Margaret Archer’s contribution to critical realism has been an important part of the recent progress of the field, and her theory of morphogenesis is key to this progress. Her recent volume, Social Morphogenesis, represents a rigorous and serious step forward in the project of articulating this theory as both a meta-theory for the social sciences and a potential contribution to sociological theory. The volume includes two good essays by Archer, as well as contributions by Douglas Porpora, Andrea Maccarini, Tony Lawson, Colin Wight, Kate Forbes-Pitt, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Ismael Al-Amoudi, and Pierpaolo Donati.
Archer’s philosophy of social science is intended to be a constructive contribution to the theory of critical realism. The central themes are profound social change and the generative mechanisms that produce it:
In concentrating upon morphogenesis we have elected to deal with ‘those processes which tend to elaborate or change a system’s given form, structure, or state’ in preference to morphostatic processes ‘that tend to preserve or maintain a system’s form, organization, or state’. (2)
There seems to be general agreement that for any process to merit consideration as a generator of social change it must necessarily incorporate structured human relations (context-dependence), human action (activity-dependence) and human ideas (concept-dependence). Necessarily, the three make social theorising non-naturalistic. (4)
She writes about the kind of explanation of the distinctive rapidity of modern social change that she and her collaborators are looking for:
We agree that satisfactory explanation cannot be at the level of experience (the empirical level) or at the level of events (the actual level) but needs to identify a real mechanism whose exercise, even in the open system that is the social order, is responsible for the intensification of social change. (2)
The volume emphasizes one specific aspect of the social world, what Archer highlights as the increasing speed of social change.
This book is about theorising a possible transition from the social order of late modernity. What we examine is the generative mechanism of ‘social morphogenesis’, held to account for the increasing rapidity of social change. (1)
Archer and other contributors point towards a novel emerging kind of society — the Morphogenic Society, but their primary emphasis is on the process of morphogenesis rather than the outcome of that process.
Here is how Emmanuel Lazega characterizes the central ideas of the project:
The goal of the Morphogenetic Society project is to develop an account of social stability and change at the macro-level in late modernity. It is thus different from the Morphogenetic Approach, as an explanatory framework presented as appropriate for analysis at all levels from the micro- to the macro-level and at all times. According to this perspective, three elements are always involved in any social transformation–big or small: ‘structure’, ‘culture’, and ‘agency’. The challenge is always to specify their interplay as the basis of explanation for the stability or change of any social phenomenon chosen by the investigatory, when using the Morphogenetic Approach or in exploring the notion of Morphogenetic Society. (167)
Key here is the idea of seeking out “generative mechanisms” of social change. What would be an example of such a mechanism? Archer refers to “struggles for domination and control” (7) as a generative mechanism, and later she refers to “conflicting pressures of primary and corporate agency” (14). In each instance structures, rules, and organizations are understood as being malleable and subject to the pushes and pulls of actors within current circumstances. Here is her summary of three major generative mechanisms:
At the macroscopic level (third-order), the generative mechanism is held to derive from ‘Contingent Compatibilities’ coming to predominate societally for the first time…. At the institutional (second-order) level, however, we confront the paradox of various institutions seeking to take advantage of such synergy whilst also retaining the situational logic of competition…. At the (first-order) level, agents (individual or collective) and actors confront rapidly changing structural and cultural contexts in daily life and across generations. (20)
However, the transition to and stabilisation of a new Morphogenic social formation ultimately hangs upon system integration and social integration not only increasing but coming into a relationship of mutual regulation — and that is the most problematic condition of all for transformation. (21)
Emmanuel Lazega’s abstract for his 2014 article “‘Morphogenesis Unbound’ from the Dynamics of Multilevel Networks: A Neo-structural Perspective” is helpful in coming to better understand the thrust of the morphogenesis approach:
One way to understand the notion of Morphogenesis Unbound is to focus on the meso level of society, i.e. to look at society as an ‘organizational society’ and to think about the co-evolution of structure, agency and culture – the three dimensions of Archer’s sociology, analytically speaking – in that context. This co-evolutionary vision happens to be very close to the research program of neo-structural sociology. To illustrate this insight, one neo-structural method, multilevel network analysis through linked design, is applied to a set of empirical data so as to propose a network translation of Morphogenesis Unbound and observe its outcome. This chapter reports results in which actors create new relationships beyond the boundaries of the organization with which they are affiliated, thus reshaping/expanding their own personal opportunity structure beyond the limitations imposed upon them by pre-existing structures. Half the population of the innovators observed (here: highly competitive scientists) deploy ‘independentist’ strategies, i.e. all the new personal ties that they develop in their network among the elite of colleagues of their profession are beyond the constraining perimeter predefined by their organization’s inter-organizational network. The kind of organization that they might create would not establish inter-organizational ties with their current organization. Over time, measurements suggest that this independence takes them close to Nowhere in terms of further achievements. Slightly more pedestrian forms of Morphogenesis, i.e. perhaps less Unbound, based on a relational strategy called here ‘individualist’, in which actors keep a strong foot in the organization in which they are affiliated so as to use its resources to create a new set of ties – and eventually a new organization – outside their current organization’s perimeter, seem to be of a more rewarding kind of networks to Somewhere closer to the “prizes [that] go to those who will explore and can manipulate contingent cultural compatibilities to their advantage” (Archer 2012). In this latter case, even if some of the opportunities that they could create for themselves are hoarded by their current organization (or boss). Such neo-structural measurements of Morphogenesis are used to start thinking about situations in which the two generative mechanisms identified by Archer (2012), competition and opportunity, coexist; as differentiated from the situations in which the latter would replace the former. Indeed creating new ties with heterogeneous actors, beyond one’s current position and sometimes even new kinds of organizations, is a highly cultural form of agency. Breiger’s notion of ‘weak culture’ helps speculate about actors’ capacity to reshape opportunity structures by reaching heterogeneous alters in spite of resistance from a rather stable, change-averse, tightly-connected organizational society promoting ordinary incremental innovation that will not challenge pre-existing entrenched interests. (link)