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  • Mark 6:44 pm on July 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ian craib, ,   

    Notes for a realist (mis)reading of Erving Goffman 1.1 

    In this series of posts I’ll be performing a realist (mis)reading of Erving Goffman, a theorist of social life I find fascinating and problematic in equal measure. By (mis)reading, I mean that I intend to read Goffman for my own purposes, focusing on what I can extract from the text which furthers the development of my own intellectual project. Does this sound slightly mercenary? I think it can be a valuable strategy and one which is uniquely appropriate to Goffman given that, as Ian Craib memorably put it in Experiencing Identity:

    To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

    My intention is to look behind the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” and focus on the gaps that can be found throughout his work. In the preface to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman explains that “In using this model I will attempt not make light of its obvious inadequacies”. I find this a remarkable thing for him to write in the second paragraph of his first published book. In part this represents an admission of the dramaturgy metaphor as metaphor and in part it’s a presentation of humility before he slips into the unctuous style that Craib diagnoses with such acuity.

    To (mis)read Goffman I propose that we take him at his word and accept that he recognises the obvious limitations of the dramaturgical metaphor. His first book has a specific focus:

    I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial.The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the ways in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining the performance before them.

    His deployment of evidence is illustrative, with its impressionistic character licensed by a promise that “the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case-studies of institutional social life”. This more than anything else is why Goffman’s work is so seductive – it makes the familiar strange, bringing to awareness aspects of social life which otherwise fall unnoticed into the flow of day-to-day routine. But this is also why Goffman’s sociology of everyday life is fundamentally inadequate – its “coherent framework” is solely a rhetorical device. I accept an aspect of rhetoric inherent in anything that pretends towards a coherent systematicity. But Goffman’s approach uses the dramaturgical metaphor, generatively and organisationally, spinning off penetrating observations about social interaction before unifying them into a cohesive whole, all the while buttressed by the appeal to the reader’s own experience.

    The result is that his astonishing perspicacity masquerades as theoretical sophistication. This is why I propose to (mis)read Goffman and take his claim to recognise the manifest limitations of his approach at face value. Otherwise I can’t avoid the conclusion that he’s a fundamentally dishonest writer and I like him too much to accept that this is the case. In taking Goffman’s admission of inadequacy seriously, I intend to seize on every gap and earnestly develop the relevant line of thought, interrogating what is not asked and how it would change our orientation towards what is. In effect I will treat Goffman’s “handbook” as something more akin to field notes, inviting theoretical elaboration and open to their dominant motifs being treated as largely stylistic. I agree with Ian Craib that Goffman rarely takes responsibility for what he is saying. That’s why I intend to read him in a way that is, at least meta-theoretically, utterly literal.

    My other contrasting strategy to (mis)reading Goffman is to look for the macro-social correlates to his micro-social claims. At times he himself invites this, suggesting that “these situational terms can easily be related to conventional structural ones” (pg 27). I intend to demonstrate that much of what is so alluring about Goffman’s sociology, its dynamism and attentiveness, looks very different when reframed in macro-sociological terms. At certain points these ‘translations’ are suggested by Goffman himself and at others they are conceptual open goals, with specific claims being obviously susceptible to a conceptual reframing that risks no loss of meaning. At other points, my suggestions will be more contentious, though I think the general strategy is likely to prove interpretatively fruitful.

    I’m starting with The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. Then I’m planning to move on to Behaviour in Public Places and Stigma. If the exercise is still holding my interest at that point then I’m going to engage with Frame Analysis. I’m intrigued about the latter book because I’ve been told more than once that Goffman intended  it as his magnum opus. So I’m wondering what happens when he actually does try and systematise his thought, rather than just presenting himself as having done so.

  • Mark 1:44 pm on June 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ian craib, Importance of Disappointment, Oliver Burkeman, , ,   

    Getting out of the mess of life 

    The title of this post comes from Ian Craib’s wonderful book The Importance of Disappointment, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. His concern is with a contemporary inability, pervasive to the point that we may regard it as epochal, to live with disappointment. We struggle to tolerate the failure of our plans or the frustration of our expectations, instead resolving to change our selves or our circumstances in order to evade these limitations on our next attempt. We are hyperactively concerned to fix things because, argues Craib, doing so allows us to avoid confrontations with our own limitations and the recalcitrance of our world. His point is not that deliberation or planning are intrinsically delusive but rather that we invest ourselves in them in a way which is. Unintended consequences, thwarted ambitions and unrealised hopes are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition and yet we repudiate this reality, in our manner of being even if not our reflective judgements, because doing so helps us avoid the ambivalence which unavoidably follows from it. We strive to do better next time, moving on to something new in the belief that we can arrange the pieces of our life in a way that provides the grounding which we are peripherally aware of lacking. The problem is not that we try to better ourselves but rather in what we avoid through ‘self-improvement’: displacing our confrontation with disappointment by orientating ourselves towards next time in such a manner that we foreclose the capacity to experience this time.

    The themes from Craib’s book came back to me when I recently read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I’ve attached a video below from a lecture in which he summarises the book’s argument. It’s a great read and I couldn’t help but think of it as basically being The Importance of Disappointment if you substitute experimental psychology and cultural commentary for psychoanalysis and social theory (though this is probably unfair to both authors by conflating the distinctive qualities of each book).

    One of many admirable things about Burkeman’s book is the manner in which he reconciles a lacerating critique of the self-help industry with writing a book about the practical conditions for cultivating ‘happiness’ (given he’s much more nuanced than this, it’s hard not to wonder if the ‘h’ word in the title was insisted upon by the publisher). His target is not just the banality of these books but rather their tragically counter-productive character, with their inevitable tendency to provoke an attitude towards life which intensifies dissatisfaction and leads to the purchase of further books:

    This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the ‘eighteen-month rule’, which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book – one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn’t especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you’ll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; How to Win Friends and Influence People advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people’s first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, Fish!, which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

    This is why I found myself so unwaveringly categorising The Antidote as a companion volume for The Importance of Disappointment. The self-help industry depends upon and contributes towards the widespread evasion of disappointment whereas, as Burkeman, rather succinctly puts it: “the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable”. Our desire to avoid mess, refuting disappointment by energetically seeking solutions to our perceived problems, intensifies our inability to cope with our circumstances. What worries me though is how to stop this critique, persuasive as I find it, from leading to passivity – either at the level of personal life or social change. Both authors are sensitive to this issue but didn’t seem to resolve it in any substantive fashion. Perhaps I’m expecting too much? After all, we do not need to live with this mess but mess in general. So the recognition that there are problems which need to be solved can co-exist with a rejection of problem solving as a general condition of life. But this is by definition something that’s hard to write about in the abstract and it’s our own tendency to think about it in abstract terms (generalising our dissatisfactions and projecting into the future rather than engaging with their particularity in the present) which is such a large part of the problem both authors diagnose in their different ways.

    Looking back through my kindle highlights I realise I’m perhaps being unfair by saying that Burkeman’s approach to this issue was unsatisfying. The stoics were the aspect of the book I was least familiar with but also perhaps the most interesting, at least in this particular respect:

    It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation: using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it. To take one very obvious example, a Stoic who finds herself in an abusive relationship would not be expected to put up with it, and would almost certainly be best advised to take action to leave it. Her Stoicism would oblige her only to confront the truth of her situation – to see it for what it was – and then to take whatever actions were within her power, instead of railing against her circumstances as if they ought not exist. ‘The cucumber is bitter? Put it down,’ Marcus advises. ‘There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: “How did these things come into the world at all?

  • Mark 7:32 am on April 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ian craib, reflexive technology, self-help books,   

    Self-awareness and reflexive technologies 

    What is it to be self-aware? Why is it a good thing? One of the strengths of the relational realist conception of reflexivity is that it doesn’t conceptualise this capacity in terms of self-awareness. One can be hyper-reflexive and yet devoid of self-awareness, constantly acting on the basis of partial or entirely fallacious self-knowledge in a ceaseless spiral of activity which moves them ever further from a situation where they’re clear about what it is they want. Something like this is my immediate response to the kind of critique Ian Craib offers of reflexivity and self-awareness in The Importance of Disappointment. I think he’s correct to identify the psychopathological dimension inherent in normative accounts of reflexivity:

    The advocating of a constant self-awareness is also different from what it claims to be; my use of the word ‘catechism’ in relation to Rainwater’s list of questions was not accidental; my first association with such instructions was learning as a fairly young child that God could see me wherever I was, and sitting on the toilet feeling both embarrassed and slightly excited by the idea. The idea of watching myself all the time is not quite so embarrassing or exciting but seems a suitably mature version of the same thing.

    What this exercise seems to require is a sort of splitting that momentarily we might make when we are very frightened, the moment when we leave our bodies for a safe place to watch what is happening to us.

    Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 118

    I think this is a really important analysis which any sociological account of reflexivity must be able to address. There is a tendency towards ‘neurotic obsessiveness’ inherent in normative accounts of reflexivity. But I think we need to have a concept of reflexivity as a capacity in order to be able to make sense of the emergence of normative accounts of reflexivity and the implications they have when deployed (reflexively) in the context of individual lives. Or in other words: there are discourses surrounding ‘reflexivity’ but there is also a capacity assumed by those discourses. I don’t think the denial of this capacity is a tenable position, though certainly any particular account of it can be rejected.

    This is the point i was making in my recent critique of Foucauldian attacks on reflexivity. They setup the argument in a way which means that questions about the discourse surrounding reflexivity swallow up questions about reflexivity as a capacity. The complexity arises because the former does encompass the latter i.e. social theorists talking about reflexivity as as a capacity are contributing to the discourse surrounding reflexivity. But subsuming all such contributions under nebulous categories like ‘neoliberal governmentality’ obscures the variability of this relation e.g. I suspect the Giddensian account of reflexivity contributed much more to ‘neoliberal governmentality’ when leading a ‘third way’ policy seminar at a new Labour strategy retreat then it did when writing academic books about social theory. The exhaustive focus on discourse systematically obscures the really interesting questions about how social scientific ideas circulate within the wider social world.

    I entirely accept the legitimacy of methodological bracketing when investigating discourses surrounding reflexivity. For instance this is what I understand Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller to be doing in their work. But the same move is legitimate in the opposite direction. When conceptualising reflexivity as a capacity it can be useful and necessary to bracket the discursive context. But ultimately we need to bring that context back in on both sides. An adequate account of the discourse surrounding reflexivity should be consistent with an adequate account of reflexivity as a capacity. I’m really interested in the relationship between the two, something I conceptualise in terms of cultural resources and reflexive technologies.

    The self-help book Craib discusses constitutes a reflexive technology in my view. It’s something that has been designed, produced and disseminated for the purposes of augmenting reflexivity. It is a book predicated on the understanding that “we only really become able to realise our full potential when we become our own therapists” (pg 113). It aims to help readers ‘realise their full potential’ by extending their capacity to manage their own emotional life. But as Craib convincingly points out, its operation likely draws upon and entrenches affective dynamics which are of questionable value, reflecting as they do ‘the powerful self and its illusions’. So we can identify two relations here and a relation between the relations:

    personal reflexivity <—> reflexive technology

                                             |   |

    personal affectivity <—> reflexive technology 

    The reader engages with that book with deliberate goal of “wanting to get a better grip on my life” or something along those lines. If you’re ever stuck at Euston station waiting for a train (it happens to me a lot) go to WH Smiths and flip through the ‘business’ section and it’s astonishing how much of this crap gets produced. Clearly this publishing cottage industry is viable and at some point I intend to start systematically recording the blurbs of these books on my phone (though I wonder if that will invoke the ire of security guards) because the stated goals (“fulfil your potential!”, “take control of your life!” etc) fascinate me. I assume this is partly marketing patter but I imagine it’s not an awful starting point for getting a sense of the motivations underlying the purchase of the books.

    So a reader engages with a self-help book in order to pursue a goal of self-change. The book frames that goal in a certain way, guides the reader through specific deliberative pathways stemming from it and inculcates action tendencies in relation to their self and their circumstances. But the original goal had an affective underpinning (“I can’t stand all this mess!” and the inchoate feelings underwriting such an articulated sentiment) that shapes the engagement with the book. But of course this all takes place within a social context and it would be mistaken to conceptualise this social context as an unchanging background to the messy business of personal life:

    personal reflexivity <—> reflexive technology       (                                         )

                                             |   |                                                (         social context      )

    personal affectivity <—> reflexive technology       (                                         )

    For all the many faults one can find in the work Giddens did in the 90s, its popularity surely rests in part upon the attempt to incorporate the most private aspects of inner life into a macro account of global change. I think it utterly fails to do this for reasons I’ve spelt out in the first chapter of my PhD (and I’m wondering if I should publish this or if it’s about 10 years too late to contribute something to the critique of Giddens on late modernity…). But I think the underlying ambition is an interesting one. However my strategy would be to look at the conceptualisation of the mechanisms and processes at work here, in order to avoid the panoramic generality into which Giddens falls with all the problems this entails.

    • rgarza0630 7:02 pm on April 24, 2014 Permalink

      Forgive my ignorance, as this is all still a little over my head. What would be some of the mechanisms and processes at work?

    • Mark 12:51 pm on April 25, 2014 Permalink

      What are basic processes through which self-books can have an effect – so not looking at specific books and specific people but looking at the relationship between the two in a more abstract way.

    • raisefrequency1 8:39 pm on November 17, 2016 Permalink

      This article is interesting but a bit complex for me. It called my attention your sentence of ” Watching ourselves all the time as a more mature version of our belief of God doing it”

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

    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 8:50 am on April 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ian craib, , , , , translation,   

    Social Theory and Intellectual Translation 

    One of the problems I had when I studied analytic philosophy was my inability to map much of what I was studying onto how I saw the world. There were a few exceptions (Hume, Marxism, Causation, Political Philosophy) but I otherwise struggled to understand what was at stake in the work we were studying. This work was presented to us in terms which stressed its interrelations but in a way which was entirely artificial: framing Locke, Berkeley, Hume against Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz doesn’t help matters if the categories of ’empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’ have little substantive content. I just found it dull… in retrospect I find this strange given how much I can enjoy philosophy now. For instance I recently read this book which brought Leibniz and Spinoza to life for me. I found it stunning that something which had once so bored me (though at least I tried, as opposed to basically giving up when we got to Kant) could now be so intellectually gripping.

    What’s obvious to me in retrospect is how little studying analytic philosophy changed how I saw the world. Weirdly, I can only think of formal logic (which I hated at the time) as has having had any lasting perceptual impact on me, as being forced to learn this stuff at 18 leaves you much more attuned to non sequiturs than you might otherwise be. In contrast, sociology has radically changed how I see the world, both in a Millsian sense of ‘making the familiar strange’ but also in the sense of furnishing me with a social ontology that actually maps onto my day-to-day experience, opening out those aspects of the social world which common sense tends to close down. After this experience, going back to philosophy, I find I can get much more out of it. In the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? and a lot of Nietzsche (Ecce Homo, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, Daybreak). Suddenly, these books which I’d struggled with as an MA student (believing that my problem with philosophy was with analytic philosophy rather than with philosophy itself) make sense to me in a way that they didn’t previously.

    What’s changed? These ideas map onto my own experience. They also map onto other people’s ideas. I think this is what was missing when I studied philosophy. Almost none of it mapped onto my own experience and, in retrospect, I seized upon what even vaguely did (e.g. political philosophy) out of sheer intellectual boredom. It also only mapped onto other work is a somewhat empty and formalistic way, as a function of abstracted taxonomies rather than as a multiplicity of concrete disputes. I think this is crucial to our capacity to engage with theoretical work because, without it, it remains difficult to genuinely elaborate a view upon what we are engaging with. Again, as with many things, I’d see this propositionally while resisting the impulse to reduce it to its propositional content.

    My point is that theoretical argument builds upon points of agreement and disagreement. One chapter of my PhD thesis looked very closely at the account of the subject offered by Giddens and its implications for his analysis of social change. Both he and I use the same term ‘reflexivity’ but we use it to refer to a slightly different thing. Understanding the significance of this necessitates an appreciation of what ‘reflexivity’ means to Giddens, how it relates to his broader conception of what the individual is and his conception of the social processes in which such individuals are embedded. In this sense, there’s a hermeneutic moment entailed in engaging with someone’s work but, if we leave it here, social theory remains a fragmented enterprise. My chapter rested on a further analysis of the points of disagreement between this Giddensian account of agency and my own. So while it’s not as simple as cashing out atomistic disagreements in propositional terms (e.g. reflexivity as monitoring vs reflexivity as deliberation) a proper engagement necessitates an understanding of the network of disagreements.

    I completely get why critical realism turns a lot of people off. In fact I sometimes find myself reticent to use the term ‘critical realism’ and instead slip into saying ‘relational realism’, ‘social realism’ or just ‘realism’. But the sort of critical realism I like (Archer, Donati, Sayer, Elder-Vass, Porpora, Smith, the early Bhaskar and Derek Layder, though he wouldn’t identify himself as such) is appealing to me precisely because it helps with translation of this sort. Archer’s work in particular offers an extremely sophisticated meta-theory which is sometimes obscured by the sheer volume of her work and her tendency to be intellectually combative. I guess what I’m saying is that these meta-theoretical resources have proved very helpful in understanding what it is that theorists are arguing about.

    This isn’t just a point about realism. I think realists can often write in a way which obscures the logic of their disagreement with others (at its worst tending towards scholasticism: “that’s the epistemic fallacy?”, “er what’s an epistemic fallacy?”) but the best realist critique tends to draw out ontological disagreements in very specific terms e.g. Dave Elder-Vass on ANT. One of my favourite non-realist theorists is Nicos Mouzelis. He’s adept at precisely the sort of ‘translation’ I’m talking about. One of the things I find so helpful about his work is that much of his engagement rests on incorporating disparate theorists into the same intellectual topology and evaluating them in terms of this. It produces some insightful, though contentious arguments, such as his observation of the “methodological similarities” between Foucault and Parsons (Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong? Pg 47) that become “quite striking” once you strip away their profoundly divergent vocabularies. Ian Craib makes a similar point in his discussion of Stuart Hall (Experiencing Identity, Pg 8) observing that if we “substitute ‘role’ and ‘role expectations’ for ‘discourse’ and ‘practice’ we are close to the determinist version of the traditional sociological approach”.

    My experience has been that proponents of the views that are incorporated (or relativised?) in this way can often react with irritation. I think there’s an important line to walk between preserving the textual adequacy of readings and tolerating what, in practice, constitutes a form of relativisation that is necessary for progress in sociological theory. My fear is that the career structure of the modern academy mitigates against this ‘translation’ though. It requires rather a lot of careful reading. It produces commentary rather than the novel contributions upon which such commentary depends. But unless we can be clear about precisely what we agree and disagree upon, it’s hard to see how progress in sociological theory could be possible.

    • Philipp Adamik 7:45 pm on April 5, 2014 Permalink

      A lot of Name dropping, but The reflexion on The Change of mind Are illuminating.

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