A common accusation against using narrative as a research tool, or against drawing on personal experience, or of highlighting micro-interactions in organisations is that this is ‘merely’ subjective. What I think is meant by this is that the narrative, or the highlighted experience can be dismissed because it tells us nothing about what is ‘really’ going on. It is only one view.
How subjective is subjective, and can subjective observation tell us nothing about the world which we experience?
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, thought that there is always something generalisable about the way we respond to the world because our very subjectivities are objectively formed. ‘…the social agent is a collective individual or a collective individuated by the fact of objective underlying structures.’ In other words, our predisposition to act in certain ways, what Bourdieu calls the habitus is formed historically by our interactions with others and with the objective world. Our opportunities for perceiving the potentiality for action are bounded by our collective social history, and is as a consequence, limited. We see the world because we are a product of that history, and that history defines how we see the world.
For Bourdieu this does not mean that our responses to the objective world are automatic or pre-determined in any way. He regarded our responses as ‘reasonable’ rather than rational, as a kind of conditioned and limited spontaneity, a practical common sense. We are fully immersed in what we are doing, mostly without the luxury of being able to make any instrumentally rational calculation at all about the choices we make. We respond to what we encounter informed by our collective and individual history and by our own particular relationship to what we encounter. It is a paradoxical response: ‘…being both determined and spontaneous, since it is determined by conventional, conditional stimuli that exist as such not only for an agent disposed to perceive them and capable of perceiving them.’ (Italics in the original).
The concept of habitus allowed Bourdieu to escape from what he regarded as a false dualism. This dualism arises from thinking that on the one hand that all action arises as a result of conscious intention, where the agent is fully aware of all the consequences of that action, or being deterministic where the agent is just a particle blown about by whichever wind is blowing at the time. In the social games in which we are obliged to participate there are a number of regularities which pattern the game and our response our responses to them. At the same time the game adapts to accommodate our responses in new, but often not radically unprecedented ways. It is not possible for just anything to happen. As we recognise these social patterns we are able to enact a practical mastery of the situations in which we find ourselves and respond to them in a conditioned way.
Without there being some kind of regularity to subjective experience it would be impossible for us to recognise and act in the objective world. Nor would there be any point to carrying out social research based on surveys of attitudes, where one can draw broad conclusions about the tendency of groups of people to act in particular ways. The subjective and the objective worlds interpenetrate, and this is why it makes sense to try and find the universal in the particular, to take the subjective and micro-interactions seriously.