A few months ago, I recounted to a collaborator the details of a foolish mistake I made when planning a special occasion. Assuming the cake would be the easiest item on a long to do list, I left this till last, failing to recognise that cakes of this sort would require a lot of notice. It left me phoning round in a panic, until I eventually found someone who could do it at short notice. My collaborator remarked that he too could have seen himself making such an assumption, recognising aspects of himself in the assumption I had made and the problem it had created. ‘Easiest’ to me was coded as the most immediate and straightforward task, considered in terms of its internal logic, rather than being the  most predictable, quickest or controllable. I suspect this assumption reveals something quite deep about how I’m orientated towards the world, regardless of the counter-factual question of whether I might have planned this process more carefully had I been less stressed about the impending event.

This has left me thinking about the sociology of stupid assumptions. By this I don’t mean those occasions on which we make a mistake due to rushing, error or stress that could easily have been avoided. I mean those mistakes which result from deeply held, though flawed, assumptions running up against the reality of the world. These are assumptions we might not knowingly hold yet which find themselves revealed through our actions. They are the common threads which bind together persistent missteps as we make our way through the world, reflecting a subtle incongruity between the structures of our thought and the structure of the world. They can become things we are aware of and reflect upon, even things which we struggle against. But they are persistent and deep seated, raising the question of where they come from.

The obvious answer to this is the Bourdieusian one, finding the origins of these habits of thought in our original social context. The assumptions of our natal context get reproduced in the assumption we make about the world as adults, with contextual features sedimented into cognitive habits that reflect the world as we were brought up to exist within it rather than the way it is necessarily is. This is a brief sketch but I hope it’s not a facile one because I respect this line of argument and I believe I understand it, even if it’s not possible to convey its depth and sophistication in a short blog post.

Nonetheless I wonder if it can account for the feeling of recognition which my collaborator felt when recognising my stupid assumption as something akin to his own? Can it account for the recognition we come to in ourselves, often isolated from an awareness of class and upbringing because it relates to an assumption so specific that it can be claimed to be inherited only in the tautological sense that it must have come from somewhere? Can it account for the role of technologies in fermenting these assumptions? In my case, I suspect the problem is as much to do with the constraints of the to do list, something I rely upon to an immense degree (as does at least one of my parents), failing as it does to capture contingencies surrounding a task in the sequential logic it imposes upon our tasks. These aren’t really counter-arguments as much as requests for elaboration, reflecting my newfound belief that the sociology of stupid assumptions tracks some of the most interesting questions in social theory.

In an interesting chapter Frederic Vandenberghe explores the role of the individual in Bourdieu’s Sociology, as well as the critiques which Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire make of it. His intention is to respond to a sociology he sees as hegemonic by developing a post-Bourdieusian theory of the social world that is not anti-Bourdieusian. His project, as I understand it, derives from a sense that Bourdieu’s sheer influence is distortive, polarising debate in a way that steers it away from concern with better or worse sociology to more or less accurate interpretations of the master.

How accurate is Vandenberghe’s account of Bourdieu’s influence? His 536,230 citations certainly offer quantitative evidence of this influence, but the claim that Bourdieu’s sociology is hegemonic seems more contentious to me. Nonetheless, he’s surely correct that the combination of its influence, diffusion and systematicity make it a force to be reckoned with. Or rather a force that must be reckoned with, a reference point that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Both Archer and Lahire were deeply influenced by Bourdieu. My interview with her in here explores his influence on her thinking, as well as her time working with him as a post-doc in the early 60s. While, as Vandenberghe puts it, Lahire’s sociology is so “thoroughly Bourdieusian that he could well be considered the heterodox successor to the master (Loïc Wacquant being the official one)”. Both have worked at the intersection of sociology and psychology in recent years, with Lahire taking inspiration from Durkheim while Archer has looked to American pragmatism for intellectual resources. Vandenberghe argues that their work represents a social psychology of a new kind: orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. Their shared unit of analysis is the life, understood biographically, as a movement through the world constituted through choices. But the dissimilarity arises because Archer’s focus concerns how future projects shape present actions, whereas Lahire explains the present and the future in terms of past “dispositions and their activation in particular contexts in the present”. As he puts it, “His actors are pushed by their dispositions, while hers are pulled forward by their projects”.

From Vandenberghe’s exposition, it seems that Lahire’s critique of the concept of habitus resembles Archer’s in some ways: he “accuses Bourdieu of abusively generalising a particular model that only holds in exceptional situation (such as traditional societies and total institutions)”. But he make the same critique of the concept of field, “accusing Bourdieu of transforming a regional model into a general theory of the social world”. Instead he offers an account of the individual as “like a crumpled sheet or a rumpled rag”, with social space in all its dimensions unevenly folded up inside of them. Not unlike Archer, he sees what Bourdieu regarded as a marginal condition (the cleavage of the habitus) to instead be a general characteristic, at least under certain social and cultural conditions.

His exposition of Archer is excellent, rather unsurprisingly as one of the theorists most deeply conversant with her body of work as a whole. The slight exception to this is the latent teleology he reads into the concept of reflexivity, ignoring the extent to which we all practice each of these modes to varying degrees in everyday life. Oddly, he offers precisely this recognition as a suggestion of how her account of reflexivity can be improved, with his accusation of a “kind of disguised personality test” being an incisive critique of how her work on reflexivity is chronically misread, even by its advocates.

I agree with him however that Archer downplays the role of cultural structures, seeing them as something which “structures the situation from outside, not from inside in the form of subconscious schemes of perception, judgement and interpretation that prestructure the world and canalize action, excluding some options even before the actor becomes conscious of the situation”. His suggestion that we investigate empirically how the relative balance of reflexivity and disposition operates in particular action situations is one I find extremely plausible, perhaps demanding that we need methods other than the interview, as well as overcoming the relative neglect of situated embodied action within Archer’s work.

It’s an interesting chapter which I highly recommend. It’s left me wanting to return to my PhD, as well as investigating Lahire in greater depth. It strikes me that I’ve actually done something akin to what Vandenberghe advocates, synthesising Archer and Lahire, without actually having read Lahire. My curiosity demands that I establish whether or not this is the case.

A quick note on the Wacquant workshop. We’ve turned to habitus and he’s offered the unproblematic claim that we always encounter the physical world through the prism of symbols. Social relations generate symbolic relations which are deposited in the body, shaping action in ways which serve to reproduce or transform social relations. It would be impossible to dispute this. However there’s a relative autonomy to symbolic mediation which is too easily overlooked. There are time lags, contradictions and path dependent biographical effects. There’s also a voluntaristic aspect, as we’re inclined towards searching for new ideas in ways which challenge, contextualise and complicate the existing symbolic resources we’ve accumulated that shape our world view. I’ll do a proper post on this at a later date but the point of disagreement between the approaches taken to the person by the idiosyncratic strand of CR I follow and Bourdieusians has never seemed clearer to me.

One of the most contentious aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity has been her critique of Bourdieu’s habitus. I was thinking back to this issue when reading Sam Friedman’s excellent new paper in the Sociological Review on the habitus clivé. It’s a whole dimension to Bourdieu’s work which I was completely unfamiliar with and furthers my hunch that if you continue to develop Bourdieu in a phenomenological direction (along the lines undertaken by Nick Crossley and Will Atkinson) the dispute about reflexivity comes to seem much more about conceptualising social change than it is about theorising subjectivity. I’ll blog about Sam’s paper some more later (and I’m interviewing him for sociologicalreview.com) but I just wanted to share this brief extract:

Bourdieu did acknowledge that long-range social mobility can be more problematic, however, particularly when individual trajectories provoke abrupt rather than gradual transformations of habitus. During such moments of profound change, when there is a mismatch between one’s (primary) habitus and the habitus required in a new field, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) argued that a hysteresis effect takes hold

As a result of the hysteresis effect . . .   practices are always liable to incur negative sanctions when the environment with which they are objectively confronted is too distant from that in which they are objectively fitted. (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977: 78)

In most of his work, Bourdieu explored hysteresis in terms of habitus shifts wrought by large-scale changes in field conditions, such as that posed by the Algerian War of Independence (Bourdieu, 1979) or the introduction of the 1914 French State Code on inheritance (Bourdieu, 2002: 12). However, in later work (1998, 1999, 2004) he also began to explore how hysteresis is experienced at a personal level, particularly among the socially mobile.

This makes it easy to recast Archer’s claim in Bourdieusian(ish) language: the intensification of social change leads to the generalisation of ‘hysteresis’ as a condition of social life because past experience fails to provide workable guidelines for present action. It’s under these conditions that, as she puts it, reflexivity becomes imperative. She prefers to use the concept of ‘routine’ rather than ‘habitus’ (partly because she rejects the idea that the social ‘gets inside’ us as opposed to inculcates a tendency to act in a particular way) but accepts that routine (habitual) action predominates under certain conditions, it’s just that she argues such conditions no longer obtain.

This process doesn’t operate inexorably and not everyone becomes more reflexive in the face of the ‘reflexive imperative’: her differentiation of modes of reflexivity are an attempt to conceptualise the empirical variability we can see in reflexivity and how this might contribute both aggregatively and collectively to the macro-social trends which are generating mass ‘hysteresis’.

One of the most contentious arguments made in Margaret Archer’s recent work is the critique of habit(us). What she’s saying here often seems to be misunderstood. She’s not expunging habit from social ontology, only suggesting that its putative role in socialisation needs to be relativised to an account of particular social conditions. As she notes, she’s far from the first person to observe that “the workability of Bourdieu’s habitus is dependent both upon social stability and high social integration” (Archer 2012: 80). However the relationship between the concepts of reflexivity and habit has a long history in social theory, not least of all in the pragmatists, from some of whom (Peirce and to a lesser extent James) her recent work takes much inspiration. As she notes, “the great American pragmatists had always maintained that reflexivity (exercised through ‘internal conversation’) came into its own when habitual action was blocked by problematic circumstances” (Archer 2012: 48). The concept was also important to Durkheim and Weber but, argues Archer, the extent to which each understood habit in a contextual fashion has often gone unrecognised. Both were interested in the role of habit within “early societies (or ancient civilisations)” but they were “equally riveted by the transition to modernity and the discontinuities, differentiation and diversification of mental orientations and institutional operations that it represented” (Archer 2012: 58). She argues that, for instance, Durkheim’s prescriptive writings, offering solutions for the ills of modernity, have often been inadequately distinguished from his descriptive work with the consequence that his analysis of how to restore social integration in modernity has sometimes been confused with his views on the constitution of the social pathologies he seeks to ameliorate.

Underlying contemporary debates is a concern that “the influences of the social order upon agency should not be located fully within agents or entirely outside them” (Archer 2012: 49). This is why debates about habit cannot ultimately be separated from the question of how we conceptualise socialisation: what is at stake is how much of and in which way the social gets ‘under the skin’ of actors. In her earlier work (viz Realist Social Theory) Archer has offered an account of the ‘double morphogenesis’, the process through which “actors themselves change relationally in the very process of actively pursuing changes in the social order”, which she contends is “one of the principle ‘non-Median’ ways by which the social gets inside us” (Archer 2012: 51). In brief I take her point to be that it is too frequently assumed that we have to internalise social influences for them to become ‘interior’ when, instead, the same outcome can be reached through social processes conditioning the elaboration of actors over time. This is integral to the morphogenetic cycles through which Archer analyses social processes:

When a morphogenetic cycle is completed, by issuing in structural elaboration, not only is structure transformed but so is agency, as part and parcel of the same process – the double morphogenesis. As it reshapes structural relations at any given T4, agency is ineluctably reshaping itself in relation terms: of domination and subordination, of integration, organization, combination and articulation; in terms of the vested interests of some but not of other agents; in terms of what has become normalised and taken for granted; in terms of the new roles and positions that some occupy and others do not; and in terms of the novel situations in which all agents now find themselves, which are constraining to the projects of some and enabling to the projects of others, yet of significance for the motivation of all. (Archer 2012: 53) .

It’s from this perspective that she finds the terms in which the present debate is conducted to be unhelpful. If we accept the realist principle that prior structures, elaborated or reproduced through past action, condition rather than determine the action of present actors which, in turn, contributes to the form of future structures then there are two relations at work here: how structural/cultural condition influences interaction  and how different kinds of interaction result in the elaboration or reproduction of structures. It is through addressing these relations that we can move beyond the ahistorical generalisations which too frequently characterise these debates:

A timeless, placeless, and societally unspecific debate on mediatory processes is futile, that is, one seeking a show of hands on the universal motion that ‘habit is more important than reflexivity’ or vice versa. Of course, most would rightly respond ‘sometimes one and sometimes the other’. Quite properly, they are hedging their bets until the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘under what conditions’ have been specified […] Strong defenders of habitual action almost uniformly assign a high and universal importance to the pre-reflexive (years, practices, experiences, sociality and socialization) upon habit formation. Alternatively, strong advocates of reflexivity attribute the same high and universal importance to people’s ability to scrutinise, monitor and modify acquired habits through the internal conversation. These, too, are generalisations and call for the same specification as the blunt ‘sometimes one and sometimes the other’. (Archer 2012: 54-55).

The first of the two relations “works through shaping the situations – from the accessibility of resources to the prevalence of beliefs – in which agents find themselves, such that some courses of action would be impeded and discouraged while others would be facilitated and encouraged” (Archer 2012: 55). These emergent powers operate in relation to “any end, however inchoate, that can be intentionally entertained by human beings”, existing congruously or incongruously in relation to human doings. So this first relation is seen by Archer as establishing context whereas the second relation concerns the kinds of action which will tend to be engendered by that context and its propensity to reproduce or transform it for future actors.The respective variability of habitual action and reflexivity can therefore be understood in terms of the kinds of contexts within which action occurs and how the forms of action they engender work to reproduce or transform that context. Or in other words: what social conditions are most likely to generate habitual or reflexive action and what consequences does this have for the reproduction or transformation of these social conditions? This is what the concepts of contextual continuity/discontinuity/incongruity, discussed in previous posts, are fundamentally concerned with.

As far as I understand her position, her objections to the notion of habit are three fold. Firstly, it often does too much work as a consequence of accounts it is embedded within paying little attention to other means through which the social ‘gets inside us’. Secondly, it tends towards generalisation in a way she finds problematic, given that certain contextual conditions will tend to generate a propensity for habitual action and conversely be amenable to it on the part of individual actors, whereas others will not. Thirdly, there’s an underlying disagreement at the level of how the person is conceptualised:

There are two fundamental ways in which the relation between habits and reflexivity can be conceptualised: one sees the two in tension and producing intra-personal struggles, whilst the other views reflexive, innovative action as built upon habitual dispositions. The first is antipathetic to ‘hybridisation’; the second endorses it. The former is hospitable to people’s purposeful commitments, the latter is hostile. The one can accentuate macroscopic ‘contextual discontinuity’ as a spur to reflexivity; the other emphasises minute quotidian continuities at the micro-level. (Archer 2012: 61)

The former Piercian notion of self sees the relation between the two in terms of a “struggle on the part of the committed and innovative ‘I’ to overcome the inertia of the habitualized ‘me’ (or critical self), as Peirce pictures in his famous courtroom analogy where the advocate of change marshals his case against the deepest dispositions that have been developed biographically”. On this view imagination plays a crucial role in realising our commitments in a way which is expanded by the degree of “social variation and cultural variety available to ponder upon reflexively” (Archer 2012: 59-61). So reflexivity is not seen as something which intervenes only when habitual action fails due to the intervention of unforeseen and/or unfamiliar obstacles. There is a relatively independent life of the mind which, nonetheless, remains bound up in the social because of its reliance on social and cultural variety as the ‘raw materials’ of its imaginings. The latter post-Median notion sees reflexive responses as elicited solely by situational novelty, construing the social in terms of a ‘flat’ ontology of recurrent situations (unlike, argues Archer, Mead himself). Underlying these debates are important questions about the ontology of the person from which they cannot be separated:

Only by striking the right balance between personal, structural and cultural emergent powers is it possible to explain precisely what people do, rather than falling back upon correlations between group membership and action patterns, which are necessarily lacking in explanatory power. To account for variability as well as regularity in the courses of action taken by those similarly situated means acknowledging our singularity as persons, without denying that our sociality is essential for us to be recognisable as human persons. (Archer 2012: 67).

In a powerful paper which has circulated widely on Twitter, Ros Gill argues that digital technology is implicated in both an intensification and an extensification of academic labour:

Alongside the intensification of work in academia, we are also experiencing its marked  extensification (Jarvis and Pratt, 2006) across time and space. Paradoxically, as University lecturers have increasingly reported that noise, open plan offices,  interruptions and student demands mean that ‘you can’t work at work’ everywhere else  has opened up as a potential site for academic labour! How convenient. Autonomous Marxist writers call this the era of the ‘socialised worker’ and the ‘factory without walls’, a phase of capitalism in which labour is deterritorialsed so that ‘the whole society is placed  at the disposal of profit’ (Negri, 1989: 79). Work in today’s universities is, it would seem, academia without walls. This is the outcome of multiple determinants but is facilitated by information and communication technologies that render it possible to be ‘always on’  (Gregg, 2009).

Ever speeded-up mobile technologies intermesh seamlessly with the psychic habitus  and dispositions of the neoliberal academic subject: checking, monitoring, downloading whether from BL (British Library), beach or bed, trying desperately to keep up and ‘stay
on top’.

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/cmci/people/papers/gill/silence.pdf

One doesn’t have to agree with the theoretical approach adopted by Gill to see the plausibility of this view. But it’s if we don’t agree that it becomes useful to step back and look a bit sceptically at this account. Ever speeded-up mobile technologies certainly do “intermesh’ with the “psychic habitus and dispositions of the neoliberal academic subject” but the claim that this is seamless seems deeply questionableThere is a contingent compatibility between digital technologies and the occupational dispositionality which characterises the contemporary academy i.e. digital technology coheres rather nicely with the rules of the game.

However I’d hope most people would reject a deterministic view of this dispositionality, such as would construe the inculcation of specific dispositions as a quasi-automatic result of occupying a certain structural position i.e. it’s impossible to sustain a career in academia without internalising the ‘rules of the game’. If we rightly regard such a view as implausible then  much more interesting question open up as to the outcomes which emerges from (a) different configurations of digital technologies (b) the dispositionality of the ‘neoliberal academic’ (c) the other habits, concerns, projects and practices of academics who, in Gill’s paper, only become anything more than a cypher when they are in psychic pain.

I think that the ‘seamless intermishing’ suggested by Gill is a conceptual impossibility. What I’m really interested in is how, given this fact, we understand the variability which characterises this lack of seamlessness. Once we start to unpack it, the picture becomes rather more complex. For instance, Mouzelis usefully discuss ‘intra-habitus conflict’:

Reflexivity may focus less on interactive and more on intra-active processes. In other words, reflexivity may be enhanced not only when there are contradictions between dispositions, positions and figurations, but also when the subject has to handle intra-habitus conflicts. For instance, Trevor Butt and Darren Langdridge (2003) studied the diaries of the well-known comedian Kenneth Williams (1928-1988) and found a deep contradiction between his homosexual dispositions on the one hand, and his deeply conservative, anti-libertarian mentality on the other; the latter predisposed him to consider anything related to homosexuality as “filth”. These two fundamental aspects of K. Williams’ habitus — both products of differing and varied socialization processes — were obviously linked to his overdeveloped reflexivity which a reading of his diaries makes very obvious.

http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/6/9.html

When different aspects of our dispositionality find themselves in conflict, they fail to provide guides to action and we’re forced to either deliberate about what we should do or fall back upon performative commitments which assuage our anxieties in the immediate moment but intensify our psychic  distress in the longer term. So to return to the case study, two new lines of investigation emerge:

  1. How the dispositionality of the neoliberal academy conflicts with, say, the dispositionality of a scholarly ideal?
  2. How is this intra-habitus conflict inflected through the specific characteristics of the ‘tools of the trade’?

I’m sure (1) can be stated in much more interesting ways than I’ve managed here. My point is simply to flesh out the role of human agency  that is presented by Gill while preserving her underlying concerns. I think dispositionality (or more straightforwardly habit) is an integral concept for explaining how individual behaviour is shaped by social circumstances. But I think habitus can be a dangerous concept in many ways. Regardless of how Gill’s ‘psychic habitus’ does or doesn’t accurately reflect Bourdieu’s notion, it nonetheless seems to me as if many people do in practice use the concept in roughly the way Gill uses it (though I’m open to being persuaded I’m wrong here).

The other aspect of this issue, which I became rather distracted from in process of writing this post, is the role technology plays here. I guess this is why it’s on my mind after the digital sociology event yesterday. Though I’m pretty convinced that it’s impossible for it to be seamless, I’m not clear in my own mind about how to understand the ‘intermeshing’ Gill proposes – I think she’s getting at the relationship between a tool and the dispositions which lead one towards practical action involving such a tool: so the degree to which, say, a blogging platform fits (or fails to fit with) with an underlying disposition towards ensuring that one is ‘visible’. Or, to use Gill’s example, how e-mail fits (or fails to fit) with underlying dispositions towards ensuring that one is ‘up to date’ so as to ‘stay on top’. I think these are important questions which Gill ignores (leading to a crude technological determinism) but there’s also the issue of practices themselves which are occluded in her ‘stretched’ version of the habitus concept.

Edited to add: Mouzelis offers a useful framing of the concept in terms of influential ideas of the subject:

In the light of what has been said above, one can argue that Bourdieu’s actor is half-way between Parsons’ “oversocialized” and Levi-Strauss’ “decentered” subject. For Bourdieu, the subject relates to the former in the sense that the habitus carrier, in normal non-crisis conditions, portrays a lack of voluntarism and lack of reflexive handling of positions similar to Parsons’ “cultural-dope” actor vis-à-vis the role s/he plays. It relates to Levi-Strauss’ decentered subject in that Bourdieu’s actor has only practical rather than theoretical knowledge of his/her dispositions. This means that at least some of the more unconscious dispositions come very close to Levi-Strauss’ “hidden codes”, which refer to the rules below the conscious surface that people follow without being aware of them.

All three authors, in different ways of course, underemphasize the agentic, voluntaristic, strategizing qualities of actors. For Levi-Strauss, anti-voluntarism relates to the structuralist attempt to abolish the subject-object distinction by decentering the subject, by going beyond or behind surface rules and norms. For Parsons, the subject-object distinction is maintained, but interaction is underemphazised[5] and players are portrayed as passive products of objective social structures (Mouzelis 1995: 129ff). In Bourdieu’s case finally, the subjective-objective divide is not abolished but transcended via a “structurationist” strategy, which regards the habitus as pertaining to both the objective (the habitus as product of structures) and the subjective (the habitus as “structuring” structures).

http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/6/9.html