My notes on Strathern, M., & Latimer, J. (2019). A conversation. The Sociological Review, 67(2), 481–496.

In this interesting conversation with Marilyn Strathern, who I had the pleasure to meet when Jana Bacevic organised a a masterclass with her at our department, Joanna Latimer explores the act of writing and the influence Strathern’s has had on her own. Joanna explains her experience of how Strathern’s writing “has this kind of extraordinary way of entering into one” such that “your parts become my own, and then I discover I can’t think without your parts”. As Strathern explains, her writing is intensely conversational even if the reader might not be aware of exactly who she is having the conversation with:

And it may be that this sense of always being in conversation contributes to that. There’s an ethical side to it, and of course when I was doing my work on intellectual property I sort of touched on it, which is that, you know, nothing actually ever sprang from Zeus’s head fully formed. I mean one is in debt, one is incredibly in debt, one is always taking what other people have done, whether one knows it or not. It’s not always that I have a particular person in mind, or I’m writing for people who’ve provided me with the means to do so. Rather, you stand on, stand on the shoulders of giants and all the rest of it. I’m very conscious, that one is just simply turning the soil until the next person comes along. So there’s that aspect. There’s also the intellectual chase that one gets into, getting into somebody’s argument. It does its work, it sparks you off, and you really want to pull it apart or you want to put it back together again or you want to take bits out. There are things that you think you could do otherwise. And so forth. And that’s very often in relation to specific arguments.

It is writing which seeks to “turn your reader over”, as Joanna puts it, by upending the conventional and the assumed. Marilyn describes her object as “recurrent habits of thought people just get into, time and again”, some of which provoke “real anger, I mean I’m cross”. It left me with a strong sense of the intimacy of writing, almost as vectors of entanglement through which the concerns of the writer spill over their boundaries and into the reader. There’s a really interesting section connected to this about Marilyn’s  preference for the word person over terms like identity or individual. These are bound into an imaginary which needs to be critiqued and other choices create the opportunity to get out from under them: 

Person is a term that I get from orthodox classical British social anthropology. A person is a social configuration. It’s always a relational construct. It doesn’t have the [vernacular] implications of individuality that identity has. I think that’s where the preference is. […] But because person is slightly unusual in English, after all we do use it, everyone knows what we mean, and there are contexts where we use it on an everyday basis – like ‘a person in their own right’ – but actually we don’t use it as much as we would use the word individual for example, or human being, or whatever. Slightly unusual. And it tends to be in legal language, doesn’t it? Person of no fixed abode. Whereas we’d [ordinarily] say man or woman, or whatever.

There’s a micro-podcast here in which I respond to Joanna Latimer’s presentation of an early version of this paper at a workshop last year. My talk is at 40 mins:

I just came across this wonderful extract in a book I’m reading. I feel slightly silly quoting from a play I’ve not seen but it so perfectly expresses a thought I’ve struggled to articulate that I don’t mind:

“The best moments in reading,” Alan Bennett writes in The History Boys, “are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

I don’t think this only happens in reading. I think it’s an important feature of internet culture (“oh, there are other people just like me? maybe I’m not so weird after all”) that unsettles the fallacious boundaries we tend to draw between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. It’s a process by which difference, defined in relation to a local reference group, finds itself transvaluated into commonality, defined in relation to a dispersed reference group. Tom Brock and I have a book chapter under review at the moment which uses Foucault and critical realism (in a weird synthesis I’m concerned will piss off both Foucauldians and critical realists) to try and understand this process but I’m not sure how successfully we do it.

I feel slightly ridiculous about this fact but I’ve spent the last twenty minutes agonising over how to change my e-mail signature. For a long time I’ve had a pretty simple and self-explanatory e-mail signature:

twitter: @mark_carrigan

But I’m also in the middle of doing lots of e-mailing as a research associate (in the general doer of things sense of the role) in the data sciences team at Warwick Business School. I’m e-mailing lots of people who don’t know me and because I can’t stand outlook I’m e-mailing them from my private (gmail) address which has my personalised domain name. My warwick e-mail automatically forwards to my personal address and, though I’ve been trying to remember to ‘send as’ from my warwick address I keep forgetting to do this because I’ve spent years not doing it. It seems obvious that it would be useful to me, as well as to the people I’m e-mailing, to sign post who I am and what I’m currently doing. How? If I add WBS to my e-mail signature I immediately feel I should also add my post-doc in the sociology department, which is less pressing e-mail wise in the short term but has a much longer duration. Almost immediately, my e-mail signature comes to look very messy.

This is a pointless deliberation which I’ve given up on. I’m leaving the e-mail signature as it stands. But there’s a serious point here: how do you define your institutional identity if you have multiple part-time positions? My solution to this in the past has been to avoid an institutional identity but when I’m doing a lot of logistical work within institutions this becomes trickier. I also feel that if I start adding occupational roles to my e-mail signature I should start including the things that really matter to me (e.g. sociological imagination, discover society) but before I know it my e-mail signature just becomes a mess. Furthermore, there’s the obvious question of how other people interpret this given that the entire chain of thought was provoked by a concern to make myself more easily placeable for people I’m contacting. I’m sure I could rewrite this blog post as a high-brow analysis of Institutional Identity, Precarious Labour and the Semiotics of Academic E-mail Signatures but it seems more honest (and interesting) to record the trivial questions and anxieties which would be subsumed under those concepts. Or I could just delete the text and leave this PhD comic in its place:

Second Call for Papers 

‘Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’

The Institute for Research in Citizenship and Applied Human Sciences, University of Huddersfield, Thursday 19th and Friday 20th of June 2014.

Confirmed keynote speakers for the conference are:

Ann Phoenix, University of London

Ken Plummer, University of Essex

This conference builds on the University of Huddersfield’s long held tradition of hosting a bi-annual conference on narrative research. It seeks to provide a fresh context for the development and dissemination of new research, ideas, perspectives and methodologies in the field of narrative research and enquiry and aims to bring together scholars working in a range of disciplinary fields. ‘Narrative’ is well known for its looseness of definition, its multiplicity of approaches and its interdisciplinarity, which over the years has led to a richness and diversity of narrative work. Identities, both private and public and individual and collective, have long been a focus for narrative researchers, where the content, form and effects of identity story-telling have been explored in a range of areas and contexts. The focus of ‘Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’ is to address the ‘troubles’ that now surround contemporary narratives of identity, and the ways in which previous work may simultaneously inform but also trouble and be ‘troubled’ by new narrative work in the broad area of ‘identities’.

We invite contributions from researchers interested in using narratives across a range of disciplines including sociology, gender studies, psychology, law, politics, criminology, philosophy, history, anthropology, social work, education, and business and management. Topics of interest to this conference include (though are not restricted to) the following areas, including:

gender, sexuality, ethnicities, law, religion, politics, feminisms, digital technologies, work, deviance, consumption, citizenship, consumption, narrative methods, interpersonal violence, generations, emotion, trauma, trans*, lifestyle, education, bodies, age.

Abstracts should be no longer than 250 words. We invite papers in the form of 20 minute oral presentations, and also workshop sessions and poster presentations (the format should be clearly stated in the abstract).  All submissions must include the author/speaker(s) name, title of paper, university or organizational affiliation, and contact information. The deadline for submission of abstract is Monday 14th April 2014. Please email your abstract to the conference organisers at:  with ‘conference abstract’ in the subject line.  You will be notified about whether your paper has been accepted soon after  28th April 2014.

Registration deadline: 5th June 2014. Conference costs: Full rate: £150 including conference dinner, or £110 without. Student rate: £50 including conference dinner, or £30 without. See: and Facebook:

It’s pretty great when you stumble across people discussing your work on the internet. All the more so when they ask thought-provoking questions which make you reconsider arguments you’ve made in the past and encourage you to explore their limitations:

Asexual elitism is an elitist attitude where some asexuals don’t consider other people to be asexual because they participate in an activity that the asexual elitist thinks falls outside of the realm of asexuality. What the activity is, be it masturbation, kissing, or sex, varies between asexual elitists (gbrd143). AVEN rejects asexual elitism by defining asexuality on its website homepage as ‘A person who does not experience sexual attraction’ (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network). This definition allows an asexual to engage in any type or amount of sexual behaviour; their identity only relies on the fact that they are not sexually attracted.

I think it’s important to qualify what the article says about me only describing sex-aversion and sex-neutrality. In the paper I published before this I actually list four terms: sex-positive, sex-neutral, sex-averse and anti-sex (Carrigan 2011: 468).  I discuss sex-aversion and sex-neutrality in more detail in this paper but that’s because almost everyone who took part in the research (with the qualifier that the open-response format of the questionnaires meant I couldn’t tell in some cases) seemed to fit clearly into one of those two categories. I hadn’t realised the categories I was talking about had narrowed in this way between the two pieces of work and retrospectively I certainly regret this. The broader point made in this article still stands though and it’s an important one:

Carrigan claims that asexuals exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers. In all these articulations, the asexual who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.

A person who wants to have sex, but is not sexually attracted to anyone, is a type of asexual that is largely ignored or, as shown in Carrigan’s explanation, written away as wanting to have sex for a reason other than the act itself. This kind of asexual is so absent from conversations about asexuality that we might be led to believe that they don’t exist or are impossible.

– Talia in AVENues issue #25

I guess there’s been a case of theoretical blindness on my part here. I’ve made the argument that what leads someone to come to identify as asexual is that certain attribute(s) of themselves are rendered problematic by the implicit and explicit judgements they encounter from significant others. Exactly what these attribute(s) are is a complex question and, in many ways, one which I think can’t be answered sociologically. But given the diversity within the asexual community, the heterogeneity underneath the umbrella definition, it seems obvious to me that this is not one attribute that all people who come to identify as asexual share. In an important sense I’m a constructivist about ‘asexuality’ but a realist about the processes which lead concrete individuals to come to identify as asexualI think ‘asexuality’ is a cultural label, with its own history and a shifting politics attached to it, which has been the focal point for the elaboration of a rich web of terms and concepts. But just because the network of individuals who are both elaborating this terminology and using it to navigate their everyday lives (the two cannot ultimately be separated) are converging on the same label doesn’t mean they’re doing so for the same reasons or that they’re applying it to the same attributes.

In this sense, the model I’m offering has no difficulty in accepting the existence of “asexuals that have sex because they orgasm, it feels good, and they actually want to”. But it’s never occurred to me because (a) there was no sign of them in my data (b) I didn’t knowingly encounter any when I did the internet phase of my research which was almost five years ago now (c) my model does struggle to make sense of why people like this come to identify asexual because I’ve understood this biographical process in terms of the individual coming to recognise certain attribute(s) of themselves as amounting in practice to ‘not being sexual enough’ or ‘not being sexual in the right way’ as a result of the stigmatising and/or pathologising judgements of significant others. In other words, I’ve been arguing that people come to identify as asexual because ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ is rendered problematic by those around them. Just to be clear, I’m saying the problem here is with my model – I’m writing this post because I found the article in AVENues very thought provoking and I want to understand this issue better than I do at present:

I have often described sex-favourable asexuals as having an itch they want to scratch. They cannot find the right tools for the job, but they’ll use whatever is available because it really itches and they don’t mind the tools at their disposal. They’ve accepted that there is no ‘right tool’ and they will never get the job done the typical way […] the sex is of a different kind, but not ruined. Another type of sex-favourable asexuals could have no metaphorical itch or sexual libido. They might enjoy sex simply because, like jogging, it feels good. If something feels good, why not do it?

The conceptual difficulty emerges because I’d imagine either of these conditions (having sex because of an ‘itch’ that needs to be ‘scratched or simply because ‘it feels good’ in the way that sport or exercise does) is true for the majority of sexual people at least some of the time. People have sex with those they’re not sexually attracted to. People have sex when they’re ‘not in the mood’. People have sex because of intrinsic physical pleasures in a way which renders the specificity of the sexual partner wholly or partly redundant. So from my point of view, as someone who researches asexuality, there are two questions which stand out for me here. Firstly, how should  ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ be conceptually distinguished from Gray-A’s* on the one hand and the variable centrality of sexual attraction to the sexual experience of non-asexuals on the other? Secondly, how do ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ come to identify as asexual and what ‘work’ does this identification do biographically? Is it just a convenient label for them? Does the label help ‘solve’ any problems they face in everyday life as a result of not experiencing sexual attraction? Are there particular difficulties they face (over and above the politics of ‘asexual elitism’ which sparked the AVENues article) specifically in virtue of not experiencing sexual attraction yet still having sex? How frequently do people in this category have sex? Does the absence of sexual attraction actually play a positive role in shaping sexual behaviour?

*Which I guess is where I would have ‘placed’ these experiences if I’d thought more directly about it. This post has already taken me longer than I expected to write but I might come back to this point at a later date.

In this series of posts I’ve been looking at Margaret Archer’s account of first-order and second-order emotions. In the previous post I discussed the process through which an individual comes to deliberate on their first-order emotions – represented schematically as discernment –> deliberation –> dedication. It is through this process that personal identity emerges:

As the successive moments of the conversation culminate, ‘It is these acts of ordering and of rejection – integration and separation – that create a self out of the raw materials of inner life.’ It does not matter in the least that these concerns do indeed originate outside ourselves in our ineluctable relationship with the natural, practical and social orders, for in dedication we have taken responsibility for them and made them our own. We have constituted ourselves by identifying the self as the being-with-these-concerns. The self and its reflexive awareness have been continuous throughout the conversation, but on its completion the self has attained a strict personal identity through its unique pattern of commitments. (Archer 2000: 241)

Two points need to be made clear here. Firstly, this is simplified for analytical purposes and is not a statement about the linear progression of actual biographies. Secondly, by ‘personal identity’ Archer obviously mean something distinct from some of the prevailing understandings of identity within sociology e.g. self-concept or self-presentation. I understand her point to be about the concrete singularity of the individual: we are thrown into a position within the world which we have not chosen, entangled in relationships that are pre-given and it is only through coming to articulate and order our concerns that we manifest our latent potential to be uniquely singular: ‘the being-with-these-concerns’. This view sees certain commitments as constitutive of the self and, once acquired, they transform our affective responses to everyday life:

Thus if one of our ultimate concerns is wife and family, the emotional commentary arising from an attractive occasion for infidelity will not just be the first-order desire for the liaison, but emotionally we will also feel it as a threat, as a potential betrayal of something which we value more. Its emotional important is literally that of a liason dangereuse. In an important sense, we are no longer capable of the simplicity of a purely first-order response: reactions to relevant events are emotionally transmuted by our ultimate concerns. Think, for example, of the commitment to writing a book and of how this filters our responses to otherwise pleasurable activities. We tend to feel irritability at the telephone ringing, even whilst acknowledging that it is a wanted caller; we can feel resentment in having to respond to what we simultaneously accept are other quite legitimate calls upon us; and disinclination to break up a weekend with what we know would be pleasant company. These events can no longer be taken ‘straight’, they come to us coloured as distractions and our responses to them are generally distracted.

Our commitments represents a new sounding board for the emotions. They both mean that we see things differently and feel them differently. Devoted parents see objects and events from the child’s perspective, feeling alarm for them at what will alarm them (rather than what is alarming to the adult, such as a big wave) and experiencing enjoyments through their child’s enjoyment, for they can ‘enter-into’ fairgrounds, flumes or pantomimes through the door of their commitments. (Archer 2000: 242)

It’s in this sense that the transvaluation enacted through internal conversation literally changes our feelings. The occurrence may be the same but its meaningfulness isn’t given the newly articulated concerns in relation to which our affective responses emerge. The person so committed “can never be fully care-free (in excess of those first-order concerns which are part of the human condition), because they have acquired a prism on the world which refracts their first-order emotions” (Archer 2000: 243). The past itself can become transvalued in this way, as past choices come to be imbued with guilt or amusement in light of present commitments. These retrospective feelings can reinforce present commitments through the positive feedback they provide – I may now feel guilty at having done X in the past but this reinforces my commitment to the principle Y which underwrites my newly negative evaluation of X. But this reinforcement also operates prospectively “as an unintended consequence of living out these same commitments, for the simple reason that our lives become organised around them” (Archer 2000: 245).

Books fairs are not meant to be dating agencies, canal restoration is not intended to circumscribe friendships, political protests are not film guides, nor are pop festivals planned to influence our child-rearing practices. Yet a concern is the source of ripple-effects, spreading out over our way of life and insulating it as they go. The concerned need one another for it is only together that they can be themselves (expressing their full personal identities), sharing spontaneously, without self-editing. The most significant transvalued feeling here is that of discomfort. It is felt by political activists when in mixed ideological company and reported by feminists when in predominately male gathering struggling for political correctitude. The mechanisms which circumscribes a way of life is bilateral. We know the edginess about entertaining those with other commitments than ours: the artificiality of censoring our languages and opinions to avoid giving offence; the apprehension that the guests will start to ‘go on’ in proselytising vein, or the sheer boredom when they never stop talking about their children, football, local environmental planning etc. The concerned are drawn to one another but also thrown together, and this accentuation and protection of commitments is significantly regulated by the transvalued feelings themselves. (Archer 2000: 245)

However transvaluation is an achievement which cannot be reached right away nor can it necessarily be sustained. Furthermore, “for children and young people, the establishment of a stable second-order is a virtual impossibility because they know insufficient about themselves, the world and the relations between them” (Archer 2000: 246). In the final post of this series I’ll look at instabilities of the second-order which is the element of this framework I find most interesting.

A couple of years ago I did a conference presentation called “The Difficulty of Working Out Who You are: Sexual Culture, Sexual Categories and Asexuality”. Or at least I gave a presentation this title. In reality it didn’t actually do what it said on the tin because I’d rather jumped the gun and given a  definitive title to something which was then (and still is really) a loose amalgamation of thoughts in the progress. I started working on asexuality around 5 years ago now and my immediate interest was in asexuality as something approximating a sexual orientation (sparked largely by how extraordinarily overlooked the conceptual possibility, let alone the emirical reality, had been in the academic sexualities literature I’d engaged with for the MA I’d just completed). Two further interests emerged from this as I got more into it:

  1. The fascinatingly idiosyncratic frame of reference which asexuality (and asexuality studies) offers for engaging with well rehearsed questions about contemporary sexual culture and its history of emergence
  2. The broader issues of identity and alterity in late modernity which manifest themselves in the emergence of the asexual community (as well as the question of in what sense, if any, it’s meaningful to use the term ‘community’ here).

It’s the second question which has been on my mind recently. I’m talking about this at the Royal Geographical Society conference next week as part of a panel on the politics of anti-normativity and at a conference in Nottingham the following week on ‘normality in an uncertain world’. I like the second event theme in particular because it nicely captures the aspects of Archer’s account of late modernity which she’s only begun to draw out in her final book on reflexivity. This involves a situation where, as Archer (2012: 302-3) puts it, “the differences characterising each agent so overwhelm communalities with others that they increasingly engage in transactions with the system ‘as a whole’ (meaning raiding it for the detection of ‘contingent complemantarities’ and exploiting these novelties)”. What she’s suggesting is that increasingly atomised individuals, confronted with little to no socio-demographic possibilities for collective identification, look towards the cultural system for resources to help make sense of self and circumstances, which might furnish them with an ideal (which later provides a basis for value orientated collective action) but more immediately serves to increase the heterogeneity of their environment. What I think Archer misses is both how the cultural system can provide an immediate basis for social (re)integration and how socio-cultural relations can be digitally mediated. So the individual whose experience of not experiencing sexual attraction has been rendered problematic within their local environment, comes to recognise their commonality with (distant) others through direct and indirect accounts of experience which are encountered online. This in turn leads to an experienced difference (“I’m so weird! Everyone else is so interested in sex”) being transvaluated into commonality (“oh there are other people just like me!”) and provides a starting point through which many, though by no means all, come to pursue ‘offline’ relations on the basis of ‘online’ connections.

However I don’t think people who don’t experience sexual attraction are the only ones who follow this sort of biographical arc. To be clear: I’m talking about homologies at the level of individual biography and suggesting the existence of analogous structural and cultural factor which condition, though do not determine, the shape of that biography. I’m not subsuming a whole range of disparate phenomenon under one notion of biography (e.g. the existentially crisis prone individual in late modernity) though it occurred recently I sometimes talk as if this is what I’m doing. My point is to draw out a typological connection between disparate phenomenon which because of their particularity often have their connections overlooked (or are even ignored in and of themselves altogether). In terms of Archer’s approach, I’m gesturing towards a few things: a cultural account of contextual incongruity to supplement her structural account, a theory of how cultural systemic properties can provide an immediate basis for social re(integration) and a contribution to her thinking on reflexivity and collective action. After years of doing ‘my asexuality research’ and my PhD side-by-side, it’s really satisfying to have actually incorporated them into the same frame of reference at last… but I digress. What prompted me to write this post, which I’m stunned to realise is now close to 1000 words long without me having yet got to my main point, is the Myers-Briggs typology as another example of the weirdly specific cultural bases for social (re)integration which I’m convinced have come to circulate all around us without us having grasped their full implications yet. To those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs is a taxonomic theory of ‘personality type’ designed for psychometric testing. It was ‘extrapolated’ from the work of Jung by two people with no psychological credentials or training (note: I’m not being a snob here, only stressing the important point that there the MB has, as far as I’m aware, zero empirical basis and little or no credentialised authority for its putative conceptual roots in Jung’s work). In effect it divides people up into 16 personality types through psychometric testing and there’s a massive industry attached to the development, promotion and application of the MB. I first did it long ago (I love this stuff in spite of my chronic cynicism) and have tended to be ‘scored’ as an INTP. This is the attached personality profile from the Wikipedia page:

Architects are introspective, pragmatic, informative, and attentive. The scientific systemization of all knowledge, or Architectonics, is highly developed in Architects, who are intensely curious and see the world as something to be understood. Their primary interest is to determine how things are structured, built, or configured. Architects are designers of theoretical systems and new technologies. Rearranging the environment to fit their design is a distant goal of Architects.

Architects are logically and verbally precise. In casual conversations, they may be tempted to point out errors the other speaker makes, with the simple goal of maintaining clarity within the exchange. In serious discussions, Architects’ abilities to detect distinctions, inconsistencies, contradictions, and frame arguments gives them an enormous advantage. In debates, Architects can be devastating, even to the point of alienation from the group with detailed logical arguments, which may be characterized as “hair-splitting” or “logic-chopping“.

Architects tend to analyze the world in depth. They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them. In social exchanges, Architects’ interest in informing others about what they have learned is greater than their interest in directing the actions of others.

Credentials or other forms of traditional authority do not impress Architects. Instead, logically coherent statements are the only things that seem to persuade them. Architects value intelligence highly and are often impatient with people with less ability than they have. An architect often perceives himself as being one of the few individuals capable of defining the ends a society must achieve and will often strive to find the most efficient means to accomplish their ends. This perspective can make Architects seem arrogant to others.


According to Rational Role Variants, by David Keirsey:

“Architects take their mating relationship seriously and are faithful and devoted – albeit preoccupied at times, and somewhat forgetful of appointments, anniversaries, and other common social rituals. They are not likely to welcome much social activity at home, nor will they arrange it, content to leave scheduling of social interactions to their mate. If left to their own devices, INTPs will retreat into the world of books and emerge only when physical needs become imperative. Architects are, however, even-tempered, compliant, and easy to live with – that is, until one of their principles are violated, in which case their adaptability ceases altogether. They prefer to keep their desires and emotions to themselves, and may seem insensitive to the desires and emotions of others, an insensitivity that can puzzle and frustrate their mates. But if what their mates are feeling is a mystery to them, Architects are keenly aware of what their mates actually say and do, and will often ask their mates to give a rationale for their statements and actions.” The INTP’s long-term mate is the ENFJ.

I find it hard not to recognise myself in this. Turns out others have the same experience: this is why websites, web forums and twitter feeds seem to have begun to to emerge for those whose response to this subjective recognition has been to seek interlocutors who share this commonality: see here, here and here. What’s going on here seems to be very similar to some of the relational dynamics driving the biographical trajectories of people who identify as asexual. However unlike asexuality, where my outsider status a social researcher imposes certain constraints, something important seems obvious to me when focusing on the INTP: it’s an identity based on an exclusion. The experience of identification depends upon the accentuation of certain points which in turn distract from others. The INTP profiles seem so unerringly to capture certain aspects of my character (“They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them”) that it distracts from those which aren’t incorporated within it descriptively or even run contrary to it (e.g. it’s hard to see a basis for political activism or shared engagement with live music in the NTP profile – both of which have been integral parts of my life since I was a teenager). In other words: the transvaluation of difference into commonality rests on confirmation bias. This is a strong and hypothetical suggestion about something which is ultimately an empirical question but it’s an important point: to what extent do the emergence of these ‘new commonalities’ presupposes the individual actively seeking them? What implications does this have for the putative social (re)integration I’m arguing emerges from these new collective identifications? This is why the asexual community fascinates me: the commonality becomes a basis for the emergence of new differences as dialogue unfolds i.e. behind the ‘umbrella term’ (asexuality as someone who does not experience sexual attraction) a diverse terminology for recognising and expressing (a)sexual difference emergences. I wonder if this is true elsewhere?

After the initial section of my first round of PhD interviews (discussion of different deliberative mental activities) I asked participants what Porpora (2003) calls ‘the caterpillar’s question’: “who are you?” I had two intentions in asking the question. Firstly I hoped that it would frame the subsequent discussion (centring around their life in university) in at least somewhat existential terms. Secondly the answer to the question potentially offers insight into how an individual orientates themselves towards questions of identity. As Porpora (2000) puts it “most people approach identity entirely in terms of social space, the space of personal relations and social categories”. However rather than focusing on the underlying existential aspects of the question my intention was to unpack the elements Porpora identifies (social space, personal relations and social categories) in order to explore the tacit concepts of individuality, identity and sociality drawn upon by participants in answering the question.

The following elements were drawn upon by participants in answering the question:

  1. Biographical facts and personal attributes
  2. Relationships with others (normative and descriptive)
  3. Demographic categories
  4. Position within socially defined trajectories
  5. Concerns
  6. Theorising about the question

The three communicative reflexives in the group all answered the question in terms of biographical facts and personal attribute. The two fractured reflexives in the group were the only participants to draw on demographic categories and socially defined trajectories in answering the question. Three of the four participants who theorised about the question were meta reflexives. The only two participants who invoked their concerns when answering the question were meta reflexive.

It seems plausible that the practice of different modes of reflexivity leaves subjects tending to orientate themselves towards the question in different ways; both in terms of their active deliberations about issues of identity and “ideas that have been questioned or actively reflected on but which then become familiar and lapse into the taken for granted” (Abbey 2004: 3).

I asked the question again at the start of the third round of interviews (a year later) though I haven’t yet collated the responses and analysed them. This isn’t exactly a precise instrument (to say the least) but I do think it is getting at something interesting and important. The transcripts of the responses to the question are very interesting but, as is rather fresh in my mind given I transcribed it relatively recently, the audio itself is even richer: “who are you?” is a strange question, which we’re infrequently asked, but it is meaningful and provokes a very specific form of reflection.

I’m not really sure if this really actually end up in my thesis. It doesn’t really sit anywhere in my structure as it stands. But I wanted to preserve the line of thought – although I’m unwilling to post the data on my blog – because I’ve been fascinated by this ever since I read Porpora’s book. There’s definitely a starting point in my data for a theoretical sociology of identity paper somewhere down the line.

In this podcast I talk to Katherine Davies, a researcher in the Morgan Centre at Manchester University, about her work on sibling relationships and personal identity. Despite the obviously somewhat common experience of sibling relationships, it’s an area that’s largely been ignored within social science, which has tended to focus on vertical kinship relations (parent –> child) to the exclusion of lateral kinships relations (child –> child). It’s a weird oversight and one which Katherine’s work is addressing in an interesting and sensitive way.