Social Morphogenesis

The Morphogenetic project is the culmination of 30 years work in Social Theory to develop an explanatory framework accounting for social stability and change, appropriate to analysis at all levels from the micro- to the macro-level. Three elements are always involved in social transformations – big or small: ‘structure’, ‘culture’ and ‘agency’. The challenge is always to specify their interplay as the basis of explanation.

Analytically, Morphogenesis refers to those processes that tend to elaborate or change a system’s given form, structure or state in contrast to Morphostasis, which concerns those processes tending to preserve the above unchanged.

The Morphogenetic approach conceptualizes the differentia specifica of historic social formations and identifies the major generative mechanisms producing transition between them.

The ‘Morphogenic Society’ refers to a substantive social form, where processes tending to elaborate the state of the social system – the one global system – considerably outweigh those tending to preserve it.

The ‘Morphogeneic Society’ is the antithesis of traditional social formations, where the mutual reinforcement between structural and cultural morphostasis accounted for their durability and ‘traditionalism’.

It is equally distinct from the configurations of Modernity, where the simultaneous circulation of positive, structure-elaborating feedback and negative, structure-restoring feedback loops, meant change was partial (urban rather than rural), slow (restrained by entrenched vested interests), and retarded by problems of mobilisation (of forming effective social movements).

What is entirely new today is the fact that deviation-amplifying morphogenetic processes are decreasinglyheld back by negative morphostatic ones. After 1990, with the foundation of the World Wide Web, the globalization of multinational enterprises, of de-regulated finance markets, of reduced democratic participation in elections, and the rise of the Third Sector, we began to witness ‘morphogenesis unbound’ for the first time in history, given the synergy between changes in ‘structure’, ‘culture’ and ‘agency’.

The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety (new knowledge, new technology, new occupations, new organizations and new social relations) through the production of an ever enlarging pool of (as yet) unconnected but complementary cultural items by a relational order oriented to innovation. Accelerating innovation, novel opportunities, and increasing choices are its hallmarks.

The main theoretical aim is to conceptualise this unprecedented situation of ‘Morphogenesis Unbound’. Overall, it consists in theorising what, precisely, a Morphogenic society is and how it differs from (the multiple social forms of) Modernity.

Currently, conceptual confusion reigns: Post-modernists (various) accentuate a break with Modernity, but attribute change almost exclusively to cultural phenomena; multifarious theorists of ‘Globalization’ typically hold this (indubitable) change to be the cause of social transformation rather than being the consequenceof other processes generating connectivity; theorists of ‘reflexive modernization’, acknowledge no Great Break but portray ‘late’ Modernity as an unstructured series of ‘flows’ (‘liquidity’) combined with radical ‘individualization’ of the serially self-reinvented subject (e.g. Beck and Giddens), thus erasing structure just as forcefully as ‘actor network theory’ (Latour and Law), and eliminating the committed human agent with the same force as the Postmodernists.

Instead, the Morphogenetic approach is based upon the stratified social ontology of Social Realism that disengages particular properties and powers pertaining to ‘structure’, ‘culture’ and ‘agency’. It upholds a commitment to humankind and to human well being.

Specific research tasks

The new generative mechanism at work is for variety to induce further variety.  All change is ‘activity dependent’, but the new social relations and relations between relations that accelerate innovation, opportunities and choices await adequate theorization. The danger in the new millennium is that social solidarity could be further reduced by new hierarchies based upon differential expertise. The challenge is to identify ways of integrating variety as diversity throughout the population. Hence the particular interest of the burgeoning Third Sector and Cyber Sector as means for transforming civil society.

  1. Understanding the mechanism at the micro-level. Morphogenesis fosters a new situational logic for action. During late modernity the latter remained a logic of competition, whose outcomes were zero-sum. Conversely, the new logic of opportunity associated with the unbinding of morphogenesis could, in principle, represent a ‘win-win’ situation for many more people. In turn, the Reflexive Imperativeapplies to all because given the acceleration of change, past experience is no guide to action. Such ‘contextual incongruity’ means that socialization can no longer prepare young people for working life or life-style through the inter-generational transmission of a ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu), operating quasi-automatically. Instead, agents’ personal concerns increasingly act as their guides because their courses of action are determined and realised through reflexive deliberation – both individual and collective.
  2. Understanding the mechanism at the meso-level. Here, network theory requires re-conceptualization to embrace not only how connectivity fosters the flexible production of knowledge but transforms social relations and the generation of new relational goods (indivisible, non-material goods and services). Hence considerable interest attaches to  developing ‘Relational Realism’.
  3. Understanding the mechanism at the macro-level. How do Market ‘exchange relations’ and State ‘command relations’ become reconfigured into more dispersed and participatory social forms, no longer based upon instrumental rationality but on social engagement?

Centre for Social Ontology