The concept of ‘social structure’ is central to sociological inquiry yet there is little agreement about what it means. This matters because social explanation hinges on what we take ‘structure’ to be and a lack of ubiquity about the term helps fuel the disagreements and confusions which are already rife within sociological theory. In a paper from 1989 Doug Porpora identifies the four most prominent uses of the concept:

I. Patterns of aggregate behavior that are stable over time
2. Lawlike regularities that govern the behavior of social facts
3. Systems of human relationships among social positions
4. Collective rules and resources that structure behavior

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5914.1989.tb00144.x/abstract

The first use tends to be associated with individualists concerned to explain how social patterns arise aggregatively from individual behaviour. The second use tends to be associated with holists concerned with social facts and the properties of collectivities. The third use is most frequently associated with Marxism and network theorists (for different reasons) with their respective concerns for the causal power of social relations. The fourth use has often been associated with symbolic interactionists, as well as the structurationist theory of Anthony Giddens.

Another way of considering the different uses of ‘social structure’ is offered by Dave Elder-Vass. He argues that a notion of structure as an emergent feature of social wholes can contribute to existing understandings of structure within sociological theory:

This paper engages with the long running debate on social structure, using Lopez and Scott’s typology of social structure as a starting point (Lopez and Scott 2000). In their useful summary of this debate, they have portrayed the history of this concept as a dialogue between two different concepts or facets of structure, both with roots in Durkheim. On the one hand, institutional structure is comprised by the cultural or normative expectations that guide agents’ relations with each other. On the other, relational structure is composed of the social relations themselves – causal interconnections and interdependences between agents. More recently, a third facet has come to the fore: embodied structure, and Lopez and Scott suggest that embodied structure can play a key role in reconciling and integrating the earlier institutional and relational views.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2008.00203.x/abstract

Institutional structure include macro phenomena (e.g. property, employment, marriage) and micro phenomena (e.g. queuing, turn taking, gift giving). In both cases, institutions serve to regulate interaction by conditioning the reciprocal expectations of actors. Relational structure encompass the relations between roles (e.g. teacher/students, employer/employee) and between concrete individuals. With regards to the latter, we can find a weak sense of relation found in someone like Crossley (a relation is a past history and expectation of future interaction between A and B) and a strong sense found in Donati and Archer (a relation is an emergent property of interaction, producing relational goods/evils, which can only be experienced through participation in that relation). I think Crossley’s sense is congruent with network theory but I’m not certain. Embodied structure is a notion found in theorists like Giddens, Bourdieu and Foucault (in different ways) and concerns the way in which structure ‘gets inside’ actors. It sees social conditions as inculcating behavioural dispositions with consequences for those conditions. In someone like Bourdieu there’s an extremely sophisticated sense of those conditions, which leaves embodied structure as a mechanism through which relational structure gets transformed or reproduced.

In his paper Dave Elder-Vass in concerned to integrate these notions of structure into an account of social wholes. The idea here is that wholes have powers in virtue of the arrangement of their parts:

Let me illustrate the point with one simple example from the natural world. Dogs usually have the emergent power to bark (the property of being able to bark). The dog’s vocal cords, windpipe, lungs, mouth, and brain are all required to make this happen, but none of these parts, or even all of them linked together, would have the power to bark if they were not organized (along with its other parts) into the anatomical relations required to form them into a living dog. We could explain how these parts, combined in this way, generate the power to bark, but this does not take away the fact that this power can only be possessed by a whole living dog, and not by the parts as such.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2008.00203.x/abstract

However understanding how this can be so necessitates that we address the underlying ambiguity in the word structure, as a feature of lay discourse, which compounds the higher level confusions surrounding it as a concept in sociological theory:

These arise from the ‘persistent ambiguity’ in the meaning of structure identified by Raymond Williams (Crothers 2002: 7; Williams 1976: 253). As Williams explains, the word originally referred to the process of building, but:

The word was notably developed in C17, in two main directions: (i) towards the whole product of building, as still in ‘a wooden structure’; (ii) towards the manner of construction, not only in buildings but in extended and figurative applications. (Williams 1976: 253)

It is clear from the history of structure and structural that the words can be used with either emphasis: to include the actual construction with special reference to its mode of construction; or to isolate the mode of construction in such a way as to exclude both ends of the process – the producers . . . and the product, in its substantive sense. (Williams 1976: 257)

In other words, the label structure can be used to refer to different structural elements. It can, for example, refer to a whole entity that is structured by the relations between its parts ((i) in Williams), which I shall call structure-as- whole, or it can refer to the way that a group of things (generally the parts of a whole) is related to each other ((ii) in Williams), which I shall call structure- as-relations.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2008.00203.x/abstract

It’s in this sense of structure-as-whole that we can conceive of wholes as having powers in virtue of the arrangement of their parts.

At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.

On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.

This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:

This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

http://essential.metapress.com/content/316934k1155kw362/

This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research. 

So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas? 

*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.

The Causal Power of Social Structures
Dave Elder-Vass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, £50.00, 240pp.

Explaining the Normative
Stephen Turner, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010, £18.99, 240pp.

Normativity is a concept with a contentious history. While most would accept its centrality to everyday human experience, the question of what exactly it is and how it is to be explained has rarely, if ever, commanded widespread agreement. In this review essay I will consider two important recent contributions to this debate, summarising and evaluating each in turn before attempting to draw out the important issues these books raise for work on normativity.

In Explaining the Normative, Stephen Turner seeks to unpick the messy intellectual history of normativity and, through doing so, offer an account of exactly where the debate about the notion has gone wrong and how it might be put right. He suggests that the pervasiveness of the issue within the contemporary philosophical landscape is a consequence of normativity’s historical position at the interface between philosophy and the social sciences. With the emergence of social science and the continual growth of its explanatory ambitions, many philosophers have sought to stake out a particular area of human life unamenable to causal explanation.  Normativity represents ‘a more or less self-conscious attempt to take back ground lost to social-science explanation’ (Turner 2010: 5).

The first chapter of the book attempts to draw out the common features which philosophical accounts of normativity tend to share. While recognising the diversity which characterises normative arguments, he nonetheless claims the existence both of a strong family resemblance and an array of generic problems which afflict theories of normativity. Perhaps the most pertinent of these is what Turner calls the ‘does it matter problem’. The normativist must say that norms are ineliminable from explanation. Yet while ‘ordinarily the explanation of action involves beliefs’, the validity of those beliefs (i.e. the usual subject matter of the normativist) ‘is not explanatory in itself’ (Turner 2010: 13).

The second chapter of the book interrogates the explanatory conflict between philosophical and sociological accounts of normativity. Much of this discussion hinges on what explanatory role normativity can play and how this issue has generally been framed from within the two disciplinary perspectives. Normativists argue that normative facts cannot be explained in non-normative ways. One can point to the sociological fact of adherence to a norm but this in itself cannot constitute genuine normativity. Yet this sociological fact is nearly empirically equivalent and usually seems explanatorily adequate to account for why people do the things they do. So social scientists have tended to ask what role there actually is for normativity.

The third chapter takes a slightly different direction, exploring the normativity of law as a case study. Turner traces development in the thinking of the great 20th century legal theorist Hans Kelsen who spent a lifetime trying to establish the normativity of law. While some of this discussion might be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the subject area, it functions effectively as a case study, illustrating the generalised and abstract points draw in the first two chapters at a much more substantive level of intellectual debate.

The fourth chapter uses the practice of anthropological explanation to explore the normativity of concepts. The discussion centres around the work of Peter Winch, taken as a writer who typifies the normativist tradition within social science, for whom ‘social or natural explanations of essentially conceptual or normative subjects are always inadequate to account for the phenomena properly described in their full conceptual significance’  (Turner 2010: 110). The fifth chapter explores the possibility of grounding normativity in an account of collective intentionality. As Turner writes, ‘collective intentionality does appear to provide something objective, at least for a community or collectivity: a standard that is factual in some sense and at the same time normative’ (Turner 2010: 121). However he argues that such accounts fail because they presuppose ideas about collectivity which are themselves ungrounded.

The sixth chapter draws together many of the ideas articulated earlier in the book and represents the fulfilment of Turner’s titular promise to explain the normative. The crux of his argument is this: why invoke a special domain of fact outside the stream of ordinary explanation when the things we would locate within it can be explained naturalistically? Intriguingly Turner draws on cognitive science and neuroscience to posit empathy as a naturalistic explanation for apparently normative phenomena.  He argues that ‘the ‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). In doing so he cuts through the gordian knot  at the heart of the debate about normativity: how to explain normative phenomena in a naturalistic way without explaining them away. Empathy has a ‘natural process underlying it: both the capacity, actually employed, of emulating or following the thought of another and the feedback generated by actual social interaction’. As he points out, these are ‘facts of social theory (and of neuroscience)’ (Turner 2010: 205).

While Turner makes a powerful case about the function of empathy, it would be a mistake to see this as the central feature of his book. What makes Explaining the Normative such an impressive book is the way that Turner’s argument is grounded not just in a vast knowledge of historical debates but in the intellectual biographies of individual theorists who grappled with issues relating to normativity. For instance he traces the development of Kelsen’s thought over his lifetime, showing how his engagement with the problems of normativity ultimately forced him to reject many of the characteristic normativist claims, leading him to see the notion of a ground for legal normativity as fundamentally fictitious. Similarly he shows how Winch’s attempt to come to terms with the strange case of the Azande (who seemed to reason in ways which violated the norms of their own thought) led him to abandon the idea of internal relations: ‘logical relations between concepts, or concepts and actions, which are intrinsically normative: they specify the standards of correctness and are conceptual rather than merely psychological and causal’ (Turner 2010: 103). Instead Winch introduces the notion of ‘intellectual habits’, cognitive dispositions which we must understand in order to interpret other cultures. In doing so, he introduces a parallel natural order of dispositions and habits which is more than capable of doing the explanatory work necessary to explain the practice of the Azande. As with Kelsen, Winch’s attempts to grapple with the normative ultimately led him away from normativism. Turner’s approach to such cases makes the problem of normativity come alive, as the lived concern of real persons, rather than an abstract object of philosophical wrangling. The result is that his own positive account, relatively brief though it is, possesses much more force than it might if stated outright as a free-standing thesis.

In the Causal Power of Social Structures, Dave Elder-Vass sets out to provide a comprehensive realist solution to the problem of structure and agency, encompassing a whole range of issues within a lively and multi-faceted discussion. While only one chapter of the book deals explicitly with normativity, it is considered in its entirety here because of how closely Elder-Vass’s arguments hang together. The first three chapters of the book set out a realist account of emergence and causality. He advocates a relational theory of emergence which understands the causal powers of any given entity as a function of its internal relations over a range of ontological strata. As with other sections of the book, the conceptual clarity which Elder-Vass shows in his writing really illuminates a discussion which might otherwise have been technical and obscure. Furthermore while these chapters offer an admirable contribution to the philosophy of social science in their own right, they also stand as the theoretical architecture which Elder-Vass draws upon in articulating his social theory. Such logical consistency is evident throughout the book and it’s one of the most impressive features of it.

The fourth chapter offers an instructive overview of prevailing accounts of structure within social theory. Elder-Vass explores these accounts in terms of the questions of social ontology dealt with in the first few chapters before offering his own: ‘to the extent that it refers to something genuinely causally effective, the concept of social structure refers to the causal powers of specific social groups’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 86). As such, questions about structure are irrevocably linked with questions about agency for Elder-Vass. These are dealt with in the fifth chapter, where much of the discussion centres around an ambitious attempt to synthesise the work of Margaret Archer on reflexivity and Pierre Bourdieu on habitus into what Elder-Vass calls an ‘emergentist theory of action’Though neither theorist would likely accept the ensuing account, his reconciliation of deliberation and habitus is an intriguing proposition, which is thoughtfully grounded in human neurobiology.

The sixth chapter is where Elder-Vass explores normativity through his notion of ‘norm circles’.  Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have ‘emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centred around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

‘They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124).

This is another example of the logical consistency exhibited by the book’s arguments. As advocated in the meta-theory of social ontology elaborated in the first section of the book, Elder-Vass seeks to identify the causal power of specific social groups rather than subsuming such crucial ontological questions under a general account of normative social institutions. In this case he argues that specific norms circles, obtaining for particular norms, account for the normative causal influences which individuals experience in their daily lives. The relations between members of such a norm circle ‘provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 124). Given the normative heterogeneity which is evident in contemporary society, every individual is embroiled in a whole array of intersecting norm circles such that they must ‘sometimes negotiate a path that balances normative commitments that are in tension with each other’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 143). If followed through empirically, this insight about normative intersectionality transforms ‘norm circles’ from a seemingly quite formalistic concept into an extremely incisive one, able to gain considerable explanatory purchase upon our everyday experience of normativity.

The seventh chapter extends this approach to social theorising in order to offer an account of organizations. As with other chapters, he proceeds through the identification of specific social groupings, the internal relations of which give rise to emergent powers at the level of the whole. One particularly intriguing aspect of this discussion is his use of Goffman’s notion of ‘interaction situations’ as a way of founding his claims about social structure on an analysis of the experience of individual actors in concrete situations. The eighth chapter draws on the preceding work to articulate an analytical typology of social events, identifying both the ontological basis of each and the explanatory practice best suited to it.

The conclusion aptly draws together the diverse strands of the book, restating them in a succinct and clear way which helps him situate them within their wider intellectual context. In fact Elder-Vass exhibits this skill throughout, with a similar review of his arguments at the end of each chapter. This goes hand-in-hand with another defining feature of the book, noted earlier, which is the logical consistency evident throughout. It is an impressive feat to cover so much ground within a single text and yet still maintain such interdependence between arguments, as well as a striking unity of intellectual purpose.

Explaining the Normative and the Causal Powers of Social Structure are two important contributions to research about normativity. Superficially they seem quite different, with the former’s focus on the history of philosophical thought and the latter’s concern with social ontology. However one important aspect they both share is the central role which the findings of neuroscience play in their conclusions.

Turner looks to the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, which activate both when we perform an action and when we see another perform the same action, as a way of explaining many of the phenomena which normativists have tended to claim as their own.  This inbuilt capacity to understand the behaviour of others transforms empathy from ‘an intellectual process bound up with the error-prone folk language of intentionality’ into a ‘fact of science with a discoverable set of features located in specific neuronal processes’ (Turner 2010: 176). The conclusion Turner draws is that the ‘‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others.’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). Similarly Elder-Vass invokes neuroplasticity, the manner in which the networks of neurons in our brain are conditioned and configured by experience, in order to explain the processes of emergence through which our capacity for action results from the biological without being reducible to it.

Though these are different ideas, utilised by each theorist for a different purpose, a similar direction of thought can be seen in both accounts. As Elder-Vass puts it ‘we can explain the powers of human individuals without explaining them away’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 93). This is also Turner’s great insight, although he does not express it quite so succinctly. What Explaining the Normative does do however is foreground the way in which underlying human concerns and cross-disciplinary disputes  have shaped the historical debate about normativity. On one side the normativists have sought to defend the distinctiveness of the human against the expansion of naturalistic explanation.  On the other naturalists have tried to causally explain human experience, against the mystifications of transcendental philosophy, though have too often explained it away. Taken together these two books illustrate powerfully that the dichotomies underlying this debate have been too starkly drawn. It is possible to defend the distinctiveness of the human without invoking the mysteries of a transcendental domain undergirding the aspects of human experience which have been subsumed under the banner of normativity. In fact it is only through rejecting the terms of this dichotomy, with the causal on side and the normative on the other, that we might begin to fully understand what it is to be human.

  1. What cultural resources play a role in the lives of participants?
  2. How do they enable and constrain the commitments, projects and modus vivendi of participants? This constraint and enablement is mediated through internal conversation.
  3. Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphogenesis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?
  4. Which cultural resources under which circumstances lead to personal morphostasis? How do the former and the latter relate in leading to this outcome?

These are the core questions I want to address through my data analysis. At present I have theoretical definitions of the concepts I’m drawing on here (developed from the work of Archer, Elder-Vass, Layder, Sayer and others) but my intention is to use the empirical case study (five interviews with 18 participants over two years) to elaborate upon these concepts in an iterative fashion. In a way my particular focus is the relations between the concepts.

Given the necessity of a conceptual architecture in explaining social outcomes, even though much or all of this is often tacit, it stands to reason that the empirical adequacy of those concepts is key to the explanatory utility. Yet even if we explicitly design a conceptual architecture, unless it is (a) relational (b) empirically adequate then it is going to be unhelpful when we use it in our attempts to explain empirical phenomena which are intrinsically relational. So the concepts have to be fleshed out and revised in dialogue with empirical data but so too do the relations between those concepts, otherwise modes of causation through which the empirical phenomena we’re attempting to conceptualise interrelate risk being occluded because our the range of objects and relations admitted within our conceptual architecture exclude to some degree the objects and relations we’re actually studying. We either exclude them entirely or impute characteristics to them conceptually because there’s no place within our framework for them.  It’s impossible to operate without some kind of conceptual architecture, a simplified map of the kinds of things we’re studying and the kinds of relations that obtain between them:

Even if someone claims they don’t have this, they do. If we’re capable of talking about X in a way which gets beyond a finite set of descriptive statements about X then we do so on the basis of some underlying conceptualisation of X, even if we remain blissfully ignorant of what these concepts are. Even descriptive statements themselves presuppose concepts (e.g. “describe what you see when you look up”… “the sky is overcast, it looks like it’s about to rain” ) in that they move from the particularity of the object being described to some general(ish) statement about the kinds of characteristics embodied by said object. However at this level, it’s not really architecture as such. Or at least not most of the time.

However when it comes to explanation, not merely describing X but offering some account of how X subsequently became Y, the architecture comes into play. In so far as that we’re offering an account of a transition, it necessitates some statement of the objects party to that transition, as well as the relations which obtain between them. It’s at this point that the conceptual architecture we’re working with becomes crucial. Imagine this is a representation of the process we’re studying:

If we try and explain the process depicted above in terms of the conceptual architecture depicted previously then a problem occurs. If the process under investigation involves objects of a kind we have no place for in our conceptual architecture and/or relations between objects which we have no conceptual account of then one of two things happens: the object and/or relation doesn’t enter into our explanation OR the process of explaining our empirical data leads us to impute or ignore characteristics to the objects/relations because we make sense of them in terms of concepts that are fundamentally incongruent with them.

I realise this all sounds very abstract. But the difficulty in talking about this kind of issue is quite interesting in its own right. There’s a general history of neglect within sociology when it comes to explanatory methodology. I’m not talking about methods, methodology or theory. I’m talking about the practice which links those things together in a reflexive way in the process of conducting social research. We all do it, we all engage implicitly with the meta-theoretical issues entailed by it and yet the lack of a clear and well-grounded discourse about how to do this is a major impediment to good social research. I think people obviously still do good social research in spite of this problem. 

Some of the reasons for the problem are pretty obvious. The weird attitudes towards social theory that’s way too common (at least anecdotally) is an issue, as unless people actually engage properly with theory they’re never going to get beyond the stage of seeing it as pointless abstraction. Conversely, theorists who do actually engage in pointless abstraction (also far too common) and particularly the pointless self-congratulatory obfuscation that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with this obviously doesn’t help. I think there’s also some really interesting historical reasons for this, in terms of the changing institutional structures and cultural significance of sociology inquiry, not to mention the way various antinomies of enlightenment thought have worked themselves out over the intellectual history of sociology. Definitely stuff I want to write about properly at some point. But more immediately, explanatory methodology needs to be made a part of research methods training.  

Although only a single chapter of this book deals explicitly with normativity, it is a credit to Elder-Vass that much of the book either supports or proceeds from his arguments about norms. In this post I will only engage with this one chapter but it’s worth noting that the book as a whole is excellent, articulating and persuasively grounding an account of causally efficacious social structure (with normative institutions being only one such structure) in a rigorously argued meta-theory of relational emergence. Perhaps I’m somewhat biased though, given that Elder-Vass seems to be just as influenced by Margaret Archer’s work as I am.

Elder-Vass’s account of normativity is directed towards the question of social institutions. Within the literature, these are taken to be social structures (though others, including myself, would see them as cultural) invoked to explain regularised social practices. So, for example, there is an institution of marriage which specifies certain rules and expectations (norms) which those seeking to acquire the status of being married must adhere to in order to achieve recognition. Obviously the content of these norms is contested, in so far as that not everyone agrees about what rules and expectations are attached to marriage and that, furthermore, socio-cultural battles are still being thought over the extension of the norm e.g. gay marriage. In fact this contestation is itself a sign of the norm’s objective existence: if norms surrounding marriage were simply an aggregation of individual views then why would it be such a contentious political issue? People don’t fight over each other’s views of marriage, they fight over shared views of the norms involved in marriage.

On this basis there is a whole array of social institutions we can identify, with corresponding norms specifying the rules and expectations surrounding those institutions. However this identification does not, in itself, explain what is going on here: how do social institutions shape behaviour? As Elder-Vass observes, a common strategy in the literature is to  “ascribe the causal roles to norms themselves” and assume that “individuals enact particular practices because of the normative beliefs they hold” (117). So, on such a view, the shared practices observed are explained in terms of shared underlying normative beliefs. In some cases this causal link has been theorised in individualised terms, as a consequence of the particular knowledge(s) or belief(s) of individual agents. However it has been more frequently theorised in collective terms because, as Elder-Vass puts it, “some sort of collective pressure is required if we are to provide an explanation of th.e similarity between the social practices of different people” (119). His own theorisation falls into this latter category but with something of a twist. While recognising the necessity of an external collectivity to causally explain social institutions, Elder-Vass resists the long standing tendency within Sociology to assign this role to the vague and omnipresent entity ‘society’ (with an intriguing nod to Latour & ANT in the process), instead “identifying a different kind of social collectivity as the bearer of structural powers” (121): norm circles.

Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have “emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them” (122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centre around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.  (124)

As members of the norm circle, the individuals involved act differently than they otherwise would.

These relations, then, when combined with theses sorts of parts, provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm. The property is the institution and the causal power is the capability that the group has to affect the behaviour of individuals. That causal power is implement through the members of the group, although it is a power of the group, and when its members act in support of the norm, it is the group (as well as the member concerned) that acts. (124)