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  • Mark 11:11 am on January 14, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , giddens, , , rent seeking, , ,   

    When sociology becomes a source of legitimation rather than critique: the case of Anthony Giddens 

    My notes on Skeggs, B. (2019). The forces that shape us: The entangled vine of gender, race and classThe Sociological Review67(1), 28-35.

    How do we make sense of the influence of Antony Giddens? The first page of his Google Scholar profile shows 149,243 citations with many more to be expected if one were inclined to dig into the long tale of his many publications. He defined the cannon for an entire generation of social theorists, offering an account of the ‘founding fathers’ which became a shared reference point. His structuration theory drew together diverse strands in a way which directly and indirectly exercised a great influence over the landscape of social theory for decades. He wrote the best selling textbook, now in its eighth edition, introducing sociology to successive cohorts of A Level students and novice undergraduates. He cofounded Policy Press which radically reshaped the terrain of social theory and introduced continental philosophy into the Anglophone theoretical mainstream. He was director of LSE, one of the leading research universities in the world. He was architect of the New Labour notion of the third way, exercising an enormous influence over the self-understanding of this government and its subsequent trajectory. However I find it hard to write this without thinking back to Tony Benn’s observation that “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. This blistering critique from Bev Skeggs in a new paper made me think back to his comment:

    I think sociology lost its critical edge when a nationalist, individualist, presentist analysis was offered by the likes of Giddens and Beck. Sociology became a source of legitimation, not a force of critique. We should never forget that Giddens was an architect of New Labour’s ‘third way’, an apologist for the institutional structures that enabled neoliberal policies to be implemented. Through his publishing enterprises Giddens has saturated sociology with this apologist perspective. Most sociologists encounter Giddens from A-level, often throughout their degrees. Giddens and Beck both proposed the denigration of class as a key unit of analysis for sociologists; yet, analysis of class can only be wilfully ignored by those with enough privilege to do so. The occlusion of attention to the processes, structures and forces that produce class (and gender, race, sexuality), i.e. those of capital, capitalism and colonialism, I would argue, was not a conspiracy but a complacency of the comfortable, a perspective of privilege.

    Even if it’s a matter of political gossip, I feel we should take Benn’s remark seriously. To what extend did Giddens move across sectors in pursuit of political influence and what did this mean for the work he produced? The discursive armoury fashioned in his early 1990s work on late modernity surely provided all the instruments he needed to “put an ideological cloak” around whatever was being discussed in New Labour circles: an epochal, justificatory, exciting framing which lifted discussion out of the quagmire of politics and policy, making it seems as if history was whispering in the ear of those present.

    Skeggs supports the call of Satnam Virdee, to which this essay was originally a response at the Undisciplining conference, for an end to this complacency and a return to the critique of ‘progress’, the question of ‘in whose interests?’, the reclamation of an historical frame of reference, the recognition of over-determination and the “the contradictions between race, class and gender”. If we reclaim the past in this way, rejecting what Mike Savage has elsewhere characterised as epochal sociology, it becomes easier to see how it continues on in the present. As Skeggs writes of financialisation and digital capitalism:

    Rent seeking is a major form and force of capital value. Just think of digital companies who extract billions per year through rent, e.g. for cloud computing (Amazon), extracting rent through monetizing your personal data (Facebook), extracting rent though monetizing your search data (Google). Rent as profit is now a major force, existing alongside surplus value production from labour. Interest from debt (rent from money lending) is another source of expropriation that continues to expand as capital is reorganized through financialization (Lapavitsas, 2013). And technology labour platforms such as Deliveroo extract rent whilst also exploiting labour, and Uber extracts rent, exploits through labour and also generates interest on debt through car purchase. Connecting expropriation to exploitation is now more easily identified and absolutely necessary to understanding contemporary capitalism, and how it shapes our daily lives.

    Classifications ossify and they circulate and undergo institutionalisation, becoming part of the order of things as “they are used by capitalists and their managers over time” and enforced through the actions of the state. As Skeggs cautions, “Never underestimate the power of managers and state officials to enforce difference”. In the absence of a historical understand, our conceptual apparatus will be ill-equipped to understand either the present or the future. We lapse into complacency because we lack the tools to see what is urgent, even if it is right in front of our face. Skeggs over evocative description of the analytical and political challenge our present conjuncture poses:

    Devices beyond our control or even understanding are giving money and trade a life of their own. The world of finance is heavily invested in high frequency trading, which only algorithms that machine learn understand. Huge investments are made in block chain technology which even fewer people understand. These are the instruments that shape our daily lives, determine whether we can pay our bills, rent, mortgages, whether our national currency stays afloat and whether trading between nations can occur. Alongside deregulated political manipulation of the Brexit kind, there is a huge distribution of wealth upwards enabled by investment vehicles (and for the conspiracy theorists amongst you – Robert Mercer is key to both worlds). Repeating historical legacies, a huge amount of violence is lived by vulnerable populations, designated as disposable and deportable. People struggle to stay alive against militarization, against structural adjustment policies in the Global South and austerity in the Global North.

    Recognising how historical conditions “enabled our existence as particular types of potential value, as property, as rent, as the lubricant of social reproduction that enables capital to continue its travels” is crucial if we wish to avoid remaining “entrenched in privileged provincial perspectives”. She ends with by asking how did sociology get so side-tracked and reflects on what it is for when so many crucial turnings have been missed:

    How did we get so distracted? Why did sociology refuse to engage with the crucial anti-racist analysis of Cultural Studies, from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Les Back, Erol Lawrence, Hazel Carby? Or the wonderful feminists from history: Catherine Hall, Anna Davin, Carole Dyhouse, Ann McClintock, Vron Ware and many more from History Workshop Journal? What happened to the resistance detailed by the historical studies of power? Do we know about the motley crew? The pirates, the many-headed hydra? The many refusals against becoming surplus and disposable? Or the struggles together as the working class recognizes that divide and rule only benefits those with power, that Satnam identifies. When sociology turned its back on the state, away from education and social policy into the world of legitimation, it lost its traction. All those battles between anti-racism and multiculturalism were overlooked.

  • Mark 11:38 am on September 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , giddens, neal lawson, networked politics, , , , ,   

    Why the left needs to reject the ideology of networked socialism 

    In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

    However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

    I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

    1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
    2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

    This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

  • Mark 7:58 am on September 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , epochal theory, giddens, , sennett, simon susen, , ,   

    Accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age 

    My relationship with the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Richard Sennett and Ulrich Beck has been a complicated one. Discovering their work as an intellectually frustrated philosophy student led me to move sideways into a sociology department rather than starting a PhD in political philosophy. Their approach excited me, opening up the possibility that we could talk about the contemporary age in a way which captures the most intimate aspects of personal experience and connects them to sweeping accounts of historical change. However the further I went into sociology, the more sceptical I became about the capturing and the connecting these accounts claimed to do.

    They have little empirical grounding in their own right, painting complex processes in seductively broad brush strokes, despite their pose of being attuned to the bleeding edge of social change. Much of my eventual PhD was animated by a conviction that the framework of ‘late modernity’ often doesn’t help social analysis, even sometimes hindering it, offering a series of intoxicating motifs for rendering empirical findings in thematic terms rather than offering any practical conceptual instruments for analysing them. This entire body of work has been persuasively diagnosed by Mike Savage as epochal theorising:

    The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.


    In an earlier article, Savage and Burrows describe this as a “kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of its empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research”.

    The manner in which these accounts capture the intellectual attention space, at least under the peculiar epistemic condition of the accelerated academy, renders them much more problematic than would otherwise be the case. These bodies of work become crucial intellectual reference points which enjoy an influence that vastly exceeds their intellectual merit e.g the relatively recent Liquid Modernity has received 11,000+ citations, over four times more than the much older and vastly superior Legislators and Interpreters. They exercise a gravitational pull over the field of empirical research, even when they’re remarkably ill suited for this purpose.

    But perhaps I’ve been too harsh. In this paper Simon Susen makes a casual remark that “One could hardly think of a more ambitious and timely challenge than the task of accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age“. I realise that I agree with him, even if I continue to take issue with many of the attempts that have been made to do this. We deserve better accounts of the distinctiveness of the contemporary age, even if the conditions within which we work makes it difficult to develop them.

  • Mark 11:35 pm on November 18, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , digital age, giddens   

    giddens on digital tech 

    As digital sociology, it’s not exactly great. But interesting to listen to for those interested in the work and careers of Giddens:

  • Mark 6:47 pm on October 9, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , faddishness, giddens, ,   

    the esoteric appeal of tony giddens 

    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.

  • Mark 6:20 pm on October 9, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , giddens, ,   

    how to shift sociological product: lessons from the career of tony giddens 

    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.


  • Mark 8:15 am on April 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ambivalence, , disappointment, giddens, ,   

    The Importance of Disappointment 

    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.

    • Sasha Roseneil 6:17 pm on April 15, 2014 Permalink

      Thanks for writing this, Mark. I don’t always agree with you when you write about psychosocial studies, but it’s great that you’re reading and writing about this book.

      This book has been hugely important to me… Ian Craib was one of the few sociologists in recent years in the UK to take psychoanalysis seriously, and his work enabled me to imagine the possibility of doing what I have come to call psycho-social-analysis… He was also a group analyst, a field in which I have since trained – which is a radical modality of psychotherapy grounded in both psychoanalytic and sociological ways of thinking…The Importance of Disappointment is one of the unsung great books of 20th century sociology, in my opinion!

    • Mark 9:30 am on April 16, 2014 Permalink

      I’m reading this after Experiencing Identity (which I loved) and it’s even better. I really like Ian Craib. Both what he’s saying and how he’s saying it. There has been some psychosocial work I’ve enjoyed (your own for instance! Jacqui Gabb’s too) but Ian Craib is the first writer who’s resonated with me to this extent. I must read further! 🙂

      I must also read more about group analysis. This is the one bit of the book I’ve been struggling to get a handle on and it’s a fairly major recurring theme….

    • dmfant 3:37 pm on January 13, 2015 Permalink

      Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

  • Mark 7:01 am on February 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , giddens, o, ,   

    “No of course the roof won’t cave in”: ontological security and reflexive poise 

    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.

  • Mark 5:33 pm on June 26, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: detraditionalisation, , giddens, , sociology theory, tradition,   

    Tradition, Common Sense and The Emotional Burden of Reflexivity 

    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.

  • Mark 5:59 pm on June 18, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: giddens, heaphy, , relational, relational reflexivity, , subjection, ,   

    Between subjectivity and subjection: untangling the confusion about reflexivity 

    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.

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