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Reconstructive Social Theory: Agency, Culture, and Social Change

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This is a guest blog post by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe of Sociology in the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Frederic is a leading expert in the field of Critical Realism. He has been working on CR and the social sciences since 1994 when he completed his doctorate in Sociology from Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales. His work operates at the intersection of philosophy and sociology with a special interest in hermeneutics, phenomenology, and critical realism. He recently published a series of essays in a book titled, “What’s Critical about Critical Realism? Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory”. 

This is Part 3 of 4 in a blog post series by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe on Reconstructive Sociology. To read Part 2 on Metatheoretical Reconstruction, click here.

Agency, Culture, and Social Change

The determinate choices one makes in the metatheoretical domain have implications for the social theory one erects on it. It is obvious that the ontological choices we made, the normative anthropology we elected and the existential-convivialist questions we raised will affect our conception of social action, social institutions, and social transitions. Following Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knöbl (2004: 37-38), I conceive of social theory as a systematic attempt to give a coherent answer to three central questions that each social science has to ponder:

  • What are the nature and types of social action?
  • How is the social order possible?
  • What determines social change?

It is understood that the answers one gives to these respective questions have to be integrated into a general theory of society. That is easier said than done. The general theories of Habermas, Bourdieu, Luhmann or Latour show that it takes a lifetime to work out the “ins and outs”, so to speak, of a systematic theory. In the absence of such a unified theory, I will now sketch out some directives for a reconstructive social theory. The main directive consists in an appeal to move away from the agency-structure template. Far too much ink has been spilled on that issue (e.g. O’Donnell, 2010). To move away from the scholastic exercise, I propose three integrated displacements: from action to interaction; from structure to culture; and from order to social change.

The first displacement is a logical consequence of the linguistic turn in philosophy and its substitution of a philosophy of the subject by a philosophy of communication (Habermas, 1985). The turn to language sidesteps the issue of solipsism that has plagued the philosophy of consciousness for so long, as can be felt in all 1800 pages of Husserl’s (1973) painstaking analyses of the phenomenology of intersubjectivity. In the social sciences, the turn to language and communication is an invitation to return to the question of social action, while avoiding at once the allure of Weber’s methodological individualism. The individual is not an atom, but always and already caught up in intersubjective relations that its very existence presupposes (e.g. no parents: no children). Human beings do not spring up from the ground as mushrooms after the rain. In the same way as positivism justifies a deficient mode of knowledge of the world (vorhanden rather than zuhanden, as Heidegger would say, instrumental rather than pragmatic, as Dewey would phrase it), methodological individualism naturalizes a deficient mode of being in the world. The two are connected by the same instrumental-strategic attitude to the world (the natural Umwelt and the social Mitwelt).

By privileging the attitude of the objectivating relationship, which Buber calls the intentional “I-It relationship” and which he opposes to the intentional “I-Thou relationship” (Buber, 1973), methodological individualism becomes ontological: it neglects the dialogical principle and methodically de-socialises the relations with others to leave an unencumbered and disaffected individual, alone, embattled and in conflict with the others. The intentional relation between I and Thou is ontologically prior to the individual. The individual only appears as an individual when it sets itself apart from and against other individuals. Unlike the individual, the person appears in and through relations with others. These relations are always mediated by the Spirit, by which I obviously do not mean God (He himself is also mediated by the Spirit), but the whole symbolic array of language, culture, and institutions.

The opening to the other has been at the forefront of recent developments in post-Habermasian moral philosophy. I am thinking here mainly about virtue ethics, the ethics of care, the theory of recognition and similar developments within post-structuralism and feminist theory that emphasize dialogue, sympathy, and deep intersubjectivity. Typically, they conceive of moral sentiments as a motivational precondition of communicative engagements. These philosophies of intersubjectivity can easily be recaptured and developed by a “Habermaussian” theory of communication and giving, whereby giving is the opening act of the cycle of reciprocity that inaugurates the interaction between persons and groups, while communication is the symbolically mediated mode of interaction that directs reciprocity by giving it meaning and direction. Within communicative, pragmatic, and ethnomethodological sociology, communication intervenes as the medium that allows ego and alter to coordinate their action in a common plan. Through further communication between persons and groups, interactions are integrated in ever-wider circles of cooperation. This is how society comes into existence. While deep intersubjectivity connects the theory of interaction to moral philosophy, interaction between individuals and cooperation between groups connect it to convivialist politics. As the relation between the micro and macro-levels of society is thereby at least indicated, we can now proceed to the analysis relation between agency and order.

Reconstructive social theory does not focus on agency and structure. Instead it foregrounds the relation between agency and culture, and analyses the problem of order from the point of view of its possible transformation. Unlike structuralist, post-structuralist and post-colonial accounts of culture that conceive of the latter as a form of “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu, 1977), the hermeneutic analysis of culture does not privilege the relation between discourse and power, invariably understood as intersectional domination that excludes the expression of marginalised identities in language. Conceiving of culture as a symbolic way of world-making and self-disclosure, it foregrounds instead the relations between culture and power, whereby the latter is no longer only understood as repressive (or “productive” in the Foucaldian sense), but also as a transformative capacity of individuals, groups and collectives that self-consciously reflect on the normative principles of their constitution as a cooperative circle of networks, relations, and interactions within society.

As a reservoir of cognitive, normative and expressive forms that disclose the world as a meaningful one and provide the actors with symbolic representations of reality on which they draw when they act and which allow them to coordinate their action and act together, culture is the living mediator between society and its members. As the totality of symbolic representations of reality that make intentional and meaningful action possible, culture is at the same time something that exists “outside” and “inside” of the individuals. It is both objective and subjective, medium and result, Spirit and Soul. Culture is the Spirit that connects the Souls and integrates them in a common universe. It is also what motivates them to act in a certain way. Ethics is also part of culture. Although traditional ethics can be conservative and reproductive, I like to think of principles, norms, and values as the premises of a generalized morphogenesis. Ethics encourages axiological engagement. It holds up ideals to the person and to the collective summoning their self-transformation. Pace Clifford Geertz, the actor is not a spider-man caught in the webs he has spun himself; the spider-woman is also a web-maker who not only identifies with culture, but is also capable of distancing herself from it. A reflexive self is a precondition for social and cultural change. When social development is such that the ideals can no longer be realized in the current conjuncture, reflexivity becomes critical. As the identification with an ideal community grows – an ideal community that counterfactually coincides with Apel’s “unlimited community of communication” –  the dis-identification with and withdrawal from the existent community also increases. When the disenchantment is shared, the cultural preconditions of social change are satisfied. Generalized morphogenesis ensues when personal, cultural and social changes occur at the same time and reinforce each other.

In accordance with reconstructive principles, the transfer of attention from power2 to power1 relations, from “generalized master-slave” relations to “communicative relations of self-transformation” (Bhaskar, 1993: 402) does not deny the existence of domination, reification and alienation, but analyses the latter dialectically from the point of view of its possible transformation by individual and collective actors who consciously strive to change society, culture and themselves. With Alain Touraine (1973), who conceives of historical, social, cultural and personal movements as transformative modalities of the self-production of society, we can thus analyze the symbolically mediated constitution of persons, groups and society not only from the standpoint of order, but also from its transformation.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of Reconstructive Social Theory Series!



1 thought on “Reconstructive Social Theory: Agency, Culture, and Social Change”

  1. Pingback: Reconstructive Social Theory: Ontology of the Present – Critical Realism Network

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