on November 5, 2010
For those interested in SOCIAL theory, please ignore the other reviews on this page. The fundamental problem with their negative response is a failure to take seriously the central realist concept of emergence (or, for one review, to simply dislike the work because of all the big words; as a philosophy professor of mine once told me, before you criticize philosophy for being 'up in the clouds,' you first have to learn some philosophy).
Archer and other realist's are keen to emphasize that the world contains emergent strata (atomistic, biological, psychological, social, etc.) - i.e. entities which once produced through combinations of more fundamental parts cannot be explained solely by reference to those parts and in fact can act back upon them with causal effect (being raised in a family of racists - a social interaction - can alter ones psychology toward paranoia, fundamental attribution error, etc. - or even effect one's biological state if one decides to go on a hate-filled rant among a group of knife weilding members of the Other).
That's why the agent-structure problem is important, because throwing ones hands up and saying that everything can be reduced to individuals or the dictates of nature have been a dead-end repeated over and again; scientific work based on these premises continually fails to accomplish the goals it sets for itself. So emergence may be hard, and tackling the agent structure problem may seem like an impossible task, but it's the effort that counts so that people aren't led astray by nonsense that soon all will be explained by our 'natural' desire for pleasure, health, procreation or whatever. So to give an example, when the social structure of religion, which defined pleasure as bad unless it worked toward God's will, gives way to the social structure of the media-entertainment industry, our natural drive toward pleasure goes from something like abstaining from sex to seeking it out.
on July 13, 2005
Realist social theory, like much modern social thought, is defined by Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism which was reconfigured as a secular model during the enlightenment. This model places humans at the centre of the universe. Archer's theorising in this text is an example of the modern social scientific version of monotheistic anthropocentrism. This may seem paradoxical as Archer promulgates the notion of social structures as real entities that shape human behaviour. However, with Judeo-Christian folklore man [sic] is created and constrained by a transcendental deity; in Archer's ontology the reified object replacing god is society.
In both cases humans would seemingly be all-powerful were it not for the constraining input of a reified entity. In the case of realist social theory it is claimed that we would live in a context-less world and be completely free omnipotent agents were it not for an overarching societal level keeping us in check. As a previous reviewer has noted, sociological theory is a biology-free domain. Archer is always searching for the constraints over and above the individual, but no mention is made of biological constraints which underpin human activity. Humans are not separate from the natural world, despite the claims of monotheistic religions and social science. Structured patterns and regularities of human activity are not evidence for the causal influence of social structures; they are an outcome of the fact that we are subject to the algorithms of nature like every other creature on the planet.
The image of social theory presented in this book suggests that this sub-discipline provides rigorous underpinnings for sociology and that it incrementally advances in symbiosis with sociology's evolution. The actual aim of social theory, however, is the attempt to define and defend an academic niche which is exclusive to sociology. Real social structures are required as otherwise there are no separable and distinct phenomena in the social world that provide exclusive items of enquiry for sociology. Without these referents, sociology cannot be separated from psychology, which in turn cannot be separated from biology. Therefore, if sociological theory is to progress, it needs to be reconciled with biological theories: however, protection of parochial disciplinary boundaries is perhaps of greater concern to sociologists than genuine intellectual progress.
on December 22, 2004
I'm currently doing a Social Work degree: I studied a Policy Analysis module and decided to undertake an essay on social theory, which sounded interesting. By golly, was I wrong: Realist Social Theory is one of the books I got out from the library and I was I left thinking 'what's the point?' It's a classic case of academics quibbling over terms and dangling proverbial carrots for each other. If 'Agency/structure' has any applicability to the real world then it's been buried in a large mound of wordy bunkum. I can't see how it is of any use to people trying to understand or study the world. It's just a parochial, intra-disciplinary, conceptual and linguistic wrangle designed to keep academics in their offices. There's so much written on the topic - produce a theory, chop it up, put it back together again, then repeat the process.
With regard to understanding the social world: the sum-total of literature on agency/structure doesn't provide as much insight as spending half an hour in the pub.