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A tale of two systems: The perennial debate about Archer and Bourdieu

There has been a lot of discussion in critical realist circles about whether it is possible to reconcile the work of Margaret Archer and Pierre Bourdieu, two of the great social theorists of recent memory. The main contours of the debate are whether habitus and agency can work in tandem; whether field theory with its emphasis on reproduction of fields via such things as habitus, and morphogenesis with its emphasis via the transformation (and reproduction) of structures by agents, can be reconciled? If so, how? (see. Archer 2010 and Elder-Vass 2010).

As the debate stands, Andrew Sayer and Dave Elder-Vass (among others) represent the case for the affirmative while Margaret Archer and Doug Porpora (among others) represent the case for the negative (Archer most emphatically!).

The case for the affirmative

The case for the affirmative suggests (Elder-Vass) that routine behaviors or subconscious practices can be reconciled with more consciously and reflexively directed activity – one is not the antinomy of the other. Certain experiences and conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions are able to bring about durable, transposable dispositions that are able to be generate and organize practices without the necessity of a conscious or intentional direction towards particular ends. Accordingly, people with similar backgrounds and experiences are very likely to act in very similar ways.

The disposition to speak with particular accents occurs because through our upbringing, education, and repeated acts of mimesis we tacitly learn certain speech patterns, we shape our mouth in particular ways and condition our muscles, muscle memory and muscle reflexes, to elocute in certain ways. This is never consciously taught, although is directed by processes during education (such as parents and teachers correcting pronunciation) and is part and parcel of our social “conditioning”. While this can be changed, either through further experience or consciously directed action, these dispositions remain durable. A useful example Sayer gives, stopping at traffic red lights becomes a habit that we begin to reproduce unthinkingly once we have acquired a disposition to do so, but it is a behavior we consciously develop until it becomes so routine that we begin to reproduce it for the most part unthinkingly, without much conscious exertion. The same can be said for responding to certain social cues, etiquette, institutional logics, subcultural behaviors etc.

While Bourdieu has been critiqued for his emphasis upon habitus, it is often noted that Bourdieu also recognizes that reflexive choices are continually made – both in terms of meeting the challenges of a concrete situation, and in times of crisis when breakdowns of patterned behavior or slippages occur because actions cease to have the desired effect, or there is a mismatch between the habitus and its environment which jolts the person into conscious action. Accordingly, it is proposed that it is possible to reconcile Archer and Bourdieu by suggesting that when we act, some of our actions are determined with little or no conscious effort, while others are strongly influenced by reflection. In contrast to usual readings associated with pragmatism or dual process theory, however, this is not necessarily a case of alternation between routinized behavior and conscious actions, but rather all actions in social situations can be said to have both types  in which some components of a social activity are characterized by unconscious dispositions based upon past experience and conditioning (accents, body language, social reflexes, responding to social cues, pursuing certain capitals etc.) while others are the product of conscious and reflexive activity. A conversation about whether Bourdieu and Archer can be reconciled will be characterized by both conscious and reflexive action (argumentation, rhetoric etc.) and unconscious and habitual dispositions (vocabulary, facial gestures, and, as is so often in theoretical discussion, perhaps masculine performances).

The case for the negative

The case for the negative is a case against reductionism and runs as follows. For Archer, conscious reflexive deliberation is at the heart of social practices. Against accounts which emphasize the reproduction of structure, accounts which blend together structure and agency through indistinct ways that ontologically collapse the difference between structure and agent, Archer and Porpora assert agency. Archer suggests, agency is in fact a component of every social activity because it is ontologically distinct from structure and the difference must be maintained.

The behavioral focus on structures, unconscious action, routine, and motivation, covers over the agent, and with the agent our continual reflexive deliberations, even in what seem to be the most mundane or routine of everyday exercises. We are constantly deliberating and negotiating situations according to our concerns that we use to guide the conduct of our lives, making our way through the social world through mediated interactions. Perhaps, our response at the red traffic light is not as unthinking after all, but we respond to the situation with a degree of intentionality – an interaction taking place between an agent, ingrained habits, and our surroundings. While we may not be equally aware of this intentionality across different situations, that is not to say we are driven by structure or routine.

In placing emphasis upon the agency in everyday life, Archer is also concerned to show that social and cultural structures have distinct powers of their own that do not negate agency. We do not act in circumstances of our own choosing; our placement in society and history affects us, and the decisions we make, the social identities we cultivate, and the behaviors we undertake… but we act! Social and cultural structures do not determine one’s subjectivity, activity, behavior, identity, or values. Rather people, even people from similar backgrounds, act in very different ways and develop their own idiosyncrasies and ways of doing things negotiating their self, their culture, and the structures they find themselves within. People respond to their history and experiences in different and unique ways. In Archer, as opposed to Bourdieu, the emphasis is firmly on individuals and heterogeneity, but not at the expense of social and cultural dynamics. Indeed, key to Archer’s position is the recognition that agents, social and cultural structures and entities have their own distinct (ontological) existence, and as such influence and affect social outcomes in complex and differentiated ways. Each have their own forms of causal powers and dispositions. Understanding a social activity therefore requires understanding the conjuncture of these forms. This might be represented as follows in the classic Venn diagram to highlight the conjuncture (I am a visual thinker).

This brings us to one final and crucial point. To understand the interaction and conjunction between these different causal powers, and to understand how structures are transformed and undergo processes of morphogenesis, or are reproduced and undergo processes of morphostasis, we need to be attentive to the internal conversation, the ceaseless discussion about our concerns and self-monitoring of the self, our commitments, and our activities and behaviors. In the internal conversation we conduct a reflexive deliberation with ourselves about ourselves, which mediates the interaction between our agency, intentionality and concerns, and the social and cultural structures and entities that constrain and enable our activity.

On his basis Archer is exceedingly critical of Bourdieu, and the “social-hydraulics” of field theory, which is seen to excise subjectivity and diminish human properties and powers in order to explain social action within fields, resulting in a (top down) conflation of human agency with social structure which ultimately makes subjects objects, and agents bearers of structure (Träger). It is argued, for Bourdieu the dynamics of social activity are internal to social fields i.e. habitus, doxa, capital to such an extent that results in an ontological conflation of structures and agents the implication being that we only need to understand the operation of fields (or social or cultural structures) and not human subjectivity or consciousness, etc. … such things can all ultimately be referred back to the field structure. For all his insight, at rock bottom Bourdieu is a reductionist and there can be no reconcilliation with a system that is set against reductionism. While Bourdieu denies this reading on numerous occasions whether his self-avowal is enough to avoid the charges raises more complex questions of interpretation and the role of the author (i.e. authorial intentionality).

So, these are the contours of the debate. Here I want to make an observation, perhaps even a thought experiment as to the reconciliation or position of one system vis-à-vis the other.

One of the central distinctions utilized by critical realists is between open systems and closed systems. Open systems are characterized by a conjuncture of causes which at best produce tendential and/or dispositional effects. As Steinmetz suggests, causation needs to be understood “in the wild” in terms of “shifting constellations of casual mechanisms” which operate behind the scenes to produce the phenomena of the social world (Steinmetz, 2004: 383). The social world cannot be understood as a closed system or a well-oiled machine that produces regularities expressible in neat formulas, chains, processes, rules, types, or scripts, or what Andy Abbot has called “general linear reality”. In contrast closed systems are characterized by much stronger ties, the prototypical example being the controlled conditions of the laboratory which has served as the basis for many accounts of causation (most accounts of laws, and many accounts of mechanisms). But outside the laboratory conditions are far less controlled and orderly. Outside of the laboratory the world is not neat enough for the smooth operation of mechanisms. Instead, multiple mechanisms interact and interfere with each other often producing novel effects and complex and heterogeneous systems. As Lawson suggests, when it comes to the social world – at best – the regularities we encounter are only ever demi-regularities, limited forms of “regularity” that signify the localized and “occasional, but less than universal” causal relationships that exist only within a “definite region of time-space” (Lawson 1998:149).

So here is my “thought experiment” – what if rather than directly trying to reconcile habitus and agency, we look at the level of systems and think of Archer’s morphogenetic theory as a theory of open systems, and Bourdieu’s field theory as a particular instantiation of open system dynamics into a relatively closed system of circulation i.e. a field represents a closure of an open system into a more homogenous unity. Not seeking to either elevate or diminish one author or the other, but this relationship might be represented as follows:

If we were to map out the key terms of Archer and Bourdieu we might arrive at something like this:

In reconciling these two positions, perhaps we might want to suggest an approach that focuses on emphasis: Archer is a theorist of open systems, Bourdieu of relatively closed systems. Archer provides a stronger theory of the transformation of social structures overplaying agency to highlight the inherent capacities and capabilities of agents and the agency in all events, and Bourdieu of the reproduction of social structures, underplaying the role of agency to highlight certain stubborn features of structural dynamics and the enduring effects of socialization. Or perhaps we might characterize this in terms of Archer as an ontologist concerned with the conditions of possibility of social action and Bourdieu a methodologist (as he often liked to say – Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) concerned with a mode of investigation into the operation of particular social structures i.e. the conditions of possibility of a particular system. In any case, filtering the discussion through the lens of open and closed systems might begin to give form to the possibilities and problems of reconciling Archer and Bourdieu, not at the level of agency and habitus, but at the level of “systems”. This might perhaps offer a fruitful avenue of investigation as to how and why open systems in the social world become closed, how heterogeneous and dynamic systems become homogeneous and static, how the internal conversation becomes impoverished and colonized by, say, institutional logics or particular modes of thinking, how that closure is maintained. It is concerned with how and why a part of the social world becomes isolated (or perhaps relatively autonomous) defined by increasingly closed boundaries – how it becomes a more coherent, more regulated, and more homogenous as a result, perhaps even more one dimensional; how and why the internal conversation becomes dominated,  impoverished, or colonized by particular logics, narratives, ways of thinking and perceiving – how a particular capital comes to dominate our broader value schemas, how internalized voices bias our internal conversations in particular ways in line with particular social ends, perhaps even in contradistinction to our own expression of agency: how we are lulled into competing in fields and arenas which are closed (some more closed than others). In other words, how do we as agents, and everything associated with our agency, become defined and “territorialized” (to use the Deleuzian phrase) in particular ways, and how do we hold the tension between structure and agency without simple recourse or appeal to a fundamental quality which always wins out in social situations (whether it is some version of habitus or even the internal conversation). How do we keep our systems open? Our causation, overdetermined and conjunctural?

As for the political and ethical push central to critical realism, after all even if we are disinterested we are not uninterested when it comes to politics and ethics, we might want to add further questions about how mechanisms which would, perhaps naturally, open the system are constrained (or enabled) and how and why a field (as an artificial closure) is maintained against the open possibilities almost inherently afforded by agency. This would, of course, be the classic site of investigation of the Frankfurt School and goes under the terms reification and alienation. Isn’t the “autonomy” of fields, or at least certain fields, just another way of saying alienation?

As an attempt to reconcile different systems this may be more akin to a thought experiment than anything else more serious but, nevertheless, I do think it is helpful to think such things throughusing the concepts of open and closed systems.

Archer, M. S. (Ed.). (2010). Conversations About Reflexivity (1 edition). London: Routledge.
Elder-Vass, D. (2011). The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.