Margaret Archer as neo-classical British social theorist

While Margaret Archer’s theoretical work is widely respected, it is often categorised as little more than an elaboration of Roy Bhaskar and a critique of Anthony Giddens. This framing leaves it secondary to Critical Realism and Structuration Theory, understandable (though limiting) in the former case and deeply inaccurate in the latter case. Reading Envisioning Sociology by John Scott and Ray Bromley has left me wondering whether she should be categorised as a neo-classical British social theorist, as her work embodies many of the theoretical themes which concerned early British social theorists whose influence and ideas have largely now been forgotten.

The obvious counter-argument to this reading is that she has never, to the best of my knowledge, engaged with the work of Patrick Geddes or Victor Branford. Indeed, as we discussed in the interview here, many of her foundational influences came in a Sociology department at LSE which was profoundly shaped by Geddes losing the opportunity to become the first chair of Sociology after messing up his interview. It’s a fascinating counter-factual to imagine what the intellectual culture might have been like in a Geddes run department and the implications this would have had for subsequent generations of PhD students imbibing those influences.

This reading is interesting because it overcomes the tendency to see Archer’s earlier and later work as separate phases, whether as a mystifying turn to the individual (by critics) or as an attempt to solve critical realism’s agency problem (by fans). What struck me when reading Envisioning Sociology was how closely the notion offered by Geddes and Branford that “Humans … are born not only into a physical environment and material heritage but also into historically specific social relations that comprise their ‘social heritage’” (loc 2803) resembles Archer’s own account of the natural, practical and social order. As they contextualise these influences on loc 2777:

In the early debates of the Sociological Society, as exemplified by the articles in the three volumes of Sociological Papers , including most of the works presented to the founding meetings of the Society in 1904, 1905, and 1906, the primary debate is between eugenics, as advocated by Francis Galton, Benjamin Kidd, and others, and civics, as advocated by Patrick Geddes, Victor Branford, and others. It was apparently a classic “nature versus nurture” debate in which the two alternative explanations of the human condition are genetics and culture. In reality, however, Geddes’s position was much more nuanced, combining the biological and social sciences and focusing on ecology, environment, and culture. To Geddes, the human condition had three major features: our biological nature as mammals within ecosystems; our social nature as the species uniquely possessed with powers of speech, culture, and spirituality; and, our activist nature, as a species, like ants, possessed with a tremendous capacity for social organization, construction, and improvement in the physical and social environment.

What makes these ideas jarring to read in the present day is how they traverse disciplinary boundaries in their attempt to engage with social, practical and natural reality in its totality:

This was the grand idea that Geddes and Branford sought to bring to sociology, a multifaceted vision of an activist society in its cultural and biological context. Their idea was grander and more sophisticated than eugenics, but they never managed to make it fit into universities because twentieth-century academia had more restrictive concepts of disciplines and expertise. Instead, a much narrower concept of sociology took root, a much narrower version of planning emerged as a separate discipline, and biology, psychology, anthropology, and education all took their separate courses.

This I would argue is precisely the promise that Archer’s social theory has begun to reclaim, integrating a developmental sociology of the individual, a meso-sociology of conflict/consensus and a macro-sociology of transformation/stability. There are the foundations for a radical reorientation of social theory and social science in this work, capable of reclaiming the lost promise of the classical British social theorists. I’m concerned that their current categorisation as ‘critical realist Sociology’ means this value is unlikely to be realised.

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