Guest post by Doug Porpora on social structures

Here is a response to my earlier post on social ontology and structure from Doug Porpora, professor of sociology, Drexel University. Doug is the author of Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. Thanks, Doug, for this thoughtful and considered reflection!


I have four comments in response. First, while I am happy to stand somewhere alongside John Levi Martin, one important difference between us is that I attach reality – and even an emergent mind-independence – to the relations connecting social positions whereas, I believe, he would not.

Second, sticking close to an ordinary language sense of the word, I would confine the word structure to those connecting relations and not to the higher level things you speak of. I would rather call the higher level entities institutions.

Third, as you suggest, I certainly do not deny the existence of families, social movements, clubs and states. But they seem to me to be a nexus of connections among social positions.

My fourth reflection is more uncertain. Do those things – states, etc. – represent some kind of emergent entities and as such a higher level of thing? You are not alone in pushing me in this direction. Most fellow critical realists would do so, and Ruth Groff has recently been trying to get me to do the same.

I certainly believe in emergence rather than reductionism. I believe life is a level emergent from non-life and consciousness a yet higher emergent level, and self-consciousness an even further emergent level.

I believe emergence is more general than just these levels, but let us stay there. In the case of each of these levels, a new kind of causality emerges not found on the level below – replication and natural selection in the case of life, speech acts in the case of linguistic consciousness. The emergence of these new causal powers can be explained by the level below but not their functioning.

Is there anything like that going on with the putative emergent entities of families and states and such? I suppose I would say that something like Durkheimian social cohesion is an example of a new causal property not associated with individual people. So, as you suggest, do new causal properties emerge from people in social life? Yes.

Do these wholes and their properties constitute a level in the same way as does life or consciousness? I would say no for two reasons. First, as new causal kinds, speech acts and natural selection act directly from whole to whole. We can explain the causal logic connecting the holistic behavior without micro-analysis of their parts.

I do not see anything like that going on with social cohesion. Any effect it has on other wholes cannot be explained without manifesting through individual behavior. There is no new causal logic here. I think you would agree, no? Second, any new, putative causal logic is always too penetrated by acts of what Hegel called “world historical individuals” to constitute an autonomous level.

So socially emergent entities, okay. An autonomous level of them as per sociological holism? In my opinion, no. Thanks again for the reflection.



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