Armstrong, P  (2001)  'Styles of illusion', in The Sociological Review: 49 (2): 155 - 73 

[Armstrong has identified the peculiar characteristics of a {gramscian} style of sociological theorising and writing. A style is 'a complex of theory, method and treatment of the literature', and these components interact to produce what he calls  'the misrepresentation of reality' (155). This remark seems unfortunately rather positivist, and one of his major criticisms is that such a style ignores survey methods and findings -- which can give the impression of naivety. However, the argument is solid enough, and reminds me of the points I made in my books of 1990 and 1996 -- that those who use hegemony theory can end by simply having it both ways, finding themselves able to explain anything and to discount any criticism, and engaging in a self referential exercise to support those who believe in the approach. I made this argument against British Cultural Studies, and Armstrong is making a similar one against a more recent theme - in this case the work of duGay {and Musson and Cohen. I also note that he refers briefly to Corner and Harvey -- see my file on heritage]

The style in question takes the view that  individual identity is constituted through discourse, although a certain amount of active consumption is also permitted. This position leads to qualitative field work and  'a tendency to treat the literature as a source of authoritative reinforcement (rather than, say, of testable hypotheses or relevant empirical evidence)' (155). Within this style, duGay and others have claimed that  'enterprise discourse had achieved hegemonic status in the UK during the last decade of the 20th century' (156). They refer to no survey evidence  'which might actually verify statements about the prevalence of the discourse' (156)  [which I take to be naive, both in ignoring the discourse theoretic view that survey methods are themselves discursive, and also in believing that data can actually verify hypotheses. As Popper established long ago, data can never verify a hypothesis, since it is impossible to survey all the relevant data, including future data -- instead, hypotheses should be tested by attempting to falsify them. If Armstrong were to go for falsification, which he nearly does, he would have a very strong case].

The authors simply assumed that if a discourse is present it must be all powerful. If any data emerges that seem to contradict this view, they can be explained away as a result of 'active consumption'  [in an earlier tradition  'resistance', which must occur in any hegemonic project]. The dubious assumptions are covered by references to existing literature, all of which is selected to agree, and all of which contains assumptions and glosses of its own which are lost in the citation process -- acquiring  'a patina of facticity through the process of repeated cross-citation' (156).

Armstrong then considers the view that all sociological arguments are merely discourse. He traces this view through  'the linguistic turn' and then postmodernism  [post structuralism surely?]. In this view, all accounts, including ethnographic ones become 'contestable'. This simply abandons any idea of using ethnographic data to do tests  [for me, the question becomes why bother to do ethnographic or any other kind of sociological research at all -- see the wrigglings of Willis on this]. Ethnography becomes indistinguishable from literature, leading to  'a radical empiricism of the text', whereby text becomes all that there is. This is argued quite well by Stanley (1990) for the case of ethnography, according to Armstrong -- since most readers of ethnographic texts can never replicate the field work, they are left to judge them only on the basis of how persuasive they are, including academically persuasive  ('ethnographies are academic products which can only properly be judged by academic standards and criteria')  (158). As Armstrong points out, this might seem to solve one problem, but only by insisting that ethnography could only be of interest to academics. Alternative approaches insist that ethnographic work is inspired by a particular  'matter of practical morality', but again the issue of 'representational accuracy' is simply abandoned. In practice, ethnographers still manage to smuggle in references to facts and accuracy, of course (even Clifford, says Armstrong), and are prone to use  'real-life dialogue'.

Armstrong's own view is to insist that ethnographic observation can still test hypotheses, and  'adjudicate between rival theoretical interpretations' (159). Ethnography may be theory laden, but it is not completely determined by theory  [and all accounts might be discursive, but that is not to say that they are all equally accurate]. Ethnographic data can contradict theories  [the closest he comes to falsification], reveal inconsistencies, and suggest alternative theories -- not all theories can survive  'contact with the empirical' (160). [This is solid argument, but it still has problems. What sort of data would be generally accepted as falsifying theories, or testing them to destruction? Popper also had serious difficulty with this point, of course, and had to posit the existence of some  'basic statement', a simple  matter of fact which was accepted by everybody which could be used to falsify theories, but even there, he admitted there is a lot of work to render theories so that they can be falsified by such basic statements in the first place.] Apparently, Hammersley would agree.

Armstrong also hints at the problems of arranging non-contradiction, since theoretical descriptions, in the form of ideal types, have a natural tendency to agree with more specific ideal types, which lie behind empirical observations -- see Schutz or Hindess on this]. Armstrong also refers to Kuhn, and his argument that even serious anomalies can be rationalised away, at least until they reach a certain level -- but he takes that to be consistent with his own view that data can test theories  [I'm not at all sure that Kuhn would agree with him here -- for Kuhn, one theory can come to replace another via a process of conversion, or simply the death of one set of adherents, and a decisive empirical refutation is extremely rare]. Armstrong cites one study that he does approve of, where the data was arranged as a genuine test.

Truth claims and credibility remain central to sociological arguments for Armstrong, and the particularly likes work that does set itself up as testable. Much ethnography does not do this, however. DuGay's work does make truth claims, but only by citing reports of talk and action and supporting his views: thus  'the contact with the empirical within this style... is not a genuine one' (162). Instead, the theory contains 'an interpretative filter' to explain all possible results -- the notion of active consumption of discourse is cited to explain any sort of findings, even apparently contradictory ones.

DuGay defends his approach against survey work which fails to grasp meaning for him [I think this is a common tactic to present arguments against some straw man rather than offering a strong backing for them -- for BCS, positivism worked well, but so did Critical Theory, or  'orthodox marxism']. This only results in an 'element of arbitrariness', one which is covered by citing arguments in support [argument by authority]. Armstrong insists that survey findings should have been consulted  [which opens him up to accusations of scientism -- that the pursuit of some magic technique, in this case survey methods, will solve all the problems]. Armstrong is right to say that  'writing practices of this kind could justify the selection of just about any discourse as a candidate for hegemony' (163).

Turning to the substantive idea, Armstrong cites British Social Attitude Surveys to deny that the notion of enterprise as defined in Thatcherism was ever very popular among British people. However duGay and the others retort that human subjectivity itself is also constituted by discourses, and in this case the dominant discourse is still one that valorises enterprise, and sets the agenda even for rejection:  'enterprise discourse can dominate even when people define their beliefs in opposition to it' (164). [A classic manoeuvre -- which leads to my argument that if this is so, there is no point doing any kind of ethnographic or other kind of concrete research at all]. DuGay's own study looks at managerial culture into retail companies. Armstrong wants to argue with the actual findings -- that for example a concern with quality management could equally well represent a bureaucratic ideology rather than an enterprise one, or that the responses of staff can equally be seen as tactical rather than as somehow representing hegemonic possibilities (164 - 5). Armstrong also cites several studies that happen to disagree with duGay's main findings -- one of them points to the obvious issue that organisations are unlikely to share dominant discourses if some of the employees face  'an annual cull of the lowest performing' (167).

Underneath, Armstrong says duGay believes that the identities of those he studies simply must be fashioned by an enterprise discourse  [which has led to my question about this  'must'-- is this a logical, or political 'must'? In some Gramscian writing, it even appears as an empirical 'must'!]. For Armstrong, this is a classic way of using empirical data  'whilst simultaneously avoiding any real contact with it' (164). Armstrong also notes what I have called the  'talk up' tactic -- including an apparently verbatim comment in the middle of several pages of dense theoretical commentary which lend it significance.

The notion of active consumption was not always developed tactically like this. For deCerteau, it is a way of showing how ordinary people actually reject ideology. In duGay's work, there is no way of telling what is active consumption, and what is simply another way of perceiving the world, produced by different ideas. Here, exampling of data is not enough, and whole popular discursive formations should be explored. Otherwise, the writer can simply gloss snippets of data to mean anything.

Armstrong extends his comments to hegemony more generally, suggests he has a particularly  'performative notion'--'that action in accordance with the prescriptions attached to a discourse symptomises, in some sense, its dominance at the level of ideas' (168). Musson and Cohen apply this notion to a study of General Practitioners in order to see the extent to which they have been penetrated by enterprise discourse. They find supporting evidence in matters such as the increasing use of enterprise terminology, the decisions to move to fundholding status, or a willingness to administer treatment for commercial reasons. Armstrong argues that a number of motives are classified as indicating enterprise here, including seeking straightforward commercial reward or the adoption of widespread managerial terms such as  'target group'. In the second study, of people who have recently become self-employed, the very fact of their self-employment is already treated as prima facie evidence of their having excepted an enterprise discourse, even though only two describe their experience in this way. Approval of a number of qualities which Musson and Cohen defined as entrepreneurial is too simple a test, since approval can be heavily qualified in practice (Armstrong gives an example from the study of what looks like a heavily qualified approval and says that Musson and Cohen were just not listening carefully enough when they cited it). Taking comments in this rather literal way indicates  'a marked theoretical regression... It is as if Goffman had never lived' (169).

Overall, this particular style tends to dominate modern sociological practices  [possibly because  'hegemony explains everything'? It also seems to be eminently do-able as a project?]. The style simply looks for conformity as evidence of a correspondence between a dominant discourse and actions, and this conformity is seen as a sign of identity. Even if there is no conformity, this can still be explained  'by a post hoc deployment of the concept of active consumption' (170). Thus data confirms theories  'as a self-fulfilling prophecy', and the style  'allows wishful thinking to present a surface of empirical credibility' (170).

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