Arguing empirically about the theory of practice

A major issue in sociology is what is sometimes called the structure-action problem. It involves the problem of to what extent social phenomena are to be accounted for in terms structural properties of societies, or in terms of the actions and interactions of individuals. The debates over this issue often involves the problem of voluntarism vs. determinism, whether peoples’ actions are chosen freely, in some sense, or if they are determined by social and material relations. When discussing sociological theories, people will sometimes say that such-and-such theory is too deterministic (or, more rarely, too voluntarist). But how do these people know what the appropriate amount or degree of determinism is? How do you determine whether this is indeed the case?

I’ll venture the claim that there probably isn’t a real way to answer this question, or at least, not a sociological one (for all I know, there might be answers to this in neuroscience). My feeling is that when people critique some theory for being too deterministic or “structuralist” (in a loose sense of the term), they’re often relying on taste or morals.. Either you don’t like that emphasis on structural aspects, and/or it insults your moral sensibilities. I think that’s what you seen when people in these debates talk about the “derogation of actors” – there’s some (possibly vague) sense that liberal values or human dignity is being diminished.

However, I recently encountered a variant of this kind of critique, but one that is both resolutely empirical and seems find a reasonable way to make the argument that a sociological theory underestimate that actual degree of reflexivity. I’m thinking of how Bernard Lahire critiques Bourdieu in The Plural Actor.

More specifically, I am thinking of Lahire’s argument that forms of everyday writing constitute a break with, or exception from, the kind of semi-automatic practical sense of ractice Bourdieu often describes with his metaphors drawn from sporting. The point is to explain how actors often behave in ways that seem reasonable, in the sense that their actions are well-adjusted to the situation, but without presupposing that this is the product of a conscious calculation. Hence, according to Bourdieu, much or most social practice is similar to a (skilled) player:

“The player’s preoccupation or anticipation is immediately present in something that is not immediately perceived and immediately available, but it is as if it were already there. The player who hits a ball to the opposite court acts in the present in relation to a coming moment (l say coming moment rather than future) which is quasi-present, which is inscribed in the very physiognomy of the present, of the adversary running toward the right. She does not pose this future in a project (l can go to the right or not): she hits the ball to the left because her adversary is going to the right, because he is already, as it were, to the right. She makes up her mind in function of a quasi-present inscribed in the present.” Bourdieu, in Practical Reason, p. 82.

Lahire quotes this same passage (TPA, p. 147.-8), although from the French original.  Lahire’s argument involves first drawing on his own earlier work on everyday writing practices. What he essentially argues is that writing constitutes a practical way to escape the urgency of everyday practice. If it is true that we often find ourselves in situations in which we need to act with urgency, it is correct to say that much of this does not operate at as a “project” in Husserls sense, which is to say, as a relationship to a planned and explicitly recognized future, in which one’s goals and ambitions may be visualized. Instead, it would seem to be protension, as Bourdieu argues. However, Lahire argues that when actors write – diaries, notes, minutes, even shopping lists – this affords them some break with the urgency of many situations. These are routine circumstances in which one is not in the heat of the moment.

Based on this, Lahire moves forward to pick apart – not the metaphor per se, but its overgeneralisation. One thing, of course, is that the players alluded to by Bourdieu are necessarily highly skilled players, so one could probably not say the same thing about less skilled ones – and I think its fair to say that even if social actors are knowledgeable, we’re not always “highly skilled players” of the “social games” we find ourselves in. He then goes on to say that this skillful performance presupposes a lot of practice and planning, an extended preparation of the actual performance or match. And there is also the routine evaluation and analysis of the performance after the fact. Much as these are important part of the story about the accomplished sport performance, they have their counterparts in social practice too. And Lahire points to his work on everyday writing practices to argue that they constitute one version of this in social life.

Hence, I think Lahire makes a fair case that it seems Bourdieu’s theoretical accounts might overgeneralise in arguing that most action is protension, rather than project. This does not challenge the validity of the claim that much action is protension – it is comparable to the skillful performance of the tennis football player. The point is simply that far from all practice is like this. Lahire then says that this is an overgeneralisation which is, in fact, rather more parallel to how rational choice overgeneralises from (ideal typical) market behaviour, than what Bourdieu seems to hold.

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