Book Review: Social Morphogenesis, Volume 1

by Tom Brock


Social Morphogenesis is the first volume in a series of books, edited by Margaret Archer, that seeks to develop an explanatory framework that can account for how the rate of social change has ‘speeded up’ in the last three decades. The first volume is dedicated to an analysis of what the ‘generative mechanism’ is that produces such rapid change and discusses how this differs from Late Modernity. The first volume can be seen as an elaboration of Archer’s Morphogenetic Project, which over the last thirty years has focused on theorising social stability and change in a way that is applicable to three levels of social analysis – micro, meso and macro– and across all three elements of social transformation – structure, culture and agency. The challenge of the Morphogenetic Project has been to specify their interplay with Archer’s offering a sociological interpretation of Morphostasis and Morphogenesis to help make sense of the processes that tend to either preserve or change a social system’s given form or structure. The term ‘social morphogenesis’, then, elaborates on these previous developments and refers to the generative mechanism that Archer and 10 other contributors are interested in holding to account for the increasing rapidity of social change.

Each chapter engages with the question of social change and reproduction within social systems and each chapter talks broadly and critically to the idea of a Morphogenetic Society. The breadth and depth of the philosophical discussion that takes place in each chapter makes the volume a difficult but valuable read. It also makes it difficult to review in as far as each chapter speaks to issues that range from broad theoretical questions (see Popora, p.25) to more specific areas of inquiry (see Wight, p.85 or Lazega, p.167). Thus, I’ll only speak to the broad themes of the book here.

The volume is held together by a clear sense of direction towards one important question, which Archer summarises in the opening passage,

This book is about theorising a possible transition from the social order of late modernity… In itself, rapid social change does not necessarily signal, much less constitute, a new type of social formation. What intrigues us is whether or not this increasingly important process could be responsible for generating a different kind of social formation – Morphogenetic Society (p.1)

Archer adds, ‘All of us are vary about the array of social forms that have hastily been advanced as superseding modernity. Thus, we do not precipitously announce a new “Beyond”’. The modesty is reassuring, particularly at a time when it feels as if the search for answers to big questions, like ‘what direction is society going in’ or ‘how can people effect social change’ can be achieved through appeals to big data analytics and empiricism. Indeed, as Archer assures us, ‘the books deals with “social morphogenesis” as a process rather than an end product’ (p. 1; my emphasis), and this means that ‘speculations’ must be ‘ventured’ (p.2) towards if one is to theorise social change or, more specifically, possible changes in the ‘balance’ between morphostatic and morphogenetic sequences. Indeed, a proportion of Archer’s introductory chapter is dedicated to demarcating one of the important principles of realist social theory – ontological realism – and whilst Archer suggests that not all of the contributors are critical realists, it appears that all agree on the shortcomings of empiricism and, in particular, how it has been used to announce various new societies,

One way in which such empiricism announces itself in the literature on ‘globalization’ is in the over-hasty proclamation of new ‘Ages’: the Global Age itself (Albrow 1997), 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 these characteristics singled out? Are they descriptive or explanatory? Mostly, these seem to begin as the former but then pretend to be the latter, as is generically the case with empiricism (p.5-6)

Archer’s introductory chapter, then, sets the beginnings for a project that sees a number of contributors engage critically with the idea that society has ‘speeded up’ but all whom seek to provide an explanatory account of why this has happened, rather than a descriptive account of the changes that have occurred. For those unfamiliar with Archer’s work, this focus comes from a long-standing interest that she has had in providing causal explanations of social change, particularly with reference to the interaction between structure and agency over time. This position, which is fully elucidated in her work Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach but, in short, is an explanatory framework that draws out a sense of how Morphogenesis and Morphostasis operate at different ‘levels’ of reality with, potentially, transformative effects.

The basic shortcoming of empiricist and actualist accounts is that observable transitional features are simply extrapolated and presumed to constitute transformation. Instead, and at most, social morphogenesis has been discussed as a process that could prove transformational. Contributors are in agreement about the meta-theoretical need to adduce a generative mechanism accounting for the possible transition towards transformation, but not yet clear – and therefore cannot be consensual – about either its definition or operation (p.19)

It is through a discussion of three different ‘levels’ of reality that we get a clearer sense of what this generative mechanism might constitute:

At the macroscopic level (third-order), the generative mechanism is held to derive from ‘Contingent Compatibilities’ coming to predominate for the first time… At the institutional (second-order) level, however, we confront the paradox of various institutions seeking to take advantage of such synergy whilst also retaining the situational logic of competition… At the (first-order) level, agents (individual or collective) and actors confront rapidly changing structural and cultural contexts in daily life and across generations (p.20)

Throughout the volume a number of contributors begin to adduce what this mechanism might look at these various levels. Archer talks of ‘reflexivity’ (p.9) and the ‘conflicting pressures of primary and corporate agency’ particularly as these relate to the situational logics of ‘opportunity’ and ‘competition’ in a Morphogenetic Society (p.14). In other words, one might begin to account for the mechanism of social morphogenesis (‘variety producing more variety’) through a look at how people respond to the expansion of choice in their lives. Thus, Archer’s account of modes of reflexivity (see The Reflexive Imperative, 2012) seems integral to her account of social morphogenesis.

Similarly, Pierpaolo Donati’s discussion of relational sociology talks to this search for a generative mechanism, which he sees in terms of ‘relational feedback’ (p.219). Donati opens his chapter by providing an overview of what he views relational sociology to be and he demarcates it from the work of other sociologists, such as Nick Crossley through a discussion of Archer’s morphogenetic approach. In doing so, Donati distances himself from an understanding of social relations as ‘dyadic’ and looks to ‘the triadic nature of social relations’ (p.215) to make sense of the emergent effects of reciprocal action between social subjects. One such effect is what he calls ‘relational feedback’, which is defined as:

…those feedbacks which: (i) are non-automatic; (ii) are generative in the sense of giving birth to a new, relatively stable, relational configuration; (iii) they are special positive feedbacks, which operate according to a many-valued and transjunctional logic, not according to a mechanical binary (positive/negative) logic; (iv) imply a social networks of agents (partners); (v) so that the feedback loop is regulated mainly by redefining the goals and/or rules of the network step-by-step (p.219)

In terms of social morphogenesis, then, how variety is produced, how the selection of variety is accepted and rejected and how the stabilisation of these emergent forms arises, is regulated through feedback. As Donati suggests, ‘The direction of MG [morphogenesis] depends of the type of feedback that prevails’ and, thus, it is to the relational character of feedback that one can begin to consider the path that social change will make. In Donati’s own words,

In many respects, the emerging society has to look for remedies to the negative outcomes of modernity, to the extent that the latter has been governed by the principle of ‘institutionalized individualism’, by reversing this principles into a principle of relationality. The incoming morphogenetic society is society that has a ‘relational matrix’ run by a many-valued and transjunctive logic (p.206)

It appears, then, that generative mechanisms, like the ones offered above can lead to social outcomes that are often unpredictable and rarely patternable but nevertheless work, increasingly, to create conditions whereby ‘variety produces more variety’. This is certainly a thought-provoking idea and one that appears to be based upon the suggestion that one should engage, critically, with discussions about social ontology, and how it is to be operationalized to inform better empirical research. There is little sense of wanting to foreclose on the possibility of undertaking social research (see Donati, p.225) but, rather, to better equip sociologists with a practical social theory that “tallies” with a realist social ontology and an interest in causal explanation. To achieve this, the volume challenges its readers to think through the consequences of asking big questions and, in the process, provides them with the outline of a theory that might one day yield answers.

I found the philosophical theorising and language to be abstract and, at times, I found myself often re-reading sections to help clarify my understanding of certain topics. Nevertheless, I found each discussion incredibly valuable. The contributions made here have sharpened my understanding of morphogenesis as a meta-theory, which is providing the grounds for a sensible discussion on the future direction of society. That the beginnings of such an ambitious project would need to flesh out the theoretical terrain, particularly given the number of collaborators involved, should not be surprising. However, I would expect that future volumes begin to engage more readily with practical issues of social research, not least because it will help present the case of why this modelling is so important.


Tom Brock is a Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has research and teaching interests in the areas of digital sociology, politics and social theory. Tom is currently writing a paper that re-conceptualises video game consumer culture through a discussion of habitus and reflexivity. 

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