An Andalucian Adventure 2018

An Andalucian Adventure.

The last 4 days:

Bristol Airport, not on most people’s bucket list of ‘must see’ attractions.

From some angles its steel and glass and concrete resembles an aircraft carrier but without the charm or threat. What it lacked in aesthetics, it compensated for in function. Having had the fortune to be flying out on a Sunday, when flights are few, we were spared the horrors of the crush of the sweat stained, and beer soaked, cheap perfumed traveling public. We breezed through security with nary a nod to the terrorist threat.

Although, I did see someone with a fulsome beard carrying a rucksack. Turned out to be the headmistress of a local public school leading her petite charges on a school trip to Morocco to count hemp plants and other assorted ideologies.

Bristol has a ‘fast track option’ for security clearance, for a fee. So, if you want to minimise time spent waiting behind a fat farting peasant as he takes his sweat infested boots off for inspection, and you can’t stand the incessant chatter of two high maintenance baby dolls with faces constructed of enough plastic to build a Lego city, then pay your money…and fast track. How this works if everyone pays a fee and increases the size of the fast track queue will be managed by fee increases until you get to the point when the fast track clearance costs more than your ticket. We however, on a Sunday morning did not bother with this latest scam, and sail through the ordinary queue with not even a greased gloved finger waiting to search for hidden contraband about one’s person.

Ryanair offers priority boarding for another fee, this includes paying for putting your luggage in the hold. However, if you only have 1 bag and carry it to the gate, the staff will put it in the hold for free. So, again read the small print very carefully otherwise you will pay for something you don’t need. The boss of this world class air freight service, Micheal O’Leary, owns race horses. One of which won the Grand National, ‘Tiger Roll’. As a consequence, we were all treated to fizz on the plane, along with extra servings of fairy dust, magic spells and wishful thinking. I’m not sure what priority boarding gives you, except a light wallet. No one took off before us. In fact we all went together as a happy throng of innocents being led to an uncertain future in a pain wracked, war torn, plague ridden world. The onboard snacks were no better, offering as they do, the gastrointestinal equivalent of colonic irrigation.

With heavy threats of a rain front racing up the M5 from Cornwall, and the skies rapidly greying at the temples, we were launched upwards and outwards into the blue. Two young Spanish lads sitting in front of me started on the booze as soon as the seat belt light extinguished. They were cheerful about it and refrained from flatulence and vomiting, which, in a confined space with recirculating air, was a bonus. I then spent two happy hours with a couple from Truro discussing everything from the superiority of Philp’s pasties over Warren’s, the price of pasty meat and the husband’s military service as an engineer in the tank regiments. I was treated to the paucity of an modern English education, the Swindon fortnight holiday for railwaymen and the joys of old fashioned engineering. Ann, having been allocated a seat two rows behind was able to get into reading her book.

Upon landing, the sun threw itself at us, and as i disembarked down the rear steps, I glanced up to see the mountains of Andalucia sticking their jagged peaks up into blue heaven.

***

We’ve been here before, so it is no surprise is it?

Except, yes it is, it is still so wonderfully sense grabbing that one’s chuff is verily plumped up with more chuffedness and gabberflasting.

Malaga airport is at once a transport hub, a cathedral and a gateway. It is stepping through the wardrobe, or the looking glass, into skin warming and soul cleansing air. But, down in the bowels of the baggage reclaim area, one is entombed in artificially lit concrete and steel with only other dazed and confused passengers waiting, hopefully, for their belongings. The reclaim hall throws adverts at you with promises of a richer better life awaiting you if you purchase this or go there, meanwhile your actual life revolves around the carousel belt in pregnant expectation that indeed you will survive this flight intact. Then with bags safely returned to you, and flashing a “I’m not a bomber” smile, and your passport, at the the border you emerge out of the terminal building blinking into bright blue sunlight, palm trees and the smell of Jasmin. The short walk in the sun blessed open air to the train station is the briefest introduction to Andalucian charm. The runway disappears seemingly towards the distant mountains. One can hear the gin and tonic being poured over tinkling ice, the vino tinto being uncorked with a corky plop, and the patatas bravas sizzling alongside the piri piri gambas.

To get to Mijas involves either an expensive taxi or the train. There is probably a bus but why would you? The railway station is at the terminal itself, and trains run frequently to Fuengirola. For the price of half a pint of decent English Ale, and in thirty minutes along the coast, one arrives in ‘funky town’. All of human life is here on the train. Very young Spanish mums with prams, prune skinned and turtle necked ex pat Brits, leather jacketed cool guys hoping to get a girl with merely a glance, and bright white new arrivals from the frozen and wet north.

We’ve not eaten since breakfast, so 8 hours later we are bit peckish, but not ‘hangry’. It is too beautiful here to bring any angst or existential grief. Mijas has a way of washing out the dirt and grime of an English winter, and there are swallows and swifts here to remind us of what we can expect back home very soon as the spring banishes the ice, rain and despair from our solid English hearts of sodden oak.

The flat is the first floor of the whole house, above us a spiral stair leads to a roof terrace with a 360 degree uncluttered panorama view of the town and surrounding mountains. The sea lies 5 kms and 800 metres below us. The sky has the odd little fluffy clouds. As it is gone 1700 hours, the sun is slipping over the yard arm (somewhere in the world) and a short walk into town and a cold beer awaits.

If I die here right now, I would not complain.

***

At about 8:30, the sun just about pokes its nose above the shoulder of Dragon Mountain.

Our apartment faces the rising sun and from the bed we can look out through the big double doors which act as windows across to Dragon Mountain. Between us is the limestone valley peppered with white villas, many complete with shining blue pools. The trees are still very green, giving a lush feel to an otherwise harsh hot climate which is to come. We can step out onto a balcony now bathed in orange sunlight and listen to swifts, the odd barking dog and the faint rustle of a light breeze in the adjacent poplar and cedar trees.

All is calm.

The sea sits a still blue under a pale blue sky to the south. Fuengirola is way below us, its bustling streets a mystery to us up here. There are bakers, butchers, street cleaners…sailors, donkeys and whores all finishing their work, or starting it, down there but we are oblivious to the organised chaos and the noise of chatter in cafe bars and taxis. A thousand ‘buenas dias’ and ‘Que Tals?’ have already been spoken, accompanied by a thousand cafe solos, a thousand lit cigarettes, as many again curses, blessings and mumbled instructions. Shellfish, Cod, Tuna and monkfish tails rest upon banks of ice in the mercado. Steak, pork shoulder and pigs ears are opposite. The full range of cured meats from Iberico ham to chorizo are being laid out for sale. Red, Green and Yellow peppers, blood red tomatoes, sweet strawberries and kale. Mushrooms, onions and cucumbers await their fate as thousand chefs contemplate their salad selections. Another day, another thousand decisions mostly about what to eat, when to eat it and where is the place place to eat it?

There will be some business done. A car will be sold, a new kitchen planned, a new financial scam invented. Lawyers will make money out of other people’s misery, stupidity, laziness and fraud. Doctors will examine bits of people their owners did not know exist, and tell them in somber tones that given the circumstances, death ‘ain’t as bad as it is made out”. Priests will talk to people about their real and often corporeal worries while invoking an imaginary solution, which sometimes actually work. Accountants will stack a pile of beans and inform owners that their business, while actually doing a roaring trade, is actually bankrupt. The bars will bustle with all manner of talk about politics, society and sex. None of which will be underpinned by any expertise in any of the fields under discussion as the inverse law of ‘talking bollocks’ applies. This law states that when any subject is discussed in more than two sentences and with increasing confidence this will be in inverse proportion to any knowledge about it. This particularly applies to male talk, when sat at a bar stool after the second beer.

Last night we walked into the town and enjoyed a very pleasant hour or so sitting outside in the sun. A pint of San Miguel for the gentleman and a Sangria for the lady. The square in Mijas has had a makeover and is now a wide open space with palm trees swaying in the light breeze. On three sides shops, cafes and bars sprawl their wares, tables and chairs. The fourth side is open to a view of Dragon Mountain. It is a lovely place to watch people taking pictures of themselves using selfie sticks brought to here by many coach loads of tourists up from the coast just for the day. They are mostly Asian. There must be a guide to tourism issued to all Asians as they have the same dress code, the same selfie sticks, and the same ant like gait as they rush from one picture opportunity to another. When I say ‘picture opportunity’, this is not the Taj Mahal or the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Any old municipal fountain, tree, cafe table or donkey is fair game. They will have hundreds of pictures of mostly themselves in front of Spanish trivia. I suppose to them it is all exotic and memorable. However I fail to see the attraction of a shop front, a cup of coffee on a cafe table or a dog taking a dump in the square.

Today, will be more of them same. Ann has been investigating the best eateries in town. There are plenty. There is a running battle with the odd mozzie going on, but so far they have scored the odd hit but nothing to call an ambulance about. They thankfully target bits of the body we have heard of and so there is no need to visit a doctor.

***

Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda.

All of them do a fine job of selling tins of beans. If you want to pay more, then you have Waitrose. If you don’t like pennies slipping through your fingers quite so fast, you can go to Lidl or Aldi.

But if you want colour, taste and a little exotica then the mercado in Mijas is for you. It has no car park, situated as it is right in the middle of the town surrounded and hemmed in on all four sides by houses and shops. You need to know where it is otherwise you I’ll never find it. Its front entrance is on a street just about wide enough for a car to pass through. Just. One has to pass a tabac on the way. A tiny one room shop that sells, wait for it, tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. That’s it. Nothing else apart from the accoutrements and paraphernalia for smoking. One leaves one’s heart and lungs outside to enter into the gloom where the merchant of death will sell you merchandise at a fraction of the price in the UK. Seems like death comes cheaply in Andalucia.

The mercado has a portico type entrance, a bit like stepping up into the Roman forum. Like all buildings in Mijas its exterior is white, but once inside it is a proper covered market. Walk around clockwise or anticlockwise and you will find butchers, bakers, fishmongers and a shop a name for which I’ve no idea.

We are having fish for lunch.

A bright eyed bream beckons us. We buy prawns and sardines. Señor says the sardines are ‘obligado’ (free) as they are the last 4 of the morning. He guts and cleans the fish for us, all for about 7 euros.

The bream requires stuffing with garlic, onion and lemon. Wrap it in foil with seasoning and dabs of butter and bake for 20-25 minutes. Prawns are gutted and peeled and dipped lightly in flour before being pan fried while the sardines are done likewise. All is served with a fresh salad and a bottle of Cava. The sun warms the balcony and our bones as we sit outside…yes outside, to lunch. The smell of olive oil and garlic tickle the nose, the fizz tickles the senses, the bream does not disappoint. As the fish was being prepared and the before the Cava popped open, a bottle of Malaga’s finest red had to be tried. Not the whole bottle, mind you. We bought a 2013 Vega del Geva, Syrah Cabernet. at a local bar the other night. Those who know French wine well would have been fooled by its aroma. Suffice to say it was bleddy ‘ansum me bewdy.

There is no place for stress here. The sun, the sky, the food and the mountains all conspire to draw any last vestiges of worry or concern from your bones. Any lasting niggles in the blood get filtered out. Nerves are rolled flat and untangled, muscles are warmed up and released from tension. I can’t be arsed to be arsed anymore. The heart pumps slower, the lungs breath easier and chalfonts withdraw to a place far far away. This is a country for old men, and women. Blood diluted by Spanish wine flows more freely, garlic and herbs create a bed of comfort in the stomach and even farts smell sweeter. Thoughts are slower and revolve around wondering how to cook the next fish as the most taxing predicament. Heart valves pop to the rhythm of the corks from bottles of Cava while one’s footsteps are no quicker than those of the oat fed and aged donkeys in the town square. The smell of honey roasted almonds and Jasmin compete for the glory of one’s nose, only to be ousted by wafts of freshly ground coffee from myriad street cafes.

A bucket of drugs each day has been prescribed to keep this old carcass from an early appointment with eternity. But with each breath of Andalusian air and the strokes of the sun’s warmth, I’m convinced that the medications are only being enhanced. There is magic here. Pity they can’t sell it or prescribe it on the NHS.

***

Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda.

All of them do a fine job of selling tins of beans. If you want to pay more, then you have Waitrose. If you don’t like pennies slipping through your fingers quite so fast, you can go to Lidl or Aldi.

But if you want colour, taste and a little exotica then the mercado in Mijas is for you. It has no car park, situated as it is right in the middle of the town surrounded and hemmed in on all four sides by houses and shops. You need to know where it is otherwise you I’ll never find it. Its front entrance is on a street just about wide enough for a car to pass through. Just. One has to pass a tabac on the way. A tiny one room shop that sells, wait for it, tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. That’s it. Nothing else apart from the accoutrements and paraphernalia for smoking. One leaves one’s heart and lungs outside to enter into the gloom where the merchant of death will sell you merchandise at a fraction of the price in the UK. Seems like death comes cheaply in Andalucia.

The mercado has a portico type entrance, a bit like stepping up into the Roman forum. Like all buildings in Mijas its exterior is white, but once inside it is a proper covered market. Walk around clockwise or anticlockwise and you will find butchers, bakers, fishmongers and a shop a name for which I’ve no idea.

We are having fish for lunch.

A bright eyed bream beckons us. We buy prawns and sardines. Señor says the sardines are ‘obligado’ (free) as they are the last 4 of the morning. He guts and cleans the fish for us, all for about 7 euros.

The bream requires stuffing with garlic, onion and lemon. Wrap it in foil with seasoning and dabs of butter and bake for 20-25 minutes. Prawns are gutted and peeled and dipped lightly in flour before being pan fried while the sardines are done likewise. All is served with a fresh salad and a bottle of Cava. The sun warms the balcony and our bones as we sit outside…yes outside, to lunch. The smell of olive oil and garlic tickle the nose, the fizz tickles the senses, the bream does not disappoint. As the fish was being prepared and the before the Cava popped open, a bottle of Malaga’s finest red had to be tried. Not the whole bottle, mind you. We bought a 2013 Vega del Geva, Syrah Cabernet. at a local bar the other night. Those who know French wine well would have been fooled by its aroma. Suffice to say it was bleddy ‘ansum me bewdy.

There is no place for stress here. The sun, the sky, the food and the mountains all conspire to draw any last vestiges of worry or concern from your bones. Any lasting niggles in the blood get filtered out. Nerves are rolled flat and untangled, muscles are warmed up and released from tension. I can’t be arsed to be arsed anymore. The heart pumps slower, the lungs breath easier and chalfonts withdraw to a place far far away. This is a country for old men, and women. Blood diluted by Spanish wine flows more freely, garlic and herbs create a bed of comfort in the stomach and even farts smell sweeter. Thoughts are slower and revolve around wondering how to cook the next fish as the most taxing predicament. Heart valves pop to the rhythm of the corks from bottles of Cava while one’s footsteps are no quicker than those of the oat fed and aged donkeys in the town square. The smell of honey roasted almonds and Jasmin compete for the glory of one’s nose, only to be ousted by wafts of freshly ground coffee from myriad street cafes.

A bucket of drugs each day has been prescribed to keep this old carcass from an early appointment with eternity. But with each breath of Andalusian air and the strokes of the sun’s warmth, I’m convinced that the medications are only being enhanced. There is magic here. Pity they can’t sell it or prescribe it on the NHS.

***

When the mozzies bite, you know you are possibly in for a treat.

So far, I’ve got away with just a few nibbles, nothing to be concerned about. No purulent festering sores have erupted, no scabrous wounds, no mind twisting itches. I’ve only heard the odd little buzzing in the night to indicate their presence. Perhaps because we are in Spain, this lot are a little less vicious than their Scottish midge cousins. Its the weather here making them a little less restive. I saw one the sipping on sangria, muttering ‘meh’ rather than going in for the kill on the nearest white skinned tourist. As far as the fauna go, they are the probably the most dangerous little creatures around. Everything else seems to be benign. The flora however are a bunch of spikey bastards. There are flowers of course to lull one into a false sense of security, but make no mistake there is a thousand different types of cactus waiting to prick your sorry arse should you sit in the wrong place. Mozzies seek you out. Cacti just wait for you to come to them. The antidote is a chilled glass of ‘tinto verrano’.

The post breakfast stroll found ourselves buying hats in the busy town square. The lady who sold Ann her hat was French, and thus I could not pass up the opportunity to speak to her in her native tongue. Madame had heard us speaking English and was visibly shocked to be addressed in just about half decent French. I don’t know much of the language but just enough to make them think. I’ve noticed several times how faces light up when an English person speaks their language. Tourists here are from the United States, Germany, the Nordic countries, Japan, China and and the UK of course. It is obvious that just about none of them try to speak Spanish at all. The locals all speak great English which of course enables them to deal with the babel of foreign tongues.

The Americans are stereotypically loud. They always have been, going back to Roman times in the third century BC. I don’t know why, but one always knows when they are in the vicinity. Perhaps it is because they think they come from the greatest country in the world and have adopted a master race mentality. Perhaps they think they are doing the rest of the world a favour and feel no need to learn a foreign tongue. They do not hesitate for a second before bellowing something inane in loud English. It is frankly embarrassing. Why I should feel that on their behalf is of course a stereotypical British response. My Spanish is not great but the difference it makes to the demeanour of the people one deals with is very noticeable. For example, outside most restaurants there is a member of staff waiting to greet passers by and to invite them in. Most tourists nod something in English to them and walk on. I tried a bit of spanish in response to an invitation to enter the restaurant; “Gracias, pero acabo de comer” which means “thanks, but I have just eaten”. Her face lit up that someone has attempted her native tongue. Little things I know, but it makes a small difference. I always note just how little people try to speak. It is hard, and it takes confidence, and it leads to replies in rapid response as they then assume one knows far more than is actually known. However, I do it to prevent being mistaken for an American, who as a collective nation are more of an irritant than the mozzies.

When mozzies bite.

When the mozzies bite, you know you are possibly in for a treat.

So far, I’ve got away with just a few nibbles, nothing to be concerned about. No purulent festering sores have erupted, no scabrous wounds, no mind twisting itches. I’ve only heard the odd little buzzing in the night to indicate their presence. Perhaps because we are in Spain, this lot are a little less vicious than their Scottish midge cousins. Its the weather here making them a little less restive. I saw one sipping on sangria, muttering ‘meh’ rather than going in for the kill on the nearest white skinned tourist. As far as the fauna go, they are the probably the most dangerous little creatures around. Everything else seems to be benign. The flora however are a bunch of spikey bastards. There are flowers of course to lull one into a false sense of security, but make no mistake there is a thousand different types of cactus waiting to prick your sorry arse should you sit in the wrong place. Mozzies seek you out. Cacti just wait for you to come to them. The antidote is a chilled glass of ‘tinto verrano’.

The post breakfast stroll found ourselves buying hats in the busy town square. The lady who sold Ann her hat was French, and thus I could not pass up the opportunity to speak to her in her native tongue. Madame had heard us speaking English and was visibly shocked to be addressed in just about half decent French. I don’t know much of the language but just enough to make them think. I’ve noticed several times how faces light up when an English person speaks their language. Tourists here are from the United States, Germany, the Nordic countries, Japan, China and and the UK of course. It is obvious that just about none of them try to speak Spanish at all. The locals all speak great English which of course enables them to deal with the babel of foreign tongues.

The Americans are stereotypically loud. They always have been, going back to Roman times in the third century BC. I don’t know why, but one always knows when they are in the vicinity. Perhaps it is because they think they come from the greatest country in the world and have adopted a master race mentality. Perhaps they think they are doing the rest of the world a favour and feel no need to learn a foreign tongue. They do not hesitate for a second before bellowing something inane in loud English. It is frankly embarrassing. Why I should feel that on their behalf is of course a stereotypical British response. My Spanish is not great but the difference it makes to the demeanour of the people one deals with is very noticeable. For example, outside most restaurants there is a member of staff waiting to greet passers by and to invite them in. Most tourists nod something in English to them and walk on. I tried a bit of spanish in response to an invitation to enter the restaurant; “Gracias, pero acabo de comer” which means “thanks, but I have just eaten”. Her face lit up that someone has attempted her native tongue. Little things I know, but it makes a small difference. I always note just how little people try to speak. It is hard, and it takes confidence, and it leads to replies in rapid response as they then assume one knows far more than is actually known. However, I do it to prevent being mistaken for an American, who as a collective nation, are more of an irritant than the mozzies.

Over to Africa

The curious incident of the dog in the nightime.

If memory is correct, Sherlock Holmes solved a mystery by noting that a dog did not bark when it otherwise would have.

No mystery here though. Down in the valley among the scatter of houses and villas are dogs. Someone has a pack of them. How do I know? Because at about 4 in the morning they decide to sing in chorus, yapping, barking and howling at shadows, the breeze or out of sheer boredom. How their owners can sleep I’ve no idea. We have double glazed doors leading out onto the balcony but even that only just about keeps out their noise. Instead of ear bleeding and anxiety raising levels of noise, we get a muffled cacophony that just about registers. Then, they shut up just as quickly as they started. Perhaps someone fed them a leprous cat to shut them up. As they bark, the sound bounces off the surrounding mountains and reverberate around the valley. The trees absorb some of the noise, the limestone cliffs amplify and redirect it. One dog sets off another in a call and response to innervate the devil into mischief.

As the morning sun rises, the noise dies down. I would not say silence fills the valley but somehow the dogs are less tiresome. Instead we are treated to the sounds of swifts, swallows and sparrows all of which are a sheer joy. Kestrels patrol the sky above looking for breakfast, supper and dinner. I saw one make off with chihuahua in its beak. There is a tree next door which is home to a bird. I have no idea what it is because it never reveals itself and I don’t recognise its call. It sounds something like a magpie, or a crow, or a jay but not quite. Or perhaps a half strangled parrot, with a mouse stuck in its gizzard?

I muse on this as I stand on the balcony, in just shorts, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, warming the blood. Over the winter, the Cornish drizzle has been absorbed into my bloodstream and now, the Andalucian sun is drying me out from the inside. Fresh coffee in hand I can gaze across the mountains, the Mediterranean Sea and over to Africa which appears as a brown smudge on the horizon.

Down in the valley, I can see a dog jumping up into the air, and playing, and sticking its tongue out in eager anticipation, its ears flailing as it leaps. Perhaps it should not have got so close to the electrified fence.

The Magic of the Mercado

Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda.

All of them do a fine job of selling tins of beans. If you want to pay more, then you have Waitrose. If you don’t like pennies slipping through your fingers quite so fast, you can go to Lidl or Aldi.

But if you want colour, taste and a little exotica then the mercado in Mijas is for you. It has no car park, situated as it is right in the middle of the town surrounded and hemmed in on all four sides by houses and shops. You need to know where it is otherwise you’ll never find it. Its front entrance is on a street just about wide enough for a car to pass through. Just. One has to pass a tabac on the way. A tiny one room shop that sells, wait for it, tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. That’s it. Nothing else apart from the accoutrements and paraphernalia for smoking. One leaves one’s heart and lungs outside to enter into the gloom where the merchant of death will sell you merchandise at a fraction of the price in the UK. Seems like death comes cheaply in Andalucia.

The mercado has a portico type entrance, a bit like stepping up into the Roman forum. Like all buildings in Mijas its exterior is white, but once inside it is a proper covered market. Walk around clockwise or anticlockwise and you will find butchers, bakers, fishmongers and a shop a name for which I’ve no idea.

We are having fish for lunch.

A bright eyed bream beckons us. We buy prawns and sardines. Señor says the sardines are ‘obligado’ (free) as they are the last 4 of the morning. He guts and cleans the fish for us, all for about 7 euros.

The bream requires stuffing with garlic, onion and lemon. Wrap it in foil with seasoning and dabs of butter and bake for 20-25 minutes. Prawns are gutted and peeled and dipped lightly in flour before being pan fried while the sardines are done likewise. All is served with a fresh salad and a bottle of Cava. The sun warms the balcony and our bones as we sit outside…yes outside, to lunch. The smell of olive oil and garlic tickle the nose, the fizz tickles the senses, the bream does not disappoint. As the fish was being prepared and  before the Cava popped open, a bottle of Malaga’s finest red had to be tried. Not the whole bottle, mind you. We bought a 2013 Vega del Geva, Syrah Cabernet. at a local bar the other night. Those who know French wine well would have been fooled by its aroma. Suffice to say it was bleddy ‘ansum me bewdy.

There is no place for stress here. The sun, the sky, the food and the mountains all conspire to draw any last vestiges of worry or concern from your bones. Any lasting niggles in the blood get filtered out. Nerves are rolled flat and untangled, muscles are warmed up and released from tension. I can’t be arsed to be arsed anymore. The heart pumps slower, the lungs breath easier and chalfonts withdraw to a place far far away. This is a country for old men, and women. Blood diluted by Spanish wine flows more freely, garlic and herbs create a bed of comfort in the stomach and even farts smell sweeter. Thoughts are slower and revolve around wondering how to cook the next fish as the most taxing predicament. Heart valves pop to the rhythm of the corks from bottles of Cava while one’s footsteps are no quicker than those of the oat fed and aged donkeys in the town square. The smell of honey roasted almonds and Jasmin compete for the glory of one’s nose, only to be ousted by wafts of freshly ground coffee from myriad street cafes.

A bucket of drugs each day has been prescribed to keep this old carcass from an early appointment with eternity. But with each breath of Andalusian air and the strokes of the sun’s warmth, I’m convinced that the medications are only being enhanced. There is magic here. Pity they can’t sell it or prescribe it on the NHS.

Sunrise over Dragon Mountain

At about 8:30, the sun just about pokes its nose above the shoulder of Dragon Mountain.

Our apartment faces the rising sun and from the bed we can look out through the big double doors which act as windows across to Dragon Mountain. Between us is the limestone valley peppered with white villas, many complete with shining blue pools. The trees are still very green, giving a lush feel to an otherwise harsh hot climate which is to come. We can step out onto a balcony now bathed in orange sunlight and listen to swifts, the odd barking dog and the faint rustle of a light breeze in the adjacent poplar and cedar trees.

All is calm.

The sea sits a still blue under a pale blue sky to the south. Fuengirola is way below, its bustling streets a mystery to us up here. There are bakers, butchers, street cleaners…sailors, donkeys and whores all finishing their work, or starting it, down there but we are oblivious to the organised chaos and the noise of chatter in cafe bars and taxis. A thousand ‘buenas dias’ and ‘Que Tals?’ have already been spoken, accompanied by a thousand cafe solos, a thousand lit cigarettes, as many again curses, blessings and mumbled instructions. Shellfish, Cod, Tuna and monkfish tails rest upon banks of ice in the mercado. Steak, pork shoulder and pigs ears are opposite. The full range of cured meats from Iberico ham to chorizo are being laid out for sale. Red, Green and Yellow peppers, blood red tomatoes, sweet strawberries and kale. Mushrooms, onions and cucumbers await their fate as a thousand chefs contemplate their salad selections. Another day, another thousand decisions mostly about what to eat, when to eat it and where is the best place to eat it?

There will be some business done. A car will be sold, a new kitchen planned, a new financial scam invented. Lawyers will make money out of other people’s misery, stupidity, laziness and fraud. Doctors will examine bits of people their owners did not know exist, and tell them in somber tones that given the circumstances, death ‘ain’t as bad as it is made out”. Priests will talk to people about their real and often corporeal worries while invoking an imaginary solution, which sometimes actually work. Accountants will stack a pile of beans and inform owners that their business, while actually doing a roaring trade, is actually bankrupt. The bars will bustle with all manner of talk about politics, society and sex. None of which will be underpinned by any expertise in any of the fields under discussion as the inverse law of ‘talking bollocks’ applies. This law states that when any subject is discussed in more than two sentences and with increasing confidence this will be in inverse proportion to any knowledge about it. This particularly applies to male talk, when sat at a bar stool after the second beer.

Last night we walked into the town and enjoyed a very pleasant hour or so sitting outside in the sun. A pint of San Miguel for the gentleman and a Sangria for the lady. The square in Mijas has had a makeover and is now a wide open space with palm trees swaying in the light breeze. On three sides shops, cafes and bars sprawl their wares, tables and chairs. The fourth side is open to a view of Dragon Mountain. It is a lovely place to watch people taking pictures of themselves using selfie sticks brought here by many coach loads up from the coast just for the day. They are mostly Asian. There must be a guide to tourism issued to all Asians as they have the same dress code, the same selfie sticks, and the same ant like gait as they rush from one picture opportunity to another. When I say ‘picture opportunity’, this is not the Taj Mahal or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Any old municipal fountain, tree, cafe table or donkey is fair game. They will have hundreds of pictures of mostly themselves in front of Spanish trivia. I suppose to them it is all exotic and memorable. However I fail to see the attraction of a shop front, a cup of coffee on a cafe table or a dog taking a dump in the square.

Today, will be more of them same. Ann has been investigating the best eateries in town. There are plenty. There is a running battle with the odd mozzie going on, but so far they have scored the odd hit but nothing to call an ambulance about. They thankfully target bits of the body we have heard of and so there is no need to visit a doctor.

To Mijas

We’ve been here before, so it is no surprise is it?

Except, yes it is, it is still so wonderfully sense grabbing that one’s chuff is verily plumped up with more chuffedness and gabberflasting.

Malaga airport is at once a transport hub, a cathedral and a gateway. It is stepping through the wardrobe, or the looking glass, into skin warming and soul cleansing air. But, down in the bowels of the baggage reclaim area, one is entombed in artificially lit concrete and steel with only other dazed and confused passengers waiting, hopefully, for their belongings. The reclaim hall throws adverts at you with promises of a richer better life awaiting you if you purchase this or go there, meanwhile your actual life revolves around the carousel belt in pregnant expectation that indeed you will survive this flight intact. Then with bags safely returned to you, and flashing a “I’m not a bomber” smile, and your passport, at the the border you emerge out of the terminal building blinking into bright blue sunlight, palm trees and the smell of Jasmin. The short walk in the sun blessed open air to the train station is the briefest introduction to Andalucian charm. The runway disappears seemingly towards the distant mountains. One can hear the gin and tonic being poured over tinkling ice, the vino tinto being uncorked with a corky plop, and the patatas bravas sizzling alongside the piri piri gambas.

To get to Mijas involves either an expensive taxi or the train. There is probably a bus but why would you? The railway station is at the terminal itself, and trains run frequently to Fuengirola. For the price of half a pint of decent English Ale, and in thirty minutes along the coast, one arrives in ‘funky town’. All of human life is here on the train. Very young Spanish mums with prams, prune skinned and turtle necked ex pat Brits, leather jacketed cool guys hoping to get a girl with merely a glance, and bright white new arrivals from the frozen and wet north.

We’ve not eaten since breakfast, so 8 hours later we are bit peckish, but not ‘hangry’. It is too beautiful here to bring any angst or existential grief. Mijas has a way of washing out the dirt and grime of an English winter, and there are swallows and swifts here to remind us of what we can expect back home very soon as the spring banishes the ice, rain and despair from our solid English hearts of sodden oak.

The flat is the first floor of the whole house, above us a spiral stair leads to a roof terrace with a 360 degree uncluttered panorama view of the town and surrounding mountains. The sea lies 5 kms and 800 metres below us. The sky has the odd little fluffy clouds. As it is gone 1700 hours, the sun is slipping over the yard arm (somewhere in the world) and a short walk into town and a cold beer awaits.

If I die here right now, I would not complain.

Into the Blue

The above is Malaga airport.

 

Bristol Airport, not on most people’s bucket list of ‘must see’ attractions.

From some angles its steel and glass and concrete resembles an aircraft carrier but without the charm or threat. What it lacked in aesthetics, it compensated for in function. Having had the fortune to be flying out on a Sunday, when flights are few, we were spared the horrors of the crush of the sweat stained, and beer soaked, cheap perfumed traveling public. We breezed through security with nary a nod to the terrorist threat.

Although, I did see someone with a fulsome beard carrying a rucksack. Turned out to be the headmistress of a local public school leading her petite charges on a school trip to Morocco to count hemp plants and other assorted ideologies.

Bristol has a ‘fast track option’ for security clearance, for a fee. So, if you want to minimise time spent waiting behind a fat farting peasant as he takes his sweat infested boots off for inspection, and you can’t stand the incessant chatter of two high maintenance baby dolls with faces constructed of enough plastic to build a Lego city, then pay your money…and fast track. How this works if everyone pays a fee and increases the size of the fast track queue will be managed by fee increases until you get to the point when the fast track clearance costs more than your ticket. We however, on a Sunday morning did not bother with this latest scam, and sail through the ordinary queue with not even a greased gloved finger waiting to search for hidden contraband about one’s person.

Ryanair offers priority boarding for another fee, this includes paying for putting your luggage in the hold. However, if you only have 1 bag and carry it to the gate, the staff will put it in the hold for free. So, again read the small print very carefully otherwise you will pay for something you don’t need. The boss of this world class air freight service, Micheal O’Leary, owns race horses. One of which won the Grand National, ‘Tiger Roll’. As a consequence, we were all treated to fizz on the plane, along with extra servings of fairy dust, magic spells and wishful thinking. I’m not sure what priority boarding gives you, except a light wallet. No one took off before us. In fact we all went together as a happy throng of innocents being led to an uncertain future in a pain wracked, war torn, plague ridden world. The onboard snacks were no better, offering as they do, the gastrointestinal equivalent of colonic irrigation.

With heavy threats of a rain front racing up the M5 from Cornwall, and the skies rapidly greying at the temples, we were launched upwards and outwards into the blue. Two young Spanish lads sitting in front of me started on the booze as soon as the seat belt light extinguished. They were cheerful about it and refrained from flatulence and vomiting, which, in a confined space with recirculating air, was a bonus. I then spent two happy hours with a couple from Truro discussing everything from the superiority of Philp’s pasties over Warren’s, the price of pasty meat and the husband’s military service as an engineer in the tank regiments. I was treated to the paucity of a modern English education, the Swindon fortnight holiday for railwaymen and the joys of old fashioned engineering. Ann, having been allocated a seat two rows behind was able to get into reading her book.

Upon landing, the sun threw itself at us, and as we disembarked down the rear steps, I glanced up to see the mountains of Andalucia sticking their jagged peaks up into blue heaven.

Are you looking for daddy?

If you hold to the view that the social world is naturally and god given hierarchical, and that this hierarchy is based on the superiority of, and essential differences between, men and women (patriarchy), white civilisation over all others (white supremacism), man over animals (speciesism) then you will find comfort in Jordan Peterson. In addition if you believe in the primacy of the individual, that there is a separate individual self, that culture is epiphenomenal to the individual and that there is no such thing as society, then you will find solace in Jordan Peterson. If your ontology is dualist rather than  holist, if you believe in capitalist based ideas of progress, if you are egocentric rather than sociocentric, if you are rooted in, or heavily invested in, one of the Abrahamic religions that hold defiantly onto all of the above then you will find Jordan Petersen to be a messiah.

 

If you are looking for Daddy…here he is.

 

Is your life now or ever been chaotic? Looking for peace and tranquillity based in a rooted moral order? Male ‘order’ over female ‘chaos’…? Order is truth, singular and masculine. Look no further. Chaos is the ‘eternal feminine’ (well, that’s good news for misogynists and patriarchs everywhere).

 

If you need certainty, if you find philosophies or theories that challenge the notion of truth uncomfortable, totalitarian or defiled, then you will cheer Jordan Peterson.

 

Your reaction to Jordan Peterson is not his fault entirely.

 

He roots fundamental truthful axioms in Western Theology and Evolutionary Biology and Neuroscience which gives cloaks of scientific and philosophical respectability to his world view. His book ‘Maps of Meaning’ and the follow up ’12 rules for life’ will be key texts, although I suspect the latter is more read than the former.

 

I don’t think necessarily that JP is wrong, merely that his world view is partial, and paradoxically can be used by reactionary student activists (and others) in a muddled headed way, This is something he criticises other young student activists for:  incompetence, ignorance and meddling in complex systems and he blames Professors in Humanities departments for encouraging young people to challenge truth and tear down the current order before being able to change their own beds. This I think is a straw man.

 

He attack post modernism for undermining truth. He is not the first one to do so, and indeed in Sociology there has been for a long time discussion critique and discussion of the ‘post-modern turn’. However, JP attacks the strong version of post-modernist relativism in which because there are no grand narratives, there is no truth, just power. In this version, science is no more true than religion rather that it merely has more power to establish its truth. However, his critique of post modernism and Marxism is based on the flimsiest of straw men.

 

If you are of a conservative frame of mind, and you feel uncomfortable or threatened by views expressed by non-white ethnic groups or by feminists, then you need a comforter. Jordan Peterson is that man. Instead of thinking “Do the widely varying and differing perspectives of feminisms have a point, do those writing from post-colonial viewpoints have something to say about the assumptions of White European civilisation?” Instead of engaging with that material, you need to just rebut. Jordan Peterson provides that handy rebuttal without having to examine your own epistemology or ontology. Your religious, conservative and traditional based moral intuitions will lead you very quickly into post hoc rationalisations and rebuttals.

 

Why are we talking about him? Because he is a YouTube sensation, articulate, charismatic and scholarly. He is right that many young activists don’t know their arses from their elbows and their overreactions to his theories has fuelled controversy where there is none. He is wrong to suggest the humanities tells students to be that way. Sociology’s task, among others, is to challenge orthodoxy, taken for granted assumptions and common sense understandings. If there are claims there are universal axioms that apply across all societies at all times and that these axioms derive from Western theology and evolutionary biology, then this needs to be discussed.

 

it is actually churlish to expect supporters or detractors of Jordan Peterson to do this, as this would mean painstaking scholarly work and a good deal of critical reflexivity rather than hysterical reaction on both sides.

 

Photo by Tom Roberts on Unsplash

 

Why do we do what we do?

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

Why do we do what we do?

 

“The powers of ordinary man are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighbourhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but effect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power” (Wright Mills 1956).

 

In common talk, we hear and read a great deal about ‘taking individual responsibility’ for example ‘for health’, or the need for ‘helping people to make better choices’  and we hear explanations for ill health based on people’s choice of unhealthy lifestyles. Papers like the Daily Mail like to focus unhealthy working class ‘chav’ cultures in a bid to promote outrage and to garner support to reduce the Welfare State. Every New Year, gym membership rises, dry January is embarked upon and resolutions to quit smoking are made. Failure often follows. The UK population is getting fatter, it drinks excessively and takes little exercise. We are also a nation consuming antidepressants as if they were smarties. Some individuals of course are ‘paragons of virtue’ in terms of health and the question is asked “if they can do it, why don’t the rest of us?”  Often this is framed within personal success stories as “I did it, so you can too (you fat lazy bastard)”. Celebrities are often promoted as role models for a “leaner, fitter, healthier you”.

The same goes for individual success. The advice is “work hard, take your opportunities, be focused, dedicated and determined”. If you fail, it is only down to you.

Most people probably know that eating well and taking more exercise is better for health. Most people probably accept that hard work and dedication is a necessary condition for achievement.

So why do we see continuing patterns of chronic ill health, early deaths, and deprivation? These patterns show social class differences, i.e. the  ‘social gradient’, and unequal health outcomes. Those in the lower socio economic groups die younger, experience more chronic illness and have fewer disability free years.  Is it really all down to individual moral failure?

The question is posed in common discourse:  ‘why don’t millions of us get up off our fat arses, do something positive and take responsibility for health and success’? Why don’t we as a population or as individuals always exercise our agency to act for better health? After all, we are all ‘free autonomous sovereign individuals ’ able to choose courses of action unconstrained by social conditions. If the individual is poor or unhealthy then it is probably a result of the decision making of that individual or so the extreme version of the narrative goes.

I would argue that we are free to be critically reflexive about our socially structured conditions and thus to a degree free to change circumstances, but that we are also products of our biology, psychology and social circumstances. Our actions are highly structured (e.g. by class structures) but not structurally determined.

The complete freedom to think and act may be more complicated than adherents of the ‘autonomous sovereign individual’ may have us believe. The model of the ‘free sovereign individual’, so beloved by libertarians, neoliberals and most hues of conservatism in their political stances, is a flawed and incomplete model of human behaviour. It is a model of human behaviour that arose in Enlightenment modernity, and results in the creation of ‘homo economicus’, the free instrumentally rational being, who weighs up the pros and cons of action independently of social or cultural influences or internal psychological drivers, and is 100% responsible therefore for the consequences of their action. The adherents of this model of the human are often in adversarial and vehement denial of the ‘social’ and the cultural, they deny completely that there just might be a social reality or cultures in which our individual agency operates. Many have a visceral loathing of concepts such as gender, ethnicity and class affecting life chances.

 

To better understand this mode of thinking which underpins beliefs about human action, it is necessary to root it in its history of social relationships and cultures. Max Weber, along with Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Auguste Compte, and many others, for example, C Wright Mills (1956, 1959) attempted to do just that. Currently, Roy Bhaskar and Margaret Archer have further expounded on ‘Agency, Culture and Structure’. But to keep it simple, Weber’s contribution sheds some light on ways of thinking that lead to action.

 

Max Weber introduced the word ‘Verstehen’ (German for understanding, perceiving, knowing) to describe the sociologists’ attempt to grasp both the intent and context of human action. The 18th century’s Enlightenment ‘man of modernity’ was seen to be increasingly using instrumental rationality to guide action and becomes a model explanation for human behaviour.  During this period, Enlightenment philosophers thought that the main basis for authority and legitimacy in social affairs should arise from the exercise of reason in opposition to authoritarian monarchy or religion. Hence concepts such as liberty, progress, tolerance were emphasised along with science and reductionism (understanding something by reducing it to its parts). These ideas arose alongside the rise of mercantile and then industrial capitalism.

 

Weber, in trying to understand why capitalism succeeded in Europe even though its conditions elsewhere in the world could have given rise to it, wanted to consider ideas and ways of thinking (e.g. the Protestant Ethic) that underpinned action.

 

He described 4 ‘types’ of social action and the thinking behind it:

 

  1. Zweckrational – means/ends rationality
  2. Wertrational – values based rationality
  3. Affective action – emotion based
  4. Traditional action – based in custom and practice.

 

In short, the Enlightenment was emphasising ‘zweckrational’ alongside developing a model of humanity as an autonomous rational being. This idea is still core to much of current ‘common sense’ orthodoxy. Today, many ignore or forget the other 3 types while focusing on ‘zweckrational’, assuming that this is our only way of thinking.

 

We know from experience and research however, that we choose courses of action not because they always meet a certain goal, but because of a mixture of all 4 types of reasoned action. Many also think about these types (if at all) as existing independently of society. They do not want to consider, or fail to consider, that the human actor is actually not an autonomous individual existing separate from society and culture from which they spring, but are social and relational. They do not want to consider that personal agency operates within society and culture which has a reality “behind our backs”.

 

Weber’s insight was to link these types to changing social conditions. He argued that modern societies differed from those of the past because of the shift to zweckrational thinking rooted in the growth of bureaucracy and industrialism. This might explain why today, in bureaucratised, industrialised societies, that instrumental, technical, means ends thinking came to dominate. The error for many is that the ‘is’ of the dominance of zweckrational becomes the ‘ought’, the only way to think and it becomes the assumed method of human thinking. I suggest that those trained in scientific, technical and logical (means-ends) occupations are apt to think using ‘zweckrational’ but assume that is how everybody else does and ought to think. They then become one dimensional in their own thoughts, unable to grasp the complexity of human decision making.

 

The social theorist Margaret Archer describes this ‘man of modernity’ as “a being whose fundamental constitution owes nothing to society” (2000 p51) and who is increasingly driven by instrumental rationality or ‘means-ends’ thinking. This is the ‘ready-made man’ who turns up out of nowhere to impose his own order on the world and applies rational thought to social concerns. It is a view of humanity that believes that our ‘self’, our individuality,  exists totally separate from society, that it is not constituted at all by society or culture. The free acting self is an independent of society and culture free thinking and rational being. We will hear echoes of this man’s voice when we hear such statements as “only the individual should and can take responsibility for health”, “there is no such thing as society, just individuals and families”. Any idea of social structure, culture or social forces is completely denied. In this view there are no social mechanisms operating ‘behind our backs’ that might be guiding free choices.

 

This model of the self assumes the primacy of agency devoid of social structure or cultural or language contexts. It not only assumes the primacy of agency, but elevates it into a core aspect of the political project (neoliberalism) to reduce any action on poverty or welfare beyond that of individuals, families and charities. If there is no society, then there is nothing society can or should do.

 

Those who adhere to this model might think that obese and overweight people merely freely choose to eat more than they need, that their inability to lose weight is down only to their weak moral character and lack of will power. The obese should “just say no” to a second pork pie. Against this I suggest that they eat and move within the structures and cultures of the ‘obesogenic environment’ (Foresight 2007) and within cultural practices around food that becomes aspects of who they are, that they build into their self-concept. Veganism for example has been seen as the preserve of a slightly effete (?) minority and for many men especially, just cannot be built into their own notions of self as ‘red meat eating males’. Their self-concept as a man excludes this food choice as viable. They are of course free to act as a vegan but the structural and cultural context militates against men many doing so. Some men will be able to draw upon their material, psychological, biological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to exercise their agency to become vegan. Many others will not be able to exercise the same degree of freedom to do so. Some men will be critically reflexive of their meat eating and will easily see it as a cultural construct not a biological imperative. Many others will not do so because meat eating is too intertwined with their own unreflexively criticised ideas of masculinity and their social group feels exactly the same way. They of course will offer up superficial reasons such as taste and protein to justify eating meat but will downplay its symbolic value (its ‘sign value’), its ubiquitous availability and price and finally they ignore or forget as irrelevant that there are huge vested interests in keeping the link between meat and masculinity alive.

 

There is not the space to fully explore this idea of the ‘free, pre-existing, independent from society’ view of self, other than to suggest that extricating human agency and the ‘self’ completely out of the effects of language, culture and social structure is erroneous. I emphasise however, the pernicious persistence of this idea in current culture, politics and health policy as it underpins much understanding of, and pronouncements about, human behaviour towards health and individual success in capitalist social structures.

 

I also suggest that those whose knowledge is non-existent, or superficially grounded, in philosophy, the humanities or social sciences cannot exercise their agency to begin to understand this argument. Their ‘ways of knowing’ and sense of self  is in violent opposition to it. They will be so embedded in certain social structures and cultural assumptions and values that the self they experience is unable to grasp the concepts. They will read the words but will feel an instant visceral hatred of the challenge to sovereign individuality because it shakes the very foundations of who they think they are and the basis for success and failure. Current ideal types would be Boris Johnson, Peter Thiel the PayPal billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, many in Silicon Valley and the alt-right. In fact most of the powerful world leaders might fall into this category including Putin, Erdogan and Modi. They may well feature varying degrees of narcissism, ‘alpha male’ ideology and the assumptions of what Graham Scambler calls the ‘Greedy Bastards’.

 

The Sociological Imagination.

Part of the answer to understanding why we do what we do,  will be found by exercising our sociological imaginations (Wright Mills 1959) to gain a fuller understanding of human behaviour. We need to think beyond the action of an individual, to consider the wider actions of society and culture that provides the context for individual choices at this point in history.

Take the choice to eat insects. In the UK we are free to do so. We could exercise our ‘free agency’ as sovereign individuals. There is no biological reason why we don’t. There is no legal barrier to doing so. There is no trade barrier, tariffs or taxes in importing insects as food. What prevents us eating insects is a combination of cultural barriers with a lack of social institutions that values eating insects and no social institutions providing access to insects. Psychologically we might think that the eating of insects is not part of our ‘self-concept’, there is no social learning going on because no one is doing it, the mental short cuts bypass rational appraisal and go straight to the ‘yuk’ factor. We live in an obesogenic environment and not an ‘insectivorous’ environment.

Why do fat people eat pork pies? Why don’t thin people eat insects?

Graham Scambler in wishing to establish a theory of agency in sociology argues:

 

Humans…are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms while retaining their agency…socially structured without being structurally determined

 

I think this means that if you want to know why some people can resist eating the pork pie and most in the UK resist eating insects, you have to think holistically rather than individualistically. You have to avoid the temptation to be reductionist and instead think ‘systems’.

A biologist would focus on physiological processes and raise the importance of body chemicals such as leptin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins in stimulating behaviour. They might acknowledge the physiological role of sugar and processed carbohydrates in providing very satisfying, but unhealthy, eating habits. This is perhaps the first hurdle that ‘will power’ has to overcome.  ‘Willpower’ is of course the ‘go to’ mechanism for those with individualist understandings.

A psychologist might explain eating patterns from a variety of perspectives: cognitive psychology might outline the role of mental short cuts that bypass rational thinking; behavioural psychology emphasising the conditioned nature of responses; social psychology which asks us to consider the power of social learning upon choices and psychodynamic psychology which would raise deep seated emotions as drivers for behaviour e.g. food playing the ‘comfort’ role to compensate for deep seated painful emotions. All have explanations that down play the power of technical instrumental rationality (zweckrational). Key concepts within psychology which could be linked to why we eat as we do include:

  • Self-Efficacy.
  • Body Image.
  • Locus of Control.
  • ‘What the hell’ effects.
  • Future Discounting.
  • Classical/Operant Conditioning.
  • System 1 and System 2 thinking.
  • Self and self-awareness.
  • Adult, Child, Parent Ego States.

 

Both biology and psychology examine the individual body and mind. They seek explanations for human agency within ourselves. For some people, that is enough. Yet both disciplines cast huge doubt on the idea of ‘free thinking sovereign individuals’ who use rational thought, and the exercise of sheer willpower in achieving their aims.

If you have not eaten for three or four hours, and you pass a shop selling freshly baked bread or pasties, or foodstuffs you very much enjoy, your will power to lose weight is severely challenged first by your biology as the body reacts to sight and smell of delicious food and then by your psychology as the ‘what the hell effect’ kicks in supported by ‘future discounting’. Your future self as a slim lean athlete is discounted by your immediate self’s need for food.  As you go through your day you are immersed in social and cultural invitations and opportunities to eat and to eat too much. Against this is will power, unless you can actively design your social and cultural environment every single day to support will power, you may well crack. Do you have the material, psychological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to do this day after day after day for years? For the rest of your life? Some also have poor biological health assets in this regard as in utero processes may well have pre-set a certain weight for you that your body will always want to get to.

We are not completely free autonomous agents beloved of neoliberal ideology. Our lives are highly structured, but not structurally determined. We are the result of a complex interplay of our biology, our psychology and the social. Underpinning much of the common discourse in our media is the idea of the ‘liberal human self’, and failures to live healthy lifestyles are to be found in the individual. This belief, and it is a belief not a scientific fact, often leads to a ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’ (MUD) to explain health inequalities. The MUD focuses on cultural and behavioural explanations, rather than sociological, for health inequalities. It is a discourse that leads easily to victim blaming.

We need to think a little more critically about this explanation, particularly as it has a great deal of political and social force in terms of policies we design to tackle health. We need to bring the social (structure) to the individual (agency). We need to ask to what degree are we free agents who can take 100% responsibility for our lives, we need to examine what social structures exist in which that agency operates.

Margaret Archer has published a series of books on this central problem of structure, culture and agency, i.e. the relationship between our personal actions as free agents and the societies and social structures we are born into.

We know that smoking is linked to illness and disease, we also know there are patterns to smoking which show prevalence is not spread equally across class or age. If we want to more fully understand smoking behaviour we require not only the sociological imagination but also why people as ‘free agents’ continue to smoke despite knowing the consequences. The answer is of course complex, situated in and mediated by a matrix of the biological, social and psychological. Smoking occurs in a social context in which people are enabled or constrained in their behaviours by the structures of society and mediated by their and others’ ‘reflexive deliberations’ and to a degree, their biology (the ‘substance’ (nicotine) theory of addiction).

Archer’s theory suggests that our individual actions are predated by the existence of social structure of, for example, class relationships. Class structure, and the culture associated with it, are transmitted to individuals. In smoking’s case, the culture of smoking was once widespread across all social classes and therefore to take up the habit was not to be seen as a social pariah. Quite the opposite. George Orwell in both ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ describes vividly the valued place of tobacco in people’s lives. Today however, smoking has a class characteristic to it, the middle classes apparently are more open to health warnings than those lower on the social scale. This ‘predates’ any individual coming into puberty today. The ‘cachet’ associated with smoking, or its status as a rite of passage, has to be factored in to understanding why some people shun the habit while others embrace it. In addition, the short term comfort smoking brings in the face of immediate precarity, insecurity and adverse social conditions, also has to be factored in.

Weber’s ‘Affective Action’ comes into play at this point as we realise the part feelings play in decision making.

The smug middle classes may easily shun chavs for their  smoking and drinking habits but they are unable to grasp what poverty does to one’s feelings.

Orwell again clearly describes this process.

“…it is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty….you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first…the shifts it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.

 You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty…you dare not admit it, you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual.

 You discover what it is like to be hungry…everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles…a snivelling self pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.

 You discover the boredom…you discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs…

 …but you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future…

 And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety”.

(Chapter 3, Down and Out in Paris and London 1933)

In this context. Smoking is not quite so bad.

 

Archer however does not wish to over emphasise how such social structures affect action, rather there needs to be a focus on how agents respond and act to those circumstances. There is a causal efficacy to agency, we are not automatons responding to class structures, poverty or obesogenic environments. We can make choices to act in certain ways to not buy the pork pie.  We do so by having internal conversations which are mediated by our ‘mode of reflexivity’ which at this point in history is particularly salient.

You and I are confronted in our daily lives by social circumstances, and we have a choice of action. We bring to that choice of action our own priorities, our ‘projects and concerns’. What we then do is mediated by the type of internal conversation, or reflexive deliberation. Archer’s thesis is that in the past social structures were such that little self reflexivity occurred. We ‘knew our place’, we knew what our role was and what status we had.  This was Weber’s ‘Traditional Action’.

However, as societies modernised, cultures and structures confronting us are far more open to change and critique, and are so by the actions of the people involved. The use of ‘Zweckrational ‘replaced’ ‘Traditional Action’. Women for example, no longer took for granted that their place was to rear children and to engage in unpaid domestic labour. They thought about the franchise and employment and some decided to act differently to ‘break the mould’. Why do some act to challenge social structure and why do others conform and thus replicate social structures?
 

The subjective powers of reflexivity mediate the role that objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action and are thus indispensable to explaining social outcomes’ (Archer, 2007: 5).

In other words, your inner voice is confronted by the facts of the obesogenic environment or of social class or of gender relationships in the workplace, but you can be reflexive upon that fact and so it can be acted upon. Action can be, for example, fatalistic towards that circumstance or instead might confront it in an attempt to overcome any perceived or actual disadvantage. You might engage your zweckrational, your affective rationality, your values based rationality and/or act based in tradition, custom and practice. In short, you exercise critical reflexivity, or not!

Agency and Context

Yet Agency is necessarily contextualized, it occurs in a context of social structure and culture characterised by power differentials. That is the objective fact the people confront every day. For example, an objective social fact that predates your existence is the social structure of education in the UK. Exercising personal agency towards financial and material success is a lot easier if you are born into a wealthy family and are sent to one of the prestigious English public schools and Universities.

Archer’s (1995, 2003, 2007) way of articulating this is in terms of a three-stage model.

  • Structural and cultural properties objectivelyshape the situations that people confront involuntarily; the structural and cultural possess powers of constraint and enablement in relation to
  • People’s own constellations of concerns, as they define them.
  • Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberationsof subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective

 

Think about the social structures that produce, advertise and market and then distribute food  – how that this currently characterised by the industrial production of delicious, tasty and cheap foodstuffs packed with sugar, salt and calories. The objective cultural context might include aversion to walking and cycling as we perceive these as impractical, dangerous or too slow.  Think about the culture of eating food and the sociability that surrounds certain foodstuffs. What role currently does wine play in the cultural life of many women, and what about beer for men? These objective conditions provide ‘enablements’ to eating easily too many calories. It is made easy to do so. What constraints do we have in eating too much? Well, against the above we have health injunctions not to do so, we have body images that emphasise thinness with attractiveness. If the various constraints to eating too much are not as strong as the enablements, then the individual has to work hard  on clearly identifying their ‘concerns’ – one of which is to lose weight. This has to be turned into a project, something that they focus on every day to combat the many opportunities to fail at achieving the goal. People will tell themselves if the daily project of losing weight is achievable given the reality of their working and social lives. They will draw upon their health assets to help them do so. If their health assets are very poor across the board success is not impossible (they are after all free agents) but it will be harder.

 

Agency operates within certain social and cultural contexts, so consider how agency is operated by an A list actress and a struggling in debt mother. What social ‘forces’ propelled them into two very different circumstances and how much is down to personal achievement, luck or circumstance? Consider they now give birth to daughters. What are the chances of either girl using personal agency to radically alter their circumstances. Yes, it happens (e.g. Oprah Winfrey) but who will have the easier path?

 

The following table are ideal types to illustrate just some of complexity of the interplay between biology, psychology and sociology in understanding health choices and health outcomes. These factors are not be thought of as a simple cause effect relationship, there are feedback loops and emergent properties from the whole. Nothing is predestined, all is possible. The list is not exhaustive either. There may be other confounding variables that will change outcomes. The actress may develop a cocaine habit, Vicky may become an ‘Educated Rita’.

 

Health Asset A list celebrity Actress Vicky Pollard “yeah but no”
Biological Ectomorph

Non variant FTO gene

No chronic illnesses

Endomorph

Variant FTO gene

Type 2 Diabetic

Psychological High self-efficacy

High self esteem

High body image (body reality matches body ideal

Internal locus of control

Emotional and sexual support

Depression free

Positive outlook

Low self-efficacy

Low self esteem

Poor body image (body reality far from body ideal)

External locus of control

Emotional and sexual abuse

Bouts of depression

Suicidal ideation

Social Similar looking thin peer group

‘Network effect’ is positive

Social support for domestic needs

Child care easily affordable

Food prepared by nutritionist

Supportive parents and spouse

Socially popular

Wealthy successful peers

The 0.01% Global elite

Private School and Drama School paid by parents

Similar looking fat peer group

‘Network effect’ is negative

No social support for domestic needs

Child care expensive

Food prepared by Greggs

Parents both dead, absent partner

Social pariah

Poor just about managing peers

The local Precariat

Left at 16 with no qualifications.

Cultural Ambitious

Health high priority

Non Smoking

Gym Membership

Non Violent

Survivalist/Fatalist

Health discounted

Smoking

Daytime TV

Emotional, verbal and physical violence is common/expected

Spatial Beverly Hills, Sunshine, Sea View and palm trees Concrete high rise, Rain, Industrial Units and burned cars
Symbolic ‘A’ list celebrity Demonised Chav
Material

This asset is paramount as it feeds into the others

High Net worth

 

In debt.

 

 

Conclusion.

It is complicated.

The data clearly, for example in ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’, shows social patterns for a whole range of indicators from educational achievement to premature death. These patterns are characterised by the ‘social gradient’, i.e. the lower down on the socio-economic scale you are, the worse your outcomes are likely to be across the board. These patterns are further complicated by intersections of ethnicity and gender, but the most salient is social class. Your individual success or failure at anything is down to luck: primarily who your parents are (determines your class, ethnicity, geographical location and you’re your access to education, networks, supportive cultures and material well-being).

The period of history you were born in is also crucial. The post war baby boomers in the UK benefitted from an explosion in middle class and managerial white collar jobs, the expansion of educational opportunities,  the breaking down of class barriers and status, well paid industrial employment and cheap credit, mortgages and house price affordability. To be born white, male, middle class in the UK in 1955 was a huge privilege. To be born black, male, poor in Alabama in the 1920’s could see you lynched on the Courthouse lawn.

Biology plays its part but is by no means determines your destiny. Hard work, focus and determination are also key but they operate in this wider context.

That is why your life is highly structured but not structurally determined. You are not a free autonomous rational individual even if it feels that way. ‘Poor boy done good’ does not validate the system it merely shows it is complex. This narrative can also be used to justify the status quo as meritocratic, a concept in practice which is largely mythical.

The political issue that arises then is one of whether you see the status quo and just accept it as inevitable, or whether you think something can be done. I suggest that many of the ‘Greedy Bastards’ (with notable exceptions) take the former, it is not in their interests to change anything at all.

 

 

 

Graham Scambler, emeritus professor at UCL, has written a series of blogs based on the work of Margaret Archer. His work can be found here: http://www.grahamscambler.com/sociological-theorists-margaret-archer/.

Archer,M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Eds Archer,M, Bhaskar,R, Collier,A, Lawson,T & Norrie,A: Critical realism: Basic Readings. London; Routledge.

Archer,M (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2007) Making our Way Through the World. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2012) The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2014) The generative mechanism re-configuring late modernity. In Ed Archer,M: Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenetic Society. New York; Springer

 

See also C Wright Mills (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Chapter 1 ‘The promise’.

C Wright Mills (1956) The Power Elite. Oxford University Press. New York.

 

 

 

Why do we do what we do? The poverty of individualist explanations

Why do we do what we do?  The poverty of individualist explanations.

 

Photo by Sofiya Levchenko on Unsplash

We all like cake don’t we? Oh, and beer…and yes wine…and…and

 

In common talk around health issues, we hear and read a great deal about ‘taking individual responsibility for health’ or the need for ‘helping people to make better choices’  and we hear explanations for ill health based on people’s choice of unhealthy lifestyles. Papers like the Daily Mail like to focus unhealthy working class ‘chav’ cultures in a bid to promote outrage and to garner support to reduce the Welfare State. Every New Year, gym membership rises, dry January is embarked upon and resolutions to quit smoking are made. Failure often follows. The UK population is getting fatter, it drinks excessively and takes little exercise. We are also a nation consuming antidepressants as if they were smarties. Some individuals of course are ‘paragons of virtue’ in terms of health and the question is asked “if they can do it, why don’t the rest of us?”  Often this is framed within personal success stories as “I did it, so you can too (you fat lazy bastard)”. Celebrities are often promoted as role models for a “leaner, fitter, healthier you”.

Most people probably know that eating better and taking more exercise is better for health. So why do we see continuing patterns of chronic ill health, patterns which show social class differences, i.e. the  ‘social gradient’, and unequal health outcomes. Those in the lower socio economic groups die younger, experience more chronic illness and have fewer disability free years.  Is it really all down to individual moral failure? Why don’t millions of us get up off our fat arses, do something positive and take responsibility for health? Why don’t we as a population exercise our agency to act for better health? After all, we are all free autonomous people able to choose courses of action.

The complete freedom to think and act may be more complicated than adherents of the ‘autonomous sovereign individual’ may have us believe. The model of the ‘free sovereign individual’, so beloved by libertarians, neoliberals and most hues of conservatism in their political stances, is a flawed and incomplete model of human behaviour. It is a model of human behaviour that arose in Enlightenment modernity, and results in the creation of ‘homo economicus’, the free instrumentally rational being, who weighs up the pros and cons of action independently of social or cultural influences or internal psychological drivers,  and is 100% result responsible therefore for the consequences of their action.

Max Weber introduced the word ‘Verstehen’ (German for understanding, perceiving, knowing) to describe the sociologists’ attempt to grasp both the intent and context of human action. While the ‘man of modernity’ was increasingly using instrumental rationality to guide action, Weber described 4 ‘types’ of social action:

 

  1. Zweckrational – means/ends rationality
  2. Wertrational – values based rationality
  3. Affective action – emotion based
  4. Traditional action – based in custom and practice.

 

Today, many ignore or forget all but ‘zweckrational’, assuming that is our only way of thinking. We know from experience however, that we choose courses of action not because they are always meeting a certain goal, but because of a mixture of all 4 types of reasoned action. Many also think about these types (if at all) as existing independently of society. Weber’s insight was to link these types to changing social conditions. He argued that modern societies differed from those of the past because of the shift to zweckrational thinking rooted in the growth of bureaucracy and industrialism. This might explain why today, in bureaucratised, industrialised societies, that instrumental, technical, means ends thinking came to dominate. The error for many is that the ‘is’ of the dominance of zweckrational becomes the ‘ought’, the only way to think and it becomes the assumed method of human thinking. I suggest that those trained in scientific, technical and logical (means-ends) occupations are apt to think using ‘zweckrational’ but assume that is how everybody else does and ought to think. They then become one dimensional in their own thoughts, unable to grasp the complexity of human decision making.

The social theorist Margaret Archer also describes this ‘man of modernity’ as “a being whose fundamental constitution owes nothing to society” (2000 p 51) and (following Weber) who is increasingly driven by instrumental rationality or ‘means-ends’ thinking. This is the ‘ready-made man’ who turns up out of nowhere to impose his own order on the world and applies rational thought to social concerns. It is a view of humanity that believes that our ‘self’, our individuality,  exists totally separate from society, that it is not constituted at all by society or culture. The free acting self is an independent of society and culture free thinking and rational being. We will hear echoes of this man’s voice when we hear such statements as “only the individual should and can take responsibility for health”, “there is no such thing as society, just individuals and families” and “eat less  – move more” injunctions to reduce weight. Any idea of social structure or social forces is completely denied. In this view there are no social mechanisms operating ‘behind our backs’ that might be guiding free choices.

 

This model of the self assumes the primacy of agency devoid of social structure or cultural or language contexts. It not only assumes the primacy of agency, but elevates it into a core aspect of the political project (neoliberalism) to reduce any action on poverty or welfare beyond that of individuals, families and charities. If there is no society, then there is nothing society can or should do.

 

Those who adhere to this model might think that obese and overweight people merely freely choose to eat more than they need, that their inability to lose weight is down only to their weak moral character and lack of will power. The obese should “just say no” to a second pork pie. Against this I suggest that they eat and move within the structures and cultures of the ‘obesogenic environment’ (Foresight 2007) and within cultural practices around food that becomes aspects of who they are, that they build into their self-concept. Veganism for example has been seen as the preserve of a slightly effete (?) minority and for many men especially, just cannot be built into their own notions of self as ‘red meat eating males’. Their self-concept as a man excludes this food choice as viable. They are of course free to act as a vegan but the structural and cultural context militates against men many doing so. Some men will be able to draw upon their material, psychological, biological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to exercise their agency to become vegan. Many others will not be able to exercise the same degree of freedom to do so.

 

There is not the space to fully explore this idea of the ‘free, pre-existing, independent from society’ view of self, other than to suggest that extricating human agency and the ‘self’ completely out of the effects of language, culture and social structure is erroneous. I emphasise however, the pernicious persistence of this idea in current culture, politics and health policy as it underpins much understanding of, and pronouncements about, human behaviour towards health.

 

I also suggest that those whose knowledge is non-existent, or superficially grounded, in philosophy, the humanities or social sciences cannot exercise their agency to begin to understand this argument. Their ‘ways of knowing’ and sense of self  is in violent opposition to it. They will be so embedded in certain social structures and cultural assumptions and values that the self they experience is unable to grasp the concepts. They will read the words but will feel an instant visceral hatred of the challenge to sovereign individuality because it shakes the very foundations of who they think they are and the basis for success and failure. Current ideal types would be Boris Johnson, Peter Thiel the PayPal billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, many in Silicon Valley and the alt-right. In fact most of the powerful world leaders would fall into this category including Putin, Erdogan and Modi. They all feature varying degrees of narcissism and the assumptions of what Graham Scambler calls the ‘Greedy Bastards’.

 

Part of the answer to understating why we do what we do,  will be found by exercising our sociological imaginations to gain a fuller understanding of human behaviour. We need to think beyond the action of an individual, to consider the wider actions of society and culture that provides the context for individual choices at this point in history..

Take the choice to eat insects. In the UK we are free to do so. We could exercise our ‘free agency’ as sovereign individuals. There is no biological reason why we don’t. There is no legal barrier to doing so. There is no trade barrier, tariffs or taxes in importing insects as food. What prevents us eating insects is a combination of cultural barriers with a lack of social institutions that values eating insects, no social institutions providing access to insects. Psychologically we might think that the eating of insects is not part of our ‘self-concept’, there is no social learning going on because no one is doing it, the mental short cuts bypass rational appraisal and go straight to the ‘yuk’ factor. We live in an obesogenic environment and not an ‘insectivorous’ environment.

Why do fat people eat pork pies? Why don’t thin people eat insects?

Graham Scambler in wishing to establish a theory of agency in sociology argues:

 

Humans…are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms while retaining their agency…socially structured without being structurally determined

 

I think this means that if you want to know why some people can resist eating the pork pie and most in the UK resist eating insects, you have to think holistically rather than individualistically. You have to avoid the temptation to be reductionist and instead think ‘systems’.

A biologist would focus on physiological processes and raise the importance of body chemicals such as leptin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins in stimulating behaviour. They might acknowledge the physiological role of sugar and processed carbohydrates in providing very satisfying, but unhealthy, eating habits. This is perhaps the first hurdle that ‘will power’ has to overcome.  ‘Willpower’ is of course the ‘go to’ mechanism for those with individualist understandings.

A psychologist might explain eating patterns from a variety of perspectives: cognitive psychology might outline the role of mental short cuts that bypass rational thinking; behavioural psychology emphasising the conditioned nature of responses; social psychology which asks us to consider the power of social learning upon choices and psychodynamic psychology which would raise deep seated emotions as drivers for behaviour e.g. food playing the ‘comfort’ role. All have explanations that down play the power of rationality.  Key concepts within psychology which could be linked to why we eat as we do include:

  • Self-Efficacy.
  • Body Image.
  • Locus of Control.
  • ‘What the hell’ effects.
  • Future Discounting.
  • Classical/Operant Conditioning.
  • System 1 and System 2 thinking.
  • Self and self-awareness.
  • Adult, Child, Parent Ego States.

 

Both biology and psychology examine the individual body and mind. They seek explanations for human agency within ourselves. For some people, that is enough. Yet both disciplines cast huge doubt on the idea of ‘free thinking sovereign individuals’ who use rational thought, and the exercise of sheer willpower in achieving their aims.

If you have not eaten for three or four hours, and you pass a shop selling freshly baked bread or pasties, or foodstuffs you very much enjoy, your will power to lose weight is severely challenged first by your biology as the body reacts to sight and smell of delicious food and then by your psychology as the ‘what the hell effect’ kicks in supported by ‘future discounting’. Your future self as a slim lean athlete is discounted by your immediate self’s need for food.  As you go through your day you are immersed in social and cultural invitations and opportunities to eat and to eat too much. Against this is will power, unless you can actively design your social and cultural environment every single day to support will power, you may well crack. Do you have the material, psychological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to do this day after day after day for years? For the rest of your life? Some also have poor biological health assets in this regard as in utero processes may well have pre-set a certain weight for you that your body will always want to get to.

We are not completely free autonomous agents beloved of neoliberal ideology. Our lives are highly structured, but not determined. We are the result of a complex interplay of our biology, our psychology and the social. Underpinning much of the common discourse in our media is the idea of the ‘liberal human self’, and failures to live healthy lifestyles are to be found in the individual. This belief, and it is a belief not a scientific fact, often leads to a ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’ (MUD) to explain health inequalities. The MUD focuses on cultural and behavioural explanations, rather than sociological, for health inequalities. It is a discourse that leads easily to victim blaming.

We need to think a little more critically about this explanation, particularly as it has a great deal of political and social force in terms of policies we design to tackle health. We need to bring the social (structure) into the individual (agency). We need to ask to what degree are we free agents who can take 100% responsibility for our lives, we need to examine what social structures exist in which that agency operates.

Margaret Archer has published a series of books on this central problem of structure and agency, i.e. the relationship between our personal actions as free agents and the societies and social structures we are born into.

We know that smoking is linked to illness and disease, we also know there are patterns to smoking which show prevalence is not spread equally across class or age. If we want to more fully understand smoking behaviour we require not only the sociological imagination but also why people as ‘free agents’ continue to smoke despite knowing the consequences. The answer is of course complex, situated in and mediated by a matrix of the biological, social and psychological. Smoking occurs in a social context in which people are enabled or constrained in their behaviours by the structures of society and mediated by their and others’ ‘reflexive deliberations’ and to a degree, their biology (the ‘substance’ (nicotine) theory of addiction).

Archer’s theory suggests that our individual actions are predated by the existence of social structure of, for example, class relationships. Class structure, and the culture associated with it, are transmitted to individuals. In smoking’s case, the culture of smoking was once widespread across all social classes and therefore to take up the habit was not to be seen as a social pariah. Quite the opposite. George Orwell in both ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ describes vividly the valued place of tobacco in people’s lives. Today however, smoking has a class characteristic to it, the middle classes apparently are more open to health warnings than those lower on the social scale. This ‘predates’ any individual coming into puberty today. The ‘cachet’ associated with smoking, or its status as a rite of passage, has to be factored in to understanding why some people shun the habit while others embrace it.

Archer however does not wish to over emphasise how such social structures affect action, rather there needs to be a focus on how agents respond and act to those circumstances. There is a causal efficacy to agency, we are not automatons responding to class structures or obesogenic environments. We can make choices to act in certain ways to not buy the pork pie.  We do so by having internal conversations which are mediated by our ‘mode of reflexivity’ which at this point in history is particularly salient.

You and I are confronted in our daily lives by social circumstances, and we have a choice of action. We bring to that choice of action our own priorities, our ‘projects and concerns’. What we then do is mediated by the type of internal conversation, or reflexive deliberation,  we have. Archer’s thesis is that in the past social structures were such that little self reflexivity occurred. We ‘knew our place’, we knew what our role was and what status we had.  However, as societies modernised, cultures and structures confronting us are far more open to change and critique, and are so by the actions of the people involved. Women for example, no longer took for granted that their place was to rear children and to engage in domestic labour. They thought about the franchise and employment and some decided to act differently to ‘break the mould’. Why do some act to challenge social structure and why do others conform and thus replicate social structures?

“The subjective powers of reflexivity mediate the role that objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action and are thus indispensable to explaining social outcomes’ (Archer, 2007: 5).

In other words, your inner voice is confronted by the facts of the obesogenic environment or of social class or of gender relationships in the work place, but that fact can be acted upon so that action can for example be fatalistic towards that circumstance or instead might confront it in an attempt to overcome any perceived or actual disadvantage.

Agency is necessarily contextualized, it occurs in a context of social structure and culture. That is the objective fact the people confront every day.

Archer’s (1995, 2003, 2007) way of articulating this is in terms of a three-stage model.

  • Structural and cultural properties objectivelyshape the situations that people confront involuntarily; the structural and cultural possess powers of constraint and enablement in relation to
  • People’s own constellations of concerns, as they define them.
  • Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberationsof subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective

 

Think about the social structures that produce, advertise and market and then distribute food  – how that this currently characterised by the industrial production of delicious, tasty and cheap foodstuffs packed with sugar, salt and calories. The objective cultural context might include aversion to walking and cycling as we perceive these as impractical, dangerous or too slow.  Think about the culture of eating food and the sociability that surrounds certain foodstuffs. What currently does wine play in the cultural life of many women and beer for men? These objective conditions provide ‘enablements’ to eating easily too many calories. It is made easy to do so. What constraints do we have in eating too much? Well, against the above we have health injunctions not to do so, we have body images that emphasise thinness with attractiveness. If the various constraints to eating too much are not as strong as the enablements, then the individual has to work hard  on clearly identifying their ‘concerns’ – one of which is to lose weight. This has to be turned into a project, something that they focus on every day to combat the many opportunities to fail at achieving the goal. People will tell themselves if the daily project of losing weight is achievable given the reality of their working and social lives. They will draw upon their health assets to help them do so. If their health assets are very poor across the board success is not impossible (they are after all free agents) but it will be harder.

 

Agency operates within certain social and cultural contexts, so consider how agency operated by an A list actress and a struggling in debt mother. What social ‘forces’ propelled them into two very different circumstances and how much is down to personal achievement, luck or circumstance? Consider they now give birth to daughters. What are the chances of either girl using personal agency to radically alter their circumstances. Yes, it happens (e.g. Oprah Winfrey) but who will have the easier path?

 

The following table are ideal types to illustrate just some of complexity of the interplay between biology, psychology and sociology in understanding health choices and health outcomes. These factors are not be thought of as a simple cause effect relationship, there are feedback loops and emergent properties from the whole. Nothing is predestined, all is possible. The list is not exhaustive either. There may be other confounding variables that will change outcomes. The actress may develop a cocaine habit, Vicky may become an ‘Educated Rita’.

 

Asset A list celebrity Actress Vicky Pollard “yeah but no”
Biological Ectomorph

Non variant FTO gene

No chronic illnesses

Endomorph

Variant FTO gene

Diabetic

Psychological High self-efficacy

High self esteem

High body image (body reality matches body ideal

Internal locus of control

Emotional and sexual support

Depression free

Positive outlook

Low self-efficacy

Low self esteem

Poor body image (body reality far from body ideal)

External locus of control

Emotional and sexual abuse

Bouts of depression

Suicidal ideation

Social Similar looking thin peer group

Network effect positive

Social support for domestic needs

Child care easily affordable

Food prepared by nutritionist

Supportive parents and spouse

Socially popular

Wealthy successful peers

The 0.01% Global elite

Private School and Drama school paid by parents

Similar looking fat peer group

Network effect negative

No social support for domestic needs

Child care expensive

Food prepared by Greggs

Parents both dead, absent partner

Social pariah

Poor just about managing peers

The local Precariat

Left at 16 with no qualifications.

Cultural Ambitious

Health high priority

Non smoker

Gym membership

Non violent

Survivalist

Health discounted

Smoker

Daytime TV

Emotional, verbal and physical violence common/expected

Spatial Beverly Hills, Sunshine, Sea View and palm trees Concrete high rise, Rain, Industrial Units and burned cars
Symbolic ‘A’ list Chav
Material

This asset is paramount as it feeds into the others

High Net worth

 

In debt.

 

 

 

 

 

Graham Scambler, emeritus professor at UCL, has written a series of blogs based on the work of Margaret Archer. His work can be found here: http://www.grahamscambler.com/sociological-theorists-margaret-archer/.

Archer,M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Eds Archer,M, Bhaskar,R, Collier,A, Lawson,T & Norrie,A: Critical realism: Basic Readings. London; Routledge.

Archer,M (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2007) Making our Way Through the World. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2012) The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2014) The generative mechanism re-configuring late modernity. In Ed Archer,M: Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenetic Society. New York; Springer

 

 

 

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