A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice - The Morphogenetic Paradigm: Conceptualising the Human in the Social

Our books Dec 6, 2023

by Basem Adi

I am writing a series of blog posts that outline the contents and arguments presented in 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice'. In this entry, I briefly summarise the third chapter, dedicated to the morphogenetic paradigm. As the paradigm is the basis of later chapters, an overview is provided, followed by a proposed revision. The revision will provide a conceptual model in which orders of social relationality are morphogenetically anchored in relational reflexivity that steers the direction of relations.

Key terms are italicised in the article - to access definitions of these terms, please refer to the glossary of 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice'.

The Morphogenetic Paradigm: Conceptualising the Human in the Social

The articulation and application of social policies are emergent from social relations. Within social relations, individual and corporate agents meet their needs and create relational mechanisms that generate and re-generate responsive institutional structures. The morphogenetic paradigm explains the relational dynamics that define the interdependence between personal identity and social morphogenesis. In 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice', I presented an overview of the morphogenetic paradigm. In this overview, I documented its emphasis on the internal conversation, in the form of world-directed deliberations, as Personal Emergent Properties (PEP). The focus on PEPs is to affirm the efficacy and irreducibility of personal deliberations to the objectivity of third-person ideas.

Thus, Archer (2003) distinguishes socio-cultural structures (context) from the deliberations of active agents (concerns). The nature of deliberation extends beyond the concerns of the discursive order to include the natural and practical orders. Accordingly, the subjective interiority that distinguishes the self from its environment leads to an authority to act in the world in an autonomous way that is not reducible to the discursive order. With authority to act in the world comes the explanatory capacity to account for the activity resulting from subjective authority on the forces of socialisation.

Between the mind and world are Personal Emergent Properties (PEP), through which people distance themselves from their biological origins in the process of social becoming. The existence of these properties means self-conscious reflexivity from a first-person perspective – with an irreducible subjective interiority and authority – is logically and ontologically before any social role. Therefore, system outcomes produced by morphogenetic processes are anchored in the reflexive capacities of persons (internal conversation) as they encounter collectives. First, the 'I' initially reflexively deliberates on its natal context ('Me') – the outcome of reflexive deliberation can lead to a dedication to reproduce or work to transform 'Me'. When seeking to change the natal context, the 'I' becomes part of a 'We', i.e., a corporate agent. In turn, the emergent personal identity aligns with a social role following the deliberative process that will affect the socio-cultural context. Hence, in Archer's morphogenetic paradigm, the deliberation of the 'I', which is ontologically and logically before a social role, anchors the process in which personal identity and socio-cultural context are co-emergent.

Revising the morphogenetic paradigm

In 'A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice', I propose revising the morphogenetic paradigm. The revision builds on its relational starting point that affirms the irreducibility of personal reflexivity as part of a stratified understanding of an emergent personal identity. The proposed revision understands the reflexivity of the interactional order to be the anchor of personal and socio-cultural morphogenesis. The revision is based on two points:

1. Reflexivity is a meaning-based capacity: As noted, to affirm the efficacy of subjective interiority and authority, Archer understands reflexivity to be irreducible to the discursive domain. However, considering a developmental perspective of the self, subjective authority can be maintained when contextualised within the developmental genesis of reflexivity.

2. When reflexivity is viewed as a meaning-making mechanism, it extends beyond personal reflexivity. As a result, personal reflexivity is considered an element of social morphogenesis rather than its anchor.

Regarding the first point, drawing on Neisser's model, selfhood consists of five developmental stages – the ecological, interpersonal, extended, private and conceptual selves. The conceptual self – representing the capacity to mentally approximate – is emergent from other forms of self-knowledge that refer to these different developmental selves. As a result, affirming a developmental understanding of reflexivity as a semantic capacity leads to a stratified conception of personal identity. As an emergent property, it is grounded in pre-discursive mechanisms (identified in different developmental selves) that enable its efficacy.

Reflexivity can be extended beyond the personal when understood as a meaning-based deliberation. Hence, the activities of corporate agents ('We') can be described as reflexive, as part of multiple nodes within social networks. These deliberations seek to affect the outcome of morphogenetic processes. Personal reflexivity, therefore, is an element in relational morphogenesis. The interaction between the personal and collective gives social networks new properties and powers that result in relational reflexivity anchoring social morphogenesis in a meta-reflexive way. Relational outcomes fall in the order of possibilities, and the interaction between the personal and collective infuses social networks with reflexivity, monitoring the outcomes it produces. In a morphogenetic cycle, the interactive process monitors the initial structural order and how it regulates relations. Relational reflexivity is directed at the characteristics of the relationship that go beyond the personal perspective of the internal conversation.

Consequently, reflexivity is not restricted to how the subject sees and deliberates on relations as it arrives at a specific dedication. It also pertains to reflexive activity directed at the characteristics of the relation. Accordingly, it is a steering mechanism attuned to the direction of a relationship (Donati 2021). Personal reflexivity operates as an element of the relation, as the 'I' dedicates itself to a social role. After dedication, the 'I' is part of the operation of corporate agents as they seek to transform the structural order. Therefore, what anchors transformation (morphogenesis) or reproduction (morphostasis) is the entwining of agents' internal conversations. When this entwining is part of a meta-reflexive activity, it becomes relational reflexivity that exceeds individual personal reflexivity and is directed at the characteristics of the relation:

What needs to be highlighted is the fact that the social network operates with a reflexivity of its own that is characterised in that it entwines agents' internal conversations between them and in this way generates a relational reflexivity between the nodes in the network which exceeds the individual (personal) reflexivity of agents. (Donati 2021: 97)

The implications of anchoring morphogenesis in relational reflexivity

The morphogenetic dynamics of social relationality are demarcated into two orders: (1) The relational structural order that impinges on agents/actors; (2) The processual relational order in the form of interactions and transactions that reproduce or change the relational structural order (Donati 2021). In morphogenesis, these two orders of social relationality are anchored in relational reflexivity that can be identified in the transaction between the nodes of social networks.

Figure 1: Different order of social relationality: Processual (interactional/transactional) and structural (Donati 2021: 56).

The implications of anchoring morphogenesis in relational reflexivity are explored in the context of a post-functionalist approach to education. A notion of the curriculum that distinguishes between the lived, planned, and experienced dimensions is proposed. These different dimensions can be mapped to orders of social relationality. In the interactional stage (T2-T3), the curriculum is represented in its lived and experienced forms. On the other hand, the planned curriculum is represented in the structural order in its initial form at stage T1 and in its transformed form at stage T4. In this educational dynamic, assessment is part of relational reflexivity that focuses on the internal dynamics of learning to ascertain changing development points of the student at stages T2-T3. In turn, the planned curriculum is reproduced or transformed based on its role in regulating learning to enable students to meet the learning criteria. The curriculum, assessment and learner development are interconnected aspects of orders of social relationality.


Archer, M. (2003). Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. (2000). Being Human: The Problem of Agency (First). Cambridge University Press.

Donati, P. (2011). Relational Sociology: A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences. Routledge.

Donati, P. (2021). Transcending Modernity with Relational Thinking (First). Routledge.

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A Relational Realist Vision for Education Policy and Practice
This volume argues that relational realism can help us to make better educational policy that is more effective in practice. Basem Adi draws on critical realism to thoroughly re-examine fundamental assumptions about how government policymaking works, developing an ontological basis from which to exa…

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