Morphogenic Society: Self-Government and Self-Organization as Misleading Metaphors

  • Margaret S. ArcherEmail author


Social theory has always been a borrower. With the increasing rapidity of social and systemic change, the attractions of cybernetics and general systems theory have grown over half a century. This chapter traces four succeeding phases in systems theory, treating all as misleading metaphors for conceptualizing processes of social change: (i) ‘variety’ in the First cybernetics; (ii) ‘heterogeneity’ in the Second cybernetics; (iii) societies as ‘complex adaptive systems’; (iv) the social as a ‘self-organizing system’ in Complexity Theory. It is argued that the social order is neither ‘self-governing’ nor ‘self-organizing’, but is rather a relationally contested organization. Social morphogenesis has to be understood in its own terms as the interplay between the properties and powers of structure (constraining, enabling, and motivating), culture (ideas, ideals, and ideational commitments) and agency (consciousness, reflexivity, and intentionality). The outcomes are never precisely what any group seeks, which fosters further contestation and morphogenesis.


Social theory Self-government and self-organization Heterogeneity’ in the second cybernetics Self-organizing system Relationally contested organization Powers of structure Ideas and culture Agency Contestation and morphogenesis 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre d’Ontologie SocialeEcole Polytechnique Fédérale de LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

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