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:
- Zweckrational – means/ends rationality
- Wertrational – values based rationality
- Affective action – emotion based
- 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:
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:
- 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”|
Non variant FTO gene
No chronic illnesses
Variant FTO gene
Type 2 Diabetic
High self esteem
High body image (body reality matches body ideal
Internal locus of control
Emotional and sexual support
Low self esteem
Poor body image (body reality far from body ideal)
External locus of control
Emotional and sexual abuse
Bouts of depression
|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
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
Poor just about managing peers
The local Precariat
Left at 16 with no qualifications.
Health high priority
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|
This asset is paramount as it feeds into the others
|High Net worth
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.