I have been thinking a lot recently about the relative importance, or weighting, that people give to various activities in their own lives and the lives of others. It’s an area in which I am not particularly well versed and would welcome comments from philosophers, psychologists, sociologists or, in fact, anyone with an opinion to share. This post represents little more than a documentation of musings so far. It is not a researched piece, but is recorded here to be picked up later – by me and (hopefully) others.
My thinking in this direction started to form from a combination of observations in my own life, bolstered by some reading I did as part of my ‘real’ research (about which more in a future post) and some vicarious observations I made. It struck me that people find certain activities in their lives in some way non-negotiable, unquestionable, imperative or, maybe, essential. I’m aware that all those words are somewhat loaded and part of the reason for writing this post is to tease out some language to describe what I’m getting at. I’ll start from a few examples and work out from there – one from my research and an observation of behaviour to illustrate.
- Personal – my partner and I requested some assistance from a relative. The help would have allowed us to conduct leisure activities separately on the same evening. Unfortunately the relative couldn’t help. Later, my work required that I take a trip away which encompassed the same evening. The relative then revised the decision and helped my partner to attend another event. It is clear that the relative viewed my work commitment as imperative, whereas my social commitment was not.
- Research – my research focuses on people’s willingness to alter (in quantity or time) their use of electricity. In a large number of papers, presentations and other material on this subject, a number of aspects of electricity use are taken as ‘givens’. For example, “People will watch television when they want to watch television” could be quoted as a premise in a number of papers I read, even without the usual standards of academic evidence, without much question. It is taken as unquestionable that people will watch television whenever they like – irrespective of (reasonable) influence.
- Observed – an acquaintance from one city took a job in another city. She felt that she could not move her family as they had many ties in their original city. However, the job was a career progression. Rather than not take the job, she commutes each week, spending a number of days each week away from home. She is not unique in my peer group – it appears that a number of people find career progression an imperative and continue with an arrangement that is likely to be inconvenient at least.
Having considered a number of such examples for a while, it seemed to me that there is possibly interest beyond anecdote if we can draw out some general principles. Analysing a number of situations from this point of view has given me some interesting insight into what is happening. My thoughts have begun to crystallise into something more general. If there is a discrepancy between what people involved in a negotiation (or conversation) view as imperative, common understanding becomes very difficult. In turn, debate and resolution become virtually unattainable. This appears to be observable in situations from the minutiae of a single point in a business meeting to stand-offs between large institutions. It seems also that non-negotiables, or even perception thereof, may ‘lock-in’ a particular behaviour or norm in a situation – either for an individual or group.
I think this mode of understanding can be powerful at a number of scales. In daily conversations, say between cohabiting partners, a difference in opinion on what is imperative can lead to oft repeated arguments, whereas as collective imperatives reinforced by repeated discussion will determine the lifestyle of that partnership. On a much larger scale, collective acceptance of the non-negotiable primacy of rational economic evaluation of any action determines not only what institutions do, but also how actions are described and debated (in this instance, in terms of investment, payback period). Where people or institutions having different ideas on the non-negotiables in such evaluation engage, the result is often incomprehension between debating parties – quite often descending into mud-slinging. An example of this is often seen when environmentalists engage with rational economists with regard to climate change. They fundamentally find different elements of the debate important and therefore, usually, each fails to even see the others’ position as other than ill thought out.
My point here is not, I think, one of platonic idealism or some form of essentialism. I am not arguing that there are some objective characteristics which define a group or are in some way virtuous. Nor am I arguing that the importance of certain actions is an entirely individual matter – rather that the importance or non-negotiability is determined as a product of individual experience, social consensus (or influence) and vicarious observation. What I am trying to argue is that these perceptions of what form the essential elements of a persons life have a very deep influence on the path that they choose and, by implication, the paths followed by groups of various sizes.
I’m trying to place this idea within what I know of theories of structure and agency. In some ways, carried to its conclusion the idea would tend toward an ontology which minimises the effect of cognition on individual agency. Actions would be pre-determined if they were to be seen as purely due to satisfying a number of imperatives. However, that would be to neglect both the possibility of the imperatives changing over time and the possibility that imperatives may contradict each other in some situations.
The above is rather a stream of conciousness on an idea that has been intriguing me. I think this idea bears some more thought and maybe generalises to a scale of relative importance rather than the simple binary treatment implied by ‘non-negotiable’ or ‘imperative’ and their opposites. I am absolutely sure that there is a lot of thought out there about this very subject – probably hiding in the literature of disciplines with which I am not so familiar having originally trained as an engineer. I shall no doubt return to this theme as I think more about it and try to develop it into something more coherent. As I said at the top, comments most welcome.