For “Central Conflation”; Against the Structure/Agency Dichotomy

The newest issue of Sociological Theory was just released. Several of the articles look fascinating, but with my spare time between reading a 400p congressional hearing and (failing) to read an 1100p congressional hearing, I had time to look at just one: For “Central Conflation”: A Critique of Archerian Dualism by Tero Piiroinen. I admit, I was a bit skeptical at first: like many others in the sociology blogosphere, I’m a bit sick of the endless debates over critical realism. That said, having invested the time to make sense of critical realism enough to follow said debates, I was interested to hear what this new critique had to say about the topic. I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s the paper’s abstract:

Taking a side in the debate over ontological emergentism in social theory, this article defends an outlook that Margaret S. Archer has dubbed “central conflation”: an antidualistic position appreciating the interdependency of agency and structure, individuals and society. This has been a popular outlook in recent years, advocated broadly by such theorists as Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Collins, and Anthony Giddens. However, antidualism has been challenged by those who believe the key to success in social science lies in level-ontological emergentism. Archer’s own morphogenetic theory is an explicitly dualist version of that approach. I answer Archer’s arguments for emergentism, in so doing clearing a path for the even fuller acceptance of antidualism by theorists.

In short, the paper argues against the implicit or explicit dualism of much of sociology, expressed most fully in Archer’s account of agency and structure. Archer names this antidualism position the “central conflation”, and Piiroinen embraces that label and wants to turn it – and antidualism – into badges of pride. To do so, Piiroinen draws on a diverse set of authors – Giddens and Bourdieu, but also Elias, Latour and especially Dewey – to argue that individuals are inherently social, and thus to deny the problem of the emergence of society from individuals. Here’s a Dewey quote to that effect from the paper (p. 86):

Then “society” becomes an unreal abstraction and “the individual” an equally unreal one. . . . [And] there develops the unreal question of how individuals come to be united in societies and groups: the individual and the social are now opposed to each other, and there is the problem of “reconciling” them.

Piiroinen reiterates a basic insight, expressed nicely in Callon and Latour’s (1981) agenda-setting piece on “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan”, that the micro- and macro- are not the same as the agent and the structure, or really all that different except as analytical tools and questions to be investigated (p. 91):

As antidualists deny any metaphysical hiatus between micro-scale agency and macro-scale structures, they encourage us to effortlessly zoom back and forth between the micro and the macro: to zoom as close to small-scale encounters and as far back to the consistencies of large-scale dynamics as needed to understand the spatiotemporal chunks of the social practices of people-in-relations that are most relevant for the case at hand, in all their relevant details and big-picture connections. And, arguably, antidualists manage this precisely because they avoid the self-appointed problematic of the linkage between individuals’ inter- actions and sociocultural systems.

I like it!

Beyond tickling my theoretical fancy, the paper has some lovely bits of writing and great short examples when it moves to critiquing Archer’s understanding of culture from this antidualist perspective (great examples, that is, if you’re a massive nerd who loves seeing Comic Con and cosplay mentioned in one of the discipline’s top journals) (p. 93):

Consider someone cheerfully identifying himself as a “nerd” or “geek” and dressing up as a “stormtrooper” (from the Star Wars movies) to participate in the Comic-Con event in San Diego, socializing with countless likeminded people who share with him similar identities and may also dress up as stormtroopers, or as “Princess Leia,” “Spider-Man,” “Dracula,” a “barbarian warlord,” “little grey man”* or “zombie,” or any of thousands of iconic pop culture characters or archetypes instantly recognizable and meaningful to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Notice that logic and reasoning play no important role in that regard. There are true and false propositions that can be formed about pop cultural items, and there are even more vaguely explicable “intelligibilia,” as Archer (1995:180) calls them, “item[s] that have the dispositional capacity of being understood by someone,” but understandability, to say nothing of logical consistency, is not a key notion in sociology of culture, it is not why cultural phenomena are sociologically important. Rather, they are important because there are people who care—rather passionately—about those items and interact with others who also care about them. It is a social affair.

Following this paper, I think my new favorite critique is going to be, “yeah, but can your theory explain cosplay?”

My only real criticism of the paper is that it spends so much time beating up on critical realism and Archer in particular, and thus spends less time than it could developing the implications for research that come from adopting a conflationist antidualist perspective. Hopefully, in future work, Piiroinen and others will pick up from this place to answer that question, and in so doing, perhaps help attract more interest from empirically-minded scholars who sometimes slip into the dualist framing but couldn’t be bothered to read one more piece for or against critical realism.

* I feel like I might lose nerd cred for saying this, but is little grey men the Finnish term for little green men? Or is it some cool new nerd reference that I just don’t get?

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