Emergence and the Reality of Social Structure

  • Alex WilliamsEmail author
Part of the International Political Theory book series (IPoT)


In this chapter, the author assesses the nature of the reality of social structure, drawing on recent work in critical realist sociology. Are social structures ‘real’ and in what sense? What is the relationship between individual human beings and the larger social forms they are parts of? Taking the concept of emergence as the key to answering such questions, the author examines a debate between social theorists Elder-Vass and Sawyer on the nature of social emergence. At stake is the relative reality and hence causal power of the social structures that emerge from the interactions of individual human beings. It is concluded that while both positions ultimately obligate level specific explanatory schema, Elder-Vass’ more fully emergentist account is identified as having greater strength in enabling forms of causal explanation that capture the proper complexity of reality, rather than ultimately locating ontological reality arbitrarily in the smallest available element within a system.


Emergence Critical realism Social structure Nonreductive individualism 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication StudiesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK

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