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Thinking about the Re-emergence of Emergence in Social Theory

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How does emergence help us to think through issues in social theory, sociology, and social science? Since the webinar the other week with Philip Gorski (available here) I have been contemplating a series of interrelated questions: how do we understand the relationship between wholes and parts when applied to social phenomena? How are emergence, stratification, composition, and causation related? What is the place of downward causation in social analysis and how is it different from linear causation? Are there different kinds and degrees of emergence? Leaving the question of morphogenesis for another day and another post, in thinking through these issues two important interpretations of emergence have been put forward within the critical realist literature which I will explore here. For the sake of simplicity I will call these “strong emergence” and “relational emergence”.

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Strong emergence and stratification – The Possibility of Naturalism (Roy Bhaskar)

The concept of emergence consistently runs through Bhaskar’s work, beginning with the concept of stratification in a Realist Theory of Science, progressing through his concept of society in The Possibility of Naturalism, and reaching its culmination in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom in a metaphysical system defined by emergence. In his early work, the concept of emergence really comes to the fore in Bhaskar’s analysis of the social world. In these pages Bhaskar develops his concept of emergence in the context of a critical naturalism in which emergence is used to define the unique and irreducible object(s) of sociology, namely, the complex, interactive and changing domain of society and its agents (see PON chapter 3.4). Here emergence is used to outline the sui generis but dependent nature of the social world understood according to a stratified and differentiated ontology characterized by dispositional powers.

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In this schema emergent phenomena are seen as possessing at least three properties:

  1. Unilateral Dependence – existentially dependent on a more basic level (as such the social world is existentially dependent on the natural world)
  2. Taxonomical irreducibility – such that the natural sciences are unable to explain the human world under human descriptions
  3. Causal irreducibility – causation in an emergent structure or phenomena cannot be (exhaustively) understood by reference to causal processes operating in a more basic level, and thus the social world, while constrained and affected by the natural world, is not exclusively determined by natural laws.

When these criteria are applied to questions of social structure it entails that:

  1. Social structures, unlike natural structures, do not exist independently of the activities they govern (namely agents)
  2. Social structures, unlike natural structures, do not exist independently of the agents’ conceptions of what they are doing in their activity
  3. Social structures, unlike natural structures, may be only relatively enduring (so that the tendencies they ground may be universal in the sense of space-time invariant).

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How does this help us understand the nature of society? Well, for Bhaskar, as an emergent phenomenon, society must be conceived of as a stratified ensemble of tendencies and powers which is dependent upon but irreducible to both the natural world (biology, chemistry, physics etc.) and the activity of social agents (individuals, groups, collectives). In this context agents are also understood as dependent upon, but irreducible, to the social structures which enable and constrain their activity. Accordingly, for Bhaskar, any activity taking place in the social domain cannot be understood apart from the irreducible intentional activity of social agents in the reproduction and transformation of social structures. These intentional activities of social agents cannot, however, be understood apart from structural relations either. Furthermore, neither can any activities taking place in the social world be wholly separated from activities and process taking place in the natural world. Here, Bhaskar utilizes what is often called strong emergence insofar as he incorporates a concept of top-down causation to account for the manner in which social structures and agents interact. Most notably he does so in the case of social structures, which – he claims – can be said to emerge from, but operate back upon, agents in ways which are taxonomically and causally irreducible (but not independent of) the activity of agents. For Bhaskar, the language of emergence thus secures the possibility of a non-reductive account of the social world, as this language articulates both the dependency and irreducibility which exists between social structures, agents, and the natural world, and the particularly complex account of causation which is required of social analysis as a result of this complexity. As Collier puts it, ‘against atomism and holism, Bhaskar’s emergence theory allows us to conceive of real, irreducible wholes which are both composed of parts that are themselves real irreducible wholes, and are in turn parts of larger wholes, with each level of this hierarchy of composition having its own peculiar mechanisms and emergent powers’ (Collier 1994: 117).

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The practical consequence of this for social analysis in the work of Bhaskar is that the emergent interactions which constitute the social world are such that we cannot avoid dealing with agents and their reasons and intentions, but neither can we avoid the manner in which structures cultivate (enable and constrain) particular forms of activity and agency. To borrow an illustration from Rom Harré, we can observe a person asleep in the garden, who wakes, goes to a shed, takes out a shovel and begins to dig a hole. We can form all kinds of hypotheses about what is taking place, reconstructing the rules upon which “our gardener” is operating, and conjecture about the particular knowledge implied by the gardener’s practice. However, until we ask that person what they are doing and why, we lack a characteristically defining feature of the social world, namely the reasons and intentions behind particular activities. But this alone isn’t enough. We need to understand the social context in which such activities are meaningful and structured in particular ways, and even the manner in which reasons are provided for agents by particular social structures. All agential activity presupposes the prior existence of particular social forms and of social structures which enable, constrain, and shape particular actions and make them meaningful. This inextricable bifurcation of the sociological object into agents and structures provides, for Bhaskar, the limit condition of any attempt at naturalism in the social sciences. Equally, it illustrates the problematic nature of conceiving of the social world in terms of both “Durkheimian” reification and “Weberian” voluntarism, and naïve applications of the methodologies appropriate to such characterizations of society (positivism and interpretivism respectively). In this way Bhaskar is primarily concerned with emergence as the means for understanding the conditions of possibility of the social world (and of sociology) in general.

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  1. Relational Emergence – The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Dave Elder-Vass

In this work Dave Elder-Vass builds upon Bhaskar’s conception of emergence while advocating for a more restrained ontological vision. Elder-Vass argues for a relational or compositive theory of emergence which, he suggests, is strong enough to justify the claim that entities possess relationally emergent properties and causal powers which are irreducible in their own right, but which does not then require us to subscribe to the concept of strong emergence which entails a problematic and irreducible dualism. Instead, Elder-Vass suggests, the relation between wholes and parts should be understood as one of composition and not causation.

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Elder-Vass argues, then, in favour of the need to place the horse before the cart, and conceive of emergence as a relation which exists between causal mechanisms, entities, their composition and their resulting properties, and not between radically different or completely autonomous levels of reality. Instead, the relational argument for emergence which Elder-Vass offers is one which advocates a particular and restrained form of reductionism. “Higher-level entities” are understood as being composed of relatively stable organizations, configurations or assemblies of “lower-level entities” which are able to exert causal influence as a result of their arrangement, but are not therefore reducible simply to the operation of parts. This furnishes us with the important distinction between explanatory and eliminative forms of reductionism. This distinction allows for higher level properties to be explained scientifically according to lower levels, but without allowing them to be completely replaced. That is to say, wholes are explained by their parts and their relations but are not thereby explained away. Emergence on this account is conceived of as a synchronic relation which gives wholes particular abilities, properties and causal effects as a result of the organization or composition of their parts. Any explanation in this context depends upon understanding the properties possessed by its parts, as well as understanding the manner in which those parts are organized into wholes. Wholes, in turn, gain particular powers and capacities in the process without which parts would not be able to operate in the manner that they do. The taxonomic properties and causal powers of water may be explicable in terms of its parts and their relation, but this does not mean we have replaced the higher-level entity by the lower level, only that we have ‘redescribed’ the higher according to the lower. This means that, even though we can understand social structures in terms of the relation and organization of their parts, this does not entail that social structures can be eliminated completely from the explanation of social behavior, or that society can be reduced to individuals. Rather social structures are seen to have causal powers in their own right, but these arise from the combination and interaction of agents (i.e. the relations that constitute them) which are intrinsically different from the causal powers that would be possessed by these same agents if they were not organized in particular ways; thus the new powers and properties which arise must be said to be the causal powers of the structures and not of the agents.

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In this work Dave Elder-Vass builds upon Bhaskar’s conception of emergence while advocating for a more restrained ontological vision. Elder-Vass argues for a relational or compositive theory of emergence which, he suggests, is strong enough to justify the claim that entities possess relationally emergent properties and causal powers which are irreducible in their own right, but which does not then require us to subscribe to the concept of strong emergence which entails a problematic and irreducible dualism. Instead, Elder-Vass suggests, the relation between wholes and parts should be understood as one of composition and not causation. He argues, then, in favour of the need to place the horse before the cart, and conceive of emergence as a relation which exists between causal mechanisms, entities, their composition and their resulting properties, and not between radically different or completely autonomous levels of reality. Instead, the relational argument for emergence which Elder-Vass offers is one which advocates a particular and restrained form of reductionism. “Higher-level entities” are understood as being composed of relatively stable organizations, configurations or assemblies of “lower-level entities” which are able to exert causal influence as a result of their arrangement, but are not therefore reducible simply to the operation of parts. This furnishes us with the important distinction between explanatory and eliminative forms of reductionism. This distinction allows for higher level properties to be explained scientifically according to lower levels, but without allowing them to be completely replaced. That is to say, wholes are explained by their parts and their relations but are not thereby explained away. Emergence on this account is conceived of as a synchronic relation which gives wholes particular abilities, properties and causal effects as a result of the organization or composition of their parts. Any explanation in this context depends upon understanding the properties possessed by its parts, as well as understanding the manner in which those parts are organized into wholes. Wholes, in turn, gain particular powers and capacities in the process without which parts would not be able to operate in the manner that they do. The taxonomic properties and causal powers of water may be explicable in terms of its parts and their relation, but this does not mean we have replaced the higher-level entity by the lower level, only that we have ‘redescribed’ the higher according to the lower. This means that, even though we can understand social structures in terms of the relation and organization of their parts, this does not entail that social structures can be eliminated completely from the explanation of social behavior, or that society can be reduced to individuals. Rather social structures are seen to have causal powers in their own right, but these arise from the combination and interaction of agents (i.e. the relations that constitute them) which are intrinsically different from the causal powers that would be possessed by these same agents if they were not organized in particular ways; thus the new powers and properties which arise must be said to be the causal powers of the structures and not of the agents.

What has changed between Bhaskar and Elder-Vass is simply that the concept of structure has moved away from the strong language of stratification to a language of composition and interaction. The rub for Elder-Vass is that, rather than dealing with “monolithic” concepts of social structure, we are directed instead towards understanding the causal powers of specific social groups and “norm circles”.

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So, where does this leave us?

It seems there are a few options when it comes to thinking about how emergence applies to the social world and how we use it in social analysis. Bhaskar generally uses a stronger concept of emergence in an effort to articulate stratification and the complex relations that exist between different strata, perhaps at the risk of only engaging with monolithic conceptions of social structures. Elder-Vass uses a compositional model of emergence which is ‘weaker’ but nevertheless ‘strong enough’ to account for social causation, preferring the language of organization, composition and groups, perhaps at the risk of leaving aside deeper, more fundamental, structuring possibilities in the social world. While at first blush these accounts might seem to be opposed to one another, is this necessarily the case? Must we choose between these options? Must all social phenomena be either strong or relational? Stratified or compositional? Monolithic or group-oriented? Can we not talk about different types of social phenomena that possess different degrees or intensities of emergence? Surely different phenomena, in different contexts, require us to put to use different concepts of emergence depending upon, and answerable to, the nature of the thing we are trying to comprehend? Perhaps even “emergence” itself is a fundamentally stratified and differentiated notion? Perhaps it is even contextually bound? When thinking about emergence in the social world perhaps the solution is a both-and rather than an either-or.

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