The philosopher Daniel Little has written about volume 1 and volume 2 of the Social Morphogenesis book series on his Understanding Society blog:

“Margaret Archer’s contribution to critical realism has been an important part of the recent progress of the field, and her theory of morphogenesis is key to this progress. Her recent volume, Social Morphogenesis, represents a rigorous and serious step forward in the project of articulating this theory as both a meta-theory for the social sciences and a potential contribution to sociological theory. The volume includes two good essays by Archer, as well as contributions by Douglas Porpora, Andrea Maccarini, Tony Lawson, Colin Wight, Kate Forbes-Pitt, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Ismael Al-Amoudi, and Pierpaolo Donati.”

– Daniel Little on volume 1

“This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.”

– Daniel Little on volume 2

I hadn’t realised this was still online. It’s a very useful resource:

One of the problems I had when I studied analytic philosophy was my inability to map much of what I was studying onto how I saw the world. There were a few exceptions (Hume, Marxism, Causation, Political Philosophy) but I otherwise struggled to understand what was at stake in the work we were studying. This work was presented to us in terms which stressed its interrelations but in a way which was entirely artificial: framing Locke, Berkeley, Hume against Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz doesn’t help matters if the categories of ’empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’ have little substantive content. I just found it dull… in retrospect I find this strange given how much I can enjoy philosophy now. For instance I recently read this book which brought Leibniz and Spinoza to life for me. I found it stunning that something which had once so bored me (though at least I tried, as opposed to basically giving up when we got to Kant) could now be so intellectually gripping.

What’s obvious to me in retrospect is how little studying analytic philosophy changed how I saw the world. Weirdly, I can only think of formal logic (which I hated at the time) as has having had any lasting perceptual impact on me, as being forced to learn this stuff at 18 leaves you much more attuned to non sequiturs than you might otherwise be. In contrast, sociology has radically changed how I see the world, both in a Millsian sense of ‘making the familiar strange’ but also in the sense of furnishing me with a social ontology that actually maps onto my day-to-day experience, opening out those aspects of the social world which common sense tends to close down. After this experience, going back to philosophy, I find I can get much more out of it. In the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? and a lot of Nietzsche (Ecce Homo, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, Daybreak). Suddenly, these books which I’d struggled with as an MA student (believing that my problem with philosophy was with analytic philosophy rather than with philosophy itself) make sense to me in a way that they didn’t previously.

What’s changed? These ideas map onto my own experience. They also map onto other people’s ideas. I think this is what was missing when I studied philosophy. Almost none of it mapped onto my own experience and, in retrospect, I seized upon what even vaguely did (e.g. political philosophy) out of sheer intellectual boredom. It also only mapped onto other work is a somewhat empty and formalistic way, as a function of abstracted taxonomies rather than as a multiplicity of concrete disputes. I think this is crucial to our capacity to engage with theoretical work because, without it, it remains difficult to genuinely elaborate a view upon what we are engaging with. Again, as with many things, I’d see this propositionally while resisting the impulse to reduce it to its propositional content.

My point is that theoretical argument builds upon points of agreement and disagreement. One chapter of my PhD thesis looked very closely at the account of the subject offered by Giddens and its implications for his analysis of social change. Both he and I use the same term ‘reflexivity’ but we use it to refer to a slightly different thing. Understanding the significance of this necessitates an appreciation of what ‘reflexivity’ means to Giddens, how it relates to his broader conception of what the individual is and his conception of the social processes in which such individuals are embedded. In this sense, there’s a hermeneutic moment entailed in engaging with someone’s work but, if we leave it here, social theory remains a fragmented enterprise. My chapter rested on a further analysis of the points of disagreement between this Giddensian account of agency and my own. So while it’s not as simple as cashing out atomistic disagreements in propositional terms (e.g. reflexivity as monitoring vs reflexivity as deliberation) a proper engagement necessitates an understanding of the network of disagreements.

I completely get why critical realism turns a lot of people off. In fact I sometimes find myself reticent to use the term ‘critical realism’ and instead slip into saying ‘relational realism’, ‘social realism’ or just ‘realism’. But the sort of critical realism I like (Archer, Donati, Sayer, Elder-Vass, Porpora, Smith, the early Bhaskar and Derek Layder, though he wouldn’t identify himself as such) is appealing to me precisely because it helps with translation of this sort. Archer’s work in particular offers an extremely sophisticated meta-theory which is sometimes obscured by the sheer volume of her work and her tendency to be intellectually combative. I guess what I’m saying is that these meta-theoretical resources have proved very helpful in understanding what it is that theorists are arguing about.

This isn’t just a point about realism. I think realists can often write in a way which obscures the logic of their disagreement with others (at its worst tending towards scholasticism: “that’s the epistemic fallacy?”, “er what’s an epistemic fallacy?”) but the best realist critique tends to draw out ontological disagreements in very specific terms e.g. Dave Elder-Vass on ANT. One of my favourite non-realist theorists is Nicos Mouzelis. He’s adept at precisely the sort of ‘translation’ I’m talking about. One of the things I find so helpful about his work is that much of his engagement rests on incorporating disparate theorists into the same intellectual topology and evaluating them in terms of this. It produces some insightful, though contentious arguments, such as his observation of the “methodological similarities” between Foucault and Parsons (Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong? Pg 47) that become “quite striking” once you strip away their profoundly divergent vocabularies. Ian Craib makes a similar point in his discussion of Stuart Hall (Experiencing Identity, Pg 8) observing that if we “substitute ‘role’ and ‘role expectations’ for ‘discourse’ and ‘practice’ we are close to the determinist version of the traditional sociological approach”.

My experience has been that proponents of the views that are incorporated (or relativised?) in this way can often react with irritation. I think there’s an important line to walk between preserving the textual adequacy of readings and tolerating what, in practice, constitutes a form of relativisation that is necessary for progress in sociological theory. My fear is that the career structure of the modern academy mitigates against this ‘translation’ though. It requires rather a lot of careful reading. It produces commentary rather than the novel contributions upon which such commentary depends. But unless we can be clear about precisely what we agree and disagree upon, it’s hard to see how progress in sociological theory could be possible.

At any given moment I exist in relation to a we. But I also bring to those relations a ‘me’ made up of things which have happened to me and things which I have made happen. Many aspects of the past ‘me’ deposited in any present moment belong to the domain of psychology. Beyond this I also bring with me dispositions, concerns and projects which shape how I approach the ‘we’: the things I tend to do habitually, the things that matter to me and those activities which I deliberately strive to engage in because they actualise my concerns. It is through this interaction with a ‘we’ that my personhood is either reproduced (personal morphostasis) or elaborated (personal morphogenesis).  Charles Taylor’s notion of ‘webs of interlocution’ nicely conveys what I’m getting at there:

One cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding – and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call ‘webs of interlocution’. It is this original situation which gives its sense to our concept of ‘identity’, offering an answer to the question of who i am through a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom. The full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community. (Taylor 1989: 36).

We are born into a ‘we’ and our identity as ‘I’ emerges in relation to it. Throughout are lives, we are continually entangled in relations with others – some chosen, others not – which contribute to shaping the people we become. But this process of becoming who we are emerges in interaction, as what we bring to the interaction (me), conditions how we act (I) in relation to our reference group (we) and, through this interaction, our present characteristics are often elaborated as we become our future self (you). The notion of ‘you’ I’m invoking here relates to our sense of our possible selves: 

Possible selves are future representations of the self including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experience singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by functioning as incentive for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less-desirable selves. As representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form, specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears. In other words, elaborated possible selves influence the development of specific strategies for action, focus an individual’s activities, give direction in the pursuit of these goals and energise the person to achieve them. Not unsurprisingly research has shown that those with highly developed career-possible selves are more motivated, goal orientated and energetic than those with less or unelaborated ones. These individuals are a lot more likely, when confronted with a threat to the possibility of achieving a desired career-possible selve, to their persist with their goals and strategies or develop new career-possible selves. (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 3)

So the ‘me’ conditions how ‘I’ act in relation to ‘we’ and this in turn shapes the ‘you’ that I become. However the ‘we’ is not some preconstituted collectivity. Firstly, we often have more than one ‘we’ in our lives – something I can conceptualise but have no idea how to represent visually. More importantly though, our ‘we’ is constituted of other I’s and I am part of their ‘we’ . So in the process of our interaction through which I change, those in relation to whom I act are also themselves changing through that interaction. Here Px stands for any number of people and the T1-T4 represent the same moments of ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ for each and every one of these individuals:

So understanding biography cannot be divorced from understanding relations. On this view, relations represent a form of biographical entanglement in which, using Nick Crossley’s phrase, two actors “have a history of past and an expectation of future interaction and that this shapes their current interaction” (Crossley 2011: 28). But this interaction is always situated – the dotted enclosure below represents the social milieux in which this interaction tends to occur and this will, in turn, constrain and enable the interaction which takes place within it:

The patterning of the interaction over time between ‘I’ and ‘we’ generates emergent properties which shape future interaction:

Where the receipt of ‘relational goods’ is concerned, this has the generative tendency to create bonds and interdependencies at the empirical level amongst the persons involved that denote more than ’good interpersonal relations’. They indicate something in excess of a degree of warmth and some regularity of contact. That ‘something’ refers to emergent properties, namely ‘internal goods’ (such as love, reliance, caring and trust) that cannot be produced by aggregation are also deemed highly worthwhile in themselves (Archer 2012: 99)

So even if I acquire my reference group contingently and externally (as the vast majority of my research participants did when the university accommodation office placed them in a halls of residence) this biographical convergence leads to entanglement if and only if the various parties value these relations and seek to sustain them over time.

If a subject relies on interlocutors to sustain and confirm reflexive deliberations, it leaves them open to conversational censure in a way in which autonomous reflexives and meta-reflexives are not. If their interlocutor objects, mocks or fails to understand what they are saying then the possibility of reaching a conclusion, at least in that instance, is foreclosed; this need for conversational confirmation leads individuals to keep their deliberations in conformity with the conventions of the local context. Their internal deliberations are often restricted to gut reactions which are subsequently raised in dialogue with others, rather than coming to provisional conclusions which might later be ‘shot down’ by others. The reflexive deliberations of the communicative reflexive are constrained by the transactional dynamics of the dialogues through which they are enacted. As Archer describes the consequences:

“What the practice of communicative reflexivity does it to privilege the public over the private, shared experience over lone experiences, third-person knowledge over first-person knowledge. Through the tendency for every issues to be reduced to the experiential common denominators of its discussants, communicative reflexivity is inhospitable to the innovative, the imaginative or the idiosyncratic. In short, the speculative realm is severely truncated in favour of common sense, common experience and common knowledge.”

So what are the socio-cultural consequences of the decline of this mode of reflexivity? The normative conventionalism enacted through such dialogues shouldn’t be understood merely as censorious; it also offered guidance and orientation through the experience and knowledge, however fallible, which were reproduced conversationally as well as the socio-cultural immediacy with which they were available. The questions faced by the communicative subject which led them to seek guidance through conversation (i.e. how to order their concerns and work out a stable modus Vivendi – as well as the social knowledge and self knowledge necessary to accompany this task) persist in spite of the absence of those cultural resources which would previously have directly or indirectly given answers.

However the hegemony of such common sense, entrenched through the reliance of the communicative reflexive on conversational confirmation, meant that the answers given were routine: there were socio-culturally available answers to existential questions which were possessed of both immediacy and expansiveness. One’s dialogical partners were usually able to provide common sense answers to questions which usually effectively answered the question. While it might seem from a contemporary standpoint that such traditionalism is inherently limited – perhaps being seen to represent a subjective standpoint being falsely presented as objective fact – in fact the very conditions which gave rise to its stable reproduction also underwrote its objectivity; when common sense is being reproduced like this, its mode of reproduction (through substantive webs of dialogical partnership) relies on a grounding in shared experience, landmarks and reference points – a shared mental topography – which ensures its relevance  as a source of answers to existential questions. So the absence of such a shared mental topography and the seeming irrelevance of common sense are two consequences of the same underlying cause: the decline of contextual continuity.

Though such common sense was reproduced through communicative reflexivity, it was available to practitioners of other modes and contingently useful in so far as it informally codified habitual repertoires. However structural and cultural morphogenesis mean that “socialization has been decreasingly able to ‘prepare’ for occupational and lifestyle opportunities that had not existed for the parental generation” (Archer 2010: 136). So the decline of contextual continuity and, with it, the stock of common sense has an impact beyond the experience of communicative reflexives. Though the extent and manner in which they drew upon it varies across different modes, its  rapid erosion deprives all subjects of a source of reflexive guidance that was previously present.

A formerly important source of reflexive guidance is being eroded by the same morphogenetic processes which are multiplying the opportunities facing subjects. This leaves four possible outcomes:

  1. The subject must work to try and (re)produce contextual continuity within their socio-cultural environment. However such subjects are unlikely to be encountered at university unless they live locally and thus were able to stay with or near family.
  2. The subject must look further into their socio-cultural context – for authoritative figures and/or prescriptive organizations – as a source of guidance.
  3. The subject must look to the cultural system – for understandings, ideas, ideals and theories – which help them make sense of their situation as so provide a source of guidance.
  4. The subject must fall back upon their own resources to negotiate a path through their situation without relying on outside guidance.

The first is characteristic of communicative reflexivity. As discussed this is increasingly difficulty as the costs associated with ‘staying put’ become ever steeper and the opportunities to avoid embracing novelty ever fewer (Archer 2010: 140). My further analysis will focus on how participants look to these different spheres (socio-cultural, cultural systemic and personal), biographical factors underlying these tendencies and how they relate to the changing practice of reflexivity. Through my continuing analysis of the first year of interviews I intend to elaborate the notion of ‘reflexive guidance’ further and explore the relationship between the practice of reflexivity and sources of guidance in relation to that practice.

One of the key aims of my thesis is to elaborate a theory of personal morphogenesis i.e. the psychosocial dynamics of how individuals change. In broad terms, I am construing the subject matter as biographical. I’m interested in understanding how the particular circumstances which a specific individual inhabits at a given point in time contribute to shaping who they are over time. Or to put it a slightly different way, I want to understand how biography unfolds psychosocially i.e. how do the ‘moments’ of our life contribute to shaping our overarching life course? I want to theorise this but I also want to build tools which enable these processes to be properly studied, allowing researchers to avoid the pitfalls of over-privileging agency, culture or structure in their sociological explanations of empirical observed biographies.

This necessitates understanding the mechanisms which drive the direction taken by biographical unfolding. Here is where the notion of reflexivity comes into play, as individuals fallibly weigh up their objective circumstances against their subjective concerns and decide what to do. The methodology I’m developing involves reconstructing reflexive ‘moments’, as well as the deliberations and actions they give rise to, with the intention of addressing how cycles of personal morphogenesis (i.e. something changes in our circumstances which has, in our selves, subjective significance, we respond to it reflexively and, in the process, both ourselves and our circumstances are changed to varying degrees) knit together over time to produce the biographical trajectory we can observe retrospectively.

  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.