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Ana Marta Gonzalez Gonzalez, Scientific Coordinator of the University of Navarra Institute for Culture and Society

Margaret. S. Archer: analytical rigor in the social sciences.

Mon, 24 Jun 2019 09:25:00 +0000 Published in Diario de Navarra and El Norte de Castilla

Introducing the work of Margaret S. Archer (Grenoside, UK, 1943) to the general public is no easy task. Although she has long been an obligatory point of reference in the contemporary sociological landscape, Archer is not an author who is lavish in the genre of essay, which is the way in which theory manages to cross the boundaries of the specialized public; she is not distinguished by having coined a happy metaphor - "liquid society", "risk society", etc. - from which to illuminate some aspects of our world. Undoubtedly, his books shed light on social dynamics, but they do so by the path of the least complacent science: identifying and analyzing the elements involved in social life. Applied to something as complex as social life, this has led him to insist on the importance of distinguishing between logical and causal relationships when examining the contribution of structure and culture to the question of social change. What is important to emphasize here, however, is that his "analytical dualism" has allowed him to take a clear position in the most relevant sociological debates of our time. In a not very buoyant time for social thought, Archer distinguishes himself for his theoretical ambition, for not having renounced to confront the classical problems on which the explanatory claims of sociology depend.

Already in Culture and Agency (1988), Archer argued how the ambiguities surrounding the term "culture" have favored the emergence of what he called the "Myth of Cultural Integration": the idea that there are all homogeneous cultures, as if there were no room for contradictions and tensions within a culture. For Archer, the major drawback of this "holistic" concept of culture is that it is removed from social analysis, so that it explains almost nothing.

Likewise, now that sociology is discussion between empiricism and metaphors, Archer brings to the table a methodological proposal - the morphogenetic approach - which, on the basis of a clear distinction between structure, agency and culture, is able to explain how and why certain social changes lead to new forms of social organization, while others end up absorbed by inherited inertias. Will open access, with its logic of opportunity, be able to impose itself on the competitive logic of copyright? Will Artificial Intelligence and robotics contribute to the development of a "post-human society" or will it constitute an opportunity for humanization? 

Margaret S. Archer has highlighted how these and other dilemmas cannot be resolved without delving into human reflexivity, a mediating core topic between the conditioning factors that we detect in our social environment and the projects with which we seek to modify that same environment. He has dealt with this in Structure, Agency and the internal conversation (CUP 2003), where he introduced and made operational for sociology the notion of "inner conversation", emphasizing in passing that it does not take a single form. Indeed, in the course of his empirical research he detected various "modes" of reflexivity - "communicative reflexivity", "goal-reflexivity", "autonomous reflexivity" and "fractured reflexivity" -; he was also able to appreciate that the subject of relationships that young people had experienced in their families was echoed in the mode of reflexivity that they would preferentially develop in their later relations with the world. Thus, in young people who were entering university and who defined their family relationships as satisfactory, he detected a greater inclination towards communicative reflexivity, to rely on others to orient themselves in new situations; they also showed a tendency to reproduce almost without thinking the family model from which they come. On the other hand, among those who defined family relationships as generally satisfactory, but also identified aspects that could be improved, he found examples of "goal-reflexive": more willing to critically evaluate their own positions, and to think of effective ways to change things for the better. On the other hand, among young people who had an ambivalent experience of family relationships, he noted the predominance of the autonomous mode of reflexivity: an attitude that coincides with that of "Juan palomo, yo lo guiso yo lo como" (I'll take care of it myself, I'll eat it myself). Finally, in those who came from dysfunctional families, and hardly thought of anything other than leaving them as soon as possible, there was a predominance of difficulty in orienting their thoughts before any reflective challenge , a "fractured reflexivity".

It can be assumed that in plural and fragmented societies such as ours, which face new challenges, we are in dire need of "goal-reflective": people capable of valuing the inheritance received and improving it. But, as a society, the main challenge we have planted is to generate the right conditions for them to see the light: a challenge educational . It is no coincidence that Archer' s doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics back in 1967 dealt precisely with "The educational aspirations of working-class class parents in England: their training and the influence on their children's schooling".