subject , or actor, or individual – it’s the acceptance of the meta-category which matters most for my argument). The issue of how we theorise this ‘individual unit’ is one caught up in disciplinary politics about the division between psychology and sociology, as well as the issue of individualism. However recognising individuals does not entail being individualistic. We can accept the meta-category of the ‘individual unit’ while still thinking at population level. The only insistence I’m making here is that individual persons have properties and powers which cannot be dispensed with or brushed aside because they ‘belong’ to psychologists. But it certainly can have this individualistic ramification and that’s why it’s so important that we get the underlying questions right. However, if we avoid these questions then the answers we tacitly give to them will have consequences nonetheless. If we are interested in the ‘interplay’ then we must seriously address what our theory of the person entails for that interplay. This I argue is why Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is so valuable. It’s a theory of the person conceptualised in terms of this interplay, emerging relationally as we make our way through the world. I’ve written lots about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t repeat myself here.

So all that ^^ is the intellectual context in which this apparently abstract question (how do we become who we are?) that obsesses me so becomes important. The second half of my thesis attempts to pin down much more explicitly what ‘personal morphogenesis’ is. I’ve argued that accounts of social change implicitly and explicitly make claims about ensuing changes in persons which contribute, in many ways, towards the reproduction or transformation of the context itself. So what are these changes at the most basic level? Abstractly: they are biographical sequences through which a particular person is elaborated in some way. Concretely: it depends who we’re talking about. My concern is to get away from a focus on transitions qua transitions (so as to categorise personal changes in terms of convergent/divergent responses to the same biographical event) and instead elucidate the changes in terms of the lived life of the individual while nonetheless explaining how and why these changes occurred. My thesis uses an empirical case study, recurrent qualitative interviewing of 18 students identified and selected through a survey instrument, in order to develop this analytical approach. It uses Margaret Archer’s understanding of morphogenetic analysis to delineate cycles of change in the my research participants. The second half of my thesis presents the empirical case study, exploring their biographies typologically (what sort of changes do students undergo in the process of becoming students) while nonetheless drawing out the divergent trajectories within the group of participants. It then looks at four in depth case studies, delineating morphogenetic cycles of personal change from the longitudinal interviews – in most cases there was 1 full cycle and 1 incomplete one, perhaps unsurprisingly given I finished the research at the end of their second year at university. The research question for each is: how did they become the person they are at the end of the fieldwork? So these case studies are intended to be illustrative of the approach, as well as being (partly) the basis through which I developed it.

The final section draws upon the first two and offers a full statement of the concept of ‘personal morphogenesis’. It’s an analytical construct, informed by a particular account of the person, which is nonetheless intended to be methodological. In short, it offers a framework within which the variable influences of different factors (personal, relational, cultural, structural) can be analysed without abstracting away from the person concerned and their lived life. In the final chapter I address some of the broader objections which many might raise to the approach, aim to situate it an broader context and particularly to suggest some of the uses to which it might be put. It’s an intensely ideographic approach which is also intensely theoretical; a combination which makes it the most intellectually unfashionable thing I could imagine. But I’ve spent years making it and intend to use it. It worked well for my asexuality research, in the sense that constituted a second case study through which I was trying to refine this approach to analysis.

Unfortunately I’m no closer to answering the underlying philosophical question which drove the whole thing. But at least I’m much clearer about what the question is. Plus now I’ve sat down and written this post, satisfactorily describing “what my PhD is about” for the first time whereas previous attempts have made me wince, it’s probably time for me to go and actually finish it. It is now a thing. It is written. It is final. So now it’s time to finish polishing it up before I hand it over to the world and get on with the rest of my life.

Throughout my thesis I use the term ‘exploration’ as a short hand to designate a rather precise process. I’m trying to conceptualise a particular sort of biographical process, which in spite of its empirical variability shares an underlying structure in which the relation between concerns and context lead a person to look beyond that context in order to find a sustainable and satisfying way of manifesting those concerns. In such a movement, an inability to find a mode of life in which they feel compelled to invest themselves leads them to look beyond the boundaries of their context in pursuit of something ‘more’. Crucially, the constitution of this ‘more’ may be utterly opaque to them. Individuals can search for ‘more’ without being able to articulate what this ‘more’ is. My contention is that this is a purposive activity which is nonetheless inarticulate. People search for new things to know, new things to do and new things to be without being clear about what exactly it is they’re looking for.

It’s in this sense that I’ve been thinking about the spatial distribution of variety. How is variety, which I’m understanding generically as opportunities (i.e. possibilities to do/know/be X which are foreclosed elsewhere), distributed in a geographical sense? Through asking this question we can begin to map a micro-sociological analysis of individual biographies (of the sort alluded to above) onto macro-sociological analysis of the mobility patterns of particular cohorts within broader populations. There was an interesting article in the Guardian recently which left these issues newly at the forefront of my mind:

Monday’s Centre for Cities report starkly illustrated the extent of the brain drain taking place in this country as waves of gifted young people shun what is somewhat patronisingly referred to as “the regions” in order to build a career in the capital. According to the centre, a third of all people aged between 22 and 30 who leave their home towns move to the south, most of them never to return.

I’m one of the exceptions. After six months of signing on while avoiding eye contact, I now have a job that is stimulating, rewarding, offers some hope of progression and, most amazingly of all, is in Birmingham – not London.

I work as a university researcher and so come into contact with bright young people regularly. The students, artists, curators and designers I meet are dynamic, imaginative and energetic. They dream, think differently and make “scenes” (in a good way).

It is inspiring, but it also makes the report’s findings all the more worrying. What does the future hold for cities such as Birmingham if the best and the brightest continue to be sucked into the capital? As the authors of the report point out, compared to other European countries such as Germany, Britain’s financial, cultural and political hubs are already disproportionately concentrated in London. A rich city is going to get richer while the rest are left to stagnate.

Some people will stay and do what they can. But it is not enough to rely on youthful vigour. Faced with a choice between the dole and a zero-hour “McJob” outside London or the possibility of a career in the capital, graduates are doing the only thing they can do: migrating south.

Things clearly need to change. My own university does good work in providing paid internships, artists-in-residence posts and other initiatives to help give young people a real stake in the city. But the problems are vast – they are structural and, as such, require intervention from local and national government. So here are a few ideas.

Local authorities and other landlords outside London should be compelled to make any shop that has stood empty for more than two months available via an application process to students free of charge. This would help break down the distinction between “gown” and “town” and provide a platform for innovation for young people with ideas.

Bodies such as the Arts Council should offer a special fund, open only to first-time applicants under 30 who have an idea for an activity taking place outside London. A young people’s commissioner with real powers should be established in every city and, importantly, it should be a recent graduate who fills the role. And we should relocate some of the key British institutions away from London to other parts of the country.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/28/young-people-lure-of-london-cities

I agree wholeheartedly with this analysis. In a sense, it’s a much more straight forward way of saying what I’ve articulated in the sometimes cumbersome language of relational realism. Macro-social trends which engender a concentration of variety in certain geographical regions and within certain social milieux (there are far more things to do, to know and to be in Manchester than there are in Rochdale) are mediated at the level of lived experience by action which aims, in various ways, to circumvent the contraction of variety in other areas as individuals try to shape a life for themselves, with the resources which individuals are able to deploy in making such moves themselves being unevenly distributed. So far from being a retreat from macro-social analysis, working at the level of individual biography offers a really interesting sort of traction on macro-social processes – these are inflected through individual biographies with all manner of aggregative consequences (the sheer weight of numbers doing X, Y, Z) and emergent consequences (acting collectively in response to convergent circumstances).

This is how I understand the linkage between biography and history, between private troubles and public issues, or in other words what I think the sociological imagination looks like from the vantage point of the particular sort of critical realism I espouse.

In this paper I explore the role of sexual categories in the lived experience of contemporary young people through a case study of the asexual community. While still representing a relatively small area of research within contemporary sexuality studies, asexuality (commonly defined as people who do not experience sexual attraction) has become the focus of increasing attention in recent years, with a range of researchers and theorists suggesting that study of the asexual community has much to offer the wider study of sexuality across a range of disciplines (Bogaert 2012, Przybylo 2013). In this paper I draw on my prior empirical research project on asexuality, as well as the wider emerging literature within asexuality studies (Carrigan, Gupta and Morrison 2013). It elaborates upon an analysis offered previously (Carrigan 2011, 2012) through a development of Archer’s (2000, 2003, 2007, 2010) recent work on the internal conversation: our capacity to deliberate about our actions given our subjective concerns and our objective circumstances. This is reframed in terms of Layder’s (1997) work on psychobiography, to offer an account of how individual deliberation and sexual categorization intersect to shape observable biographical trajectories.

Introducing Asexuality

The data presented in this paper is the result of a mixed methods research project into asexuality and the asexual community. This  constituted 8 semi-structured interviews, 174 online surveys and a online ethnography conducted through asexual websites, forums and blogs. All participants self-identified as asexual. The initial aim of the project was to collect empirical data on what was, at the time, still a largely unresearched community, as well as to understand the commonalities and differences within that community (Carrigan 2011). In subsequent writing I have explored the lived experience of asexuals (particularly in relation to friends, families and relationships) with the intention of understanding the exercise of agency necessary to negotiate a heavily sexualized social world for those who do not experience sexual attraction (Carrigan 2012). In both articles, as well as subsequent conference papers, I sought to develop a notion of the sexual assumption: a cognitive category, manifesting in the reflective judgements and dispositional reactions of individuals, which assumed the universality and the uniformity of sexual attraction i.e. that everyone experiences sexual attraction and that it’s largely the same thing in each case. I postulated that this lay behind the striking convergence, identifiable in the empirical data, in the responses of non-asexuals to an initial confrontation with asexuality. The attempts of others to explain away asexuality when initially confronted with it was a near universal experience of respondents. While the form this took varied (“you haven’t met the right person yet”, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer?”, “have you been to the doctor to check your hormones?”) the shared conceptual implication of these responses was that the individual in question believed that what the asexual individual was telling them about their asexuality could not literarily be true. This was an unexpected outcome of the research but it was one which increasingly fascinated me, particularly as the visibility activism and media work I began to engage in as an ally of the asexual community radically expanded the number of conversations I was having about asexuality in my daily life. My own experience of talking to others about asexuality, in this case as someone who was not themselves asexual though usually unclear about whether the other person assumed I was, strengthened my conviction in what had initially been a tentative hypothesis: there is a pervasive tendency to explain away asexuality and this tendency is susceptible to sociological explanation. The sexual assumption is an initial stage in this explanatory project, with an exploration of the cultural historical questions which so naturally flow from the hypothesis being a major planned focus of my future research.

In the original project I recruited interviewees through online and offline contacts and I promoted the online survey through the same websites which were the basis for the online ethnography. The interviews lasted from between half an hour to three and a half hours and were loosely guided by a list of ‘talking points’ I compiled through ideas resulting from my thematic analysis. The surveys involved a series of 27 questions permitting open-ended responses and was compiled through reflection upon the ideas gathered through the online ethnography. The online ethnography itself involved an in-depth reading of asexual websites, forums and blogs which was intended to familiarize myself with the terminology and self-understandings prevalent within the asexual community. More expansive methodological reflections can be found in Carrigan (2011, 2012).

While many people are familiar with asexuality as a biological term, its widespread use as a self-definition is far more recent. The asexuality community has coalesced in the past decade through a number of online websites, as previously isolated individuals have used the Internet to contact each other for the first time. Foremost amongst these sites is the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). The front page of the AVEN (2009) website defines an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’ and due to the popularity of the site this definition has been highly influential. However it is not exhaustive. Behind this ‘umbrella term’ lies a wide variety of people who relate in a whole host of different ways to sex and romance (Carrigan 2011). Some asexuals are indifferent to sex and, in the context of a relationship, are happy to have it because they know it is important to their partners. Others find sex abhorrent and are utterly averse to the prospect. As one survey respondent put it, “I find the idea of sex utterly disgusting. I honestly think I would vomit if I ever had sex.” However a significant number within this category went through periods of subjecting themselves to an experience they hated because at that point they did not feel it was ok to say they did not want to. Some asexuals are ardent romantics and want nothing more than to find someone special to share their life with. Others prefer to find companionship through friends and family, with no interest  in finding a partner. As one such aromantic asexual explained to me in their survey,

‘I have no interest or will to conduct any form of romantic activities, all-out sex being just one of them. It also means that I’m free to use my time and energy on something a lot more meaningful than the constant overwhelming desire for such activities or feelings.’

What unites all these sub groups is a converging trajectory of identity development constituted through a series of stages. The notion of ‘stages’ can be a contentious one and it is used here in an attempt to conceptualise convergent experiences within a far from homogenous group composed of a membership which is both self-selecting (individuals have chosen to identify as such) and socially-selecting (individuals require sufficient acquaintance with the group and its ideas to be able to self-identify as members). Though a full exposition of the methodological question at stake here is beyond the scope of this paper, the notion of ‘stages’ is seen to have value because of the temporal dimension it accords to theorising about group membership. It offers a way to move beyond protracted debates about essentalism and instead reframe our theorising about groups in terms of converging and diverging biographical pathways into and out of groups, as well as how the stages involved shape the group (through working biographically to bring about patterning in the orientation of group members to each other and the group itself) and are in turn shaped by it (through the conditioning influences of a diverse range of social and cultural factors, the exact constellation of which is an empirical question). Ultimately these are behavioural concepts for which subjective adequacy is a necessary (though insufficient) condition to secure their methodological legitimacy (Layder 1998).

The following is the story told by a questionnaire respondent of how they came to identify as asexual. This individual’s biographical trajectory illustrates a number of stages which most participants in the research underwent, although biographical specifics and self-understandings varied throughout. It is offered here because of its narratological value (specifically its concision) and the clarity with which the processes of internal conversation involved are recounted.

“The year I was sixteen (and for some time after) I spent a lot of time in the company of a few people who were very sexual and it was through their near-constant talk of sex that I was finally convinced that sexual attraction was real. I had heard that something would happen to make you want to have sex with another person, but I had never experienced it myself. In fact, I did not really believe that a person could have physical feelings ‘down there’ that they identified as sexual feelings, despite having learned what erections etc. were in my health class. I thought everyone was like me, until my classmates and friends begin to talk about sex. Then I realized that I was not like them, and for a while I thought I must be immature . . . except that in every other way they seemed so much less mature than I. I thought there might be something wrong with me, except that I am otherwise in perfect health. Then, one night while I was surfing the internet, I came across an embarrassingly girly website which included, as one of its pages, a ‘definitions’ page. I suppose the point was that was that sheltered girls with internet access could look up all the words they were afraid to ask their parents about and get solid, medical definitions. The first word on the list was ‘asexual’ and it caught my interest, because I had never heard it before. I clicked on the link which read the same thing AVEN does, ‘Asexual: a person who does not experience sexual attraction’ and it was like coming home. I knew immediately that this was me and that I wasn’t alone.”

At a certain point in time this person begin to develop a sense of individual difference in relation to a given peer group. Usually this occurs at adolescence when they encounter a culture amongst their peers which places a great stress on sexual experience as a marker of self-exploration and growing up. While those around them loudly proclaim their burgeoning sexuality, they increasingly come to see themselves as somehow different. The ambiguous nature of this difference, given that it is a private recognition rather than a public proclamation, prompts self-questioning in an attempt to make sense of precisely how they differ from their peers. This prompts an assumption of pathology, as the difference is assumed to be a sign that they are, in some way, ‘broken’. However living life in this way is not, all other things being equal, emotionally tenable and they search for non-pathological explanations of their perceived difference. For the participants in my research this desire for self-clarification ultimately found satisfaction online through the asexual community.

The obvious methodological limitation of the trajectory that I am proposing is that all my participants identified as asexual when I spoke to them. Furthermore I made contact with the vast majority of them online so it is not possible to say, at least on the basis of the present research, whether the trajectory described above is unique to this group. However the centrality of the Internet to the formation of the asexual community and the spread of the asexual identity suggests that asexual individuals found online are unlikely to be dramatically atypical of self-identified asexuals as a whole. The trajectory should not be understood as a necessary condition of asexual identification but rather as a heuristic which should be revised and reformulated in dialogue with further empirical evidence. Its utility rests on its capacity to foreground the distinct commonalities within the experience of a diverse group of individuals. However although the stages of the trajectory were common to all participants, the speed and experience of moving through them varied. It is precisely this capacity to foreground difference, with the explanatory challenge it presents, against a background of commonality which constitutes a virtue of the approach offered in this paper.

For instance there was a clear divergence between the experience of older and younger asexuals. The Internet is the major factor in explaining this experiential divergence because prior to the Internet it was much more difficult for asexuals to discover the existence of others like themselves. The other major divergence was between those asexuals for whom the asexual community is simply the source of a concept of asexuality (i.e. the existence of a distinct group of people who do not experience sexual attraction and for whom this absence is unproblematic) and those for whom involvement in the asexual community satisfied an ongoing personal need. For the former group the community is where they encounter a way of understanding their individual difference which, as one respondent put it, “made it okay to just live my life without the need to seek out another person for sex” but serves no other purpose in their lives. For this group the community did not serve any ongoing needs and while the confirmation of a communal identity provided important clarification in their lives, there was nothing else that drew them towards active participation.

An example of this can be seen in the case of James, a 35 year interviewee, who told me how he thought that AVEN was an “‘interesting idea and interesting forum but surely getting together to discuss something you’re not interested in does seem a little counter-intuitive?’. For those who did not experience any situational need, the asexuality community largely represented an interesting though unnecessary diversion. In contrast, for the latter group their online encounter led to an enthusiastic embrace of the community as a whole, resulting in an active ‘online’ life, as well an increasingly active ‘offline’ life (albeit mainly in Britain and North America). For this group the asexual community served ongoing situational needs such as helping them meet asexual partners, making friends who understood their circumstances and generally helping them cope with the difficulties of living as asexual in a sexualised world.

Coming to Identify as Asexual 

“My friends seem to understand it fairly well, although a few seem to think that I’ll change my mind about sex if I ever find the ‘right person'”

“At the moment people have joked about setting me up with someone and that ‘I need a boyfriend'”

“some have basically said ‘I don’t believe you, but as long as you’re happy’”

These extracts from online surveys are typical of the reaction that asexual individuals experience from friends, family and peers. Is this lack of understanding a consequence of phobia and prejudice? While there is certainly evidence that asexuals do experience phobia, with a number of research participants reporting instances of bullying and harassment, it seems this experience is relatively rare. In contrast, the experience of marginalisation and invisibility is very common for asexual individuals. Earlier it was argued that the sexual assumption is responsible for this pervasive lack of understanding of asexuality (easy to test for oneself in everyday conversation) which can prompt otherwise well-meaning and well-intentioned people to act in ways which can cause a great deal of harm. This prompts an obvious question: if people literally do not understand asexuality on a conceptual level, what explains this? Furthermore is this failure to understand it something which is historically and culturally novel? It is difficult not to speculate as to whether this literal failure of comprehension would have been quite as pervasive were the relevant circumstances present in past times. Would asexual individuals have even felt the need to articulate an asexual identity in earlier times? While I have argued elsewhere (Carrigan 2011) that the internet played a crucial role in the formation of the asexual community, in so far as that it allowed geographically and emotionally isolated people to connect for the first time, this was clearly a necessary condition but it is less obvious that it was a sufficient condition. The necessity that we give an empirically and conceptually adequate account of what else was needed to stimulate the formation of an asexual community leaves us with a number of options:

  1. Deny the existence of asexuals e.g. construe the identity as a rationalization of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (Bogaert 2012, Hinderliter 2013).
  2. Accept the existence of asexuals but claim they sprang into being at the onset of early 21st century.
  3. Accept the existence of asexuals but investigate the conditions which led people with asexual experiences to affirm an asexual identity.

Unsurprisingly it is the third option which I wish to pursue in this paper and, in doing so, I will proceed from the ‘umbrella definition’ of asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction. Once an individual becomes aware of themselves in this way, what consequences does it hold for them? To what extent are such consequences the result of wider social and cultural forces rather than the particularities of an individual’s life and local circumstances? The table below shows the biographical trajectory, understood as a moral career in something close to Goffman’s sense of the term, originally developed from empirical data in Carrigan (2011). As discussed earlier, it is intended as an attempt to conceptualise identifiable convergences over time in the lived experience of self-identifying members within groups. It allows the interrogation of the situation individuals confront at each stage, with some degree of generalisability between the particular persons represented in data, such as to constitute a bridgehead between making sense of empirical data and broader theoretical endeavours. However, as such, the trajectory itself must be open to review and revision at any point, on empirical and/or conceptual grounds.

Experienced Difference Assumed Pathology Self-Questioning Self-Clarification
Internal Conversation “I’m different from the group I’m comparing myself to” “This difference must mean something is wrong with me” “If there isn’t something wrong with me then what explains this difference?” “Some people are this way and there’s nothing wrong with me”
Situational Preconditions Recognition that a relevant reference group seemingly experiences sexual attraction while the individual themselves does not. Acquaintance with the assumption (either through interactions with others and/or expert knowledge system) that all ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ people experience sexual attraction. Any number of personal, social or cultural factors that can lead an individual to dispense with the assumption of pathology. Any number of personal, social or cultural factors that can lead an individual to come to a sustainable sense of their identity.

While many individuals only come to see themselves as asexual through encountering other asexuals (usually online) or discussion of asexuality in the media, this is far from universally true. An example of how the approach offered in this paper can sustain a sensitivity to difference, as well as offering a temporally orientated explanatory purchase upon it, can be seen in the case of David, an asexual man in his 30s, who described to me how he theorised the existence of asexuality prior to contact with the asexual community. In common with other older asexuals, David had gone through a prolonged period of searching, exploring the gay scene but finally coming to the conclusion that he was not able to be sexual. This prompted him to begin thinking theoretically about his sexual experience in terms of what he already knew to be true about human sexuality:

“Well I thought it just sort of made sense when you think about it. You’ve got the variation in human sexuality: gay people, bisexual people and the broad spectrum of things outside of that, you know fetishes and all that kind of thing. Well I thought “well if you’ve got all that variation in human sexuality then there’s bound to be some people like me who don’t experience sexual attraction to other people”. It also makes sense if you think about the sexuality, or how you define sexualities, it’s broadly on which gender a person finds to be sexually attractive. So if you think about it then asexuality fits into that really well because it’s kind of the opposite of bisexual.”

However this initial conceptualisation did not render contact with the asexual community redundant for him. Even after he had drawn this conclusion his lack of interest in sex was, as he put it, “always a slight drag on my psyche, that there’s no else like me so I’m not sort of ‘normal’ as such”. It was only later when he encountered an article in a newspaper about asexuality that this ‘drag’ was relieved:

“It’s like a theory confirmed. It was “yes! I was right”. That was it. It was confirmation I got it right. It’s almost as thought I’d worked it out for myself and I thought “I was right”. I actually cycled home that day and was like “yes! yes! I was right”. It was just a fantastic feeling but it didn’t affect my lifestyle as such, over and above that that drag on my psyche was gone.”

Making Sense of a Situation and the Discursive Gap 

The approach offered in this paper allows for the detailed excavation of particular situations individuals face while retaining a broader and temporal frame of reference in terms of how such situations connect into a biographical trajectory over time. At any given point in time an individual confronts a situation not of their own choosing, though partially shaped by past choices they have made. Often the situation poses no challenge, such that one can proceed in much the same way as in the past, without any spur to deliberation. However sometimes the situation can demand such reflexivity, as it renders habitual responses problematic and invites internal conversation (Archer 2003, 2007). For instance when:

  1. An individual realises that their peer group is loudly and vocally proclaiming their experience of sexual attraction while they themselves do not experience it.
  2. This recognition of difference demands some explanation of it (“why am I this way?”) using the cultural resources which are situationally available to them.
  3. The explanations of difference possible using the cultural resources available to them lead to a conclusion of pathology.
  1. An individual encounters others who have faced similar questions and made sense of them in a way which, at first sight, seems subjectively plausible.

This approach to the analysis of biography should not be misunderstood as reductive. Isolating the internal dynamics of specific situations, as well as the causal connections between them over time, does justice to the ideographic complexity of individual biographies while also facilitating causal explanation of the processes shaping the unfolding of the biographical itself. It recognises the empirical messiness of biography while also explaining it, rather than refraining from sociological explanation by construing the biography as self-narrative (reducing to agency) or construing the biography as an inevitable response to social circumstances (reducing to structure) (Archer 1995). Instead this psychobiographical approach focuses “on the intersection or join between two fundamental features of the human social world” (Layder 1997: 51). In doing so, it takes account of the “way in which individual psychology and personality factors interact with the changing personal and social circumstances of the life-career as they unfold over time and affect self identity” (Layder 1997: 48).

The ‘stages’ identified in such a biographical trajectory are analytical constructs, drawn up in order to unpack and explain empirically observable of psychobiographies. The first three stages can be clearly delineated in this (partial) account from the online questionnaires:

“I came to identify as asexual this way: I have never understood the desire to engage in the acts that define sex, from kissing on down the list. My body doesn’t function that way – it doesn’t excite me. Other things excite me: a good protest, a fine steak, reaching the top of a mountain after a long climb. Sex doesn’t excite me. It’s not fun for me, it’s not interesting. This issue haunted me for years until finally, when I was engaged to be married, I knew that I couldn’t walk down the aisle until I solved what we called the sex issue. So I went into therapy. I explored every corner and crevice of my childhood. After psychological reasons were ruled out, I took hormone tests to see if my body was functioning properly. When the tests came back as “normal”, I still lobbied to be prescribed low-levels of testosterone. I got the prescription and took testosterone to jump start my sex drive. The testosterone didn’t work, so I switched to progesterone after a few months. I lamented the feeling that I was somehow “broken”, that I was somehow “less of a person”. I continued to look for psychological reasons in therapy. I continued to engage in sexual activities even though I’d rather take the LSATs or swim the Pacific than be naked with another human. After over a year of hormone therapy, after exclusive sex therapy with my partner, after the kind of lament and struggle that so many of the kids I mentor experience when they’re struggling with their sexuality, my relationship ended. I continued in therapy, and I continued to wonder why I was broken.”

The respondent was led to actively search for explanations of her experienced difference. Underlying the journey she undertook was a discursive gap between her emotional experience and the resources that were socially and culturally available to articulate that experience both to herself and to others. The lack of congruence between what she was experiencing and the terms available within and through which to think/speak about those experiences led her to seek out new terms. This is a subtle cognitive process and one which, given the theoretical excesses which characterize social theory after the linguistic turn, often finds itself occluded. It is one which involves ‘conceptual revolutions’ in our quotidian and situated attempts to make sense of our selves and our circumstances, with the cultural affordances situationally available to us constituting a barrier of self-articulation against which we struggle over time rather than some absolute on how we construe our life and our place within the world (Taylor 1985: 68-72).

The process of making our way through the world necessitates internal conversation, particularly given the intensification of individual choice which characterizes late modernity (Giddens 1991), as daily life poses a plethora of questions – ranging from the practical to the existential – which demand internal deliberation about what to do and who to be (Archer 2003, 2007). Similarly in so far as we are social beings, we converse with others and, where they are close to us, we spend much time giving an account of ourselves and engaging with the account others give of us. In all cases we rely on cultural resources (ideas, concepts, terms, metaphors, analogies etc) in these activities and these exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to our attempts to articulate or elaborate an underlying experiential reality. It is important to note that, given “our internal conversation is constituted as much by symbols, images, emotions and remembered sensations as it is by components of limitation” this account does not entail a deterministic relation between language and thought (Archer 2007: 72). But nonetheless our capacity for making sense of our experience is shaped by the characteristics of the cultural resources available to us.

The experiences of the respondent above illustrates the biographical significance of the discursive gap. While the account in question was reported retrospectively, thus coming to possess narrative characteristics, it can be analyzed in terms of distinct stages (synchronic) in order to understand the dynamics which lead to biographical change (diachronic). In this case the respondent spent many years searching for a satisfying and sustainable explanation for her personal experience. The ongoing assumption that this was a pathology led her to seek medical and therapeutic explanations of this state of affairs. However having searched for such explanations on a number of occasions, the subsequent incongruence of these medical-therapeutic categories with her lived experience compelled her to continue this search. The categories socio-culturally available to her at a given point in time (synchronic) were inadequate for making sense of her lived experience, thus prompting her to negotiate a path through the world in search for new categories which would be congruent with her lived experience (diachronic).

The movement is agential: it is deliberate, chosen and conscious. Yet if it is construed in an excessively rationalistic or cognitive way, the underlying dynamic is lost. Her movement over time is not driven by intellectualized reflection upon her situation (although she undoubtedly is intellectually reflecting upon it) rather it is driven by the gap between what she is moved to try and say and what she is able to say given the accumulated constellation of cultural and cognitive affordances which characterise her situation at different stages. It is a struggle to articulate who she is and what she experiences. The direction her life takes is driven by a lack of the cultural resources she contingently needs to express an important experience of who she is, both in internal conversation and to external others. Without an appreciation of the disjuncture between articulation and categories (what we are trying to ‘say’ and the terms available to us within and through which to ‘say’ it), as well as between the synchronic and diachronic (the situations we are in at particular times and the responses they provoke in us and our lives over time) our accounts of human agency, as well as how it plays itself out over the lifecourse, are going to be lop-sided: either over-cognitive or under-cognitive, missing a crucial and universal aspect of human experience which too often escapes attention by theorists and researchers alike because of its ambiguous status vis-a-vis language i.e. the discursive gap is neither a linguistic nor a non-linguistic phenomenon.

The Sexual Assumption and Sexual Categories

While the postulated centrality of the synchronic/diachronic and articulation/categories distinctions to biographical unfolding has implications for theorising membership of self-selecting groups more broadly, it is of particular significance for understanding sexuality and gender. Jeffrey Weeks (1995) famously termed sexual identities ‘necessary fictions’, which are taken up for a variety of reasons: ‘because they make sense of individual experience, because they give access to communities of meaning and support, because they are politically chosen’ (Weeks 2003: 128). I wish to argue that the processes Weeks adroitly identifies extend beyond identities, broadly construed, encompassing networks of mutually implicated categories which both create and are created by communities of meaning. Gaining access to communities of meaning is so important because such communities are constituted by other individuals who, through their biographical transitions, have negotiated similar struggles which can be understood in synchronic/diachronic and articulation/categories terms. They have faced similar cultural obstacles in attempting to make sense of their difference in terms of cultural resources which are coded with prevailing assumptions about gender and sexuality. Through doing so they have creatively, though fallibly, engaged in bridging the discursive gap and it is this activity which has driven the  direction in which their biographies have unfolded.

I want to suggest that this particular kind of experiential convergence is, in an ontological sense, constitutive of a community of meaning and that, furthermore, this is the necessary condition for the development of the communities of support discussed by Weeks. The biographical commonality, construed in terms of the discursive gap rather than (necessarily) substantive similarity between persons, inevitably has a dialogical component within such communities of meanings. While some can be part of an ‘imagined community’ and enjoy self-clarification through the terms this provides to make sense of oneself, much of this activity takes place through actual others (even if this content is mediated through, say, web forums and social media).

This paper was intended as an initial outline of an integrated approach to studying ‘communities of meaning’ which is grounded in a critical realist approach to biographical research (Archer 2003, 2007). It understands such communities as constituted through converging biographies which coalesce into a specific form of group which can be seen most clearly in the realm of sexualities but is by no means restricted to such instances. The primary concern of this account has been with the socio-cultural availability of categories at any given point in time, as well as the extent of their congruence/incongruence with lived experience over time. Through reconstructing such synchronic junctures on the basis of empirical data (particularly those moments when individuals realised that the cultural resources available to them were inadequate for making sense of themselves and went in search of new ones) it is possible to explain biographical trajectories in a way which both does justice to their ideographic complexity while also move beyond simple description of narrative. Such an approach also leads beyond biography, in so far as that it inevitably poses questions about the relational networks and cultural environment within which individuals exist at any given point in time.

References

Archer, M. S. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Archer, M. S. (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2007) Making Our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bogaert, A. F. (2012). Understanding asexuality. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Carrigan M (2012) How Do You Know You Don’t Like It If You Haven’t Tried It? Asexual Agency and the Sexual Assumption’(pp 3-19). In T.G. Morrison, M.A. Morrison, M. Carrigan and D. T. McDermott (Eds.) Sexual Minority Research in the New Millennium. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science

Carrigan, Mark (2011)  “There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community.” Sexualities 14.4 (2011): 462-478.

Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta, and Todd G. Morrison. “Asexuality special theme issue editorial.” Psychology & Sexuality ahead-of-print (2013): 1-10.

Hinderliter, A. (2013). How is asexuality different from hypoactive sexual desire disorder?. Psychology & Sexuality, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Gazzola, S. B. and Morrison, M. A. 2012. “Asexuality: An emergent sexual orientation”. In Sexual minority research in the new millennium, Edited by: Morrison, T. G., Morrison, M. A., Carrigan, M. A. and McDermott, D. T. 21–44. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Layder, D. (1997). Modern social theory: Key debates and new directions. Routledge.

Przybylo, Ela. “Some thoughts on asexuality as an interdisciplinary method.”Psychology & Sexuality ahead-of-print (2013): 1-2.

Taylor, C. (1985) Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

There’s a fascinating post on Stumbling and Mumbling looking at the political implications of beliefs being path-dependent:

However, according to Matthew Parris in the Times, many Tories have such out-dated attitudes to unions. He says they believe they benefit from Labour’s “indefensible” links with unions:

They know the toxic potency in millions of minds of the image of the raised fist of organized labour. With relief they sink into the comforting upholstery of a ready-made rhetoric about trade union barons, winters of discontent, beer and sandwiches and No 10, union militants…

For millions of voters, though, the winter of discontent is as distant from their lives as the Suez crisis is to mine. There’ll be voters at the next election whose parents weren’t born in the winter of discontent. And many first-time voters in the 1979 election are now retired.

Another (not exclusive) possibility is that beliefs can be path-dependent; we believe things because we used to, and continue to do so even after such beliefs have lost truth-value or utility. What’s more, I suspect this path-dependency can sometimes be transmitted from generation to generation. So, for example ethinic minorities are very unlikely to vote Tory, in part because of memory of the party’s racist past; Greeks dodge taxes because of the legacy of Ottoman rule; and Germans are hostile to inflationary policies because of memories of Weimar hyper-inflation. Perhaps Tory antipathy to unions falls into this class of beliefs – a form of folk memory that is no longer useful. We are all prisoners of history.

http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2013/09/on-path-dependent-beliefs.html

This is integral to why I think biography as a unit of analysis is important to the analysis of social events. The properties and powers of each actor at a given point in time have a specific history i.e. what led each to be that person at that point in time. So questions about the causal contribution of each individual actor inevitably point back towards that actor’s history. An acknowledgement of the specificity of the individual must encompass temporality because of precisely the path-dependency discussed in the quote above. The analysis of social events can often proceed in a satisfactory way without being attentive to the specificity of the individual (though not as frequently as is often assumed) but where this is not the case then a biographical perspective becomes invaluable.

This is the last of a series of posts in which I’ve looked at Archer’s account of the emotions in Being Human. She sees the internal conversation as rooted in the  ongoing and situated affectivity through which we unavoidably find ourselves connected to our environment. These first-order affective responses are clustered around nature, practice and social interaction. However we also have second-order emotions which emerge through our coming to terms with the implications of these first-order responses. The key concept here is transvaluation through which our first-order emotions actually change, as do we as persons, because the concerns in relation which our unreflective emotional reactions emerge have themselves changed. It’s important to understand how Archer sees this process as unfolding biographically:

To begin with, durable and effective transvaluation is an achievement: not one which can be accomplished straight away and not one which can necessarily be sustained. Not everyone attains to second-order emotionality: some remain confined, at least for long periods, to the first-order. For children and young people, the establishment of a stable second-order is a virtual impossibility because they know insufficient about themselves, the world and the relations between them. Certainly they have an internal conversation, but it is exploratory in nature, confined as it were to the moment of discernment. First-order commentaries vie for precedence amongst one another and often achieve it. Thus minors often go through a succession of short-lived enthusiasms; in parental vocabularies, ‘it’s only a phase’. Since what we are is what we love, nothing guarantees that we love in due order of worth. (Archer 2000: 246)

So in an important sense we can see this process as both situated and experimental. Our affectivity acts in relation to the novelty we encounter as we move, over time, through different social contexts to dispose us towards certain ideas of things we could do or be.  We can conceive of ideas beyond the boundaries of our immediate context (in fact this is integral to Archer’s later notion of meta-reflexivity) but this is the exception rather than the rule. This possibility rests on the objectivity of knowledge, such that someone can always encounter ideas through their codifications in material culture which change how they see their context and the possibility within it and to transcend it. However as I understand her account, the more quotidian source of innovation is simple temporality: people move through the world over time and it’s in this process of exploring possibilities and coming to understand our circumstances that we elaborate ourselves as persons and, in doing so, develop what she terms second-order emotionality.

Young people often conclude just that: that there are limits to the full investment of self in ponies or pop, but it can only be concluded by trying it. These are like dry-runs at a second-order which are inherently unstable because new encounters drive proto-deliberations back to re-discernment. Schooling allows for a progressive exploration of our practical skills, a pinpointing of internal satisfactions (which are often institutionally pre-judged and over-directed because of formal achievements), but the school years are the same ones in which we are also exploring the social relations which give us self-worth, and the two processes rarely run in synch. The first serious love affair can have such first-order precedence, just as can the first essay into a social movement, that any nascent modus viendi is overturned. (Archer 2000: 246)

However the biographical pattern here is not a linear one of ever-increasing self-understanding. In Being Human she talks about ‘drift’ – this is a concept she doesn’t use in the later work on reflexivity, though it clearly manifests itself in the account of fracturing. This is a shame because I think this notion has relevance beyond the fractured reflexives:

Some can remain at the mercy of their first-order pushes and pulls, drifting from job to job, place to place and relationship to relationship. Drift means an absence of personal identity and the accumulation of circumstances which make it harder to form one. Its obverse is not some kind of generalised conformity: its real opposite is the personal adoption of a distinctive lifestyle. The downwards spiral of homelessness and addiction, is downward precisely because it condemns people to being pre-occupied with the satisfaction of first-order commentaries – the next night and the next fix. There is no inevitability here either, because reversal is possible, but it seems it entail subduing the primary of first-order concerns (literally a detoxification), before the internal conversation can truly begin to emerge since it cannot be conducted in the present tense alone. (Archer 2000: 247)

However biographical events can also prove destabilising, as occurrences beyond our control undermine the continuity upon which our modus vivendi had previously rested and we are forced to reconsider what matters to us and what we can and should do about it:

The most obvious and universal are those associated with the life-cycle, where for many people milestones consist in children going to school, leaving home, retirement, bereavement and ageing, which may preclude certain activities and, finally, entail entering care. Common contingencies include involuntary redundancy, chronic illness, bereavement, changes of political regime, economic recession, enforced migration, scientific transformations and so forth. In all of these cases a commitment may be unsustainable because its object has somehow changed or gone. These are nodal points which prompt a re-opening of the internal conversation. Sometimes there is resistance, rejection and disorientation associated with a new phase of discernment, as the person hankers after the status quo ante, often experiencing not just grief but anger and recrimination towards the cause of its disruption. Thus the bereaved are counselled not to make major decisions immediately. Those made redundant often go through a period of intensive job applications which, if unsuccessful, can lead to a radical disorientation in which there is no reason to get up in the morning, to dress or not to run day into night. Things can become so dark that we cannot see there is a drawing board to which to return. (Archer 2000: 247)

However this destabilisation can be brought about in different ways. These are instances where it is the properties and powers of the social which undermine our modus vivendi. But the properties and powers of the personal can also be involved here: “we may simply have got it wrong in our assessment of concerns and costs” (Archer 2000: 248).

At any given moment I exist in relation to a we. But I also bring to those relations a ‘me’ made up of things which have happened to me and things which I have made happen. Many aspects of the past ‘me’ deposited in any present moment belong to the domain of psychology. Beyond this I also bring with me dispositions, concerns and projects which shape how I approach the ‘we’: the things I tend to do habitually, the things that matter to me and those activities which I deliberately strive to engage in because they actualise my concerns. It is through this interaction with a ‘we’ that my personhood is either reproduced (personal morphostasis) or elaborated (personal morphogenesis).  Charles Taylor’s notion of ‘webs of interlocution’ nicely conveys what I’m getting at there:

One cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding – and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call ‘webs of interlocution’. It is this original situation which gives its sense to our concept of ‘identity’, offering an answer to the question of who i am through a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom. The full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community. (Taylor 1989: 36).

We are born into a ‘we’ and our identity as ‘I’ emerges in relation to it. Throughout are lives, we are continually entangled in relations with others – some chosen, others not – which contribute to shaping the people we become. But this process of becoming who we are emerges in interaction, as what we bring to the interaction (me), conditions how we act (I) in relation to our reference group (we) and, through this interaction, our present characteristics are often elaborated as we become our future self (you). The notion of ‘you’ I’m invoking here relates to our sense of our possible selves: 

Possible selves are future representations of the self including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experience singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by functioning as incentive for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less-desirable selves. As representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form, specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears. In other words, elaborated possible selves influence the development of specific strategies for action, focus an individual’s activities, give direction in the pursuit of these goals and energise the person to achieve them. Not unsurprisingly research has shown that those with highly developed career-possible selves are more motivated, goal orientated and energetic than those with less or unelaborated ones. These individuals are a lot more likely, when confronted with a threat to the possibility of achieving a desired career-possible selve, to their persist with their goals and strategies or develop new career-possible selves. (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 3)

So the ‘me’ conditions how ‘I’ act in relation to ‘we’ and this in turn shapes the ‘you’ that I become. However the ‘we’ is not some preconstituted collectivity. Firstly, we often have more than one ‘we’ in our lives – something I can conceptualise but have no idea how to represent visually. More importantly though, our ‘we’ is constituted of other I’s and I am part of their ‘we’ . So in the process of our interaction through which I change, those in relation to whom I act are also themselves changing through that interaction. Here Px stands for any number of people and the T1-T4 represent the same moments of ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ for each and every one of these individuals:

So understanding biography cannot be divorced from understanding relations. On this view, relations represent a form of biographical entanglement in which, using Nick Crossley’s phrase, two actors “have a history of past and an expectation of future interaction and that this shapes their current interaction” (Crossley 2011: 28). But this interaction is always situated – the dotted enclosure below represents the social milieux in which this interaction tends to occur and this will, in turn, constrain and enable the interaction which takes place within it:

The patterning of the interaction over time between ‘I’ and ‘we’ generates emergent properties which shape future interaction:

Where the receipt of ‘relational goods’ is concerned, this has the generative tendency to create bonds and interdependencies at the empirical level amongst the persons involved that denote more than ’good interpersonal relations’. They indicate something in excess of a degree of warmth and some regularity of contact. That ‘something’ refers to emergent properties, namely ‘internal goods’ (such as love, reliance, caring and trust) that cannot be produced by aggregation are also deemed highly worthwhile in themselves (Archer 2012: 99)

So even if I acquire my reference group contingently and externally (as the vast majority of my research participants did when the university accommodation office placed them in a halls of residence) this biographical convergence leads to entanglement if and only if the various parties value these relations and seek to sustain them over time.

One of the arguments I’ve tried to make with my PhD is that any approach which seeks to use the individual life course as a unit of analysis needs to be extremely careful about how biographical events are conceptualised. This issue can seem strikingly unproblematic when considered in the context of our lives – stuff happens to us,  we make decisions and the choices we make often come to define us. This sense of plausibility which is rooted in first person experience can perhaps be invoked to explain why concepts like ‘turning points’ and ‘fateful moments’ circulate as readily as they do within research fields. It seems obvious that there are turning points in our lives, events which led us in one direction or the other, or nodal points where events conspired to force us to take consequential decisions.

However the problem with the self-interpretation of our biographies is our tendency to rely on a perceptual criterion i.e. we are natural empiricists about our own lives. We experience events under our own descriptions, mediated through our own dispositions and as people to whom their potential implications matter. We tend to interpret events in our own lives in a ‘flat’ way, focusing on what has happened rather than why and how it has occurred (in the precise way that it did). Conversely, we tend to over-estimate our own autonomy in responding to events, focusing on what we did rather  than why and how we responded the way we did and what enabled or constrained us in doing this. This is all because we tend to rely on our perceptions of events rather than discursive reflection upon the underlying causes of those events.

That we do so in everyday life is unproblematic. But it does mean that approaches to social research which want to understanding the unfolding of individual biographies need to be very careful about how events are understood to operate and how qualitative data is conditioned by the subject being embedded within the event itself. From a realist perspective, the level of events (the actual) must be distinguished from the experience of those events (the empirical) or the real mechanisms underlying them (the real). In our everyday lives we will tend towards empiricism about events, construing them in terms of our own experience of them. This is far from universally true though, as we often ‘step back’ and theorise about why and how something happened in the way that it did e.g. “why did she act like that? was there something she wasn’t telling me?” or “this has turned out so much better than I thought, how did it happen? why was I so convinced it was going to go badly?”.

But any adequate treatment of events within social research needs to encompass the real, the actual and the empirical. The properties and powers of individuals cannot be dropped out or replaced with generalisations about action tendencies because they too are part of the event:

There is more to the world, then, than patterns of events. It has ontological depth: events arise from the workings of mechanisms which derive from the structures of objects, and they take place within geo-historical contexts. This contrasts with approaches which treat the world as if it were no more than patterns of events, to be registered by recording punctiform data regarding ‘variables’ and looking for regularities among them.

We noted earlier that the same mechanism can produce different outcomes according to context, or more precisely, according to spatio-temporal relations with other objects, having their own causal powers and liabilities, which may trigger, block or modify its action. Given the variety and changeability of the contexts of social life, this absence of regular associations between ’causes’ and ‘effects’ should be expected. The causes and conditions of any particular social change tend to spread out geographically and back in time from the point at which it happened.  (Sayer 2000: 15-16)

The notion of an event which impinges upon an individual cannot be comprehensively understood in a way which abstracts from the particularity of the individual concerned. To be clear: I’m not for a moment suggesting this as a critique of non-biographical social research – that would be an absurd claim because the vast majority of ‘biographical events’ are of no concern for the vast majority of social researchers. My suggestion is rather that if the substantive area of inquiry invokes the individual as a unit of analysis then it’s essential to theorise biographical events in a way which understands the causal contribution of an individual’s properties and powers to that event. So in other words: all research that deals with individuals must in some sense, even tacitly, deal with individual biography. If the history of a specific individual drops out then so too will the role their own causal powers and liabilities play in triggering, blocking or modifying the action of other causal mechanisms at work within the event. My claim is that human beings must be understood as spatio-temporally situated objects contributing to the event. Not all of the causal contribution arising from their specificity (normally subsumed under generalisations about human causal powers) need be considered but we need to be aware of its independent role to determine what aspects of this contribution should be pursued:

A good explanation will seek to focus selectively on the most relevant causal factors and there are at least two important criteria of relevance: first, the aspect of the event that we are seeking to explain, and secondly, which powers make the most significant contribution to this aspect of the event. In practice, we do not seek to explain all aspects of an event, even as simple an event as selling something in a shop. Instead, there are specific things we want to know – why did the salesperson not try to sell a more expensive television to the customer, for example, or why did she speak to him in a particular accent and what effect did this have on the outcome? Whichever aspect we focus on there will be causal factors we can decide to ignore because they have little explanatory significance for it, though we cannot necessarily prejudge which factors these will be.

Of course, this leaves open a whole range of further methodological considerations. In particular, how can we tell which were the most significant causal factors for any given outcome? This is not a question to which we can give a general answer on ontological grounds; the answer will always depend on the nature of the processes at work and how they interact with each other.

Explaining individual events, then, is challenging in the social sciences, and always involves some subjective decisions about how far to follow the causal chains and which ones to prioritise. But this does not mean that we can never do it: there may be occasions when one or a few causal factors predominate so strongly that we can reasonably treat them as the primary cause(s). Perhaps the salesperson decided not try and sell a more expensive television because she knew the customer and knew he could not really afford one. Perhaps she decided not to do it because of a recent conversation in which someone she respected criticised the practice. In such cases we may not be able to give quite definite answers to the causal question; but it is always a contingent empirical question whether this will be the case. (Elder-Vass 2010: 178)

I’ve been preoccupied recently by parallels I keep observing between common features of asexual biographies and those of other groups who share a common trait. In the case of asexuality this ‘common trait’ is not experiencing sexual attraction. Exactly what this entails about the individual’s experience and what, in turn, this experience has come to mean to them biographically is a more complex issue. But underlying the diversity which exists within the asexual community there does seem to be a common set of experiences. This ‘lack of sexual attraction’, whatever causes it if indeed such a question is meaningful, is rendered problematic through the normative pressures which are enacted with concrete others (peers, friends, family etc) whether directly or indirectly. This brings about an experience of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and self-questioning as to why this might be the case i.e. “what’s wrong with me? why aren’t I interested in sex like everyone else?”. The biographical specifics can be very variable from this point onwards and, given this is the starting point of a blog post rather than its main topic, I’m going to sidestep them somewhat. Suffice to say, if someone does come to identify as asexual (at least post 2001/2002) then they probably did so either through stumbling across it in the media or as a result of encountering asexual blogs, forums, videos etc online (with the former in fact often leading to the latter).

What has always fascinated me is the experience that comes next, as something that had been self-interpreted as pathology comes to be reinterpreted as a non-pathological characteristic which is shared with geographically remote others. Exactly what this means is again biographically specific. For some people it’s just a useful label to make sense of oneself and convey that understanding to others. For others it can lead to the emergence of a deep sense of collective identity. But what I think unites the range of responses people have to this discovery is the transformation of a difference into a commonality. Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

What emerges as a difference at (1) becomes a commonality at (4). As well as the application of this biographical model to other forms of experience, I’m interested in how processes of this sort can be understood at the macro-social level. If I’m right that the underlying mechanisms at are at work in other spheres (i.e. the expanded pool of interlocutors offered by the internet allows what would otherwise be a proliferation of differences to instead becomes the emergence of new commonalities) then this is a really interesting route into debates about the internet, social change and social integration. It raises obvious empirical questions about the nature of these ‘new commonalities’ and the similarities and differences which in turn obtain between them. Do they provide a basis for the establishment of ‘new continuities’ as Archer would put it? Or simply represent a fragmentation that exists at the level of groups, self-defined in a particularist and experiential way, rather than of individuals? Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘groups’ in this sense? Subcultural social worlds is a concept I’ve been playing with recently to make sense of this, seeing them as emergent but heterogeneous spaces of meaning and practice which are constituted through biographical interweaving and amenable to the further emergence of networks acting in relation to values and ideas within this ‘social world’.

*I keep writing this in inverted commas because I think it’s a conceptualisation of a difference and that its objective basis varies a lot. The category of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ emerges from the relation between particular constellations of norms about sexuality and an individual who, for whatever reason, does not meet the expectations implied by them. The ‘for whatever reason’ is the objective underpinning of that experience for any particular individual and it needs to be analytically distinguished from the biographical process of coming to understand oneself which it indirectly brings about. It’s a necessary but insufficient condition for the emergence of an asexual identity because the characteristics it is generative of need to be rendered problematic at the social level for them to be in any way significant. This is why I think studying the aetiology of asexuality is conceptually confused – ‘asexuality’ is a deeply socio-cultural phenomenon and it’s too broad a category upon which to base an investigation of what underpins it causally.