We’re now up to book number 4. This is the first one I’ve contributed to personally & it’s due to be published in early 2016. These are the first three volumes in the series:

Social MorphogenesisLate Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenic SocietyGenerative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order

Here’s the coverage of the books that I know of. Please do let me know if you come across something else! I’ll keep this list updated over the coming months:

Overcoming your modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation. That’s what the social psychologist Kenneth Gergen advocates in the new introduction to his famous work The Saturated Self, as quoted by Harmut Rosa in Social Acceleration:

I am also struggling against my modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation. Slowly I am learning the pleasures of relinquishing the desire to gain control of all that surrounds me. It is the difference between swimming with deliberation to a point in the ocean – mastering the waves to reach a goal – and floating harmoniously with the unpredictable movements of the waves.

This rather Taoist sentiment does not necessarily entail passivity, as much as an embrace of situational constraint. It’s probably easier to embrace as a life philosophy when you’re an internationally renowned tenured professor at a private liberal arts college. I think we need to recognise this privilege but it would be a mistake to dismiss what he is saying on this basis. We should take his life philosophy seriously, as well as the goods that it can lead us to:

The rewards can be substantial – the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on. All are possible if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to fulfil potential in the moment at hand.

What Gergen articulates is one particular solution to a problem we all face: how to give shape to our lives? This has a practical dimension to it. Any plan for the future provides a framework within which present choices can be understood as moving us further towards or farther away from where we hope to get to. I think there’s a more affective dimension to this as well, albeit one which varies a lot between people for reasons that likely incorporate the social, cultural, psychological and neurophysiological. Our future plans create a structure for our present experience by constituting a sense of how the present connects to the future. It is in virtue of this that we feel our lives are ‘going somewhere’ or that we are ‘drifting’.

What Gergen’s responding to is the stress produced by the drive towards “constant improvement, development, and accumulation” when it operates under uncertain conditions. With the acceleration of social change, our experience comes to be characterised by instability, both ontologically (circumstances are unlikely to last) and epistemically (circumstances cannot be assumed to last). My plan to ‘play the game’ and climb to the top of my profession begins to seem implausible if the ‘game’ itself is seen as being in a state of flux. My plan to ‘lay down roots’ in a particular geographical area comes to seem implausible if the characteristics of that area are changing rapidly (or my ability to preserve these roots is likely to be interrupted by the demands of my a changing professional ‘game’).

He’s suggesting that it is our “modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation” which is the problem here. As Bauman puts it, “the site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root”. Extending the metaphor, I take Gergen to be saying that our ‘modernist training’ leads us to grasp hastily at potential futures taking root in the present, trying to steer the unfolding of events but killing these roots in the process: an activity that fails to work and makes us miserable in the process.

Either we kill potential futures by grasping too hastily or we ignore potential futures because of our fixation on our prior blueprint. Trying to control the direction of our future leaves us failing to attend to our present. Instead, Gergen advocates we should embrace the reality of our present situation, act in ways that are valuable within it and cultivate an equanimity towards the future unfolding of events.

However the social world is not so ‘liquid’ as thinkers like Bauman are prone to suggest. While radical changes does occur, it is far from the norm: our circumstances are not transformed in each successive moment. Margaret Archer suggests that instrumental rationality becomes increasingly untenable with the intensification of social change. This doesn’t mean that people abandon it, only that strategic planning in terms of means and ends becomes error-prone to the degree that each is prone to change. The point can sound trivial in the abstract but when you consider the number of contingencies built into any ‘life plan’ that has been elaborated with any degree of detail, it starts to seem much more significant. The point is not that planning is becoming impossible but rather that it is becoming unreliable.

We might respond to this by building contingencies into our life plans and returning to them with much greater frequency. These changing circumstances therefore encourage an intensification of reflexivity, an expansion of life tactics to ensure the endurance of our life strategy. This will work most effectively when our ends remain stable (e.g. becoming established & recognised within a given profession that remains securely existent) and only the means are subject to change (e.g. changing expectations attached to this professional role, changing practical activity necessary to establish oneself within the field).

An alternative strategy is to temporise, reducing the window of time within which we seek to enact a plan in order to preserve the efficacy of our planning, as can be seen in the example of Spotify’s 31 year old CEO:

Ek describes himself as “missionary,” by which he means he likes to formulate five-year missions for himself. “That’s how I think about life,” he said. “Five years is long enough for me to achieve something meaningful but short enough so I can change my mind every few years. I’m on my second five-year commitment on Spotify. In two years, I will have to make my next one. I will need to ask myself if I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’m kind of unusual that way, but it gives me clarity and purpose.”


Without a window of five years, it becomes possible to “achieve something meaningful”. Ek might well have accomplished something similar if muddling through situationally in the way advocated by Gergen. But this would be a collection of actions rather than a project: it would be something we look back and realise we’ve done rather than a growing awareness of succeeding in something we’d sought to accomplish. However if advocates of the acceleration thesis are to be believed, it is likely the window within which instrumental rationality could be operative in a subjectively satisfying way will continue to decrease: the practicality of ‘five years’ as a unit of time for Ek cannot be assumed to be sustainable.

It’s against this background that we can see how planning can come to take on a fetishistic character. We look to our plans to secure us against contingency, providing us with a sense of security and direction in a world that makes the achievement of either into a precarious accomplishment. We look to ‘escape the mess of life’, as Ian Craib puts it, fantasising about a life in which plans unfold smoothly and taking the inevitable failures we experience in reality as invitations to plan further and plan better. It’s in view of this that Gergen’s suggestion comes to seem distinctly therapeutic, representing a regime of equanimity through which we seek to stop worrying about the future and start living in the present.

However when does equanimity become drift? When does acceptance become passivity? The instrumentally rational life plan operates at the level of biography as a whole and increasingly fails for this reason. The ‘five-years missions’ of Ek enact this strategy over a shorter span of time, ensuring the same motivational pay-off while building in uncertainty in a way that makes the missions into plausible undertakings. Gergen’s presentism embraces living well under current circumstances and accepting our inability to dictate the direction of their change. The problem with this is that much of what matters to us extends beyond our present situation. There’s a dimension to human experience, in which we recognise ourselves as having become the person we are now at this moment through a process that goes back far into the past and extends forward through the entirety of our life. Gergen’s account confuses the capacity to control our biography with the reality of that biography itself. His person risks idling away their life in a diverting and enjoyable way only to wonder in old age about all the things they could have done with their life if only they had looked beyond the confines of their circumstances.

So how can we shape our lives while avoiding the sisyphean business of life plans? By finding meaningful projects and cultivating the mindfulness necessary to attend to them maximally. Any project pursued in such a way is liable to change because neither self and circumstances are static. But our projects and the concerns in virtue of which they are meaningful to us constitute a thread through which purpose is enacted at the biographical level, linking the many situations within which we find ourselves over time through our projects and the meaning they hold for us.

The philosopher Daniel Little has written about Margaret’s Archer recent book Social Morphogenesis on his 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.


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)

One unexpected aspect of the Reflexive Imperative was Archer’s return to cybernetics in its conclusion. Though having long seen herself as a critic of this theoretical tradition, the systems theory of Walter Buckley was an important influence on the Morphogenetic Approach. In the Reflexive Imperative she critically engages with the ‘second cybernetics’ of Magorah Maruyama in order to try and develop her account of ‘variety’ which has become integral to her approach. This concept has come to play a crucial role in linking the predominately macro social perspective of the first two books of the Morphogenetic trilogy (Culture and Agency, Realist Social Theory) with Being Human and her three books on reflexivity (Structure Agency and the Internal Conversation, Making Our Way Through The World, The Reflexive Imperative). To understand the questions raised in the final chapter of the latter book, it’s essential to have some grasp of how her broader project fits together:

Moreover, this trilogy on reflexivity has not been undertaken out of an intrinsic interest in one aspect of human subjectivity per se. It began from seeking to answer the theoretical question about how structure and culture got in on our personal acts for those of us who were dissatisfied with both positivistic ‘social hydraulics’ and Parsonian ‘internalization’. In their place, ‘reflexivity’ was advanced in Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation as the process responsible for mediating between structural and cultural ‘conditioning’ and human agents, without entailing the obliteration or suspension of the agential properties and powers of persons.

In the second volume, Making Our Way Through The World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility, which did use a sample of the local population of Coventry, stratified by age, gender and socio-economic position, the aim was to ascertain whether or not a personal emergent property (in this case dominant mode of reflexivity practiced) governed the type of social mobility desired and achieved under people’s own descriptions. These patterns of mobility (i.e., social stability, upwards mobility or lateral volatility) were held to result from actions arrived at through the reflexive deliberations of singular subjects in social contexts not of their own making. Reflexivity thus acquired a stronger claim for mediating between one macroscopic aspect of the social order – the patterning of social mobility – and the personal ‘projects’ pursued by subjects through their reflexive internal conversations, which defined the precise courses of action taken by them.  (Archer 2012: 294)

My understanding of this book is that it’s an attempt to build upon this elaborated notion of reflexivity as mediating between the macro and the micro in order to better understand the consequence which the proliferation of ‘variety’, deposited as contextual incongruity in the situations concrete persons confront, has for how they in turn act in relation to this increasingly varied social order and contribute, as a consequence of both their actions and their own elaboration as persons, to the intensification of the social changes generative of variety. Reflexivity is integral to understanding the “differential and selective take-up of new opportunities” which is itself generative of greater variety (Archer 2012: 2999). It’s an initial attempt to get beyond what Archer identifies as the chronic empiricism which characterises the contemporary theoretical literature on social change and instead get to the generative mechanisms which are producing these empirically observable phenomenon of ‘flows’ and ‘liquidity’. Her point here can seem contentious, given the affection with which many (including myself) hold the work of people like Bauman, but I think it’s an important critique. Liquidity is a metaphorical characterisation of an empirical phenomenon, beguiling because of the incisiveness with which Bauman has been able to analyse and convey what seems to be the inner nature of a whole range of disparate phenomena. But no matter how sophisticated our measures, tracking flows is like seeking to ‘explain’ the tides by intricately charting their movements. I’m entirely with Archer in her argument that sociology needs to move from metaphors to mechanisms:

Today, the leading trope is “liquid modernity,” but metaphors explain nothing and often mislead (remember the mechanical, organic and cybernetic similes). Particular theories of change have accentuated one element of SAC alone: “culture” for “Information Society;” “structure” for “Globalized Capitalism” or “Empire;” and “agency” for the “institutionalized individualism” of “Reflexive Modernization.” Each seizes upon one (empirically striking) component, considers it to be the leading part and wrongly equates it with the generative mechanism of change. Instead, we need to examine the SAC synergies and positive feedbacks making social morphogenesis the process responsible for intensifying change – in a non-metaphorical manner.


It’s to this end that the final chapter of the Reflexive Imperative turns. It marks a transition point between her previous two projects (developing the morphogenetic approach and the three empirical studies of reflexivity plus their associated volumes) and her next major project, which is being conducted with a really interestingly international and interdisciplinary group, on the morphogenetic society. This is how she describes the project,

The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety.  All change is ‘activity dependent’, but the new social relations and relations between relations that accelerate innovation, opportunities and choices await adequate theorization. The danger in the new millennium is that social solidarity could be further reduced by new hierarchies based upon differential expertise. The challenge isto identify ways of integrating variety as diversity throughout the population. Hence the particular interest of the burgeoning Third Sector and Cyber Sector as means for transforming civil society.

  1. Understanding the mechanism at the micro-level. Morphogenesis fosters a new situational logic for action. During late modernity the latter remained a logic of competition, whose outcomes were zero-sum. Conversely, the new logic of opportunity associated with the unbinding of morphogenesis could, in principle, represent a ‘win-win’ situation for many more people. In turn, the Reflexive Imperativeapplies to all because given the acceleration of change, past experience is no guide to action. Such ‘contextual incongruity’ means that socialization can no longer prepare young people for working life or life-style through the inter-generational transmission of a ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu), operating quasi-automatically. Instead, agents’ guidelines personal concerns become their courses of action are determined and realized through reflexive deliberation – both individual and collective.
  2. Understanding the mechanism at the meso-level. Here, network theory requires re-conceptualization to embrace not only how connectivity fosters the flexible production of knowledge but transforms social relations and the generation of new relational goods (indivisible, non-material goods and services). Hence considerable interest attaches to  developing ‘Relational Realism’.
  3. Understanding the mechanism at the macro-level. How do Market ‘exchange relations’ and State ‘command relations’ become reconfigured into more dispersed and participatory social forms, no longer based upon instrumental rationality but on social engagement?

However, the project must start at the beginning with a theoretical clarification of the morphogenetic process itself. Since the concept of morphogenesis began in biology, EPFL with its prominence in neurobiology is the ideal venue to promote interdisciplinary conceptual advances.


This is why ‘variety’ is such an important concept. It’s at the heart of everyday and journalistic discussions of the “increasing pace of social change, the novelties people have already encountered in their lifetimes, and their expectations for new variety to continue to grow during those of their children” (Archer 2012: 295). However variety can be a tricky concept to put into practice. The first cybernetics construed variety in terms of the distinguishable elements within a set: it was an objective property of an aggregate. If ‘variety’, which I do think she’s convincingly operationalised at the level of biography, will be used for social analysis then we need to rethink the concept of it that can be found in information theory. Aggregate variety of this sort can actually diminish with new innovations because new items can displace old ones e.g. all the many businesses which smart phones have destroyed. Furthermore this concept of variety is atomistic and precludes the recognition of ‘relational goods’.  This atomism also leads to a failure to consider the distribution of variety. What’s important about variety from a sociological perspective is not just the number of discrete elements within a given set but the relations between them and their distribution across the social order.

Archer engages with the later cybernetics of Maruyama precisely because he was, given his interest in deviation-amplifying feedback within systems, concerned with the distribution of variety. However she argues that Maruyama was preoccupied with heterogeneity (differences) at the expense of homogeneity (similarities). She argues that the latter is responsible for the “bonding that links together members of a group (community, team or enterprise) that accentuates their human commonalities and makes their belongingness something more than rational instrumental opportunism” (Archer 2012: 301). The biographical accumulation of variety which can be seen in the lives of meta-reflexives (and to a lesser extent the fractured and autonomous) serves to ‘differentiate’ them from their peers, generating an increasingly particularistic inner life which precludes the ‘similarity and ‘familiarity’ upon which communicative reflexivity depends. Left unchecked this means that “association with other social units becomes less and less rewarding and prompts a multiplication of the number of smaller and smaller social units that follows” (Archer 2012: 303). Underlying the Morphogenetic Society project is a concern to understand “the generation of new variety that in one sense carries society (now one and global) forward” but also the neglected topic of “what holds it together or pulls it apart” (Archer 2012: 304).

Social morphogenesis “destroys the modus vivendi continuous from the past but also defies the re-establishment of new continuities on the basis of residence, community, occupation, religion, ethnicity and kinship” (Archer 2012: 305). It’s for this reason that Archer sees the decline of communicative reflexivity as going hand-in-hand with a reduction in social solidarity. The normative conventionalism which was secured through the ‘thought and talk’ of communicative reflexivity, as the reliance on others to complete and confirm one’s inner deliberation exposed them to immediate censure before they got beyond the planning stage, increasingly lacks purchase beyond the pockets of contextual continuity which communicative reflexives now have to work to maintain. Normative conventionalism has no long term future as a basis for social integration because the conditions underlying its efficacy are rapidly disappearing and the intensification of social change precludes the easy establishment of new norms because “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it” (Archer 2012: 306). Even when norms do develop, as can be seen for example in the stabilisation of standards relating to social media platforms, the efficacy with which they can be enforced is severely curtailed because of these underlying changes in the relational dynamics of reflexivity. Norms can function on the basis of intersubjective negotiation and collective self-regulation yet “negotiated norms lack the binding power of the generalized normativity that communicative reflexivity used to promote” (Archer 2012: 306).