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Social Entities and the Basis of Their Powers

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 372)


This paper offers an emergentist justification for the claim that social structure is causally significant when it takes the form of social entities with relationally emergent causal powers. Such powers are generated by processes of interaction between the characteristic set of parts, given the characteristic relations between them, that occur in entities of the type concerned. The paper offers a justification of this argument in the face of criticisms that it is too weak to ground causal claims, arguing on the contrary that debates in the philosophy of mind have raised expectations of emergence theory beyond what it can plausibly deliver. The relational form of emergence theory provides a viable refutation of eliminative reductionism as a generalised strategy, and can also be employed to refute the form of eliminative reductionism known as methodological individualism. This kind of emergence theory delivers just what we need from the concept: it justifies the need for higher level sciences to study higher level mechanisms and powers, mechanisms whose explanation will never be made redundant by some lower level theory of everything. It also supports a specific way of thinking about social structure that is arguably rather different from the ways that have tended to dominate sociological discourse. My project includes developing such theory, and the final part of the paper illustrates how this way of thinking about emergence in the social sphere leads to useful and interesting ways of reconceptualising social structure.


  • Social emergence
  • Methodological individualism
  • Relational emergence
  • Causal powers
  • Norm circles

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  1. 1.

    I would like to thank Julie Zahle for her invitation to present this paper at the workshop ‘Individualism, Holism, Explanation, and Emergence’ in Copenhagen, November 2012, and the participants in that workshop for their stimulating questions and contributions.

  2. 2.

    The paper draws heavily on arguments from my recent work (particularly Elder-Vass 2010).

  3. 3.

    The term residual Cartesianism has been used elsewhere in the literature, although generally with a different residue in mind (e.g. Allen et al. 2012).

  4. 4.

    The reader may substitute ‘brain’ for ‘material person’ if this makes the argument more accessible. But mental states may depend on our entire nervous system and not just our brains.

  5. 5.

    This argument draws significantly on the early work of Roy Bhaskar (Bhaskar 1975; Elder-Vass 2005).

  6. 6.

    Other writers have given somewhat different meanings to these terms (e.g. Bedau 1997).

  7. 7.

    I take this to be one of the core arguments of Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science (1975).

  8. 8.

    The remainder of this paragraph and the following six are drawn largely from Elder-Vass (2012b).

  9. 9.

    This is therefore equivalent to the first half of Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic cycle of interaction between structure and agency (Archer 1995).

  10. 10.

    As in the second half of Archer’s morphogenetic cycle.

  11. 11.

    For further discussion of these and other complexities see Elder-Vass (2010: chapter 6).


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Correspondence to Dave Elder-Vass .

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Elder-Vass, D. (2014). Social Entities and the Basis of Their Powers. In: Zahle, J., Collin, F. (eds) Rethinking the Individualism-Holism Debate. Synthese Library, vol 372. Springer, Cham.

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