Enacting – Structure and Agency

Lenartowicz, M. . How Social Forms Come Alive: The Enactive Workings of Discursive Positioning . Working Paper v.1. . 2017


This is an exploration of the possibility to conciliate the structure and agency dichotomy in social science through the use of positioning theory. The focus is on the structural-enactive aspect of discursive positioning: ‘I argue that the positioning theory precisely identifies the social act which creates and sustains social forms’ [p 1]. DPB: without having read the article yet, the phrase above reminds me of the action by which a Situation (a Bubble) emerges: And an utterance is performed, And an information is included, And a perception is performed, by the triple selection of which a communication comes into being (or it is replicated and hence becomes part of a sequence).

1. Introduction

Traditional scientific disciplines are founded in traditional ontology, and hence attempts to address issues concerning traditional ontology do not usually originate in those same traditional sciences. The reason is that their differentiated existence would come into question. As a consequence the concepts used in such a field of research ‘involve’ in an ever more differentiated manner, without questioning the all too general ontological basis. Some of the ontological assumptions are wrong according to Van Langenhove (Van Langenhove L. Innovating the Social Sciences . Vienna: Passagen Verlag . 2007) and conserved by their perpetuation. In summary the problem of the common ontology is a Newtonian/Euclidean/Humean approach, in summary: thinking is performed by solid objects, fixed in space and time, deterministically influencing one another by cause and effect relations. The structuralist view on the world still dominates, because of the ontological problem with the phenomena (institutions, organizations, nations, communities &c.) around which the disciplines of the social sciences are organized. ‘When explicitly discussing their formative mechanisms, social scientists now tend to point to language and its creations, such as texts, discourses, or stories. However, in order to do social science, they seem to have no other methodological choice but to enter and continue the language game themselves. The comprehension of the linguistic, symbolic composition of the social matter, thus, has not yet taken them far; it does not bear much consequence for their research methodologies, or, even more importantly, for their research questions (emphasis by the author)’ [p 2]. The issue is that all social thinkers have presupposed the existence of language to, then, given language, think about the nature of society. The role of this paper is to research the fundamental constitutive function of language: ‘I will address the need for a conceptual path to bridge the gap between the formative function of language and the shapes and forms that people perceive and interact with while participating in the social world’ [p 3]. A methodology is required to account for these steps: human cognition > language > language use > social actions > social structures. ‘Such paths must be sound enough to make sure that what appears at the other side of the spectrum is, indeed, the result of ‘re-assembling the social’ (Latour 2007) not a projection’ [p 3].

2. Typification of social forms

Allowing people to forge and sustain representations of reality, language also allows us to name these representations. By the means of such naming, what initially was merely an entwinement of actions that happened to be observed as resonating and corresponding with one another – a frequently seen pattern, a repetitively performed chain of action, or a cluster of certain observable features – becomes a social form (entity, structure, system, institution, organization, network, rule, role, etc.). Alfred Schutz, Thoman Luckmann, and Peter L. Berger call that naming typification (Schutz 1967, Schutz & Luckmann 1973, Berger & Luckmann 1966). Typification is an assignment of a symbolic signifier to mark a social form, or, as Rom Harré (1975) calls it, a social icon’ (emphasis by the author) [p 5]. DPB: ‘When it has a name it is probably dangerous’ Lenartowicz, private conversation]. Once some assemblage has individuated to the point that its repetitions become noticeable / perceptible it is ready to beget a name. A pattern of a sufficiently individuated assemblage is in this way typified and the typified thing is now a social form or a social icon. Once it is named or rather that its name has been repeated a couple of times it is a communication. The name through the communication reciprocally provides stability to the pattern also: now it clear what it is and what it does.

3. Discursive positioning (intentional, on purpose, purposeful, rational)

Through speech acts people can place themselves and be placed by others in a social world via the vehicle of their social persons. This is an effect of the perlocutionary force of an utterance (what social position does it point at), hidden behind the locutionary aspect (what is said) and the illocutionary aspect (what is it said for) [p 5]. The effect of these utterances in practical terms can be monitored using 1st and 2nd order cybernetics. DPB: this reminds me of the connotations: I can account for the locutionary aspect (1st order: information content) and illocutionary (2nd order: to charge the information / idea with a ‘spin’); the perlocutionary is strictly speaking the social version of an illocutionary aspect and as such it is a 2nd order observation; it relates to the cognitive connotation, namely the perceived importance of the information / idea by the group. Perhaps this is a link between social systems and how memes are enacted in people’s minds.

4. Form Mutability

The positioning theory originally focuses on the manners in which speech acts are used to affect and shape social persons and confine them to a set of (rightly or not) assigned attributes and powers. In the triadic conceptualization of Harré and van Langenhove (1999) social actions/acts allocate people to positions, which are construed in relation to a relevant storyline. In my understanding, a storyline is what I referred to above as a social form: a symbolically marked typification of a different scrap of the overall social reality. As a result, while focusing on persons and their thus constructed situations, the theory precisely captures yet another perlocutionary consequence of speech acts. Positioning modifies not only the relative situations of persons but also the state of the social form to which the position is attributed’ [p 6]. DPB: In this way the knife cuts both ways: the person is assigned a position and as her narrative, explaining the entitlement to that position, is in use harnessing her social position, the position it designates is also tested against the social reality the person – and her symbolic position – are in. ‘If we realize that the ‘fabric’ from which a typification of any social form can be carved is nothing else than the totality of all social acts that are available to be observed, an inclusion of the acts performed by one particular person to that selected group of acts is admittedly equally as a phenomenological, interpretative operation as was our previous delineation. Nonetheless, there is one significant addition: the act of including – that is, the act of positioning. Because this is a social (speech) act as well, it is added to the totality of all acts that are available to be observed. The social fabric is expanded by another know, another twist. .. By the means of positioning, by the embedding of a reflection of a person in a form, a single social action can now change the state of that form dramatically – in just one sentence, one gesture, or one grimace’ [p 7]. As all communication, positioning now has become alive and it has come to serve its own purposes: to connect the behavior of social systems and people as social beings through the dynamics of social forms: ‘People who position themselves at the conference podium behave so similarly that the question arises: is it not the social form itself that is acting and affecting the world?’[p 8].

5. Enaction of social forms (I guess I would use the term enactment)

Searle (1990) aptly claims the we-mode of speech – in which we socially act not simply as ourselves but as a part of a social arrangement – to be the very peculiarity of language that brings social ontology into existence’ (emphasis by the author) [p 8]. DPB: tis I find an interesting thought: the reflection or projection onto language of a social construct that includes not just myself, but any form of social construction that includes others too. That word is the reflection of the whole of social systems and it forms the basis for social ontology. ‘When our speech acts position us in a particular social locus, and especially if this happens by the self-positioning of the first order, perlocutionarily, we speak as apart of social entities – possibly almost indistinguishable in our agency from theirs. We speak ‘for them’, ‘as them’, and ‘on behalf of them’, driving what is to be done, why, and how from what the form is comped of already. The dynamic agency of social forms deployed in such a we-mode can no longer be considered merely phenomenologically. Another ontological status is needed’ [p 8]. DPB: I like this as an example of ho someone can speak on behalf of a firm, in any case in the various roles that people associated with firms can have. What distinguishes this theory from others, is that it shows that people, for whatever reason, can actively pursue to manage their position in the group of people they are included in. And then the million dollar question: ‘What is, then, the relationship between people and social forms? A good name for this seems to be enacting. People engage in performing actions, interactions with the world on behalf of a form, as if they were its components, when they are not. Thus, the psycho-social process of positioning and being positioned by others bears a structural consequence: a thus-enacted social form comes to be seen as acting itself’ [p 9]. DPB: I have used this term enacting for the acting out of memes: when people are motivated (set in motion) to act as per the memes they are guided by at some point. But is is not necessarily in a social context, any meme goes. This theory complements the social systems theory by identifying by which mechanism one communication connects to another. In addition enaction is argued to be 1. the fundamental feature of cognition and 2. the formative mechanism that precedes the individuation of all cognizing entities, and hence: ‘the state of being enacted opens up a path for the conceptualization of the emergence of an even stronger existence of social forms’ (emphasis by the author) [p 9].