Last night I was sitting in the front row of a plane from Germany to the UK. The couple next to me opened a half bottle of wine, immediately attracting the attention of the cabin crew. The flight attendant came over and turned to them, observing somewhat apologetically that “you should know that it’s against the rules to bring your own alcohol on to a plane and drink it”. There was an awkward silence. Filling the void, he went on to say that “obviously, it’s fine in this case but don’t be surprised if someone stops you in future”. He smiled and walked away, as they continued to pour their drinks without having spoken a word.

I found this encounter interesting because it represents an example of normativity failing to reproduce itself. There is an expectation inscribed in the role of the passenger (not to consume alcohol that was purchased outside the plane) and an expectation inscribed in the role of the flight attendant (to ensure passengers meet the expectations they are subject to) which entails a relationship between them. However this relationship between social roles is played out in interaction between people and this is where the problem for normativity arises. Normativity relies on human concern for its reproduction. The parties to a normatively relevant interaction have to recognise the norm in question, see it as worth reproducing for whatever reason and be inclined to take action to do so. For avoidance of doubt, I obviously recognise that the reasons why a norm might be enforced or not, in relation to particular others within a specific context are hugely variable, with different contributions to the reproduction of existing inequalities.

This is why I always found the language of endorsement and enforcement used by Dave Elder-Vass problematic. In his account these things run together whereas, it seems to me, they are often separate. Furthermore, it is easy to find countless instances of norms being identified, while neither being endorsed nor enforced. This is why I found the interaction I witnessed so interesting. It was also charming, affable and human. The flight attendant didn’t care, clearly recognising the couple would create no problems and, it seemed, feeling there would be no legitimacy in his enforcing the expectation under these conditions. Likewise the couple would presumably have felt irritated if the expectation had been enforced, in the absence of any harm they were causing with their actions.

But what happens at the macro-social level when these micro-social failures of normativity become pervasive? Are they a constant possibility inherent in human interaction? Or might they become more likely under certain social conditions? Do they tend to spiral? Does a failure to enforce expectations make you less likely to do so in future? How do organisations respond to this if they become cognisant that these norms aren’t enforced? Do they fall back on sanctions to try and correct this? If so, what effect do these punishments have on the perceived legitimacy of the norm in question and whether the parties tasked with enforcing it actually endorse it?

On the outbound leg of the same trip, I saw another interaction which relates to this discussion. The airline in question recently instituted a new baggage policy which has proved controversial with passengers. Again sitting in the front row (it turns out to be a brilliant spot for people watching) I watched person after person board the plane, holding a bag which had been labelled to be put in the hold, explaining to the flight attendant why they needed and/or were entitled to store it on the plane. I had no way to assess the reasons that were cited but we can assume that at least some of them were fabricated. The flight attendant argued in some cases and gave up in others, clearly finding the mechanics of the new policy utterly wearying. When the boarding had finished, one of the baggage handlers came up to confer with her about the number of bags in the hold. A tense interaction ended with him saying “it’s your choice whether you enforce the rules”. I couldn’t have phrased the problem of normativity better myself.

In the last couple of months, I’ve found myself reflecting on irritation. What is it? It’s one of our most recognisable reactions to the world, yet it’s hard to be precise about what it is. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Is it a reaction to the world? This is the definition which Wikipedia offers:

Annoyance is an unpleasant mental state that is characterized by such effects as irritation and distraction from one’s conscious thinking. It can lead to emotions such as frustration and anger. The property of being easily annoyed is called irritability.

There’s a whole model of the person implicit within this which I’m sceptical of. The idea that mental states manifests themselves in effects with implications for cognition, generated by propensities and generating emotions. It’s an individualised account, even if a multifaceted one, concerning something that’s deeply relational.

The most straight forward definition of irritation would be ‘something which irritates’. In one sense it’s circular, telling us nothing about what irritation is, but it captures the relationality of the reaction. We are irritated by something. We find something irritating. It involves an evaluative relation to the world, but one which, as it were, goes wrong. Far from the smoothly hermeneutic world of the post-Aristotelian philosophers, we have the Goffmanian reality of living together (in a world which frustrates our purposes).

So if irritation is being irritated by something, what is it to be irritated? To be “angered, provoked, or annoyed” or “inflamed or made raw, as a part of the body”. The second definition concerns the resolutely physical but I think it captures something important. We are irritated when we are inflamed by the world, made raw by its recalcitrance. People or circumstances irritates us when they impede our routine movement through the world. Things are not as we expect. We’re forced to calibrate ourselves in relation to the world, pushed back into ourselves confronted with a world that resists us, rather than easily making or way through it. 

We get irritated by others when they do not act as we expect them to. We get irritated by others when they do not act as we think they ought to. In this sense, I would argue that irritation tracks declining social integration: the less agreement there is about how we ought to comport ourselves, the more likely we are to experience irritation in daily life.

What interests me is how we respond to this. If we simply make internal allowances for the fact that others may have different expectations and aspirations to ourselves, it’s easy for the irritation to dissipate. A trivial example: I find it irritating when people talk loudly in the steam room at my gym. But I also recognise that some people go there to socialise, whereas for me it’s a resolutely individual activity. Reminding myself of that fact usually leads the irritation to subside.

On the other hand, if I seek external confirmation for my reaction, it’s unlikely to subside. This is where social media comes in: the imagined interlocutor (what Danny Miller calls the ‘meta best friend’) can serve as a outlet, without the possibility for censure that arises when you share with a concrete individual who’s liable to tell you to stop obsessing and let other people be. It’s even more effective when an agent of this imagined interlocutor, someone who emerges from the background to respond definitively before fading back into it and propping up an imagined consensus, confirms that they too find this behaviour irritating.

Sharing irritation through social networks can facilitate an extreme form of what critical realists call communicative reflexivity. We find confirmation of our immediate reactions in others, rather than further interrogating our reaction internally, leading to a hardening of our reaction and a disposition to act similarly in future. I don’t think digital technology straight forwardly causes a decline in social integration but I do think social networks can amplify personal reactions which entrench the decline by, as it were, depleting the reserves of tolerance we have for others who think about and approach life in a different way to us. This is connected to the paradox of incivility and it’s something I’d like to come back to in greater depth.

From J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, pg 173-174:

The Marine Corps assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances. I took mandatory classes about balancing a checkbook, saving, and investing. When I came home from boot camp with my fifteen-hundred-dollar earnings deposited in a mediocre regional bank, a senior enlisted marine drove me to Navy Federal—a respected credit union—and had me open an account. When I caught strep throat and tried to tough it out, my commanding officer noticed and ordered me to the doctor. We used to complain constantly about the biggest perceived difference between our jobs and civilian jobs: In the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms. He sent an older marine to supervise as I shopped for my first car so that I’d end up with a practical car, like a Toyota or a Honda, not the BMW I wanted.

At an event in Liverpool last week, I was asked by Steve Fuller about what I understood responsibility to mean in a sociological sense. He was sceptical that I could support claims of responsibility given my understanding of human agency as situationally performative but biographically continuous. In essence I understood him to be asking: do I think there’s something about the human being in relation to which responsibility can be assigned? This is a question I’d never really thought about explicitly, though once I began to I’ve realised that it actually knits together the full range of my interests.

Part of my difficulty with the question is that I think ‘responsibility’ encompasses a number of different things which we need to unpack:

  1. Responsibility as moral agency: how an individual comes, through internal and/or external conversation, to assume a stance of responsibility towards their own actions. To me it seems obvious that this is a matter of what Charles Taylor calls disengaged agency. It’s a mode of engagement with the world that usually involves stepping back from social encounters in order to reflect on one’s own actions within them, though I do believe sometimes we confront these questions when in the flow of the social situation.
  2. Responsibility as interpersonal ascription: how an individual comes, through social interaction, to be held accountable for their actions. This can, but by no means necessarily does, lead to the first sense of responsibility as moral agency. This is about social judgement, holding someone to account in terms of putatively shared standards in relation to which their behaviour can be evaluated.
  3. Responsibility as structural enforcement: how an individual comes to be formally held responsible for their actions, in relation to codified rules and regulations which are sufficiently durable to be both enforceable and recognised as binding. Legal systems are the obvious example of this but I’d include disciplinary proceedings within workplaces within this category as well. The point is the process is formalised and the rules are codified. It’s not tied to the social situation, a term I use in Goffman’s sense, in the same way as the earlier forms of responsibility.

These are interconnected in complex ways. But by analytically distinguishing between them, we’re able to recognise how they can vary independently. Under contemporary social conditions, I would argue that we have seen the following changes:

  1. People are more likely to over-actively exercise moral agency, often to the point of blaming themselves for personal outcomes that are systemically produced. This individualisation contributes to the fragmentation of normative consensus, as individual reasoning acts as a vector of deviance amplification: the more intensively people think about these things, through the filter provided by their own particularity, the less likely they are to straight forwardly reproduce ‘common sense’.
  2. The interpersonal ascription of responsibility is becoming more contentious because of this fragmentation of normative consensus. If we can’t take ‘common sense’ for granted, interventions of this sort will tend to be experienced as arbitrary impositions of power. This leave them experienced as something inherently contentious, which I’ve written about as the ‘paradox of incivility’: when consensus breaks down, attempts to enforce civility are actually experienced as rude and aggressive.
  3. ‘Common sense’ supplies the intuitions upon which enforcement is grounded. In its absence, normativity comes to seem less binding, incentivising alternative penalty-based enforcement that doesn’t attempt to seek grounding in moral agency. Margaret Archer describes this as ‘anormative regulation’ in an upcoming paper.

Having only recently grasped quite how interesting case law is, thanks to the conversation with Steve and Joseph, I’d now like to start to refine the outline I’ve sketched above and apply it to thinking through the challenges posed by emerging technologies.

This is a really interesting distinction. From Unforbidden Pleasures, by Adam Phillips, pg 85:

Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings. ‘Ambivalence has to be distinguished from having mixed feelings about someone,’ Charles Rycroft writes, in his appropriately entitled A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (as though an ‘Uncritical’ dictionary would be somehow simple- minded): 

“It refers to an underlying emotional attitude in which the contradictory attitudes derive from a common source and are interdependent, whereas mixed feelings may be based on a realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the object.”

Love and hate – a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say – are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us.

In this very useful paper Dave Elder-Vass observes that the concept of ‘social institution’ is almost as diverse as that of ‘social structure’:

The concept of social institution is almost as diverse in its referents as the concept of social structure. The Collins Dictionary of Sociology, for example, begins its definition: ‘an established order comprising rule-bound and standardized behaviour patterns. The term is widely acknowledged to be used in a variety of ways, and hence often ambiguously. Social institution refers to arrangements involving large numbers of people whose behaviour is guided by norms and roles’ (Jary and Jary 2000: 302).

He identifies a number of different ways in which institutions have been conceptualised:

  1. Regular patterns of behaviour
  2. The normative beliefs held by individuals which account for these regularities (individual representations)
  3. The normative beliefs held by collectives which account for these regularities (collective representations)
  4. The ‘virtual’ systems of rules and resources that are instantiated in individual practices (structuration)

I see my cat act in a similar way when a local stray comes to steal her food. She acts aggressively towards the other cat but has no idea what to do when the other cat completely fails to respond, having no interest in performing territoriality but only in acquiring food. It occcured to me when I watched the racoons video that this is awkwardness in Adam Kotsko’s sense of the term:


There was a strange and compelling article on Medium this week, reflecting on the author’s experience of being a devotee of Whole Foods, the self-certifying purveyors of ‘natural’ produce who will surely expand in the UK at some point. The author was at great pains to make clear how much he loves Whole Foods:

I’ve shopped at Whole Foods in every time zone, in at least 10 different cities: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, DC and Richmond, VA. I love Whole Foods. Scratch that, I love the products Whole Foods sells, no matter what other people might have to say about them. Maybe the simplest way to phrase it is, I love whole foods. Whole Foods as an experience, that’s a whole other matter.

But here’s what sucks for Whole Foods: it has nothing to do with their employees. Across the board, across the country, they have been helpful, knowledgeable, and cordial. I’ve received phenomenal service in every department: from the beer fridge to the butcher counter to the bulk aisle. I now know everything there is to know about lentils, for instance, thanks to a guy stocking roma tomatoes in the produce section of the downtown Milwaukee store, who took the time to explain why he used red lentils for his curried lentil dish a couple nights before.

But there was one problem: the other customers. These customers are “across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable”. Do you pity this poor author who is forced to brave “a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” every time he wants to purchase his favourite lentils? I certainly do. Imagine having to cope with a supermarket where people block the aisles:

They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?

If you are a normal human being, when you come upon a person like this in the aisle you clear your throat or say excuse me, hoping against hope that they catch your drift. They don’t. In fact, they are disgusted by your very existence. The idea that you would violate their personal shopping space—which seems to be the entire store—or deign to request anything of them is so far beyond the pale that most times all they can muster is an “Ugh!”

Over the years I have tried everything to remain civil to these people, but nothing has worked, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I walk over to their cart and physically move it to the side for them. Usually, the shock of such an egregious transgression is so great that the “Ugh!” doesn’t happen until I’m around the corner out of sight. Usually, all I get is an incredulous bug-eyed stare. Sometimes I get both though, and when that happens, I look them square in the eye and say “Move. Your. Cart.” I used the same firm tone as Jason Bourne, with the hushed urgency of Jack Bauer and the uncomfortable proximity of Judge Reinhold. From their reaction you’d think I just committed an armed robbery or a sexual assault. When words fail them, as they often do with passive aggressive Whole Foods zombies, the anger turns inward and they start to vibrate with righteous indignation. Eventually, that pent up energy has to go somewhere, and like solar flares it bursts forth into the universe as paroxysms of rage.

Outside the four walls of a Whole Foods, you might recognize these people as Gawker commenters or Twitter shamers. Inside, they are the breathless, self-important shoppers who just can’t believe!! that it’s taking this long to check out. They are busy, they have somewhere to be. Don’t these people in the other six open checkout lanes that are each 3 shoppers deep understand that, WTF??!?

Or you might recognise these people as Medium bloggers. Hmm. The anecdote which occupies the rest of the article is very funny and definitely worth reading. But what interested me was the apparently complete failure of self-awareness exhibited by this otherwise perceptive writer. He is an angry Whole Foods devotee who regards everyone in the store as beneath contempt, accosts people threateningly in the isles and then goes home to let the internet know what rude assholes he has had to negotiate while shopping for his much needed organic food.

What interests me is the incivility with which he acts while nonetheless understanding himself as fighting to preserve civility. Squaring up to someone, aiming for “uncomfortable proximity” in order to “look them square in the eye and say ‘Move. Your. Cart.” isn’t civil behaviour. It just isn’t. So his response to the problem of incivility within Whole Foods actually contributes to it, seemingly without the author having stopped to ponder whether one of the people he threatens in the aisles might go home and blog about how rude Whole Foods customers are.

What’s really going on here? It’s not that there aren’t any endorsed and enforced norms about bodily comportment within public space. Clearly, there are many potential acts which would be roundly condemned and which would provoke an intervention by security (though it’s worth considering the relationship between interpersonal norms and the institutional structure in such instances). But this assembly of norms applicable to the social space is much fuzzier when we move away from absolute prohibition. If someone acts to enforce a norm (e.g. asks you to stop talking on your phone in the quiet zone of a train) and you endorse that norm (e.g. you felt you shouldn’t answer your phone but didn’t want to get up and leave the carriage) then their action has a normative force which it otherwise wouldn’t. This is what makes the difference between someone hanging up their phone at this point and blithely continuing to talk or even telling the complaining party to go fuck themselves.

When someone acts to enforce a norm which they endorse but others don’t, it is experienced as an arbitrary intervention or assertion of power. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily opposed, given an overriding concern to sustain the peacefulness of the interaction, only that the phenomenology of the interaction is different. I’ve been shushed in a restaurant: at which point we did restrain the volume but, at least in my case, only to avoid a conflict rather than because I felt we’d violated a norm about proper comportment within the social space.

What interests me about the Whole Foods example is how the author would be perceived by one of the “sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” he shoves past in the isle. It’s apparent to him that he’s acting to enforce a norm but presumably the norm is neither endorsed or even perhaps recognised by the offending party. Therefore, he’ll just seem very rude. What I’m pretentiously calling the paradox of civility is the necessity that norms of civility be both endorsed and enforced within a social space in order for action which enforces civility to avoid contributing to incivility. If the norms being acted upon aren’t widely endorsed then acting upon them will contribute to incivility no matter how justified the enforcing party believes themselves to be. People who complain about incivility and then act in this way are actually contributing to the very problem which so troubles them.  

Dave Elder-Vass (2010: 122) argues that normativity should be understood as a result of ‘norm circles’ which “have emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them”. These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centred around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

‘They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticizing or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124).

The relations between members of norm circles ‘provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124). The advantage of this account is that the extensive causal powers which tend to be attributed in a nebulous manner to ‘social normativity’ are instead unpacked as the causal powers of specific groups, which is of particular importance for research which seeks to work at the biographical level without being restricted to it. However it also poses problems, particularly because Elder-Vass does not, ultimately, take reflexivity very seriously.

This aspect of Elder-Vass’s approach to social ontology may be have been congruent with stably reproductive morphostatic societies but much less so in the chronically transformative setting of an increasingly morphogenetic society. It is in the transition from the former to the latter that the relative analytical significance of the synchronic and the diachronic shifts. Elder-Vass’s method for social ontology, in spite of its invocation of morphogenetic causes (bringing types of entities into existence) and morphostatic causes (sustaining the existence of entities), in practice privileges a synchronic frame of analysis (Elder-Vass 2007b, Elder-Vass 2010). This leaves it with much to say about the designation of norm circles, albeit with inherent difficulties pertaining to its operationalization (Archer and Elder-Vass 2011: 110), however much less about their explanation. It seeks to “explain how normative influences contribute to the production of social actions” (Elder-Vass 2012: 7) however it can only explain norm behaviour in terms of the norm circle. At the level of the individual “repeated exposure of individuals to acts of endorsement and enforcement” (Archer-Vass 2012: 7) of a given norm is generative of a disposition which “encourages the enactment of the practice concerned” (Elder-Vass 2007c: 9). Through life experience we gain a feel for the normative environment, an awareness of the benefits and sanctions attached to particular courses of action by the wider patterns of normative behaviour which characterise our social circumstances. Elder-Vass (2010) attempts to circumnavigate the obviously hydraulic understanding of causality this would lead to by introducing the attribute of intersectionality. Given the normative heterogeneity evident in contemporary society, every individual is embroiled in a whole array of intersecting norm circles such that they must ‘sometimes negotiate a path that balances normative commitments that are in tension with each other’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 143). However it is less clear how individuals might negotiate such a path because endorsement and enforcement are too tightly cleaved together: on what basis do individuals choose which sanctions to confront and which sanctions to avoid when deciding on a course of action which involves choosing between competing norms? Elder-Vass leaves us with a picture of a society characterised by the ubiquity of peer-pressure without a parallel picture of how the individual peers come to collectively exert specific pressures in ways which may indeed then exercise the collective power he argues for:

“To be more specific: our social experience affects our dispositions and beliefs by prompting processes that alter our neurological structure. The consequence is that we act differently, having been influenced socially, but still on the basis of causal mechanisms that are rooted in our physical composition.” (Elder-Vass 2007: 8)

However the addition of the diachronic frame of reference transforms the significance of this mechanism. Unlike Elder-Vass’s account, which only admits reflexivity when it is necessary to adjudicate between the demands of competing norm circles, it now becomes possible to explore the ideational dimensions of cultural life and, through doing so, ‘flesh out’ the relationality of the norm circle. Without this the theory is oddly sterile in its vocabulary of affect: the individual must have a “sense, however vague and minimal, that she is acting of behalf of something wider than herself when acting in support in a norm.” (Elder-Vass 2012: 7) Thus the emergence of the norm circle depends on its apprehension, however vaguely, by subjects of its existence when acting in ways congruent with it. But it is difficult to see how this could be presupposed when the emergent powers of past norm circles (via a neurophysiological mechanism) are also the reason for present normative behaviour. Elder-Vass’s intentional language of groups ‘committed’ to endorsing and enforcing a given norm sits uneasily with his minimalistic theory of how such commitments emerge. The norm circle simultaneously asks too much of subjects yet offers too little to explain what they do. It systematically obscures the causal factors underlying independent variability in norm behaviour, such as the role played by emergent goods and evils in relations (Archer 2012, Donati 2011b) or the norms internal to practice (MacIntyre 1981, Sayer 1999: 63). In essence Elder-Vass offers a social theory of normative behaviour rather than a theory of normativity as such (Turner 2010). He recognises in principle that norm circles may be internally differentiated, in that norm behaviour may be anywhere from self-serving or prudential to committed and moral, however he offers nothing which aids us in the explanation of such internal differentiation. It presumably has its own history of emergence but, on Elder-Vass’s account, it is relegated to the status of a product of past experiences with norm circles and/or the reflexive deliberation that was required to negotiate between the demands of competing norm circles. Reflexivity is introduced solely at points where normative intersectionality interrupts what is otherwise a quasi-automatic process. His account successfully captures an important aspect of our moral experience, namely the manner in which exposure to ‘mixed messages’ invites reflexive deliberation, but it does so at the cost of emptying out moral experience. Our deliberations about moral matters don’t neatly start with the moment of choice and stop afterwards it. In essence Elder-Vass construes moral experience as existing solely in the gaps left by the reproduction of social structure (particularly those elements, norm circles, which shape action) and, in doing so, the intrapersonal dimension of normativity (i.e. moral agency) is thus implied to be exhausted by its interpersonal dimension in a manner which eviscerates the importance of what we care about (Archer 2000, Frankfurt 1998, Taylor 1985a, 1995b).

Once we recognise that each has relative autonomy, we can see that endorsement and enforcement is not the synonymous matter Elder-Vass takes it to be. Why people come to endorse norms (ideationally) and when/how they enforce those norms (relationally) are distinguishable questions. There is a gap between what we endorse, encompassing both the reflective and the habitual, and what we enforce, shaped by the particular relational configurations within which different practitioners of reflexivity find themselves entwined and their ensuing orientations towards interlocutors and acquaintances within these webs. Conversely, our reflective responses to the endorsement and enforcement of norms, as well as the degree to which we are situationally subject to their causal powers, varies across different practices of reflexivity. For instance if a subject relies on interlocutors to sustain and confirm reflexive deliberations, it leaves them open to conversational censure in a way in which strong practitioners of autonomous reflexives and meta-reflexives are not. If their interlocutor objects, mocks or fails to understand what they are saying then the possibility of reaching a conclusion, at least in that instance, is foreclosed; this need for conversational confirmation leads individuals to keep their deliberations in conformity with the conventions of the local context. Their internal deliberations are often restricted to gut reactions which are subsequently raised in dialogue with others, rather than coming to provisional conclusions which might later be ‘shot down’ by others. The reflexive deliberations of the communicative reflexive are constrained by the transactional dynamics of the dialogues through which they are enacted. As Archer describes the consequences:

“What the practice of communicative reflexivity does it to privilege the public over the private, shared experience over lone experiences, third-person knowledge over first-person knowledge. Through the tendency for every issues to be reduced to the experiential common denominators of its discussants, communicative reflexivity is inhospitable to the innovative, the imaginative or the idiosyncratic. In short, the speculative realm is severely truncated in favour of common sense, common experience and common knowledge.” (Archer 2007: 273).

While conversely, practitioners of other modes of reflexivity are subject to transactional dynamics of dialogues but not constrained by them because of their distinct characteristics as subjects. The relationality of what Elder-Vass terms a norm circle is more complex than his ontological commitments allow him to recognise (Archer and Elder-Vass 2012). Nonetheless I propose to reformulate the notion in a minimal form as that of a ‘norm group’, such as to understand it as the meso level manifestation of high sociocultural integration within specific interational contexts: if norm behaviour is convergent towards end X in social milieu Y then it will exercise a generative power of constraint and enablement in relation to agential projects which are complementary or contradictory to that end within that setting. ‘Peer pressure’ and the situational tendency it generates towards sanction or support constitutes the ‘ambient axiology’ which characterises any given milieu: the fact this is a setting in which there is convergence towards X is irreducible to the fact of there being individuals whose behaviour underlies this convergence i.e. that I might know that there are different personal reasons for individuals endorsing a certain behaviour does not change the fact that there is nonetheless a convergence in enforcement. Furthermore, relations of complementarity and contradiction obtain between norm groups in a manner which is not reducible to the individual members e.g. political disputes between groups do not go away simply because some of the members of the two groups might be friends. To suggest that norm groups play a causal role does not imply that this is taken to be the only or even a major factor in bringing out behavioural convergences. But it is nonetheless to assert the causal efficacy of convergent norm behaviour.

However to argue that norm groups do anything other than increase ‘peer pressure’, raising expectations of the social sanction likely attached to particular actions within a specific milieu, leaves the concept doing too much explanatory work. Most strikingly, it is unable to explain in its own terms how endorsement and enforcement might be independently variable. Understanding norm groups as complex assemblages of relational configurations, such that internal goods motivate consistent norm behaviour and participation in the norm group can independently strengthen the convergence which emerge from these goods, goes some way to understanding how this might be so. However to understand this fully we need to distinguish normativity in its interpersonal dimensions and its intrapersonal dimensions: the former refers to causal relations between people encountered in a relational setting and the latter refers to the logical relations between normative proposition grappled with in internal dialogue. In doing we are able to unpack the internal dynamics of the norm group: not least of all the question of how a divergently understood norm can nonetheless be convergently enforced by a given group (Holmwood and Kemp 2012).

Interpersonal normativity has, of course, an influence at the intrapersonal level but ‘norm groups’, so defined, are only one mechanism through which this happens: how causal relationships at the socio-cultural level are mediated to the personal level. Another is Sayer’s (2011) argument regarding character, which is seen to be profoundly shaped by the normative environment we encounter in everyday life. Norm groups shape the balance of potential inducements and sanctions which obtain relationally in a given setting, our character shapes how we have come to habitually orientate ourselves to them vis-a-vis our own reflexively defined concerns and commitments in any particular instance: it is shaped by the ambient axiology of past settings but in a manner which is mediated by the choices such settings have posed and how we have reflexively negotiated them. What is missing here is an account of the independent variance of ideas, as well as how this can shape individual psychobiographies on the one hand and the norm groups which emerge from a collection of individual psychobiographies generating a convergence in norm behaviour at the other. Without this, normativity becomes mysterious and our attempts to define it become circular: it is a matter of ideas, as well as power.

An interesting story went viral in the last couple of days which has left me thinking about the issue of normativity for the first time in a while. I have no way to know the accuracy of the reports but that’s irrelevant. If it turns out not to have happened in this way then this account can function equally well as a thought experiment. The extract below is from the Telegraph’s account of what happened. Kudos to whoever chose this title for the post: “A hipster humiliates a ‘dying’ middle-aged woman on a flight. Twitter applauds”.

Elan, like lots of Americans, caught a plane at Thanksgiving, and the plane was delayed. A few rows behind him, a middle-aged woman overshared about her fear of missing her family time with the passing staff. Now, we’ve all come across these people. There’s one on every flight. They’re a pain in the neck, but anyone with a modicum of maturity might have reminded themselves that people who are behaving like this are usually compensating for something else – fear of flying, for instance, or distress of another sort – and quietly tutted to themselves.

But not our hero. No, he was made of sterner stuff. Elan took it personally, and shared his disdain with his Twitter followers.

“Her family is very important to her, she says. Her family has a special recipe for stuffing. She needs to be there to help. It is crucial.”

“She had to sit down because we took off. She has been muttering ‘about DAMN time’ and I can hear her breathing from 5 rows back.”

After a while, sharing his disgruntlement with Twitter was not enough and he decided that punishment was the way forward. So Elan enlisted the help of a male staff member and sent her a glass of wine with a note. “[This] is a gift from me to you,” it read. “Hopefully if you drink it you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk.” Oh Elan! Your rapier wit!

Emboldened – or perhaps frustrated; it must be awful when such an act of naked courage goes unacknowledged – by his fellow passengers’ failure to respond, Elan set forth, armed only with two miniature bottles of vodka, to slay the dragon.

“Oh my God I did it I walked as if I was going to the bathroom and I leaned over and put them on her tray table and walked away Oh my God.”

“She just stared at me like REALLY hard. I’m not going to lie I am shaking.” You betcha, Elan! We’d all be shaking if we’d just taken on a woman in “mom jeans and a studded belt”. You’re, like, Maximus in the Colosseum!

But then things got scary. Diane (for such was her name) had the temerity to call him “an awful person with no compassion”’, on a page torn from a lined notebook. No compassion! The cheek of it.

So he responded the way that only a true man can. He composed another note. “I hate you very much. Eat my d***.”

Wow, Elan! Touché! High five! Though presumably, as you were in the air, you might have had to ignore the seatbelt signs for her to do this.

Anyway, the upshot was that, after a bit more penis-related badinage, Diane gave Elan a slap in the face and he ran away, crying.

What interests me here is the role played by norms in the unfolding of these events. The story’s virality likely flows from the dramatically conflicting norms concerning behaviour on a plane which are being acted upon here. It’s compelling because we recognise on some level that this normative dissensus exists in society, particularly when it comes to conventions, but rarely does it manifest itself behaviourally in quite so dramatic a fashion. Elan clearly sees the woman in question as contravening apparently obvious norms of comportment when flying. The woman’s ‘oversharing’ and breathing (!) were impinging upon his experience of the flight and, in her failure to restrict her audial impact on those around her, she was acting contrary to Elan’s understanding of how people should conduct themselves when crammed into an overcrowded plane with many fellow passengers.

Though I’m generally critical about the concept of norm circle put forward by Dave Elder-Vass, it’s often struck me as a useful tool to make sense of behaviour like this. In essence he talks about the role played by an awareness of others being committed to a norm in engendering our own tendency to act in accordance with that norm. He sees this as a matter of endorsing and enforcing a given norm – we learn from past experience that acting in a way that contravenes X will tend to provoke sanctions and, through doing so, we come to endorse X and habitually act in accordance with it.

I’m not keen on this as an account of the genesis of normative behaviour. However I do think Elder-Vass captures something important about the social psychology of interactional norms when he further distinguishes between proximal, imagined and actual norm circles. The proximal norm circle are those people endorsing and enforcing a norm whom we have directly encountered. Though limited in number, we take them to be representative of a wider group: the imagined norm circle is the dispersed group who we imagine to endorse and enforce a given norm. The actual norm circle is the objective extension of endorsement and enforcement of a norm. There are a lot of problems with this account. But what I find useful about it is the distinction between the imagined and the actual in making sense of the social psychology at work in a public transport situation. Whenever we act to enforce a norm we do so on an understanding, implicit or explicit, as to the existence of a wider circle who share the endorsement which motivates our action. We also often choose not to enforce norms which we nonetheless endorse. My point here, which I’m not sure is the same as EV’s, is a claim about the phenomenology of norm enforcement – acting because we think X is wrong is unavoidably tied up in (potential) questions about the agreement or disagreement of others with our stance.

My examples for this always come back to the quiet zone on trains – the spaces where mobile phone use is prohibited. There’s a variability in the extent to which train staff seek to display their endorsement of this rule (by announcing it) or to enforce it (by actually intervening when people use mobiles). There’s also variability in the extent to which people recognise the norm in question (some clearly don’t), the extent to which they feel bound by it (for example if they were forced into the carriage by overcrowding) and the extent to which other passengers feel willing or able to enforce a norm. Next time you’re in this situation, watch other people’s behaviour when someone starts talking loudly on a mobile: there’s all manner of performative expressions of endorsement of the quiet zone norm which are entirely distinct from actually seeking to enforce it. I have no way to prove this empirically but I’d suggest, on the basis of observation and theoretical reasoning, that someone is much more likely to seek to enforce the no mobiles rule if other passengers are noticeably performing their endorsement of the norm e.g. rolling their eyes, irritated coughing noises etc.

My point is that the endorsement/enforcement and proximal/imagined/actual distinctions are useful for making sense of these kinds of interpersonal disputes. I’ve suggested that Elan’s behaviour was at root a matter of enforcing a norm which he endorsed and saw Diane as contravening. He clearly felt empowered to act in ways which, from other perspectives, seem to contravene far more important norms of interpersonal behaviour. It’s this swagger (real or fictitious) which I want to understand and I suspect twitter plays a role. The intuition I had this morning when reading this story is that twitter expands the imagined norm circle. When we complain on Twitter about someone we physically share space with, we’ll often receive what can seem like tacit endorsements of our complaints (responses, retweets, favourites). Perhaps more importantly I suspect that silence is seen as, at best, indifference to what we’re saying and, at worst, tacit endorsement of our irritation: we imagine that our twitter followers agree with us. As a proposal about twitter etiquette I’d therefore suggest: if someone is live tweeting their travel frustration and they’re being out of order then say so! As this dynamic becomes much more common I wonder if twitter could have a real effect on people’s tendency towards intolerance on public transport. 

(see here for context)

Thanks for the thoughtful response and apologies for what seems to have been a slightly shrill note to my comments in retrospect. I wasn’t consciously commenting with a sociological hat on (so to speak) but I take the point nonetheless – the implication of MacIntyre’s work for sociology is, I would argue at least, an attentiveness to the normative dimension of everyday life, as opposed to the material and/or the meanings. That is the sense in which things matter to individuals in an non-reductive way, as well as the cultural and structural properties of the world (things like dominant conceptions of social science, esoteric political philosophy, online publishing platforms and organisations which employ people with particular views) which constitute the environment within which moral subjects find themselves and are faced with the challenge of making sense of circumstances they did not choose but are nonetheless capable of making choices within. It’s in this sense that i think i did slip into talking sociologically when I accused you of simplifying a complex amalgamation of circumstances. So I guess I was saying two things really and i stand by both of them:

  1. I was questioning the empirical basis for your claims in a straight forward lay sense. I just don’t think what you’re saying is true. You slip into making empirical claims in your second to last paragraph and I think they’re straight forwardly inaccurate on an empirical level – if you look at sociology, economics, political science, geography and anthropology in an anglo-american context the degree of truth or falsity is different. Foucault’s work (and that of his adherents) doesn’t represent a ‘radical deviation’ from the norm – he’s been cited almost 400,000 times.  He’s practically institutionalised in some parts of the academy. The Foucauldian whose work I’m most familiar with, Nik Rose, has been cited over 30,000 times and is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most highly cited British sociologists currently writing. What you believe to be the dominant conception of the social sciences does not, as far as I’m aware, exist outside of political science, economics and certain aspects of US sociology: in each case it is something very different despite the superficial commonality. There’s simply too much heterogeneity for the Straussian analysis to look like anything other than an (extremely interesting) anachronism orientated towards a post-war confluence of circumstances which hasn’t existed in the US for decades.
  2. Which brings me to the sociological point about simplification. To be frank I think you have a much stronger case when talking about the cultural politics of academia than you do when invoking the “implied politics of much of the research being conducted”. I also assumed this was what you were talking about in the first place i.e. the “why are professors liberal?” paradigm. My objection to what I took you to be arguing and the basis of my ‘narcissism’ comment was the sense in which it might be that they seem left-wing to you because of your own oppositional orientation to them i.e. they seem homogenous because of your own intense experience of heterogeneity within the academy. My frustration with what I took to be your simplification stemmed from the degree to which, as someone happily on the non-aligned far left for much of my life, it’s obvious to me that there’s a whole range of views which often get subsumed under the portmanteau term ‘leftism’. I realise now this wasn’t what you were actually arguing but I thought it would be helpful to explain where I was coming from. The other aspect to my frustration, which certainly is relevant, stems from what seems (to me at least) to be areas of near hegemonic social attitudes within the academy[*] concerning things like religion and secularism – spoken as a life long atheist whose most significant intellectual influences have nonetheless all been catholic philosophers. I’m sure there are others which I don’t notice, probably because I unthinkingly reproduce them. I would have assumed, looking at this from a sociological perspective, that these were the sorts of cultural tendencies which had provoked your ire. So when I accused you of simplification, it was on the (mistaken?) assumption that you were, in part at least, reacting to convergences of viewpoint which I accept exist but nonetheless over generalising from the existence to posit an ‘open conspiracy’ –  which I do accept as a possibility, in the sense of networks operating towards certain shared purposes without explicit organisation, but not in the sense you’re advocating, which suggested an unwillingness to accept the reasoned disagreement of others.

*It occurs when writing a statement like “within the academy” that I’m speaking generally and experientially, without any empirical basis that I can easily point to for substantiation, in precisely the way I was criticising you for doing. I remain entirely open to being persuaded otherwise though and the truncated empiricism I’d endorse is one which sees empirical data as adjudicating rather than prohibiting propositions which are not immediately substantiated.

In my last two posts on Being Human I discussed Archer’s account of emotions as commentaries on human concerns and her analysis of natural, practical and social affectivity. In this post I’ll explore her understanding of social normativity in greater detail before moving onto a discussion of the transition from first-order emotionality to second-order emotionality in a post next week.

From the realist point of view, normative conventions are not like some version of the social contract which acquires powers from its signatories, having none prior to this notional compact. Instead, such conventions and agreements are themselves culturally emergent properties (CEPs) which derive from past chains of interaction, but which, in any contemporary context, are pre-existent to, have relative autonomy from, and exercise causal efficacy over the present ‘generation’ of subjects. Individuals confront them, they do not create them, although they may transform them.” (Archer 2000: 218).

On this view social norms tend towards the production of regulative effects within society but, contra Elder-Vass, Archer cautions against conflating the ‘attempt’ with the ‘outcome’. She offers a view of well established norms “as a template which is slid across the total array of actions exhibited by members of society at a given time” which serves to “both categorise our action and attach evaluative judgements to them”. This represents certain behaviours or relationships to subjects as “being offensive, morally reprehensible and normatively unacceptable, above and beyond their legality” (Archer 2000: 218). These evaluative standards are emergent from past interaction and impinge upon present interaction, through which they are either transformed or reproduced. However the efficacy of these standards depends upon their subjective reception i.e. to exercise causal power we have to feel good if we live up to them or feel bad if we fail to meet them. Archer contrasts this to something like a traffic fine, which “operates as a simple deterrent which does not rely upon the internalisation of a normative evaluation” (Archer 2000: 218).

The punitive reactions which can be attached to a negative normative evaluation of our behaviour can certainly influence our actions but crucially it is our anticipation of the sanction which is exercising causal power rather than the normative standard as such: “for social evaluations to matter – and without mattering they are incapable of generating emotionality – they have to gel with our concerns” (Archer 2000: 219). So our evaluative capacities as deployed throughout our biography become crucial to understanding how subjects respond to the normative register they encounter at a given point in time. This is an objective phenomenon but not a homogenous one, as it emerges relationally and its reproduction or transformation is dependent upon the shifting orientations of evaluative subjects. The emergence of social affectivity requires more than a normative register and a continual stream of evaluations being passed on the comportment of fellow subjects: it requires that those norms actually be endorsed by people. This is the distinction between the power relation and a normative relation. If P1 does X and an indignant P2 does Y in response then the objective consequences of Y must be negotiated by P1 regardless of what they think of P2’s underlying motivation. However if P1 shares P2’s commitment to the underlying norm which motivates Y then the simple operation of power (the need for P1 to circumvent or otherwise negotiate the response of P2 to their action) becomes more complex, as P1 recognises themselves to have fallen short of a shared standard in their encounter with the action of P2 which has been motivated by that same standard.

As discussed in previous posts, Archer sees affectivity as arising in relation to our concerns. Environmental threats move us affectively because of our underlying concern for bodily well-being. The feedback we receive from objects in virtue of their material affordances and constraints pleases or frustrates because of our generic concern for performative achievement. In keeping with this relational view of affectivity, which sees it as emergent from the interaction between our subjective concerns and objective environment, she argues that the “most important of our social concerns is our self-worth which is vested in certain projects (career, family, community, club or church) whose success or failure we take as vindicating our worth or damaging it” (Archer 2000: 219). So the distinction here is between the normative evaluation of our discreet actions (e.g. someone finds offence in my unthinking choice of terminology while engaging in idle conversation about a topic of no great importance to me) and the normative evaluation of the projects within which we have invested ourselves (e.g. someone finds offence in how I have characterised asexual people in an journal article). For instance my own experience of the former is to either not care or find it mildly irritating or thought-provoking whereas my experience of the latter is to be deeply troubled by it.

In the first case the normative evaluation either does or does not resonate with my own evaluative dispositions but in the second case it troubles me because I’m deeply invested in the project which is receiving negatively evaluation. My prior commitment to the project serves to intensify the affect arising from someone normatively evaluating my comportment on the basis of a standard that I myself endorse (e.g. maintaining fidelity to the lived experience of research participants). Or this is what I take Archer’s argument to be at least. The notion of ‘social self-worth’ as a generic concern isn’t spelled out as clearly in Being Human as the analogous notions of physical well-being and performative achievement are. It also seems to reduce the significance of our projects into a narrowly social register in a way which obscures the complex assemblage of commitments which I can introspectively point to when reflecting on something like my own project of being a sociologist. I suspect she means something akin to a distinction between internal goods and external goods here i.e. we are driven either by the standards internal to a practice (practical affectivity) or the recognition of our achievement by others (social affectivity). But the distinction seems somewhat overdrawn if so. I’m going to think about this later when continuing with my data analysis.

I’ve been preoccupied recently by parallels I keep observing between common features of asexual biographies and those of other groups who share a common trait. In the case of asexuality this ‘common trait’ is not experiencing sexual attraction. Exactly what this entails about the individual’s experience and what, in turn, this experience has come to mean to them biographically is a more complex issue. But underlying the diversity which exists within the asexual community there does seem to be a common set of experiences. This ‘lack of sexual attraction’, whatever causes it if indeed such a question is meaningful, is rendered problematic through the normative pressures which are enacted with concrete others (peers, friends, family etc) whether directly or indirectly. This brings about an experience of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and self-questioning as to why this might be the case i.e. “what’s wrong with me? why aren’t I interested in sex like everyone else?”. The biographical specifics can be very variable from this point onwards and, given this is the starting point of a blog post rather than its main topic, I’m going to sidestep them somewhat. Suffice to say, if someone does come to identify as asexual (at least post 2001/2002) then they probably did so either through stumbling across it in the media or as a result of encountering asexual blogs, forums, videos etc online (with the former in fact often leading to the latter).

What has always fascinated me is the experience that comes next, as something that had been self-interpreted as pathology comes to be reinterpreted as a non-pathological characteristic which is shared with geographically remote others. Exactly what this means is again biographically specific. For some people it’s just a useful label to make sense of oneself and convey that understanding to others. For others it can lead to the emergence of a deep sense of collective identity. But what I think unites the range of responses people have to this discovery is the transformation of a difference into a commonality. Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

What emerges as a difference at (1) becomes a commonality at (4). As well as the application of this biographical model to other forms of experience, I’m interested in how processes of this sort can be understood at the macro-social level. If I’m right that the underlying mechanisms at are at work in other spheres (i.e. the expanded pool of interlocutors offered by the internet allows what would otherwise be a proliferation of differences to instead becomes the emergence of new commonalities) then this is a really interesting route into debates about the internet, social change and social integration. It raises obvious empirical questions about the nature of these ‘new commonalities’ and the similarities and differences which in turn obtain between them. Do they provide a basis for the establishment of ‘new continuities’ as Archer would put it? Or simply represent a fragmentation that exists at the level of groups, self-defined in a particularist and experiential way, rather than of individuals? Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘groups’ in this sense? Subcultural social worlds is a concept I’ve been playing with recently to make sense of this, seeing them as emergent but heterogeneous spaces of meaning and practice which are constituted through biographical interweaving and amenable to the further emergence of networks acting in relation to values and ideas within this ‘social world’.

*I keep writing this in inverted commas because I think it’s a conceptualisation of a difference and that its objective basis varies a lot. The category of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ emerges from the relation between particular constellations of norms about sexuality and an individual who, for whatever reason, does not meet the expectations implied by them. The ‘for whatever reason’ is the objective underpinning of that experience for any particular individual and it needs to be analytically distinguished from the biographical process of coming to understand oneself which it indirectly brings about. It’s a necessary but insufficient condition for the emergence of an asexual identity because the characteristics it is generative of need to be rendered problematic at the social level for them to be in any way significant. This is why I think studying the aetiology of asexuality is conceptually confused – ‘asexuality’ is a deeply socio-cultural phenomenon and it’s too broad a category upon which to base an investigation of what underpins it causally.

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of why people hold the political beliefs they do. In part this is because of how badly most people handle this question. From across the political spectrum, there is a pervasive tendency to explain away the beliefs of others: idiocy, ignorance, naivete, self-interest etc. In a recent Twitter conversation, someone invoked psychoanalysis to explain why neoliberals are committed to their project. Why are we so bad at dealing with the beliefs of others? To a certain extent it’s because we don’t approach them in a vacuum, we too have our beliefs and these stand in relations of contradiction or compatibility to those of others. It’s also perhaps, as Chantal Mouffe might suggest, a reflection of political incivility within the unhealthy democracies of late capitalism: seeing the other as an enemy to be defeated, rather than an adversary to debate with.

However I think a much more important factor is the sheer complexity of the question. Why do people believe what they believe? Our beliefs are caused and yet somehow transcend those causes. Our political worldview is marked by our natal context and yet escapes it. If we treat the question too abstractly we risk subsuming the messy complexity of the political worldview of thinking, feeling and fearing embodied agents into the conceptual abstraction entailed when we talk about things like ‘socialism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘libertarianism’ etc. This can seem justified by the fact there are people who consciously embrace the systematicity of these positions but this blinds us to (a) their normative commitments are always more complex than their stated beliefs make apparent (b) such people are, in this strict sense of having made an agential commitment to a position, surely a minority. An alternative approach is to treat the question in an empiricist manner, risking that we collapse a subject’s political worldview into the chain of events which led them to their present position and beliefs.

To get beyond these two approaches, I think what Ruth Levitas talks about as an archaeological approach to understanding political thinking is extremely useful. My understanding of this is based on a talk I saw her give two years ago  (see below) so what follows is more a summary of the line of thought this sparked off in myself, rather than an accurate summary of her thinking on the issue.

The archaeology of political thought involves making explicit the idea of a good society that is embedded in particular political positions. These may be, to varying extents, inchoate. Alternatively there may be a contradiction between what an individual expressly endorses as a good society and that which is implied by their substantive politics. But there is nonetheless a deep structure to political position taking. When we make normative claims about social and political arrangements, our statements carry further normative entailments which frequently outstrip our discursive awareness of them. This is why dialogue and debate help us elaborate our worldview i.e. arguing about politics helps expand our awareness of the unacknowledged entailments which stems from our acknowledged commitments, as well as offering us the opportunity to review and revise them.

If we consider this in biographical terms then the picture becomes, superficially at least, rather complex. The coherency of a political world view is something which is real (a logical structure holds between normative propositions) but unavoidably partial at the level of the actual (the cognitive tracing through and drawing out of these connections by a subject) and the empirical (the observable political commitments made by a subject). However we can make this complexity manageable if we focus on the actual: what brings about this ‘tracing out’ of the further commitments entailed by our existing beliefs? 

I think it’s inevitably sparked by the necessity of making sense of our experience. We read new things, we encounter new people, we discuss new ideas and we see things happen in the world. In doing so we are confronted with novelty which stands in a contradictory or complimentary relationship to our existing commitments. In doing so, assuming we don’t engage in what are arguably extremely common avoidance strategics to evade the moment, we are compelled to trace out entailments of our commitments.

To put it more directly, I’m saying that deliberation is central to this everyday experience of being a normative being. There is a rationalistic moment to this deliberation given that it is driven by things we experience as contradicting or complementing our existing beliefs. But it is not in any meaningful sense a rationalistic process. What can be reconstructed in rationalistic terms represents the possible contours of normative commitment but what leads us to make choices is the fact that things matter to us. To bring this back to the original question: adequately making sense of the political beliefs of our opponents involves recognising:

  1. They are also beings to whom these things matter
  2. Their current beliefs are part of a biographical unfolding driven by a perpetual struggle to make sense of what they encounter
  3. Their backgrounds have shaped their beliefs, in so far as it has patterned the novelty they’ve confronted and the cultural resources available to them in making sense of this novelty
  4. Their unfolding set of normative commitments have also been shaped ‘internally’ by the sort of deep structure, most easily identifiable in what we term ideology but by no means exhausted by this.
  5. While this deep structure exercises causal power via logical relations of contradiction and complementarity, normativity itself is a causal force. Ideas of the good life and the good society (encoded in mental images and cultural products) can ‘pull’ us towards them. We can be driven to systematise our thinking because of our desire to get ‘closer’ to the notion of the good life and/or good society embedded within it.

For an actual case study of this approach, this post discusses common attitudes towards asexual people.