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Margaret Archer (born 20 January 1943) spent most of her academic career at the University of Warwick, UK, where she was for many years Professor of Sociology. She is now a professor at l'Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. She is best known for coining the term elisionism in her 1995 book Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach.
She studied at the University of London, graduating B.Sc. in 1964 and Ph.D. in 1967 with a thesis on The Educational Aspirations of English Working Class Parents. She was a lecturer at the University of Reading from 1966 to 1973.
She is one of the most influential theorists in the critical realist tradition. At the 12th World Congress of Sociology, she was elected as the first woman President of the International Sociological Association, is a founder member of both the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences. She is a Trustee of the Centre for Critical Realism.
She has supervised many PhD students, many of whom have gone on to contribute towards the substantive development of critical realism in the social sciences. Notably, Dr Robert Willmott, author of Education Policy and Realist Social Theory and Dr Justin Cruickshank, senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham.
Archer argues that much social theory suffers from the generic defect of conflation where, due to a reluctance or inability to theorize emergent relationships between social phenomena, causal autonomy is denied to one side of the relation. This can take the form of autonomy being denied to agency with causal efficacy only granted to structure (downwards conflation). Alternatively it can take the form of autonomy being denied to structure with causal efficacy only granted to agency (upwards conflation). Finally it may take the form of central conflation where structure and agency are seen as being co-constitutive i.e. structure is reproduced through agency which is simultaneously constrained and enabled by structure. The most prominent example of central conflation is the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens. While not objecting to this approach on philosophical grounds, Archer does object to it on analytical grounds: by conflating structure and agency into unspecified movements of co-constitution, central conflationary approaches preclude the possibility of sociological exploration of the relative influence of each aspect.
In contradistinction Archer offers the approach of analytical dualism. While recognizing the interdependence of structure and agency (i.e. without people there would be no structures) she argues that they operate on different timescales. At any particular moment, antecedently existing structures constrain and enable agents, whose interactions produce intended and unintended consequences, which leads to structural elaboration and the reproduction or transformation of the initial structure. The resulting structure then provides a similar context of action for future agents. Likewise the initial antecedently existing structure was itself the outcome of structural elaboration resulting from the action of prior agents. So while structure and agency are interdependent, Archer argues that it is possible to unpick them analytically. By isolating structural and/or cultural factors which provide a context of action for agents, it is possible to investigate how those factors shape the subsequent interactions of agents and how those interactions in turn reproduce or transform the initial context. Archer calls this a morphogenetic sequence. Social processes are constituted through an endless array of such sequences but, as a consequence of their temporal ordering, it is possible to disengage any such sequence in order to investigate its internal causal dynamics. Through doing so, argues Archer, it's possible to give empirical accounts of how structural and agential phenomena interlink over time rather than merely stating their theoretical interdependence.
- M. Archer, M. Vaughan M (1971) "Social Conflict and Educational Change in England and France: 1789-1848", Cambridge University Press
- M. Archer (1984) "Social Origins of Educational Systems", London: Sage
- M. Archer (1988) Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- M. Archer (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson and A. Norrie (eds) (1998) Critical Realism: Essential Readings, Routledge, London.
- M. Archer (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- M. Archer and J. Tritter (eds) (2000) Rational Choice Theory: Resisting Colonisation, Routledge, London.
- M. Archer (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- M. Archer, A. Collier and D. Porpora (eds) (2004) Transcendence: Critical Realism and God, Routledge, London.
- M. Archer (2007) Making our Way Through the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- M.S. Archer (1995) Realist Social Theory ch 3 to 6