Morphogenesis and social norms

Critical realism pays particular attention to the enduring structures that underlie various social orders and processes. But as argued in an earlier post, CR also needs to be able to provide a vocabulary for describing the “subjective” and normative aspects of the social order. Margaret Archer’s evolving theory of morphogenesis provides resources for discussing precisely this dimension of the social world. The most recent volume of collaborative research emerging from Archer’s morphogenesis research project, Morphogenesis and the Crisis of Normativity (2016), is highly relevant to the ontology of normative features of the social world. The book focuses on the stability of legal systems in changing societies; but it is relevant to broader issues of normative coherence as well. The book includes contributions from a dozen contributors, and there is an admirable degree of focus and coherence across the chapters. Particularly interesting to me were chapters by Doug Porpora, Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Emmanuel Lazega, and Mark Carrigan; but every essay is excellent. The volume provides the basis for a very important conversation about the nature of norms and laws in the context of rapid social change.

Here is how Archer frames the central issue in this volume:

Do shared values promote social stability and social integration, or is it the other way round? Is it rather that social stability fosters normative consensus about the legitimacy of the rule of law, the appropriateness of prevailing rules and attachment to existing conventions? This question has a long history in the philosophy of law and the sociology of development, whose respective thinkers often took different positions during the twentieth century. (1)

Archer and her colleagues introduce a new circuit of social interaction for this set of topics: social normativity, social integration, and social regulation (NIR) (1). In a thumbnail, the central insight of the volume is that much writing on the sociology of law has assumed a setting of morphostasis; but this leaves entirely open the question of the role and stability of legal and normative systems during periods of morphogenesis. The presumption has been that periods of significant, rapid social change are entirely destabilizing for legal and normative structures. And the project of the volume is to show how legal and normative structures can persist, evolve, or emerge within a period of morphogenesis. In other words, the collaborators here are interested in the topic of “normativity in changing times” (5).

One way of construing the puzzle under consideration here is the status of the “bindingness” of a normative or legal system. What circumstances or forces lead participants of a given society to internalize the prescriptions of a given set of norms or laws? And in particular, what could create this fact of norm internalization in a period of substantial and rapid social change?

There are a few features of normativity in society that are reasonably self-evident. One is a point that Archer herself emphasizes (8) and attributes as well to Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: the fact that there are almost always multiple normative systems at work in a given society, rather than a single overarching and universal normative system. This point refutes key assumptions of both Durkheim and Parsons — the assumption that a social order requires a fundamental and universal set of norms if it is to function coherently at all. This observation is implicit in Elder-Vass’s idea of norm circles; but it is also quite visible through even cursory study of the norms of family, gender, fairness, etiquette, or life-aspiration that are current across different groups in one’s own society. Archer makes a similar point here:

The hallmark of cultural relations in modernity was one of ‘competitive contradictions’ between the respective corpuses of ideas activated critically and conflictually by opposed groups for purposes of legitimation. (16)

But the idea that these normative conflicts must or will be resolved or eliminated in a period of greater stability is mistaken.

It is also unpersuasive to insist that a group (ethnic, racial, gender) only exists if it possesses a universal and common set of norms defining behavior for members of the group. (This appears to be the view of various theorists of “we” identities.) The same point about heterogeneity of the whole of society applies equally to groups within society. Protestants, Muslims, mid-westerners, or surfers can all construe their identities in terms of affinities with these various constructions, without being subject to a single and uniform normative code. Norms are more like strands within a woven fabric than like essential features of a group’s identity. (Here is an earlier post that makes this point; link.)

Archer closes her introduction by highlighting three emerging hypotheses about morphogenesis and normativity:

  1. Where (N) is concerned, intensified morphogenesis has entailed a retreat from public, deontic normativity in the developed world.
  2. Where (I) is concerned, the increase in accessible cultural variety serves to decrease social uniformity and in consequence, social integration.
  3. Where (R) is concerned, social regulation becomes increasingly preoccupied with coordination and attends to fostering co-operation and redistribution only in so far as these are needful for coordinating different societal sectors.

What is somewhat surprising to me in these conclusions is the underlying sense of discomfort that Archer conveys with the conditions of change and transformation that they imply. The conservative critique of modernity is that the old normative foundations of social solidarity are disappearing, and chaos is the result. Archer seems almost to agree with some version of this critique; she seems to accept that morphogenesis leads to “disorderliness, destructiveness, unfairness, inhumaneness, and other iniquities” (26). This same discontent seems to underlie her critique of Bauman’s view of “liquid modernity” (link). In this volume she introduces the idea of “anormative social regulation” as an alternative to norm-based social cohesion:

In forging the link between anormative bureaucratic regulation and the intensification of morphogeneisis one socio-political characteristic of regulations is crucial. Regulations themselves can be innovatory, independent of any previous precedent and faster to to introduce than legislation. Since they do not rely upon consensus among or consultation with the public affected, neither are they dependent upon the relatively slow development, typical of social conventions and of norms. This feature recommends their suitability for ready response to the novel changes introduced through morphogenesis and its generic tendency for new variety to generate more variety. (149)

This is not Archer’s whole answer to the question of the role of norms within a society undergoing morphogenesis; but it is the most concrete idea she advances. And it is a very limited conception of the ways in which a society might seek to preserve and promote the common good.

What seems much more promising is a view of transformation and social change that permits constant “morphogenesis” and yet witnesses a reasonably stable patchwork of continuing normative communities that permit new solutions to the constant challenges created by rapid change. Perhaps surprisingly, John Rawls’s conception of a “liberal society” with a constantly shifting set of ideas across society about justice and the common good seems more suitable to the conditions of change that Archer herself is most concerned with (Political Liberalismlink). We are indeed passengers on Neurath’s raft riding on currents of “liquid modernity”; but we have the ability to continually recreate the conditions of a humane and just social order around us. Critical realism and the theory of morphogenesis can perhaps help us make greater progress in formulating an ontology of “progress and stability through ongoing change”.

What is a morphogenic society?

diagram: Erik Olin Wright, The Value Controversy and Social Research (link)

Margaret Archer’s research collaboration on topics concerning the theory of morphogenesis continues with the publication of the third volume in the Social Morphogenesis series, Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order. (The first two volumes have been treated in earlier posts; linklink.) Like the earlier volumes, this volume offers a highly stimulating treatment of issues that are prominent in the branch of the critical realism research community that Archer has defined. The focus here is upon the idea of “generative mechanisms,” which allows for a very interesting set of connections to other segments of the philosophy of social science field. Contributors to this volume include Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Pierpaolo Donati, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Andrea Maccarini, Doug Porpora, Tony Lawson, and Ismael Al-Amoudi and John Latsis, as well as Archer herself.

Archer puts the guiding question of the research collaboration in these terms:

We are seeking a causal explanation of what could … lead the social formation of late modernity to change into a one that is very different in kind precisely in terms of its relational organization. (1-2)

In other words, it is change in the relational structure of modern society that is the object here; and the search for generative mechanisms is a search for the processes internal to late modernity that bring this structural change about. Put in these terms, the objective is reminiscent of Marx’s goal in Capital: to discover the internal dynamics within the capitalist mode of production that were likely to lead to fundamental structural change within the mode of production and the birth of a successor mode of production. Here is a typical formulation, offered in the preface to the first edition of Capital: “Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” Marx believes the key mechanism driving change within capitalism is the “social antagonisms” of the defining property system. And he believes that this mechanism will lead ultimately to fundamental change in the structure of the mode of production. Where Archer refers to a system of social relations, Marx refers to the system of relations of property and power. But both seem to be asking the same kind of question: what are the causes of fundamental structural change in a society?

Archer and her collaborators continue to employ what they call the “S-A-C” framework: structure-action-culture. The fundamental idea here is that social processes and the mechanisms of social transformation almost always involve each of the axes of this framework. So it is important to pay attention to the structured environments in which social action takes place; the embodied schemata of action in which actors act and interact; and the elements of culture and value that refract action within contingent structures. This way of framing the social world and its dynamics has the consequence of discouraging reductionist and single-factor accounts of change. Rather, morphogenetic mechanisms are heterogeneous.

A key question for this programme of research is that of the meaning of “morphogenic” society. What precisely is a morphogenic society? The contrast between morphogenesis and morphostasis is a reasonably clear one.  Borrowing from Walter Buckley, Archer defines morphogenesis as “those processes which tend to elaborate or change a system’s given form, structure or state” (1). Analogously, morphostasis can be defined as “those processes which tend to stabilize and recreate a system’s given form, structure or state”. As Archer and many of her collaborators emphasize, both dynamic processes of change and corrective processes of stability require social explanation, and both kinds of processes are underway in virtually any social order. Moreover, it is possible to identify concrete social mechanisms that contribute to both higher-level characteristics: mechanisms that bring about systemic change and mechanisms that tend to reinforce existing structures.

So morphogenesis and morphostasis are reasonably clear as analytical concepts. But what is a morphogenic society? One possible reading is that a morphogenic society is one in which the change-driving (morphogenetic) characteristics of the society are substantially more dominant than the stability-enhancing (morphostatic) characteristics; so a morphogenic society is one that tends to undergo rapid and non-convergent change. Archer doesn’t give a definition of the meaning of this concept in this volume (though the second volume of this series is also primarily focused on the idea of a morphogenic society). But Andrea Maccarini provides a brief and useable definition in her contribution to the current volume.

I will use the word ‘morphogenetic’ to refer to the intrinsic tendency of all human societies to generate and change (social) forms, while I call ‘morphogenic’ the specific societal syndrome characterized by the situational logic of opportunity, stemming from ‘unbound morphogenesis’ (signifying one unfettered from morphostasis) and leading to a wholly novel societal formation. (159)

This definition is consistent with the reading offered here. A morphogenic society is one that is largely characterized by morphogenetic mechanisms with a relative lack of morphostatic mechanisms, with the result that this society experiences large structural change and does not converge upon a subsequent stable (morphostatic) eqilibrium.

What is the medium-term result of a complex system like society which undergoes constant and non-convergent change? This is a critical and difficult question. Once again, Maccarini is the researcher who addresses it most directly:

The issue concerning the social quality of a morphogenic societal formation – the crucial question about what social life will be like if the MS finally becomes our social universe – must remain as uncertain as all statements about the future do. But the practical answer is already unfolding before our eyes. (172)

She hypothesizes a process of social change that leads to heterogeneity and change but also permits of a degree of local stability:

The march toward a societal formation we can call ‘morphogenic’ can be conceived of as a stepwise process, whereby mechanisms produce emergent properties and entities, and these gradually coalesce to generate new ‘environments’, i.e. ‘parts’ or ‘islands’ of society (organizational sectors, inter-institutional complexes, regions, etc.) that are in tune with the morphogenic logic. The scale of such innovations tends to increase, as well as do further links among them, and the eventual outcome would be a whole ‘society’ in which all the main processes finally work according to that logic. The argument I am presenting builds a gradual path to the characterization of a whole societal formation, and could be outlined as follows. (165)

I’m not sure this description is coherent, however, with the idea of a morphogenic society. The problem is that it envisions an eventual equilibrium — a new set of social arrangements that maintain their characteristics over time. These are new “environments … that are in tune with the morphogenic logic.” But this implies a new form of stasis — structural stability over time — and therefore a society that is no longer “morphogenic”. There is a suggestion in Maccarini’s argument that she is aware of this tension, and she highlights the idea that the new emergent formations are not exactly forms of “morphostasis”. Instead, to capture the idea that these new stabilities are contingent and subject to future change she refers to them as enclaves and vortices (167) — temporary and local forms of stability within a larger process of change. Vortices may persist even under environments that embody a great deal of turbulence.

This implies a worldview that is indeed different from both Heraclitean flux (or liquid modernity; link) and Platonic stability — a view of the social world in which persistence is bounded and embedded within larger fields of change. She writes:

Such studies allow us to model morphogenetic / morphostatic cycles, comprising gradual change, catastrophes and sudden collapses, social de-generation and re-generation. In other words, they describe and model the possible ‘rhythm’ of social morphogenesis within particular time spans, characterized by given conditions and structures, in concrete case studies. The pivotal concept of the whole argument is that of turbulence. (167)

These topics just scratch the surface of Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order, and a subsequent post will pick up several other important threads of the research presented here.

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