Reflexivity, Merton and Status and Role -Sets

Margaret Archer’s modes of reflexivity are ideal types. Although individuals may tend to settle enduringly into one or another mode, switches are possible and, I suspect, not uncommon. I have written and blogged quite insistently on Archer’s modes of reflexivity but cannot assume these have been picked up, so here’s a précis. In her Making Our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility she offers the following definitions:

  • The communicative reflexives are those whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in course of action;
  • The autonomous reflexives are those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action’
  • The meta-reflexives are those who are critically reflexive about their own internal conversations and critical too about effective action in society.

Considered as generative mechanisms, these different dominant modes of reflexivity have what Archer calls ‘internal consequences’ for their practitioners as well as ‘external consequences for society’. Internally, Archer found from a small-scale study oriented to social mobility that communicative reflexivity is associated with social immobility; autonomous reflexivity with upward social mobility; and meta-reflexivity with social volatility. Externally, communicative reflexives contribute to social stability and integration through their ‘evasion’ of constraints and enablements, their endorsing of their natal contexts, and their active forging of a dense micro-world that re-constitutes their ‘contextual continuity’ and projects it into the future. By contrast, the autonomous reflexives act strategically, in Archer’s words, by ‘avoiding society’s snakes to ride up its ladders’ (Archer, 2007: 43). They represent ‘contextual discontinuity’. The meta-reflexives are society’s ‘subversive agents’, immune alike from the rewards and blandishments linked to enablements and the forfeits associated with constraints. They act out Weber’s ‘value rationality’ amidst the ‘contextual incongruity’ that shaped their lives. They are a source of counter-cultural values, inclined to context both oppressive moves on the part of the state and exploitation arising from the economy.

These themes are picked up in Archer’s Reflexive Imperative. She argues there that society is currently being rapidly re-shaped and distanced from modernity; she highlights in particular a new global realm of ‘opportunities’, as well as enhanced migration, increased education and a proliferation of novel skills, not to mention the changing nature of reflexivity itself. All this suggests a move away from communicative reflexivity, which is associated with traditionalism, towards autonomous reflexivity, which is apt and ripe for global opportunities, with meta-reflexivity producing ‘patrons of a new civil society expressive of humanistic values’.

This move towards what Archer calls morphogenetic society jettisons some citizens. The logic and global reach of opportunity require the continuous revision of personal projects and serve as obstacles to any settled modus vivendi. The reflexivity of some, maybe many, becomes ‘fractured’ as a consequence.

  • The fractured reflexives are those whose internal conversations intensify their distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action.

The communicative reflexives are most fragile and vulnerable to displacement into the category of fractured reflexive (the majority of fractured reflexives in Archer’s own investigation started out as communicative reflexives). I have elsewhere suggested that fractured reflexives may be prone to a ‘disconnected fatalism’ that directly and indirectly undermines their prospects for health and longevity.

So Archer discerns four consequential modes or ideal types of reflexivity; and now, at last, I can kick start this contribution!

I doubtless don’t need to remind others either that Weber’s ideal types not only allow for considerable empirical variability – they are after all sociological devices – nor that they admit of refinement. And here I call on Merton’s notions of status- and role-sets. Might it be that reflexivity not only varies, or is capable of variation, per individual over time, but that it can vary too by status- and role-set. Merton, Parsons’ principal but cautious and sophisticated disciple, maintained that each of us occupies a number (set) of statuses (e.g. daughter, mother, school governor and so on), to each of which attaches a set of (role or) normative expectations (i.e. how appropriately to behave). My proposition in this blog is that Archer’s modes of reflexivity might well vary – and enduringly so – by status- and role-set.

This is a roundabout way of interrogating, or at least qualifying, my own applications of Archer’s conceptualization of reflexivity. In earlier blogs I have posited ‘focused autonomous reflexives’ and ‘dedicated meta-reflexives’ as key players in relation to the production and reproduction of health inequalities, and on ‘vulnerable fractured reflexives’ as paradigmatic ‘disconnected’, ‘fatalistic’ and health-disadvantaged non-players.

Might it be that reflexivity varies – systematically – by status- and their companion role-sets? This could explain why ‘greedy bastards’ raking in profits from casino-like betting on up-and-down exchange rates lovingly visit their grannies, walk their (ok, pedigree) dogs with routine commitment and do unpaid stints in their local Oxfam bookshops through their early retirements whilst cashing in on their capital investments. Might it be that the very same ‘focused autonomous reflexives’ whose uninhibited greed indirectly causes and fuels health inequalities are nevertheless – and their characteristic cognitive dissonance may be relevant here – compliant communicative reflexives in the private sphere?

When sociologists deploy ideal types they are often accused of simplifying social reality; but those who charge them are, in turn, frequently charged with platitudinous and unhelpful references to and reminders of the ‘complexity’ of social reality.

Not only can fairly settled modes of reflexivity nevertheless change over the life-course, they can, arguably, vary by status- and role-set. We are each of us multiple personalities. What we are and do in one figuration, status- and role-set can and frequently does differ from what we are and do in another. This tension across and within status- and role-sets may be a fruitful area of sociological enquiry.

One of the chief and most compelling characteristics of blogging is ‘thinking aloud’. I’m retired. Pick me up, but put me down less than gently if you have to.

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