My theoretical work over the last twenty-five years has been devoted to the problem of structure and agency. Related to this is the problem of objectivity and subjectivity.
It is always a fair question to ask where a research interest came from, because they don’t announce themselves nor, I believe, are we necessarily pre-occupied by the theories and problems that are current when we begin our work. My own fascination with structure (where do they come from and how do they exert effects) was prompted by moving from the London School of Economics to become a post-doctoral student at the Sorbonne. Those were the years of the 1968 événements. It seemed to me that the centralised structure of the French educational system was equally central in accounting for a political outburst which very nearly toppled the Fifth Republic. Conversely, the (then) decentralised nature of English education prompted localised outbursts, whose effects diffused rather than accumulating. The next seven years were devoted to understanding the structuring of national educational systems and their consequences for educational interaction and change. Thus Social Origins of Educational Systems (Sage 1979) is the key book for understanding the research trajectory that followed.
I shall never regret a summer spent working with Pierre Bourdieu’s research team (or convincing David and Katy Brooks, from Sage Publications, that he should be translated into English) nor my exchanges with Basil Bernstein at the London Institute of Education. However, it still remains the case that I believe Bourdieu advanced a set of theories which presumed the centralised structure of French education, just as Bernstein assumed English decentralisation, when both discussed cultural transmission.
Therefore, two books followed, which sought to come to grips with the structuring of culture and the structuring of social institutions. Firstly, there was Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory (CUP 1988). This conceptualises ‘culture’ as an objective phenomenon, in the same way as Popper’s ‘World Three’, and thus makes the distinction between the ontological status of culture and what people/groups/classes make of it epistemologically. In other words, culture is not a ‘community of shared meanings’. There is a Cultural System, replete with complementarities and contradictions, and there is Socio-Cultural interaction in which groups draw upon and elaborate various parts of the Cultural System - in accordance with their interests and aims. For those who like to establish intellectual pedigrees, there were four main influences upon this work; Karl Popper, Ernest Gellner and Tom Bottomore - all of whom were my teachers at LSE - and David Lockwood - whose 14 page article, differentiating between ‘social’ and ‘system’ integration is the most influential I have ever read.
Those who get round to reading the 854 pages of Social Origins of Educational Systems will recognise that the philosophy of social science, divided as it was between the competing claims of Methodological Individualism and Methodological Collectivism, provided a wholly unsatisfactory basis for theorising about structural properties and powers. Already, in this book (1979), I had largely developed the morphogenetic approach. This specifies how structural conditioning (which is temporally prior, relatively autonomous yet possessing causal powers) conditions social interaction, which in turn generates structural elaboration. That scheme of Structural Conditioning → Social Interaction → Structural Elaboration which crucially is stretched out over time, underlies all my work.
However, it was only when I read Roy Bhaskar’s The Possibility of Naturalism (also 1979) and became involved with the nascent group of what came to be called ‘Critical Realists’, that the morphogenetic approach fully developed its ontology. All of this is spelt out in Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach (CUP 1995). The hope in writing it was that this would provide a useful and useable framework for those conducting substantive research. All the same, within social theory in general, including Critical Realism which forms the basis of my own theorising, considerably more effort has been devoted to conceptualising how structural and cultural properties of society are transmitted to agents and condition their doings than has been given to the other side of the equation, namely how they are received and responded to by agents in return. It is this one-sidedness that I sought to redress in the following three books.
I maintain that realist social theory has adequately conceptualised how structural and cultural emergent properties impinge upon us; namely by shaping the situations in which we find ourselves, such that they have the capacity to operate inter alia as constraints and enablements. However, their powers as constraints and enablements require activation by agents. They only become causally efficacious in relation to individuals’ concerns in and about society - and what they seek to do to realise them. Yet, all of this presumes the active agent with his or her own distinctive properties and powers. Who are these agents? How do they acquire a sense of self, a personal identity and a social identity? These are the questions which are examined in Being Human: The Problem of Agency (CUP 2000).
Nevertheless, what had still been ignored was how agents, by virtue of their powers of reflexivity, deliberate about their social circumstances in relation to their personal concerns. Yet, this is the final link in the process through which structure is mediated by agency. I have ventured that the ‘how’ question is answered by reference to the ‘internal conversations’ conducted by all normal agents - in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation (CUP 2003). We survey constraints and enablements, under our own descriptions (which is the only way we can know anything), in conjunction with our ‘projects’, which were deliberatively defined to realise our concerns; and we adjust them into those practices that we conclude internally (and always fallibly) will enable us to do (and be) what we care about most in society.
That study was based upon an exploratory group of only twenty subjects, whose only claim to being a sample was their diversity. In my latest book, the same theme has been re-visited more systematically. Its important new contribution is to show how our internal conversations reflexively define our trajectories through the social order. For this, you will have to await the publication of
Making our way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility (CUP forthcoming 2007).