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Constitution of personal lives and social policy

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“…To speak of the mutual constitution of personal lives and social policy is to suggest that each of these contributes to the formation of the other. ” Explain and illustrate this statement.

While it may first appear that ‘personal lives’ and ‘social policy’ are two distinct areas of everyday life, closer exploration will show how close the two intertwine and entangle and actually provide a way for each to give meaning and constitution to each other (Fink and Lewis et al, pg 6). This essay will attempt to explain and illustrate the idea of the mutual constitution of personal lives and social policy using a personal narrative by Jane Campbell.

This first part of the essay will look at what is mean by the personal followed by illustrating the idea of the personal in relation to Jane’s life. The idea of ‘the personal’ is something that is familiar to us all. Each individual as personal that is based on the experiences, opportunities and life trajectories that are perceived to shape them into whom they are – seemingly entirely belonging to the individual alone (course team, 2009, resources). Yet its definition in sociological terms is not so straight forward. The ‘personal’ in this context is different as “although it is individuals who have personal lives, ‘the personal’ is neither reducible to the individual nor to the private.” (course team, 2009, resources) Therefore including not only referring to the individual’s sense of self, but also to how the culture that they live in, the social discourses available and social divisions such as age or gender forms and constructs the person (course team, 2009, resources).

One way the narrative of Jane Campbell illustrates the personal in her life in sociological terms is through her being a disabled woman who is provided with assistance. Here Jane provides an insight into what is considered part of the private aspects of her everyday life such as getting dressed. However, because of her need for assistance the level of privacy that Jane is able to experience is more limited than that of a person who does not need such assistance. Her narrative also describes how she lives separate to her family; this gives some indication about her society’s views that adult children should be independent from their parents and wider society’s acceptance of adult disabled people also being afforded that independence and how much she herself welcomes that opportunity for independence. However, Higgins (1988 as cited in Fink and Lewis et al, 2009) states that the personal in sociological terms involves not just looking at the individual. Instead he states that the routine of each person’s life – their concerns and experiences are likely to be shared with others.

Therefore “one individual’s personal sociology is likely to be in various ways many other people’s personal sociology.”(1988, as cited in Fink and Lewis et al, 2009 pg 3-4) Thus, the experiences Jane describes in her narrative such as living apart from her mother or receiving assistance at home and being disabled, will not be something that is personally unique to her, others will also share those aspects of Jane’s ‘personal’ thus showing insight into the lives of other disabled women in society. Yet, while it may be true that there are vast similarities between the personal lives of those sharing similar experiences there are always ‘exceptions to the rule’ and those that do not correspond to the predicted patterns expected of them. This is called excess. An example of this is the way Jane does not use the term disabled to describe her self and uses her subject position to fight against the wider society view of her being a passive recipient of care and assistance. Instead she sees her assistance as a way for ‘her body to do what her mind wants it to.’ Having control and independence is important to her, and the roles of the assistants are seen more as facilitators therefore rejecting the discourse given to her by wider society, therefore the narrative expresses her ‘personal’ ideas and feelings as well as the broader aspects of her personal life.

This second part of the essay it will explain what is meant by the term mutual constitution of personal lives and social policy. Mutual constitution is a term used to describe the reciprocal way in which a person’s personal life influences and affects social policy consequently influencing and affecting a person’s personal life. So varied and complex is this process that it is sometimes almost impossible to distinguish who is ultimately influencing who. However, the way in which one influences the other can be related to the time and place, individual and collective biographies, class and age just to name a few (Fink and Lewis et al, 2009 pg30). For example when a particular policy is implemented the individuals that are affected by that policy are not simply passive subjects. Their personal experiences and knowledge will provide “the framework through which they will give meaning to and negotiate the relation.” (Fink and Lewis et al , 2009 pg 40) This could mean the rejection of policies that do not fit with the subject position of such individuals. Thus, the way such policies are understood and received by individuals will then determine how that policy will be shaped and carried out (2009, audio 1).

The final part of this essay will illustrate how Jane’s narrative can demonstrate this process of mutual constitution. Examples of mutual constitution can be illustrated in Jane’s narrative as the state/ national assumption that those it sees as vulnerable and in need of help – such as those individuals with a disability need help and assistance. Services are therefore established to provide this. Jane engages with these services providing personal assistants because she too acknowledges her need for some help as a disabled person. However rather than calling that help assistance she refers to it as facilitation, therefore showing how she sees the role of the assistants not as someone to do things for her, but rather to help her do those things herself. This alters the dynamic of power in the relationship and no longer becomes the ‘carer’ and the ‘cared for’.

Thus causing a redefinition of the role of the assistant due to Jane’s excess in her subject position; and altering the power dynamics of the relationship between Jane and her assistant where by Jane feels she is in control and almost wants to reduce the assistants to a piece of equipment rather than have someone to ‘help’ her which she feels still limits her independence somewhat. By challenging the role of the disabled person as someone who needs to be cared for and asserting herself as an autonomous being Jane – and others like her, help to redefine the views of others about what having a disability means and that not only changes the roles and services provided to disabled people but ultimately alters wider societies previous assumptions which will impact of future policies.

This kind of discourse is available to her due to the disability rights movement post 1970’s which challenged previously held views of disability and helped give voices to disabled people and allow them to assert their independence (course team, 2009, resources). Previous to this it may not have been possible for Jane to experience the level of independence that she does now. Therefore the policies that were developed after the disability rights movement helped to shape the society that people like Jane are experiencing now and are reflective of a particular period of time and view of what being disabled means.

In conclusion, the narrative by Jane Campbell provides a good illustration of her personal life as a disabled woman and is shaped and informed by social policy, as well as the way she herself interprets that policy and the effect she allows it to have on her life and how she also challenges it. Therefore showing that mutual constitution of personal lives and social policy are ultimately inseparable.


Course team, 2009, CDRom, Milton Keynes, The Open University

The Open University, 2009, Audio 1, Milton Keynes, the Open University

Fink, J, Lewis, G, Carabine, J, Newman, J and Korner, B, 2009, Course Companion: personal lives and social policy, Milton Keynes, The Open University

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