Actor centred sociology

In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I’m a methodological individualist. The term carries intensely negative connotations within the areas of sociology in which I spend my time. I’m certainly not an individualist in an ontological sense: I think the social world is made up of many kinds of entities and that we can only understand their composition by recognising their plurality and the stratified relations that obtain between them. I also don’t think we can adequately understand individuals as individuals, in the sense that, to use R.D. Laing’s description, “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being”. However, as he goes on to say, “any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”: while “I” always exist in relation to a “We”, this does not entail that the identity of the former can be subsumed into the latter. Unless we recognise the independent variability of the “I”, it’s impossible to make sense of the pattern of the development of the “We”: the trajectory “I” take can only be understood in terms of the shifting constellation of constraints and enablements entailed by a “We” that is reconstituted through my actions but nonetheless retains a relative autonomy from me.

In this sense, my approach to studying individuals without being an individualistunderstands people as temporally extended and always in motion. In other words, I’m concerned with biography. In his account of “actor centred sociology”, Daniel Little talks about the “actor-in-formation”: this is the meta-theoretical function of my notion of personal morphogenesis. I’m suggesting we can best understand the role of the individual within social processes by analysing other social entities in relation to how people change and how people stay the same: personal change and personal stasis then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of other social entities (and in turn engender tendencies towards personal morphogenesis or personal morphostasis etc). This is an argument about biographical microfoundations. This is how Daniel Little describes the notion of microfoundations:

This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures requiremicrofoundations.

I think I differ with Little on what it means to say that we have “appropriately related” structure and agency. I also think there are problems with the notion of supervenience – as far as I can see, it locks us into an ‘aggregation dynamics’ view and precludes top-down causation. However I otherwise like this way of thinking. I’m suggesting that a biographical approach orientated to personal change is a useful way in which we can bridge the gap between micro-sociology and macro-sociology. In essence, I’m suggesting that we think in terms of biographical microfoundations and see the social world as constituted through the unfolding of biographies and their entanglement within situated milieux.

At present I’m leaning towards publishing my PhD as individuals papers rather than as a monograph. However these would be a contribution to a long term project, Becoming Who We Are, which will eventually be a monograph. My PhD has left me with an understanding of my project but I don’t feel intellectually capable of writing it yet. I would use the theory of personal morphogenesis developed in my thesis as a basis for (a) a theory of biographical microfoundations (b) a methodology for studying the lifecourse (c) a theory of the actor (d) a framework for actor centred sociology.

The last phrase is one I’ve encountered through Little and I find it a very helpful way of framing what it is I want to do. Though I don’t think she’d accept the terminology, I’d now understand Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity (including Being Human, as well as the trilogy of books on reflexivity) as developing a theory of the actor and a framework for studying actors. I think it’s very strong in many respects but that there are elements of it which need to developed further. These are the questions that Little suggests a theory of the actor needs to address:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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