Home > ()

The Morphogenic Paradigm: Essay Review of 'Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenic Society' (2014) and 'Social Morphogenesis' (2013)

Archer, Margaret

ISBN: 9783319032658 and 9789400761278

Reviewed by Ciaran T. Burke and Nathan Emmerich

Order this book?

Cover of Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenic SocietyCover of Social Morphogenesis It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Kuhnian conception of paradigms is problematic, particularly when applied to sociology. Nevertheless it can, we think, cast some sociological light on the books under review and, in particular, on the concept of morphogenesis, something that is positioned against more familiar accounts of the relationship between structure and agency. According to Archer structure and agency are commonly conflated, either ‘upwardly,’ ‘downwardly’ or ‘centrally.’ Such conflation suggests that either structure or agency is emphasized over the other, or that both are seen as equally influential, meaning that they are elided with the consequence that neither retains the requisite level of explanatory power. Her alternative, morphogenesis, offers a generative account of social action/space provided via structural conditioning, social interaction and structural elaboration. However, since the publication of Culture and Agency, Archer’s main focus has been on elaborating of reflexivity (2003, 2007, 2012), the forms of internal conversations individuals have on a daily basis and the way we exercise our agency in order to make our way through the world. This success of this work has led to the view that what Archer has to offer is tantamount to a reflexive paradigm (Caetano 2015:61). However, whilst Archer’s analysis of reflexivity is certainly innovative, and a primary element of her particular brand of relational sociology, her work in this area can be read as one piece in a much larger project.

Archer’s larger endeavor is guided by the tenants of Critical Realism and seeks to explicate contemporary social life and the globalization of (late) modernity as essentially constituted by morphogenesis. Certainly, reflexivity is a key aspect of morphogenesis and Archer suggests that the conditions required for a morphogenic society are furthered by individuals becoming more self-directed and, therefore, reflexive. Whilst there is little need to prioritize one concept over another, to choose between reflexivity or morphogenesis as the essential basis of social reality, we can still reflect their role within a social theoretical or sociological paradigm. In this context we might argue the key to a social theory is the way it characterizes society, rather than the way it understands individuals and the exercise of agency.

This view suggests that it is Bauman, Beck and Giddens - the theorists of reflexive modernity – that offer a ‘reflexive paradigm.’ Similarly, understood as a paradigm, rather than being organized around habitus Bourdieu’s theory of practice is a field theory. Finally, it is morphogenesis - and not reflexivity - that is the defining moment in Archer’s social theory. Thus whilst it is certainly true that, reflexivity represents a ‘necessary mediatory process’ (Archer 2013: 9) it is nevertheless the case that both it and morphogenesis are necessary if we are to understand ‘society’ and how it works. However, our reading of the books under review suggests that considering the ‘Archerian’ (or, perhaps, ‘Archerian-Donatian’) social theory to be a ‘reflexive paradigm’ is a mistake; the paradigm on offer is morphogenic.

The contributions to Social Morphogenesis and Late Modernity present accounts or applications of what is termed the Morphogenic/ Morphostatic approach (M/M). It is presented as exploratory approach that essentially sets out certain ground rules for sociological research. Archer argues that contrary to previous historical periods we are now in a situation where “structure and culture have come into synergy with one another with far reaching morphogenetic consequences” (2013: 13, emphasis in original). What Archer is saying is, in effect, that in previous periods culture worked within the bounds of structure resulting in morphostasis or ‘cultural/social maintenance’ but, in the latter part of the 20th century, culture and structure have come together in such a way as to engender morphogenesis. The cultural domain now contributes to the restructuring of social structure.

What, precisely, Archer et al. are proposing when they suggest that the a particular stage of modernity, the morphogenic society, might result from the ongoing process of morphogenesis is not yet entirely clear – aspects of these texts only sketch what is yet to be fully considered. However, what is clear is that the authors are proposing is a theoretically comprehensive (r)evolution. In his chapter “Morphogenesis and Social Change”, Porpora suggests that the morphogenetic approach has not only come to be “broadly equated with the realist approach to social theory” but that, as such, it provides “a meta-theoretical basis for understanding and explaining social change” (Porpora 2013: 25). It is, therefore, a starting point for the articulation of a social or sociological theory and, more importantly, a program of empirical research. In summary he suggests that:

“As a meta-theoretical principle, the morphogenetic approach does not explain anything in particular. It resides rather at the level of underlying philosophy or fundamental ontology. The morphogenetic approach identifies the ingredients of any explanation of social change, namely structure, culture, and agency, and the generic form of their interrelation” (Porpora 2013: 25-26).

Such a view clearly positions morphogenesis as the leading concept of a social theoretical paradigm and, elsewhere in his oeuvre, another contributor to these collections, Donati, makes this suggestion explicit (2010:109). However, whilst talk of paradigms usually focuses on such meta/ theoretical commitments this is, arguably, the least interesting or indeed significant aspect of the phenomena, at least for external, sociologically inclined, observers. To such observers the idea of a sub-disciplinary community is more interesting whilst the issue of ‘exemplars’ is more significant.

Given Archer’s reference to ‘the gang of ten’ (2014: vi) the workshop participants and, therefore, the authors of the chapters, seem to be comprised of a relatively stable set of individuals. Clearly, then, that there exists an identifiable community of researchers, a precondition of the supposition that Morphogenesis is an emerging sociological paradigm, is not in doubt. The series presents the fruits of an ongoing series of annual week-long workshops themed ‘From Modernity to Morphogenic Society?’ with ‘Social Morphogenesis’ (2013) and ‘Late Modernity’ (2014) being books one and two in a five volume series. This is not, then, the usual series of thematically linked edited collections. These volumes are more akin to a number of connected special editions of a journal or, to put it another way, a special journal, one that has a limited, pre-specified life span, structure and potential contributors. Once one further considers the cost of these books, both individually and as a series, it is unlikely that individuals will purchase them. Instead, critics and proponents alike will likely request access via their libraries, allowing readers to pursue particular authors, specific chapters and the sub-themes that are addressed across the series as a whole.

The question of exemplars is, however, more complex. Certainly ‘Globalization’ is a good candidate. That said, Archer considers the existing literature on globalization is considered “incurable ‘actualist’” (2013:2), a charge meant to convey the idea that research in this area “is founded on the detection of empirical patterns” (2013:5) or, at least, on the logic of empiricism. The implication is that it remains under theorized at the level of Structure-Agency-Culture or “SAC” (2013:6-8). If examined in such terms, Globalization can be taken as an example of social morphogenesis, one that is associated with ‘late modernity’ and, therefore, the concept of the ‘Morphogenic Society.’ However this theoretical frame can be distinguished from the associated approach of M/M, something that its proponents (or practitioners) operationalize in the study of contemporary life. Thus whilst globalization– and related terms such as ‘capitalism,’ ‘late modernity’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ – is not only associated with social change but with accelerated rates of social change any study of globalization must attend to what remains the same.

As such M/M research is concerned with social reproduction and its “inescapable contingencies” (Archer 2014:24). The M/M approach provides Archerians with a way to empirically embrace change as a contemporary sociological phenomenon, one that is founded on a particular account of SAC and a refusal to ‘conflate’ its the constitutive elements. The irony is that while globalization has accelerated rates of social change it is doing so by (re)institutionalizing a particular or specific relation between SAC. Another exemplar of the march towards a morphogenetic society and, indeed, an important institution in its continuing development, can be seen through rapid changes in role and function of information technology. A key aspect of this phenomenon has been ‘the World Wide Web,’ a point that is developed by Porpora (2013) in an effort to further the morphogenetic account of social change. His point, and that of Archer’s, is that while the Internet was initially a planned and regimented tool for scientific communication and research, the agentic interpretation and unforeseen application of this tool has radically changed its nature, structural composition and social effects.

Archer is clear that these texts should not be seen as a “manifesto for morphogenic society” (2013:20) but as part of an ongoing discussion of its possible emergence. Thus, at this point in time, Archer does not appear ready to declare that the morphogenic society, as the “next stage” of modernity, has arrived. Nevertheless, the hesitancy to do so might be construed as a strategic position that prevents certain lines of criticism. One such line might be that whilst the morphogenic approach is a theoretical framework that is orientated to the future it is insufficiently speculative. This would suggest that its strength as a scientific paradigm which, after all, are legitimately in the business of making predictions, is also its greatest weakness. Research in this mode risks implicitly assuming that the morphogenic society is a near future reality. Thus, when it comes to empirical research and sociological analysis, it becomes overly prospective and, as a result, too prescriptive. It risks being something that constrains rather than facilitates our understanding of modernity, both in general and in the case of globalization in particular. If so then Morphogenesis may well be a paradigm, one that can subject social reality to scientific visions and, perhaps, not simply predict but shape a particular image of the future.


ARCHER, M.S. 1988. Culture and Agency. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

ARCHER, M.S. 2003. Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

ARCHER, M.S. 2007. Making Our Way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

ARCHER, M.S. 2012. The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

ARCHER, M.S. 2013. “Social Morphogenesis and the Prospects of Morphogenic Society.” In Social Morphogenesis, p. 1–22. Springer.

ARCHER, Margaret S. 2014. “Introduction: ‘Stability’ or ‘Stabilization’ – On Which Would Morphogenic Society Depend?.” In Late Modernity, Archer, M.S.,(Ed). 1–20. Social Morphogenesis. Springer.

CAETANO, A. (2015), “Defining personal reflexivity: a critical reading of Archer’s approach.” European Journal of Social Theory. 18(1): p. 60-75. DONATI, P. 2010. Relational Sociology: A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences. Routledge.

DONATI, P. 2014. “Relational Sociology, Critical Realism and Social Morphogenesis.” Sociologia e Politiche Sociali, no. 1 (July): p. 9–26.

PORPORA, Douglas V. 2013. “Morphogenesis and Social Change.” In Social Morphogenesis, In Archer, M.S. (Ed.) p. 25–37. Netherlands: Springer.