PhD Workshop: What’s the point of social ontology?

What’s the Point of Social Ontology?
PhD Workshop at the University of Warwick
18th June 2014, 10am – 5:30pm

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has an ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less) by May 15th. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

From Modernity to Morphogenesis

From Modernity to Morphogenesis was the CSO’s first annual invited workshop. The workshop was headed by Margaret Archer and the papers were published as Social Morphogenesis.

The workshop attendees were (in order of presentations):

Andrea Maccarini

Andrea Maccarini:
Network Dynamics and the regulatory process: a neo-structural approach to morphogenesis

Immanuel Lazéga

Emmanuel Lazéga:
Regularity and Emergence: two frontiers in the morphogenetic approach

Pierpaolo DonatiPierpaolo Donati:
Relations of Authority, obligations and roles

Ismael Al-Amoudi

Ismael Al-Amoudi:
The Morphogenesis of Social Networks: relational steering beyond positive and negative feedbacks

Wolfgang HofkirchnerWolfgang Hofkirchner:
Self-organizing as the mechanism of development and evolution in social systems

Kate Forbes-Pitt

Kate Forbes-Pitt:
Emergence: relating emergents and morphogenesis

Tony LawsonTony Lawson:
Emergence, Downward Causation and Causal Reduction

Doug Porpora

Doug Porpora:
Social Change as Morphogenesis

Colin WightColin Wight:
Morphogenesis, Continuity and Change in the International Political System

Workshop attendees

 

Morphogenesis and Human Flourishing

contentThis book, the last volume in the Social Morphogenesis series, examines whether or not a Morphogenic society can foster new modes of human relations that could exercise a form of ‘relational steering’, protecting and promoting a nuanced version of the good life for all. It analyses the way in which the intensification of morphogenesis and the diminishing of morphostasis impact upon human flourishing. The book links intensified morphogenesis to promoting human flourishing based on the assumption that new opportunities open up novel experiences, skills, and modes of communication that appeal to talents previously lacking any outlet or recognition. It proposes that equality of opportunity would increase as ascribed characteristics diminished in importance, and it could be maintained as the notion of achievement continued to diversify. Digitalization has opened the cultural ‘archive’ for more to explore and, as it expands exponentially, so do new complementary compatibilities whose development foster yet further opportunities. If more people can do more of what they do best, these represent stepping stones towards the ‘good life’ for more of them.

Table of contents

Introduction: Has a Morphogenic Society Arrived? – Margaret Archer

Human Flourishing and Human Morphogenesis: A Critical Realist Interpretation and Critique – Philip S. Gorski

Some Reservations About Flourishing – Douglas Porpora

Reflexivity in a Just Morphogenic Society: A Sociological Contribution to Political Philosophy – Ismael Al-Amoudi

The Morphogenic Society as Source and Challenge for Human Fulfillment

Does Intensive Morphogenesis Foster Human Capacities or Liabilities? – Margaret Archer

What Does a ‘Good Life’ Mean in a Morphogenic Society? The Viewpoint of Relational Sociology

Flourishing or Fragmenting Amidst Variety: And the Digitalization of the Archive – Mark Carrigan

Corporations, Taxation and Responsibility: Practical and Onto-Analytical Issues for Morphogensis and Eudaimonia – A posse ad esse? – Jamie Morgan and William Sun

Networks and Commons: Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Organizational Morphogenesis in the Struggles to Shape Collective Responsibility in New Sharing Institutions – Emmanuel Lazega

Eudaimonic Bubbles, Social Change and the NHS – Tony Lawson

The Will to Be: Human Flourishing and the Good International Society – Colin Wight

Creating Common Good: The Global Sustainable Information Society as the Good Society – Wolfgang Hofkirchner

Celebration of critical realism at UCL

All are welcome to this special celebration of Critical Realism (CR) and the works of its originator, Professor Roy Bhaskar. The event will see the launch of new books on the subject and an introduction to a new member of the UCL community. Chairing the proceedings will be Hilary Wainwright, the sociologist, political activist and socialist feminist, best known for being editor of Red Pepper magazine.

The afternoon will begin with a welcome to Professor Margaret Archer, who is joining UCL, by Professor David Voas, Head of the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education and Professor Priscilla Alderson, UCL Institute of Education.

Registration and more details: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/celebration-of-critical-realism-at-ucl-tickets-31540549633

The Sixth CSO Workshop: Humanism Under Threat

The sixth annual Centre for Social Ontology workshop took place from the 3rd to 6th January 2017 in central London. The papers will be published as the first in a new volume of books, with full details to be confirmed soon.

Maggie Archer:  Bodies, Persons and Transhumans: Why do these Distinctions Matter?

Doug Porpora: Vulcans, Klingdoms, and Humans: What does Humanism Encompass?

Phil Gorski: The Meta-ethics of Transhumanism. Does the ethics of human flourishing provide sufficient leverage to critique radical Transhumanism?

John Latsis: Needs, Wants and the ethics of human enhancement

Pierpaolo Donati: Transcending the Human: Why, Where and How?

Emmanuel Lazega: Transhumanist Interventions: A formula for a divided social order?

Mark Carrigan: The Evisceration of the Human in the Digital Social Sciences

Colin Wight: Death, Dreams and Destruction: the illusions of Posthumanist Warfare.

Jamie Morgan:  A.I. and the failure adequately to define the Human

Ismael Al-Amoudi: Dehumanisation and organisation studies

Wolfgang Hofkirchner: Imagined Futures gone astray; An ontological analysis

Selected Papers of Margaret Archer

Professor Margaret Archer is a leading critical realist and major contemporary social theorist. This edited collection seeks to celebrate the scope and accomplishments of her work, distilling her theoretical and empirical contributions into four sections which capture the essence and trajectory of her research over almost four decades. Long fascinated with the problem of structure and agency, Archer’s work has constituted a decade-long engagement with this perennial issue of social thought. However, in spite of the deep interconnections that unify her body of work, it is rarely treated as a coherent whole. This is doubtless in part due to the unforgiving rigour of her arguments and prose, but also a byproduct of sociology’s ongoing compartmentalisation.

This edited collection seeks to address this relative neglect by collating a selection of papers, spanning Archer’s career, which collectively elucidate both the development of her thought and the value that can be found in it as a systematic whole. This book illustrates the empirical origins of her social ontology in her early work on the sociology of education, as well as foregrounding the diverse range of influences that have conditioned her intellectual trajectory: the systems theory of Walter Buckley, the neo-Weberian analysis of Lockwood, the critical realist philosophy of Roy Bhaskar and, more recently, her engagement with American pragmatism and the Italian school of relational sociology. What emerges is a series of important contributions to our understanding of the relationship between structure, culture and agency. Acting to introduce and guide readers through these contributions, this book carries the potential to inform exciting and innovative sociological research.

Find out more on the publisher’s website: https://www.routledge.com/Structure-Culture-and-Agency-Selected-Papers-of-Margaret-Archer/Brock-Carrigan-Scambler/p/book/9781138932944

De/Humanisation and Organization at EGOS

Please consider submitting a short paper to the EGOS2017 sub-theme on ‘De/humanisation and Organisation’ organised by our deputy director Ismael Al-Amoudi. The purpose of this sub-theme is to explore the dehumanising effects of contemporary organisations but also the potential of organisations to rehumanise social relations. Deadline: 9 Jan 2017, length: 3,000 words. 

In many ways, our current epoch witnesses dehumanized social relations. While alienation (Marx), disenchantment (Weber) and the deficit in social solidarity (Durkheim) are by no means recent phenomena, processes of dehumanization continue to prevail in most spheres of society. In the public sphere, discussions privilege compliance with bureaucratic regulations and quantifiable indicators (such as GDP and its growth) over human needs and flourishing, have the effect of excluding large portions of the electorate from public debate while accelerating the demise of the Welfare State. More recently, Western countries’ securitarian and paranoid responses to terrorist attacks have reinforced a climate of generalized suspicion in which the neighbour is deemed to be a potential enemy (Zizek, 2009).

In the economic sphere, the financialization of the economy and the spread of market ownership privilege economic profitability over human well-being. Corporate Social Responsibility is thus deployed mostly as a rhetorical device whose injunctions are followed as long as they are profitable to corporate shareholders. Yet, any contemporary observer of capitalism witnesses suffering, destitution and ethical corrosion, both in richer and in poorer countries. Equally worryingly, the private sphere also seems to have undergone dehumanization: for instance, impersonal relations are the lot of ever-growing urban centres, whilst familial duties of care are gradually replaced either by indifference or by reliance on salaried transactions with professional carers (Hochschild, 2003).

The dehumanization of society is mirrored, and perhaps intensified, by the exclusion of the notion of ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ from the social sciences and humanities in the second half of the 20th Century. While philosophers such as Foucault, or more recently Butler, have warned against taken for granted conceptions of the human, their warnings seem to have produced effacement, rather than problematization, of the category of ‘human’. This is especially evident in a variety of anti- or post-humanist theorising, which either dissolves human persons into their wider material, discursive or communicative contexts, or alternatively conceptualises humanity only as an aggregate of neurological, psychological or material components.

There exist, however, significant exceptions to this trend. Neo-Aristotelian philosophers such as Sen and Nussbaum have developed political philosophies that place human capabilities at the centre of the stage. In feminist studies, Lawson (2009) advocated ‘minimal humanism’ and in sociology Archer (2000), Sayer (2011) and Smith (2010) have taken stock of the absence of human subjects from social scientific accounts and sketched the contours of a humanist social science. On the post-structuralist front, Butler’s studies of derealization and dehumanization (Butler 2004; 2009) mark a reinstatement of the category of the ‘human’ that remains conscious that norms of humanity can produce violence on those persons who do not fit them.

The major purpose of this sub-theme is to explore the dehumanizing effects of contemporary organizations but also the potential of organizations to rehumanize social relations. We welcome a range of theoretical and empirical contributions on processes of humanization/dehumanization addressing, amongst other issues, the following:

  • How do contemporary modes of organizing and organization contribute to dehumanize people? For instance, to what extent is the largely studied dark side of management amenable to dehumanization? What is gained by doing so? But, equally importantly, which aspects, if any, are not reducible to dehumanization?
  • Conversely, what contemporary movements and novel modes of organizing might contribute to enhance human flourishing and dignity? For instance, how are social movements centered on human dignity such as the Spanish Indignados readdressing the human side of social relationships? How are cooperatives and alternative organizations of work, care and political involvement developing credible instances of resistance to dehumanizing tendencies?
  • Is the concept of the ‘human’ still a useful ethical category when assessing the ‘good’ organization? Does it make sense to wager, with Foucault, that ‘man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’? Is ‘humanity’ merely an empty signifier prone to endless re-appropriation and whose value is at best tactical but never foundational for social and organizational theories and politics? Or is the notion of humanity, and associated ‘powers’, ‘rights’ and ‘flourishing’, a useful standard when assessing and criticizing organizations and societies?
  • What are the new struggles arising from the attack on dignity and from the exclusion processes that are largely shaping capitalistic societies?
  • Have the boundaries of what people regard as a dehumanizing treatment shifted? Have we become more willing, for instance, to disregard outrage in the name of economic and military security?
  • The dehumanization of bureaucratic organizations has been extensively studied since Weber and Gouldner. But is the emergence of hybrid or post-bureaucratic organizations a safeguard against dehumanization? Or do these novel organizational forms merely shift the modalities of dehumanization?
  • What is the role of information technologies in processes of dehumanization?

References

  • Archer, M.S. (2000): Being Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Butler, J. (2004): Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.
  • Butler, J. (2009): Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso.
  • Hochschild, A.R. (2003): The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lawson, T. (2009): “Feminism, realism and essentialism. Reply to Van Staveren.” In: E. Fullbrook (ed.): Ontology and Economics. Tony Lawson and His Critics. London: Routledge, 311–324.
  • Sayer, A. (2011): Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, C. (2010): What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life and the Moral Good from the Person up. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Zizek, S. (2009): Violence. Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books.

Acknowledgment to the Independent Social Research Foundation

With the grateful thanks from all contributors to our Book Series on  ‘Social Morphogenesis’ for the funding and support that we have received from the ISRF over six years.

Without this help we could not have met in different European cities for the first week in January every year, enjoyed our exchanges immensely and managed to produce a book a year:-

  • Archer, Margaret S. (Ed.), 2013, Vol 1, Social Morphogenesis, Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Archer, Margaret S. (Ed.), 2014, Vol 2, Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society, Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Archer, Margaret S., (Ed), 2015, Vol 3, Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order, Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Archer, Margaret S., (Ed.), 2016, Vol. 4, Morphogenesis and the Crisis of Normativity, Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Archer, Margaret S., (Ed.), 2017, Vol. 5, Morphogenesis and the Good Society, Dordrecht, Springer.

Thank you from us all for supporting our independent research and the foundation of the Centre for Social Ontology.

Convergences of General System Theory, Critical Realism and Theory of Society

Our collaborator Wolfgang  Hofkirchner recently gave a paper at the ISA in Vienna (available online here)  in which he discussed philosophical, that is, praxiological, ontological and epistemological foundations of a theory of social systems. In particular, he addressed the confluence of critical thinking and systems thinking – of Critical Theory and Systems Philosophy – in the context of social theory. Critical Theory has its origins in the Frankfurt School going back to Marx and has developed since into a variety of different approaches. Systems Philosophy is considered as having its origins in Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory. It has been developing in the discourse about Evolutionary Systems and Complexity Thinking.

A special focus was given to the post-Luhmannian attempts to reframe the social (Poe Yu-Ze Wan 2011: Reframing the social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory). They show a striking affinity of two strands: Critical Realism, on the one hand, that is grounded on some Marxian assumptions and dialectical logic – in particular, the approach of Social Ontology as represented by Margaret S. Archer (with whom the Bertalanffy Center has been co-operating since 2012) – and Emergentist Systemism, on the other, a well-cast term for the gist of Systems Philosophy so far, going back to Mario Bunge (whom the BCSSS awarded the Ludwig von Bertalanffy Award in Complexity Thinking in 2014).

In contradistinction to suggestions such as to even de-ontologise Luhmann’s theory of social systems that gave already rise to rather constructivist views, Hofkirchner would promote to revisit some Luhmannian topoi and interpret those in the light of the mentioned convergences so as to fit a more coherent social theory.

Centre for Social Ontology