A short course in critical causality

For anyone interested in getting a deep exposure to current thinking about causation within the critical realist tradition, Ruth Groff’s 2008 collection Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science is a very good place to start. It begins with classic essays by Roy Wood Sellars from 1929 and 1943 — long before the formulations of critical realism in Roy Bhaskar’s writings — and ends with essays by Robert Albritton and Howard Engelskirchen on the role of causal ideas in Marx’s Capital. In between are articles by Christopher Norris, Charlotte Witt, Stephen Mumford, Anjan Chakravartty, Alexander Bird, and Rachel Cooper on various Aristotelian questions arising within the theory of causation, as well as articles by Douglas Porpora and Andrew Bennett on the applicability of causal realism to the social sciences.

Groff’s introduction does a good job of setting the context for the volume. She defines the unifying thread of the volume as the underlying and somewhat independent efforts to make sense of a neo-Aristotelian understanding of causation that will work for contemporary science. And the emerging theory is a realist theory of causation.

That philosophers engaged in argument about the nature of dispositions, and social scientists trying to determine the causal properties of macro-level phenomena such as vale, are working within and upon the same emerging neo-Aristotelian framework may not be readily apparent, given the normal configuration of conferences, journals, and disciplinary associations. Nonetheless it is so. (2)

Here are a few key themes and issues that readers will take away: causes are real; causal relations depend on real causal powers of active particulars; the theory of causation requires new (and old) thinking about metaphysics; things have essences; causal necessity is real; there are emergent causal powers.

Here is Roy Wood Sellars’ definition of realism:

As a physical realist I believe in physical systems (ordinarily called things) which exist independently of our knowing them and which have specific characteristics. (13)

And Sellars argues that realism requires a different ontology from that associated with empiricism — not “object with properties” but a “determinate object”:

Now if this basic reality of a determinate object, a that-what, is once granted, we can reject at once the scheme which dominated representative realism of the Lockian type and animated Berkeley’s dialectic. ‘Support’ and ‘inhere in’ and ‘spread under’ are clearly totally misleading metaphors for this basic unity. The determinate nature of an object is not something distinct in any fashion from the object. The object and its nature, or characteristics, are intrinsically one. (16)

A key question running through most of the contributions is the status of the idea of causal necessity. The authors share an anti-Humean point of view on causation — the idea that all there is to causation is constant conjunction — but they recognize that this creates an obligation to interpret the idea of causal necessity in a comprehensible way.

Harré and Madden offer their theory of natural necessity in “Conceptual and natural necessity”, drawn from Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. They note an intriguing parallel between conceptual and natural necessity and they offer a specific interpretation of the evolution of scientific vocabulary that allows a closer parallel between the two kinds of necessity than either Kant or Quine would countenance:

We have argued that in the two contexts of natural necessity, the inherence of essential properties in a thing or substance and causal production, a posteriori discoveries about the natures of things and the means of causal production are in certain conditions reflected in the establishment of meaning relations between the corresponding predicates. (72)

In their very interesting treatment of the development of the scientific concept of copper, they find that:

There are thus a multiplicity of explications of the concept ‘copper’: as a red, easily worked metal; a mixture of sulphur, mercury and salt; a collection of atoms each sixty-three and a half times the weight of a hydrogen atom; and finally a collection of atoms each with a definite and identical internal structure. It is our view that these explications disclose substantially different meanings of the concept, limited by a core of identity in the nominal essence, and the changes so disclosed are the product of a posteriori discoveries as to the nature of copper. (75)

And it is the “essential” nature of copper that gives rise to its causal properties.

Another idea, linked to the first, that comes in for a fair amount of attention is the idea of a natural kind (or a social kind). This idea is deployed to support the first issue of natural necessity, in that it invokes the idea that things have essential natures that give rise to their causal properties. A natural kind is a group of things that share an essential nature, and these things can be counted on to display similar causal properties.

Brian Ellis’s arguments for this perspective in his The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism are represented here.

A natural kind of process that is a display of a given dispositional property has a real essence. In the case of any simple causal process, this real essence will be a dispositional property, and the scientific problem will be to specify precisely what this property is. (90)

And, like Harré and Madden, Ellis regards the description of the essential properties of a natural thing to be the work of aposteriori investigation:

An attractive feature of this analysis is that it leaves dispositional properties to be identified and explicated rather than defined operationally. And the processes of explication is not philosophic, linguistic or lexicographic. It is a posteriori and scientific. (92)

Several other pieces are also noteworthy. Stephen Mumford further develops the ontology of powerful particulars in his contribution, “Powers, dispositions, properties or a causal realist manifesto”, with a view that seems to me to be consistent with R. W. Sellars’ insistence above on the primacy of the “determinate object”. And Alexander Bird takes up the question of emergent properties and their possible causal roles. “Genuinely natural, causally efficacious higher level properties that are not identical nor reducible to lower level properties are emergent properties” (168). He focuses particularly on “evolved” properties, including particularly the functional characteristics of species.

One thing I admire about the volume is that it is focused on the philosophical and substantive issues, not points of doctrine within the literature of critical realism since Bhaskar’s original formulations. Groff draws attention to this fact at the end of her introduction.

I have shaped the collection in this way because I believe that as interest in critical realism continues to grow internationally, the approach ought to be brought into closer contact with — and ideally integrated into — larger, directly relevant neo-Aristotelian currents within metaphysics and the philosophy of science. (8)

Readers will likely take issue with one or more of these premises; and the value of the volume is precisely that its contributors have made the issues clear enough to support fruitful debate.

Frédéric Vandenberghe’s social theory

Frédéric Vandenberghe is an important contributor to the philosophy of critical realism. His interesting book A Philosophical History of German Sociology appeared in 2008, which started life as his PhD thesis in 1994. Like an earlier tradition of historians of sociology (e.g. Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, de Tocqueville, Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848 and Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition), Vandenberghe traces the origins of sociology to the origins of modernity — in his chronology, the mid-nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth century.

Despite the quite understandable tendency of historians of ideas to trace the origins of sociology as far back as possible, returning to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, there is now a general acknowledgement that sociology emerged as a relatively autonomous discipline, distinct from economics and political science, in the nineteenth century. Sociology cannot be separated from the discovery of the relative autonomy of society, which is linked to the advent of modernity: right from the start, the new discipline expressed the self- reflexive attitude of modern societies towards themselves, and to what eludes them. As a sub-system of science, which is a sub-system of society, sociology can be viewed as a kind of large-scale psychoanalysis that seeks to reveal the historicity and facticity of functionally differentiated modern societies. (kl 169)

But unlike Aron and Nisbet, his account highlights the critical aspects of the sociological tradition. His key figures are Marx, Simmel, Weber, Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, and a persistent theme is that of criticism and demystification. This leaves him perfectly positioned to interpret and contribute to the philosophical corpus of critical realism.

What does he mean by the “autonomization” of society? It is the emergence in the modern world of a separation between social causation and the individuals who make up society; the development of a social environment in which individuals are “subject” to the constraints of society; a separation between society and the individual. Vandenberghe explicitly draws the connection between this concept and Marx’s conception of alienation: “human products are objectified, dehumanized, and eventually turn against their creators” kl 200). But he also suggests that this concept is inherently linked to the idea of reification — the mental creation of social entities independent of subjective individuals; the “hypostasis of concepts” (kl 428). “Whether in Marx, Weber, Simmel and Lukacs, or Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, in every instance we encounter the dual question of the reification of the world and the alienation of the human being as the central theme that forms and informs their work” (kl 248).

Throughout I’ve argued for the idea of the need for microfoundations for largescale social structures and forces. Does V’s version of social theory contradict that premise? There is a tension, to be sure. But nothing that I read here is inconsistent with the notion that the causal powers of the social world are made up of the actions and states of mind of the individuals who compose society. V’s point seems to be a different one: these congealed patterns of action and thought create constraints that are coercive for everyone in society — even though they are embodied in the actions of individuals. He writes:

In fact, the thesis about the

sui generis

existence of society is simultaneously an expression of the fundamental experience of modernity and a constitutive a priori of sociology. By definition, a sociologist accepts that “society” exists, distinct from the economy and the polity, and essentially irreducible to the psyche (or biology or chemistry). It does not mean, as Durkheim (1968) claimed, that social facts must always be explained by social facts, but rather that social facts – that is, social entities, relations and representations – exist, and that they cannot be reduced to psychological facts (or biological, chemical, neurological facts). The two fundamental claims that the sociologist should not question are that society is relatively autonomous in regard to individuals and that sociology makes a transcendental presupposition regarding the existence of this sphere. (kl 248)

This passage denies the possibility of reducibility. But it does not deny — explicitly, anyway — the ontological premise that social facts are constituted by the actions, thoughts, and dispositions of socially situated actors; and that is fundamentally what is required by the requirement of microfoundations.

The 2014 volume What’s Critical About Critical Realism?: Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory is an excellent treatment of contemporary social theory, grounded in critical realism but extending to theorists as diverse as Bourdieu, Habermas, and Boltanski. he describes this book as being “five books in one” — substantial essays on the pragmatics of internal conversations, the structuration of collective subjectivities, Bourdieu’s rationalist social theory, and “post humanism”, as well as his own developed concept of metacritical realism.

I understand metacritique as a critique of the metatheoretical foundations of sociology that takes its cues from Talcott Parsons, Jeffrey Alexander and Jurgen Habermas and have used it to systematically reconstruct the theories of alienation, rationalisation and reification in German sociology.

Vandenberghe offers an intellectual geography of Bhaskar’s influence:

Bhaskar may be a professional philosopher, but he has mainly been read by social theorists, first in the UK and then all over the world. Apart from a few incursions beyond the Anglo-Saxon world (like in Italy or Québec, for instance), French, German or Latin-American philosophers generally ignore his work, not because they disagree, but simply because it has not reached them. Unlike their colleagues from the philosophy department, sociologists, geographers, political economists and social psychologists with a Marxist background and a keen interest in social theory quickly realised the import of critical realism for the social sciences. By the mid-1980s, the first wave of critical realism had received a very favourable reception. High-quality books with a realist imprint were published by Ted Benton (1977), Russell Keat and John Urry (1982), William Outhwaite (1987), Derek Layder (1990) and Andrew Sayer (1992). At the intersection of philosophy, sociology and politics, social theorists were probing the philosophical foundations of sociology and cognate disciplines, assailing the ‘orthodox consensus’ (evolutionism + functionalism + positivism) of post-war sociology and reassessing the merits of structuration theory. Thanks to the good services of Anthony Giddens, social theory had meanwhile emerged as a relatively autonomous subfield within British sociology, while elsewhere, galvanised by ethnomethodology, structuralism and systems theory, new ambitious theoretical syntheses were published almost simultaneously. By now the story of the ‘new theoretical movement’ (Alexander, 1988) and its attempt to overcome the opposition of agency and structure has become a hackneyed one, but back in the 1980s when Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann were writing their main works, sociology was ebullient. (kl 449)

Vandenberghe analyzes Bhaskar’s theories into a series of nested stages: 

  1. Critical realism
    1. transcendental realism
    2. critical realism
    3. explanatory critique
  2. Dialectical critical realism
  3. The philosophy of meta-Reality
And he pays most attention to the first stage, the classical formulation of critical realism. Since this is the most impactful part of Bhaskar’s writings within sociological theory, V’s analysis is a valuable one.

These are just a few glimpses of Vandenberghe’s contributions to a better understanding of critical realism in its intellectual and ontological context. But perhaps they are enough to lead readers to take on both books to find the lucid and broad-ranging interpretations that Vandenberghe offers of the intellectual terrain of contemporary social theory and critical realism.


As a side note, Vandenberghe captures the aspect of Bhaskar’s writings that trouble some readers the most — his philosophical obscurity.

His trajectory reminds me somehow of the one of Auguste Comte and Charles Sanders Peirce. Like Comte, he started out with a strong belief in science and ended up in the mystical waters beyond religion. Like Peirce, he is a bit of a genius (he wrote his first book when he was 20), but as he advanced in his reflections and deepened his ideas, his writings and his language became more and more idiosyncratic, obscure and esoteric. He abuses neologisms, TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and semi-formalised arguments with N dimensional graphic representations, which may well constitute, as in the case of Peirce, his ‘natural language of self- communication’ (


Colapietro, 1989, xiv). Aware of the problem, he has added glossaries to his books, but as they are packed with internal references they are not always very helpful to make full sense of Bhaskarese. (kl 359)

Debates about field experiments in the social sciences


Questions about the empirical validation of hypotheses about social causation have been of interest in the past several weeks here. Relevant to that question is Dawn Langan Teele’s recent volume, Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences. The essays in the book make for interesting reading for philosophers of the social sciences. But the overall impression that I take away is that the assumptions this research community makes about social causation are excessively empiricist and under-theorized. These are essentially the assumptions that come along with an econometrician’s view of social reality. The researchers approach causation consistently as “empirical social arrangement,” “intervention,” and “net effect”. But this is not a satisfactory way of capturing the workings of social causation. Instead, we need to attempt to construct adequate theories of the institutions, norms, and patterns of action through which various social arrangements work, and the causal mechanisms and processes to which these social realities give rise.

The debates considered here surround the relative effectiveness of controlled observation and RCT-style experiments, with Gerber, Green, and Kaplan arguing on Bayesian statistical grounds that the epistemic weight of observation-based research is close to zero.

We find that unless researchers have prior information about the biases associated with observational research, observational findings are accorded zero weight regardless of sample size, and researchers learn about causality exclusively through experimental results. (kl 211)

A field experiment is defined as “randomized controlled trials carried out in a real-world setting” (kl 92). Observational data relevant to causation often derives from what researchers often call “natural experiments”, in which otherwise similar groups of subjects are exposed to different influences thought to have causal effect. If we believe that trauma affects students’ learning, we might compare a group of first-grade classrooms in a city that experienced a serious tornado with a comparable group of first-grade classrooms in a city without an abrupt and disruptive crisis. If the tornado classrooms showed lower achievement scores than the no-tornado classrooms, we might regard this as a degree of support for the causal hypothesis.

The radical skeptics about observational data draw strong conclusions; if we accept this line of thought, then it would appear that observational evidence about causation is rarely useful. The italicized qualification in the GGK quote is crucial, however, since researchers generally do have prior information about the factors influencing outcomes and the selection of cases in the studies they undertake, as Susan Stokes argues in her response essay:

Do observational researchers “know nothing” about the processes that generate independent variables and are they hence “entirely uncertain” about bias? Is the “strong possibility” of unobserved confounding factors “always omnipresent” in observational research? Are rival hypotheses ‘always plausible”? Can one do nothing more than “assume nonconfoundedness”? To the extent that the answers to these questions are no, radical skepticism is undermined. (kl 751)

Stokes provides a clear exposition of how the influence of unrelated other causes Xij and confounders Zik figure in the linear causal equation for outcome ϒ depending on variable Χ (kl 693):

This model is offered as a representation of the “true” causation of ϒ, including both observed and unobserved factors. We might imagine that we have full observational data on ϒ, Χ, observations for some but not all Χij, and no observations for Zik.

The logical advantage of a randomized field experiment is that random assignment of individuals to the treatment and non-treatment classes guarantees that there is no bias in the populations with respect to a hidden characteristic that may be relevant to the causal workings of the treatment. In the hypothetical tornado-and-learning study mentioned above, there will be a spatial difference between the treatment and control groups; but regional and spatial differences among children may be relevant to learning. So the observed difference in learning may be the effect of the trauma of tornado, or it may be the coincidental effect of the regional difference between midwestern and northeastern students.

Andrew Gellman takes a step back and assesses the larger significance of this debate for social-science research. Here is his general characterization of the policy and epistemic interests that motivate social scientists (along the lines of an earlier post on policy and experiment; link):

Policy analysis (and, more generally, social science) proceeds in two ways. From one direction, there are questions whose answers we seek—how can we reduce poverty, fight crime, help people live happier and healthier lives, increase the efficiency of government, better translate public preferences into policy, and so forth? From another direction, we can gather discrete bits of understanding about pieces of the puzzle: estimates of the effects of particular programs as implemented in particular places. (kl 3440)

Gellman concisely captures the assumptions about causality that underlie this paradigm of social-science research: that causal factors can take the form of pretty much any configuration of social intervention and structure, and we can always ask what the effects of a given configuration are. But this is a view of causation that most realists would reject, because it represents causes in a highly untheorized way. On this ontological mindset, anything can be a cause, and its causal significance is simply the net difference it makes in the world in contrast to its absence. But this is a faulty understanding of real social causation.

Consider an example. Some American school systems have K-8 and 9-12 systems of elementary school and high school; other systems have K-6, 7-8, and 9-12 systems. These configurations might be thought of as “causal factors”, and we might ask, “what is the net effect of system A or system B on educational performance of students by grade 12” (or “juvenile delinquency rates by grade 10”)? But a realist would argue that this is too macular a perspective on causation for a complex social system like education. Instead,we need to identify more granular and more pervasive causes at a more fundamental individual and institutional level, which can then perhaps be aggregated into larger system-level effects. For example, if we thought that the socialization process of children between 11 and 14 is particularly sensitive to bullying and if we thought that high schools create a more welcoming environment for bullying, then we might have reason to expect that the middle school model would be more conducive to the educational socialization of children in these ages. But these two hypotheses can be separately investigated. And the argument that System A produces better educational outcomes than System B will now rest on reasoning about more fundamental causal processes rather than empirical and experimental findings based on examination of the outcomes associated with the two systems. Moreover, it is possible that the causal-mechanism reasoning that I’ve just described is valid and a good guide to policy choice, even though the observations and experiments at the level of full educational systems do not demonstrate a statistical difference between them.

More generally, arbitrary descriptions of “social factors” do not serve as causal factors whose effects we can investigate purely through experimentation and observation. Rather, as the realists argue, we need to have a theory of the workings of the social factors in which we are interested, and we then need to empirically study the causal characteristics of those underlying features of actors, norms, institutions, and structures. Only then can we have a basis for judging that this or that macro-level empirical arrangement will have specific consequences. Bhaskar is right in this key ontological prescription for the social sciences: we need to work towards finding theories of the underlying mechanisms and structures that give rise to the observable workings of the social world. And crude untheorized empirical descriptions of “factors” do not contribute to a better understanding of the social world. The framework here is “empiricist,” not because it gives primacy to empirical validation, but because it elides the necessity of offering realistic accounts of underlying social mechanisms, processes, and structures.

Realism and empirical reasoning

Guericke Sulfur globe

How should a realist think about confirmation of hypotheses and theories about real social structures and properties?

Here is what the Ur-realist Roy Bhaskar has to say about the object of scientific knowledge in his approach in A Realist Theory of Science:

[CR] regards the objects of knowledge as the structures and mechanisms that generate phenomena; and the knowledge as produced in the social activity of science. These objects are neither phenomena (empiricism) nor human constructs imposed upon the phenomena (idealism), but real structures which endure and operate independently of our knowledge, our experience and the conditions which allow us access to them. (14)

So how would a realist confirm or justify the claims he or she want to make about these real underlying structures and mechanisms? What kinds of evidence and modes of reasoning are available to allow us to conclude that a given statement is true (or false)?

This is an important question, and it poses difficulties for critical realists. The problem arises from the rhetoric of CR and its staunch anti-positivism. The most obvious answer to the question takes us to the logic of observation, experiment, and testing through derivation of indirect implications of hypotheses. We are led to think immediately of Mill’s methods and the logic of causal inference as primary modes of scientific reasoning. And this begins to sound a lot like — the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, a key premise of neo-positivism (link). But critical realists are a little allergic to this answer.

So how can we sort out the reasonable and uncontroversial core of our ordinary intuitions about scientific reasoning from the full baggage of logical empiricism? One crucial difference is the neo-positivist presumption that scientific knowledge must take the form of general statements of lawlike regularities. CR focuses instead on singular statements about causal powers and mechanisms. And testing of singular causal statements has important differences from testing comprehensive unified theories. If we believe that vitamin C has the causal capacity to inhibit infection by the rhinovirus, it is fairly straightforward to design an experiment or observational study that helps to evaluate this belief.

Another important difference is the centrality of the observation-theoretic distinction for the neopositivist theory of science. Positivist and neopositivist philosophers of science often accepted the Duhem thesis about the nature of scientific knowledge (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory) — the idea that scientific knowledge takes the form of a unified body of theory that can only be evaluated as a whole, and that this system unavoidably includes the use of theoretical concepts that are inherently unobservable. The CR approach, on the other hand, rejects a strict distinction between social reality and social observation. There is nothing in social reality that is in principle unobservable.

Bhaskar places the idea of a scientific experiment at the core of his justification of the theory of transcendental realism. But surprisingly, he does not discuss the epistemic importance of experimentation. What does a successful experiment contribute to knowledge? The intuitive answer is fairly obvious: an experiment allows us to assign particular causal effects to particular interventions. C in the absence of I leads to O C in the presence of I leads to P. Therefore I causes P. The successful experiment gives us empirical and logical grounds for believing that “I causes P”. But perhaps surprisingly, Bhaskar does not pay any attention to the epistemic value of experimentation, or the role this method plays in inferences about real causes of changes in our world. Bhaskar prefers to argue that experimentation contributes to the ontology rather than the epistemology of science.

So, once again — how should a critical realist offer an empirical justification for a claim like this: structure S has causal powers P and tends to bring about outcomes O?

It seems to me that the answer is not esoteric. There is no better way of establishing the credibility of a social hypothesis than we can find through the familiar modes of causal inquiry, detailed sociological investigation, and an accumulation of knowledge about concrete aspects of the social world. A realist researcher is advised to pursue familiar approaches to the problem of assessing the truth or falsity of hypotheses about causal properties of social entities. Do we believe that a certain kind of industrial organization has the tendency to produce a higher-than-average level of industrial accidents? Then collect observational data about how this organizational form functions; how it is internally regulated; and how its internal composition gives rise to a propensity for industrial accidents. This is the kind of research that Charles Perrow carries out in books such as Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. Hypotheses about social structures and their powers can be investigated piecemeal, and we can tease out the causal properties that they possess through familiar methods along the lines of Mill’s methods (link, link).

Take two ideas about social structures in particular: the idea of an economic structure and the idea of a business corporation. Both these ideas can be articulated in reasonable detail and then investigated through piecemeal empirical inquiry. Consider the economic structure: what are the property relations through which labor and other resources are managed and controlled in specific instances of capitalist economies? How do these relations work in concrete detail? What variations exist? What failures do these relations experience? This is the kind of materialist historical research that is conducted by Charles Sabel and his colleagues offer in World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization.

Or take a specific corporation — the IBM corporation, for example. Here again, it is unproblematic to identify many independent avenues of research through which the relations, properties, norms, and patterns of behavior that make up the corporation. There is nothing occult about the corporation. Do we think that the power of management distorts the decision making of the corporation by favoring executives over shareholders and employees? It is straightforward to think of numerous independent ways of empirically investigating this hypothesis. Do we believe there are significant principal-agent problems among employees and corresponding solutions in the relations and roles embodied in the organization? Likewise these hypotheses can be empirically investigated.

So it seems most reasonable to argue that empirical reasoning looks the same for critical realists as it does for any other empirical scientist. There is no distinctive critical-realist model of empirical reasoning.

Margaret Archer on social change

In Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society Margaret Archer and several talented collaborators attempt to lay out a framework of thinking that will permit them to better conceptualize the nature of change the modern social world. The book continues a process of reflection and collaboration that began last year with the publication of Social Morphogenesis. Ultimately the aim is to create a full theory of “morphogenic society” based on Archer’s concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis. The idea of a morphogenic society is the notion that something important has happened historically to change the relationship between stasis and genesis (structure and agency) in the social world, and that the modern world embodies a significantly different kind of social change than earlier epochs. (Here is a discussion of Social Morphogenesis (link), and here is an earlier discussion of Archer’s theory of morphogenesis (link).)

Here is a helpful statement of Archer’s general approach in her current work:

Both the celebration of contingency and the importance attached to acceleration are hostile to the morphogenetic approach, as a framework for explanation that generically examines the sequence {structural / cultural conditioning → social interaction → structural / cultural elaboration or stasis}. This entails examining the specific ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of particular changes or instances of morphogenesis / morphostasis. Instead, both ‘liquidity’ and ‘acceleration’ theorists eschew such specification and the ultimate aim of detecting underlying ‘generative mechanisms’ in favour of talking metaphorically about ‘flows’ and ‘speed’. Thus, both ignore the growing predominance of positive feedback over negative feedback (morphogenesis over morphostasis) as the rock-bottom mechanism that makes considering the advent of Morphogenic society (in multiple forms) worthy of being entertained — the agnostic aim of this series of books. (Late Modernity, kl 178)

This passage captures the core of the morphogenetic approach. Archer is consistent in referring to these three “moments” of the M/M sequence, which she breaks into three phases T1, T2-T3, T4:

T1 structural / cultural conditioning →
T2-T3 social interaction →
T4 structural / cultural elaboration or stasis

At the risk of over-simplifying, we might summarize her view in these terms. Her view is that each phase involves constraints on action and interaction. T1 involves the large structural and cultural contexts in which individuals take shape and act. T2-T3 involves the interactions of individuals who bear interests and group identities and who strive to bring about outcomes that favor those interests and identities. And T4 represents a new formation (elaboration) of a complex of structural and cultural constraints. (It is striking how closely this summary resembles the theory of strategic action fields put forward by Fligstein and McAdam; link.)

An important line of criticism that comes through this volume is a persistent critique of unanalyzed ideas about speed and acceleration. “The modern world changes rapidly”; what does that tell us if we haven’t specified the dimensions and clocks according to which we measure the speed of a process? So the language of speed is simply uninformative, according to Archer and her collaborators.

More specifically, Archer and her colleagues take issue with the metaphor of “liquid modernity” as a way of understanding the contemporary world.  (Here is my earlier discussion of Zygmunt Bauman’s development of this idea; link.) Archer takes aim at the intuition that the contemporary social world is highly contingent and plastic (a central theme of a number of earlier postings here). She criticizes “liquid modernity” in these terms:

Labile ‘flows’ comprehensively displaced and replaced the determinate (not deterministic) influences of social structure and cultural systems on tendential change or stability. As structure and culture were pulverised under the tidal bore of liquidity, so was agency condemned to serial self-reinvention. (kl 166)

Archer’s complaint against liquid modernity (LM), then, is what she takes to be its extreme version of plasticity on the part of structures, cultures, and actors. LM views the individual as a free-styler, pursuing fleeting purposes and impulses within fast-changing circumstances, with the result of a form of chaotic Brownian motion in the social world.

She prefers substantive analysis of the social world organized around the poles of morphostasis (the mechanisms that preserve the properties of a social structure or cultural feature) and morphogenesis (the generative mechanisms of change that work to disrupt and change the existing structure and cultural elements). Both are critical and persistent features of the social world, and it is absurd (she believes) to imagine that modernity consists exclusively of morphogenesis unbound (7).

Archer puts the central question of her current work (and that of her active collaborators) in these terms:

Is some degree of enduring stability necessary amidst intensifying social change? Do agents and actors need this in order to plan their own lives and the courses of action they will take in the social order? (kl 152)

Of course the answer to this question, when considered in its most extreme version, is “yes”, for reasons much the same as those that led Kant to believe that the categories of space, time, and causation were necessary synthetic apriori. If there were no continuing stability in the social world from one hour to the next, then planning and action would be impossible. The harder question is this: how much stability is necessary for intelligible action within the social world? And the answer seems to be, rather less than Archer believes.

An important complexity in Archer’s account of stability is the fact that she believes that the processes of change (morphogenesis) can create their own conditions of stability and continuity that transcend the traditional forms inherited from the morphogenetic past. So the opposition is not between morphostasis and morphogenesis, but between activity and various forms of stability, both morphostasis and morphogenesis. “The alternative — not always recognized — is that there are forms of ‘stabilization’ produced by morphogenesis itself that furnish an equally adequate (and more consonant) basis for planning activities” (14). And this turns out to be a point to which Archer attaches a great deal of importance (19).

Several contributions to the volume are particularly noteworthy, in addition to Archer’s own introduction and her substantive contribution on “The Generative Mechanism Re-configuring Late Modernity”.

First, Douglas Porpora’s contribution to the volume (“Contemporary Mechanisms of Social Change”) is a valuable extension of the framework. Porpora relates the morphostasis/morphogenesis approach (MM) to Marx’s famous aphorism concerning structure and agency (78). Here is my own reflection on Marx’s aphorism in a post on actor-centered history (link):

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.

What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history”: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures. (Little, Understanding Society link)

This short reflection on actor-centered history seems to have significant affinities with the morphogenetic approach.

Porpora provides an analysis of four large causal mechanisms of social change in his piece:
  • capitalism
  • information, globalization, flows and networks
  • world inter-state dynamics
  • the environment and its effects
And he believes that these large causes work conjuncturally to bring about many of the large processes of change that we witness in the modern world: “Change derives from a conjuncture of different mechanisms, some but not all of which can be traced back to capitalist relations” (88).
Pierpaolo Donati’s contribution, “Morphogenic Society and the Structure of Social Relations”, is also of interest. Donati focuses on the nature of social relations as the “connectors that mediate between agency and social structure” (143). Though he does not use the terminology, it is possible to regard his work here as an effort to provide some of the microfoundations of the processes of morphogenesis that are postulated by Archer’s approach. Donati refers to the social relation as the “molecule of the social” (153), a concept that I’ve turned to in my explication of the idea of methodological localism (link). This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.

How does Bourdieu meet history?

Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology has influenced a broad range of sociologists (and philosophers) since the appearance of Outline of a Theory of Practice in 1972 (with an English translation in 1977). Generally speaking his work seems to fall on the synchronic rather than diachronic side of the social sciences — more about “reproduction” than “transformation”, in Phil Gorski’s words. Moreover, interest in Bourdieu’s work has often been more about the theories and concepts he offers and less about the concrete sociological analysis he provides. Ironically, though, many of the researchers who have been most influenced by Bourdieu are themselves historical sociologists. In Bourdieu and Historical Analysis Phil Gorski and a number of high-profile collaborators propose to consider the relevance of Bourdieu’s theories and explanatory practices for historical sociology. The volume is exceptionally interesting. Particularly stimulating are contributions by George Steinmetz, Charles Camic, Craig Calhoun, and Jacques Defrance; but all of the contributions are of high quality and originality.

Gorski provides three essays for the volume, including an introduction, an essay on nationalism, and a conclusion. What is described as the conclusion for the volume (“Bourdieusian Theory and Historical Analysis: Maps, Mechanisms, and Methods”) might as well be read first as a substantive introduction to the topic, since it provides an excellent discussion of some of Bourdieu’s central concepts and shows how these have been developed in detail by various historical sociologists.

The key concepts that Gorski focuses on are field, capital, and habitus. This chapter provides an especially clear explication of Bourdieu’s concepts. In his treatment of each of these key categories Gorski demonstrates how concrete empirical research arrives at reasonably objective knowledge about underlying social structures and relationships.

In other works Gorski defends critical realism as a philosophy of science.  Here Gorski argues that each of Bourdieu’s central concepts invites a realist approach. This chapter does not mention critical realism explicitly. But in fact, it is an important place where Gorski provides more substance for his longstanding affirmation of the relevance and importance of critical realism for the practices of sociology. The exposition makes it clear (to me, anyway) how Gorski might view this approach to social research as a kind of applied critical realism. He shows that Bourdieu’s use of the key concepts presupposes that there are discernible social realities underlying each of these sociological constructs. So Bourdieu is a realist when it comes to sociology; or that is Gorski’s view. As I read the chapter, it provides a good illustration of how Gorski thinks that some of the central intuitions of critical realism play out in concrete sociological research.

Gorski shows that Bourdieu’s use of these concepts invites the researcher to trace out “maps” of social relationships that constitute the field or the domain of social capital. This is a realist exercise in itself — it carries out the work needed to meet the challenge of discovering empirically the relationships that exist in the social world surrounding a specific topic or field.

How can the field concept be used to map processes of change? Or … what sorts of change become visible on a map of fields? I begin, again, as Bourdieu usually does, by looking at objective changes, by which I mean changes in objective relations, either in the structure of positions within fields or in relations between fields. In what follows, I will discuss five forms of field change: genesis, autonomy, size, shape, and boundaries. (kl 6960)

Gorski’s account of “drift of a habitus” is very interesting, and I think it aligns with a theme in Understanding Society that emphasizes the malleability and heterogeneity of the social world. (Here is an earlier post on technical practices and the concrete and material ways in which we should expect practices to vary over time and space; link).

The daughter of a peasant family who became a salesclerk in a small city occupies a position in social space similar to her parents’, at least in absolute terms, but she would have a rather different habitus, nonetheless. Here, one might speak of intergenerational drift in the habitus. (kl 7384)

Here is the key point: “habitus” is not an abstract generalization that needs simply to be analyzed conceptually. It is a concrete social and personal reality that can be investigated and mapped empirically.

Gorski’s approach here is receptive to the social-mechanisms approach to social explanation.

I will argue that Bourdieu’s approach to sociological explanation is dialectical and dialogical and that his approach to historical transformation is conjunctural and mechanismic. (kl 6927)

However, it appears that Gorski intended to do more with mechanisms in this chapter than space or time permitted. Though he promises to return to the topic in a section titled “Methods and Mechanisms,” the section does not appear. Instead the counterpart section is titled “Explaining Sociohistorical Change: A Dialectical and Dialogical Approach”, which discusses the conjunctural part of the formula but gives only cursory treatment of mechanisms. Here is what he has to say about mechanisms:

Another model [of social explanation], inspired by realist philosophy of science, rejects the search for laws and makes the identification of underlying processes the evaluative standard (Gorski 2007). From this perspective a satisfactory explanation is one that identifies the causal mechanisms that produced a give outcome, mechanisms being understood here as patterns or sequences of events that recur across different contexts. (kl 7556)

Note that this paraphrase of the concept of “mechanism” makes the mechanisms approach indistinguishable from Humean philosophy of science, in the sense that a mechanism too is no more than a regularity. Here it seems that Gorski erases the post-positivist realist alternatives that exist within contemporary discussions of social mechanisms and powers (link).  Many mechanisms theorists (including myself) reject the Humean interpretation and believe that mechanisms identify real causal powers. There is certainly more to say on this subject, and it would be very interesting to see how Gorski understands at least part of Bourdieu’s research strategy as being an attempt to identify concrete social mechanisms.

So the central idea here is that Bourdieu’s theories provide a useful basis for concrete research in historical sociology. How might that research proceed? Jacques Defrance’s essay, “The Making of a Field with Weak Autonomy”, is a nice example of a rigorous effort to do the empirical and historical research necessary to map out a specific field — in this case, the sports field in France in the first half of the twentieth century. The essay is detailed and absorbing. He notes that Bourdieu was explicit in analyzing the research steps needed to map a field (kl 6458):

  1. locate the field within the broader field of power
  2. map the positions of the agents who compete within the field
  3. analyze the patterns of action (habitus) of the actors

And this is how Defrance structures his own research into the field of French sports.  (In what is perhaps a surprising juxtaposition, Defrance also relates his analysis to Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking.)

Here is a chronological table summarizing the results of his research; a handful of aspects of the “field” of sports (activities, club, federations, …) are tracked through several transformations over time. In this way we get an analysis of the field that is both structured at a time and viewed in a process of transformation over time. This represents a trajectory from formation (loose and unlinked activities) to autonomy (or at least semi-autonomy) within the broader context of French society.

Here is how Defrance describes the historical process he has documented in the formation of “sport” as a field in French society:

The model prompts us to ask about the production and reproduction of a field, the integration and coherence of which are not natural things. Produced by a first phase of the integration of different kinds of physical activities, the field was outlined around 1900 but remained dominated by divisions reflected in the classifications of sporting activities, which were thought of as diverse but which could be gathered into a whole named sport. (kl 6826)

I find this to be a very elegant and specific instance of field analysis. It provides a detailed understanding of what kinds of method and inquiry are needed in order to give substance to the idea that various activities in society are organized within the context of what Bourdieu refers to as “fields.” And it gives substance to the idea that Bourdieu’s concepts and theories have an important role to play in the inquiries of historical sociologists.

Peggy Somers’ contribution to realism

Peggy Somers is an important contributor to the active field of sociological theory. And she identifies as a critical realist when it comes to understanding the logic and epistemology of the historical social sciences. Her views were extensively developed in “We’re no angels” (1998; link). The title picks up on the epistemology that she favors: non-perfectionist, anti-foundationalist, historically situated. In the essay she moves back and forth between post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and specific controversies in the methodology of the historical social sciences.

The essay takes its origin as a rebuttal to a critical review of the methodologies of historical sociology offered by Kiser and Hechter in “The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology” (1991; link). A central target of Somers’ arguments here is the idea defended by Kiser and Hechter that rational choice theory is the preferred theoretical framework for historical social science. Somers believes — as do most historical sociologists — that rational choice theory (RCT) is a legitimate but partial contribution to a pluralistic approach to historical sociology. Emphatically, it is too narrow a basis for constructing explanations of important large-scale historical movements and outcomes. So RCT advocates like Kiser and Hechter make the mistake of “theoretical monism” — imagining that a single theoretical premise might be sufficient to explain a large, complex domain of social phenomena.

A key theme in Somers’ treatment here is a contrast among several kinds of realism. Here is Somers’ brief description:

All versions of realism accept that causal mechanisms—despite being unobservable—must be used as the basis of explanatory theoretical accounts; but only rational choice realism generates those mechanisms using on “ontic methodology” (Salmon 1984) in which the causal mechanisms of social explanation are postulated a priori from the same general theory that “guides” their research. (726)

And here are some key examples of what she means by causal mechanisms in the social world: “price mechanisms, maximizing preferences, class consciousness, value-driven intentionality, or domination” (726).

Somers identifies at least two kinds of realism — what she calls “theoretical realism” and “relational and pragmatic realism”. She favors the latter:

Relational realism posits that belief in the causal power of unobservables—such as states, markets, or social classes—does not depend on the rationality or truth of any given theory but upon practical evidence of its causal impact on the relationships in which it is embedded…. Relational realists believe that, while it is justifiable to theorize about unobservables, any particular theory entailing theoretical phenomena is historically provisional. For relational realism that means one can believe in the reality of a phenomenon without necessarily believing in the absolute truth or ultimate reality of any single theory that claims to explain it. (743-44)

And she believes that the two realisms have very different epistemological backgrounds — deductivist and pragmatist:

Where the two realisms differ, then, is that while theoretical realism attributes an ontological truth to the theoretical phenomenon (e.g., the theory of electrons or the theory of market equilibrium), relational realism focuses on the relational effect of the phenomenon itself (e.g., the impact of the hypothesized electron on its environment or of the hypothesized market forces on an observable outcome). (745)

The most basic criticism that Somers offers of Kiser and Hechter is their mono-theoretic deductivism — their claim that rigorous social science requires deductive derivation of a given social outcome from a theoretical premise. It is the theory that is at the heart of the explanation, according to this view of methodology. But for Somers — and in the relational, pragmatist version of realism that she favors — the ontology comes first. We may not know exactly what an electron is in detail; but we know the reality of electricity by the effects and causal properties we can probe practically and experimentally. This is the pragmatic aspect of her favored realism:

Social phenomena endure; but the “theoretical entities” that have purported to explain them are socially constructed—some more convincingly than others because they are more pragmatic and relational.

Somers faults what she calls theoretical realism for its commitment to explanation and confirmation through the hypothetic-deductive method. So what are the chief characteristics of her preferred alternative?

First, relational realism is “minimalist” —

[Relational realism is] minimalist because it recognizes that the partial concept- dependence of social life puts limits on the general realist premise of the absolute mind-independent status of the social world; yet realist nonetheless, in contrast to hermeneutics or radical constructivism in that some degree of concept-dependence does not in any way subvert the premise of a social world that exists independently of our beliefs about it. (766)

This amounts to an anti-foundationalist epistemology: we cannot establish the truth of all the premises and presuppositions of an explanation.

Second, relational realism is pluralistic; it encourages the discovery of multiple causal factors within a complex circumstance. This is in opposition to the theoretical monism of RCT supporters and is consistent with Robert Merton’s advocacy of a social science based on a search for theories of the middle range (link).

Third, relational realism is anti-essentialist; it recommends that the researcher should look at the social world as consisting of shifting configurations of social actors and institutions.

A relational ontology thus follows Popper’s rejection of essentialism and instead looks at the basic units of the social world as relational identities constituted in relational configurations. In place of a language of essences and inherent causal properties, a relational realism substitutes a language of networks and relationships that are not predetermined but made the indeterminate objects of investigation. (767)

An earlier post here raised a rather similar question about several kinds of realism, and the conclusions I reached were somewhat parallel as well. I offered support for scientific realism over critical realism. Here is the crucial passage:

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  1. I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  2. I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  3. I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  4. I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  5. I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  6. I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  7. I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  8. I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  9. I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.

I wonder which of these premises Somers would endorse, and which she would criticize? I suspect that premise (5) will make her uneasy, given her desire to emphasize relationality in the social world; but that is certainly not ruled out in an actor-centered approach to social research. (This was also a contrast that Chuck Tilly drew between his approach to the social world and mine: “Dan, your approach is more individualistic than mine. I prefer to emphasize relations among the actors!”)

Morphogenesis and realist meta-theory

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)

Mechanisms like these are deeply indeterminate — an advantage of Archer’s theory, in my view; so social outcomes are unpredictable. She underlines that indeterminacy in the final words of the introduction:

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)

This brief description highlights several generative mechanisms of morphogenesis. Lazega offers several more examples in his analysis of social networks in the current volume (chapter 9); for example, he analyzes the effects of “advice networks” among the members of the Commercial Court of Paris, leading to transformation of the structure of the relational networks that exist among these experts over time (171 ff.).
The contributors to this effort have generally chosen to take a highly abstract perspective on the issues they address, conforming to the idea that morphogenesis is intended to be a meta-theory rather than a theory. But it seems to me that philosophical theorizing about the social world and about the social sciences need to be linked more closely to actual problems of social research. (Lazega’s contribution does in fact make these more direct connections.) Is it possible to say how the morphogenetic approach might be thought to shed light on concrete problems of historical sociology — for example, why the American Civil Rights movement took the shape that it did in the 1950s and 1960s, why European fascism developed as it did, why the Green Movement seems to have stalled in Germany, or how it is that anarchist mobilization against globalization has been as successful as it was for a period of 15 years? Are there particular problems of sociological research and explanation that we can better solve by immersing ourselves in the theories of morphogenesis?

Historical sociologists on critical realism

Critical realism took its origin within the philosophy discipline, arising at the time that there was profound debate over the adequacy of logical positivism as a basis for the philosophy of science. Carl Hempel represented the fruition of positivist philosophy of science, with his hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, his deductive-nomological model of explanation, and his covering-law model of historical explanation. These all amount to the same idea, of course: that scientific knowledge takes the form of a set of general theoretical principles or laws, a set of empirical statements about existing conditions, and a set of deductions from the laws and statements of consequences for the observable phenomena. There was a strong reaction in the 1960s to the orthodoxies of logical positivism and Hempelian philosophy of science by philosophers such as Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn. Compelling criticisms were offered of the strict distinction between observation and theory, concerns were raised about the putative coincidence of explanation and derivation from general laws, and more nuanced theories of scientific rationality than the hypothetico-deductive method were offered.

A particular sticking point within the positivist theory of science was its common adherence to a Humean theory of the meaning of causation as constant conjunction. Hume derided the idea of “causal necessity” and sought to replace this notion with the idea of conformance to a strong regularity. Rom Harré and Edward Madden undertook a strong critique of this assumption in Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity, also in the mid-1960s. And this anti-positivist strand of thinking about causation was more important to the emergence of critical realism than any other influence.

Several gifted sociologists joined this debate in the 1990s. Especially astute were contributions by George Steinmetz and Margaret Somers, both colleagues at the University of Michigan, and Philip Gorski at Yale. In a review article in Society for Comparative Study of Society and History in 1998 Steinmetz provides a careful review of the intellectual background and the central ideas that Roy Bhaskar introduces in his writings on naturalism and realism (link).  Steinmetz reviews the mainstream assumptions that defined positivist philosophy of social science through the 1960s and the echo of these assumptions in mainstream sociology; and he provides a fairly detailed description of Bhaskar’s alternative. He emphasizes several central ideas:

  • the transcendental nature of Bhaskar’s reasoning: “discovering what must be true about the world for science to be possible” (176)
  • the distinctions among the real, the actual, and the empirical
  • the scientific importance of “open systems” — systems lacking causal closure and displaying contingency
  • a specific idea about emergence — “Emergence is defined as the relationship between two levels such that one arises diachronically (or perhaps synchronically) out of the other but is capable of reacting back on the lower level and is causally irreducible to it (Bhaskar 1993:73) [178]

Following Peggy Somers in “We’re No Angels” (1998; link), Steinmetz distinguishes between “theoretical realism” and critical realism; essentially the former concept refers to the standard version of scientific realism found within post-positivist philosophy of science (Hilary Putnam, Richard Boyd). The key attribute of scientific realism, according to Steinmetz, is its continuing adherence to the idea of scientific laws; “theoretical realism is strongly deductivist” (173). So Steinmetz believes that “theoretical realism” is more closely aligned with positivism than is critical realism, and that critical realism fits the practice of historically minded social scientists better.

I will argue that most historical researchers, whatever their self-description, are critical realists rather than theoretical realists, positivists, or neo-Kantian idealists, and that this stance is the most defensible one for the social sciences in general on ontological and epistemological grounds. (171)

Steinmetz believes that the philosophy of science articulated within critical realism accords very well with the practice of historically minded social scientists like himself. He closes his article with these words:

Critical realism is especially “liberating” for historical sociology. It provides a rebuttal to the positivist and theoretical realist insistence on the dogmas of empirical invariance, prediction, and parsimony (see Bhaskar 1989:184). Critical realism guards against any slide into empiricism by showing why theoretical mechanisms are central to all explanation. At the same time, critical realism suggests that contingent, conjunctural causality is the norm in open systems like society. Yet critical realism’s epistemological relativism allows it to accept the results of much of the recent history and sociology of science in a relaxed way without giving in to judgmental relativism. Historical social researchers are reassured of the acceptability of their scientific practice, even if it does not match what the mainstream misconstrues as science. Critical realism allows us to safely steer between the Scylla of constricting definitions of science and the Charybdis of solipsistic relativism. (184)

The methodology that Steinmetz commends is one that highlights social contingency and conjuncture, while at the same time discovering explanatory relations among circumstances based on the causal mechanisms we can identify that connect them. These are all important aspects of sociological research, and we should indeed seek out philosophies of social science that make room for them.

That said, I am not persuaded by the unfavorable distinction that Steinmetz and Somers draw between scientific realism and Bhaskar-style critical realism. I am inclined to think that the tradition of scientific realism has less baggage (from logical positivism) and critical realism has more (from Bhaskar’s sometimes arcane philosophical arguments and distinctions deriving from transcendental philosophy). Here is Steinmetz on the deficiencies of theoretical realism:

Theoretical realism disparages explanations which invoke unique, nonrepeatable constellations of causal mechanisms in accounting for specific historical conjunctures. (174)

But this doesn’t really seem to be an accurate portrayal of a wide range of scientific realists, including Richard Boyd. In fact, we can better look at the tradition of scientific realism as being closer to another tradition that Steinmetz admires, that of American pragmatism. (For a long time Harvard’s department of philosophy was the home of scientific realism, and it was also the intellectual heir of James and Peirce.) Scientific realism, when considered as a meta-theory of the work of social sciences, simply extends to the social sciences the ontological elbow room that the natural sciences have long enjoyed: when we postulate unobservable entities, causes, and processes, we are sometimes justified in believing that these entities actually exist — provided that our hypotheses are appropriately linked to observation and inference emanating from a dense field of scientific inquiry.

Take a sociological construct from Bourdieu that Steinmetz finds to be very useful, the idea of an intellectual field (link). This construct plainly invokes an extended and intangible social structure or entity — an interconnected system of individuals, values, and institutions that steer the progress of persons and ideas through their careers. The concept has proven to be a plausible and contentful way of conceptualizing sociological phenomena across a broad range of contexts (intellectual and cultural history, imperialism, scientific research, political ideology), and Steinmetz and other sociologists are justified in attributing real existence to this construct. But this realist interpretation of the construct does not require esoteric philosophical reasoning; we can look at it as a very ordinary and pragmatist inference from the orderliness of a specific range of social phenomena to the best explanation — that there is an underlying field of interrelations that generates this orderliness. And it seems to me that mainstream scientific realists like Boyd and Putnam would be very satisfied with this line of reasoning.

So I would look at these comments as a minor corrective to Steinmetz’s argument here: social scientists are indeed well advised to be anti-positivist; they are well advised to be realist in their theorizing; but there is nothing in the case that suggests that Bhaskarian realism is the particular variant of realism they should assume. A more pragmatic and pluralistic version of scientific realism seems more suitable to research in sociology. (Here is a brief discussion of a more pluralistic and eclectic version of scientific realism for the social sciences; link.)

Naturalizing causal powers

Several earlier posts have considered Tuukka Kaidesoja’s very interesting recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (NCR). The book is an important contribution to the evolving literature on next steps for critical realism, and TK is an exceptionally clear and perceptive philosopher. Here I will focus on Tuuka’s contribution to the causal powers literature.

The topic of causal powers is important for current debates within the philosophy of social science. This is especially true when it comes to the question of the causal role that supra-individual social entities play. Like Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, I want to support the idea that social structures (for example, organizations) have causal powers and properties, and a social structure is supra-individual entity. E-V presents this notion in terms of the idea of emergence, whereas I propose to understand it in terms of the notion of relative explanatory autonomy (linklink). But in each case, we hold that it is legitimate to attribute a causal power to a composed social entity, and that there is no compulsion to “reduce” that power to the individual powers of the persons who compose the entity. What is it about the social structure that gives rise to the causal power?

There are two important points to consider here. First, we need to ask what the terms of the causal relation are thought to be. Is it the abstract structure of the organization (shared with other organizations of the same type) that exerts causal power; or is it the concrete particular, this particular instantiated organization, that is the causal agent? I want to maintain that it is the particular social structure, not the abstract structure, that bears the causal role and exerts the causal power.

Second, the traditional account from critical realism and Bhaskar would hold that the powers of a social structure derive from its “essential” properties. But following Kaidesoja, it is both reasonable and justified to drop the essentialism associated with this line of thought. Instead, we can say that the powers of the structure derive from its contingent but current features of organization and functioning. In the case of a social organization, this comes down to the particular set of rules and practices that drive the organization at a point in time. As long as these rules and practices persist, the organization will continue to have the powers that we attribute to it. When those rules and practices undergo change and innovation, it is an open question what changes will result for the causal powers of the organization.

Kaidesoja approaches a view very similar to this in his treatment of Harré and Secord’s analysis of individual and collective powers:

I suggest that these views [advanced by Harré and Secord] presuppose that rules and institutions possess causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to those of individuals. (115)

So what about the assumption of essentialism that is often part of the definition of a causal power? TK takes up the issue of essentialism and natural kinds within causal-powers theory, and argues that we need to “naturalize” this issue as well. Whether there are natural kinds in a particular domain is a question for the sciences to answer, not the philosophers. TK notes that modern biology does not support the notion that biological things (including species) fall into natural kinds defined by distinctive essential natures.

Biological variation between and within species (or spopulations) is thus a normal state of affairs in nature and there is no a priori limit for such variation…. This means that it is no longer plausible to conceive biological species as natural kinds in Harré and Madden’s (1975) sense. (111-112)

So natural-kind essentialism does not fit the entities and processes of the biological realm.

Whether or not the essentialist notion of causal power can be applied to a certain collection of objects studied in a specific discipline should be decided by means of empirical analysis of the scientific research practices, theories and models that are developed in this discipline. (112)

But TK does not believe that this invalidates the idea that biological entities have causal powers; and this entails that there is a separation between essentialism and the attribution of causal powers.

I have argued at many points here that this feature of heterogeneity and change in some of the core characteristics of entities is fundamental to the social world as well (link). So TK’s central insight here is important for the philosophy of social science as well as for biology: causal powers should not be defined in terms of the essential properties of an entity; causal-power theory should not be constructed in such a way as to presuppose essentialism.

One thing I especially appreciate in TK’s treatment of causal powers is the light he sheds on the difference between logical or conceptual necessity, on the one hand, and natural necessity, on the other (106). This is relevant to the earlier discussion here about whether causes necessitate their effects (link). There I argued against the views of Mumford and Anjum, who reject necessity, on the grounds that their argument turns on features of logical necessity that do not attach to causal necessity. Kaidesoja’s discussion here reinforces my conviction that it is reasonable to assert causal “necessitating” even when we acknowledge that causes are sometimes not followed by their effects. Discussing Harré and Madden TK writes:

The concept of natural necessity is thus carefully distinguished from the concepts of logical, transcendental and conceptual necessity (ibid., 19–21). (107)

Kaidesoja emphasizes the similarity of views that exists between Harré and Bhaskar concerning the specification of a causal power. Here is one typical statement from Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science, among many that TK quotes:

To say that a thing has a power to do something is […] to say that it possesses a structure or is of such kind that it would do it, if appropriate conditions obtained. (RTS, p. 88) [118]

The parallel with Harré’s formulations is evident. TK finds that Bhaskar’s main innovation on this point is his attempt to make a transcendental argument for the necessity of attributing real causal powers to entities, and this is a move that he rejects. TK finds that Harré and Madden’s account is more convincing exactly because it locates causal powers in the realm of “concrete powerful particulars”, not in the transcendental realm (121, 122).

Due to the aforementioned problems in the transcendental realist account of the concept of causal power, I prefer Harré and Madden’s Aristotelian conceptualization of causal powers which interprets them as efficient causes and ties them inseparably to the concrete powerful particulars. (122).

And this in turn provides an additional reason to reject the essentialism associated with Bhaskar’s broader conception of causal powers (that the causal power of a thing derives from its essential nature). This becomes the heart of TK’s concept of a “naturalized version of the concept of causal power” (136), and it seems to be a very plausible position.