Politicians do social metaphysics

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

—Margaret Thatcher (Sept 23, 1987), then Prime Minister of the UK, Interview for Woman’s Own

“The reality is international law is a set of political constructs which actually countries abide by or depart from in a number of circumstances – including the Euroepan Union itself. For example it didn’t apply WTO rules on Airbus. Arguably that’s a violation of international law but the EU did it because the EU felt it was inappropriate to do that.

“It is not unusual for there to be disputes over international law, it is not unusual in certain limited limited circumstances for countries not to comply with all obligations under international law.”

—Theresa Villiers (Sept 14, 2020), Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sky News (as reported by Jon Stone in the Independent)

Agential identity

How can we make sense of social phenomena like being “out” as queer, varying how salient that identity is depending on whether we’re in an LGBTQ+ bar or with queerphobic family, or having strongly-felt and clearly expressed identities invalidated? These are example phenomena addressed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix‘s new paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.

Their idea is to bridge what we take ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.

Agential identification with a particular social group follows this pattern:

  1. You self-identify as a member of the social group.
  2. You make that self-identity externally available
    (a) consciously or unconsciously;
    (b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
    (c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
  3. You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.

Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate, they argue – for instance, in terms of how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity. We may not even have a name for a particular identity; it’s possible to be polyamorous or bisexual without using those terms or even being militantly opposed to “labels” (see also: label aren’t glitter).

Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore variation in how this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can vary in how salient it is (pp. 583-584):

“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”

A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context; someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

I reckon we can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance communism, feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).