Frédéric Vandenberghe on Margaret Archer’s “Morphogenetic Quartet”

Unlike Giddens, who is an eclectic thinker and a theoretical opportunist, Archer is more of a systematic theorist who carefully crafts out a series of fundamental concepts (e.g. analytical dualism, the morphogenetic sequence, the stratification of society and agency), and resolutely sticks to them. Wary of fads and fashions, the grand lady of British social theory has developed her own distinctive approach through a theoretical synthesis that tightly integrates the concomitant complementarities of the morphogenetic systems theory of Walter Buckley, the functionalist Marxism of David Lockwood and the critical realism of Bhaskar into a unified morphogenetic social theory. Even if the idea of analytic dualism and the morphogenetic sequence were already twinned and put to good use in the Social Origins of Educational Systems (1979), an 800-page comparative analysis of educational policies in France, England, Russia and Denmark, it would nevertheless take another four books to fully spell out the details of the morphogenetic theory of social, cultural and personal change. Early on, during her stay at Bourdieu’sCentre for European Sociology in Paris, Archer had acquired the strong conviction that in order to properly analyze the emergence, reproduction and transformation of cultural systems and social structures, one should focus on the dynamics between the system and socio-cultural interactions. Borrowing some insights from Buckley’s cybernetic study of the feedback mechanisms of “deviation-amplification” that trigger systemic change, she decomposed those dynamics in a series of endless morphogenetic cycles of systemic conditioning, socio-cultural interaction and systemic elaboration whereby the particular configuration of the system (at T1) conditions the practices of the life-world (at T2), which aim to reproduce or transform the system and lead, eventually (at T3), to a new elaboration of the system, which will be contested and modified in a second cycle, and so forth.

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