There’s a section in this 1997 chapter by Roger Burrows which my thoughts have been intermittently turning to since reading it last week. On pg 235 he writes:

It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world. The speed at which new theoretical discourses emerge, are disseminated and then become passé is now absurd. It is almost as if the second that one begins to engage with some new conceptual development it becomes unfashionable. The recent literature on things ‘cyber’ is a case in point. Reading it makes the latest pile of books on the postmodern, globalisation, reflexive modernisation (last year’s model?) and the like appear mellow and quaint. Never mind who now reads Marx? or even Foucault? Who now reads Baudrillard?

This process of sociological passéification is, of course, not unconnected with ‘fin-demillennium’ pessimism and our general loss of visions of utopian transcendence and hope in a better future. Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target. In the recent conceptual scramble some analysts have begun to turn to sources of inspiration beyond traditional social scientific and political discourses in order to try and make some sort of sense of our contemporary condition. In particular the fictional world of cyberpunk has been seized on by some as a resource of analytic insights into the new dimensions of human, or even post-human existence, which are supposedly now upon us.

It suggests that intellectual faddishness is something explained by the character of reality itself, as a “constantly moving target” provokes “ever more frantic attempts” to “provide some sort of sociological frame”. It struck me when reading this how clearly the themes of the coming crisis of empirical sociology are prefigured here: is a descriptive turn something which facilitates an escape from this acceleration of theory? I’ve always  found this unsatisfying, aspiring instead to a social theory able to handle the pace of social change.

However the normalisation of intellectual change taking place at this pace makes this increasingly difficult, establishing career strategies predicated on capturing the intellectual attention space through the production of novelty. Though such novelty always rests on a relative judgement, inevitably compared to what immediately preceded it rather than the full stock of theoretical propositions which are in principle available.

How has social media contributed to the growing success of Corbynism? In asking this question, we risk falling into the trap of determinism by constructing ‘social media’ as an independent force bringing about effects in an otherwise unchanged world. This often goes hand-in-hand with what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’, framing social media in terms of the spontaneous sociality it allegedly liberates as previously isolated people are able to come together through the affordances of these platforms. It’s easy to see how one could slip into seeing digital Corbynism in these terms: the power of social media allowed ordinary labour members to come together and take their party back from the Blairite bureaucrats. Such a view would be profoundly misleading. But social media has been crucial to events of the last few years in the Labour party. The challenge is how we can analyse this influence without allowing ‘social media’ to take centre stage.

It’s useful to see these issue in terms of institutional changes within the Labour party. Membership had declined from 405,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009. The election of Ed Miliband in 2010, with his union-backing and soft-left presentation, led to a surge of 46,000 new members. This stabilised throughout the parliament, with continued new members replacing those who left or lapsed, before another small surge took membership past 200,000 in the run up to the 2015 election (loc 377). The fact this influx of new members took place while social media was on the ascendancy in the UK implies no relationship between the two trends. But it’s interesting to note that substantial numbers of new (or returning) members were coming into the party at precisely the moment when new tools and techniques for interacting with each other and with the party itself were coming to be available.

It is convenient for some to blame social media for how events unfolded. We see this view reflected in the complaints of some on the Labour right that the nomination for Corbyn in the first place represented MPs crumbled under an orchestrated social media onslaught. However as Nunns ably documents, we can see a clear political calculus at work in many cases, with many feeling the need to keep the left onside, within their constituencies and beyond. In some cases, he speculates, such pressure provided an excuse to act on pre-existing concerns. There can be a cynical aspect to attributing causal power to social media, deflecting the assertion of incoming members and refusing to engage with developing trends that might threaten one’s political self-interest.

However what fascinates me is those for whom these events were inexplicable. In a way, it is a flip side of attributing power to social media, even if there might also be a cynical aspect to such a judgement. We account for events we don’t understanding by blaming a mysterious new element (‘social media’) which interrupted something that was previously harmonious. If these events are seen as inexplicable, what does it say about the person making the judgement? As Nunns observes, it was the subterranean nature of Corbyn’s early campaign which allowed later mass rallies and mass actions to appear as if they were the work of some malign outside agency. The processes through which he gathered support were largely invisible to party insiders and this rendered the eventual outcomes close to inexplicable.

Hence the preponderance of bewildered lashing out, vacuous psychologising and conspiratorial theorising about a planned influx of far-left activists. These tendencies are more pronounced when the activity in question is disorganised. As Corbyn’s press spokesperson described the leadership campaign, this central organisation which sought to direct national activity was often “at the reins of a runaway horse”. To a certain extent these incoming groups were disorganised, sometimes acting in ways which reflected that, striking fear in the heart of some MPs familiar with limited contact with ‘the public’ under strictly defined conditions. These ‘normal people’ might prove baffling to career politicians:

We can see a positive myth of us and a negative myth of us, defined by a shared belief that social media has facilitated a transformation of the Labour party. Where they differ is in whether that involves authentic members taking their party back or outside agitators invading the party with malign intent. If we want to understand the role of social media in bringing about Corbyn’s ascent, we need to reject both and look more deeply into how the new tools and techniques they offered were just one amongst many factors in bringing about a profound transformation in British politics.

There are two issues which have long fascinated me that seem more salient with each passing day. Our struggle to conceptualise long term social change from within (particularly the possibility of civilisational collapse) and the transition away from democratic government. Cinematic spectacle dominates the imaginary through we conceive of either, whether this is our imagery of what a collapsed social order would look like or our bleak authoritarian dystopias. As Thomas Pepinsky observes in this excellent article:

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (free men throwing off the yoke of British tyranny), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Our images of collapse are perhaps no more veridical. We imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios where we entirely descend into chaos while stuck on an earth we have ruined. Or finding salvation through technology in an escape to space. But as Peter Frase argues in Four Futures, the substantive questions posed by crises of this severity are much more complex. From loc 1103:

The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way. Although the extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is possible, it is highly unlikely. Only somewhat more plausible is the collapse of society and a return to some kind of premodern new Dark Ages. Maintaining a complex, technologically advanced society no doubt requires a large number of people. But it does not necessarily require all 7 billion of us, and the premise of this book is that the number of people required is on the decline because of the technical developments outlined in Chapter 1 .

Our social imaginaries of crisis and collapse are depoliticising. They obscure questions of distribution, interest and power. They embody what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: a putatively gritty look at the ‘reality’ of a situation, real or imagined, which in actual fact mythologises the system within which this representation is constructed. This is perhaps not surprising because much of the explosion of social representation has taken place roughly alongside the onset of post-democracy. We’re now seeing a deepening of the post-democratic tendency at a time of social crisis. This is why it’s crucial that we begin to think more deeply about how we represent crisis and the implications this has for our politics.

One way of doing this is to look at examples of systemic change that are presently taking place. Owen Jones has an excellent (in a depressing way) report from time he’s spent in Turkey recently:

Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump to the most powerful position on Earth. I spent last week with Turkey’s beleaguered opposition parties, newspapers and activists. Their courage is inspiring, their plight distressing.

Last July an attempted military coup failed to dislodge the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The backlash was swift. As Human Rights Watch reported, the regime took advantage of the moment “to crack down on human rights and dismantle basic democratic safeguards”. More than 120,000 Turks have been sacked, nearly 90,000 detained, and more than 40,000 have been arrested, 144 of them journalists. Turkey is a world leader in jailing media workers, with some 160 outlets closed.

The human rights situation is appalling. Those journalists and opposition activists not arrested are harassed en masse. The opposition is accused of terrorist links and subject to furious marginalisation. It’s becoming a crime to ‘insult’ the President. And something akin to an enabling act is on its way. As Jones goes on to argue, there are obvious affinities to other national contexts:

The west is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. Last July Trump praised Erdoğan for “turning it around” after the attempted coup. And Erdoğan cheered Trump’s car-crash press conference last week: Trump, who told a CNN reporter that the organisation he worked for produced fake news, had – according to Erdoğan – put the reporter “in his place” because media organisations such as CNN “undermine national unity”.

Turkey’s fragile democracy is being bled to death. It is dusk for democracy in Poland and Hungary too, as populist rightwing governments keep the superficial trappings of democracy for appearance’s sake but hollow it out in practice. Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side.

Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?

But how seriously do we take that possibility? We need to be careful of what Cory Robin describes as the ‘politics of fear’ reaching the left: “a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experience”. Such a politics of fear denies agency as well. The point is not that these changes are inexorable but that the window of opportunity, given the prevailing balance of forces, might be contracting precipitously as darkness looms on the horizon. If we conflate non-democracy with totalitarianism, we’re liable to entrench this lack of sensitivity to the possibilities now ahead of us. The reality of Democracy’s death would be banal for the majority, at least most of the time:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered, as Anna Politkovskaya was in Russia; they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe about their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed — in the greatly underappreciated 1978 volume Elections without Choice to elections in Portugal under Salazar.

The point is that, as Pepinsky puts it, “Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy”. The sooner we realise that, the easier it is to acknowledge that people can tolerate non-democracy because democratic governance can become a low priority. This has important implications for our political orientation to the apparent fragility of democratic structures, as Pepinsky argues in the culmination of his essay:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

It is more likely that democracy ends with a whimper, when the case for supporting it — the case, that is, for everyday democracy — is no longer compelling.

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of what the descent into fascism feels like for those living through such a transition, how daily life changes (or fails to do so) as the fabric of the old order begins to unweave. There’s an insightful essay in the LA Review of Books which addresses precisely this question as it takes issue with a prevalent misunderstanding of Nazism:

POPULAR CULTURE IS REPLETE with cartoonish depictions of Nazism. Hitler seems to emerge suddenly, as if he had been waiting in the wings as a fait accompli. One moment it’s Weimar decadence, really good art, and Stormtroopers and communists fighting in the streets. The next, Hindenburg is handing Adolf the keys to the kingdom and it’s all torchlight parades, Triumph of the Will, and plaintive Itzhak Perlman violins. Hitler rises above a reborn Reich as a kind of totalitarian god. All aspects of life come under his control through the Nazi party’s complete domination of German life. Of course, this is not really how it worked.

Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government. As the new government consolidated its power, thousands of communists and trade unionists were subjected to harsh suppression and were among the first to be shipped away to what would eventually become the concentration camps. And yet for a time, life for the overwhelming majority of Germans — even briefly for German Jews — went on largely as it had in the Weimar era. There was clearly a new regime in town, but most Germans got up in the mornings in the mid-to-late 1930s and went to work, just as they had in the 1920s. January through March of 1933 was not 1776, 1789, 1791, 1917, or even 1979. Far from the world turning upside down, things were strangely continuous for many Germans as though nothing much had happened at all. For a few Germans, things were astoundingly better.!

A similar liminal reality can be seen in the Norwegian drama Occupied. A green-left government’s declaration that the ‘era of oil is over’ leads to a surreptitious occupation of Norway by Russian forces. For many reasons, not least of all the narratological demands of being a ten issue drama series, dramatic changes eventually come to Norway. But what fascinates me is what comes prior to this, as the everyday life of those in Oslo is strikingly unchanged despite the mammoth geopolitical upheavals underneath the surface.

These depictions interest me because they point to an aporia in how we see social change. Our experience of ‘social change’ is by definition retrospective. We may experience social changes in the present but what we grasp as ‘social change’ is something we look back upon from the reality born through such transformation. We tell stories and sing songs about the most dramatic of these transformations, as collective recognition imbues that-which-has-unfolded with the appearance of inevitability. As Graham Crow puts it:

2.8 Proposition 7: Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised. Aron’s remark about how the language of ‘apparent necessity… creates an illusion of fatality’ (1961:178) is pertinent here. Burgoyne and Clarke’s respondents’ accounts of why their previous marriages ended contain a number of such rationalisations that reflected the ‘careful scripting’ (1984: 76) that had gone into their construction. It is instructive that Game and Metcalfe also use the process of becoming divorced to illustrate their point that the beginning of a story ‘can only be seen in retrospect; when it was beginning people were unaware of its full significance… Beginnings are always written from hindsight’ (1996: 70). The sense of predictability that such narratives convey often stands in stark contrast to the lack of certainty that people have while changes are unfolding about the direction in which they are heading.

2.9 Proposition 8: The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.The ideas of reaching ‘the end of the line’, ‘the bitter end’, or a ‘point of no return’, ‘flogging a dead horse’, ‘giving something up as a bad job’, being on a ‘sinking ship’, ‘fighting a losing battle’, ‘throwing good money after bad’, ‘cutting one’s losses’, ‘writing something off’, and the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ have different implications from the ideas of a ‘turning of the tide’, ‘calling it a day’, ‘the darkest hour coming before the dawn’, or ‘one door closing and another opening’ which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of ‘cycles of renewal and regeneration’ (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.

The individual and collective stock of experiences of change which we draw upon when we imagine our future leave us systematically ill-equipped to elucidate the many potentialities latent with out present circumstances. The tendency of fiction, particularly when it considers the macro-social, to explore the social change itself rather than the process through which the change unfolded aggravates this. I want to read stories and watch dramas about liminal transitions because this can sensitise us to the not-so-determined realities latently subsumed into what we call ‘present times’.

A few thoughts, prompted by the dispiriting act of choosing cosmopolitan austerity over nationalistic austerity in the UK referendum:

  1. Our perception of transformative possibilities is culturally constructed. Certain ranges of possibility are foregrounded and others backgrounded. Our sense of viability is the most cognitive dimension to this, informed by implicit and explicit ontological assumptions about how the social world works. But perceived transformative possibilities are also shaped by much less conscious factors, ranging from the cultural raw materials with which we conceive of the future to the futurity  entailed by conditions of our everyday lives.
  2. Nonetheless, what concerns us are real possibilities inherent in actually existing states of affairs. The succeptabilty of social formations to transformative change reflects a complex constellation of causal factors: some serving to reproduce the existing social order and others latently contributing to its potential transformation.
  3. It’s because of this complexity that transformative horizons elude the ambitions of any one corporate agency. The very fact of different socially transformative and reproductive projects means that the social change that does occur is inevitably characterised by unintended consequences.
  4. This chaotic character of social change too rarely finds itself considered in the cultural construction of transformative horizons. Instead, we think and dream in terms of collective agents carrying forth projects of change, rather than of change as something resulting chaotically from the clashes between such collective agents in circumstances not of their choosing.
  5. Wilful withdrawl from this complexity can be read psychoanalytically as a refusal of the Real. What I’m describing (ontologically) as the chaotic nature of social change has its (epistemic) corollary in the fact that real horizons of possibility elude our  capacity to fully symbolise or conceptualise them.
  6. This is why dreaming of possible worlds or refusing Utopianism is so psychically charged: we fall into a tendency to over symbolise or under symbolise Real horizons of change because of the affective dilemmas involved in a continual engagement with reality, negotiating between what is and what could be.
  7. The materiality of our action means that these negotiations between what is and what could be are themselves contributions to the reproduction or transformation of social formations. The landscape is continually changing as we are orientating ourselves within it.

From pg 67 of his Wasted Lives:

With the passage of time, successive layers of emergent realities come into view, each calling for a deeper and more comprehensive revision of received beliefs and our conceptual net than was required by the one before in order for it to be scanned and its significance revealed. We haven’t reached the bottom layer yet; even if we did, though, we wouldn’t be able to decide for sure that we had.

I recall other points where he writes like this. This is not liquidity, it’s lamination: successive layers of nested reality which we discover in an accelerating fashion. Liquidity is a feature of our experience, not of reality. Bauman ontologizes a phenomenological concept and then uses it to ground a thematic of modernity. Thoughts? This idea only just occurred to me but I suspect it would be an interesting critique to try and develop.

We’re now up to book number 4. This is the first one I’ve contributed to personally & it’s due to be published in early 2016. These are the first three volumes in the series:

Social MorphogenesisLate Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenic SocietyGenerative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order

Here’s the coverage of the books that I know of. Please do let me know if you come across something else! I’ll keep this list updated over the coming months:

One of the most contentious aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity has been her critique of Bourdieu’s habitus. I was thinking back to this issue when reading Sam Friedman’s excellent new paper in the Sociological Review on the habitus clivé. It’s a whole dimension to Bourdieu’s work which I was completely unfamiliar with and furthers my hunch that if you continue to develop Bourdieu in a phenomenological direction (along the lines undertaken by Nick Crossley and Will Atkinson) the dispute about reflexivity comes to seem much more about conceptualising social change than it is about theorising subjectivity. I’ll blog about Sam’s paper some more later (and I’m interviewing him for but I just wanted to share this brief extract:

Bourdieu did acknowledge that long-range social mobility can be more problematic, however, particularly when individual trajectories provoke abrupt rather than gradual transformations of habitus. During such moments of profound change, when there is a mismatch between one’s (primary) habitus and the habitus required in a new field, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) argued that a hysteresis effect takes hold

As a result of the hysteresis effect . . .   practices are always liable to incur negative sanctions when the environment with which they are objectively confronted is too distant from that in which they are objectively fitted. (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977: 78)

In most of his work, Bourdieu explored hysteresis in terms of habitus shifts wrought by large-scale changes in field conditions, such as that posed by the Algerian War of Independence (Bourdieu, 1979) or the introduction of the 1914 French State Code on inheritance (Bourdieu, 2002: 12). However, in later work (1998, 1999, 2004) he also began to explore how hysteresis is experienced at a personal level, particularly among the socially mobile.

This makes it easy to recast Archer’s claim in Bourdieusian(ish) language: the intensification of social change leads to the generalisation of ‘hysteresis’ as a condition of social life because past experience fails to provide workable guidelines for present action. It’s under these conditions that, as she puts it, reflexivity becomes imperative. She prefers to use the concept of ‘routine’ rather than ‘habitus’ (partly because she rejects the idea that the social ‘gets inside’ us as opposed to inculcates a tendency to act in a particular way) but accepts that routine (habitual) action predominates under certain conditions, it’s just that she argues such conditions no longer obtain.

This process doesn’t operate inexorably and not everyone becomes more reflexive in the face of the ‘reflexive imperative’: her differentiation of modes of reflexivity are an attempt to conceptualise the empirical variability we can see in reflexivity and how this might contribute both aggregatively and collectively to the macro-social trends which are generating mass ‘hysteresis’.

The closest thing I have to an historiographical principle is to always be suspicious of what Charles Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. While he uses the concept to refer to congratulatory stories of rational emancipation in which human beings have gradually dispensed with myths and illusions that served to limit them, it can equally be applied to refer to narratives of gradual decline in which we have progressively lost touch with the authentically human. To call something a subtraction story does not entail that we think the story is false so much as that it is simplistic. In the more sophisticated forms of subtraction stories, elements that are empirically accurate serve to reinforce the plausibility of an account that is appealing on a narrative level but analytically deficient.

The temptation here is to flip to the opposite extreme, responding to the obvious simplicity of a subtraction story by denying its claims in their entirety. For instance, to respond to those who say we have lost everything by claiming that we have lost nothing. While the inverse position might be more sensible than that which it is a response to, it’s no less questionable to me because it reproduces the narrative structure which is the underlying problem. There’s a certain temptation to these positions, with the bold pronouncements of epochal change (or lack thereof) which they license. I think sociologists are far too prone to them. In practice, I lean much more towards the pronouncement of change rather than its denial because I think things are changing in a significant way. But I think this narrative temptation inheres in any attempt to offer accounts of social change that go beyond the merely descriptive.

I just came across a passage by James Meek in which he describes being drawn to,

the obscure realm of events that are too fresh for history, but too old for journalism; the murky gap of popular perception that covers the period from two years ago to about twenty-five years back, in which events are well remembered but patterns not easily perceived.

I’m struck by the realisation that so much of the sociology I’ve been drawn to (Giddens on late modernity, Bauman on liquid modernity, Castells on the information age, Rosa on social acceleration etc) similarly concerns itself with this ‘murky gap’ between current affairs and historical inquiry. It’s also the domain of ‘contemporary history’ but I’m drawn to social theoretical engagements because of their concern to discern those patterns “not easily perceived” in spite of the manifold inadequacies which characterise these bodies of work. Perhaps those inadequacies stem at least in part from the ‘murkiness’ inherent in this gap?

This is the claim made by Matthew Barzun, US ambassador to the UK, in an intruiging piece for the New Statesman. He attacks the view that the world is sliding into anarchy, offering a counter-narrative that is every bit as sweeping and accentuates the positive:

It is a time of levelling. The world has reduced extreme poverty by half since 1990. Global primary education for boys and girls is now equal.

It is a time of enduring. The number of deaths among children under five has been cut in half since 1990, meaning about 17,000 fewer children die each day. And mothers are surviving at a nearly equal rate.

It is a time of flourishing. Deaths from malaria dropped by 42 per cent between 2000 and 2012. HIV infections are declining in most regions.

It is a time of strengthening. Africa is above the poverty line for the first time. Tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty in China. The debt burden on developing coun­tries has dropped 75 per cent since 2000.

It is a time of healing. The ozone layer is showing signs of recovery thanks to global action. And all the while, the technological and communications revolution is making more people better informed than at any time in history.

I’m not sure I’m convinced by this. But I agree that “We are experiencing a “pre-” that we can’t name yet” and his article suggests that this widespread sense plays an increasingly important part in the political psychology of our age.

There’s a particular kind of sociological theorising which I’ve always been drawn to that concerns itself with the identification of epochal shifts in social life. When I was an intellectually frustrated philosophy student, the work of Giddens on Late Modernity and Bauman on Liquid Modernity seemed to hold the promise of intellectual work that addressed something far greater than the technical problems of philosophy: what is it like to be a person now? I tried to argue in my PhD thesis that this aspect of their work, simultaneously profound yet also slightly asinine, surely accounts for part of the appeal which a sprawling body of work has held for many in spite of its many defects. I wondered recently if it could be seen as a kind of (historicised) sociological anthropology, inquiring into the phenomenology of the person in a way that refuses the possibility of abstracting the core questions from the particular time and place in which they are being asked. However I do think this work is deeply flawed and one of the most incisive ways to analyse these flaws is to consider the claims about transitions from ‘old’ to ‘new’ which are made within it. This is how Paul Heelas describes the transitions that are implicitly and explicitly asserted within the literature on detraditionalization:

[F]ate (or the pre-ordained) v. choice (or reflexivity); necessity v. contingency; certainty v. uncertainty; security v. risk. Differentiated (or organised) culture v. the de-differentiated (or disorganised); the embedded (situated or socio-centric) self v. the disembedded (de-situated or autonomous); self under control v. self in control; and virtues v. preferences (with values coming in between)

Paul Heelas, Detraditionalization, Pg 3

Once you set things up in this way, it’s hard not to see radical change everywhere. The underlying dichotomies operate as an interpretive framework which highlights discontinuities and obscures continuities. This is why, as Graham Crow puts it, a “more nuanced account of the processes involved in beginnings and endings needs to be developed”. He identifies a large number of phenomena of which it has been declared that we are witnessing the end:

  • family relationships
  • community relationships
  • politics
  • poverty
  • capitalism
  • slavery
  • masculinity
  • privacy
  • work
  • unemployment
  • the nation-state
  • organised capitalism
  • socialism
  • history
  • class
  • heterosexuality
  • photography

The identification of ‘endings’ is more methodologically complex than someone like Giddens seems willing to admit:

Endings, and the opportunities for new beginnings for which they open the way, thus merit some attention because they are so frequently a point of reference. Claims to have identified the emergence of a new social phenomenon and the end of an existing one are rhetorically powerful, but assessing them is by no means straightforward. To begin with, there are varying interests at stake in the promotion of certain social phenomena as ‘new’ and others as ‘dead’ or ‘dying’. Most social transformations have ‘losers’ as well as ‘winners’ (Crow and Rees 1999), even though the voices of the former tend to be drowned out by the latter. Secondly, the momentousness of social changes is not always apparent to the people living through them and, as a result, interpretation of their perceptions of continuity needs to be undertaken with caution. Conversely, developments that can seem momentous as they unfold can come to be regarded as less so with the passage of time

In fact it’s very easy to relativise the account offered by Giddens in terms of both his own life and the unfolding of history. He was (anecdotally) going through major changes in his personal life and, it seems with hindsight, moving away from social theory and towards politics. His main three books on this subject were published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as either history itself or at least one era seemed to be falling away, with market capitalism triumphant and the key question facing the centre-left seemingly being one of how to tame capitalism from within. Given his subsequent trajectory and reinvention as a political guru for New Labour, it’s hard not to see a potentially self-interested dimension to this as well: in identifying the end of the old he positioned himself as an interpreter of the new. This sense of new times, to which we must adapt through ‘modernising’ or risk becoming antiquated, should be understood as crucial to the cultural politics of New Labour as well: in recognising the ‘new’, we claim a temporal identity for ourselves, one superior to that we impose on the ‘old’. Furthermore, as Crow notes, it’s difficult to find empirical grounds for these considerations in everyday life. People often don’t recognise momentous change (for reasons I describe here as the epistemology of collapse) or they experience as momentous things that later come to seem much less so.

The risk is that, as Crow puts it, we lose sight of “underlying continuities by focusing only on those elements in a situation that have changed”. If we develop concepts of social change (e.g. detraditionalization, individualization, globalization) that foreground those elements in a situation that have changed and fail to contextualise them in terms of those elements that have not, we’re led to pronounce epochal shifts (with all their rhetorical and political temptations). In his paper he offers ten propositions concerning the sociology of endings. His point is that if we come to understanding endings better then we’ll be less inclined towards “the premature identification of endings and new beginnings”:

Processes of decline are responded to in various ways.

Long-term decline is not necessarily perceived as such by those living through it, because of imperfect information, self-persuasion, denial, nostalgia, or addiction.

People may be persuaded to remain loyal to existing arrangements even when they are undeniably in decline because they are convinced by one or more strands of The Rhetoric of Reaction, the argument that efforts to change a situation are bound to fail or to bring even more undesirable consequences.

The sociology of emotions and rational choice theory both provide plausible starting points for the analysis of the decision to cut one’s losses by ending involvement in existing relations that are in decline, if and when it is taken.

The social context of decision-making concerning endings is crucial.

The process of moving towards and beyond endings is rarely a smooth, linear progression through a succession of stages.

Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised.

The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.

Sociological analysis is weakened when framed in terms of over-arching processes of social change that are presented as irresistible at the level of individuals, communities, or wider societies and socio-economic systems.

The analytical problems presented by the processes whereby social arrangements come to an end have very wide relevance.

Many of these points concern agency. People respond differently to endings. People often fail to recognise endings or refuse to recognise them. People may continue to invest themselves in something that is ending because they’re scared of what might come next. People are influenced by each other and by their wider context in how they respond to endings. These factors mean that we should avoid conceiving of endings in a way that treats them as the irresistible force of social change. If we fail to do this, we tend to see a linear transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’, in the process missing the complexity of social change and how its unfolding was shaped by the variable responses of the people on the ground.

It’s a very interesting paper. I find it hard to see how anyone could disagree with Crow’s recommendation that “the temptation to tell an attention-grabbing story should be resisted in favour of a more balanced assessment of change and continuity”. This is his closing statement:

Finally, we might note that sociologists have a mixed record in relation to realising this potential in the analysis of change, not least in terms of the premature identification of endings and new beginnings. Much is lost when complex analyses are reduced to the stark opposition of change or continuity, as is demonstrated in those more subtle analyses that highlight the ways in which change in one facet of a social phenomenon can contribute to the reproduction of other aspects. But caution about oversimplification regarding social change reinforces the case for a sociological approach to the study of endings. This is not least because there is so much more to be said than economists’ focus on the moment when profit turns to loss, and psychologists’ focus on motivation and individual adjustment. People’s perceptions about whether they stand to gain or lose from the substitution of a new social arrangement for an old one are more complex than the former and more volatile than the latter, and this has major implications for the prediction of their individual and collective behaviour and of longer-term social change.

I just came across a lovely point in Harmut Rosa’s book about the relationship between social change and musical innovation. Certain forms of music come to be seen as emblematic of the age but, as that age changes so too does the sensibility which is brought to bear upon that music:

today certain forms of jazz music that, at the time of their emergence in the first half of the twentieth century, were experienced as breathless, hectic, exceedingly fast, machine-like, and stupefyingly chaotic – and thus as fitting reflections of their era – are touted as “music for tranquil hours” or “jazz for peaceful afternoon.”

Harmut Rosa, Social Acceleration, p. 82

If I’m in the right mood, I love music that is “stupefyingly chaotic”. I wonder if digital hardcore, gabba and breakcore will come to see quaintly relaxing in future years? Or are there inherent limits upon musical innovation which entail an upper limit on elaboration of this very particular sort?

Mike Savage has posted a thoughtful essay on the Stratification & Culture Research Network blog reflecting on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. There’s a lot of interest here but the element that really intrigued me was the discussion of Piketty’s methodology and how it relates to current trends within sociology:

Methodologically, Piketty is conducting a fundamental critique of the repertoires used in much of what currently passes as social science.  This is nowhere marked more strikingly than the way he invokes literary figures ranging from Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac, and Orhan Pamuk more than Simon Kuznets, Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes to explore the nature of wealth accumulation and inheritance in the 19thcentury. From an economist, this is brilliant chutzpah. Perhaps he might be accused of using these novelists as illustrating (his) history, but arguably his thinking about wealthm inheritance and accumulation draws directly on these literary models.Furthermore, at its heart, Piketty’s book is fundamentally descriptive. Rather than the typical social scientific insistence on causality as the holy grail, the book’s ample figures and graphs present only uni and bi-variate distributions. There are no complex causal multi-variate models, no ‘variable centred’ attempts to distil the relative significance of various bundles of independent variables and the like. There is no league table of causal variables which pop out at the end of the book. Instead, Piketty relies on descriptive figures showing trends over time with no attempt to explain the trends through introducing independent causal variables.

This has left me wanting to go back to a book I only managed 60 pages of before losing interest – perhaps I consumed far too much of the meta-commentary before reading it? Savage argues that the book can be seen “as a model of descriptive social science that might be able to explore the relationship between past and present”. It facilitates an exploration of the way in which the “past will always exceed the present” in a manner that tends to be precluded by the dominant mode of theorising social change within contemporary social theory, with its tendency towards dichotomisation and hyperactive invocations of epochal change:

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.In these suffocating conditions, Piketty offers not so much a breath of fresh air but rather a vital infusion of oxygen. His work is a powerful and extended critique of the conceit that our present time has somehow left behind history behind. Actually, is Jane Austen’s world so different from ours[6]? Have we really left behind the elitism and pervasive inequality characteristic of aristocratic society and the Belle Epoque? Don’t the strategies for wealth accumulation developed by Bill Gates and other billionaires share some common characteristics with the very wealthy of previous centuries? Page after page of Piketty refuses the glib temptations of ‘presentism’ and insists on the need for careful historical study.

He draws particular attention to Piketty’s concern with the middle decades of the 20th century and sociology’s tendency to overlook them, subsuming the intensity of social and economic change under the stability deriving from the consolidation of industrial capitalism. In contrast, the contemporary focus upon the intensification of social change tends to occlude “a remarkable and enduring regularity which needs to be placed at the forefront of our understanding of contemporary – as much as classical – capitalism”. Sociological theorising about social change is a mess and Savage suggests that Piketty’s work offers us an interesting basis upon which we could begin to reorientate our understanding of the long term development of capitalism: there has been a “striking persistence in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and that we are now returning towards the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century after a brief blip in the middle decades of the 20th century linked to the two World Wars and inflation”. As well as having implications for how we conceptualise social change, it also raises crucial questions about the reconstitution of social class – ones addressed by Roger Burrows (here and here) in a project that both he and Savage are involved in:

The fundamental point which Piketty’s class analysis leads to, therefore, is the need to focus on the very wealthy, and how far this group might indeed by crystallising as a class. Rather than the traditional sociological obsession with the boundaries between middle and working class, and so the dividing lines in the middle reaches of society, we instead need to turn our gaze much higher up the social distribution in order to focus on the very wealthy and a broader elite class. And here his references to the world of Austen and Balzac are very pertinent. Given that he argues that economically we are returning to a period of wealth stability such as they wrote about, are we also likely to see the resumption of the kind of status based, kinship and inheritance dominated, and ritualistic society that they delineate? And if so, what kinds of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups? This is arguably the fundamental sociological question of our age, in exploring the kinds of closure and social and cultural elitism which might now characterise the very highest levels of the social structure. What kind of kinship alliances, elite rituals, and institutional powers do we see around us in 2014?

The thought occurred when reading this that these issues could be productively addressed through social fiction – using what we do know to explore these forms of life and how they might change over the coming decades, as well as the potential implications of these changes. As someone who is instinctively drawn to “the banal epochal theorising of sociologists such as by Bauman, Beck and Castells”, despite being intensely critical of it, I found this essay challenging but plausible. Read the full thing rather than my notes!

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.

For those such as myself who have been increasingly baffled by events in the US in recent weeks, this analysis of findings from six focus groups with political partisans within the Republican party makes for interesting reading. The full report is available online here

Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country – and their starting reaction is “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned” about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course.  They think Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.

We know that Evangelicals are the largest bloc in the base, with the Tea Party very strong as well.  For them, President Obama is a “liar” and “manipulator” who has fooled the country.  It is hard to miss the deep disdain—they say the president is a socialist, the “worst president in history,” and “anti-American.” [..]

These are strong common currents in the Republican base, but the thinking and passions are very distinct and telling among the key blocs – and those have consequences for those who seek to lead.[2]

·         Evangelicals.  Social issues are central for Evangelicals and they feel a deep sense of cultural and political loss.  They believe their towns, communities, and schools are suffering from a deep “culture rot” that has invaded from the outside.  The central focus here is homosexuality, but also the decline of homogenous small towns.  They like the Tea Party because they stand up to the Democrats.

·         Tea Party.  Big government, Obama, the loss of liberty, and decline of responsibility are central to the Tea Party worldview.  Obama’s America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations, and dependency.  They are not focused on social issues at all.  They like the Tea Party because it is getting “back to basics” and believe it has the potential to reshape the GOP.

·         Moderates.  Moderates are deeply concerned with the direction of the country and believe Obama has taken it down the wrong path economically.  They are centrally focused on market-based economics, small government, and eliminating waste and inefficiency.  They are largely open to  progressive social policies, including on gay marriage and immigration.  They disdain the Tea Party and have a hard time taking Fox News seriously.

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.

One unexpected aspect of the Reflexive Imperative was Archer’s return to cybernetics in its conclusion. Though having long seen herself as a critic of this theoretical tradition, the systems theory of Walter Buckley was an important influence on the Morphogenetic Approach. In the Reflexive Imperative she critically engages with the ‘second cybernetics’ of Magorah Maruyama in order to try and develop her account of ‘variety’ which has become integral to her approach. This concept has come to play a crucial role in linking the predominately macro social perspective of the first two books of the Morphogenetic trilogy (Culture and Agency, Realist Social Theory) with Being Human and her three books on reflexivity (Structure Agency and the Internal Conversation, Making Our Way Through The World, The Reflexive Imperative). To understand the questions raised in the final chapter of the latter book, it’s essential to have some grasp of how her broader project fits together:

Moreover, this trilogy on reflexivity has not been undertaken out of an intrinsic interest in one aspect of human subjectivity per se. It began from seeking to answer the theoretical question about how structure and culture got in on our personal acts for those of us who were dissatisfied with both positivistic ‘social hydraulics’ and Parsonian ‘internalization’. In their place, ‘reflexivity’ was advanced in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation as the process responsible for mediating between structural and cultural ‘conditioning’ and human agents, without entailing the obliteration or suspension of the agential properties and powers of persons.

In the second volume, Making Our Way Through The World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility, which did use a sample of the local population of Coventry, stratified by age, gender and socio-economic position, the aim was to ascertain whether or not a personal emergent property (in this case dominant mode of reflexivity practiced) governed the type of social mobility desired and achieved under people’s own descriptions. These patterns of mobility (i.e., social stability, upwards mobility or lateral volatility) were held to result from actions arrived at through the reflexive deliberations of singular subjects in social contexts not of their own making. Reflexivity thus acquired a stronger claim for mediating between one macroscopic aspect of the social order – the patterning of social mobility – and the personal ‘projects’ pursued by subjects through their reflexive internal conversations, which defined the precise courses of action taken by them.  (Archer 2012: 294)

My understanding of this book is that it’s an attempt to build upon this elaborated notion of reflexivity as mediating between the macro and the micro in order to better understand the consequence which the proliferation of ‘variety’, deposited as contextual incongruity in the situations concrete persons confront, has for how they in turn act in relation to this increasingly varied social order and contribute, as a consequence of both their actions and their own elaboration as persons, to the intensification of the social changes generative of variety. Reflexivity is integral to understanding the “differential and selective take-up of new opportunities” which is itself generative of greater variety (Archer 2012: 2999). It’s an initial attempt to get beyond what Archer identifies as the chronic empiricism which characterises the contemporary theoretical literature on social change and instead get to the generative mechanisms which are producing these empirically observable phenomenon of ‘flows’ and ‘liquidity’. Her point here can seem contentious, given the affection with which many (including myself) hold the work of people like Bauman, but I think it’s an important critique. Liquidity is a metaphorical characterisation of an empirical phenomenon, beguiling because of the incisiveness with which Bauman has been able to analyse and convey what seems to be the inner nature of a whole range of disparate phenomena. But no matter how sophisticated our measures, tracking flows is like seeking to ‘explain’ the tides by intricately charting their movements. I’m entirely with Archer in her argument that sociology needs to move from metaphors to mechanisms:

Today, the leading trope is “liquid modernity,” but metaphors explain nothing and often mislead (remember the mechanical, organic and cybernetic similes). Particular theories of change have accentuated one element of SAC alone: “culture” for “Information Society;” “structure” for “Globalized Capitalism” or “Empire;” and “agency” for the “institutionalized individualism” of “Reflexive Modernization.” Each seizes upon one (empirically striking) component, considers it to be the leading part and wrongly equates it with the generative mechanism of change. Instead, we need to examine the SAC synergies and positive feedbacks making social morphogenesis the process responsible for intensifying change – in a non-metaphorical manner.

It’s to this end that the final chapter of the Reflexive Imperative turns. It marks a transition point between her previous two projects (developing the morphogenetic approach and the three empirical studies of reflexivity plus their associated volumes) and her next major project, which is being conducted with a really interestingly international and interdisciplinary group, on the morphogenetic society. This is how she describes the project,

The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety.  All change is ‘activity dependent’, but the new social relations and relations between relations that accelerate innovation, opportunities and choices await adequate theorization. The danger in the new millennium is that social solidarity could be further reduced by new hierarchies based upon differential expertise. The challenge isto identify ways of integrating variety as diversity throughout the population. Hence the particular interest of the burgeoning Third Sector and Cyber Sector as means for transforming civil society.

  1. Understanding the mechanism at the micro-level. Morphogenesis fosters a new situational logic for action. During late modernity the latter remained a logic of competition, whose outcomes were zero-sum. Conversely, the new logic of opportunity associated with the unbinding of morphogenesis could, in principle, represent a ‘win-win’ situation for many more people. In turn, the Reflexive Imperativeapplies to all because given the acceleration of change, past experience is no guide to action. Such ‘contextual incongruity’ means that socialization can no longer prepare young people for working life or life-style through the inter-generational transmission of a ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu), operating quasi-automatically. Instead, agents’ guidelines personal concerns become their courses of action are determined and realized through reflexive deliberation – both individual and collective.
  2. Understanding the mechanism at the meso-level. Here, network theory requires re-conceptualization to embrace not only how connectivity fosters the flexible production of knowledge but transforms social relations and the generation of new relational goods (indivisible, non-material goods and services). Hence considerable interest attaches to  developing ‘Relational Realism’.
  3. Understanding the mechanism at the macro-level. How do Market ‘exchange relations’ and State ‘command relations’ become reconfigured into more dispersed and participatory social forms, no longer based upon instrumental rationality but on social engagement?

However, the project must start at the beginning with a theoretical clarification of the morphogenetic process itself. Since the concept of morphogenesis began in biology, EPFL with its prominence in neurobiology is the ideal venue to promote interdisciplinary conceptual advances.

This is why ‘variety’ is such an important concept. It’s at the heart of everyday and journalistic discussions of the “increasing pace of social change, the novelties people have already encountered in their lifetimes, and their expectations for new variety to continue to grow during those of their children” (Archer 2012: 295). However variety can be a tricky concept to put into practice. The first cybernetics construed variety in terms of the distinguishable elements within a set: it was an objective property of an aggregate. If ‘variety’, which I do think she’s convincingly operationalised at the level of biography, will be used for social analysis then we need to rethink the concept of it that can be found in information theory. Aggregate variety of this sort can actually diminish with new innovations because new items can displace old ones e.g. all the many businesses which smart phones have destroyed. Furthermore this concept of variety is atomistic and precludes the recognition of ‘relational goods’.  This atomism also leads to a failure to consider the distribution of variety. What’s important about variety from a sociological perspective is not just the number of discrete elements within a given set but the relations between them and their distribution across the social order.

Archer engages with the later cybernetics of Maruyama precisely because he was, given his interest in deviation-amplifying feedback within systems, concerned with the distribution of variety. However she argues that Maruyama was preoccupied with heterogeneity (differences) at the expense of homogeneity (similarities). She argues that the latter is responsible for the “bonding that links together members of a group (community, team or enterprise) that accentuates their human commonalities and makes their belongingness something more than rational instrumental opportunism” (Archer 2012: 301). The biographical accumulation of variety which can be seen in the lives of meta-reflexives (and to a lesser extent the fractured and autonomous) serves to ‘differentiate’ them from their peers, generating an increasingly particularistic inner life which precludes the ‘similarity and ‘familiarity’ upon which communicative reflexivity depends. Left unchecked this means that “association with other social units becomes less and less rewarding and prompts a multiplication of the number of smaller and smaller social units that follows” (Archer 2012: 303). Underlying the Morphogenetic Society project is a concern to understand “the generation of new variety that in one sense carries society (now one and global) forward” but also the neglected topic of “what holds it together or pulls it apart” (Archer 2012: 304).

Social morphogenesis “destroys the modus vivendi continuous from the past but also defies the re-establishment of new continuities on the basis of residence, community, occupation, religion, ethnicity and kinship” (Archer 2012: 305). It’s for this reason that Archer sees the decline of communicative reflexivity as going hand-in-hand with a reduction in social solidarity. The normative conventionalism which was secured through the ‘thought and talk’ of communicative reflexivity, as the reliance on others to complete and confirm one’s inner deliberation exposed them to immediate censure before they got beyond the planning stage, increasingly lacks purchase beyond the pockets of contextual continuity which communicative reflexives now have to work to maintain. Normative conventionalism has no long term future as a basis for social integration because the conditions underlying its efficacy are rapidly disappearing and the intensification of social change precludes the easy establishment of new norms because “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it” (Archer 2012: 306). Even when norms do develop, as can be seen for example in the stabilisation of standards relating to social media platforms, the efficacy with which they can be enforced is severely curtailed because of these underlying changes in the relational dynamics of reflexivity. Norms can function on the basis of intersubjective negotiation and collective self-regulation yet “negotiated norms lack the binding power of the generalized normativity that communicative reflexivity used to promote” (Archer 2012: 306).

As a precursor to the posts in which I’ll look in detail at each of the modes of reflexivity as discussed in the Reflexive Imperative, this post looks at one particular aspect of Archer’s arguments concerning autonomous reflexivity. Much as contextual continuity is argued to distribute communicative reflexivity among the population and contextual incongruity is associated with meta-reflexivity, Archer argues that context discontinuity is the generative mechanism underlying autonomous reflexivity.

Contextual continuity obtains when the situations confronted by “one generation or cohort are much the same as they were for their predecessors” (Archer 2012: 20). Under such conditions “members know what to do because their repetition over time also means that appropriate courses of action have been defined intergenerationally – perhaps to the point of becoming tacit knowledge – and are readily transmitted through informal socialization” (Archer 2012: 6). This ensures a common experiential frame of reference and a low level of ideational diversity: conditions propitious to communicative reflexivity which are, in turn, reinforced by it given that ‘thought and ‘talk’ with ‘similars and familiars’ will tend to favour normative conventionalism. The reliance on others to complete and confirm deliberations reproduces the “norms of established custom and practice, because when they seek confirmation and completion of their initial thoughts and inclinations, convention is re-endorsed through external conversations” (Archer 2012: 21).

Contextual discontinuity obtains when social change begins to undermine the commonalities which are the basis for communicative reflexivity. At a macro level, Archer argues that discontinuity is produced by the “simultaneous circulation of negative, structure-restoring feedback and positive, structure-elaborating feedback for structural, culture and agential properties” (Archer 2012: 6). On a biographical level, the key feature of contextual discontinuity is the absence of the ‘similars and familiars’ who would be able to complete and confirm one’s internal conversation. The increasing particularism which has come to constitute their experience makes their reflexive deliberations difficult to communicate and inculcates a tendency towards pursuing those deliberations to their end in a purely self-contained way as autonomous reflexivity.

Contextual incongruity obtains when the intensification of social change means that “past guidelines become more and more incongruous with the novel situational variety encountered” (Archer 2012: 6). In a sense this can be seen as a radicalisation of discontinuity, such that the same process which precludes the emergence of durable commonalities of experience amongst the populace also increasingly makes the future intrinsically unpredictable. Under such conditions instrumental rationality, depending as it does “upon a calculability of pay-offs and sufficient knowledge about likely outcomes”, becomes increasingly untenable as a biographical strategy because “instrumental rationality cannot operate in an unpredictable environment where calculability goes out of the window” (Archer 2012: 35). So why does it still seem able to operate? Interesting answer below which I assume is a key thread running into the next book:

If the intensification of morphogenesis spells a precipitous reduction in calculability, and if that, in turn, is inimical to instrumental rationality, should not a sharp and equivalent reduction in the practice of autonomous reflexivity also follow? This would seem to be the logic implication, but in practice the conditions that lead to this conclusion were, until the 2007 financial crisis, fairly effectively contained by the powerful interests involved. Specifically, the multinational corporations and finance capitalists tackled the root cause threatening their activities, namely incalculability. The former moved to an ‘assurance game’ in order to stabilise key aspects of their environment in which they operate. What this basically entailed was a series of mutual agreements that enabled those whose operations gained them a market advantage to continue to benefit from it for a number of years. This is why legal patents became crucially important. They served to ‘freeze’ uncertainty and, in guaranteed profitability ceteris paribus, thus freed up internal resources to make the next innovative development which, if successful, would then be protected in the same manner. Calculability had been restored, the old game could continue with no more than the old absence of guarantees that new lines of research and development might turn out to be dead ends. 

However, the assurance game was not applicable to key areas, the most crucial being the finance market, but the latter had effectively tackled the incalculability of risk, from its own point of view, until the house of cards collapsed in 2007. Up to that date, the insurance game complemented the assurance game. Thus, the complex development of financial ‘derivatives’ and hedge funds represented forms of insurance by spreading risk over a variety of investments. If the development of ‘derivatives’ rendered risks calculable for the biggest players, investment supermarkets performed something of the same function for those with surplus capital. Assurance and insurance provided insulation against the quintessential unpredictability of morphogenesis and enabled the old game to continue – pro tem.

They were complimented by other devices that manipulate consumption to ensure rising ‘demand’ and to underwrite increasing commodification. The proliferation of the credit card market, with a massive intensification of offers to transfer one’s balance (read: ‘debts’) to a new interest free card for a limited period, was a direct inducement to increase indebtedness, at an exorbitant interest rate, for those who frequently could not pay. An identical role was performed by sub-prime mortgages and unsecured loans. This complete reversal of cautious issuing and lending in the past, on the basis of established ‘credit-worthiness’ and earnings, artificially stimulated demand over an increasing range of products, from housing to holidays to cosmetic surgery, thus introducing greater stability in market demand and extending this to the tertiary sector.

Market and state collaborated in buttressing finance capitalism […] as the expansion of public services in terms of benefits and employment  kept ‘demand’ buoyant in European countries, which increasingly produced nothing but consumed more and more. Whilst ever the game went on and the devices for concealing the manipulative aspects of marketization became more sophisticated, so too could many continue to work on the basis of instrumental rationality in planning their courses of action in the hope of becoming better off. With its collapse, and a few of the most audacious financial players going under, European states were more concerned to re-establish ‘business as usual’ than to introduce stringent regulation of the financial services, which had replaced the production of goods as the source of national wealth. In other words, there are few grounds for supposing that the associated mode of reflexivity – autonomous reflexivity – would undergo a sudden and sharp decline.

(Archer 2012: 35-38)