Sociological Theorists: Margaret Archer

By | September 8, 2015

Margaret Archer is in my view a major and somewhat neglected sociological theorist. Although rightly identified as a critical realist influenced by Roy Bhaskar, she is an independent-minded and powerful analyst in her own right. In this blog I sidestep much of the subject matter of my four previous blogs on her contributions on reflexivity to focus on the idea of the morphogenetic society. But a few contextual remarks are in order.

Archer has suggested that the structure/agency ‘problem’ lies at the core of her project. Her fascination with structure dates back to her post-doc days at the Sorbonne in the late 1960s and her judgement that the centralised structure of the French education system was significant for the political outburst that so nearly toppled the Fifth Republic. It was a case she made in her Social Origins of Education Systems (1979). This book also contained the seeds of morphogenetic approach.

In a later alliance with Bhaskar and other critical realists, Archer developed her analysis of ontology (see her Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, 1995). Bhaskar’s articulation of what he calls the ‘transformational model of social action’ underpins Archer’s 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.

However, she came to think that sociologists – including critical realists – had paid more attention to how the structural and cultural properties of society are transmitted to agents and condition what they think and do than to how agents respond and act. Being Human: The Problems of Agency (2000) sought to redress this imbalance. Beyond, like Bhaskar, attributing causal efficacy to agency, she (a) addresses the issue of those ‘internal conversations’ we all have; (b) delineates (ideal) types of reflexivity; and (c) emphasises the novel salience of reflexivity in what she calls ‘late’ (I prefer the less prejudicial ‘high’) modernity (see Making our Way Through the World (2007) and The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity (2012). Much of this I have commented on in some detail in other blogs.

In her most recent writings Archer has introduced the notion of the morphogenetic society. And it her characterisation of a potential shift to the morphogenetic society that concerns me here.

Reflexivity is a ‘necessary mediatory process’ or key aspect of morphogenesis: the conditions for a morphogenetic society are furthered by individuals becoming more self-directed, and therefore reflexive (Sennett has gone so far as to claim that we must now be pro-active in increasingly unpredictable circumstances). Archer argues that contrary to previous historical periods we are now in a situation in which ‘structure and culture have come into synergy with one another with far-reaching morphogenetic consequences’. What does she mean by this? Her argument is that in previous eras cultures were contained within the bounds of structure, resulting in morphostasis or ‘cultural/social maintenance’. Over the last generation, however, culture and structure have converged so as to promote morphogenesis. In short, culture now contributes to the restructuring of social structure. Changes in culture, she says, amplify those in structure and vice versa through positive feedback. There is a novel structure/culture dialectic.

In an edited volume on Late Modernity (2014), Archer maintains that what she identifies as the pivotal situational logics of the present, that is, those of ‘(structured) competition’ and ‘(cultural) diffusion’, do not result in the confusion and chaos that might be anticipated. Rather, ‘the generative mechanism of ‘competition-diffusion’ is extremely morphogenetic, but what it does is to moderate the effects of both situational logics of action’. I quote:

‘on the one hand, unbridled economic competition is hampered by the diffusionists’ steady breaching of intellectual property rights, on which the former depends, by their expansion of the cyber-commons, by their facilitating new social movements promoting socially useful-value over exchange value, and by them articulating the values for harnessing new opportunities to the common good rather than embroiling them in the zero-sum logic of competition. On the other hand, ’diffusionism’ is restrained by the equally steady colonisation of the initiatives it has promoted and their incorporation into the for-profit sector. The latter currently blocks the way towards Morphogenetic society; simultaneously, the former makes a return to ‘business as usual’ increasingly difficult after the economic crisis provoked by competitive excess.’  

Definitions are important here. Archer does not see ‘society’ as ‘anything other (or more than or additional to) the relations between ‘structure’ and ‘culture’.

‘It is the resultant of relations between relations, all of which are constantly activity-dependent. What particular kind of resultant this is depends upon the dominant relationship forged between the cultural and structural orders. Since both components are necessarily heterogeneous, various relations are possible and would remain so even supposing untrammelled morphogenesis on both ‘sides’. That is why the question of the ‘good society’ never disappears.’

The future is uncertain. No concrete predication of or ‘manifesto’ for the morphogenetic society is proffered by Archer. Gradualism is in her view the most likely future scenario. BUT the new currency of terms like ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘social enterprise’ suggests that competitive for-profit businesses now expect to be held to account; and cyber-diffusion carries the potential for a telling reinvigoration of civil society and the public sphere.

What Archer contributes, I would suggest, is (a) a compelling, philosophically-grounded (critical realist) sociological perspective on society and social change, and (b) a substantive theory of what I refer to as the present era of (post-1970s) financial capitalism, one route out of which might well be towards the morphogenetic society.


Archer,M (2014) The generative mechanism re-configuring late modernity. In Ed Archer,M: Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenetic Society. New York; Springer

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