Spatio-temporality and Social Structure: Or, what Realists can learn from Goffman

If we bracket the time dimension in order to focus on hierarchically organized social space, we have to take into account that agent X, in pursuing specific goals, is faced with external institutional and figurational structures which, from his/her perspective, present a mix of manipulable and non-manipulable features or properties. This structural mix is both real and eternal to agent X. But despite this reality and externality, structural features change from the perspective of a more powerful agent Y who is also  involved in the same space-time matrix. For actor Y, the structural mix of changeable and non-changeable features is transformed: what was non-changeable for X becomes changeable for Y. It is precisely this type of variability that Archer does not take seriously into account. In so far as she underemphasises, she ascribes to the properties of structures a fixity, an intransivity which they do not possess. This underemphasis leads to a partial hypostatisation and reification of structural features, since the relation between agent and structure in examined in a hierarchic vacuum. (Mouzelis 2008: 204-205)

It took me a while to get to grips with the critique Mouzelis is making here but increasingly I think it’s an  important one. In Archer’s earlier work structures impinged causally on agents through conditioning the situations which agents involuntarily confronted. On this view structures are activity dependent but rather than, as with the structurationist perspective, seeing present structures as the medium and outcome of present action, structures are emergent from past interaction. As Cruickshank (2000) observes the activity dependence is construed in past tense rather than present tense terms. This places temporality at the heart of the morphogenetic approach:

In structural conditoning, systemic properties are viewed as the emergent or aggregate consequence of past actions. Once they have been elaborated over time they are held to exert a causal influence upon subsequent interaction” (Archer 1995: 90) [emphasis added]

However this then poses a problem. If the causal powers of structures only operate through their constraining or enabling influences upon the doings of agents then the ‘situation’ begins to look like something of a cypher. As Mouzelis observes, any given situation will be characterised by a balance of manipulable and non-manipulable features which are, to a certain extent, relative to the individuals within it. Such a claim is perfectly consistent with Archer’s approach, in fact it is a logical corollary of it, though it has yet to be fully elaborated. Doing so would require a much more thorough concept of the situation: of a sort which has been sidelined given the subsequent turn to individual reflexivity which has characterised her later work.

What I think Mouzelis points to is the way in which the morphogenetic approach has tended to obscure spatiality and how the ‘situation’ is a rather complex thing given the multiplicity of how conditioning social structures play themselves out, impinging directly on the participating actors but also indirectly shaping the unfolding of interaction. I don’t mean the morphogenetic approach obscures this in the sense of denying it but rather in the more subtle way that, much as Giddens loses time as an actual variable while affirming it theoretically, Archer loses spatiality as an actual variable while recognising it in the abstract. Spatiality and embodiment are integral to the account she gives of practice and nature in Being Human (Archer 2000) but the turn to relationality in recent work, partly influenced by Donati’s relational sociology, still leaves the social construed in a curiously disembodied way. Relations take centre-stage within her sociology but there’s little theory of interaction per se at this level (as opposed to the level of [collective] agents where interaction is what the morphogenetic approach is about) and this is where I think there’s room for a thorough realist engagement with Goffman which, as far as I’m aware, only Dave Elder-Vass and Chris Shilling have made any attempt at.

2 thoughts on “Spatio-temporality and Social Structure: Or, what Realists can learn from Goffman

  1. There’s an element of truth to it! But I think it’s more a consequence of her not being interested in what Goffman is interested in and vice versa rather than any necessary incompatibility.

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