Archer, Morphogenesis and Reflexivity

This is a longer blog than is usual for me, for which apologies. It is the first of a projected series of four or five. They will examine the writings of Margaret Archer on reflexivity. In this one I set out the basics of her argument and in subsequent ones seek to apply it in a substantive domain, the sociology of health inequalities. The blogs draw on three of my own published pieces (see refs).

Realism against positivism:

Archer’s realism, rooted in the philosophy of Bhaskar, rejects positivism. What realism substitutes for positivism is ‘the quest for non-observable generative mechanisms whose powers may exist unexercised or be exercised unrealized, that is with variable outcomes due to the variety of intervening contingencies which cannot be subject to laboratory closure’ (Archer, 1998: 190). Society is an open system, and not just in the positivistic sense that it can be difficult to control for extraneous variables. It is open because it is ‘necessarily peopled’, and its inhabitants are no less reflexive and agential than its investigators.

Realism demands a social ontology, and a social ontology commits itself, if corrigibly, to what exists. In doing so it sets parameters for the explanatory programme. The specification of the constituents (and non-constituents) of what exists ‘are the only ones which can appear in explanatory statements (which does not rule out substantive debate about the most promising contenders within the abstractly defined domain of the real)’ (Archer, 1998: 194).  Archer’s formula for realism is:  ‘social ontology (SE) leads to explanatory methodology (EM) leads to practical social theories (PST)’.

Archer identifies three ontological premises that are pivotal for realist social theory and comments on their role in the SE leads to EM leads to PST formula. The first of these is intransitivity. The rejection of positivism rests on substituting an ontology of structures for one of observable events. Moreover, the existence of intransitive entities, independent of their identification, is a condition of the possibility of sociology qua social science. In the absence of this there could be no explanatory programme. Archer elaborates:

‘explanation of social matters requires the generic assertion that there is a state of the matter which is what it is, regardless of how we do view it, choose to view it or are somehow manipulated into viewing it. This precludes any collapse of the ontological into the epistemological and convicts those who endorse this move of the ‘epistemic fallacy’, namely confusing what is with what we take it to be. Conversely the realist insists that what is the case places limitations upon how we can construe it’ (Archer, 1998: 195).

It does not follow, however, that the social is somehow immutable. On the contrary, a defining feature of society is what Archer terms its ‘morphogenetic’ nature, that is, its capacity to change its shape or form. What then are the intransitive objects of sociological study? Archer cites Bhaskar here: ‘neither individuals nor groups satisfy the requirement of continuity … for the autonomy of society over discrete moments of time. In social life only relations endure’. It follows, in other words, that for EM realism entails a relational conception of the subject-matter of social science. Because of its social ontology, realism must give rise to a form of theorizing that transcends the old debate between varieties of methodological individualism and holism.

The second premise is that of transfactuality. Mechanisms are continuously active, due to their enduring properties and powers, despite their outcomes displaying variability in open systems. This premise too has entailments. Transfactuality entails that:

‘although the form of society at any given time is historically contingent, this is not the same as viewing things social as pure contingency … only on the metaphysical assumption that some relations are necessary and at least relatively enduring can we reasonably set out to practise science or to study society’ … social realism’s acknowledgement that transfactuality is only relatively enduring and quintessentially mutable means that its explanatory programme (EM) has no baggage of preconceptions that society’s ordering (at a given time or over time) resembles any other form of reality (mechanism or organism), nor that the totality is homologous with some part of it (language), or some state of it (simple cybernetic systems)’ (Archer, 1998: 196).

If it is only contingent that any particular social structure exists, then realist sociology is committed to providing a particular kind of explanation: an analytic history of its emergence.

The final premise is that reality is stratified. It is a premise about ontological depth. Three strata require differentiation: the ‘surface’ stratum of events; accessed via the empirical stratum of experience; and the stratum of deep, ‘beneath-the-surface’ or real structures. Archer (1998: 196) again:

‘in terms of the explanatory programme, the stratified nature of reality introduces a necessary historicity (however short the time period involved) for instead of horizontal explanations relating one experience, observable or event to another, the fact that these themselves are conditional upon antecedents, requires vertical explanation in terms of the generative relationships indispensable for their realisation (and equally necessary to account for the systematic non-actualisation of non-events and non-experiences …). Ontological depth necessarily introduces vertical causality which simultaneously entails temporality’.

The historicity/temporality of vertical explanation is readily illustrated. Religion produces churches not vice versa; and in the absence of ‘ideology’ imbibed via the practice of shopping, Saatchi and Saatchi could not have presented Thatcher’s cuts as ‘good housekeeping’. ‘When we ask what needs to be the case for x to be possible’, ‘we predicate any realisation of x upon the prior materialisation of the conditions of its possibility’ (Archer, 1998: 197). This is what Bhaskar is getting at when he maintains that social forms are a necessary condition for any intentional act, and that their pre-existence establishes their autonomy as possible objects of scientific investigation.

These premises concerning SO are critical for realist sociology. Archer rightly insists that the effects of a phenomenon like inflation, on spending power for example, are causally influential independently of people’s familiarity with economics. ‘Pensioners’ trade heating against eating regardless of their grasp of index-linked incomes. She adds:

‘I would stress the ways in which structure shapes the situations we confront and also the influential distribution of material and cultural resources with which we can strategically conduct this confrontation. Some things go on behind our backs and the effects of many that go on before our faces do not require us to face up to them’ (my italics) (Archer, 1998: 199).

Positions must predate the practices they engender: the causal effects of structures on individuals are manifested in certain (structured) interests, resources, powers, constraints and predicaments consolidated into each position by the web of relationships. These constitute the ‘circumstances’ in which people must act and which motivate them to act in certain ways.

Drawing on Bhaskar, Archer argues that critical realism ‘empowers us to analyse the processes by which structure and agency shape and re-shape one another over time and to explain variable outcomes at different times’ (Archer, 1998: 203).

Morphogenesis and agency:

Allied to the case for vertical over horizontal explanation is a need to analytically decouple structure and agency, ‘so as to examine their mutual interplay across time; something which can result both in stable reproduction or change through the emergence of new properties and powers’ (Williams, 1999: 809). Only on the basis of such a decoupling, Archer insists, does it become possible to explore the interface between structure and agency on which social theory depends. Structure and agency, Bhaskar argues, are:

‘ … existentially interdependent but essentially distinct. Society is both ever-present condition and continually reproduced outcome of human agency: this is the duality of structure. And human agency is both work (generically conceived), that is, (normatively conscious) production, and (normally unconscious) reproduction of the conditions of production, including society: this is the duality of praxis’.

Bhaskar’s articulation of what he calls the ‘transformational model of social action’ underpins Archer’s (1995) morphogenetic model. In her terms, structural conditioning necessarily pre-dates actions that either reproduce (that is, are morphostatic) or elaborate on structures (that is, are morphogenetic), and concerning which humans may or may not be reflexive in the course of socio-cultural interaction.

Our embodied nature as a ‘species-being’ not only constrains who can become a person, it has direct implications too for what a person can do.  Archer (1995: 288) again:

‘ … the characteristics of homo sapiens (as a natural kind) cannot be attributed to society, even if they can only be exercised within in. On the contrary, human beings must have a particular physical constitution for them to be consistently socially influenced (as in learning speech, arithmetic, tool making). Even in cases where the biological may be socially mediated in almost every instance or respect … this does not mean that the mediated is not biological nor that the physical becomes epiphenomenal’.

Reflexivity in action:

‘The subjective powers of reflexivity mediate the role that objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action and are thus indispensable to explaining social outcomes’ (Archer, 2007: 5). Agency is necessarily contextualized. Archer’s (1995, 2003, 2007) way of articulating this is in terms of a three-stage model.

  • Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to
  • Subjects own constellations of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to the three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social.
  • Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances.

It is in light of such a model that individual reflexivity must be broached. ‘Inner speech’ is for oneself. In her Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation (2003) Archer constructs a detailed defence of this notion of an ‘internal conversation’. She argues that:

  • it is a genuinely interior phenomenon, and one that underwrites the private life of the social subject;
  • its subjectivity has a first-person ontology, precluding any attempt to render it in the third-person; and
  • it possesses causal efficacy.

In her Making our Way through the World (2007: 64) she builds on her defence of this ‘inner reflexive dialogue’ to focus on its exercise as a power by ordinary people negotiating their lives. Her ‘guiding hypothesis’ is that ‘the interplay between people’s nascent ‘concerns’ (the importance of what they care about) and their ‘context’ (the continuity or discontinuity of their social environment) shapes the mode of reflexivity they regularly practice’ (Archer, 2007: 96).

Archer accepts Wiley’s judgement that the methodological obstacles to accessing inner reflexive dialogue are not insurmountable: ‘semantic privacy does not prevent one from describing one’s own inner speech to another, at least to a substantial extent’. On this basis, and with caution, Archer discerns in participants in her studies four modes of reflexivity. This affords the following ideal types: communicative reflexives, autonomous reflexives, meta-reflexives and fractured reflexives. Her ideal types can be characterized as follows:

  • Communicative reflexives are characterized by internal conversations that invite completion and confirmation by others before they lead to courses of action;.
  • Autonomous reflexives sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action;.
  • Meta-reflexives are critically reflexive about their own internal conversations, and critical also about the prospects of effective action in society;
  • Fractured reflexives are those whose internal conversations intensify their distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action.

The micro-political life politics of individuals contribute to the ‘macroscopic’ structuring and restructuring of society. In general, the combined day-to-day practices of communicative reflexives comprise the cement of society. The autonomous reflexives, for their part, combine to foster social development by injecting dynamism into the new positions they occupy. They are the source of productivity in its multifarious aspects. Collectively, the meta-reflexives ‘function as the well-spring of society’s social criticism’: they underwrite Weber’s realm of Wertrationalitat, or value-rationality (Archer, 2007: 99). The fractured reflexives are inclined to passive agency: its proponents’ deliberations go round in circles and lack conclusions. It is communicative reflexives that are particularly liable to recruitment to the pool of fractured reflexives (Archer, 2012).

Building on Archer’s analysis, and with a passing nod to Habermas, it is suggested that communicative reflexives are (communicatively) oriented to ‘consensus’; autonomous reflexives are (strategically) orientated to ‘outcome’; meta-reflexives are oriented to ‘values’; and fractured reflexives are non- or disoriented.

Archer references:

Archer,M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Eds Archer,M, Bhaskar,R, Collier,A, Lawson,T & Norrie,A: Critical realism: Basic Readings. London; Routledge.

Archer,M (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2007) Making our Way Through the World. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2012) The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Scambler references:

Scambler,G (2012) Archer, morphogenesis and the role of agency in the sociology of health inequalities. In Ed Scambler,G: Contemporary Theorists for Medical Sociology. London; Routledge.

Scambler,G (2012a) Resistance in unjust times: Archer, structured agency and the sociology of health inequalities. Sociology 33 275-296.

Scambler,G (2013) Archer and ‘vulnerable fractured reflexivity’: a neglected social determinant of health? Social Theory and Health (available online).

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