Causal Power of Social Structures

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* Books: The Causal Power of Social Structures. Dave Elder-Vass. Cambridge University Press,



1. From the publisher:

"The problem of structure and agency has been the subject of intense debate in the social sciences for over 100 years. This book offers a solution. Using a critical realist version of the theory of emergence, Dave Elder-Vass argues that, instead of ascribing causal significance to an abstract notion of social structure or a monolithic concept of society, we must recognise that it is specific groups of people that have social structural power. Some of these groups are entities with emergent causal powers, distinct from those of human individuals. Yet these powers also depend on the contributions of human individuals, and this book examines the mechanisms through which interactions between human individuals generate the causal powers of some types of social structures. The Causal Power of Social Structures makes particularly important contributions to the theory of human agency and to our understanding of normative institutions."

2. Dave Elder-Vass:

"organisations are composed of people (though perhaps of other things too - I'll come back to that in a later post). Those people are related to each other in this context in ways that are defined by their roles in the organisation. As long as they perform their roles they are acting as parts of the organisation, and when the members do perform their roles the resulting organisation is a social entity with capacities to influence the world that its members would not have if they weren't collectively formed into that entity. A barbershop quartet, to pick a relatively simple example, has a power to produce harmonious music - a power the individual singers would not have if they weren't organised into this group. I discuss much more complex and interesting examples in the book, but that one will do to make the basic point.

To give a more useful account of social events, we need to theorise many different forms of social entity and their powers, and consider how they interact - not only with each other but also with non-social forces - to produce individual events. There's a huge amount of complexity in such explanations, but that's also true of explanations of non-social events. In both cases a wide range of powers interact to produce events, and in both cases we explain those events by identifying the powers involved and the mechanisms that produce those powers.

If all that I've said above is sound, then we have a way of rooting the social in the material: social events are produced by interactions between the causal powers of social and other entities, and all of these entities get their powers from interactions among their material parts. Here, then, we have a materially social world." (