Understanding Society: The social world as morphogenesis

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The social world as morphogenesis

Critical realism has progressed far since Roy Bhaskar’s early writings on the subject in A Realist Theory of Science.  One of the most important thinkers to have introduced new ideas into the debate is Margaret Archer. Several books in the mid-1990s represented genuinely original contributions to issues about the nature of social ontology and methodology, including especially Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach and Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory.

Archer’s work addresses several topics of interest to me, including especially the agent-structure dichotomy. This is key to the twin concerns I have for “actor-centered social science” and “autonomous meso-level explanations”.  Anthony Giddens offers one way of thinking about the relationship between agents and structures (link).  Archer takes issue with the most fundamental aspect of Giddens’s view — his argument that agents and structures are conceptually inseparable. Archer argues instead for a form of “dualism” about agents and structures — that each pole needs to be treated separately and in its own terms.   (Chapter 5 provides a detailed discussion of both Bhaskar and Giddens on levels of the social.) She acknowledges, of course, that social structures depend on the individuals who make them up; but she doesn’t believe that this basic fact tells us anything about how to analyze or explain facts about either agents or structures.  Here are the opening paragraphs of Realist Social Theory.

Social reality is unlike any other because of its human constitution. It is different from natural reality whose defining feature is self-subsistence: for its existence does not depend upon us, a fact which is not compromised by our human ability to intervene in the world of nature and change it. Society is more different still from transcendental reality, where divinity is both self-subsistent and unalterable at our behest; qualities which are not contravened by responsiveness to human intercession. The nascent ‘social sciences’ had to confront this entity, society, and deal conceptually with its three unique characteristics.

Firstly, that it is inseparable from its human components because the very existence of society depends in some way upon our activities. Secondly, that society is characteristically transformable; it has not immutable form or even preferred state.  It is like nothing but itself, and what precisely it is like at any time depends upon human doings and their consequences.  Thirdly, however, neither are we immutable as social agents, for what we are and what we do as social beings are also affected by the society in which we live and by our very efforts to transform it. (1)

Continues in source: Understanding Society: The social world as morphogenesis