Ontological Insecurity

Recently, I’d stumbled upon the idea of “repertoires of repair” in a piece for The New York Times about a Covid oral history project, and since finishing the piece I’ve needed to circle back on this.

I recognized this listening to Hagen and Milstein lay out more of their initial arguments and observations. The focus of their first paper was on people’s attempts to break out of their ontological insecurity via “agentic enactment” (making a change to your environment) and “epistemic grounding” (collecting or avoiding new knowledge). They called these strategies for making the world more intelligible and manageable “repertoires of repair.” I was surprised how precisely their ideas, unwrapped from this academic language, mapped onto the shambles of real, human experience.

At the time I’d seen this bit, I hadn’t yet read the part where they define “ontological insecurity”.

To describe that limbo, Milstein and Hagen used the term “ontological insecurity” — a play, they explained, on “ontological security,” a well-known concept within the field. In sociology, the term is most associated with the English sociologist Anthony Giddens who defined ontological security as a “person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world” — a belief in the reliability of our surroundings and the continuity of our own life stories within them. It’s ontological security that allows us to “keep a particular narrative going,” Giddens wrote.


[…] Of course, it’s “a certain kind of social privilege,” Hagen pointed out, “not to experience this sort of radical uncertainty as an everyday condition but rather as an exceptional occurrence” — to not have your ontological security battered to pieces by life all the time.

In talking earlier about agentic enactment and epistemic grounding, I’d said that these were “two tried and true strategies for neurodivergent minds to navigate” the built-for-neurotypicals world around them.

This idea is even more striking to me now, having read about ontological insecurity. If ontological security is “a belief in the reliability of our surroundings and the continuity of our own life stories within them”, allowing us to “keep a particular narrative going”, then the insecurity becomes what I’ve regularly described as the opposite of narrative: the database.

The “limbo” mentioned above is a reference to “time [having] basically stopped working” during the pandemic.

With everything suddenly up for grabs — with people’s identities undermined and their surroundings untrustworthy — the narrators struggled to negotiate, and find meaning in, the details of their daily lives. And without any sense of when the pandemic would end, it became impossible to break out of that malaise, to project oneself into a future that kept evaporating ahead of you.

This really gets at what I mean about my life being a matter of trying to hold onto narrative when so much of my autistic experience of the world’s sensory and other stimuli enters my brain as a database, “up for grabs”.


The first [agentic enactment] can be viewed as exerting control (which for us often means structure), while the second [epistemic grounding] can be read both as “special interests” and the “focus oasis” of self-regulatory behavior. Strategies, not pathologies, against the bombardment.

Strategies such as robust defaults, special interests, stimming, and more all involve (to borrow liberally from all of the above) negotiating and finding meaning in the details of our daily lives, thereby helping to keep a particular narrative going despite what we can experience as the allistic tumult around us.