The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

Which character from the Irvine Welsh novels has the most depth? While Francis Begbie might have counted as the most vivid, particularly as he was brought to life in Robert Carlyle’s unforgettable performance, I’d be surprised if anyone thought of him as the deepest. Yet that’s the impression one is left with after reading Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Blade Artist. I don’t mean depth in terms of the psychological coherence of the characterisation, as much as that Welsh has clearly spent a great deal of time reflecting on Begbie and what makes him who he is.

The Blade Artist begins in California. We meet Jim Begbie, succesful artist and devoted husband and father, facing down two men on the beach who threaten his wife and daughters. We soon see the remarkable, most of all happy, life he has built for himself across the Atlantic. A balance which is shattered by the news that his son Sean has been murdered, prompting Begbie to fly back to Edinburgh in order to attend the funeral.

His transition is explored through his return to Leith and reacquaintance with the familiar figures from his older life. He finds himself sympathising with the police’s lack of interest in his son Sean’s murder, wondering to himself “Why indulge people like that when they would simply take each other out if you left them to their own devices?”. He’s baffled in the face of old rivals, astonished “now to think that he cared enough about this guy to consider doing that”. In the face of the leering optimism of Sean’s mother that they might reconcile, he can only find her grotesque and idiotic.

Finding his way to an old boxing gym when he returns, he suddenly relates to past acquaintances in a new way. Those who had “been keeping him at arm’s length for years” were now suddenly “welcoming him into the ‘he used to be a bam but he’s alright now’ club”. They had joined this club a long time ago but in finding membership in it, he realises there’s still a place for himself in the city and once more feels at home there.

There were two figures integral to his transformation. The first, John Dick, “believed in him, despite Franco being determined to present all the evidence to the contrary” and ran the prison scheme which “brought in the writers, poets and artists, to see if anything would gel” and “Saw a spark ignite in a few, Frank Begbie being the most unlikely. Amongst these was Melanie, the art therapist, now his wife:

But who was she? She was good and strong and I was bad and weak. That’s what hit me most of all from being around her. That I was weak. The notion was ridiculous; it went against everything I’d come to believe about my persona and image, against the way I’d consciously forged myself over the years. Yet who else but a weak man would spend half his life letting others lock him up like an animal?

I was one of the weakest people on the planet. I had zero control over my darker impulses. Therefore I was constant jail fodder. Some mouthy cunt got wide; they had to be decimated on the spot, and I was back in prison. Thus such nonentities were in total command of my destiny. That was my first major epiphany: I was weak because I wasn’t in control of myself. Melanie was in control of herself. In order to be with somebody like her, to live a free life, not in a tenement or scheme on the breadline, or even a suburb and crippled with a lifetime of debt, I needed a free mind. I had to get control of myself.

His work began to receive recognition when he was granted day release to take part in an exhibition in Edinburgh. It soon won celebrity sponsorship, with prominent figures fixating on his portrayal of the life he had denied the man he killed, as well as his wider tendency to mutilate representations of celebrities in the name of art. Social recognition comes to provide a momentum of its own, sweeping him along in changes that are already underway, not least of all through his relationship with Melanie.

Much of all his change involves a changed relation to himself. Throughout the story, we see Begbie respond to situations through self-restraint, in full awareness of his inclination to lash out. This illustrates the continuity of his character, as the old impulses are marginalised rather than annihilated. What has changed is how he relates to himself and the world, with new concerns leading to an eery distance from the social world which formed him.

To the outside world, such a change is baffling. It comes from nowhere and invites accusations of insubstantiality. An accusation that has a kernel of truth given that he is still the same person, he simply orientates himself to the world in a different way. But there were moments in his past in which he sought change:

Ah’m just no feelin it, he says, recalling slivers of alcohol-fuelled violence, bonhomie and shagging. Then the long periods in between, of being stuck in a cell. Coming out. A fresh start. A new bird. Big plans. Resolutions made.

Then another wide cunt. Another incident.

Rather than a life time of stasis being followed by a sudden change, we can instead see his life as involving a whole sequence of impeded attempts to change. Frustrated attempts to become something other than he was, lacking both external guidance and the conditions within which he might enjoy success. For all its flaws as a novel, The Blade Artist captures the dynamism inherent in becoming who we are, the constant activity at work even when people fail to outwardly change and the possibility of significant transformation which always remains latent within them. In the end do we really change? The Blade Artist would suggest not but does so in a way that reminds us of the limitations of treating fictional portrayals as akin to qualitative data.

A great introduction to this concept I was previously unfamiliar with, from David Frayne’s Refusal of Work, pg 149:

As Bruce described his self-care habits, I was reminded of Gorz’s definition of ‘hygiene’, which for Gorz means something much more than the mundane rituals of preening and cleanliness. For Gorz, hygiene consists in a more rigorous attempt on the part of individuals to understand their bodily needs and improve their well-being. Hygiene is likened to an ‘art of living’, and refers to the ‘comprehensive set of rules that people observe by themselves to maintain or recover their health’ (Gorz, 1980: 151, his emphasis). In Bruce’s case, self-care meant a number of things, from stretching and exercising, to prioritising nutrition, and taking some time each day to rest and contemplate. To somebody else, self-care could entail a completely different set of practices. Self-care does not necessarily mean developing a strict, medically sanctioned well-being regime, but might also recognise the importance of unstructured time to relax, live in the moment, see friends, be irresponsible, and even do things commonly considered to be unhealthy. The important thing is that each person is free to decide autonomously which habits, practices, situations and environments allow him or her to flourish –a process of self-discovery which requires a degree of freedom from pressing economic demands.

I tried to explore this with my PhD, using Nick Crossley’s idea of Reflexive Body Techniques. My interest was in combining what’s likely a familiar concept of projects of self-transformation with a less familiar concern for projects of self-reproduction: those groupings of everyday activities which we habitually undertake because of a concern to preserve ourselves in a particular state or to meet a particular standard. I like the concept of ‘hygiene’ because it potentially incorporates both within a shared frame of reference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about themes from my PhD recently and how to introduce them into my current work. My overarching focus was on personal morphogenesis: how people change and how we understand this process sociologically. I’m particularly interested in cases where people seek to change, though having such a goal implies neither the possibility of success or clarity about the intended outcomes. In fact it’s the incohate examples, where someone seeks change driven by a nebulous sense of the possibility of something better or at least different, which fascinate me most of all.

The obvious way to map this issue of personal morphogenesis onto questions of social media is at inquire into how the different phases of the former are constrained or enabled by the latter. There’s a nice example of what this might look in Untangling The Web, by Aleks Krotoski, Pg 14-15. Though it focuses primarily upon the constraints:

I used to be able to completely reinvent myself once every five years. That’s on average how often I’ve moved cities. I started life on the road a week after I was born on a round-the-world trip that was part of my father’s work, and I’ve not been able to settle down since. This gave me a powerful sense of control over how others perceive me. I was able to explore something new about myself in every new place, and leave behind the history that I chose not to share with my new friends. I wasn’t escaping anything by not sharing, nor was I deceiving anyone; some things never come up. The Aleks I was in Louisiana was different from the Aleks I was in Washington DC, who was different from the Aleks I was in Glasgow, who was different from the Aleks I was in Brighton. And these were different from the Aleks I was when I was on holiday in Spain last year. But the web has eroded all of that. My online identity is a consistent, never-relenting backlog of “stuff” that I cannot get rid of, that –crucially –other people can see and that therefore I am accountable for even if I move to another city, country or planet. Because of my persistent online self, I, Aleks Krotoski, can no longer start over. This is a weird vulnerability that I’m not used to: when I’m looking for a job, an apartment to rent or a date, a quick Google search will uncover a trail of information about me and my past that I’ve put up and others have put up about me. It’s as if all my frequent flier miles have disappeared and I can never be anonymous or faceless again.

What is the good life? It’s a question which preoccupied me in my past life as a trainee political philosopher and it’s one which still concerns me as a sociologist. It’s rarely addressed within the discipline for reasons that cut through a number of trends within the field: a hostility towards normativity, an admission of normative question in a restrictively critical mode and a scepticism concerns questions pertaining to the particular character of individual lives. This is a shame because I believe sociology has a lot to contribute towards questions of the good life, not least of all because it can ensure otherwise abstract ruminations are grounded in an appreciation of the variable circumstances within which actual lives are lived. It can also help link these philosophical questions to empirical ones concerning dominant trends in how ‘the good life’ is conceived within a particular social order.

In this sense we could see existential questions as close to invariant but the dominant cultural answers as being immensely variable through history and across the planet. This is not a matter of individual variation, such that each person individually confronts universal existential dilemmas and through their responses contributes towards patterns that register aggregatively at the macro level as empirical patterns in understandings of ‘the good life’. It’s also necessary to distinguish between discursive formulations and actual practice without prioritising one over the other. Cultural formulations of ‘the good life’ are intimately connected to lived practices in a way that necessitates we appreciate their entanglement if we are to properly understand either culture or life. Only through doing so does it become possible to understand how change occurs at either level, as people individually or collectively advocate for heterodox understanding of the good life or elaborate upon prevailing ideas through their personal or shared practice which may come to be formulated at a discursive level and so escape their original context and begin to potentially exert an influence in others.

The work of Harmut Rosa offers clues about what a sociology of the good life might look like, though his suggestions are only a peripheral part of a much larger and very different project. In his Social Acceleration, he writes about the notions of a good life that emerge under conditions of acceleration and describes how these have been shaped by older conceptions of the life well lived:

the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it (pg. 181)

These are theoretical observations that are informed, albeit unsystematically, by historical sociology. I think they could also be informed by cultural sociology and cultural studies, drawing upon popular texts which deal with these themes. For instance I’ve been reading Late Fragments by Kate Gross, a former high flying civil servant, who died of colon cancer at the age of 34 and left a moving collection of ruminations on life catalyzed by its early end and the pain of leaving behind two young sons and a much loved husband.

Acceleration is a theme that runs through the book, albeit without using that term, for instance in her description of friendships that “survive on scraps of time and emails, squeezed between the rest of life, and very often conducted thousands of miles apart” (pg 51)  and her wonderment at the life she has lived (analysis of her privilege would be an important part of a Sociology of the Good Life, though in Kate’s case, it’s hard to think this through without feeling immensely uncharitable):

There is wonder in my past, and in my present. As I write this book, I lay out my memory quilt to see all the dancing I have done: places I have been, people I have met. I have fitted so much colour into my short life that I wonder if I lived on hyper-speed, as if, somehow, I knew my time was limited. (pg 30-31)

My suggestion is that Kate Gross embodied Rosa’s accelerationist ethic, feeling compelled at she did to fit so much into her life and confrontation with an early death leads her to reflect on the virtues and limitations of it. Her account of the cancer in part frames it in terms of deceleration, in which “time was carved out for friendship again” (pg 52) and she was led, by existential need rather than reflective inclination, to cultivate those aspects of herself which had been lost in the rush:

It is too easy, as an adult, to let life rush past with its business of succeeding, working, consuming, rearing. All of that can be joyful and fulfilling, I grant you. But it is so, so easy in the rush of life to neglect your inner world. I know mine was dead for many years, squeezed between work and achieving stuff and my darling little ones – it’s a choice I made, and gladly. But one of the unexpected blessings of illness is that it has given me time to tend my mind again. (pg 75).

I found the phrase ‘achieving stuff‘ immensely powerful. It conveys her continued investment in what she has accomplished while expressing how the details (what? when? why? with whom?) have begun to fade away in the face of finality. Perhaps this suggests it was the achievement rather than the particular achievements which were deemed worthwhile: securing the worth of life through what is achieved in its short span. This points us towards questions of qualitative worth: what distinguishes an ‘achievement’ from the simple fact of something we have done? Does it entail leaving a lasting mark? Once we start to ask these questions, we’re already way outside the realms of the hedonistic calculus currently being reinvented by behavioral scientists like Paul Dolan. The graphic artist Jim Steranko conveys this vividly in his account of the meaning he derives from his work:

I believe that happiness is nothing … I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to bean artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.

Marvel: The Untold Story, Pg. 83

Would this still provide meaning for him if his work endured but it was largely forgotten? There are lots of different levels on which statements of purpose and statements about purpose (with the latter probably more interesting) can be analyzed. I think a Sociology of the Good Life would be well equipped to do just this. The study of texts could supplement the theoretical work undertaken by someone like Rosa in a way that enhances both. However I think there would be much more to it than this, for instance looking at the material constraints upon the good life and how these ideas help reproduce existing inequalities, not least of all by binding people in to life strategies that perpetuate structural injustice.

I’m currently reading Vincent Deary’s How We Are. It’s the first book in a planned trilogy exploring how people change. For the last few months I’ve had a vague idea that at some point I’d like to develop themes from my PhD into a book for a wider audience. My project sought to develop a framework for studying the processes through which people change in a sociological way. But I’ve realised recently that there’s a sense in which that focus was as much a reflection of the process which led me towards these questions as it was an expression of my underlying interests (not to mention the fact that I had to write something sociological in order to be awarded a PhD).

What I’m really drawn towards are these questions of stasis and change – what does it mean to say someone stays the same and what does it mean to say they’ve changed? How do our circumstances facilitate or frustrate these processes? Where do these processes originate and how do they fit together over time? How can the lives we live be our lives when they are composed of moments we so often miss? It’s this last question in relation to which Deary’s book is most illuminating. It’s a poetic reflection on the relationship between stasis and change, exploring how a life composed of fragments can nonetheless avoid fragmentation. It’s this relationship between the whole and the parts of a life which I was trying to understand in my PhD and I’m left with the impression that Deary understands it much more profoundly than I do. He’s certainly written a book which occupies the same space as the one I aspired to write, even if it occupies that space in a slightly different way than would likely have been the case with the one I imagined.

One of many things I like about his book is how carefully he treats the relationship between cognition and agency. The philosophical tradition left us with a conceptual minefield here that Deary adroitly sidesteps, avoiding the parallel temptations of affirming a deliberative faculty from which reasons-as-causes inexorably originate and dissolving that deliberation into casually determined automaticity. Our deliberation often supplies us with reasons that many times lead to action but in a way that is far from inexorable and is dependent upon a vast assemblage of learned routines (“thousands of little rules so rigid they are no longer up for negotiation”) that are folded into our capacity for both deliberation and the action to which it sometimes leads. As he puts it, deliberation is “a late arrival at the evolutionary party, a tiny mote atop the massive mountain of automatic life, of knack and gist” (loc 693). But that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed as phenomenological froth, as a tendency towards higher level rationalisation of still basically automatic responses to environmental stimuli. The question then becomes one of how the two faculties operate in tandem, an issue made even more complicated by the demonstrably different temporal sequencing which characterises the operation of each. In addressing this question Deary uses the notion of the ‘gap’:

Between the impulse and the act, there is a gap. A gap in which imagination can picture outcomes, in which alternative impulses can compete, in which, for instance, morality (such as yours is) has time to encounter impulse (such as yours are) before it commits to act. There is time to think. (loc 704)

During that pause, our ability to remember and imagine comes into its own. Without the recourse to the gist of all our past, of who we are, without the ability to use that same faculty to imagine and construct future possibilities, there would be no space or time to think – no deliberation. (loc 713)

This is the gap in which reflexivity operates. It relies upon automaticity in the sense that as he puts it, automaticity reflects “everything you’ve ever thought, every place you have ever been, every action you have ever practised or mastered, every dream and wish and hope, every encounter, every place, every face and feeling, everything you know”. We encounter our situation already constructed (with the viability of interventions like CBT resting on the inherent possibility that we could reconstruct it in a different way) in a way that isn’t arbitrary but eludes our immediate control. The framing reflects who we are as a particular human being with these particular concerns and with this particular past that’s led us to this present situation and the future possibilities we (fallibly) perceive within it. Who we are is further expressed in how these possibilities come to matter to us – are we drawn towards some and repelled by others? Therein lies our inclination to be a person who does this and avoid being a person who does that. In acting within this gap, acting on the basis of inclinations or struggling against them, we contribute to the reproduction or transformation of these deeper continuities in which our personhood inheres.

The way Deary imagines this process is as dialogical but interior. The decision-making process is a meeting in which different aspects of us come into dialogue – we talk to ourselves about ourselves (and our circumstances) and through these internal conversations we reach decisions:

The nearest I can picture it is like being a host, in most of its senses, from genteel (host of a party) to spooky (host to a possessing spirit). In these moments when we are hosts to the decision-making process, we are holding open a space for notions, routines and agents to meet, encounter and network, to deliberate – a get-together of a group who somehow manage to accomplish a common task. As host, or even more accurately, as the venue, you merely provide, you are, the material conditions where this teamwork happens.

On this view automaticity isn’t a challenge to reflexivity but rather is a condition for it. Our deliberative faculty emerges out of this inner space in which inclinations, concerns, routines and ideas meet. Often it doesn’t – there’s much more to our inner worlds then the deliberation which sometimes emerges out of them.

From How We Are (How to Live Trilogy 1) by Vincent Deary (loc 247) – a beautiful and strange book:

Our first memories are of things out there, worldly happenings taking place in a world of circumstance, to this ‘I’ here, to this little self. Our real beginnings are veiled in darkness. Below the coherent order of the rational world, before the light of reason and reasonableness which illumines the world wherever we care to glance, beneath this familiar world, lies what? The scientists and analysts can only hint, guess or romanticize, but they seem to agree on this: that beneath the present coherence lies a time of chaos. Our sense of continuity, this coherence we rarely have cause to question, let alone notice, had to be formed, order had to be imposed, coherence grown, sense made. There was no ‘I’ to do it, because the ‘I’ was the result. At some point the ‘I’ that is you and me began to form the living breathing world that we now inhabit, at some point this world began to form an ‘I’. This strange reciprocity gave rise to us

In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I’m a methodological individualist. The term carries intensely negative connotations within the areas of sociology in which I spend my time. I’m certainly not an individualist in an ontological sense: I think the social world is made up of many kinds of entities and that we can only understand their composition by recognising their plurality and the stratified relations that obtain between them. I also don’t think we can adequately understand individuals as individuals, in the sense that, to use R.D. Laing’s description, “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being”. However, as he goes on to say, “any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”: while “I” always exist in relation to a “We”, this does not entail that the identity of the former can be subsumed into the latter. Unless we recognise the independent variability of the “I”, it’s impossible to make sense of the pattern of the development of the “We”: the trajectory “I” take can only be understood in terms of the shifting constellation of constraints and enablements entailed by a “We” that is reconstituted through my actions but nonetheless retains a relative autonomy from me.

In this sense, my approach to studying individuals without being an individualist understands people as temporally extended and always in motion. In other words, I’m concerned with biography. In his account of “actor centred sociology”, Daniel Little talks about the “actor-in-formation”: this is the meta-theoretical function of my notion of personal morphogenesis. I’m suggesting we can best understand the role of the individual within social processes by analysing other social entities in relation to how people change and how people stay the same: personal change and personal stasis then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of other social entities (and in turn engender tendencies towards personal morphogenesis or personal morphostasis etc). This is an argument about biographical microfoundations. This is how Daniel Little describes the notion of microfoundations:

This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures require microfoundations.

I think I differ with Little on what it means to say that we have “appropriately related” structure and agency. I also think there are problems with the notion of supervenience – as far as I can see, it locks us into an ‘aggregation dynamics’ view and precludes top-down causation. However I otherwise like this way of thinking. I’m suggesting that a biographical approach orientated to personal change is a useful way in which we can bridge the gap between micro-sociology and macro-sociology. In essence, I’m suggesting that we think in terms of biographical microfoundations and see the social world as constituted through the unfolding of biographies and their entanglement within situated milieux.

At present I’m leaning towards publishing my PhD as individuals papers rather than as a monograph. However these would be a contribution to a long term project, Becoming Who We Are, which will eventually be a monograph. My PhD has left me with an understanding of my project but I don’t feel intellectually capable of writing it yet. I would use the theory of personal morphogenesis developed in my thesis as a basis for (a) a theory of biographical microfoundations (b) a methodology for studying the lifecourse (c) a theory of the actor (d) a framework for actor centred sociology.

The last phrase is one I’ve encountered through Little and I find it a very helpful way of framing what it is I want to do. Though I don’t think she’d accept the terminology, I’d now understand Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity (including Being Human, as well as the trilogy of books on reflexivity) as developing a theory of the actor and a framework for studying actors. I think it’s very strong in many respects but that there are elements of it which need to developed further. These are the questions that Little suggests a theory of the actor needs to address:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is very strong on (3) and (4). The account she offers is very promising on (2) and (5), underemphasising some of these aspects but providing a framework within which they can be treated substantively. I think much more work is needed for  (1), (6) and (7). In my PhD I developed a few ideas which could be used to address these points:

  1. Reflexive technologies are ideational constructs, sometimes encoded into a material device, which are used to extend our capacity for reflexivity. This concept orientates us towards (a) the relationality of reflexivity, in that a self-relation can itself stand in relation to a ‘reflexive technology’ (b) the ways in which particular ideational constructs have divergent effects for particular persons (c) how the assumed reflexivity of others enters into processes of design, marketing and learning i.e. when, how and why do people seek to construct reflexive technologies?
  2. Cultural resources are the raw materials of representational schemes. They are encoded into cultural items, often in incoherent and heterogenous ways, susceptible to purposive ‘extraction’ and non-purposive influence. They often, though not always, stand in complentary and contradictory relations to each other, which are subject to various dynamics of ‘activation’.
  3. Reflexive technologies and cultural resources operate by shaping internal conversation. They shape how we represent our situation, how we represent the range of possibilities within that situation, how we envisage the possible futures available to us and how we talk ourselves through the process of answering the question ‘what to do?’

photo (3)

Thanks to everyone who tweeted nice things. Even those people who reminded me that I’ve still got to do a viva which, unfortunately, will not be till the summer.

In spite of what I wrote here I’m actually pretty pleased with it. Though some of the weekends in the last month that were entirely devoted to making the individual chapters fit together into a coherent whole were pretty unpleasant. I’ve learnt two important lessons:

  1. Always record full details for sources you’re using when you write. The process of reconstructing these at a later date because you were too lazy/stupid to do this is one of the most tedious, time consuming and irritating tasks imaginable. I spent years thinking “I’m going to regret this when it comes to writing up” and I really did.
  2. Don’t leave overarching questions of how it all fits together until the end. To a certain extent this is inevitable with a PhD, in so far as that the overall purpose only really becomes apparent through pursuing it. But I made it much worse for myself by not seriously addressing these questions until the end.

It occurred to me after I submitted it earlier today* that I can literally trace the development of the thesis through the ‘personal morphogenesis’ category on my blog. The first post in the category was in January 2011, at the start of my third year (part time) and around the time I seriously started writing. The last post is on March 26th 2014… now to studiously forget about my thesis until the viva.

*Unfortunately having had to get it reprinted because I was so overjoyed to have finished the damn thing that I didn’t think carefully enough about what I told the printing company.

R. D. Laing says in one sentence what has taken me thousands of words:

“our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … but any particular person is not a necessary part of our being” (Laing 2010: 26)

This is what the (confusing?) diagram from my PhD is intended to illustrate. Any person’s biography is intertwined, at many points, with the biographies of others. I’ve always liked symbolic interactionism* because it so insightfully analyses the T2-T3. Whereas I want to understand the whole process:

  • Our relatedness is essential to our being: ‘I’ am always in some relation to ‘We’.
  • But the ‘I’ and ‘We’ change: no particular person is an essential part of our being.

If you accept the underlying premise (many wouldn’t) then the problem you’re left with is fascinating.

This was a phrase suggested to me by my friend Holly Falconer in the early stages of my PhD. It resonated with me strongly and, since then, the working title of my PhD has been Becoming Who We Are: Theorising Personal Morphogenesis. What I’m trying to convey with this is a process (how people become who they are) and what’s needed to study this process (a theory of how persons change). These sound like obviously theoretical questions and they’re ones which I first began to be able to articulate when I was a philosophy MA student reading a great deal of Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre. It was this interest which led me towards the literature on individualization and detraditionalization when I was beginning to explore sociology. I was gripped by Modernity and Self-Identity, as flawed though I now think the book is. Bauman in particular fascinated me. Again, it’s now the case that I find much of his work problematic (not least of all the fact he’s been writing the same book again and again for years) but I criticise him respectfully from the position of someone who has read a majority of his books from the 90s and 00s. Another book which really expanded my horizons as I made this transition from philosophy to sociology was Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. This is yet another author I now find myself critical of, though if you redefine what he does as ‘sociological journalism‘ then I’d call it the outstanding example of the genre.

My point is that these books began to change how I saw the underlying theoretical question that obsessed me: how we become we we are as a ‘self within moral space’ cannot be understood if we abstract too far from the social context. Addressing the theoretical questions I was drawn to necessitated understanding what Mills called “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”. These theories of social change that so gripped me as a disenchanted philosophy student did so precisely because of their attentiveness to (wo)man, biography and self within a changing world. What is it like to be a person now? It doesn’t take much sociological musing to see what’s wrong with this question. It’s an empirical question being asked at a level of generality which precludes an empirical answer. So sweeping accounts of social change, such as those offered by Giddens and Bauman, both invite and need empirical investigation. Conversely empirical researchers investigating specific topics (such as family, youth, sexuality etc) often find a great deal of value in what Carol Smart describes as the “the broad canvas” found in general theories of social change. The problem is the interface between them: how do theories of social change get used in empirical research and how does empirical research help elaborate theories of social change? This is the third and final top of my thesis.

  1. What is a person? How do persons change?
  2. How is social life changing in 21st century?
  3. How can general theories of social change condition empirical research and vice versa?

These are big questions. They’re ones which I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of in my PhD. But I’ve had a serious go at addressing them. My conviction has been that the answer to (2) and (3) rests on (1). Or in other words, an understanding of real persons undergoing real changes is a crucial aspect of theories of social change – given it is a theory it will unavoidably abstract from said persons but it needs to be explicable in terms of them. Furthermore, its utility as something which can be drawn upon in empirical research depends on its underlying assumptions about what persons are and how they change. Theories of social change can provide a focal point for empirical refutation (e.g. there are pervasive constraints and inequalities in gay and lesbian lives which are obscured by the Giddensian account of personal life in late modernity), a fulcrum to help gain purchase upon data and begin to interpret it (e.g. the psychic distress caused by an intensification of social pressure to take responsibility for oneself), a conceptual toolkit to help clarify the framework for investigation (e.g. exploring ‘fateful moments’ encountered in the biographies of participants) and all manner of sensitising devices which can drawn upon in the shift from description to explanation.

In my thesis I’ve addressed Giddens and his writing on detraditionalization as one particular example of a theory of social change which has proved widely popular in all manner of sub disciplinary areas. Given the general fragmentation of sociology, I think it’s important to take this body of work seriously, if only because it a common frame of reference for many people working in otherwise disparate areas of social research. The first few chapters of my thesis concern what I think the problem is with it. Namely, its overly psychoanalytical concept of the person. I argue that the absence of a theory of how particular persons respond to particular changes, as the Giddensian subject vacillates between instrumental rationality and existential angst, causes problems when the broader theory is drawn upon by social researchers. Obviously people do some sterling work while using this theoretical perspective but they do so, I argue, in spite of rather than because of it. I argue that the work on detraditionalization will only tend to thematise data, contextualising micro findings in terms of putative macro trends – it amalgamates the micro and the macro rather than drawing them together.

My point is not merely to attack Giddens. I’m arguing that if we’re drawing on these general theories of social change to make sense of research data then it’s important that we be clear about the former is and is not doing in relation to the latter. General theory doesn’t determine what people do with it during the analysis. But it does incline us in some directions and disincline us from others. It foregrounds some things while others retreat into the background. For qualitative researchers, this is often a matter of persons and their lives – not to be treated individualistically but nonetheless to each be acknowledged as specific persons with specific attributes and specific histories. My problem with Giddens in general, as well as ‘fateful moments’ in particular, is that his work lacks ‘hooks’ through which we can connect the general to the specific, the universal to the particular, the macro to the micro. The tendency if we use this stuff is that we vacillate between making very general claims and making very specific ones, rather than trying to systematically trace out the connections between the participants in our research and broader social and cultural processes. If we accept the Millsian mission (and many don’t) to understand “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world” then, it can’t be stressed enough, what that ‘interplay’ is and how it works becomes utterly crucial. This question in turn points towards our theory of the person (or subject , or actor, or individual – it’s the acceptance of the meta-category which matters most for my argument). The issue of how we theorise this ‘individual unit’ is one caught up in disciplinary politics about the division between psychology and sociology, as well as the issue of individualism. However recognising individuals does not entail being individualistic. We can accept the meta-category of the ‘individual unit’ while still thinking at population level. The only insistence I’m making here is that individual persons have properties and powers which cannot be dispensed with or brushed aside because they ‘belong’ to psychologists. But it certainly can have this individualistic ramification and that’s why it’s so important that we get the underlying questions right. However, if we avoid these questions then the answers we tacitly give to them will have consequences nonetheless. If we are interested in the ‘interplay’ then we must seriously address what our theory of the person entails for that interplay. This I argue is why Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is so valuable. It’s a theory of the person conceptualised in terms of this interplay, emerging relationally as we make our way through the world. I’ve written lots about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t repeat myself here.

So all that ^^ is the intellectual context in which this apparently abstract question (how do we become who we are?) that obsesses me so becomes important. The second half of my thesis attempts to pin down much more explicitly what ‘personal morphogenesis’ is. I’ve argued that accounts of social change implicitly and explicitly make claims about ensuing changes in persons which contribute, in many ways, towards the reproduction or transformation of the context itself. So what are these changes at the most basic level? Abstractly: they are biographical sequences through which a particular person is elaborated in some way. Concretely: it depends who we’re talking about. My concern is to get away from a focus on transitions qua transitions (so as to categorise personal changes in terms of convergent/divergent responses to the same biographical event) and instead elucidate the changes in terms of the lived life of the individual while nonetheless explaining how and why these changes occurred. My thesis uses an empirical case study, recurrent qualitative interviewing of 18 students identified and selected through a survey instrument, in order to develop this analytical approach. It uses Margaret Archer’s understanding of morphogenetic analysis to delineate cycles of change in the my research participants. The second half of my thesis presents the empirical case study, exploring their biographies typologically (what sort of changes do students undergo in the process of becoming students) while nonetheless drawing out the divergent trajectories within the group of participants. It then looks at four in depth case studies, delineating morphogenetic cycles of personal change from the longitudinal interviews – in most cases there was 1 full cycle and 1 incomplete one, perhaps unsurprisingly given I finished the research at the end of their second year at university. The research question for each is: how did they become the person they are at the end of the fieldwork? So these case studies are intended to be illustrative of the approach, as well as being (partly) the basis through which I developed it.

The final section draws upon the first two and offers a full statement of the concept of ‘personal morphogenesis’. It’s an analytical construct, informed by a particular account of the person, which is nonetheless intended to be methodological. In short, it offers a framework within which the variable influences of different factors (personal, relational, cultural, structural) can be analysed without abstracting away from the person concerned and their lived life. In the final chapter I address some of the broader objections which many might raise to the approach, aim to situate it an broader context and particularly to suggest some of the uses to which it might be put. It’s an intensely ideographic approach which is also intensely theoretical; a combination which makes it the most intellectually unfashionable thing I could imagine. But I’ve spent years making it and intend to use it. It worked well for my asexuality research, in the sense that constituted a second case study through which I was trying to refine this approach to analysis.

Unfortunately I’m no closer to answering the underlying philosophical question which drove the whole thing. But at least I’m much clearer about what the question is. Plus now I’ve sat down and written this post, satisfactorily describing “what my PhD is about” for the first time whereas previous attempts have made me wince, it’s probably time for me to go and actually finish it. It is now a thing. It is written. It is final. So now it’s time to finish polishing it up before I hand it over to the world and get on with the rest of my life.

Sometimes by its very nature, routinization begets change, a desire for change that was laying dormant in the mind and cultural experience within the biography of the individual, which may then be trigged into activation by a concatenation of circumstances. Unanticipated crisis can break monotony and bring great change, anticipated change can bring realization of monotony and bring crisis and bring greater change. The former may sometimes be the lot of the working class male factory worker, facing redundancy, or the working class woman facing marital breakdown; the latter may be the working class woman enrolling on Access as the children are settled in school, but that very enrolment may unsettle her own life circumstances.

John Alford, Journeys : personal morphogenesis, Pg 319

At any given moment I exist in relation to a we. But I also bring to those relations a ‘me’ made up of things which have happened to me and things which I have made happen. Many aspects of the past ‘me’ deposited in any present moment belong to the domain of psychology. Beyond this I also bring with me dispositions, concerns and projects which shape how I approach the ‘we’: the things I tend to do habitually, the things that matter to me and those activities which I deliberately strive to engage in because they actualise my concerns. It is through this interaction with a ‘we’ that my personhood is either reproduced (personal morphostasis) or elaborated (personal morphogenesis).  Charles Taylor’s notion of ‘webs of interlocution’ nicely conveys what I’m getting at there:

One cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding – and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call ‘webs of interlocution’. It is this original situation which gives its sense to our concept of ‘identity’, offering an answer to the question of who i am through a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom. The full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community. (Taylor 1989: 36).

We are born into a ‘we’ and our identity as ‘I’ emerges in relation to it. Throughout are lives, we are continually entangled in relations with others – some chosen, others not – which contribute to shaping the people we become. But this process of becoming who we are emerges in interaction, as what we bring to the interaction (me), conditions how we act (I) in relation to our reference group (we) and, through this interaction, our present characteristics are often elaborated as we become our future self (you). The notion of ‘you’ I’m invoking here relates to our sense of our possible selves: 

Possible selves are future representations of the self including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experience singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by functioning as incentive for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less-desirable selves. As representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form, specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears. In other words, elaborated possible selves influence the development of specific strategies for action, focus an individual’s activities, give direction in the pursuit of these goals and energise the person to achieve them. Not unsurprisingly research has shown that those with highly developed career-possible selves are more motivated, goal orientated and energetic than those with less or unelaborated ones. These individuals are a lot more likely, when confronted with a threat to the possibility of achieving a desired career-possible selve, to their persist with their goals and strategies or develop new career-possible selves. (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 3)

So the ‘me’ conditions how ‘I’ act in relation to ‘we’ and this in turn shapes the ‘you’ that I become. However the ‘we’ is not some preconstituted collectivity. Firstly, we often have more than one ‘we’ in our lives – something I can conceptualise but have no idea how to represent visually. More importantly though, our ‘we’ is constituted of other I’s and I am part of their ‘we’ . So in the process of our interaction through which I change, those in relation to whom I act are also themselves changing through that interaction. Here Px stands for any number of people and the T1-T4 represent the same moments of ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ for each and every one of these individuals:

So understanding biography cannot be divorced from understanding relations. On this view, relations represent a form of biographical entanglement in which, using Nick Crossley’s phrase, two actors “have a history of past and an expectation of future interaction and that this shapes their current interaction” (Crossley 2011: 28). But this interaction is always situated – the dotted enclosure below represents the social milieux in which this interaction tends to occur and this will, in turn, constrain and enable the interaction which takes place within it:

The patterning of the interaction over time between ‘I’ and ‘we’ generates emergent properties which shape future interaction:

Where the receipt of ‘relational goods’ is concerned, this has the generative tendency to create bonds and interdependencies at the empirical level amongst the persons involved that denote more than ’good interpersonal relations’. They indicate something in excess of a degree of warmth and some regularity of contact. That ‘something’ refers to emergent properties, namely ‘internal goods’ (such as love, reliance, caring and trust) that cannot be produced by aggregation are also deemed highly worthwhile in themselves (Archer 2012: 99)

So even if I acquire my reference group contingently and externally (as the vast majority of my research participants did when the university accommodation office placed them in a halls of residence) this biographical convergence leads to entanglement if and only if the various parties value these relations and seek to sustain them over time.

One of the key aims of my thesis is to elaborate a theory of personal morphogenesis i.e. the psychosocial dynamics of how individuals change. In broad terms, I am construing the subject matter as biographical. I’m interested in understanding how the particular circumstances which a specific individual inhabits at a given point in time contribute to shaping who they are over time. Or to put it a slightly different way, I want to understand how biography unfolds psychosocially i.e. how do the ‘moments’ of our life contribute to shaping our overarching life course? I want to theorise this but I also want to build tools which enable these processes to be properly studied, allowing researchers to avoid the pitfalls of over-privileging agency, culture or structure in their sociological explanations of empirical observed biographies.

This necessitates understanding the mechanisms which drive the direction taken by biographical unfolding. Here is where the notion of reflexivity comes into play, as individuals fallibly weigh up their objective circumstances against their subjective concerns and decide what to do. The methodology I’m developing involves reconstructing reflexive ‘moments’, as well as the deliberations and actions they give rise to, with the intention of addressing how cycles of personal morphogenesis (i.e. something changes in our circumstances which has, in our selves, subjective significance, we respond to it reflexively and, in the process, both ourselves and our circumstances are changed to varying degrees) knit together over time to produce the biographical trajectory we can observe retrospectively.

After years of intending to read John Bowlby, I’ve finally got round to it and I’m very impressed. He formulated attachement theory as an attempt to affect a paradigm shift (in a very self-consciously Kuhnian fashion) within psychiatric research and therapeutic practice. I won’t bother outlining the theory (the Wiki link above is excellent) because my interest in it is somewhat tangential but rather crucial to what I’m trying to do in my PhD. Bowlby offered his account as a theory of psychopathology which “instead of starting with a clinical syndrome of later years and trying to trace its origins retrospectively”  drew “on observations of the behaviour of children in certain sorts of defined situation[s], including records of the feelings and thoughts they express” and traced out the consequences prospectively (pg 29). Or, in other words, it took interpersonal dynamics at a particular point in time and, through empirical research and theoretical work, elaborated an account of the ensuing intrapersonal consequences.

Its capacity to do this in an explanatorily productive way rests on an attentiveness towards an “internal psychological organisation with a number of highly specific features”, as well as how these internal structures are shaped by the relational contexts the child confronts over time (pg 32). For my own purposes, I’m taking attachement as one particularly significant category of interaction between one particular social domain. In my terminology: Bowlby’s gives an account of how psychic structures (intrapersonal) are shaped over time (diachronic) by attachement dynamics (relational) at particular points in time (synchronic). This is the basic structure of what I’m trying to map out: how different causal factors at a particular point in time lead to the elaboration or reproduction of our personhood over time.

However Bowlby’s account is too specific for my sociological purposes (though this isn’t intended as a criticism of him). Within the domain of human relationships, his picture of why attachement happens – i.e. what is it about some people, in the context of a relationship, that engenders attachement behaviour – is overly narrow. It remains entirely relational rather than considering, for example, how structural factors might impart characteristics which engender attachement behaviour in some e.g. stable income –> security & reliability. It also seems to lack a broader theory of what relationships are, as well as how they lead to the emergence of goods/evils, virtues/vices or whatever term you like to denote the fact that relationships have emergent characteristics which are (a) irreducible to the individuals involved (b) are good, bad or anything in between relative to the subjective concerns and projects of each party to the relationship.

So, in short, I think Bowlby is for entirely understandable reasons offering an account of a particular class of interpersonal/relational modality which, given the way humans are constituted, is developmentally hugely significant and also very important to our emotional lives as adults. My intention in the PhD is to map out classes of modalities through which (synchronic) causal factors in different social domains – as well as conjunctions of factors within/between those domains – give rise to the (diachronic) transformation or reproduction of personhood.

In slightly more pleasant terms: it’s a theory of how we become who we are and an explanatory methodology for unpicking how different sorts of casual influences shape this process over time. Theoretically I want to develop an account of how human personhood is shaped which incorporates the psychological and the social without unduly privileging either. Methodologically I want to develop an approach which can be applied to any qualitative research which is concerned with biography/life course through identifying particular cycles of personal transformation or reproduction:

T1 – Causal factors within or between social domains that relate to our personhood

T2  to T3 – Leading to the transformation or reproduction of psychic structures

T4 –  An elaborated or reproduced set of psychic structures

Who we are over time is shaped by an endless array of such cycles which are empirically superimposed. Which is why biographical research can be so messy. My approach – developed through a 2 year longitudinal case study of 19 participants with 5 in-depth interviews – helps alleviate this. Given a particular interest, whether defined at the start of the research or testing out different interests iteratively as one proceeds, data analysis can precede by identifying the above cycles and unpacking the T2-T3 dynamics. Speaking from personal experience, this is starting to prove a VERY powerful way of making sense of longitudinal qualitative data, though I’m less confident about how useful people would find it with non-longitudinal data.

My intention is to use my data to iteratively developed a taxonomy of classes of modalities that obtain at T2-T3. Or in slightly less weird language: in what sorts of ways do personal characteristics, relationships, ideas, social structures – or some combination thereof – have an impact on who we are over time.

This is all a bit rough. I’ve also just tried to explain in 500 words what I spent 15000 words explaining in the PhD itself. Does this make sense to anyone? I’m presenting this for the first time in April and I really do need to learn to summarise it to people who aren’t my supervisors and/or haven’t read my thesis and/or aren’t critical realists. I quite successfully explained this to a room full of critical realists in Oslo last October but am a bit worried I won’t be able to manage it without the shared intellectual background. Hmm.

Here’s the core 4 questions / aims as I just tweeted them:

  1. In what SORTS of ways can personal characteristics, relationships, ideas and social structures (or combination thereof) shape who we are.
  2. How do these kinds of causal relationships add up to shaping the life of any particular individual, understood as a specific biography
  3. How can we do social research in a way which recognises ALL these different sorts of relationships + doesn’t over/under privilege any?
  4. In practical terms of research design & data analysis, how do you put this approach into practice? What are difficulties+benefits of it?


When i talk about ‘social domains’ I mean:

  1. Personal – our personal characteristics & capacities, some generically human, others shaped by our own personal histories (including the genetic)
  2. Relational – the relational networks within which we’re embedded, their characteristics as networks, as well as the characteristics of the relationships which comprise them (and the emergent goods/evils found within them)
  3. Ideational – basically the ideas both actually and potentially accessible to us at a given point in time given our social position, as well as the logical relations that obtain between them
  4. Structural – the allotment of material resources and cultural capital we enjoy at a particular point in terms, our positions within organisations and bureaucracies, the emergent consequences of political&economic processes which we are subject to given that we, like everyone else, have a particular social placement

The quotes above are from Bowlby’s “A Secure Base”