Emergence

photos: Niklas Luhman (top), Mario Bunge (bottom)

One view that has been taken about the causal properties of social structures is that they are emergent: they are properties that appear only at a certain level of complexity, and do not pertain to the items of which the social structure is composed. This view has a couple of important problems, not least of which is one of definition. What specifically is the idea of emergence supposed to mean? And do we have any good reasons to believe that it applies to the social world?

An important recent exponent of the view in question is David Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Elder-Vass is in fact specific about what he means by the concept. He defines a property of a compound entity or structure as emergent when the property applies only to the structure itself and not to any of its components.

A thing … can have properties or capabilities that are not possessed by its parts. Such properties are called emergent properties. (4)

An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. (17)

But, as I argued in an earlier post, this is such a tame version of emergence that it doesn’t seem to add much. By E-V’s criterion, most properties are emergent — the sweetness of sugar, the flammability of woven cotton, the hardness of bronze.

What gives the idea of emergence real bite — but also makes it fundamentally mysterious — is the additional idea that the property cannot be derived from facts about the components and their arrangements within the structure in question. By this criterion, none of the properties just mentioned are emergent, because their characteristics can in principle be derived from what we know about their components in interaction with each other.

This is the concept of emergence that is associated with holism and anti-reductionism. Essentially it requires us to do our scientific work entirely at the level of the structure itself — discover system-level properties and powers, and turn our backs on the impulse to explain through analysis.

A kind of compromise view is offered by Herbert Simon in his conception of a complex system in a 1962 article, “The Architecture of Complexity” (link). Here is how he defines the relevant notion of complexity:

Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist. (468)

Here Simon favors a view that does not assert ontological independence of system characteristics from individual characteristics, but does assert pragmatic and explanatory independence. In fact, his position seems equivalent to the supervenience thesis: social facts supervene upon facts about individuals. But the implication for research is plain: it is useless to pursue a reductionist strategy for understanding system-level properties of complex systems.

A recent issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences contains three interesting contributions to different aspects of this topic. Mariam Thalos (“Two Conceptions of Fundamentality”) and Shiping Tang (“Foundational Paradigms of Social Sciences”) are both worth reading. But Poe Yu-ze Wan’s “Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?”) is directly relevant to the question of emergence, so here I’ll focus on his analysis.

Wan distinguishes between two schools of thought about emergence, associated with Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge. Luhmann’s conception is extravagantly holistic, whereas Bunge’s conception is entirely consistent with the idea that emergent characteristics are nonetheless fixed by properties of the constituents. Wan argues that Luhmann has an “epistemological” understanding of emergence — the status of a property as emergent is a feature of its derivability or explicability on the basis of lower-level facts. Bunge’s approach, on the other hand, is ontological: even if we can fully explain the higher-level phenomenon in terms of the properties of the lower level, the property itself is still emergent. So for Bunge, “emergence” is a fact about being, not about knowledge. Wan also notes that Luhmann wants to replace the “part-whole” distinction with the “environment-system” distinction — which Wan believes is insupportable (180). Here is a statement from Luhmann quoted by Wan:

Whenever there is an emergent order, we find the the elements of a presupposed materiality- or energy-continuum … are excluded. Total exclusion (Totalausschluss) is the condition of emergence. (Luhmann, Niklas. 1992. Wer kennt Wil Martens? Eine Anmerkung zum Problem der Emergenz sozialer System. Kolner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 44(1): 139-42, 141)

And here is Bunge’s definition of emergence, quoted by Wan:

To say that P is an emergent property of systems of kind K is short for “P is a global (or collective or non-distributive) property of a system of kind K, none of whose components or precursors possesses P. (Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge, 15)

Bunge’s position here is exactly the same as the conception offered by Elder-Vass above. It defines emergence as novelty at the higher level — whether or not that novelty can be explained by facts about the constituents. Bunge’s conception is consistent with the supervenient principle, in my reading, whereas Lumann’s is not.

Wan provides an excellent review of the history of thinking about this concept, and his assessment of the issues is one that I for one agree with. In particular, his endorsement of Bunge’s position of “rational emergentism” seems to me to get the balance exactly right: social properties are in some sense fixed by the properties of the constituents; they are nonetheless distinct from those underlying properties; and good scientific theories are justified in referring to these emergent properties without the need of reducing them or replacing them with properties at the lower level. This is what Simon seems to be getting at in his definition of complex systems, quoted above; and it seems to be equivalent to the idea of explanatory autonomy argued in an earlier post.

My own strategy on this issue is to avoid use of the concept of emergence and to favor instead the idea of explanatory autonomy. This is the idea that mid-level system properties are often sufficiently stable that we can pursue causal explanations at that level, without providing derivations of those explanations from some more fundamental level (link).

The explanatory challenge is very clear: if we want to explain meso-level outcomes on the basis of reference to emergent system characteristics, we can do so. But we need to have good replicable knowledge of the causal properties of the emergent features in order to develop explanations of other kinds of outcomes based on the workings of the system characteristics. I would also add that we need to have confidence that the hypothesized system-level characteristics do in fact possess microfoundations at the level of the individual and social actions that underly them; or, in other words, we need to have reason for confidence that the emergent properties our explanations hypothesize do in fact conform to the supervenient relation.

A couple of Wan’s sources are particularly valuable for investigators who are interested in pursuing the idea of emergence further:

David Blitz, Emergent Evolution: Qualitative Novelty and the Levels of Reality (Episteme)
Richard Jones, Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality
Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems

Supervenience and social entities

What is the ontological status of social entities — kinship systems, police departments, religious movements?  And what is the status of causal powers of social entities?  Do we need to “reduce” social entities to the compounds of individuals who make them up? And do we need to derive the causal properties of social entities from the characteristics and interactions of the individuals who make them up? In short, do we need to be reductionist about the social world?

This is a question that arises in many of the “special” sciences, including in particular psychology and neuroscience.  A basic premise of contemporary philosophy is that all phenomena are composed of physical entities, processes, and systems. The mind-body problem is the most immediate place where physicalism does some important work. Mind-body dualists held that mental states were independent from physical states, whereas physicalists insist that mental states are embodied in physical processes and systems.

It is plain enough that we make use of a vocabulary that doesn’t appear to invoke physical states when we talk about people’s actions and states of mind. When I decide to have tofu for dinner, or when I experience the taste of hot sesame oil, I am engaging in a mental act or qualitative state. “Deciding”, “experiencing”, and “having qualitative states” all appear to be terms that refer to private mental states. The physicalist takes it as a piece of ontological certainty, however, that these “mental” states are fully and entirely constituted by the physical substrates of the brain and nervous system.

So what do physicalists have in mind when they say that the phenomena to which these terms refer are really physical states? There are several possibilities:

  • eliminative materialism: mental states do not exist, and we need to give definitions of mental terms that allow us to eliminate them in favor of physical terms [reductionism]
  • non-eliminative materialism: mental states exist, but they are wholly and exhaustively caused by physical states
  • epiphenomenalism: mental states are by-products of physical states without causal powers to influence subsequent physical states
  • supervenience: mental states depend upon physical states and nothing else, but it is difficult and unnecessary to reduce facts about mental states to facts about physical states

Is there an analogous situation in the social sciences? Is individualism for the social sciences strongly analogous to physicalism for the natural sciences? Is there something ontologically dubious about referring to social entities and causes?

There is nothing peculiar about the idea that some entities are complex assemblages of other, simpler entities. Virtually every entity that we have an interest in is a compound of simpler entities — genes, enzymes, or the insulin molecule depicted above.  A table has characteristics that depend on the physical features and arrangement of the materials that make it up, but those “table” characteristics are very different from the features of the composing elements — hardness, stability, load-bearing capacity, etc. And there is no reason whatsoever to insist that “tables do not exist — only bits of wood exist.”  Tables are identifiable composite objects, and they have causal properties that we can invoke in explanations.  So the fact that there are characteristics of the composite that are dissimilar from the characteristics of the elements is not peculiar.  And this is entirely true of social entities as well.  The efficiency or corruptibility of a tax-collecting bureau is not a characteristic of the individuals who compose it; it is rather a system-level characteristic that derives from the incentives, oversight mechanisms, and physical infrastructure of the organization.

So composite entities are not suspect in general. However, there are a couple of challenging questions that we need to confront about composite entities.  First, can we explain the properties of the composite by knowing everything about the properties of the elements and the nature of their arrangement and interactions?  Can we derive the properties of the whole from the properties of the components?  Take metallurgy: can we derive the properties of the alloy from the physical characteristics of the tin and copper which make it up?  Or are there “emergent” properties that somehow do not depend solely on the properties of the components?

Second, can we attribute causal powers to composite entities directly, or do we need to disaggregate causal claims about the aggregate onto some set of claims about the causal powers of the elements?  Do we need to disaggregate the load-bearing capacity of the table onto a set of facts about the properties of the elements (legs, table top) and their configuration?  It is certainly true that we can derive the load-bearing capacity of the table from this set of facts; this is what civil engineers do in modeling bridges, for example.  The philosophical question is whether we ought to regard this causal property as simply a way of summarizing the underlying physics of the table, or as a stable causal property in its own right.

One appealing answer that has been offered to the question of the relationship between levels of entities is the theory of supervenience.  This theory is largely the work of philosopher Jaegwon Kim over the past thirty years. Here is a recent synthesis of his views (Physicalism, or Something Near Enough). He summarizes the basic idea in these terms:

It will suffice to understand [supervenience] as the claim that what happens in our mental life is wholly dependent on, and determined by, what happens with our bodily processes. (14)

And here is how Julie Zahle puts the point in her contribution to Turner and Risjord’s Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology:

Social entities, their properties, actions, etc. may be said to supervene upon individuals, their actions, and so on, insofar as: (1) there can be no difference at the level of social wholes, their properties, actions, etc., unless there is also a difference at the level of individuals, their properties, actions, and so on; (2) individuals, their actions, etc. fix or determine what kinds of social wholes, properties, etc. are instantiated. (327)

Does the idea of supervenience help answer the question of the ontological status of social entities?  Is it helpful to judge that social entities supervene upon facts about individuals and nothing else?  And does this leave room for the idea of social causation and relative explanatory autonomy?  Are we able to acknowledge the dependence of the social world on facts about individuals without abandoning the idea that there is social causation and social science?

Perhaps surprisingly, Kim thinks that the theory will not assist us in the last two ways, at least when it comes to psychology:

This view [supervenience] provides the burgeoning science of psychology and cognition with a philosophical rationale as an autonomous science in its own right: it investigates these irreducible psychological properties, functions, and capacities, discovering laws and regularities governing them and generating law-based explanations and predictions. It is a science with its own proper domain untouched by other sciences, especially those at the lower levels, like biology, chemistry, and physics.

This seductive picture, however, turns out to be a piece of wishful thinking, when we consider the problem of mental causation–how it is possible, on such a picture, for mentality to have causal powers, powers to influence the course of natural events. (15)

So I am in a quandary at the moment: I favor the idea of “relatively autonomous social explanations” (link), I like the idea of regarding social entities as legitimate compound entities that don’t require elimination, and I think of the theory of supervenience as providing some authority for these views.  And yet Kim himself seems to reject this line of thought when it comes to the special sciences of psychology and cognitive science.  Kim seems to want to argue that higher level sciences cannot claim relative autonomy; in this respect his own view seems to be reductionist.

What seems clear to me can be summarized in just a few points:

  • Social entities and facts are determined and constituted by facts about individuals, their beliefs, their relations, and their actions.  So social entities and facts do in fact supervene upon facts about individuals.
  • Social entities do have causal properties that can be discovered without needing to eliminate them in terms of properties of individuals.
  • The requirement of microfoundations is crucial because it establishes the intellectual discipline required by the first point: we must be able to validate that the claims we make about social properties and causal powers can be provided microfoundations at the level of socially situated individuals.
  • There is a legitimate and defensible level of explanation at which social scientists can hypothesize social properties and causal capacities; so there is a place for a “relatively autonomous” social science.  We are not forced to be reductionist.
  • The “social” is not inherently puzzling in the way that the “mental” is.  Social entities are more analogous to chairs and proteins than they are to thoughts and qualia: they are complex entities whose system-level characteristics are the ultimate effects of the interactions and properties of the individual elements that constitute them.  We often cannot trace out exactly how the properties of the whole derive from the properties of the components; but we don’t need to do so except in unusual circumstances.

Norbert Elias on the individual

Norbert Elias opens his 1987 book The Society of Individuals with these words:

The relation of the plurality of people to the single person we call the “individual”, and of the single person to the plurality, is by no means clear at present. But we often fail to realize that it is not clear, and still less why. We have the familiar concepts “individual” and “society”, the first of which refers to the single human being as if he or she were an entity existing in complete isolation, while the second usually oscillates between two opposed but equally misleading ideas. Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities.

This Preface was written around the time of the publication of the volume in 1987; but the core of the book was originally written in the context of the composition of Elias’s 1939 book, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations.  So the ideas expressed in the primary essay of the book belong to the classic period of the development of his thought.

What is striking about this paragraph is Elias’s insistence, essentially, that we don’t know what we are referring to when we use the terms “individual” and “society.”  He rejects the twin views of “individualism” and “holism”, and he wants to arrive at a conception of “individual/society” that avoids the polarity between the two.

I interpret Elias’s analysis here in a way that roughly parallels the intuition I was grappling with in formulating the idea of “methodological localism” (link).  Fundamentally, the idea is that we can’t take the individual out of society or society out of the individual; instead, we begin with the socialized individual and build up more complex social processes and structures.  Here is a passage from the Preface that anticipates this idea of the socially constructed individual:

The entire stock of social patterns of self-regulation which the individual has to develop within himself or herself in growing up into a unique individual, is generation-specific and thus, in the broader sense, society-specific. My work on the civilizing process therefore showed me very clearly that something which did not arouse shame in an earlier century could be shameful in a later one, and vice versa – I was well aware that movements in the opposite direction were also possible.  But no matter what the direction, the evidence of change made clear to what extent individual people are influenced in their development by the position at which they enter the flow of the social process. (viii)

So individuals are socially and historically constructed; there is no such thing as the “pre-social” or “extra-social” individual.  Here is another statement of this point:

At birth individual people may be very different through their natural constitutions. But it is only in society that the small child with its malleable and relatively undifferentiated mental functions is turned into a more complex being. Only in relation to other human beings does the wild, helpless creature which comes into the world become the psychologically developed person with the character of an individual and deserving the name of an adult human being. (21)

But there are also dynamic and individuating features of societies; societies are distinct in ways that ultimately derive from the characteristics of existing individuals:

Society, as we know, is all of us; it is a lot of people together. But a lot of people together in India and China form a different kind of society than in America or Britain; the society formed by many individual people in Europe in the twelfth century was different from that in the sixteenth or the twentieth century. And although all these societies certainly consisted and consist of nothing other than many individuals, the change from one form of living together to another was clearly unplanned by any of these individuals.  (3)

What we lack – let us freely admit it – are conceptual models and an overall vision by which we can make comprehensible in thought what we experience daily in reality, by which we could understand how a large number of individuals form with each other something that is more and other than a collection of separate individuals – how they form a “society”, and how it comes about that this society can change in specific ways, that it has a history which takes a course which has not been intended or planned by any of the individuals making it up. (7)

And here is how Elias suggests that we commonly think about social reality:

One section of people approaches sociohistorical formations as if they had been designed, planned and created, as they now stand before the retrospective observer, by a number of individuals or bodies. … The opposing camp despises this way of approaching historical and social formations. For them the individual plays no part at all. … A society is conceived, for example, as a supra-individual organic entity which advances ineluctably towards death through stages of youth, maturity and age. (4-5)

It appears that Elias frames a false dichotomy here when he asks how society came about: either specific individuals planned and intended that social institutions should have specific functions, or a society is a whole that possesses its own dynamics of development.  But there is a third possibility: social institutions have their current characteristics because of the actions and choices of countless individuals; but these characteristics are largely the unintended consequence of the strategic interactions among many individuals.  So individual agency lies behind social institutions and structures; but these agents are usually operating within the framework of a limited set of goals and beliefs that have nothing to do with the eventual shape of the social institution.

So we need to follow Elias’s suggestion and look for new metaphors for understanding the relation between “society” and “individual.”  We need metaphors that work better for the third option — society as the unintended assemblage of many strategic activities of individuals.  Here is one: we might think of a social institution as a potlach supper rather than a seven-course meal designed by a chef.  Or, to use a metaphor explored in an earlier posting, we can understand society along the lines of a flea market: a somewhat orderly affair that derives from the separate and sometimes coordinated actions of hundreds of participants (link).  And in fact, Elias actually uses a similar metaphor:

And even in each present moment, people are in more or less perceptible motion. What binds the individuals together is not cement. Think only of the bustle in the streets of a large city: most of the people do not know each other. They have hardly anything to do with each other. They push past each other, each pursuing his or her own goals and plans. They come and go as it suits them. Parts of a whole? The word “whole” is certainly out of place, at least if its meaning is determined solely by a vision of static or spatially closed structures, by experiences like those offered by houses, works of art or organisms. (13)

Here is another interesting metaphor that Elias explores as a way of capturing “the social” — the complex intertwining of behavior in formal dance.

Let us imagine as a symbol of society a group of dancers performing court dances, such as the frangaise or quadrille, or a country round dance. The steps and bows, gestures and movements made by the individual dancer are all entirely meshed and synchronized with those of other dancers. If any of the dancing individuals were contemplated in isolation, the functions of his or her movements could not be understood. The way the individual behaves in this situation is determined by the relations of the dancers to each other. (19)

But within the bustle of the street or the coordination of the dance there is an underlying order (just as we found in thinking about the flea market analogy):

The invisible order of this form of living together, that cannot be directly perceived, offers the individual a more or less restricted range of possible functions and modes of behaviour. By his birth he is inserted into a functional complex with a quite definite structure; he must conform to it, shape himself in accordance with it and perhaps develop further on its basis. (14)

And this order poses a problem for individualism:

This network of functions within a human association, this invisible order into which individual purposes are constantly being introduced, does not owe its origin simply to a summation of wills, a common decision by many individual people. (15)

But here the false dichotomy mentioned above is important.  It doesn’t take an announced master plan to create a peasant militia or an age-specific practice of dating and courtship; rather, a series of opportunistic choices are made over time, by a number of different actors, leading to an institution that has characteristics that were intended by no one (see illustrations in Elizabeth Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945).

This is an interesting and important contribution to the philosophy of society.  I’m inclined to think, though, that Elias does a better job of situating the “socialized, civilized individual” than he does in conceptualizing the social institution or structure.  There is a persistent structural-functionalism in the language, and a persistent attempt to attribute intentional design to social institutions, that fail to deliver on the promise of arriving at a better way of understanding both aspects of the “individual-society” relationship.

Revisiting Popper


Karl Popper’s most commonly cited contribution to philosophy and the philosophy of science is his theory of falsifiability (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge). (Stephen Thornton has a very nice essay on Popper’s philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) In its essence, this theory is an alternative to “confirmation theory.” Contrary to positivist philosophy of science, Popper doesn’t think that scientific theories can be confirmed by more and more positive empirical evidence. Instead, he argues that the logic of scientific research is a critical method in which scientists do their best to “falsify” their hypotheses and theories. And we are rationally justified in accepting theories that have been severely tested through an effort to show they are false — rather than accepting theories for which we have accumulated a body of corroborative evidence. Basically, he argues that scientists are in the business of asking this question: what is the most unlikely consequence of this hypothesis? How can I find evidence in nature that would demonstrate that the hypothesis is false? Popper criticizes theorists like Marx and Freud who attempt to accumulate evidence that corroborates their theories (historical materialism, ego transference) and praises theorists like Einstein who honestly confront the unlikely consequences their theories appear to have (perihelion of Mercury).

At bottom, I think many philosophers of science have drawn their own conclusions about both falsifiability and confirmation theory: there is no recipe for measuring the empirical credibility of a given scientific theory, and there is no codifiable “inductive logic” that might replace the forms of empirical reasoning that we find throughout the history of science. Instead, we need to look in greater detail at the epistemic practices of real research communities in order to see the nuanced forms of empirical reasoning that are brought forward for the evaluation of scientific theories. Popper’s student, Imre Lakatos, makes one effort at this (Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes; Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge); so does William Newton-Smith (The Rationality of Science), and much of the philosophy of science that has proceeded under the rubrics of philosophy of physics, biology, or economics is equally attentive to the specific epistemic practices of real working scientific traditions. So “falsifiability” doesn’t seem to have a lot to add to a theory of scientific rationality at this point in the philosophy of science. In particular, Popper’s grand critique of Marx’s social science on the grounds that it is “unfalsifiable” just seems to miss the point; surely Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, or Tocqueville have important social science insights that can’t be refuted by deriding them as “unfalsifiable”. And Popper’s impatience with Marxism makes one doubt his objectivity as a sympathetic reader of Marx’s work.

Of greater interest is another celebrated idea that Popper put forward, his critique of “historicism” in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). And unlike the theory of falsifiability, I think that there are important insights in this discussion that are even more useful today than they were in 1957, when it comes to conceptualizing the nature of the social sciences. So people who are a little dismissive of Popper may find that there are novelties here that they will find interesting.

Popper characterizes historicism as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history” (3). Historicists differ from naturalists, however, in that they believe that the laws that govern history are themselves historically changeable. So a given historical epoch has its own laws and generalizations – unlike the laws of nature that are uniform across time and space. So historicism involves combining two ideas: prediction of historical change based on a formulation of general laws or patterns; and a recognition that historical laws and patterns are themselves variable over time, in reaction to human agency.

Popper’s central conclusion is that large predictions of historical or social outcomes are inherently unjustifiable — a position taken up several times here (post, post). He finds that “holistic” or “utopian” historical predictions depend upon assumptions that simply cannot be justified; instead, he prefers “piecemeal” predictions and interventions (21). What Popper calls “historicism” amounts to the aspiration that there should be a comprehensive science of society that permits prediction of whole future states of the social system, and also supports re-engineering of the social system if we choose. In other words, historicism in his description sounds quite a bit like social physics: the aspiration of finding a theory that describes and predicts the total state of society.

The kind of history with which historicists wish to identify sociology looks not only backwards to the past but also forwards to the future. It is the study of the operative forces and, above all, of the laws of social development. (45)

Popper rejects the feasibility or appropriateness of this vision of social knowledge, and he is right to do so. The social world is not amenable to this kind of general theoretical representation.

The social thinker who serves as Popper’s example of this kind of holistic social theory is Karl Marx. According to Popper, Marx’s Capital (Marx 1977 [1867]) is intended to be a general theory of capitalist society, providing a basis for predicting its future and its specific internal changes over time. And Marx’s theory of historical materialism (“History is a history of class conflict,” “History is the unfolding of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production”; (Communist Manifesto, Preface to a Contribution to Political Economy)) is Popper’s central example of a holistic theory of history. And it is Marx’s theory of revolution that provides a central example for Popper under the category of utopian social engineering. In The Scientific Marx I argue that Popper’s representation of Marx’s social science contribution is flawed; rather, Marx’s ideas about capitalism take the form of an eclectic combination of sociology, economic theory, historical description, and institutional analysis. It is also true, however, that Marx writes in Capital that he is looking to identify the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production.

Whatever the accuracy of Popper’s interpretation of Marx, his more general point is certainly correct. Sociology and economics cannot provide us with general theories that permit the prediction of large historical change. Popper’s critique of historicism, then, can be rephrased as a compelling critique of the model of the natural sciences as a meta-theory for the social and historical sciences. History and society are not law-governed systems for which we might eventually hope to find exact and comprehensive theories. Instead, they are the heterogeneous, plastic, and contingent compound of actions, structures, causal mechanisms, and conjunctures that elude systematization and prediction. And this conclusion brings us back to the centrality of agent-centered explanations of historical outcomes.

I chose the planetary photo above because it raises a number of complexities about theoretical systems, comprehensive models, and prediction that need sorting out. Popper observes that metaphors from astronomy have had a great deal of sway with historicists: “Modern historicists have been greatly impressed by the success of Newtonian theory, and especially by its power of forecasting the position of the planets a long time ahead” (36). The photo is of a distant planetary system in the making. The amount of debris in orbit makes it clear that it would be impossible to model and predict the behavior of this system over time; this is an n-body gravitational problem that even Newton despaired to solve. What physics does succeed in doing is identifying the processes and forces that are relevant to the evolution of this system over time — without being able to predict its course in even gross form. This is a good example of a complex, chaotic system where prediction is impossible.

Composition of the social

Our social ontology needs to reflect the insight that complex social happenings are almost invariably composed of multiple causal processes rather than existing as unitary systems. The phenomena of a great social whole — a city over a fifty-year span, a period of sustained social upheaval or revolution (Iran in the 1970s-1980s), an international trading system — should be conceptualized as the sum of a large number of separate processes with intertwining linkages and often highly dissimilar tempos. We can provide analysis and theory for some of the component processes, and we can attempt to model the results of aggregating these processes. And we can attempt to explain the patterns and exceptions that arise as the consequence of one or more of these processes. Some of the subordinate processes will be significantly amenable to theorizing and projection, and some will not. And the totality of behavior will be more than the “sum” of the relatively limited number of processes that are amenable to theoretical analysis. This means that the behavior of the whole will demonstrate contingency and unpredictability modulo the conditions and predictable workings of the known processes.

Consider the example of the development of a large city over time. The sorts of subordinate processes that I’m thinking of here might include —

  • The habitation dynamics created by the nodes of a transportation system
  • The dynamics of electoral competition governing the offices of mayor and city council
  • The politics of land use policy and zoning permits
  • The dynamics and outcomes of public education on the talent level of the population
  • Economic development policies and tax incentives emanating from state government
  • Dynamics of real estate system with respect to race
  • Employment and poverty characteristics of surrounding region

Each of these processes can be investigated by specialists — public policy experts, sociologists of race and segregation, urban politics experts. Each contributes to features of the evolving urban environment. And it is credible that there are consistent patterns of behavior and development within these various types of processes. This justifies a specialist’s approach to specific types of causes of urban change, and rigorous social science can result.

But it must also be recognized that, there are system interdependencies among these groups of factors. More in-migration of extremely poor families may put more stress on the public schools. Enhancement of quality or accessibility of public schools may increase in-migration (the Kalamazoo promise, for example). Political incentives within the city council system may favor land-use policies that encourage the creation of racial or ethnic enclaves. So it isn’t enough to understand the separate processes individually; we need to make an effort to discover these endogenous relations among them.

But over and above this complication of the causal interdependency of recognized factors, there is another and more pervasive complication as well. For any given complex social whole, it is almost always the case that there are likely to be additional causal processes that have not been separately analyzed or theorized. Some may be highly contingent and singular — for example, the many effects that September 11 had on NYC. Others may be systemic and important, but novel and previously untheorized — for example, the global information networks that Saskia Sassen emphasizes for the twenty-first century global city.

The upshot is that a complex social whole exceeds the particular theories we have created for this kind of phenomenon at any given point in time. The social whole is composed of lower-level processes; but it isn’t exhausted by any specific list of underlying processes. Therefore we shouldn’t imagine that the ideal result of investigation of urban phenomena is a comprehensive theory of the city — the goal is chimerical. Social science is always “incomplete”, in the sense that there are always social processes relevant to social outcomes that have not been theorized.

Is there any type of social phenomenon that is substantially more homogeneous than this description would suggest — with the result that we might be able to arrive a neat, comprehensive theories of this kind of social entity? Consider these potential candidates: inner city elementary schools, labor unions, wars of national liberation, civil service bureaus, or multi-national corporations. One might make the case that these terms capture a group of phenomena that are fairly homogeneous and would support simple, unified theories. But I think that this would be mistaken. Rather, much the same kind of causal complexity that is presented by the city of Chicago or London is also presented by elementary schools and labor unions. There are multiple social, cultural, economic, interpersonal, and historical factors that converge on a particular school in a particular place, or a particular union involving specific individuals and issues; and the characteristics of the school or the union are influenced by this complex convergence of factors. (On the union example, consider Howard Kimeldorf’s fascinating study, Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. Kimeldorf demonstrates the historical contingency and the plurality of social and business factors that led to the significant differences among dock workers’ unions in the United States.)

What analytical frameworks available for capturing this understanding of the compositional nature of society? I have liked the framework of causal mechanisms, suggesting as it does the idea of there being separable causal processes underlying particular social facts that are diverse and amenable to investigation. The ontology of “assemblages” captures the idea as well, in its ontology of separable sub-processes. (Nick Srnicek provides an excellent introduction to assemblage theory in his master’s thesis.) And the language of microfoundations, methodological localism, and the agent-structure nexus convey much the same idea as well. In each case, we have the idea that the social entity is composed of underlying processes that take us back in the direction of agents acting within the context of social and environmental constraints. And we have a premise of causal openness: the behavior of the whole is not fully determined by a particular set of subordinate mechanisms or assemblages.

Arguments for social holism

The topic of methodological individualism (MI) came up in a recent posting, and I underlined the connection between MI and some version of reductionism. Here I’d like to take a different approach and ask the question, what considerations can be offered in support of some version of social holism?

Here are a couple of arguments that avoid the accusation of “spooky holism”. (By spooky I mean “disembodied.”)

First is a very reasonable point deriving from pragmatic objections to reductionism. If we know on ontological grounds that the behavior of the whole depends upon the features and behavior of the constituent parts and nothing else — the heart of the theory of supervenience — but also know that it is entirely hopeless to attempt to calculate the one based on facts about the other — then perhaps it is justified to consider the whole as if it embodied causal processes at the macro-level. So there is a pragmatic argument available that recommends the autonomy of social facts based on the infeasibility of derivability.

Second is the plausibility of the idea that there are large historical or social forces that are for all intents and purposes beyond the control of any of the individuals whom they influence. The fact that a given population exists as a language community of German speakers or Yoruba speakers has an effect on every child born into that population. The child’s brain is shaped by this social reality, quite independently from facts about the child’s agency or individuality. The grammar of the local language is an autonomous social fact in this context — even though it is a fact that is embodied in the particular brains and behaviors of the countless individuals who constitute this community. But this is probably similarly true when we turn to systems of attitudes, norms, or cognitive systems of thinking. (See a posting on social practices on this subject.)

It is obvious but perhaps trivial to observe that the vector of influence flows through individuals who possess the grammar, norms, or folk beliefs — this is the ontological reality captured by the microfoundations thesis. But perhaps a point in favor of a modest holism is this: the fact of the commonality of Yoruba grammar can be viewed as if it were an autonomous fact — even though we know it depends on the existence of Yoruba speakers. But the point of the holism thesis here remains: that the social fact of the current grammar is coercive with respect to current Nigerian children in specific communities. And, perhaps, likewise with respect to other aspects of social cognition and norms. And this takes us some distance towards Durkheim’s central view — the autonomy of social facts.

Now what about social structures? Can some instances of social structures be treated as if they were autonomous with respect to the individuals whom they affect? Here is how the home mortgage system works — we can specify a collection of rules and practices X, Y, Z that regulate the transactions that occur within this system. The individual who wants to borrow from a bank or other financial institution is simply subject to these rules and practices. He/she doesn’t have the option of rewriting the rules in a more rational or fair or socially progressive way; at a given point in time the rules and practices are fixed independently from the wishes or intentions of the people involved in the institution. Once again it is trivially true that these rules are embodied; but they function as if they were autonomous. And this is true for institutions at the full range of scope, from the local to the global.

The advocate for a modest social holism might maintain two plausible positions: first, that all social facts are embodied in the states of mind and behavior of individuals; but second, that some social facts (institutions, social practices, systems of rules) have explanatory autonomy independent from any knowledge we might be able to provide about the particular ways in which these facts are embodied in individuals. The first is an ontological point and the second is a point about explanation.

These points in favor of a modest holism are compatible with other important points about social entities — the points about heterogeneity, plasticity, and opportunistic transformation that have been made elsewhere in this blog. In other words, we aren’t forced to choose between “agent” and “structure”; rather, agents influence structures and structures influence agents.

These arguments suggest two things. First, holism and individualism are not so sharply opposed as perhaps they appear.

But more important, two styles of social explanation are validated and compatible: the compositional or aggregative model of explanation — explain the outcome as the aggregative consequence of the behavior of large numbers of individuals — and constraining or filtering explanations — the structuring of individual behavior that is created by the workings of social institutions. The first model of explanation corresponds well to the assumptions of methodological individualism, while the second corresponds to the idea that structures and large social factors cause patterns of individual behavior. And neither has antecedent priority over the other. (Some of this variety of explanatory strategies is highlighted in an earlier posting on explanation.)

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