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Supervenience in socio-economic Supervenience in

systems systems
Mark W. Neal
School of Management, Asian Institute of Technology, Pathumthani, Thailand
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to clarify issues concerning the implications and usefulness
of the concept of supervenience in social analysis and research.
Design/methodology/approach – Supervenience refers to the notion that interaction in complex
systems gives rise to superordinate phenomena, possessing qualities that differ from those of the
interacting entities ‘‘below’’. In order to discuss the application of the concept in sociology, the article
draws upon the distinction between ‘‘weak’’ and ‘‘strong’’ supervenience. ‘‘Weak’’ supervenience
characterizes the superordinate as being independent of any particular patterning at subordinate
levels, while ‘‘strong’’ supervenience refers to the existence of tighter, more knowable, relationships
between the super- and sub-ordinate.
Findings – The paper finds that analyses of the social have long been preoccupied with
supervenient properties. Indeed, sociological disciplines can be usefully characterized and
distinguished in terms of whether they assume ‘‘weak’’ or ‘‘strong’’ supervenience in their analysis
of human affairs.
Research limitations/implications – The research needs further critical investigation of the use
of supervenience in current sociological discourse and analysis.
Practical implications – Through discussing its already important place in social analysis, the
article argues for the refinement and critical application of supervenience in future social studies.
Originality/value – The paper reviews and refines issues concerning the importance and
implications of supervenience for sociological analysis and social research.
Keywords Social action, Sociology, Reality
Paper type Research paper

With its popularity in the fields of information technology (IT) and the philosophy of
mind, the concept ‘‘supervenience’’ has recently appeared in sociological discourse
(Sawyer, 2001; Le Boutillier, 2001; Healy, 1998; Seager, 1988) within the broader debate
about social ‘‘emergence’’ (see Situngkir, 2003, 2004). In a nutshell, supervenience
addresses the notion that complex systems at a particular level of reality (e.g.
subatomic, atomic, molecular, biological) can give rise to phenomena at higher levels
that cannot be reduced to their component parts. More than this, however, these higher
phenomena may have properties that are radically different in nature to the complex
systems ‘‘below’’. In philosophy, this issue can be seen to lie at the heart of the neo-
Cartesian distinction between brain and mind (Kirk, 1996): whereas the study of brain
neurophysiology and networks is increasingly providing insights into the workings of
emotions and memory, the gulf between function and mind remains wide. Some think
irreconcilably so (see Searle, 1995, pp. 107-32).
The concept of supervenience is increasingly being used in sociological discourse,
and shows early signs of being incorporated into the lexicon of key sociological
concepts. Recent articles by Sawyer (2001) and Le Boutillier (2001) on the concept’s
application in sociology may well realize its cross-over into mainstream sociological
theorizing and analysis. At this early point of transference to the discipline, it is worth
reflecting on its propriety, usefulness and abuse. What is new about supervenience? Humanomics
Vol. 25 No. 3, 2009
What does it tell us about the nature of the social that we do not already know? pp. 197-203
Kim drew an important philosophical distinction between ‘‘strong’’ and ‘‘weak’’ # Emerald Group Publishing Limited
supervenience (Kim, 1984, 1987, 1993, pp. 79-91). The ‘‘strong’’ version of this refers to DOI 10.1108/08288660910986928
H the notion that complex systems give rise to higher forms of reality that have their own
distinct ontologies and interactive predispositions (Bacon, 1986; Marras, 1993; Kim,
25,3 1984, 1987). Patterns of neuronal transmission thus give rise to ‘‘mind’’, which has a
different ontology and logic to that of networks of neurons (Menzies, 1988). ‘‘Weak’’
supervenience takes this a step further by claiming that the supervenient ‘‘mind’’ is in
no way exclusively reliant upon these particular patterns of neuronal transmissions
(see Clayton, 2004). The same higher states can theoretically come into being through
198 the use of alternative technologies such as IT networks – an occasioning of ‘‘multiple
realizability’’, the sustaining of identical higher states, through different (often radically
different) subordinate states (Bechtel and Mundale, 1999; Sober, 1999). Some current
discussions of ‘‘weak’’ supervenience are thus returning to an agnostic form of
Cartesian dualism, whereby there is no distinct or exclusive logical relationship
between higher and lower orders.
Whereas supervenience is a relatively new term,[1] the concept underpins many
Western philosophical debates and ideas about the different levels of reality in human
affairs. It is also to be found in earlier Eastern systems of understanding the world (see
Barnhart, 2000; Jeffreys, 2004). For instance, it lies at the heart of Buddhist teachings
on ‘‘dependent co-arising’’ (Gethin, 1998; Garfield, 2001). This ancient concept captures
the notion that the nature of social phenomena are at all times dependent on the
immediate coincidence of myriad ever-changing features of the world. Dependent co-
arising is, in other words, an extreme version of contingency theory applied at once to
all related features of the spiritual, psychological, social, biological and physical
worlds. The theory is supervenient in nature, in that all things at all levels are
changing and interacting to produce transient, superordinate structures of which they
may temporarily be a part, but which exist at a higher level. One should not infer
‘‘relationships’’ or ‘‘systems’’ within dependent co-arising. Systems may exist, but they
too arise, change and disappear both as the products and producers of emerging
changing realities.
The idea of different orders having different ontologies, and thus requiring different
epistemologies, is not new in many disciplines, where debates and complaints about
reductionism have a long history (see Primas, 1983). Indeed, supervenience (so defined)
lies at the heart of the foundational sociologies of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. All
argued that people going about their everyday lives sustained transcendent higher
orders of social and economic reality. Class structures (Marx), ideal systems (Weber)
and social facts (Durkheim) were thoroughly supervenient concepts. Whereas, Weber
and Durkheim claimed no real separation between people and what they produced
unwittingly at the superordinate level (Weber, 1958; Durkheim, 1964), they certainly
saw the superordinate as having transcendent and wholly different properties to
people’s activities ‘‘below’’ – a form of ‘‘strong supervenience’’. Parsons built upon
Durkheim’s notion of social factity and developed this characterization of the
superordinate further by ascribing nothing less than an ontological reality to the
superordinate features of society (Parsons, 1949). Parsonian sociology was thus rooted
in notions of weak supervenience – a ‘‘biology’’ (some would say an ‘‘anatomy’’),
whereas most interactive sociology was ‘‘chemistry’’. Parsons studied the nature and
interaction of the supervenient structures of society, while interactive sociology looked
primarily at the ‘‘particular’’ – the interaction of the ‘‘particles’’ that together constituted
and sustained the macro-structures. Parsons (1951) and Mills (1959) were thus
proponents of different sciences, and the temporary and seemingly irreversible
‘‘triumph’’ of one over the other was an absurdity rooted in the understanding of
sociology as a monolithic discipline – something Mills actually complained about Supervenience in
(Mills, 1959; Rocher, 1975). As an analogy, the Parsons/Mills controversy was like a
debate over the nature of science, where one criticized the other for studying the wrong
thing. ‘‘Biology is not science – chemistry is.’’ systems
Giddens’ (1984) theory of ‘‘structuration’’ took a middle line between Weber and
Parsons, showing how so-called structures were ‘‘worked up’’ or ‘‘worked out’’ through
social interaction. Superordinate structures were collapsed into the interactive as
epistemic resources that were then oriented to, sustained and challenged – a
sociological form of biochemistry. Giddens’ conception of structuration was in turn
criticized by Archer (1995, 2000), who focused on the emergent, morphogenetic
properties of social interaction, sustaining higher systems and structures that were
‘‘real’’ and ontologically different to the social interactions through which they emerged.
Although Giddens’ structuration and Archer’s emergentism are often characterized as
oppositional (e.g. Sawyer, 2001), they do share a foundational assumption about the
importance of supervenience in social affairs. While the assumption of supervenient
dynamics lies at the heart of both lines of theorizing, they are however implicitly
utilizing different types of supervenience. Giddens’ structuration is founded on
assumptions of strong supervenience, while Archer’s emergentism invokes the idea of
weak supervenience. Just as with the Mills/Parsons debate, two eminent sociologists
are arguing and theorizing about different things.
The idea of supervenience has thus been a key foundation for sociological
reasoning, while constituting one of its most troubling and destabilizing issues. It is
troubling in the sense that for the most part, sociology has assumed definable
relationships between the sub- and super-ordinate levels of social reality: through their
disparate actions people give rise to higher social systems and structures; just how
they do this can be observed, characterized and analyzed. According to weak
supervenience, however, there is no necessary relationship between the ordinate and
the superordinate, just as the ability to play chess well is not dependent on whether the
‘‘software’’ consists of neuronal transmissions or computer electronics.
Much interactive sociology is concerned with working out how social structures
emerge or are sustained at the level of interaction. Indeed, ethnomethodology’s avowed
mission statement is to ‘‘work out Durkheim’s aphorism’’ – to work out how people ‘‘do’’
or ‘‘accomplish’’ higher order social facts (Garfinkel, 2002). The limited and, some
would say, uninteresting findings from ethnomethodological fieldwork are just so
because they cannot be generalized (see Hilbert, 1990). Ethnomethodology makes a
virtue out of this by sustaining ‘‘indifference’’ to wider sociological issues (Lynch, 1997).
Given its reasoning, this is an appropriate stance, as wider sociologizing detracts from
the job in hand, which is describing how people do what they are doing. The real
underlying problem with this approach is that, like much constructivist sociology, it
assumes a coherent, logical relationship between people doing things and Durkheim’s
social facts. Weak supervenience tells us that no such relationship exists. This would
explain why the ‘‘aphorisms’’ seemingly worked out by ethnomethodology are usually
little more than localized routines and rituals – which are much more modest and
limited in scope than Parsonian, or even Durkheimian, social facts.
If systems, structures and social facts are indeed supervenient in this way then
supervenience not only rests at the foundations of the sociological enterprise, but it
undermines the foundations of those traditions that reify systemic or reflexive
relationships between interaction and higher social orders. As with brain mechanics
and psychoanalysis, the two orders ‘‘exist’’, but they appear to have no nomological
H relationship between them. Just like brain mechanics and psychoanalysis, they should
be studied separately and in their own terms. According to weak supervenience theory,
25,3 then, Parsons was quite right to study society as he did. Biological structures are best
studied using biology. Likewise, the ethnomethodologists, as long as they restrict
themselves to interaction rituals, and do not claim really to be working out Durkheim’s
aphorism, are involved in a coherent enterprise – using chemistry to study chemical
reactions. Whereas the ‘‘relationship’’ between such levels of social reality preoccupies
200 many good sociological minds, weak supervenience tells us that they are reifying
something that does not exist.
But is this right? Supervenience is a concept founded in complexity theory, and
whereas it certainly makes sense in physics, biology and IT, can it be applied in an
unreformed way to people and society? Answering ‘‘yes’’ to this leads to the apotheosis
of Parsons and Garfinkel, neither of which would appeal to the majority of
interactionist sociologists. The problem in such debates is that we are dealing with
conscious – indeed self-conscious – actors: people who have minds, who act
meaningfully and intentionally (Meijers, 2003; Searle, 1983), and who are aware of
systems and structures – Durkheim’s facts (Collins, 1982; Durkheim, 1964). They are
thus like atoms that can see that they are part of a sugar molecule; like neurons that
can see the thoughts of the mind. Does this pose a challenge to the supervenient
society? Weak supervenience would tell us ‘‘no’’, in the sense that people are not then
able to interact differently to achieve different social facts; the reason being that the
relationship between the individual and the societal does not merely remain uncertain,
but does not exist.
But people can and do just that. In the case of South African apartheid, a social fact
if ever there was one, people organized to challenge and eventually to destroy it. They,
through political social interaction at one level, achieved a reconfiguration of the
superordinate order, not just to another of many possible orders (as would be possible
under weak supervenience), but to the exact order they desired – democracy under
Mandela. How was this achievable if the superorder had no ascribable, logical,
relationship to everyday social interaction?
The answer is that there is indeed a relationship between the superordinate and the
interactive – one that is visible and accountable to people going about their everyday
lives. Of course, the demise of apartheid was not achieved through mere social
interaction, but through collective political action at the same political and economic
levels as apartheid, i.e. the founding and propagation of the anti-apartheid movement
(a social movement antipathetic to, but isomorphic with, the institutions of apartheid
itself), influencing the foreign policies of states, and the activities of multinational
companies. People, through social interaction, are able, like Durkheim, to view social
facts very much as ‘‘things’’, and to take steps to protect, change, subvert or destroy
these things.
People at the interactive level thus live in a world of social facts, perceived in a solid,
objective, Durkheimian, fashion. ‘‘The family’’, ‘‘government departments’’, ‘‘R&B
music’’, ‘‘Manchester United’’ and ‘‘criminals’’ are all perceived as objective features of
everyday life. Importantly, people are familiar not only with the relationships that
pertain between such social facts, but also with the changing relationships that pertain
between the interactive (sustaining) and superordinate (sustained) levels. An
instructive example of people’s awareness, and skilful manipulation, of the
relationships between different orders of social reality can be seen in the financial
takeover of British soccer club Manchester United in 2005 by an American sports
tycoon, Malcolm Glazer. When the takeover bid was first announced, it was met with Supervenience in
widespread horror among fans, who quickly became active in challenging the bid. socio-economic
Through discourse in pubs, schools and internet sites, fans subsequently organized to
produce alternative social facts (lobby groups) designed to challenge the takeover at systems
the required isomorphic level. While causing problems for the takeover process (as was
intended), the resistance did not in the end succeed. However, it remains an instructive
example of the relationship between the social interactive and superordinate levels. 201
An appreciation of these points encourages a theoretical and analytical pluralism in
social analysis, from ethnomethodology at ground level (‘‘chemistry’’), through social
constructionism (‘‘biochemistry’’), to the objective social facts of Parsons and Durkheim
(‘‘biology’’). Sociology has had two centuries to consider the relationship between
people and societies and has produced a portfolio of brilliant theories and related
methodologies for the various levels of social issues, from hesitation before answering
a question (Goodwin and Heritage, 1990), through to the rise of economic systems
(Weber, 1958).
The concept of supervenience appears to add little to the longstanding ability of
sociologists to conceptualize and analyze societies. Strong supervenience is a statement
of the sociological obvious: that people interacting together produce higher levels of
reality – class, ideal systems, social facts – that have distinct ontologies requiring
appropriate epistemologies. There is nothing new in this. On the other hand, weak
supervenience, the idea that there is no necessary relationship between lower and
higher orders, may work in discussions of matter and mind – however it becomes more
complex when it comes to the question of people, who are not only conscious of social
facts, but also of the relationships between these social facts and people’s actions,
which can – and do – support or challenge these transcendental features of society,
through active manipulation of the relationships between lower and higher orders. In
other words, people are not social chemicals, but applied social scientists, able to
understand and manipulate the chemical, biochemical and biological levels of their
ongoing, emerging social lives.
Supervenience is thus either a statement of social constructionism (in its strong
form) or social factity (in its weak form). It is hoped that sociologists do not uncritically
fall prey to its neologistic allure and assign it novel status, when it is actually a very old
idea indeed. A discussion of its place in social thinking does, however, raise interesting
analytical points about the nature of society and social enquiry, that rather than
challenge traditional eclectic sociology, show that since its inception, sociology has
been the study of social supervenience.

1. For an interesting and concise discussion of the origins of the term, see the entry
for supervenience in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at: http://

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Further reading
Garfinkel, H. (1967), Studies in Ethnomethodology, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Weber, M. (1949), The Methodology of the Social Sciences, The Free Press, New York, NY
(translated and edited by E. Shils and H. Finch).

Corresponding author
Mark W. Neal can be contacted at:

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