My notes on Strathern, M., & Latimer, J. (2019). A conversation. The Sociological Review, 67(2), 481–496. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026119832424

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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