The "thin" conception of the individual. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this "thin" understanding?

Essay 2016 7 Pages

Sociology - Individual, Groups, Society


The‘thin’ conception of the individual. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this ‘thin’ understanding?

The conception of the thin individual is one that there is no real inner self waiting to unfold, but rather a malleable dumb creature. According to the thin conception of the individual what is taken as innate human attributes, such as to think, act, etc are just cultural and historical variables (Mc Fall, 2015a). In addition, this agency to act requires equipment, training, props and techniques (McFall, 2015b). This is an enduring theoretical dilemma since the inception of sociology of how much significance should be given to social structure or human agency (McFall, 2015). Sociologist Alan Dawe (1970) cited in (du Gay & McFall, 2008, p.4) refers to this dualism as the ‘two sociologies’ that is one concerned with structure and structural constraint (macro), the other with individual action and agency (micro). Structural theories start with the premise that the society is outside of the individual, whilst action-agency theories start with the premise that individuals are free autonomous beings. Elias (1939) cited in (McFall, 2008, p29) rejects this dichotomous way and sees both the individual and society as two sides of the same coin. This essay will also show that there can be no social without individuals and vice versa. A sociological analysis of how people conduct themselves will be applied to the concepts of agencement and habitus. However, a critique of thin conceptions of the individual will favour a version of sociology that can answer why different kinds of personhood are constructed.

The thin conception of the individual has endured historically from the inception of sociology. As Mauss (1973) cited in (du Guy, 2008, p23) claims in ‘techniques of the body’ that while in hospital he noticed nurses walked differently, this was attributed to American walking fashion being mediated through the cinema. He shows how the technique of running has also changed, but also how a person from a convent will walk with their hands closed. All these learned techniques of the body/matter can also be attributed to a learned technique of interrogation of ones consciousness. This ‘inner-self’ that is associated with a thick conception of the individual as already constituted or as having agency prior to socialisation. Historically Mauss relates this self as one that is culturally influenced by Christian beliefs and practices. Du Guy, (2008) also relates this to Max Weber, 1930 [1904-5]) cited in (du Guy & McFall, 2008, p.8) influential theory of the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Claim that people only have agency through their participation in social worlds. These capacities and dispositions are not some innate human characteristic that has consciousness and should not be understood as the foundation of social worlds. Rather they are the outcomes of social process that are culturally and historically variable. These observations explain how plural forms of individuality are the result of training and practice that vary historically, culturally, and also in any given social environment (du Gay & McFall, 2008, p.9).

In an era of neo-liberalism, Callon (2005) cited in (du Gay, 2008, p.33) claims from an Actor-network theory (ANT) that the individual does not possess agency rather it is distributed through agencements. That is networks of relations between people, things, props, materials, technical devices that are mediated through social training and practices. Therefore, the ability to act/agency does not come from an idea of human but is distributed throughout the arranged setting. ANT claims that the individual should only view who they are or think they are from the context that they are embedded in (Open University, 2015 security revisited). For example, when the oil company BP first introduced self-service techniques in petrol stations it caused chaos (du Gay, 2008, p.22). Furthermore, (The Times, 1972) cited in (du Gay, 2008, p.22) reported a BP marketing man witness a customer put a pound note up the nozzle and shout four gallons of commercial please.

This also happened to people when grocery shopping became self-service, people did not know how to conduct them-selves as self-service shoppers. In 1947 Tesco’s converted one of their stores to self-service, only to have to change it back as customers found it inconvenient (Humphrey 1998 cited in du Gay, 2008, p.40). In addition, class-based cultural norms also had to be overcome; Lord Alan Sainsbury got a shopping basket thrown back at him from a judge’s wife. The judge’s wife did not want to see her-self as a lowly shop assistant, someone who originally got paid to do this work. Furthermore, pictorial mediation also had to be used to explain what way it all worked (du guy, 2008, p.44). In modern society for an individual to conduct themselves as a self- service shopper there has to be a lot of equipment available, shopping trolleys, food packaging, shelves, bar-codes, bags, and check-outs, mediating sources. What needs to be in place shows that individuals have no innate ability to act as a certain type of person? In this example, self-service shoppers, as Callon (2005) cited in (du Gay, 2008) claims agency is distributed amongst all these networks, both human and material.

Therefore, the self is not one that possesses consciousness it is only the outcome of the agencements in which any actor finds them-selves. The techniques and bodily dispositions are made available through training and practice, they are also embedded it what is acceptable social norms, which vary historically and culturally. In other words, agency is the property of agencements and individuals only have agency by virtue of their location in an agencement. This capacity to act as a certain type of person not only requires training and practice to exist as a particular sort of person, but also requires material equipment, props and techniques etc. An important implication in this claim is that the kind of individual that is possible is contextual. For example, people do not come into the world already knowing how to use self-service supermarket facilities.



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Title: The "thin" conception of the individual. What are the strengths and
weaknesses of this "thin" understanding?