hard realism about social structure

by Sebastian Benthall

Sawyer’s (2000) investigations into the theory of downward causation of social structure are quite subtle. He points out several positions in the sociological debate about social structure:

  • Holists, who believe social structures have real, independent causal powers sometimes through internalization by individuals.
  • Subjectivists, who believe that social structures are epiphenomenal, reducible to individuals
  • Interactionists, who see patterns of interaction as primary, not the agents or the structures that may produce the interactions
  • Hybrid theorists, who see an interplay between social structure and independent individual agency.

I’m most interested at the moment in the holist, subjectivist, and hybrid positions. This is not because I don’t see interaction as essential–I do. But I think that recognizing that interactions are the medium if not material of social life does not solve the question of why social interactions seem to be structured the way they do. Or, more positively, the interactionist contributes to the discussion by opening up process theory and generative epistemology (cf. Cederman, 2005) as a way of getting at an answer to the question. It is up to us to take it from there.

The subjectivists, in positing only the observable individuals and their actions, has Occam’s Razor on their side. To posit the unobservable entities of social forms is to “Multiply entities unecessarily”. This perhaps accounts for the durability of the subjectivist thesis. The scientific burden of proof is, in a significant sense, on the holist or hybrid theorist to show why the positing of social forms and structures offers in explanatory power what it lacks in parsimony.

Another reason for the subjectivist position is that it does ideological work. Margaret Thatcher famously once said, “There is not such thing as society”, as a condemnation of the socialist government that she would dismantle in favor of free markets. Margaret Thatcher was highly influenced by Friedrich Hayek, who argued that free markets lead to more intelligent outcomes than planned economies because they are better at using local and distributed information in society. Whatever you think of the political consequences of his work, Hayek was an early theorist in society as a system of multiple agents with “bounded rationality“. A similar model to Hayek’s is developed and tested by Epstein and Axtell (1996).

On the other hand, our natural use of language, and social expectations, and legal system all weigh in favor of social forms, institutions, and other structures. These are, naturally, all “socially constructed” but these social constructs undeniably reproduce themselves; otherwise, they would not continue to exist. This process of self-reproduction is named autopoiesis (from ‘auto-‘ (self-), ‘-poisis’ (-creation)) by Maturana and Varela (1991). The concept has been taken up by Luhmann (1995) in social theory and Brier (2008) in Library and Information Sciences (LIS). As these later theorists argue, the phenomenon of language itself can be explained only as a autopoietic social system.

There is a gap between the positions of autopoiesis theorists and the sociological holists discussed by Sawyer. Autopoiesis is, in Varela’s formulation, a general phenomenon about the organization of matter. It is, in his view, the principle of organization of life on the cellular level.

Contrast this with the ‘holist’ social theorist who sees social structures as being reproduced by the “internalization” of the structure by the constituent agents. Social structures, in this view, depend at least in part on their being understood or “known” by the agents participating in them. This implies that the agents have certain cognitive powers that, e.g., strands of organic chemicals do not. [Sawyer refers to Castelfranchi, 1998 on this point; I have yet to read it.] Arguably, social norms are only norms because they are understood by agents involved. This is the position of Habermas (1985) for example, whose whole ethical theory depends on the rational acceptance of norms in free discussion. (This is the legacy of Immanuel Kant.)

What I am arguing for is that there is, in actuality, another position, not identified by Sawyer (2000), on the emergence of social structure that does not depend on internalization but that nevertheless has causal reality. Social forms may arise from individual activity in the same way that biological organization arises from unconscious chemical interactions. I suppose this is a form of holism.

I’d like to call this view the “hard realist” view of social structure, to contrast with “soft realist” views of social structure that depend on internalization by agents. I don’t mean for this to be taken aggressively, but rather because I have a very concrete distinction in mind. If social structure depends on internalization by agents, then that means (by definition, really) that there exists an intervention on the beliefs of agents that could dissolve the social structure and transform it into something else. For example, an left-wing anarchist might argue that money only has value because we all believe it has value. If we were to just all stop valuing money, we could have a free and equal society at last.

If social structures exist even in spite of the recognition of them by social actors, then the story is quite different. This means (by definition) that interventions on the beliefs of actors will not dissolve the structure. In other words, just because something is a social construct does not mean that it can be socially deconstructed by a process of reversal. Some social structures may truly have a life of their own. (I would expect this to be truer the more we delegate social moderation to technology.)

This story is complicated by the fact that social actors vary in their cognitive capacities and this heterogeneity can materially impact social outcomes. Axtell and Epstein (2006) have a model of the formation of retirement age norms in which a small minority of actors make their decision rationally based on expected outcomes and the rest adopt the behavior of the majority of their neighbors. This results in dynamic adjustments to behavior that, under certain parameters, make the total society look more individually rational than they are in fact. This is encouraging to those of us who sometimes feel our attempts to rationally understand the world are insignificant in the face of social inertia more broadly speaking.

But it also makes it difficult to judge empirically whether a “soft realist” or “hard realist” view of social structure is more accurate. It also makes the empirical distinction between the holist and subjectivist positions difficult, for that matter. Surveying individuals about their perceptions of their social world will tell you nothing about hard realist social structures. If there are heterogenous views about what the social order actually is, that may or may not impact the actual social structure that’s there. Real social structure may indeed create systematic blindnesses in the agents that compose them.

Therefore, the only way to test for hard realist social structure is to look at aggregate social behavior (perhaps on the interactionist level of analysis) and identify where its regularities can be attributed to generative mechanisms. Multi-agents systems and complex adaptive systems look like the primary tools in the toolkit for modeling these kinds of dynamics. So far I haven’t seen an adequate discussion of how these theories can be empirically confirmed using real data.

References

Axtell, Robert L and Epstein, J. M. “COORDINATION IN TRANSIENT SOCIAL NETWORKS: AN AGENT-BASED COMPUTATIONAL MODEL OF THE TIMING OF RETIREMENT ROBERT L. AXTELL AND JOSHUA M. EPSTEIN.” Generative social science: Studies in agent-based computational modeling (2006): 146.

Brier, Søren. Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough!. University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Castelfranchi, Cristiano. “Simulating with cognitive agents: The importance of cognitive emergence.” International Workshop on Multi-Agent Systems and Agent-Based Simulation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1998.

Cederman, Lars-Erik. “Computational models of social forms: Advancing generative process theory 1.” American Journal of Sociology 110.4 (2005): 864-893.

Epstein, Joshua M., and Robert Axtell. Growing artificial societies: social science from the bottom up. Brookings Institution Press, 1996.

Habermas, Jurgen, Jürgen Habermas, and Thomas McCarthy. The theory of communicative action. Vol. 2. Beacon press, 1985.

Hayek, Friedrich August. “The use of knowledge in society.” The American economic review (1945): 519-530.

Luhmann, Niklas. Social systems. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Vol. 42. Springer Science & Business Media, 1991.

Sawyer, R. Keith. “Simulating emergence and downward causation in small groups.” Multi-agent-based simulation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2000. 49-67.

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