I’ve just started reading Ian Craib’s Experiencing Identity. I’ve intended to read his work for a while and I’m already quite taken with it. It seems to be exactly the sort of realist engagement with the psychosocial that I’ve been looking for, after getting increasingly frustrated by ‘psychosocial studies’ but nonetheless being profoundly aware that the kind of social theory I do like has an inadequate account of the psychic. The introduction alone has sparked off some thoughts on an issue I felt my PhD helped me better understand but didn’t really offer me any answers to:
We certainly have social identities: I am a university teacher, a father, a husband, a psychotherapist, a supporter of the English cricket team and so on. Some of these (especially the last one) could disappear without my experiencing any great loss. I would have lost an identity, not my identity. If I suffered a major tragedy in my family life, ceasing to be a husband an becoming a divorced man or widower, my identity would have changed in an excruciatingly painful way but I would still have an identity. Social identities can come and go but my identity goes on as something which unites all the social identities I ever had, have or will have. My identity always overflows, adds to, transforms the social identities that are attached to me. (Craib 1998: 4)
The point here is not simply one of recognising interiority for philosophical reasons. Craib’s argument is that failing to recognise experience precludes the explanation of identity. However a broader point can be made here, namely that we foreclose the possibility of explaining biographical trajectories if we fail to account for personal identity. Consider Craib’s example: why would it be ‘excruciatingly painful’ to get divorced but not to lose interest in cricket? There are various vocabularies we could deploy here but the underlying point here is one of investment. One identity matters to him in a way that the other does not. He is invested in one in a way that is not the case with another.
But what does this mean? This depends on the vocabulary we’re working with. It could be explained in terms of preference, libido, attachment, concern or evaluation. Each of these has consequences but we can detach this issue from the underlying meta-theoretical point: if we ignore ‘experience’, as Craib describes it, we are left with a “gap” in “sociological understanding and explanation” (Craib 1998: 1). One of the most obvious manifestations of this ‘gap’ is the difficulties it creates for explaining biographical trajectories. The meaning of changes undergone by individuals, anchored in their identifications with roles and identities, drops out of the picture. So too does action ensuing, however directly or indirectly, from the meaning held by this change. Once more, it is possible to deploy various vocabularies to describe and conceptualise what is missing when we confront this ‘gap’. But I think it’s important to recognise the extent to which the meta-theoretical point, concerning the basic dimensionality of the social world, can be conceptually detached from substantive questions concerning our characterisation of those dimensions.
My point is that ignoring interiority (which is my habitual term for what Craib means by ‘experience’) when attempting to explain the social world* is like drawing in 2D versus drawing in 3D. There are occasions where 2D might actually be better and there are certainly many occasions where nothing is lost. But we need to be aware of this abstraction as a technique because there are methodological and theoretical risks attached to its ontologization. Furthermore, there are many occasions where it’s outright mistaken, such that ‘drawing’ in this way cannot help but produce lopsided and deficient accounts of the process in question. Craib makes this point well,
even where sociology attempts to grasp elements of subjective experience, as in the sociology of the emotions, the understanding remains limited and stereotyped, working primarily as if individuals were only cognitive beings. One might argue that this does not matter – sociology is the science of society so why should it concern itself with the inner worlds of individuals? This would be fair enough if sociologists are trying to explain the decline of feudalism, or changes in the contemporary class structure, the large scale shifts in social structures. An understanding of experience in these cases would add a dimension of intelligibility and of colour but would not be essential. However, when sociologists lay claim to talking about identity, the self and emotions we need to know what we are talking about and experience, the subjective, the inner world, is a vital part of this discussion. (Craib 1998: 4)
I think we can identify a ‘dimension’ in this sense as a recurrent meta-categorical feature of theoretical discourse. ‘Meta’ in the sense that it might not be explicitly stated but instead emerges in the exchange of theoretical arguments, arising in relation to denials and affirmations, characterisations and disagreements. Sociological theory, at its best, helps render these meta-categories in an explicit form: structure/agency, objective/subjective, macro/micro, social/individual etc. But the career structures of the academy and the attendant pressures towards specialisation often leaves these theoretical accounts insufficiently grounded in empirical research. Part of what I’m trying to work out at the moment, not so much for any publication purpose as because it’s something I realise I’m genuinely conflicted about**, concerns the role of general theory. I’m haphazardly moving towards an understanding of the sociology of social theory which sees general theory as a problem, in so far as that it is inherently generative of intellectual fragmentation given its tendency to amplify disagreement over a priori issues, but also a potential solution. Perhaps a different sort of general theory? One that is provisional and iterative, emerging dialogically rather than developed monologically. But when I get to this point, I’m not even sure what I mean. The question is becoming clearer to me though: I want to study the formation of theoretical movements in different disciplines in order to feed into a normative account of trends within sociological theory. Not so much as another move within the game but as an analysis of the game in order that we might play it a bit better.
*Obviously many people wouldn’t seek to ‘explain’ but addressing that issue risks derailing this blog post.
**If I could go back and tell my anarchist punk self of my early 20s that this is what I would be “genuinely conflicted about” by my late 20s, would I still have done a PhD? Hmm.