Youth and the real: How young people think about their lives

Harry Blatterer, Macquarie University

Margaret Archer The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012 (340 pp). ISBN 9-78110760-527-5 (paperback) RRP $56.95.

‘It is an illusion’, wrote Somerset Maugham,

that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded (2010 [1915], p. 108).

We might think Maugham’s sentiment overdrawn, surely an artefact of his time. After all, we—as a society—are in love with youth or at least with what it represents: beauty, energy, flexibility, innovation; hunger for change, risk, adventure; fixedness in the present and taking things in your stride; the ability to retrieve information with nimble fingertips, to bind lives with wireless connections. Maugham’s indictment of adult mendacity clashes with the culture’s valorisation of youth and gives pause: as much as we hang on to the ideal of youth do we really care about the young who live it? Their lives are highly monitored; qualifications, even if tertiary, amount to little more than necessary tickets into often menial and mostly short-term contract positions (their ‘flexibility’ doesn’t just miraculously emanate from a generational gene x, y or z, but is structurally induced); increasingly inaccessible housing markets stratify life chances; youth suicide rates are staggering. All that without having to contemplate much difference in class and culture.

But of course, young people are not drones determined by social conditions: they think. They think about who they are and where they are headed and how. And let’s not forget that in a world in which there are no enduring guides to a life worth living, where uncertainty suffuses experience, think they must. ‘Reflexivity’ is not only an essential human capacity; turned to the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘how am I to live?’ it is, in fact, imperative. How that is played out in the lives of young people is the subject of The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity, sociologist Margaret Archer’s latest book. As a Critical Realist, Archer approaches social phenomena as real in so far as our perceptions of what goes on ‘out there’ in the world determine our actions; we act as if there is a shared reality and therefore our actions in reality are legitimate research topics. Since the reality of the world cannot be proven, Critical Realists are pragmatic. Since the language we use in daily interaction is shot through with causal statements, the language of Critical Realism, too, is causal. With ‘the real’ as Archer’s focus, The Reflexive Imperative promises to illuminate young people’s engagement with it.

The book is part of a trilogy that, beginning with Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation (2003) and Making our Way through the World (2007), seeks to solve a perennial puzzle: how to conceptualise in an empirically workable way the connection between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, between the objective conditions that shape us, and the shaping of these conditions through our actions and interactions. The art here is to recognise both the inextricability of the two domains and their analytic distinctiveness. Archer urges us not to conflate, to be nuanced in that approach, to weigh each side by keeping in mind the other. What is of particular interest here is what Archer tells us about how young people, the subjects at the centre of the book, think about and shape their lives. First to context.


Archer aims to show that different time periods are more or less conducive to particular types of reflexivity. In that endeavour Archer adheres to the ‘morphogenetic’ approach she has developed for some three decades. Morphogenesis refers to the dynamic interaction of agency with material (structure) and ideational (culture) formations, leading to the ‘elaboration’ of novel conditions over time. Morphogenesis is progressive; its opposite, ‘morphostasis’, reproduces the status quo, is conservative (1996, pp. xxiv–xxvii). With The Reflexive Imperative Archer continues her attempt to conceptualise large-scale social change, which, like much of her previous work, is wedded to modes of reflexivity. By reflexivity she means ‘the regular exercise of the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their (social) contexts’ (p. 1) by way of internal conversation. Archer argues that in different epochs of European—and later global—histories different modes of reflexivity predominate.

Young people are not drones determined by social conditions.

In traditional societies, when interactions between structure, culture and agency amount to morphostasis, ideational subversion is collectively stymied, social change slow at best. The dominant mode of reflexivity is ‘communicative’ because it is based on consensus. It is therefore collective and ‘protective’ of the status quo assuring ‘contextual continuity’. Modernity ushers in ‘contextual discontinuity’, a ‘situational logic of competition’, with tensions between classes and interests, tensions that are amenable to what Archer calls ‘autonomous reflexivity’, to means-ends calculation (pp. 17–31). Since the 1980s we are said to have entered a period of ‘nascent morphogenesis’. Structural uncertainties (think precarious labour markets) and an advancing cultural pluralism render autonomous reflexivity inadequate. Uncertainty and unpredictability militate against instrumental rationality.

The mode best suited to these new realities is meta-reflexivity, a type of reflexivity that turns to the thinking process itself, so that plans and projects are constantly subject to revision. This mode emerges because ‘contextual incongruity’ rules the day: job qualifications no longer guarantee work in a specific sector, and least of all over the long term. Gap years promise short-lived reprieve from decision making. Intimate relationships too have to be negotiated to an unprecedented degree as the ‘situational logic of opportunity’ expands. When a couple comes together, two life trajectories and two sets of ‘ultimate concerns’ need to be negotiated and shaped into a common project. ‘For growing numbers and for the first time in history their [young people’s] natal social context fitted them for nothing’ (pp. 37–38). As a consequence, ‘the importance of what we care about’ in the construction of our identity—for Archer a matter of knowing and realising one’s ‘constellations of concerns’—‘has never been more important’ (p. 42). No habitus can be developed when context fragments. Communicative reflexivity is inadequate because consensus about the shape of a life worth living cannot be reached. In other words, things are uncertain, and ever more of life’s responsibilities are to be shouldered by individuals.

The next four chapters turn to a series of in-depth interviews with 36 sociology students at Archer’s then-home university, Warwick. Interviews were repeated over three years, and traced changes or stasis concerning modes of reflexivity. Archer, based on the interpretation of her findings, assigns respondents to either one of the four main categories of reflexivity she outlines in the earlier chapters.

Communicatives are characterised as least able to take advantage of a reputed ‘situational logic of opportunity’. Archer’s communicative are all women who are beholden to their families’ views, unable to cut the strong ties of old friendships and to forge new ones in the new environment of college away from home, they fail to achieve independence. Ruth failed to take up ‘novel opportunities’. Maura ‘shed the burden of reflexively shaping her life’ by emulating her sisters’ careers. Kirsty likewise ‘bowed’ to familial influences, while Sinead is ‘passive’, procrastinates. Theirs is a ‘thought and talk’ mode of reflexivity (pp. 152–163), and in Archer’s view not conducive to acquiring a coherent identity, because that is only possible if individuals are clear about their ‘ultimate concerns’, defined as ‘what we care about most’ (p. 103). Communicative rationality is suited to times and places with a strong normative consensus; it is ill-suited to the ‘situational logic of opportunity’ that she says marks our epoch.

No habitus can be developed when context fragments.

Autonomous reflexives, with their relatively weaker affective ties to family are averse to intimacy; ‘for none would dependency in friendship be anything but repugnant’ (p. 179). Regarding work, making money is uppermost albeit in a socially responsible way, something that according to Archer makes them ideal recruits to ‘the main institutions of modernity’, states and markets (p. 189). Here the establishment of a coherent life unfolds as an interior process of strategic planning.

‘Immune’ to family, peer pressures and expectations, meta-reflexives are ‘loners’ who ‘know what they want’. They seek difference rather than familiarity, cherish contextual incongruity, treasure new experiences, vocations, ‘causes’ (pp. 207–209). Raised in stable and durable families—these are ‘relational goods’—they were, at the same time, provided with little normative guidance, left to make up their own minds on various issues. They seek friends with similar outlooks that may, however, be let go of if they stand in the way of ‘ultimate concerns’. They reject state and market as much as a social life that could detract from careers in the third sector. But while these meta-reflexives appear to be ideal subjects of nascent morphogenesis, others don’t fare so well.

Fractured reflexives, a subcategory of meta-reflexives all of whom are women yet again, are characterised as ‘walking wounded’ who are said to compensate for their lack of decision-making capacity with intuitive judgment, something that in Archer’s view is inadequate today (p. 251). These women’s interactions with parents are negative, sometimes traumatic; ‘relational goods’ are absent. For them, stuff just happens. Following Archer’s logic, they don’t acquire an identity because that is the product of deliberation over projects and the realisation of ultimate concerns, undertakings in which these people fail. Just running with your gut instinct, as they are likely to do in order to cope, is not the way to shape a life in nascent morphogenesis, according to Archer. But then there is a contradiction: when she reminds us that these subjects consult their feelings, Archer unwittingly admits that even these supposedly incomplete individuals—well—think (p. 282). Her valorisation of cognition vis-à-vis the emotions in the formation of identity thus rests on an overly simplistic division.


Archer’s discussion of fractured reflexives is about the place where my sense of unease began to congeal into a suspicion. Let’s remember that this is a book about the kinds of self-talk young people engage in as they attempt to shape their lives in uncertain conditions. These internal conversations are the springboards for their actions. But there is a difference between testing your theory and pressing data into the service of proving its merits and validity. It’s the latter that marks Archer’s approach. For example, if meta-reflexivity is about making sense of your social position, opportunities, limits and agency relative to your contexts, why is Adam, who refuses to engage with gay student politics for fear that this may be detrimental to his career options, a strategising autonomous reflexive rather than a meta-reflexive who has judged well ‘the real’ confronting him in his society as a young, gay man? When fractured reflexive Carris unambiguously opted for her ‘university friends’ over her ‘home friends’, that is something she shares with autonomous and meta-reflexives whose stance to intimate relationships is instrumental and contextualising rather than ‘come what may’ (p. 268). We can assume that Archer noticed such overlaps and inconsistencies. They are, however, numerous and are too important to be left uncommented upon.

This book is not intended to deal with structure or culture but with reflexivity.

This book is not intended to deal with structure or culture but with reflexivity. Reflexivity’s mediating functions between agency, material and ideational conditions will be explored in yet another volume as Archer foreshadowed some time ago, when she remarked that ‘this trio of books on intrapersonal deliberations about society will still leave the morphogenetic project unfinished’ (2007b, p. 44). This is in line with Archer’s modus operandi, since in all her work she insists on the need to separate culture, structure and agency on the level of analysis. But that separation comes at a price: readability of each of Archer’s instalments suffers precisely because culture, structure and agency are inseparable on the level of human experience and interpretation, including the interpretation of her work. In each volume one or two categories are felt to be missing, and this might well explain some criticisms levelled at Archer. While we might agree with her that it is ‘only human’ to ‘object when a reviewer asserts that I have “been blind to the interpersonal” … have “forgotten about structure and culture” … or … “become absorbed in the intrapersonal”’ (2007b, p. 37), she needs to equally acknowledge that even a specialised readership cannot be expected to be aware of a three-decade-long elaboration. For example, the fact that a key concept like ‘morphogenesis’, and a key phrase like ‘situational logic of opportunity’ are either not or only insufficiently explained, indicates that the book—intentionally or not—speaks to converts rather than novices, to followers rather than potential new recruits and interlocutors.

Although Archer reminds us that her offering ‘should not be read as a peon of praise to the situational logic of opportunity’ the fact that she causally links subjects’ reflexive capacities to family relations but ignores the significance of class, gender (all subjects whose mode of reflexivity is deemed out of step with contemporary changes are women), ethnicity and even age, only augments the sense that the book is unfinished. Drawing on existing research on young people’s experiences in contemporary societies would have gone some way towards giving more empirical substance to the argument. Non-engagement with that literature makes The Reflexive Imperative exceptionally self-referential both in terms of approach and audience.

Archer’s final statement, ‘I am much richer in question marks than in the necessary clarifications, which is why this is, indeed, the start of another book’ (p. 315), is appropriate. At once secure in her own paradigm and defensive of it, certain of its yield and self-deprecating about its ambit, this book is Archer’s own reflexive processes in action. Hers is a mind at work trying to interpret how young people interpret their internal conversations as they attempt to come to grips with reality—or seek shelter from it, or confront it head on and in so doing perhaps even change it.

Finally, there is something disquieting about the new imperative for the young to think and think again, and then some more, about the how and what of their lives; not only because their fates appear hopelessly individualised; not only because their successes and failures are often misinterpreted by us and them and so internalised as personal business only; but because in the gap between our image of youth and the realities of young people’s lives, there emerge these perfectly adapted individuals. With just the right distance to parents and friends, ‘intimacy’ finely calibrated, they are ever ready to realise the ‘things that really matter’ as they carefully weigh and sift life’s options against the background of proliferating opportunities. They cobble together—mostly alone and sometimes with useful others—a coherent understanding of the world, of the inequities of state and market, and methodically assemble an ethical working life. They are meta-reflexives. But theirs, I would argue, is not a modus vivendi, to use Archer’s language, but a modus operandi that helps them adapt to complexity, contingency and uncertainty. It’s the kind of adaption that veils itself as creativity, self-assertion and agency. Against that vision remains the hope that, as always, young people are as wise to the world as Maugham told us, and that they will be able to carve out enough freedom for themselves to make a life, live it with all the usual messiness and share it here in the real.


Archer, M.S. 1996, Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Archer, M.S. 2003, Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Archer, M.S. 2007a, Making Our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Archer, M.S. 2007b, ‘The trajectory of the morphogenetic approach: An account in the first person’, Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 35–47.

Maugham, Somerset W. 2010 (1915), Of Human Bondage, Wilder Publications, Blacksburg.

Harry Blatterer is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Macquarie University. He is author of Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty (Berghahn Books, 2007) and co-editor of Modern Privacy: Shifting Boundaries, New Forms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

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