Multi-level Methodology and Multi-world Ontology: A Core Architecture of Realist Social Theory

Seminar Paper, 1999

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. The Four Problems of Social Theorizing

2. The Two Levels of Facts

3. The Three Worlds of Emergent Entities

4. The Interplay Between Levels and Worlds

5. A Hypothesis for Further Research


1. The Four Problems of Social Theorizing

It would not be exaggerated to say that the central problem of social theorizing1 lies in the relations or mediations between system (in particular, structure and function), agency (particularly, action and subject) and time (in particular, history and process). This problem arises due to a number of dichotomies. Historically, these various dichotomies can be grouped under four headings:

(1) Local vs. Global, which refers to the dichotomy of the local scale, on which individuals interact, and the global scale, on which society as a system is identified;
(2) Static vs. Dynamic, which refers to the dichotomy of the static aspect, which is a feature of situations and structures, and the dynamic aspect, which is a characteristic of interactions and processes;
(3) Circular vs. Open, which refers to the dichotomy of the circular form of the generative mechanisms operating in focal complex of analysis - often called "recursivity" (e.g., Giddens 1984) or "self-reference" (e.g., Luhmann 1984) - and the open form of connections between levels of analysis;2 and
(4) Continuous vs. Discontinuous, which refers to the dichotomy of the assumed continuous nature of history, which is often asserted by "grand narratives" (Lyotard), and the discontinuous nature of distinctive episodes, according to which there is no such thing as general plot for a historical process.

All these dichotomies can be seen as variants of an overall micro-macro problem. Thus, the four dichotomies listed above can be termed first order, second order, third order and fourth order micro-macro problem respectively. The theme of an overall micro-macro problem may be a controversial and therefore interesting topic. However, I will not dwell here since my central concern in this paper is not the micro-macro problem itself but the architecture of Margaret Archer's "realist social theory" (Archer 1995) that elegantly seeks to respond to this central challenge in sociological theorizing.

It is tempting to reconcile dichotomies in the form of reduction, or "conflation" in Archer's terminology. The two main traditions in methodology of social sciences, namely, methodological individualism and functionalism, both tend to be reductionistic or, to say with Archer, conflationary in their own ways. Methodological individualism follows a kind of theorizing that Archer terms "upwards conflation," while functionalism works with "downwards conflation." Upwards conflation asserts the primacy of agency and views "structural properties as reducible to the effects of other actors, which are in their turn always recoverable by agency" (Archer 1995: 84). On the other hand, downwards conflation "cede(s) the explanatory rights of social theory to human biology, individual psychology, economic inevitability, evolutionary adaptation or simply to speculative metaphysics" (ibid.). In short, downwards conflation tries to establish the explanation of social phenomena at a level outside of the one of agency. Although pure reductionism is rare and many of sociological theories tries to search for linkage between the micro and the macro levels (Alexander et al. 1987), the majority of them remains reductionist in their core, for they locate their respective theoretical (or explanatory) primacy at a single level.

In the recent time, we have witnessed another kind of conflation which does not reduce its theoretical primacy to the micro or the macro level and considers both as the two sides of the same coin. For our convenience, we can lay the theoretical primacy of this kind of theory somewhere between the micro and the macro levels. Archer calls it "central conflationism" and refers chiefly to Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration3 as an example. Her realist social theory (or "morphogenetic approach") is thought to be a response to Giddens's social theory, but it is in fact an enlarged response. The core idea of the realist social theory, which she terms "analytical dualism," seeks to avoid what she calls the "Fallacy of Conflation," whose three variants are downwards, upwards and central conflation. Basically, the fallacy of conflation means the refutation of the real status of emergent properties. By adopting the reality of emergent entities, viewing them as really (though not always actually) existent within time and space, the realist social theory tries to give resolute answers to the main questions raised by the four micro-macro problems as I have identified above.

In this paper, I shall reconstruct a core architecture of Archer's model of sociological explanation, exhibiting its components and the relationships between these components. These components are of two kinds, and I will call them "levels" and "worlds." Archer refers her model's principal levels to David Lockwood's "social integration" and "system integration."4 Moreover, she has elaborated the Lockwoodian distinction by connecting it with realist approaches, especially with Roy Bhaskar's,5 which endorses the idea of emergence. The result is a theoretical construct, which she calls "analytical dualism." In addition, I will argue that analytical dualism is based upon an ontology whose fundamental worlds are identical with Karl Popper's "three worlds."6 Thus, analytical dualism can be seen as an attempt to marry a two-level methodology to a three-world ontology. This kind of marriage is also the core idea that underlies some other attempts, which aim to be both a grand synthesis of various sociological paradigms and a solution for the micro-macro problems. By pointing that out, I will propose the hypothesis that a solution for the four-fold micro-macro problem would be a construct combining a multi-world ontology that allows the possibility of emergence in social reality and a multi-level methodology that provides a linkage between the different levels of social life.

2 . The Two Levels of Facts

A starting point of analytical dualism is Lockwood's distinction between social integration and system integration. Social integration refers to relations maintaining between groups of actors, system integration to relations maintaining between parts of the social system. Social integration lies therefore at the micro level of social interaction, while system integration at the macro level of social structure and cultural system. At the level of social integration, there are individuals, groups, actions and activities. In short, this is the level of people. At the level of system integration, there are structures, relations between structures, relations between relations, and so on. These properties are irreducible to those of people - they are "emergent properties":

[S]ocial systems being seen as specific configurations of their constitutive structures where the emergent features of the former derive from the relations between the latter. Thus, unlike the 'institutional patterns,' rightly dismissed, which confines components to observable entities, structures themselves contain non-observable emergent powers whose combination (relations between relations) generate the further emergent properties which Lockwood addressed -- in particular those of contradiction and complementarity. (Archer 1995: 69)

For Lockwood and Archer, differentiating in order to link social integration and system integration happens "in two ways" by the same act: "[t]hough definitely linked, these two aspects of integration are not only analytically separable, but also, because of the time element involved, factually distinguishable." (Lockwood 1964: 250, my italics). Here, time is taken to link structure and agency in the fashion that, contrary to Giddens's view of structures "virtually" (i.e., not really) existing beyond space and time (Giddens 1979), structures are assumed to be existent within time and space. The temporal distinction between social integration and system integration is needed because of the historical coincidence or discrepancy between the properties of structure and those of agency, that is, because the two are not temporally co-variant. This necessity is justified by the following arguments.

On the one hand, features of the social system, such as structures or the situation in which the agents in question find themselves, have to pre-date the interactions upon which they exercise causal influences (by conditioning). On the other hand, the consequences of the structures have to post-date the interaction that is necessary to mediate the reproduction or the elaboration of these structures. The elaboration/reproduction of structure is therefore a three-phase process of structural conditioning (first phase), social interaction (second phase), and structural elaboration/reproduction (third phase). In the first phase, social structures exert causal influences on agency by framing the context of action or dividing the population (not necessarily exhaustively) into social groups. What is to highlight here is that causal influences operate within the time dimension; "it takes time to change any structural property and that period represents one of constraints for some groups at least." (Archer 1995: 78, original italic). In the second phase, social agents interact, exerting causal influences on each other. These influences are of two kinds, one temporal, the other directional. By temporal influences, agency can speed up, delay or prevent the elimination of prior structural influences. By directional influences, agency can re-define the contents or meanings of concepts, theories, designs or other cultural schemas, thus affecting the nature of structural elaboration at the exit of the next phase. In the third phase, social interaction gives rise to some new structures (elaboration) or simply repeats some old ones (reproduction), ending a morphogenetic cycle in the case of elaboration or a morphostatic one in the case of reproduction. The outcome of the third phase is a host of new social possibilities. Thus, structural elaboration restarts a new morphogenetic/static cycle.7


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Multi-level Methodology and Multi-world Ontology: A Core Architecture of Realist Social Theory
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Institute for Sociology)
Seminar: Margaret Archers contribution to modern sociological theory building
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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397 KB
Multi-level, Methodology, Multi-world, Ontology, Core, Architecture, Realist, Social, Theory, Seminar, Margaret, Archers
Quote paper
Alexander Hong Lam Vu (Author), 1999, Multi-level Methodology and Multi-world Ontology: A Core Architecture of Realist Social Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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