The diachronic social

An earlier post offered what is for me a fairly large change of orientation on fundamental questions of social ontology: a conviction that the concept of ontological individualism is no longer supportable. My concern there was that this phrase gives too much ontological priority to individual actors; whereas the truth about the social world is more complex. Individuals are indeed the substrate of social structures and entities, but social entities are in turn constitutive of individual social actors.

The implication is that our social ontology needs to give equal priority to both actors and structures. But how can we make sense of these three ideas in a non-paradoxical way:

  • Structures are constitutive of actors
  • Actors are the substrate of structures and give rise to their properties and powers
  • Both actors and structures change their properties over time through both internal and external processes

The most compelling answer will sound a bit foreign to analytically-trained philosophers, but it seems inescapable: actors and structures are linked in an inseparable loop of mutual influence over time, with both actors and structures dependent on the current ensemble of “actors-within-structures” within which they have developed, changed, and persisted. The social world is thus inherently “fluxy”, reflecting unpredictable changes in all its elements at the same time. This implies a vision of the social world that is radically different from the ancient Greek idea of “atomism”, where unchangeable “atoms” constitute more complex wholes. In this view, both parts (actors) and ensembles (structures) take on their current properties as a result of the properties of actors and ensembles in the recent past. (That’s what makes this a diachronic view of social ontology.) I can imagine Heraclitus applauding, given his cryptic suggestions about flux and patterns.

This view has radical ontological implications. For one thing, neither actors nor structures have “essential natures” or fixed and unchanging properties. Rather, the properties of structures are determined by the past and present actions and thoughts of actors and prior characteristics of structures; while the mental characteristics of present actors are shaped by the ambient social arrangements within which they develop. (We must concede that there is a biological precondition: human beings must be the kinds of “cognitive-practical machines” that can embody very extensive change.) Further, actors are influenced by ambient structures (external causes); but a given generation of actors is capable of genuine innovation and creativity (internal causes). And likewise, structures are modified by generations of actors (external causes); but structures also create opportunities for structural innovation (internal causes).

A second implication is that neither form of simple conceptions of causal determination is at work: bare individuals do not “determine” the workings of structures, and abstract structures do not “determine” the features of social agency and identity possessed by a generation of actors at a time. Both actors and structures are influenced by features of the other; but influence is not the same thing as determination.

A third implication is that the fact of interaction over time (history) is crucial for understanding the nature of social change. At a given moment in time we find a (contingent) stock of actors and structures. Through their current mental frameworks, actions, and strategies, the actors influence the future development of the structures — whether by supporting their persistence or by introducing changes into their workings. Simultaneously the current structures influence the development of the mental frameworks, normative schemes, and practices of the actors — sometimes by largely reproducing the features of actors of the recent past, and sometimes by contributing to major shifts in identity, mental framework, and social dispositions.

For given explanatory purposes we can begin our analysis of actors-within-structures at a moment in time. So, for example, we can attempt to explain several centuries of change in the Roman Empire by beginning with Augustus; investigating the public and private mentality of Romans at the time; and investigating the specifics of the institutions of power that existed in public and military institutions at the time. But the story will then unfold with a dynamic interplay between changing institutional arrangements and changing mentalities. The processes of change described here are extended over time, and they imply a high degree of contingency in the directions of change and persistence that are induced. The extended “system” of actors-embedded-in-current-structures evolves in unpredictable ways. And this is an inherently diachronic process; it is crucial for social explanations to reflect the iterative process of influence that is at work over time.

These observations imply at least four pathways of social causation — none of which is prior to the others.

  • STRUCTURES cause changes in ACTORS
  • ACTORS cause changes in STRUCTURES
  • ACTORS cause changes in ACTORS
  • STRUCTURES cause changes in STRUCTURES

There is another important fact to keep in mind. This is the fact of heterogeneity of both structures and actors. Roman institutions were heterogeneous across space, and Roman mentalities were heterogeneous across social groups and other differentia. This point is worth emphasizing:

  • Both STRUCTURES and ACTORS are heterogeneous across time and space.

The “Protestant Ethic” was not a single unitary social-cultural framework across the face of Europe, and capitalist economic practices were not the same in Sweden as in Italy. Likewise, the identities and mental frameworks of individual actors and populations of actors differ across time and space. So instead of a simple causal relationship — “The Protestant Ethic diffused Europe and produced economically rational actors” we have a complex causal relationship — “A range of instantiations of post-Catholic Christian daily culture existed across Europe and produced a range of instances of social actors”.

All of this is somewhat abstract. But it coheres well with the approach to institutions, actors, and change taken by Kathleen Thelen and other new institutionalists in historical sociology. The view of institutional change offered by Mahoney and Thelen in Explaining Institutional Change is instructive. For example:

Exactly what properties of institutions permit change? How and why do the change-permitting properties of institutions allow (or drive) actors to carry out behaviors that foster the changes (and what are those behaviors)? How should we conceptualize these actors? What types of strategies flourish in which kinds of institutional environments? What features of the institutions themselves make them more or less vulnerable to particular kinds of strategies for change? (3)

And the malleability of the actor herself is emphasized as well:

If institutions involve cognitive templates that individuals unconsciously enact, then actors presumably do not think about not complying. (10)

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