THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SUBJECTIVITY: CAN IT BE THEORIZED?
The authors of this book - Julian Henriques, Wendy Holloway, Cathy Urwin, Couze Venn, and Valerie Walkerdine (henceforth HHUV&W) - when they first published it in 1984, were working together as a collective in England. At that time, they clearly saw themselves as part of an intellectual avante-garde and hoped, if not to steer the rational planning then being done in commercial, state, and other powerful institutions, toward more humane goals, to subvert its more inhumane effects. Unfortunately, as the authors now state in a Foreword to the book's reissue (in 1998, some 14 years later), little if anything has changed for the better. While the authors go on to indicate in the Foreword how they think the original programmatic intentions of the book can be, and are being, usefully extended, the main body of the book is unchanged. Clearly its new publishers now see it as having become the landmark text one of its cover blurbs predicted it would become, when first it was published. Indeed, it can now be seen as one of the earliest outline expressions of the agenda for the sphere of psychological inquiry now coming to be known as Critical Psychology. Although stemming from diverse origins, with a wide variety of theoretical stances, and oriented toward a heterogeneous collection of local agendas, it is emerging as a distinct sphere of inquiry in its own right. It has its own overall goals, a focal arena within which to pursue them, and its own methods for their realization. I shall examine each in turn below.
Overall, its goals are liberatory and emancipatory. Rather than Grand Theory, critical psychologists are oriented toward much more practical spheres of concern: community development, reform of the administration of mental health, working conditions, environmental issues, criticizing positivism and reductionism in applications of scientific psychology, and so on. Specifically, Changing the Subject (henceforth CTS) is oriented toward the liberation of members of historically oppressed groups: workers, women, people of color, and children.
The arena within which critical psychologists have chosen to pursue these emancipatory goals, is that of the social practices and discourses within which these spheres of concern are constituted, to which they owe the nature or the form of their original coming-into-being in our lives. It is this focus on the linguistic structuring of our shared social activities, that makes the style of the inquiries conducted in Critical Psychology so distinctive. Although - just as in mainstream psychology - its central concern is with the nature of people's inner or mental lives, instead of taking "the unitary, rational subject" (p.121) for granted and turning straightaway to its empirical study, workers in Critical Psychology take a very different tack. As HHVU&W make clear, although they "use 'subjectivity' to refer to individuality and self-awareness - the condition of being a subject," they also take it, that they imply in this usage "that subjects are dynamic and multiple, always positioned in relation to particular discourses and practices produced by these - the condition of being subject" (p.3).
Thus, as they see it, in always being positioned within a discursively constituted social practice of one kind or another, people are both subjected to, and must respond in kind to, the influences of the others and othernesses around us. In so doing, they find themselves being constituted as a certain kind of subjectivity, whether they like it or not. Further, as the authors of CTS make clear - applying Foucault's idea of a genealogy (a history which highlights past influences constitutive of the present moment) - the aim and the effect of the human sciences in our daily lives has been, as Couze Venn points out, "increasingly that of the more efficient disciplining and amplification of the capacities of the population" (p.131). Indeed, as he continues, "the birth of the modern subject is tied to the co-articulation of three themes - Mathesis, mechanism, and modern reason and the subject-of-reason - upon which pivots the conceptual framework for an understanding of the world" (p.135). In other words, the very structure of rational discourses is such that - in being structured in terms of single, hierarchical orders of logical dependency, within which one can reason from basic (foundational, general) principles to a great range of particular conclusions - they inevitably construct hierarchically structured, exclusionary social practices.
Currently, the processes of our own social self-construction are somewhat invisible to us. Thus, taking the unitary and unencumbered, rational subject of cognitivism for granted - along with the themes mentioned by Venn above - we all tend to think it 'natural' that people should fall into a (psychological) hierarchical order. We ignore the inevitably constitutive effects on us of our involvement in such hierarchical discourses. As a result, even those among us who occupy positions low down in a hierarchy, and who consequently find our opportunities for self-expression somewhat limited, nonetheless tend to locate our 'inner natures' wholly within ourselves. Hence, as Wendy Holloway shows in her chapter on psychological measurement and assessment, this general tendency shared by us all, leads subordinates to accept the 'neutrality' of job evaluations, even when these enable "organizations to retain differentials in pay of perhaps 500 percent on the grounds that the jobs are 'worth' that objectively... The effect of the technology of psychological assessment is to induce the willing co-operation and docility of the individual" (p.57).
Discourses, and how we are constituted as subjects within them (and what our inner lives are like as a result), is thus HHVU&W's focal topic of study. This is a important change of focus. We all too easily take it that we are living in a world already full of objects and events, and that our task is only that of representing it ('talking about it') in words.
Thus, up to this point, I have nothing but praise for HHUV&W - for the worth of their aims, for their focus on concrete, local issues that matter, and for their arguments suggesting that it is in the arena of our discursive practices, especially those drawing their content (and their legitimacy) from the human sciences, that those of us with these concerns must focus our efforts. But now I must now say something about the intellectual method of inquiry they employ - for in the end, I shall argue, it is a method that, in precisely failing to take their own concerns with the socially constituted nature of people's subjectivities into account, precludes the occurrence of the very changes the authors of CTS seek.
As a consequence of being embedded in certain discourses in our academic lives, we assume that we can spend our time within them in worlds full of words. We take it for granted that we can invent special technical terms of our own, etc., and that the others out there in the larger world of everyday life will understand what they represent, and will be able to apply our talk in their lives. I shall call the overall method employed in this world of talk: "the way of systematic theory." It leads to the assumption that underlying all human phenomena is a single, logical (i.e., hierarchical) order of connectedness, and that the only proper understandings of such phenomena are those expressed in terms of an explanation within such a framework.
This method is so pervasive in our current intellectual lives that the authors of CTS do not feel the need to explicitly justify its nature. They take it for granted that even their critics - who might criticize the framework they offer as flawed in some way - will still nonetheless see it as a systematic, theoretical framework - and thus of explanatory worth. How HHUV&W take this overall assumption for granted can be seen, for instance, in how they justify their overall theoretical project: "In looking at the critiques of the 1970's, for example, we find they are lacking in details which would explain how the 'conspiracy' worked between the system and for example psychology. Demonstrating a convenient correspondence between the dominant ideology and psychology's assumptions and practices does not explain how this situation was produced. Nor does an emphasis on the hegemony of the state or some central source of power explain why psychology is particularly suited to its purposes. Until we can provide some explanations, we cannot open the discussion of whether and how things can be otherwise" (pp. 5-6, all my emphases).
Within the way of systematic theory, their particular method might be called radical, penetrative-critique: to theorize subjectivity in a way adequate to their goals (of emancipation and liberation), they feel they must penetrate down to certain, ultimate root realities hidden from view behind or beneath appearances, realities beyond social construction which are responsible for what is constructed. They begin by outlining what hidden influences they think have been missed in previous radically critical approaches. My own early work is extensively cited - and criticized for "proposing a dichotomy between the social and the individual" (p.17). "Our argument is," they say, "that the dualistic framework in which psychology is caught makes it impossible to theorize the individual in a radically social way" (p.21). This is then used to justify their next moves: first to Althusser, then to Lacan, and then onto the work of Foucault. Althusser, they say, saw that "Ideologies... were not 'ideas' but had real material existence in a variety of social apparatuses in which subjects 'lived' their specific positions" (p.96). But he is criticized for talking of representations of already-existing subjects - and this closes off the subject to discursive influences of a constitutive kind. They thus turn to Lacan, who stresses the primacy of signification - where, "signification as the process of making sense does not represent anything, rather it is a production" (p.97). This leads them on to Foucault's work and to the idea of power as being discursively produced - as power becomes "not a property but a relationship. One can only examine its reality in its exercise" (p.117). It shows itself in people's interactions. This all reaches its culmination in Cathy Urwin's chapter, in which she provides a detailed critique of Lacan's theoretical claim that the observed assertiveness of children is due to "the inevitable costs of entering language and the processes through which desire [to control the mother] is produced as unfulfillable" (p.314). Instead, Urwin argues, "desire" is "not rooted in the loss of the mother per se, but... the individual child's illusion of control is produced and regulated, and reproduced recursively, via identifications across different spheres of action" (p.315). One aim of Urwin's analysis here is to make "it clear that the achievement of a gendered identity is preceded by a period in which infants actively engage in relations of power" (p.320).
The overall aim of their penetrative-critical method is thus to introduce a number of hidden, theoretical entities which, they claim, are the real entities in terms of which to explain the phenomena of concern. Such entities are: psychology's "dualistic framework," "ideologies," "social apparatuses," "discursive practices," "subject positions," "signification," "desire," "entry into language," "illusion of control," "identification," "spheres of action," to mention just a few. In couching their text in abstract terms such as these, terms which do not immediately 'move' or strike' us a certain way, their meaning can only be understood by being interpreted within a systematic framework of one kind of another. This, I suggest, is where HHUV&W are insufficiently radical in their claims about the socially constructed nature of our selves and social realities. They drag us back again into the business of 'ordering our talk about' the world and the others in it, from afar, instead of inaugurating radically new forms of intellectual practice, in which we might conduct our inquiries together with the others around us.
Critical outsiders can see possibilities
for change unnoticed by those within a culture. Such a shift in viewpoint
is provided by the move out into a systematic, intellectual framework.
In these days of diversity, however, when we can all to an extent assume
positions of outsidedness or otherness to each other, it seems to me that
critical new starting points can now be provided in another way. Rather
than an overall penetrative-critique by experts - who suggest that they
can see through our everyday activities to the hidden, 'real entities'
shaping them - we can now draw on critiques of a more local, detailed,
and relational kind: that is, critiques in which all involved in a practice
can, by oscillating between insider and outsider viewpoints, draw each
other's attention to previously unnoticed relations within and between
events occurring within the practice, thus to transform it, dialogically,
John Shotter is a professor of human relations in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire. He is the author of Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Rhetoric, Social Constructionism, and Knowing of the Third Kind. Toronto University Press and Open University Press, 1993.