Sitting at the High Table of Social Theory


Wrestling with Margaret Archer’s The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity feels like entering mid-point an impassioned conversation that has been raging for some time. A great deal of energy is required to pick through the threads of who is part of the discussion, what has so far happened and what different positions have been taken up by each combatant. I’m not sure how or why I managed to miss Archer’s work. I like the scale and magnitude of her scope. The Reflexive Imperative is the final text in a trilogy. She builds on a body of work that explores reflexivity as the mediating mechanism between structure and agency.

With Archer I am seated at the High Table of Social Theory. Not only am I reminded of my disciplinary roots on sociology – Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Comte and Parsons – the text invites the reader to ask big questions about what it means to be human: our internal conversations, our consciousness, our capacity to stand outside of ourselves and reflect on what we are doing – reflexivity – is what makes us human both as a species and as individuals.

Archer outlines four modes of reflexivity which is understood as internal conversation rather than introspection. Each of these modes (i) communicative reflexivity (ii) autonomous reflexivity (iii) meta-reflexivity and (iv) fractured reflexivity are practised by all of us at different times, in different circumstances. These four modes of reflexivity establish our inner conversation as something other than a homogeneous phenomenon, something we either do or don’t do. The four modes also establish reflexivity as more than a simple private psychologically determined undertaking: structural and cultural characteristics of subjects social backgrounds are closely associated with the predominance of different modes (p18).

There is a deep-seated entrenchment between theoretical positions for understanding the structure and agency interplay. Attempts to understand how the two interact most frequently fall on this or that side of a binary. What this discussion represents is my attempt to understand how different modes of reflexivity defines the structure and agency relationship or to annotate how the social order impacts on the interpretations and actions of an individual in a way that refuses to locate agency fully within individuals or entirely outside of them (p49).

This matters. While theoretical discussions of this sort have the capacity to become tedious, obscure and vacuous, they also offer a way of understanding the experiences of teachers as the struggle to locate a sense of professional identity. At a time when post 16 teachers have their agency deprived of all properties and powers apart from malleability, a theoretical discussion may enable us to identify how individual and collective projects can be sustained through the entangling thickets of the personal, structural and cultural

That is, is it possible for teachers to define and cultivate political commitments within a policy environment that requires only their compliance?

The Reflexive Imperative will be a slow read. Both subject matter and language are complex. There are persistent and inevitable references to past conversations. Theoretical preferences are hinted at but not always declared. I need to resist getting entangled in a complex web of other conversations. But, the text has integrity. And I want to understand what Archer has to say.