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Created: April 2, 2001
Latest update: April 2, 2001

Stuart Henry and Robert Binford Discuss Constitutive Theory

by Stuart Henry and Robert Binford
Copyright: Stuart Henry and Robert Binford. April 2001.
"Fair Use" encouraged.

On March 30, 2001, Robert Binford wrote to Professor Stuart Henry:

Dr. Henry,

Thank you for your response to my question regarding Lisa Sanchez's article. I appreciate your concern and your guidance in comprehending the structures of Constitutive Theory. I have spent some time on interpretting your response and have reached a conclusion which I would like to run past you to see of I am on the right track.

It is not so much the overt agency or the overt action expressed by the human subject that constitutes our identity, but the covert creation of an image of ourselves as agents acting which does. In other words, we solidify our identity through acting, not gain an identity through acting. However, the overt action itself is very important in continuing our expansion of identity. From a dialectic standoint, without action the human subject would

have nothing further to build the continuation of an identity from. From this I am assuming two things: 1) the reciprocity between covert action and overt action is necessary in the formation of an identity, and without one identity would cease to advance, and 2) this necessity is grounded in opposition which is the life blood to progress.

In respect to the cognitive structures of the human mind, I have read that studies have shown that one of the basic functions of the mind is to categorize items and concepts. Ironically, the capacity to do this is out of our conscious grasp; the human subject's perception of the environment is already predetermined for them based on the innate rules of our assumed unconquerable unconscious. In considering labelling theory, and even the unequal balance of power among people, do you believe that human subjects have conscious agency in creating such categorical differences, or is it just the innate predisposition of human existence to be forced to exist in a world of categorization based on differences?

I believe that perhaps the unconscious human mind is capable of more than categorization. However, through our use of language, and our dependence upon it as the ultimate relational tool, we limit the possibility of expressing the whole of human capacity. We consciously adhere to our own created and recreated limitations, relying on the one mode we know does not bring us closer to unification. Accordingly, whether promoting conformity or peace, the use of discourse(spoken or written) is guiding us away from unification which can only be attained by means of a higher-level expression.

In this sense then, our identity is maladaptive no matter how much it expands and progresses; the outcome of covert/overt action will continually be based on conscious-level categorizations which are ultimately oppressive and limiting. Our desire for human relatedness and the inability of our language to create this will continually lead to frustration, which ironically is the conflicting energy necessary in the expansion of our identities and the continual construction of society. My question is, based on the assumption of conscious conflict as necessary for the progression of the self and society, yet detremental to unification, is unification worth the loss of infinitely progressing the self and society(a human interest since the beginining) and would unification be a healthy construct for humanity?

Thank you for your time,
Robert Binford

On April 2, 2001, Stuart Henry responded to Robert Binford, with a cc to jeanne:


Wow you've raised more questions than answers! I'm not saying that covert or overt agency has priority in creating identity, but that there is a dialectical relation between the two that results in the production of identity. However, that identity is not solidified in the sense of becoming more concrete; rather there is a tendency for it to appear that way through routine reproduction of the same elements (or yes as you say, recursively creating an image of ourselves) closing of possibilities resulting from a replication through routine practices. Overt action, as you describe it, which I might call focussing the energy of our agency, is important in so far as it enables us to expand our realms of possibility, to redirect and to make a difference to the covert. In short, it enables the reflexive process.

Our constitutive approach also takes the view that human subjects categorize and conceptualize and make distinctions, but not that this is predetermined in a rigid way; rather we are oriented to this activity, but we are also able to question that process, to redefine and undo distinctions, adopt new classifications or even erase classifying as a process. So yes, we have reflexive capabilities, which is a degree of conscious agency in making a difference to the differences we make.

I agree that human subjects (why reduce this only to the human mind?) are capable of more than classification and indeed can be transcendent to it, but that requires conscious insight and awarnenss of the process in play, as we are engaged in it. Yes, language and our reliance on it can be limiting but can also be facilitating, and enabling. Unification, which I would call a shared awareness of our humanity and our ability to make differences, as well as an appreciation for the outcome of difference making on our fellow human subjects, and ultimately on ourselves, can be achieved through struggles for awareness; this is why I describe us as being "recovering subjects," like the recovering alcoholic, we are only able to break the language addiction by being continually aware of its use and what the consequences of that use are. Thus "unification" is not an achievable end state but a continuous state of becoming that which we can never ultimately be, such that in the process we maximize the potential for it. I would avoid "higher level expression" which is an exclusionary, elitist category. I'd prefer the notion of increasing self-awareness and insight to the discursive processes of communication. Yes, the process can become maladaptive of identity (by which I'd be considering ways in which we were blind to and careless of other's rights to make a difference," which is more likey if we are unaware of it; hence recovery. So ultimately, a state of recovery, but never being fully recovered, would be a less harmful construct, but not for humanity as though this were somehow disembodied from humans, but rather for each human to arrive at through their own engagement with these issues.



Discussion Questions
  1. Prof. Henry speaks of "reflexive" capabilities. In what sense is he using reflexive here?
    jeanne's notes on one plausible answer:

    Reflexive sociology is