In the last couple of months, I’ve found myself reflecting on irritation. What is it? It’s one of our most recognisable reactions to the world, yet it’s hard to be precise about what it is. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Is it a reaction to the world? This is the definition which Wikipedia offers:

Annoyance is an unpleasant mental state that is characterized by such effects as irritation and distraction from one’s conscious thinking. It can lead to emotions such as frustration and anger. The property of being easily annoyed is called irritability.

There’s a whole model of the person implicit within this which I’m sceptical of. The idea that mental states manifests themselves in effects with implications for cognition, generated by propensities and generating emotions. It’s an individualised account, even if a multifaceted one, concerning something that’s deeply relational.

The most straight forward definition of irritation would be ‘something which irritates’. In one sense it’s circular, telling us nothing about what irritation is, but it captures the relationality of the reaction. We are irritated by something. We find something irritating. It involves an evaluative relation to the world, but one which, as it were, goes wrong. Far from the smoothly hermeneutic world of the post-Aristotelian philosophers, we have the Goffmanian reality of living together (in a world which frustrates our purposes).

So if irritation is being irritated by something, what is it to be irritated? To be “angered, provoked, or annoyed” or “inflamed or made raw, as a part of the body”. The second definition concerns the resolutely physical but I think it captures something important. We are irritated when we are inflamed by the world, made raw by its recalcitrance. People or circumstances irritates us when they impede our routine movement through the world. Things are not as we expect. We’re forced to calibrate ourselves in relation to the world, pushed back into ourselves confronted with a world that resists us, rather than easily making or way through it. 

We get irritated by others when they do not act as we expect them to. We get irritated by others when they do not act as we think they ought to. In this sense, I would argue that irritation tracks declining social integration: the less agreement there is about how we ought to comport ourselves, the more likely we are to experience irritation in daily life.

What interests me is how we respond to this. If we simply make internal allowances for the fact that others may have different expectations and aspirations to ourselves, it’s easy for the irritation to dissipate. A trivial example: I find it irritating when people talk loudly in the steam room at my gym. But I also recognise that some people go there to socialise, whereas for me it’s a resolutely individual activity. Reminding myself of that fact usually leads the irritation to subside.

On the other hand, if I seek external confirmation for my reaction, it’s unlikely to subside. This is where social media comes in: the imagined interlocutor (what Danny Miller calls the ‘meta best friend’) can serve as a outlet, without the possibility for censure that arises when you share with a concrete individual who’s liable to tell you to stop obsessing and let other people be. It’s even more effective when an agent of this imagined interlocutor, someone who emerges from the background to respond definitively before fading back into it and propping up an imagined consensus, confirms that they too find this behaviour irritating.

Sharing irritation through social networks can facilitate an extreme form of what critical realists call communicative reflexivity. We find confirmation of our immediate reactions in others, rather than further interrogating our reaction internally, leading to a hardening of our reaction and a disposition to act similarly in future. I don’t think digital technology straight forwardly causes a decline in social integration but I do think social networks can amplify personal reactions which entrench the decline by, as it were, depleting the reserves of tolerance we have for others who think about and approach life in a different way to us. This is connected to the paradox of incivility and it’s something I’d like to come back to in greater depth.

This is a line of thought I seem to encounter ever more frequently, perhaps reflecting how integrated into everyday life these mobile technologies are becoming:

I am deeply attached to my ipad and have it with me almost constantly. I check my email obsessively and tend to all the alerts and messages generated by the various apps and social media platforms. I keep papers for meetings and can access my calendar with all the notes on my rather complex work schedule. It is invaluable.

The problem is, in many meetings, that I am prey to the temptation to ‘look down, not up’. The technology is pulling me out of the context, the meeting I am in, into another space. This is not an original observation, many social commentators have remarked upon the substitution of what they deem an ersatz virtual experience for a real one.

This phenomenon is clearly not just about the workplace, but it is there I would like to focus. Give a scientific presentation for instance and a majority of the attendees will be staring at the device on their laps, a few using it to support the talk, following up on terms they do not understand, many more checking email or facebook. We clearly have to find our way out of the situation and we need practical strategies for addressing it, not rhetoric or finger wagging.

However I find it obviously problematic. People have always absented themselves from social situations in which they’re participating, often without any outward appearance of doing so (until they’re asked a question). I wouldn’t deny there’s something particularly insidious about iPads and laptops, given the genuinely practical role they can serve in contexts like meetings, which is worthy of discussion. But there’s an oddly abdicable tone which frequently creeps into these debates, as if the iPad creates an impulse to zone out that was previously absent, as opposed to providing a means through which an existing impulse can find expression. In doing so, the technology may act back up on the propensity, intensifying it by providing a recurrent grounds (“I wonder if I have any new e-mail”) for enacting it. But the propensity does not originate in the technology. It would be like blaming WordPress and Feedly for the fact I’ve only written 400 words in the last 3 hours.

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Well this is interesting (sort of). Though it reminds me of the ‘Free Hugs Society’ some peculiarly obnoxious students at Warwick established a few years ago, something which prompted them to go around grabbing strangers while being seemingly oblivious to how intrusive and problematic this was to many of the people being grabbed. The people behind it seem to be predominately social marketers (see also the partners) which contributes to the irritating, though interesting, zeitgeistyness of the project. I’m fascinated by the process which leaves “why talk?” as a coherent question that can be answered by invoking popularised notions of social capital.

A journal of the British Sociological Association
Sociologies of Everyday Life

Special Issue Call for Papers
Deadline for submissions: 31 August 2014

Everyday life sociology is a well-established tradition in the discipline and interest in ways of understanding day-to-day worlds continues to be significant. These engagements are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, across the social sciences as well as outside them. It is in this context that the 2015 Special Issue aims to provide a timely opportunity to take stock.

We aim to be able to collect together a series of papers that variously reflect the breadth and diversity of sociology’s enchantments and engagements with everyday worlds as well as the imaginative and innovative ways in which the discipline has sought to analyze and respond to it.

We invite papers that explore, through the lens of everyday life, one or more of the following indicative themes and/or areas:

•       Theories of everyday life and conceptual approaches
•       Materialities, cultures and senses
•       Social practices, activities and interactions
•       Social divisions and exclusions
•       Animals, entities and the more-than-human
•       Senses of community and belonging
•       Selfhood and identifications
•       Public, semi public spaces and the built environment
•       Domestic spaces and routines
•       Institutions and organisations
•       Affect and intimacies
•       Landscapes, localities, places and place making
•       Convivalities and socialities and social interdependencies
•       Everyday racism, cultural difference and everyday multiculture
•       Environmental practices and consumption
•       In/security and violence
•       Methods – researching the everyday

The Editors welcome contributions on relevant topics in any field of social science engaging with sociological research, from early career and established academics, and from those outside academia.

Queries: To discuss initial ideas or seek editorial advice, please contact the Sociology Editors by email on

Full Call for Papers can be viewed at

I’m planning to write a paper next year for submission to this special issue on the sociology of everyday life. One aspect of the paper is an argument that Margaret Archer’s recent work offers a rich set of conceptual resources for understanding everyday life. Another will be an attempt to address confusions about voluntarism and agency through the frame of ‘everyday life’, arguing that when we understand individual agency as both grounded in the everyday and always in motion, these putative issues come to seem problematically abstract, actively obscuring the complex realities of everyday life, as we find all find ourselves subject to complex constellations of constraint and enablement. In doing so I’ll be drawing on a realist (mis)reading of Goffman, arguing that his dramaturgical approach can be used to flesh out Archer’s arguments about individuals personifying social roles. These are some of the lines of thought I’ll be developing for the paper:

  1. Conceptualizing biographical events
  2. The Phenomenology of Obsessiveness
  3. The Phenomenology of Inertia
  4. The Sociology of Awkwardness
  5. The Sociology of Thinking
  6. The Sociology of Daydreaming
  7. The Sociology of the Quiet Zone

Deadline for submissions: 31 August 2014

We are pleased to invite papers for consideration in the Sociology Editor’s Special Issue in 2015. The theme will be the Sociologies of Everyday Life.

Everyday life sociology is a well-established tradition in the discipline and interest in ways of understanding day-to-day worlds continues to be significant. These engagements are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, across the social sciences as well as outside them. It is in this context that the 2015 Special Issue aims to provide a timely opportunity to take stock. This is intended to be a reflective moment – where has sociology arrived at in its attempts to think through the everyday? It is also intended to be an anticipative moment – what are the new logics, foci, approaches, uses, limits of sociologies of the everyday?

My last few posts on Being Human have looked at Archer’s account of the emotions. She argues that affectivity should be understood as relational, emerging as commentaries on human concerns (understood generically as bodily well-being, performative competence and social self-worth) rooted in nature, practice and sociality. In each case affectivity arises as part of our engagement in different relations: body/environment, subject/object and subject/subect. In short: our environment gives us feedback and that feedback matters to us.

However once affectivity is analytically delineated in terms of the natural, practical and social orders then an immediate questions ensues as to the emergent relations between different forms of affect. Archer argues that we “have to live and attempt to thrive in the three orders simultaneously” and that this entails we “must necessarily in some way and to some degree attend to all three clusters of commentaries” (Archer 2000: 220). However nothing guarantees that the commentaries cohere and conflict frequently arises between them:

Nothing guarantees that the three sets of first-order emotions dovetail harmoniously, and therefore it follows that the concerns to which they relate cannot all be promoted without conflict arising between them. Hence, an evasive response to the promptings of physical fear can threaten social self-worth by producing cowardly acts; cessation of an activity in response to boredom in the practical domain can threaten physical well-being; and withdrawal as a response to social shaming may entail a loss of livelihood. In other words, momentary attention to pressing commentaries may literally produce instant gratification of concerns in one order, but it is a recipe for disaster since have no alternative but to inhabit the three orders simultaneously, and none of their concerns can be bracketed-away for long. It is only on rather rare occasions that a particular commentary has semi-automatic priority – escaping a fire, undertaking a test or getting married. Most of the time, each person has to work out their own modus vivendi within the three orders. (Archer 2000: 220)

Archer’s point is not that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but rather that it is unliveable. On this view to remain at the level of first-order affectivity is a pathological state, such as arises from addiction or trauma. This can sound like an excessively strong claim but it’s important to realise how deeply mundane the process of ‘striking a balance’ between natural, practical and social affectivity is on her view:

What it entails is striking a liveable balance within our trinity of inescapable concerns. This modus vivendi can prioritise one of the three orders of reality, as with someone who is said to ‘live for their art’, but what it cannot do is entirely to neglect the other order. Thus it is significant that enclosed congregations of religious, who are said to have renounced the world’, all had Constitutions which minutely proscribed bodily relations (food, sleep, clothing, bathing, walking, custody of the eyes etc.) and closely regulated social relations (recreation, friendships, family contact, visiting etc.). Most of us have to work it out for ourselves, and the difficulties we experience probably account for public curiosity about how prominent personalities have done it – how long does the Prime Minister sleep, how hard does the Princess work-out, or even how does the President care for his dog? We know what questions to ask because, as fellow human beings, we know the problems that have to be resolved. (Archer 2000: 221)

To this we might add the fascination with the daily routines of writers, thinkers and artists. I find sites like Daily Routines so interesting because of what they reveal about the person who has produced the work we encounter – they shed light on how the mundanities of everyday life are organised, rather than addressing authors through the often nebulous frames of history or personality. We all organise our everyday lives in a way which is so continual and quotidian that we often fail to notice it and even less frequently discuss it in any sustained way. It most frequently arises in discursive consciousness when we begin to live with others, particularly when our investments in the different orders clash e.g. arguments about keeping shared spaces clean.

However this still leaves the question of what ‘striking a balance’ entails. Archer’s answer to this distinguishes between first-order emotionality and second-order emotionality. This is something I’ll address more comprehensively in my next post about the book. More briefly though, the important notion invoked here is transvaluation. Archer’s account of second-order emotionality is heavily influenced by Charles Taylor, with the crucial caveat that she criticises his view of emotionality as a ‘moral direction finder’ in its conflation of human concerns and emotional commentaries upon them. While she accepts that “emotions are undoubtedly of moral significance because they provide the shoving power to achieve any ends at all, their goals (intensional objects) may be completely unethical” and she challenges Taylor’s ethical intuitionism (Archer 2000: 225).

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