In Political Culture, The Public Sector

So Much Change, So Little Reflexivity

In this post, I explore how Boltanski’s and Thevenot’s analysis of social life as movement among different ‘worlds’ or ‘polities’ can help us understand how we reflect on the problems and obstacles we encounter. These, inevitably, involve balancing the claims of different polities. B&T explain how we do this.

Everywhere we find individuals navigating in circumstances quite different from those that shaped the aims and purposes embedded in their routines. Think of family life. How many parents conduct themselves as their parents did? their grandparents? Think of politics. Can today’s generation understand their grandparents’ commitment to a political movement and the ties of loyalty that bound them to a political party and its leader? It is not just that the landscape – social, economic, political – has changed, it continues to change. And as it does, the tacit knowledge guiding action connects less satisfactorily with the world. Change is unavoidable. As I outlined in Part 3, Dewey provides a useful scheme for considering the kinds of change that can be prompted as we try to keep on track. When we accommodate to change, we submit to the routines, allowing them to orientate our action. When we adapt, we step back from the routines, allow our particular interests to enter the picture as we seek a better balance between them and the demands of the routines. When we adjust, we make explicit the aims and purposes and interrogate them. The greater the extent and pace of change, the more likely it is that gaps will open up between the course of action and the world. Adaptations and adjustments will become more frequent. Aims, purposes and interests that were once taken for granted come under scrutiny. Going along with the way things were always done is less and less feasible. We will be required to think more frequently about what we are doing and why we should do it. Modern life, demands increased reflexivity from individuals and the institutions they inhabit. 1

This seems obvious. However there is a problem. There is, certainly in regard to the concerns of this blog, little evidence of increased reflexivity among the administrative and political classes. Indeed, a good case could be made for a decline in reflexivity. Enda Kenny may, indeed, be the honourable man from good stock that he claims to be, but he is also the least reflective Taoiseach in the history of the state. How many years do we have to go back to find a civil servant writing reflectively on his craft in the pages of Administration, the journal of their Institute of Public Administration?

Two responses suggest themselves. Perhaps I have greatly exaggerated the degree of change and its impact. Our design for democracy has not drifted away from reality. The system is robust, durable and generally satisfactory. Politics ‘as usual’ is capable of accommodating whatever fortune delivers. Or, maybe we have lost our capacity for reflexivity. Boltanski and Thevenot’s discussion of how the different worlds that they have identified in their researches get along together explain why this dire possibility maybe the case.

Everything conspires to drive us to understand politics solely in terms of interests and the power that they can command. The media treat political stories in these terms and the prevailing social sciences are built on foundations that suppose that no other approach is possible. Boltanski and Thevenot’s researches help us understand both the limitations of this view and why it is common. The bonds that draw us together in collective efforts are constituted by common goods, aims and purposes. All polities suppose a division of labour. All divisions of labour engender conflicting interests and inequalities in power. The common good holds the polity together in the face of this reality. It allows particular grievances to be projected onto a general plain where the link between fair treatment and the polity’s prosperity becomes evident. It trammels power, demanding that it be exercised as authority. It provides a basis for criticism of the inevitable abuses of authority.

How do we manage when we find ourselves in situations where polities come together? While we act within one polity claims for justification are handled with reference to its aims and purposes and the qualifications of individuals. However, when the concerns of several polities must be respected, there are no overarching aims and purposes, no universal qualifications available with which to resolve whatever claims are made. How do we handle such situations? Boltanski and Thevenot report two strategies: compromise and relativization.


The term ‘workers-rights’ illustrates a compromise. The phrase brings the industrial and the civic together. ‘Creative leadership for today’s manager’ allies the inspired polity with the industrial. The efforts to reform, or modernise, the civil service provide further examples. ‘Public administration’ became ‘public management’ in an attempt to unite the domestic with the industrial polities. Departments were instructed to draw up ‘customer charters’ as a ‘competitive public service’ sought some of the lustre of the market polity. Boltanski and Thevenot cite France’s Economic and Social Council as an institutionalised effort to bring the civic and industrial polities into alignment. Our National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has a similar role. The partnership process that it steered illustrates the character of the compromise that we can expect among polities. The partners did not seek agreement on over-arching aims. They were brought together in acknowledgement of shared problems, not common purposes. The civic polity recognised that some of its pressing problems could not be resolved without solutions being found for problems confronting the industrial. Both recognised the aims of the inspired polity that sought a more just society.

Compromises demand reflection. As the representatives of each polity seek  acceptable alliances with other polities, they must reflect on their aims and purposes, and how these might be ‘adapted’ or ‘adjusted’ to take account of the big picture. NESC coaxed the partners into reflexive mode. Its triennial strategy reports analysed changing economic and social circumstances while drawing out their implications for policy. It brought the partners (national and local) together to reflect, with the help of experts, on our institutional capacities for policy-making. 2 Rory O’Donnell, its Director–General, published articles reflecting on the partnership process, examining its connections to a changing democracy and assessing its strengths and weaknesses. 3 The public sector modernisation programme was nothing like as reflexive. Though two major evaluations were published, one by PA management consultants, the other by the OECD. The failures in implementation prompted neither to think again about the programme’s aims and purposes.

In any case, the compromises proved fragile. Partnership has gone. (Underground?).  The modernisation programme is now a tactic to cut wages and reduce costs. Shortcomings in the reflections must have played some part. The unwillingness, or inability, of opposition politicians to engage with the reflections of NESC or consider the evaluations of the management consultants was a more important factor. Perhaps the role of opposition provides no inducement to reflexivity. Perhaps, when they came to power, the exigencies of the crisis allowed no space for it. Certainly, the coalition parties both in opposition and government, showed a strong preference for the second strategy identified by Boltanski and Thevenot.


Those who seek a compromise look to construct a situation in which different, or competing, goods can be brought into an alliance. Managers and workers who settle on the phrase ‘workers-rights’ concede that the claims of both the industrial and civic polities must be acknowledged. The personnel officer and trade union official are diplomats, mindful that whatever treaty they propose must be acceptable to the two polities that they represent. However, disputes can be settled in another way. The personnel officer and trade union official can take on the role of ‘deal-maker’. Each knows that he can make trouble for the other. Each knows that this trouble can rebound on him. Workers do not like trade union officials who continuously bring them into conflicts that may threaten their income any more than managing directors like personnel officers that provoke strikes. There is a basis for a deal. The deal is a ‘private’ arrangement in that no good, civic or industrial, is in play. Peace is sustained and both continue to prosper in their careers. The fact that the civic polity in which workers have a dignity denied to them in the industrial world may be weakened or that the efficiency of the industrial polity may be undermined is neither here nor there.

It is hard to envisage a situation where conflicts among polities are never settled by private arrangements. However, when this occasional tactic becomes the strategy, then we have moved from compromise to relativization. The complexity of finding agreement among competing polities undermines the authority of all ideas of the good. Actors charged with managing the situation disregard the common goods and look behind them to the power that different polities can command. Now practical nihilists, a balance of power is their aim, not a balance of goods. Reflection has little or no place in relativization. As it becomes the dominant mode, reflexivity declines. We can suppose that pressures towards relativization increases as the complexity of reconciling polities grows. So we have a paradox: the very circumstances that call for reflexivity are those that explain its absence. The paradox tells us why no politician, or senior civil servant will have the slightest interest in analyses such as this.

Archer, M. (2007). Making our way through the world. Human reflexivity and socila mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity Press.

Archer, M. (2012). The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

National Economic and Social Development Office (NESDO). (2009). Ireland at another turning point: reviving development, reforming institutions. Dublin: NESDO.



  1. A theme exhaustively studied, for example by Margaret Archer. See (Archer, 2007), (Archer, 2012)
  2. e.g The report of the Futures Ireland Project (National Economic and Social Development Office (NESDO), 2009)
  3. For select bibliography see

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