exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

What has been, in occidental culture, consensually defined as ‘the subject’, or ‘the self’, and seen as a natural, self-evident and indivisible part of the identity of human beings could be approached and understood as a historically constituted phenomenon, whose apparition and development could be investigated through an exploration of the various techniques and practices through which our ‘relation to ourselves’ have been shaped. Although it can appear at first as a rather evident, almost natural idea, the concept of the self-conscious, self-reflective subject could be seen as the product of the relationships of human beings with social institutions. The work of Marcel Mauss, Max Weber and Michel Foucault could thus be taken as the point of departure for a reflection oriented towards the history of the modern concept of the self, and the way in which it came to become the idea of a united inner subjectivity as currently admitted in western culture. More precisely, the genealogical approach to subjectification suggests that the capacities and attributes of what is commonly known as ‘the person’ are not inherent to the individual but are the product of his or her relationship with social institutions.

Indeed, the very distinction between the individual and society, which has tended to be taken for granted in western thought, could be challenged as an avatar of dualistic thought and on the grounds that it does not mirror any particular ‘social reality’. Indeed, this dualistic understanding of the notion of human being and its relationship with society has had a profound impact on the way the problem of identity has been tackled in western societies, and on the way the idea of the ‘individual’, or the ‘person’ has been defined in western thought. In ‘Homo clausus and the civilizing process’, Norbert Elias challenges this dichotomial opposition between the individual and society by introducing the notion of ‘figuration’, a dynamic term which could be understood as “a structure of mutually oriented and dependant people” (Elias, 1938). In this framework, the idea of an ‘individuality’ independent of its social context is, according to Elias, a ‘conceptual trap’, as the particular attributes attached to an individual to form its ‘self’ can be considered as meaningless without a reference to this network of interdependences in which this particular individual is situated.

Thus, according to this original perspective, a new approach to the concept of self is starting to emerge, having as its focal point the impact of social institutions and practices on the construction of different types of personhood. In this new light, concepts that we take for granted such as ‘life history’ lose their stability and fixed meaning; indeed, as Bourdieu argues in ‘The Biographical illusion’ (1985), the idea of ‘life history’ as “the account of the unfolding of the individual self, from the beginning to the end” (du Gay, 2000, p. 11) is misguided in the way it sees the self as the continuous and stable centre of one’s identity, somehow disconnected from its social environment. According to Bourdieu, the very concept of ‘life history’ can be seen as a particular technique, or mechanism for ‘producing’, or ‘bringing into being’ this particular, artificial idea of a continuous self. But, as we will see in the following parts of this essay, the idea of an invariant, continuous self can be challenged as historically and socially situated. Indeed, the social trajectory of a particular human being can only be grasped if the history of the sociological context within which he or she has developed and evolved is itself put into perspective. Thus, something like a person’s ‘proper name’ is bound to signify very little if no reference is made to the various social contexts in which he/she appeared as an agent. This more nuanced and context-specific approach to identity therefore strongly challenges the Cartesian idea of the self as a monolithic and continuous entity, proposing a vision of human beings as the bearers of various types of historically and socially contingent personae.

To develop this particular point, one could say with Paul du Gay that “Any given biological and psychological individual in modern societies is likely to have a number of personae” (du Gay, 2000, p.14). However, it could appear as rather difficult and even theoretically misguided to amount these various personae to the traditionally accepted idea of a coherent and unified self. Indeed, This fragmented vision of the concept of self could be further illustrated by a short examination of the way legal personality is defined in modern societies. Indeed, within a particular legal system, any individual can have a series of legal statuses such as landlord, father, or spouse, which each have a certain number of attributes and capacities in regards to the particular legal code of the society to which the individual belongs. However, these several disconnected statuses, each with their own purpose, cannot be made to ‘add up’ in order to form a unified legal subject: they each correspond to a particular legal context and have a particular purpose for resolving a particular legal situation.

Another interesting aspect of legal personality is the fact that  ‘moral’ or ‘legal’ personalities such as for instance companies or associations are not attached to a particular individual but can either belong to a group of people or be considered as an autonomous legal entity in their own rights. It should therefore be possible to identify social contexts within which not all individuals have persons (the example of the status of slaves in Ancient Greece comes to mind), and where persons are not obliged to belong to one particular individual.  The particular example of the law therefore illustrates the usefulness of an approach considering the notion of person and the notion of human being as two distinct entities, which allows us to engage in a historical analysis of the concept of human being, and in a genealogical analysis of the concept of ‘self’ as a historically and socially situated construction.

The concept of ‘person’ that is starting to emerge from this new perspective towards the formation of the self can therefore be seen as the product of socially and historically contingent practices and techniques, which are put in place for well defined, socially contingent purposes. As the case of the ‘legal personality’ illustrates, various legal personae only have meaning within the particular context of the law, and cannot be understood or ‘made sense of’ outside of the legal framework. Indeed, as Ernest Weinrib points out, “nothing is more senseless than to attempt to understand the law from a vantage point extrinsic to it” (Weinrib, 1988). This important point could be extrapolated to support the thesis that the various personae that can be observed in various social settings cannot be made to signify anything outside of the particular historical and social context within which they are posited. In this light, concepts that could appear as universal, such as the concept of the self-reflective, self-conscious human being as it has been defined in western though could now be challenged as a particular type of persona that has been elaborated and evolved for a particular purpose or set of purposes and always within the framework of particular cultural contexts.

Thus, the various legal personae that a particular individual can have cannot be summed up to form a consistent, continuous ‘legal identity’, but could be seen as various technical apparatuses created in order to serve a definite purpose in the framework of a particular legal system. This point is made particularly salient in Marc Cousins’s piece of writing ‘Mens rea: a note on sexual difference, criminology and the law’, in which he illustrates how the concepts of ‘men’ or ‘women’, which have formed the basis of certain sociological analyses, cannot be made to have a stable, essential and continuous signification. Indeed, such an approach would, according to Cousins, be relying on two wrong assumptions. First, that the status of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ predates the act of recognition, which would presuppose that there is an essential concept of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ independent of a particular social and historical conventions, and independent of the use that is made of these concepts. Second, such an approach would assume that, against what has been argued in the previous parts of this essay, legal recognition is unitary and continuous, and not fragmented into different ‘disjointed legal contexts’. Cousins therefore argues against the recognition of the status of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as irrelevant to the legal context, and dangerous as a category used in the framework of sociological analyses.

Legal personality, like other types of person that could be observed in different ‘life orders’ (to borrow a Weberian term) therefore appears fragmented and discontinuous, and cannot be considered equivalent to the sum of the various statuses and attributes that forms it. Indeed, as Paul du Gay puts it, “legal personality is nothing more than a heterogeneous set of statuses and capacities that attach themselves to a different class of object for different purposes in the legal sphere” (du Gay, 2000, p. 18).

According to this approach, the concept of ‘self’ could itself be seen as a historically and socially situated type of personhood, which has had the particularity, in the context of western culture, of being associated with the idea of the individual as a self-conscious, self-reflective individual. This new understanding of the situatedness of the concept of a self-reflective subject could be seen as having a profound impact on the definition of the task of the sociologist. Indeed, since one cannot rely on the idea of a stable, continuous ‘self’, the following questions arise: through which processes, techniques and practices what has been called the ‘self’ in western societies has been produced? How this idea of the ‘self’ has come to be thought as the ‘centre’ of what it means to be a human being?

The beginning of an answer to these questions could be found in the work of Marcel Mauss. In A category of the human mind: the notion of person, the notion of self, Mauss proposes a particular distinction between the ideas of individual, person and subject, and introduces the concept of ‘techniques of the body’ as formative of particular types of personhood. More precisely, according to Mauss, the ‘individual’ could be seen as the raw, biological and psychological human material to which ‘persons’, which can be understood as the “definite complexes of instituted statuses and attributes that have provided the means of actually conducting oneself and one’s relation to others” (du Gay, 2000, p. 27), are attached. According to this new framework of analysis, the notion of ‘subject’ therefore appears as a specificity of certain cultures (such as the western culture) to identify certain attributes of personhood with an ‘inner entity’, such as the conscience, or consciousness, rather than with a public institution such as, for instance, a totem, or religious rituals (Hunter and Saunders, 1995). Furthermore, Mauss introduced the concept of ‘techniques of the body’ to illustrate how, in different historical and social contexts, particular social institutions shape particular types of personhoods through the introduction of training of the body learnt as practices and habits.

Mauss’s theory regarding the techniques of the body could therefore be extrapolated and applied to a better understanding of the emergence of the concept of ‘self’: indeed, could not the equivalent of body techniques, such as spiritual or intellectual techniques, be at work in the shaping of the self? Marcel Mauss further illustrates this point of view by showing how the modern conception of the self could have originated from the roman legal persona and developed into a person invested with a soul, which then gradually led to the modern conception of the self as identified first with conscience, then consciousness, and finally subconsciousness if we take the example of psychoanalysis.

Mauss’s demonstration of the role of social settings and institutions in the formation of the self could be linked to Max Weber’s illustration of the way what he calls ‘life orders’ are related and produce particular types of personhood, and therefore a certain kind of self through the enforcement of daily practices and techniques. Indeed, in The Profession and Vocation of Politics, Weber demonstrates how particular fields of activity, such as for instance the political world, make specific ethical demands on the agents involved in such a world, resulting in the apparition of a particular type of person, namely the ‘politician’. This particular argument that different ‘life orders’, or ‘fields’ (to borrow a Bourdieusian term) can bring into being particular types of personae is particularly important as it underlines the potential difficulty of understanding the genealogy of a particular type of subject or persona from a point of view exterior to the field being studied, thus challenging a number of sociological approaches which, although they aspire to a certain level of objectivity, could be dismissed as sociologically and historically contingent.

As we have seen, it appears possible to investigate the formation of the ‘self’ in different cultures through a genealogical exploration of the way this notion has been constructed through the enforcement of certain socially and historically situated techniques and practices. In his essay Identity/Genealogy/History, Nikolas Rose proposes a particular method of investigation he calls ‘genealogy of subjectification’, concerned with the “attentions that humans have directed towards themselves and others in different places, spaces and time” (Rose, 1996). What could be considered as a key aspect of this method is its particular focus on the historically and socially contingent practices and techniques that came into play in the formation of our idea of the ‘self’. More precisely, Rose proposes fives axes of investigation along which a genealogy of subjectification could be performed. First, he argues that such an approach should be concerned with problematisations, i.e. how aspects of the human being, such as for instance sexuality, have been rendered problematic. Second, he argues that a genealogical approach to subjectivity should be concerned with the particular technologies that have been invented or put into place to regulate the behaviour of human beings. Third, Rose states that this approach should also concern itself with authorities, that is to say “who is accorded or claims the capacity to speak truthfully about humans, their nature and their problems, and what characterises the truths about persons that are accorded such authority” (du Gay, 2000, p. 23). The two last axes of investigation suggested by Nikolas Rose are concerned with technologies, that is to say the means that have been invented to “govern the human being, to shape conduct in desired directions” (du Gay, 2000, p. 23), and strategies, or how these processes for regulating the conduct of human beings have been linked to “wider moral, social or political objectives concerning the undesirable and desirable features of populations, workforce, family, society (…)” (du Gay, 2000, p.23).

In the light of this approach, Max Weber’s famous essay The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism could be seen as an investigation of the formation of a particular type of Christian personhood through particular sets of practices and techniques whose origin can be found in Puritan ethics. Weber’s text can indeed be analysed using the five investigation axes defined by Rose in order to gain a better understanding of the emergence of the modern idea of personhood through the practices and techniques enforced by Puritan ethics, in the continuity of the new vision of Weber advocated by historians such as David Saunders as a historical anthropologist mainly concerned on the problem of man as a cultural being. First, the particular way the notion of predestination has been presented by the reformed church entailed a shift in the way Christians could see themselves as either ‘saved’ or ‘damned’: indeed, salvation was no longer attainable through communion and confession of sins, but ‘decided in advance’ and inexorable. As “The Calvinist (…) himself creates his own salvation” (Weber, 1930), the apparition of these new ways of problematising human beings entailed the formation of a new type of Christian persona, whose intense worldly activity – carried over for God’s glory – is seen the ‘constant proof’ of one’s status as a ‘saved’ Christian. Technologies of the self such as “daily Bible-reading, the constant keeping of spiritual account-books, the intense monitoring of one’s spiritual progress through each day and through life” (du Gay, 2000, p. 37) were therefore introduced to enforce and validate this new idea of the Christian persona. In this framework, the Church could be seen as the main Authority at the origin of the enforcement of this new vision of the Christian persona, linking the intense worldly activity – typical of capitalistic activity – to the theological concept of salvation by introducing the transfer of spiritual practices that were traditionally incumbent to priests and religious persons to the general population.

As we have seen with the particular example of the emergence of the persona of the Puritan Christian, it is possible to perform an investigation of the way the modern idea of the self-conscious, self-reflective subject was formed through the enforcement of ethical techniques of the self. The work of Michel Foucault allows one to go deeper in this investigation by establishing a distinction between the existence of a particular moral code and the internalisation of this moral code by human beings through daily practices and techniques. For instance, the Christian imperative regarding conjugal fidelity can be interpreted and abided to for different private purposes for different individuals. Thus, according to Foucault, every morality comprises two elements: a code of morality and forms of subjectivation, which are differently balanced in different cultures.  For example, the Christian precept of conjugal fidelity could be applied in practice in different ways by different individuals pursuing different goals: some may abide to this rule in order to conform to a certain ideal regarding romantic love, whereas others could see such a rule as a way to maintain a certain sexual hygiene. These ethical techniques belong to the domain of spiritual discipline, and according to Foucault hold the key to the development of the self-reflective person (which has come to be known as the ‘subject’). This distinction between ethical practices and codes of morality entails, according to Foucault, the need for a ‘genealogy of ethics’, or a “history of the forms of moral subjectivation and of practices of the self that are meant to ensure it” (Foucault, 1985). It seems important here to highlight the fact that Foucault distinguishes between an archaeological approach, which would only be concerned with actual forms of subjectivity which appeared in different contexts at different points in time, and a genealogical approach, more concerned with the actual process of formation of these certain types of subjectivity.

For Foucault, individuals have therefore been ‘subjectified’ in the framework of the history of western thought through a process of self-problematisation which has taken the form of particular techniques of the self, which can be seen as “inventions for taking an interest in oneself as the subject of one’s own conduct” (Foucault, 1985). Indeed, Foucault traces back the invention of the self-reflective subject to the spiritual techniques for taking care of oneself that have been introduced in Ancient Greece and developed by Greco-Roman, Christian and modern western cultures and formed the notion of the human being as bearer of a soul, a conscience, then later a consciousness and finally, if we take the example of psychoanalysis, a subconsciousness. The Greek, Greco-Roman and Christian culture have thus provided the ethical means through which human beings learn to behave as the “responsible agents of their own personhood in pursuit of ‘self-imposed’ spiritual goals” (du Gay, 2000, p. 39). The approach proposed by Foucault for a genealogy of modern subjectivity could therefore be seen as quite close to the one proposed by Nikolas Rose, proposing different axes of investigation focussing on the particular practices involved the establishment of one’s relationship with oneself, and on the teleological aspects of such practices.

As hinted by Nikolas Rose (1996) This complete redefinition of the set of problems faced by the social science, and by people interested in the study of the human being has great implications on the validity of theories based on a particular idea of the subject, which could be dismissed as sociologically and historically situated.

Indeed, the genealogy of subjectification approach provides tools which allow an analysis of the ways particular categories of the person have emerged in the framework of the practice of disciplines such as psychology, psychoanalysis of sociology, although, as highlighted by Amelie Okensberg Rorty, one should not dismiss the different notions of personhood introduced by such disciplines, as each could be seen as “doing a different job of work in its own particular context” (du Gay, 2000, p. 42). Thus, a tentative of unification of these different interpretations of the person in order to obtain a more complete, more exhaustive definition of the self could be, according to Rorty, the cause of more confusion than enlightenment.

As we have seen, the genealogical approach to subjectification can appear as rather an interesting approach for gaining a better understanding of the interplay between social institutions and the concept of agency, by providing a framework in which the apparition of particular types of personhood can be deducted from the social context in which they are born. However, the dismissal of the idea of a self-reflective, self-knowing Cartesian subject as the origin of social phenomenon in favour of an ‘inversion’ of such a view emphasising the crucial role of the social context in the shaping of how human beings come to perceive and behave themselves can appear as leaving little room for notions such as free will, and therefore as particularly deterministic.

The novel approach to the formation of the subject proposed by Nikolas Rose could be seen as directly challenging other theories regarding the emergence of the self, such as the one proposed by psychoanalysis, which relies on a ‘thick’, continuous conception of the self by relying on the notion of unconscious, which could therefore be dismissed as a historically and socially situated technical construction. Moreover, this genealogical approach of the self could also be seen as challenging an almost ‘unconsciously commonly accepted’ Cartesian perspective to the problem of identity, which tends to see the ‘self’ as a constant and natural attribute of human beings. Indeed, by suggesting that the ‘self’ could be seen as the avatar of culturally specific practices and techniques of the self, the work of Marcel Mauss, Max Weber and Michel Foucault provides tools to gain a better understanding of how the concept of the self-reflective subject was born and developed.


Bourdieu, P. (1987) ‘The biographical illusion’, Chapter 23 in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds) (2000). Taken from Parmentier, R.J. and Urban, G (eds) Working Papers and Proceedings of theCenter for Psychological Studies, Chicago, II, University of Chicago (article trans. By Y. Winkin and W. Leeds-Hurwitz).

Elias, N. (1968a/1939) ‘Homo Clausus and the civilizing process’ in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds) (2000). Originally printed as ‘Appendix I’ in Elias, N. (1968b).

Elias, N. (1968b) The Civilizing Process Vol. 1: The history of Manners, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, First published in 1939.

Foucault, M. (1985) ‘Preface to The History of Sexuality Vol. II’. Originally printed in The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol. II (trans. R. Hurley), Pantheon Books. Reprinted in Rabinow, P. (eds).

Hunter, I. and Saunders, D. (1995) ‘Walks of life: Mauss on the human gymnasium’, Body and Society, vol. 1, no. 2.

Mauss, M. (1985) ‘A category of the human mind: The notion of “person”, the notion of “self”’, Chapter 26 in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds) (2000). Originally given as a lecture in 1938 and first published in Carrithers, M., Collins, S. and Lukes, S. (eds) The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (trans. W.D Halls).

du Gay, P. (2000) ‘D853 Study Guide Block 3’, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Rose, N. (1996) ‘Identity/Genealogy/History’, Chapter 25 in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds) (2000). Originally printed in Hall, S. and du Gay, P. (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity, London, Sage.

Weber, M. (1930) ‘The religious foundations of worldly ascetism’. From The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London, Routledge, 1992). Written in 1904-05.

Weinrib, E. (1988) ‘Legal formalism: on the immanent rationality of law’, Yale Law Journal, vol. 97, no.6, pp.949-1016

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