Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Critical Realism and Relations

I stumbled across the fact that in the sociology literature, there are two distinct definitions of the term "we-relation". On the one hand there is the "we-relation" which I am familiar with - that of Alfred Schutz - who talked about it being the intersubjective relationship apparent in face-to-face conversation. Central to Schutz's idea is the sharing of a vivid simultaneity. Time is central to his conception. Indeed, one of the things I find fascinating about Schutz's intersubjective philosophy is that he sees time more generally through the eyes of a person. Time is constructed in the sense that it is created in the very process of movement and interaction with others who share the same sense of time passing. Since time is such a thorny sticking point in mechanistic philosophies, I find this subsumption of time within personal being very powerful - and convincing.

The other use of "we-relation" is by Margaret Archer and Pierpaulo Donati (see ). This builds partly on Archer's theory of reflexivity and her broader approach to social morphogenesis. Donati argues that we
"derive from a relational context, [are] immersed in a relational context and bring about a relational context"
Donati and Archer's "we-relation" presents a delineated model where the boundaries between personal reflexivity and social relation are  clearly drawn. This kind of delineation is familiar in Archer's work on morphogenesis where the distinction between social structure and agency is drawn on the basis that there exist  concrete social structures of institutions, practices and so on distinct from the reflexivity and action of individuals who act to reproduce structure conditions, and whose actions are constrained by them. Archer has argued strongly against Giddens in whose structuration theory social structures are not considered real, but manifestations of a kind of collective intentionality. Searle's social ontology would meet a similar criticism. Archer calls these approaches 'elisionist'.

Archer bases her assertions on the discreteness of structure and agency, and the discreteness of social relations and personal reflexivity on the deeper  philosophy of Critical Realism which upholds the existence of two ontological domains: the intransitive domain which exists outside human agency, and the transitive domain which exists through human agency. Fundamental to this is the identification of causal mechanisms.

This is where the problem is and where I think Schutz's we-relation is most interesting. The problem is the relationship between time and mechanism. Quite simply, how can you have a mechanism without time? If our conception of time is intersubjectively created then the grounds for asserting the strict separability of structure and agency, or personal reflexivity and social relations starts to crumble.

We are left with an ontology with personal-being-with-others at its heart. 

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