are we social scientists prepared to stop the self-fulfilling prophecy?

February 4th, 2012 by hofkirchner


margaret archer and ismael al-amoudi as hosts of the workshop “from  modernity to morphogenesis” at epfl (photo: wolfgang hofkirchner)

margaret archer has put it in wonderful words:

“What is it that depends on human intentionality but never conforms to anyone’s intentions?

What is it that relies upon people’s concepts but which they never fully know?

What is it that depends upon human activity but never corresponds to the actions of even the most powerful?

What is it that has no form without us, yet which forms us as we seek its transformation?

What is it that never satisfies the precise designs of anyone yet because of this always motivates its reconstitution?”

that quote from her book Realist Social Theory: the morphogenetic approach, 1995, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.165, describes the dialectic of agency and structure in sociology. margaret archer, british sociologist, first ever female president of the isa (international sociological association) years ago, heads now a centre for social ontology at the école polytechnique fédéral de lausanne (epfl). there she pursues her morphogenetic project aimed at elaborating her morphogenetic approach.

from 12 to 14 january she invited to a workshop. what does “morphogenesis” mean? it means change in society and the question is what is the generative mechanism of social change and another question is whether or not it is justified to call the society of today, in particular, a “morphogenetic society” because change seems to be more and more unbound.

“morphogenesis” sounds like a metaphor from biology. archer, however, denies the scientificity of metaphors, in particular, when they insinuate transpositions of concepts from natural sciences to social sciences. she even exaggerates her position to the claim that social order is only like itself. in my view, the social is a product of the natural that needs to be looked upon in an evolutionary context. thus it bears features that can be traced back to their origins such that – in a very abstract sense – they appear as common to both the natural and the social, that is, as general features (found by epistemic constructive activity of ourselves but nevertheless belonging to the ontology of reality, be it natural or social).

archer is famous for her criticism of anthony giddens’ structuration theory. like bourdieu, giddens locates structure within the social agent, which makes it resistant to sociological analysis. archer calls that “conflationism”. i call it reductionism, in case a thing, a property or a relation of higher order is reduced to one of lower order and shall be explicated in terms of lower-order entities only; and i call it projectivism, in case the higher-order entity is projected onto the lower one to make the lower one explicable in terms of the higher one.

archer showed already in her earliest works on the british educational system that there is a dialectic of structure and agency: there is 1) structural conditioning, 2) social interaction, and 3) structural elaboration or reproduction.

how does structure influence agency?

i’m used to making that dialectic more concrete by resorting to system-theoretical concepts like self-organisation. by citing somebody who says there is no agreed-upon definition of self-organisation – which is true – archer subsumes, however, self-organisation concepts under methodological individualism. yes, there are approaches like that using the term self-organisation. but there are also others that talk about “downward causation” to signify the influence of the higher level on the lower level.

in that respect, tony lawson, economist from cambridge, makes a strong case for differentiating between the whole and the structure of the whole. unlike dave elder-vass who accepts a causal power of the whole vis-à-vis its parts, lawson holds that it is the structure that can be said to exert an influence on the parts but not the whole itself that has causal powers only vis-à-vis its environment, co-systems, and so on.

this is something i am very sympathetic to. in “general system theory” i’m writing about ludwig von bertalanffy making a distinction between the organisational relations that are characteristic of the whole and the interaction of the elemenents that is characteristic of the parts.

also the opposite dynamic of upward causation is doubtful.

how do emergents come into being?

kate forbes-pitt, co-worker of archer in lausanne, contends that you need an intermediate level between A and B with their respective causal properties ψ and φ, on the one hand, and the emergent C with its causal property θ, on the other. she tries to identify this intermediate level – as she says,  according to physicists dealing with systems in the perspective of self-organised criticality – in the connectivity AB that has its own causal property β. but to me it is not clear how this intermediate level would be of any help. as in itself it is not reducible to A or B and their respective ψ or φ, the connectivity seems already to be an emergent. furthermore, there seems no step conceivable from the connectivity to C and θ.

in my view, this problem relates to the problem above: AB is the interaction of the elements A and B, whereas C either is the structure of the whole or the whole itself that has a structural property and the structure or the structural property is supposed to be on another level than the level at which the interaction is located.

– as somebody who was educated as political scientist in the 70s, it struck me when colin wight who is teaching in sidney gave a critical overview over his discipline: international relations: still the dominance of so-called “realist” theory: egotistic states compete in chaotic anarchy for getting power: nothing has changed until today. no discussion about transforming “international relations” into “transnational relations”.

wight raised an important question: are we social scientists prepared to stop the self-fulfilling prophecy? we belong to the agents that meet in interaction from which another structure might emerge than that to which emergence is given from those agents that believe in ”realist” assumptions…

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