For the past six months or so I've been wrestling with how to reformulate my own thinking about the nature of the social world -- the nature of "social reality" (link). I've come to realize that the position I've defended for years -- ontological individualism -- is still too dependent on the view of "social entities sitting on top of individual actors", which is no longer convincing to me. And I've reformulated what I have to say about "actor-centered sociology" and "microfoundations" accordingly. I am now more satisfied with the position I've come to -- a diachronic view of intertwined and mutually influencing processes at the social level and the individual-actor level, and an associated view that suggests that both social arrangements and features of individual agency are fluid and "fluxy". Here are two key statements from "Rethinking Ontological Individualism" in its final draft:
Actors and structures are linked in inseparable loops of mutual influence over time, with both actors and structures dependent on the current ensemble of “actors-within-structures” within which they have developed, changed, and persisted. The social world is thus inherently indeterminate, reflecting unpredictable changes in all its elements over time.
This view has important ontological implications. For one thing, it implies that neither actors nor structures have “essential natures” or fixed and unchanging properties. Rather, the properties of social structures are influenced by the past and present actions and thoughts of actors and the prior characteristics of structures; while the mental characteristics of present actors are shaped by the ambient social arrangements within which they develop. (There is a biological precondition: human beings must be the kinds of “cognitive-practical machines” that can embody very extensive change; Gibbard 1990.) Further, actors are influenced by ambient structures (external causes); but a given generation of actors is capable of genuine innovation and creativity (internal causes). Susan B. Anthony was influenced by her suffragist predecessors and contemporaries, but she also brought her own innovative thinking to the struggle for full rights of citizenship for women in 1872. And likewise, structures are modified by generations of actors (external causes), but structures also create opportunities for structural innovation (internal causes).
What is striking to me now that this process of exploration and reformulation has come to something like a conclusion is how much the resulting position sounds like a version of "process metaphysics" -- the idea that processes of change rather than fixed underlying particles should be the fundamental ontological category. (The images above are selected to illustrate the two metaphysical perspectives: the orderly composition of a metal from its constituent atoms (substance metaphysics) and the contingent and entangled creation of a social movement (process metaphysics).) Process metaphysics is distinctly a minority position in analytical philosophy today, so it is striking to me that some of the basic intuitions of that view developed organically out of a consideration of how social structures, institutions, and actors interact to constitute the social world -- "social reality". I didn't begin with the premises of process metaphysics, but rather developed a conception that bore important similarities to process metaphysics.
What is process philosophy? Consider the opening sentences of Johanna Seibt’s treatment of process philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it. Even though we experience our world and ourselves as continuously changing, Western metaphysics has long been obsessed with describing reality as an assembly of static individuals whose dynamic features are either taken to be mere appearances or ontologically secondary and derivative. For process philosophers the adventure of philosophy begins with a set of problems that traditional metaphysics marginalizes or even sidesteps altogether: what is dynamicity or becoming—if it is the way we experience reality, how should we interpret this metaphysically? (link)