From How to become an internationally famous British social theorist by Stewart Clegg, 585-586:

“Giddens’s later concerns with structure and agency allow him to tap into many prestigious intellectual products as resources, such as linguistics, analytical philosophy and the Heideggerian tradition. These connections allow for far great consumption in more differentiated markets. The vague term ‘social theory’ gives freer scope, allowing Giddens to range freely and widely. The theoretical strategy has been to announce, from New Rules on, the deficiency of the orthodox consensus in some critical respect such as consideration of ‘war’, ‘space’, ‘time’, and then to borrow from cognate disciplines, such as international relations, history and geography, to remedy the defect. This gives Giddens a master key, wrapped up in the grammar of structuration, for addressing some important things that other theories omit. One can claim both transcendence of everything that has gone before and modesty in dialogue with friends and admirers who bring to attention other things not yet integrated into the system. Learn the Giddens system and you unlock the doors of greater perception by becoming acquainted with disciplines, ideas and figures whom one would not normally meet. If you are not familiar with a field, no worries – once you’ve read Giddens on ‘space-time’ distanciation you will appear as knowledgeable as the next human geographer – all the time you are doing social theory. The programme is ifnitely stretchable (although in practice it rarely addresses contemporary economics). Moreover, when specialists, offer corrections, that simply offers the opportunity for further debate, perhaps subsequent adjustment. It all keeps the product in the discerning public eye.

This review essay is fascinating for many reasons. But perhaps the most important is that it opens up the connections between what Nicos Mouzelis convincingly analyses as intellectual de-differentiation with the political economy of scholarly publishing. Crudely, blurring intellectual boundaries expands the market for social theorists.

Taking the lead from Peter Walsh’s laudible work on academic celebrity, here’s some lessons from the career of Tony Giddens which I inferred from this excellent review article Peter pointed me towards, coupled with my own reading of Giddens, who was the major protagonist for my PhD:

  • Choose your targets well. Take early aim at the established masters. Draw upon the established canon but re-articulate it in a idiosyncratic way.
  • Demonstrate a mastery of the classics that is cashed out in terms of their translation into contemporary concerns.
  • Tie your interests, however general they may be, into the most pressing topics of the day.
  • Cultivate both your critics and yours fans: engage often and generously.
  • Publish lots, ideally in a way that combines repetition with reliable progress into new intellectual domains.
  • Write texts books. Seriously.
  • Own the company that publishes your books. Or, if you can’t, at least exercise substantial influence over the channels through which you disseminate your work.
  • (Re)define the canon in a way easily taken up by others.
  • Edit the major journal(s) outside of your professional stronghold
  • Seek prestigious institutional positions and deploy them to maximal effect in disconnected arenas.

Interestingly, Clegg writes in 1992 that “few have sought to challenge with a competitive strategy based on equivalent market penetration”. But since then many have. Stiegler, Bauman and Zizek, to name but three, have all achieved a rate of publication far beyond that which led Clegg to be so fascinated with Giddens. However, at least the latter two have self-plagiarised extensively, perhaps pointing to Giddens as having pushed the productivity bar to the maximum extent possible before one is forced to start copying & pasting from one book to the next in order to keep the profitable publications flowing.


Why disappointment? In common usage, and in the dictionary, we talk about disappointment as what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise. One of the difficulties of living in our world is that it is perhaps increasingly less clear exactly what we might expect or hope for or desire. In fact, these words mean different things. The most basic is desire: it carries connotations of needing urgently, yearning, to the point almost of trying to will something into existence. Sometimes we desire something so completely that we revert to our infant selves and scream, metaphorically or in reality, in the hope that our desire may be realised – just as, if we were lucky, the milk used to appear in response to our screams from the cot.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 3

In this thoughtful book Ian Craib argues that ‘disappointment’ is an integral aspect of human life which increasingly finds itself denied by dominant tendencies within anglo-american culture. I think what he’s getting at relates to something which Andrew Sayer describes in terms of the ubiquity of dilemmas in our lives. We constantly face ‘tough choices’** that elude resolution, forcing us to choose the least worst option or avoid the moment of choice at the cost of inertia. But we seek to deny the unavoidability of such choices. We wish to avoid consequences other than those we seek. We wish to avoid waiting. As Craib puts it,

Some part of us wants immediate satisfaction, wants it all and wants it now, and whilst we might try to rationalise this away with our knowledge that it is unreasonable, our gut reactions belie our heads … I spend my life surrounded by other people, who are more or less independent of me and constantly doing things on their account. As a consequence, I have to adjust to them. If I am to control my own life, then I will first have to control the lives of all those around me.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 5-7

Disappointment has its roots in the social world and this is why dilemmas are ubiquitous in society. Craib’s argument is that “there is much about our modern world that increases disappointment and at the same time encourages us to hide from it: to act as if what is good in life does not entail the bad – for example, that we can love and be loved by another person without having to give up other aspects of our lives” (pg vii). Disappointment is irrevocably bound up with ambivalence because “nothing is ever simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and most things are at the same time good and bad” (pg 2). This entails a perpetual remainder, uncomfortable left overs to our decisions which run contrary to what we expected and hoped for. Craib’s point is two-fold. Firstly, disappointment is unavoidable in this sense regardless of the social context. Secondly, there are peculiar features of our social context which encourage problematic tendencies in how we react to disappointment.

He brings this point to life in his discussion of relationships and intimacy, drawing on the use Giddens makes of self-help books in his work on late modernity to develop a critique of ‘the powerful self and its illusions’. He takes issue with a tendency to see ’emotional satisfaction’ as the central basis for intimate relationships, arguing that with this “our primitive fantasies of complete satisfaction are brought into play”:

The simple question ‘Is everyone OK?’ carries a whole impossible world of satisfactions, one loaded with so much feeling that the thought that things might not be OK is enough for the speaker to consider flying from the relationship. The demand for the impossible is at the centre of this type of intimacy; the tragedy is that it prevents us from seeing or learning from its impossibility. If everything is not OK, we do not learn but seek out another relationship in which it might be OK. If we fall in love, then the decline of being in love, whether slow or fast, is felt as a failure rather than a deepening of our understanding of the world and the reality of the other person. The speaker’s sense of ‘never being satisfied’ is an accurate perception of internal and external reality, but it is experienced not as knowledge and understanding but as failure and deficiency.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 123-124

Intimate life is perhaps an extreme case of a broader tendency, with this disposition to flee in the face of dissatisfaction (“if we’re not happy then the relationship must be wrong”) matched by a milder, though no less problematic, intolerance for unhappiness in other spheres of personal life. Our failure to accept disappointment, those aspects of life which are unwelcome and unexpected, leaves us perpetually moving and problem solving. We can’t live with our choices or sit with their consequences. Our actions can never bring about their consequences in the straight forward way that the ‘illusions of the powerful self’ lead us to expect. Our relationships of all kinds inevitably elude our capacities to control them because “when two people come together in this way, what happens between them is less a matter of conscious control and planning (although that enters into it) than emotional attachment and interlocking that makes such control difficult” (pg 127).

What much of this comes down to is “a desire to get out of the mess of life” as Craib memorably puts it (pg 131). In advocating the importance of disappointment Craib is suggesting we must live with mess. Not necessarily live with this mess but with mess as such. So we shouldn’t resign ourselves passively to our circumstances but we should resist the temptation to allow our responses to those circumstances to be dictated by an illusory image of the absence of mess. Our choices not bringing us the satisfaction we hoped for does not mean our choices were wrong. Our life encompassing periods of dissatisfaction does not mean there is a problem that must be solved***. These are the fantasies of an omnipotent self. In pursuing them, informed by a self-image of our potential for self-control, we preclude the satisfactions which are their ultimate object. The problem solving often is the problem and Craib is intensely critical of the tendency of therapy to get drawn into supporting this behaviour and reinforcing the cultural trends underlying it.

*Though I can’t for the life of me find where he does this, leaving me to wonder if I’ve imagined it. I’m really starting to regret the hundreds of books I read as a PhD student that I didn’t put into a reference manager.

**I wonder if there is a kernel of truth underlying the spread of this political platitude? If a repudiation of disappointment is as widespread as Craib suggests, what are the implications of this for political culture?

***While I’d trenchantly resist the reduction of political issues to psychoanalytical ones, it did occur to me that Craib’s argument could be leveraged into an intriguing critique of the ‘modernising’ tendency within political parties.

There are many things I dislike about 90s self-help Giddens. However one aspect that has stuck with me is his discussion of ‘ontological security’. This is established relationally between child and care-giver through the durability of trust, acting to “‘bracket out’ potential occurrences which, were the individual seriously to contemplate them, would produce a paralysis of the will, or feelings of engulfment” (Giddens 1991: 3). As I understand him, Giddens sees this as a response to a radical openness which characterises our relation to the future*: everyday life and everyday interaction presents us with a potentially infinite range of responses which are filtered through a sense of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. The great majority of possibilities simply don’t occur to us because our experienced participation in a “shared – but unproven and unprovable – framework of reality” which is “simultaneously sturdy and fragile” leaves us treating the world around us as if the qualities it spontaneously manifests to us are durable and enduring features (Giddens 1991: 36). As Giddens puts it, “To live our lives, we normally take for granted issues which, as centuries of philosophical enquiry have found, wither away under the sceptical gaze” (Giddens 1991: 37). There are many issues we don’t ponder because of the practical business of everyday life. The former is the condition for the latter, securing our capacity to function purposefully in the social world. But what secures this ‘turn away’ from existential rumination? 

Giddens places great stress on the capacity of routines which ‘answer’ existential questions on the level of practice. Through our routines, we treat the world as if it is stable and enduring. We answer questions with our practice and so avoid ruminating upon them through our reflections. It constitutes a “protective cocoon” which we “carry around” with us leaving us “able to get on with the affairs of day-to-day life” (Giddens 1991: 40). But a blind adherence to routine as a source of security can become compulsive if not coupled with the trust upon which ontological security depends. This compulsivity emerges from unmastered anxiety, with repetition constituting a performative attempt to dispel this anxiety rather than routine simply reflecting an ability to ‘get on with things’. However even when ontological security is well entrenched within the personality structure of the individual, it is not an impenetrable psychic shield. Ontological security brackets out possibilities, things which could happen but almost certainly won’t, preoccupation with which would quickly become debilitating. Like worrying that a helecopter will crash into the venue when we’re out seeing live music. But of course such things do happen:

We rely on ontological security to avoid obsessiveness. It is a psychological achievement which allows us to ‘let things go’. Rather than attempting to ‘think our way out’ of something which troubles us, it is what allows us to simply stop thinking and start doing. But it is recurrently challenged throughout our life course, sometimes in ways which are edifying and instructive:

“the protective cocoon is essentially a sense of ‘unreality’ rather than a firm conviction of security: it is a bracketing, on the level of practice, of possible events which could threaten the bodily or psychological integrity of the agent. The protective barrier it offers may be pierced, temporarily or more permanently, by happenings which demonstrate as real the negative contingencies built into all risk. Which car driver, passing by the scene of a serious traffic accident, has not had the experience of being so sobered as to drive more slowly – for a few miles – afterwards? Such an example is one which demonstrates – not in a counter-factual universe of abstract possibilities, but in a tangible and vivid way – the risk of driving, and thereby serves temporarily to pull apart the protective cocoon. But the feeling of relative invulnerability soon returns and chances are that driver then tends to speed up again” (Giddens 1991: 40)

But what matters is our capacity to immerse ourselves in activity once more. To recognise a risk but avoid obsessing about it. To take stock of possibilities inherent in our situation without allowing awareness of those possibilities to preclude the possibility of negotiating the situation itself. To instinctively recognise lines of thought worth pursuing, distinguishing between those which are symptomatic and those which lead towards a potential resolution. This is what I mean by reflexive poise.

*It’s on this level that the accusations of voluntarism against 90s Giddens ring most true. However 80s Giddens lurks beneath the surface of the 90s books if you read them closely, occasionally pulling him back from some of his more absurd conclusions.

One of the key concepts I’m trying to elaborate in my PhD is what I term the emotional burden of reflexivity: the difficulty of knowing what to do and who to be, given the lack of normative guidance in  what Giddens terms a ‘post-traditional order’. However contra Giddens and others, I don’t think this state of affairs can be understood in terms of a transition from a ‘traditional order’ where reflexivity is rarely necessary to a ‘post-traditional order’ where reflexivity is always necessary, with all the confusions and anxieties which flow from the latter state of affairs. This misconstrues tradition as something which negates individual reflexivity whereas, I wish to argue, the reality is much more complex. Tradition can be something with which we engage reflexively: in deciding what to do, ‘common sense’ in whatever form we encounter it, can shape our decision making process. In this sense an individual might act in accordance with tradition* but so in a way that is entirely reflexive. This may simply be to avoid sanction or censure given the tendency of others to endorse and enforce these common sense attitudes, so that the individual subjectively disavows but objectively obeys the behavioural injunctions encoded within them. Or the individual’s reliance on dialogical partners to complete reflexive deliberations (e.g. someone who wants to talk to their best friend or trusted family member before making a decision) can ‘enforce tradition’ in a manner which in no way negates the reflexivity of the initiating party by invoking ‘common sense’ (e.g. “only weirdos would do that”) to scuttle a plan which has been proposed. While I’m not denying that tradition can be reproduced unthinkingly, in a manner which is devoid of reflexivity, I’m suggesting that this is much less frequently the case than theorists like Giddens seem to assume.

However while see a large conceptual problem at the heart of these accounts of detraditionalization, I nonetheless think that the broad outlines of the account are correct. But rather than see it in terms of a transition from a unreflexive ‘traditional order’ to a reflexive ‘post-traditional order’, it is more useful to explore how different social conditions give rise to, or impede, the reproduction of common sense which is authoritative and applicable. What conditions lead to a stock of lay knowledge which can be construed as ‘common sense’ and, in turn, what conditions make that ‘common sense’ seem somewhere between blindingly relevant and laughably anachronistic to different people in different circumstances in relation to different sectors of their life. The necessity of reflexivity to negotiate life, quite literally working out what to do with ourselves and how our days fit together into some meaningful hold, entails an emotional burden. Tradition is one way people have sought to cope with that burden though, for reasons which are another blog post in themselves, such a stock of common sense is becoming increasingly fragmented and ever more irrelevant for ever larger groups of people. So what do people do when they can’t look to tradition for support in managing the emotional burden of reflexivity?

*I really dislike the use of the word ‘tradition’ in social theory given how frequently it is used in profoundly circular ways. I use it in this instance, as well as in my thesis, because of its prevalence within the individualisation literature.

Heaphy, Brian (2012) Reflexivity sexualities or reflexive sociology? In: Sexualities: Past reflections, Future Directions. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

There are two main ways in which the term ‘reflexivity’ is used within contemporary social theory. The first refers to the self-monitoring and self-management of individuals. The second to critical self-reflection on the part of researchers about their own social positioning, how it impinges upon the practice of their research and how the whole endeavor of research is implicated within wider networks of power and inequality within society. As someone who works on issues related to the former and is, partly as a result of this work, critical of the latter, it was interesting to stumble across this paper because I don’t recall ever previously having seen the two theoretical meanings of reflexivity addressed in such a direct and sustained way before.

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

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

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

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