Skip to main content

Latest Project

I have started (September 2003) a five-year, ESRC large grant project on:

The Internal Conversation: Mediating between Structure and Agency.

The overall theoretical aim is to achieve a much better understanding of how particular courses of action are determined through the reflexive deliberations of agents. Such practical projects are subjectively defined in relation to agents’ objective circumstances. This is indispensable to a useful theory about the process of mediation of structure by agency. Without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Conversely, a proper understanding of personal deliberations accounts for agential evaluations of their situations in the light of their concerns, and their evaluation of their projects in the light of their situations.  Together these explain what the agent does in practice.

Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisations about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. This is not a real explanation but  a retreat into Humean ‘constant conjunctions’, from which a causal mechanism linking the two cannot be derived.  Methodologically, this means that efficient causation will remain lacking, whilst ever the subjective powers of agents are excluded from substantive research.

However, it appeared from my 2003 study that different sub-groups of agents practised very different modes of reflexivity or forms of internal conversation: (a) ‘Communicative reflexives’ (people whose internal conversations need to be completed and confirmed by others before they lead to action), (b) ‘Autonomous reflexives’ (people who sustain complete internal conversations with themselves, leading directly to action), (c) ‘Meta-reflexives’ (people who are critically reflexive about their own internal conversations and socially critical about effective action) and, (d) ‘Fractured reflexives’ (people who cannot conduct a purposeful internal conversation, but go round in circles of ever-increasing distress and disorientation).

The importance of these forms of internal conversation, through which individuals deliberate about how to realise their personal concerns within an existing or available social context, appears lie in their very different relationship to structural constraints and enablements. ‘Communicative reflexives’ remain deeply embedded in their original  social context ; by evading both the objective costs incurred by resisting constraints and also repudiating the objective bonuses associated with enablements, their unit acts serve to reproduce the social structure. Conversely, ‘Autonomous reflexives’ adopt a strategic stance towards constraints and enablements, seeking to avoid society’s ‘snakes’ and to ride its ‘ladders’ - thus changing their own social position and also modifying the new positions they come to occupy in the pursuit of their concerns. ‘Meta-reflexives’ act as society’s critics; they are subversive towards constraints and enablements because they are willing to pay the price of the former and to forfeit the benefits of the latter, in the attempt to live out their concerns. All of the above are active agents, making different contributions to social stability and change, but also achieving some governance of their own lives in society. In contrast, ‘Fractured reflexives’ are passive agents. They enjoy no such governance, but instead are people to whom things happen, thus representing a passive force for social stability.

That is a tentative finding based upon a very small exploratory study. If it is correct, it points to a hitherto neglected mechanism linking individual to society. Moreover, since each mode of reflexivity also appeared to entail a different ‘stance’ towards society, then their aggregate effects will make a crucial contribution to social reproduction or transformation at the macro-level. Getting to grips with this mechanism and its effects is therefore the overall theoretical aim. There are three main focal points to this research:-

  1. Much more needs to be known about the making (and breaking) of the different types of reflexives. How durable are these modes of reflexivity and what prompts their mutation?
  2. It is hypothesised that practitioners of the different modes of reflexivity establish a distinctive form of inter-personal modus vivendi in society. For example, in terms of marital/family relations, ‘Communicative’, ‘Automomous’ and ‘Meta-reflexives’ respectively appear to endorse ‘togetherness’, ‘accomodative independence’ and a ‘a like-minded community’, whilst ‘Fractured reflexives’ have difficulties in establishing durable and satisfying relationships at all. Similar differences seem likely to attend the relations sought by the above sub-groups at work, in friendship networks, life-styles, in the community and within civil society in general
  3. A crucial missing link in the explanation of stability and change in society (or a part of it) is the connection between the different modes of reflexivity exercised by individuals and their involvement in collective action.