Andreas Glaeser on agency

Andreas Glaeser is another gifted contemporary sociologist who takes a different approach to providing a sociological analysis of agency. Glaeser’s most recent scholarship is a careful and detailed study of the end of communism in the German Democratic Republic.  This research appears in a book that is just now being published, Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism.  (Glaeser provides several chapters and related materials here on his research page at the University of Chicago.) The work is concrete, historically situated, and close to the ground in the sense that it pays close attention to the ideas, emotions, and mental frameworks of the various actors as expressed in Glaeser’s interviews with them. But along the way he develops a powerful framework for understanding some of the fundamental concepts and theoretical frameworks that are employed by sociologists when they attempt to understand individual and collective behavior.  Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

What does the durability of political institutions have to do with how actors form knowledge about them? Andreas Glaeser investigates this question in the context of a fascinating historical case: socialist East Germany’s unexpected self-dissolution in 1989. His analysis builds on extensive in-depth interviews with former secret police officers and the dissidents they tried to control as well as research into the documents both groups produced. In particular, Glaeser analyzes how these two opposing factions’ understanding of the socialist project came to change in response to countless everyday experiences. These investigations culminate in answers to two questions: why did the officers not defend socialism by force? And how was the formation of dissident understandings possible in a state that monopolized mass communication and group formation? He also explores why the Stasi, although always well informed about dissident activities, never developed a realistic understanding of the phenomenon of dissidence.

Out of this ambitious study, Glaeser extracts two distinct lines of thought. On the one hand he offers an epistemic account of socialism’s failure that differs markedly from existing explanations. On the other hand he develops a theory—a sociology of understanding—that shows us how knowledge can appear validated while it is at the same time completely misleading.

And here is the abstract that Glaeser provides for the first chapter at the link above:

ABSTRACT: On the basis of ethnographic data gathered during 11 months of field study in two east German police precincts, four processes of identity construction are analysed which link selves to space and thereby to one of the main aspects of material culture. These processes are (1) the tropic (as opposed to literal) reading of space, producing a complex web of identifications through a play of metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor, ellipsis and hyperbole; (2) the writing of space as a material inscription of self in small spatial contexts such as neighbourhoods, cities and regions; (3) the placement of self into larger spatial wholes such as neighbourhoods, cities and regions; (4) the anchoring of life-stories and narrated life experiences in significant time-space combinations or chronotopes. The paper argues that identities are not only constructed in interaction with other actors but also in “dialogue” with material culture and spatial practices. It argues also that the spatial dimension of identity brings to the fore the fact that identities are not only knowable, but that they can be experienced. Through space, identities become sensualised.

The topic of “agency” comes out of this research very directly and immediately: why did the various actors choose to live and act as they did?  Why were Stasi agents so complex in their behavior — neither passive puppets of the regime nor hidden activists within the state?  What were the “epistemics” on the basis of which they and other social actors acted — the assumptions about themselves and the world that framed their choices?  These questions lead Glaeser to attempt to arrive at a better and more satisfying account of the forms of consciousness, locatedness, and feeling that create the individual’s field of choice.

Here is how Glaeser describes his current thoughts about agency and the questions that will guide his next program of research:

I have begun researching and writing a third book with the working title Agency, Institutions and Understanding: A Sociology of Liberation. With it I aim to offer a fundamental critique of the schizoid contemporary social imaginary that flip-flops between ontological individualism categorically asserting persons’ power to act on the one hand and structural determinism which pays no heed to individual actors in whatever form or shape on the other. Instead I aim to show how agency does not only vary historically and situationally but how it can be cultivated by individuals and collectivities from within a realistic understanding of the operation of institutional arrangements. Thus I aim to rejuvenate and reposition an older normative understanding of the task of the social sciences as a reflexive enterprise in the service of emancipatory politics.

Against the “schizoid” opposition of pure subjectivity of the individual actor and pure objectivity of social structures, Glaeser prefers a stance that allows him to weave together the social situatedness of the actor — in very concrete spatial and social-relationship terms — with the thoughts, motives, and impulses that lead them to act as they do.  Here is a nicely concrete description of how he proceeds to investigate these states of social consciousness:

The social arenas I have chosen to study identity formation through acts of identification are two police precincts in what used to be East Germany. The first is Precinct 66 (southern Kopenick) in the southeastern corner of Berlin, the second is Potsdam in the state of Brandenburg just outside Berlin . The ethnographic material on which this paper is based was collected during 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork, consisting chiefly in participant observation of all sorts of police practices (patrol car shifts, neighbourhood beat patrols, administrative work, social events , etc.). Another important source of data was open-ended tape-recorded biographical interviews. The rationale for choosing the Berlin police is that identity is a hotly contested issue between former West Berlin and former East Berlin police officers, who have had to cooperate after the unification of Germany into one unified All-Berlin police corps. The second fieldsite was primarily chosen to establish a backdrop for Berlin, which is in many ways a special case. (link, 8)

Like the arguments of Martin and Dennis considered in an earlier post, Glaeser is led to a position that negates the traditional strong distinction between agent and structure. Like them, his work brings him into close relationship to the micro-sociologies of ethnomethodology, phenomenological sociology, and interactionist sociology. Unlike rationalist approaches that exclusively emphasize discursive states of mind — reasons, beliefs, goals — Glaeser positions his actors in terms of their discursive, emotional, and kinesthetic representations of their situation.Glaeser refers to his approach as hermeneutic. The work is ethnographic in detail; but the goal is plainly sociological. He wants to provide a detailed analysis of the modes of understanding that constitute the position from which concrete individuals construct their activities and choices. And he wants to understand the complex social world that was East Germany at the end of socialism.


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