Social Morphogenesis: Variety, Reflexivity and Agency

The account of ‘social morphogenesis’ offered by Archer and her collaborators is that of a process driven by the generative mechanism of ‘variety producing more variety’:

as novel items (ideas, techniques, products, skills) are added to the cultural and social systems, so too the range of potential compatibilities between them increases. Innovation and even invention become matters of creative combination and change amplifies in speed and scope. Although openings for profit grow alongside, the competitive instrumental rationality of modernity ceases to be the sole motor and motive driving social morphogenesis. The situational logic of action shifts progressively away from zero-sum competition (with its winners and losers) by valorising the production of novelty through making connections, without such innovations having to overcome the opposition of entrenched interest because these cannot yet have become consolidated where new variety is concerned. The situational logic of Opportunity is still trammelled by that of Competition (hence wars over patents and copyrights versus Open flows and cyber-commons) but it has – unlike every other situational logic – the potentiality of fostering ‘win-win’ scenarios. Only, if and when that potential is realised will it be justifiable to talk of a Morphogenetic society. If and when that happen it will be a very different place and one marked by heterogeneity at all levels and in all domains. (Archer 2013: 14)

The notion of ‘Morphogenetic Society’ can actually distract from the substance of these arguments, given it is a hypothesised potential outcome to the process of social morphogenesis. The core claim is that there is something qualitatively distinct about the mode of social change in contemporary society. This analysis rejects approaches to social change which proceed from the identification of empirical patterns:

Instead, what dominates this actualist literature is associations, whether or not these are subject to metrification. Its authors have been ‘struck’ by some radical change in S or A or C and have then established (or noted) that this is empirically connected with other changes making a pattern. If big and bold enough the new pattern is usually said to have announced social transformation. It makes no difference if the pattern that ‘strikes’ researchers derives from their prior theoretical commitments or is so ‘striking’ that it leads to their revision […] One way in which such empiricism announces itself in the literature on ‘globalisation’ is in the over-hasty proclamation of new ‘Ages’: the Global Age itself, the Information, Knowledge, Network, Risk, Liquid, etc., societies. Significantly, each of these adjectives highlights a characteristic that is held to be distinctive of a ‘new’ social ordering and justifies differentiating it from the preceding social formation. But what is the nature of the characteristics singled out? Are they descriptive or explanatory? mostly, these seem to begin as the former but then pretend to the latter, as is generically the case with empiricism. (Archer 2013: loc 162-175)

The problem with such approaches is that “observable transitional features are simply extrapolated and presumed to constitute transformation” (Archer 2013: loc 507). Instead the aim of Archer et al is to understand the process which is generative of the empirical patterning identifiable in the domains of structure, culture and agency. Given that “in the social order, feedback, whether positive or negative, cannot be ‘automatic’ but is necessarily mediated by human reflexivity, be it individual or collective” an adequate account of social morphogenesis is understood to require the incorporation of structure, culture and agency within its explanatory scope. My own interest in this is at the level of agency:

At the (first-order) level, agents (individual or collective) and actors confront rapidly changing structural and cultural contexts in daily life and across generations. Does this necessarily augment low social integration by fostering incomprehension, disunity and transitional Luddism? Alternative, but with the same consequence, is agential heterogeneity becoming such that solidarity is precluded by individualism? (Archer 2013: loc 553)

I’m writing a paper (on hold until I finish my PhD draft) in which I argue that asexual community offers an interesting case study of the new modalities through which difference can be reconstituted as commonality through the mediation of digital technology but in a way generative in turn of greater difference. This is my basic argument:

Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

The reflexivity of those who come to identify as asexual allows them to “internalize, employ and elaborate the cultural representations (beliefs, theories, practical knowledge etc.)” generated by those who already identified as such (Archer 2013: 4001). The commonality of experience (finding one’s ‘lack of sexual attraction’ pathologised by a reference) which leads to self-identification as asexual (i.e. the appropriation of cultural ideas encountered in person, online and/or in the media) gives way to the elaboration of difference in terms of the shared cultural resources. The refinement of the asexual discourse is recursively constituted through the articulation of progressively more refined accounts of similarity and difference by individuals and groups within the asexual community.

In PhD research my concern is to understand the proliferation of variety in biographical terms. Archer’s notion of the necessity of selection derives from everyday life of the young which social morphogenesis brings about, one characterised by “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). This variety is relationally ‘filtered’, in the sense that what is substantively encountered and how it is evaluated are conditioned by the network of relations within which an individual is embedded. So variety, as encountered in the lived live, always constitutes ‘bounded variety’ and it is the dynamics of this ‘boundedness’ which provide such an interesting frame of analysis for explaining particular biographical trajectories. Archer theorises this in terms of the different processes through which practitioners of different modes of reflexivity experience a reduction in variety over time:

replication for the communicative reflexives, instrumental rationality for the autonomous reflexives and value commitment for meta-reflexives. In turn, the development and maintenance of these modes was seen to be underpinning by equally distinctive patterns of relations to the natal background of ‘identifiers’, ‘independents’ and the ‘disengaged’. Such relational differences provided a preliminary orientation to the world of work, highlighting some sectors and eliminating others. The subsequent pattern of relations that developed in the course of their undergraduate years then operated as a finer filter guiding reflexive deliberations and fine tuning their selection of future employment within each of the sectors already pre-selected. (Archer 2013: 271)

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