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Margaret Archer on the morphogenetic society and the implications for peer to peer socialisation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th June 2008


I received a fascinating text by sociologist Margaret Archer, on the history of reflexivity, which has a very interesting thesis of why peer to peer socialisation is by necessity becoming dominant in the new generation.

To understand the chosen excerpt which will illustrate her thesis, two prior elements are necessary.

First of all, Margaret Archer speaks about humanity having entered the stage of the morphogenetic society, which she defines as follows:

“Morphostasis refers to relations that tend to preserve or maintain a system’s given form of organisation or state. Conversely, morphpogenesis derives from those processes that tend to elaborate or change a system’s given form, structure or state. Both processes are entirely and continuously activity-dependent. It is agency that generates both morphostasis and morphogenesis and, in turn, these very different relationships between parts of the social system only exert causal powers by working through social agents.”

So basically, a society of permanent change, with little room for the stabilization of permanent social forms that can be transmitted from generation to generation. Premodernity is almost exclusively morphostatic, giving the vast majority the time to socialize in stable groups, requiring low reflexitity on life choices which are mostly determined by social role and habit. Modernity starts to be morphogenetic, but leaves enough room for social roles to stabilize, but requires much higher levels of reflexivity. Finally, today, with rapid and incessant change, deep and continuous reflexivity is a sine qua none for survival.

Second, she therefore distinguishes three stages of reflexivity (and a fourth pathological stage of what she calls fractured reflexitity):

(Note that these stages are aspects of persons, which become more dominant in more people over time, there is no hard dividing line, though it can be said that today, the number of people using the first form are shrinking, while the latter group is increasing, particularly amongst the current generation of youth; Margaret Archer has studied this in detail)

Communicative Reflexivity: Internal Conversations need to be confirmed and completed by others before they lead to action

Autonomous Reflexivity: Internal Conversations are self-contained, leading directly to action

Meta-Reflexivity: Internal Conversations critically evaluate previous inner dialogues and are critical about effective action in society

The stage is now set for our rather long excerpt, which discusses the advent of the third stage of metareflexivity and how it is related to the emergence of peer to peer socialisation as a dominant form.

The source of the material is the article: Reflexivity’s Transformations: The demise of Routine Action and its consequences for Civil Society, which I received by email.

This approach was first outlined in her book: Realist Social Theory: the Morphogenetic Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995

Margaret Archer:

As morphogenesis engaged, from the 1980s onwards, multiplying the variety of alternatives becoming available, especially in terms of work and employment, it increasingly burdened people with exercising their personal reflexivity in order to make choices in uncharted territory. The previous guidelines, embedded in ‘contextual continuity’, which had led some to view positions as ‘quasi- automatically’ and ‘semi- consciously’ engendering dispositions to reproduce these positions, were vanishing fast. The occupational pattern of son following father or peers following their mates, which were still mentioned by many older subjects interviewed for Making our Way through the World, was now shattering. In place of such guidance, subjects were increasingly thrown back upon their own personal concerns as their only guides to action. Even for those with a well-defined ultimate concern, reflexive deliberation was inescapable in order to endorse a particular course of action held likely to accomplish it.

The speed and penetration of change is fundamentally destructive of ‘contextual continuity’ amongst the general population in the more ‘advanced’ parts of the world. It destroys both the ways of life continuous from the past and also defies the re-establishment of new continuities on the basis of residence, community, occupation, religion or kinship, as in modernity’s past. What is novel is that in so far as some succeed in constructing or strenuously maintaining a small shelter of ‘contextual continuity’ for themselves and some significant others, this is also a matter of reflexive deliberation and it now comes at a price. The costs are in terms of a refusal to become geographically mobile, of declining occupational promotion and of rejecting educational advancement to some extent. This is no longer the romanticised endurance of, for example, the working class community; it is a choice, it has to be made, it carries a price-tag, it is based upon personal commitment and is hostage to it. Thus, in no sense is ‘contextual continuity’ a default-option or a fall-back position. It is just as deliberative a choice about modus vivendi as are the more obviously self-conscious modes of embracing ‘contextual incongruity’ and determining to make a particular form of it one’s own.

In developed societies, for the majority, the name of the game is ‘transferable skills’ and ‘serial re-training’ because ‘human resource development’ has become a life-long enterprise. In the morphogenetic context, there are no jobs for life but only a succession of changing posts, change of postings and inter-continental changes of address. These are accompanied by heightened rates of marital breakdown and serial re-partnering. In addition, increasing numbers choose to remain single, or if not single, childless, and if not childless, to have the one ‘special child’, all of which are propitious to geographical mobility, which is fast becoming the gateway to opportunity.

For the first time in human history, the situational logic of opportunity is starting to predominate at both corporate and individual levels. The tendency for variety to spawn more variety takes generic names: systems analysis, informatics or logistics, whose common denominator is synergy. At the individual level, the prizes go to those who detect, manipulate and find applications for links between previously unrelated bits of knowledge; ones that have no necessary connection with one another but whose contingent compatibility can be exploited to advantage. They win by extruding and extending their skills to match the fast shifting array of opportunities or, even better, by making their own opportunities through their ability to innovate upon contingency. All of this requires intense reflexive activity on the part of the subject, but he or she has no alternative but to engage in it because the old routine guidelines are no longer applicable and new ones cannot be forged because even nascent morphogenesis is inhospitable to any form of routinisation.

Three logical implications:

There are three logical implications that follow from the development towards morphogenesis. Firstly, if it is decreasingly possible for most action to be traditional, habitual or routine in kind, it is also difficult to see how it can be normatively regulated. When a premium attaches to innovative action, to seizing novel opportunities, and to creatively exploring and exploiting new connections, there is a severely reduced sense in which actions of this type can be norm-governed. Action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it.

In certain areas, innovation is morphing so rapidly that legal regulation is left limping behind, as in bio-technology, embryology and attempts to protect intellectual property rights within information technology.

Innovation outruns codification; trying to catch up with it is like hoping to open the fridge door fast enough to see the light come on. Bureaucratic regulation is no substitute, because getting things done fast and flexibly is impeded by fixed protocols, which only stimulate the ingenuity to circumvent them. Instead, more and more specialist groups are becoming normatively self-regulating, according to their own invented and shifting definitions: pro tem, ‘crackers’ distinguish themselves from ‘hackers’ but, outside this hi-tech group, who can appreciate where this fine line is drawn, let alone reinforce rectitude in staying on the right side of it, if there is one?

Another way of putting this is that fewer and fewer actions can be referred to a contemporary version of Mead’s ‘generalized other’ for normative guidance. What I have been arguing is that there can be no ‘generalized other’ after the inception of morphogenesis. Shifting specialisation and sectionalism have demolished its ‘generalised’ character, even for those who held that it could survive into late modernity. Of course, it can rightly be upheld that value systems are more enduring than norms given their less specific character.

Certainly, in interviews over the last few years many respondents have been adamant that they ‘knew right from wrong’, though most attributed this to parental teaching or example, rather than to some less particularistic source. Yet, as variety stimulates more variety, in applications as well as in new knowledge, do they know right from wrong in bio-ethics or in the compilation and exchange of computerised data bases? If they do, they did not get this from their parents. Increasingly they have to inspect and evaluate novel contexts with no guidelines other than their own ‘concerns’. This is the midwife of Meta-Reflexivity.

Secondly, all of the above places a big question mark over the continued applicability of established concepts of socialisation. Fundamentally, the fact that new positions and new knowledge are transforming one another everyday, though positive feedback loops, means that the anticipatory socialisation provided in the family will necessarily be out of date by the time children reach maturity. This is not simply a matter of young adults needing to acquire supplementary information and skills, as was also the case in the latter half of the twentieth century, but of a growing incongruity between such dispositions as were inculcated in the family and the positional requirements encountered when the young confront the employment market. Positions exist which did not when they were growing-up and specialist knowledge presents a complex and novel array of training options.

In part, we, the parental generation, force them to be selective. Given ‘marital’ breakdown, serial re-partnering and the ‘amalgamation’ of those reared together, children regularly have four ‘parents’ plus. Consequently, they are increasingly the recipients of mixed messages; they are aware of alternatives and of the need to choose or to ‘pick and mix’. In larger part, socialisation has become a task in which ‘friends become the new family’ and the peer group is the readiest available source of ‘new’ and therefore relevant information, advice and support. This should not be equated with juvenilia, such as ‘texting in the playground’. It is friends who talk one another down from a bad trip, who counsel on relationships, and who are the companions in exploring the ‘lonely planet’.

Yet, friendship is a source of anxiety to the young adult because most perceive it as fragile and ephemeral, demanding effort and concession to maintain it, precisely because it may not always be there in the way that the family once was. In other words, not only is there a growing inter-generational disjunction between parental dispositions and the novel positions that their children will assume, but the unstable, unreliable family is being replaced by ‘peer to peer socialisation’. Taken together, these reductions in both normativity and socialisation signal the radical difficulty of maintaining social integration amidst the increasing morphogenesis of the new millennium.

Thirdly, if reflexivity has to be exercised against a shifting horizon, in novel situations where routine no longer recommends a particular course of action and socialization does not supply a dispositional orientation, they have to become both more self-critical and more socially evaluative – which are the hallmarks of Meta-reflexivity. The prime task of internal conversation is for subjects to design courses of action that will enable them to realise what they care about most and to establish a satisfying and sustainable modus vivendi, constitutive of their thriving within the social order. This can be summarised as completing the sequence concerns ? projects ? practices. Under modernity its completion was at the mercy of contingency and human fallibility, but the way of life sought could be envisaged clearly, was relatively durable (jobs for life) and the prospects offered were fairly predictable.

However, under increasing morphogenesis the situational logic of opportunity places a premium upon innovative action, but not only can there be no guidelines about how to innovate but also, logically, there can be no knowing where an innovation will lead. In turn, modi vivendi themselves are strictly pro tem because the rapidity of social change may make them non-viable. In other words, the sequence becomes greatly more difficult to complete and will require frequent revisions and reformulations, as the context continues to change. Not only do more and more subjects have to monitor themselves and monitor their shifting social contexts to establish a liveable relation between them – they must also do so repeatedly, if not constantly. In turn this means that their Meta-reflexivity is continually on call, critically evaluating their present modus vivendi and evaluating opportunities for superceding it.”

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3 Responses to “Margaret Archer on the morphogenetic society and the implications for peer to peer socialisation”

  1. donald Says:

    Seems this must entail a sort of hyper-individualism, a continuous low-lying alienation previously only reserved for French writers on cloudy mornings.

    Seems there might be a middle ground between the collapsing family and tenuous peer-groups. Socialization has always involved a blending of the two, and to presume otherwise is to accept a fairly groundless image of cultural history. “Families” are almost always extended kin groups, and the idea of “kin” is generally more nebulous than the blood ties we tend to accept now. And religious communities are very often communities bound around a particular social project, not simply some ethnic identifier. I mean this is sort of a problem, right? Are the categories of social association “ethnic” descriptors, or are they shared projects? Historically association has always entailed both general tendencies, to varying degrees, because ultimately any social clustering is based on the sharing of memes, habits, and experiences.

    The difference now seems to be that the speed of communication, alongside the destabilization of the nuclear family in the West, is just tilting the balance a bit more towards raw association without public ritual and routinized habit. I think that means that we have to reinvent sociality to accommodate this new dynamism, which people clearly are trying to do.

    So instead of focusing so much on “people” as the unit of socialization- the family, the peer group- for an individual subject, maybe we should just shift the focus to actual projects. Projects, partially discrete, partially open, bring together family and peer bonds, emotional, aesthetic, and utilitarian needs, etc. A project group allows a sort of collaborative reflexivity, taking the edge off a little.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Thanks for that comment.

    I would also argue that the tenuousness of current peer to peer socialization, demands a strong institutional meta-regulator, including state forms, that compensate for weaknesses in existing ‘spontaneous’ social structures,

    Michel

  3. Geof Says:

    Hmm. I wonder if the collapse of finance capitalism and the ensuing collapse of the service economy will alter this outline. Wasn’t change just as alarming in Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class? Where is the underlying logic driving these surface social trends and if the logic falters (ie the present crash) is there a reversion; or more likely, the creation of new social forms. Where is the impact of the coming crises (environment, consumer economy). This appears as the broader sociological form of the epidemiological health crisis (particularly obesity. There is too much sociology here and not enough psychology (where are the deep structures?), economics, or forwards history (ie it presents forward the present when the present is rupturing.

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