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2 Emergence in International Systems: Introducing the Concept of Emergence

2 Emergence in International Systems: Introducing the Concept of Emergence

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In this subchapter, I will seek to narrow the social ontology of international relations as it has been developed so far, with a particular focus on

the main characteristics of emergent properties. In order to study regional

institutions, we need to first gain a more accurate understanding of what

their emergent properties are supposed to be like and what kind of causal

powers they might potentially have. For this purpose, I start with a short

history of the development of the concept of emergence, thereafter presenting the main criteria of emergent properties and referring to some broad

distinctions commonly made. To deepen the understanding of emergence

in the social world, I then focus on the differences between emergence in

natural and social systems. This is afterward followed by a more detailed

discussion of the issues of irreducibility and downward causation.


A Short History and the Main Distinctions of the Concept

of Emergence

Many phenomena that happen to us in everyday life can be considered to be

“emergent” in that they possess properties that we cannot explain by simply

looking at their constituent parts or the latter’s characteristics. Think, for

example, of a traffic jam or the queuing of people in front of a counter. Both

feature properties that an individual car driver or an individual person does

not hold. Or think of the V-formation of a flock of birds; something an

individual bird alone cannot do. Due to its everyday occurrence, emergence

is a recurring source of debate in numerous academic disciplines such as the

natural and social sciences, cultural studies, and the humanities.

A look at the history of emergence (see Bedau and Humphreys 2008;

Clayton 2006; Stephan 1992) shows that the English philosopher George

Henry Lewes (1817–1878) has firstly used the term “emergent” to distinguish between emergent and resultant chemical compounds. He was following the earlier differentiation of types of causation made by John Stuart Mill

(1806–1873), who had not, however, yet used the term “emergent” himself. Mill dealt with the question of in what ways causes that are distinguishable from each other can cause specific outcomes concertedly or not. The

well-known chemical example Mill referred to was the case of water, which

has properties that its components hydrogen and dioxygen do not possess

(see Goldstein 1999; Hartig-Perschke 2009; Hoyningen-Huene 1994).

The concept of emergence was then further elaborated on by Conway

Lloyd Morgan (1852–1936), a philosopher of Biology, who wrote that

“the emphasis is not on the unfolding of something already in being but



on the outspringing of something that has hitherto not been in being.

It is in this sense only that the noun may carry the adjective ‘emergent’”

(1923, 112). He also claimed that emergence is not predictable, insofar as

the new kinds of relatedness that emerge remain unpredictable for scientists even if they follow the laws of nature.

In addition to Morgan, whose work gave an important impetus to further studies on emergence, other philosophers such as Charlie Dunbar

Broad (1887–1971) developed theories of emergence by analyzing the

irreducibility of properties as well as the coexistence of reducible and irreducible properties (1925). These works by Morgan, Broad, and others are

associated with the era of British emergentism (see McLaughlin 2008) that

focused mainly on biological evolution. Here the assumption was that during the evolutionary process, genuine new entities emerge out of constellations of already existing entities. Following Mill’s original idea, entities

at the higher level (and their properties) are to that effect understood as

determined by, but different from and irreducible to, the more basic properties. British emergentism began to have a broad impact in psychology

and the social sciences during this period; life and mind were regarded as

emergent and supervenient on material reality (see Sawyer 2005, 31–33).

In sociology (see Heintz 2004; Sawyer 2005, Chap. 5), the concept

of emergence influenced the central issue of how to think about the

relationship between the individual and the collective—better known as

the micro–macro link (or the agent–structure debate in IR). Sociological

theorists tend to either embrace reductionism, arguing that social phenomena can be reduced to the relationships and actions between individuals, or holism, seeing social phenomena as wholes that cannot be fully

explained in terms only of individual actions. The idea of emergence has

been used to argue that although social phenomena are created by the

collective actions of individuals, they are not reducible to individual action

(e.g. Archer 1995; Bhaskar 1998).

To distinguish between different emergence theories, scholars commonly

draw on two broad distinctions that are generally agreed upon as correct—

even though the more particular formulations can vary considerably. First,

they differentiate between weak and strong versions of emergence and, second, between diachronic and synchronic forms of emergence.6 Weak forms

of emergence assume that higher-level emergent properties and powers

can be explained in terms of the lower-level components, although only in

highly complex ways. Strong forms of emergence, on the contrary, emphasize that higher-level emergent properties have their own causal powers that

can affect the behavior at the lower level (Bedau 2008; Clayton 2006).



Diachronic emergence primarily highlights the emergence of novel phenomena across time, while synchronic emergence emphasizes the relationship between emergent properties and their components, considering “the

co-existence of novel ‘higher level’ objects or properties with objects or

properties existing at some ‘lower level’” (Humphreys 2008, 431).

What form of emergence is at hand can be construed from looking at

the particular features of the emergent properties7 that are assumed to be

known. A core question for all accounts of emergence is thus how to characterize emergent phenomena. The following criteria of emergent properties help to delineate emergent from non-emergent properties:

• Physical/material monism: Early emergentists posited all natural systems to be made up of the same basal components, so that all existing or emergent properties consist of material parts. Emergentists

thus embrace a naturalistic position that rejects any form of substance dualism (see Hartig-Perschke 2009, 51; Stephan 1999b, 50).8

• Systemic properties: Emergent properties are systemic (or collective) in

that only the system, but none of its parts, possesses them. Systemic

properties are associated with being novel. Novelty in this way does

not attribute temporality, but means rather that new constellations

or interactions between entities cause new structures—and result in

the emergence of novel properties (see Stephan 1999a, 20).

• Synchronic determinacy: Emergentist scholars define emergence as

something that appears during the transfer from a lower level to

a higher level, which means that what the systemic properties are

depends on the microstructure of the system (see Hartig-Perschke

2009, 52; Hoyningen-Huene 1994, 170). Synchronic determination is a characteristic of the relationship between the system’s

microstructure and its emergent properties. A related concept is

supervenience, which is “a relation between two levels of analysis,

and this relation is such that if two events are identical with respect

to their descriptions at the lower level, then they cannot differ at the

higher level” (Sawyer 2005, 66). From this it follows that an entity

at the higher level can only change if the lower levels are also changing. A change at the lower level does not, however, necessarily imply

a change at the higher level.9

• Irreducibility: A systematic property is regarded as irreducible if it

cannot be deduced from the properties of the microstructure of the

system on which it is dependent (see Hartig-Perschke 2009, 53).

More precisely, a property is irreducible if it cannot be deduced from



the arrangement of the system’s parts and from the properties that

the latter have—either in isolation, or within other, more simple systems. A closer look at this definition shows that irreducibility can be

understood in two different ways—one implying downward causation, the other epiphenomenalism—that also have different consequences too. This is a circumstance that “has muddled the recent

debate about the emergence of properties” (Stephan 1999b, 51),

something that I will discuss further in due course.

• Unpredictability: Emergent properties are unpredictable in that the

process of emergence and the form of the emergent result cannot

be foreseen. More specifically, before its first appearance a systemic

property is said to be unpredictable if it is either irreducible or when

the structure that it instantiates is unpredictable in principle (see

Hoyningen-Huene 1994, 172; Stephan 1999b, 54).

Depending on how many of these five criteria are taken into consideration, it is possible to say what form of emergence is at hand—and thus also

whether it is weak or strong, synchronic or diachronic (Hartig-Perschke

2009; Stephan 1999b). According to this, the weak form of emergence is

characterized by the first three criteria: physical monism, systemic (or collective) properties, and synchronic determinacy. Weak forms of emergence

are generally reducible to their constituents, so that the focus of interest

lies in the new properties that arise out of the interaction of the parts at

the more basic level. Emergence is thus applied as an analytical concept or

model to describe the behavior of a particular system, as is mostly done, for

example, in complexity or self-organization approaches. Weaker versions of

emergence are therefore usually compatible with property reductionism,

while stronger versions are incompatible therewith (see Stephan 1999b).

Stronger forms of emergence are developed by adding the further two

criteria. When a systemic property is also irreducible (i.e. not reducible to

the arrangement and properties of its parts), it is referred to as a form of

synchronic emergence. Researchers that look at synchronic emergence are

mainly interested in the relationship between a higher-level emergent property

and its microstructure. Those who support forms of diachronic emergence

focus on the predictability of novel properties, and on specific properties as

emergent when these are unpredictable prior to their first appearance. While

all diachronic accounts put emphasis on the occurrence of novel properties

across time, thereby arguing for the criteria of novelty, only the additional

consideration of unpredictability constitutes a stronger form of emergence.10



To clarify, synchronic and diachronic versions of emergence are not independent of each other, “since irreducible properties are eo ipso unpredictable in

principle before their first appearance” (Stephan 1999b, 49). The criteria of

irreducibility and unpredictability are therefore closely connected.

Forms of weak emergence are sometimes associated with epistemological emergence, whereas stronger versions are referred to as ontological

emergence (Clayton 2006). The first is about the interactions of the parts

from which emergent properties arise, thus considering the unpredictability from lower levels. When focusing instead on a whole or a system

that possesses properties that its parts or objects do not possess, thereby

stressing the qualitative novelty, it is referred to as ontological emergence

(see Bunge 2003; de Haan 2006). When looking at concrete phenomena

of emergence, the boundaries between ontology and epistemology are,

however, often blurred, something that gets referred to as the “emergence

paradox” (Emmeche et al. 1997).

As such, it is better to understand this distinction as two different readings of emergence, ones that either focus on epistemological issues or are

based on particular ontological claims. A property is thus epistemological

emergent if it “is reducible to or determined by the intrinsic properties

of the ultimate constituents of the object or system, while at the same

time it is very difficult for us to explain, predict or derive the property on

the basis of the ultimate constituents” (Silberstein and McGeever 1999,

186). Emergence in this epistemological sense is a phenomenon that only

occurs by analyzing or describing a system, so that properties are novel

merely at the level of description. An ontological reading, on the contrary,

considers emergence at a more fundamental level, in that the properties of

a system possess causal powers that are not reducible to any of the causal

capacities or relationships between its parts and thus cannot be explained

merely by describing its constituents. Emergent properties of complex systems, accordingly, are “real and non-identical to the systems components

and their properties and make a distinctive causal contribution” (Pratten

2013, 255). Most critical realists defend this ontological perspective on

emergence, while also recognizing the epistemological aspect by emphasizing the fact that any such (ontological) reading carries with it epistemological implications (see Bhaskar 2009; Pratten 2013).

I support this ontological reading and argue that emergence in social

systems has to make a stronger claim (than weaker forms of emergence)

that is about the causation or origination of a particular social phenomenon and its properties. Social (collective) wholes possess properties and



powers that are not reducible to the causal capacities of their constituent

members (with social actors understood as the whole’s parts). It is also

relevant to consider both synchronic and diachronic forms of emergence,

because when studying social phenomena we are interested in both the

relationship between higher-level phenomena and their microstructure

and the unpredictability of the process and form of their emergence. In

this regard, the differences between emergence in natural and social systems are addressed in the following.


Social Emergence in Complex International Systems

How can we think of social emergence? In sociology, Émile Durkheim was

one of the first authors who stressed the relevance of the question of in

what sense social phenomena exist and was—although never really using

the term “emergence” per se—actually one of the first theorists concerned

with emergence (Sawyer 2002). Durkheim proposed that social phenomena are not the mere sum of individuals, and “must therefore be considered in themselves, detached from the conscious beings who form their

own mental representations of them” (1982, 70).

Although many social phenomena are often said to be “emergent,” the

term has been much less elaborated on in the social sciences than it has been

in the natural sciences (Greve and Schnabel 2011; Heintz 2004; Sawyer

2001). A very simple reason for this is that emergence (at least in its Englishlanguage use) is a normal word that refers to the appearance of something or

to express that something came up. In fact, this is how the term is also used

by the majority of scholars in the literature on East Asia regionalism—for

example, when making reference to the “emergence of East Asia,” an “emergent East Asian identity,” or similar (see Stubbs 2002; Terada 2003).

This work, on the contrary, is interested in how regional institutions

can be understood and studied as emergent phenomena on their own

terms, in order to gain a novel perspective on the institutional dynamics in East Asia. Concerning this matter, the next questions that should

be addressed are to what extent the criteria of emergent properties, as

outlined above, are applicable to the social world and if there are specific

(additional) features that should be taken into account. As already mentioned, the critical realist emergent ontology acknowledges certain ontological differences between the natural and social worlds (Bhaskar 1998).

Accordingly, social structures do not exist independent of the activities

that they govern (and the agents’ conceptions of their actions) and persist



only relatively. Based on this, the terms and systemizations that have been

established in physics, chemistry, or biology cannot simply be transferred

to emergence in social systems too. In this regard, Stephan (2011, 133)

mentions three main problems: first, the individualization and typification

of social systems, second, the high plasticity of the parts of the system/

the individuals, and, third, the internal modification of forms of interaction among the parts. In this respect, social systems possess properties that

complex systems in the natural world do not, meaning that the emergence

process is qualitatively different—consequently, the mechanisms of social

emergence need to be studied in their own right (see Goldspink and Kay

2007; Sawyer 2005; Wan 2011a).

I have argued that a central factor of emergence in the international

system is organization, inasmuch as it is the particular arrangement or configuration of the actors and their relations that furnishes the emergent property with its own causal powers. This “organizing structure is an emergent

higher level phenomenon,” one that comprises the emergent relationships

between the parts (T. Lawson 2012, 352). While such an organizing structure for biological or chemical systems is mainly constituted by the spatial

arrangement of elements, this is not relevant in social systems as they usually have no spatial classifications. This means that spatial structures cannot

be used to draw the concrete boundaries of social systems in the way that

they do in natural systems, such as with the skin of an organism. If spatial

structures are attributed at all to social forms—like a specific city, country,

or the building of a particular company—this normally still has no influence on how the structure and relations of the constituents are arranged.

Social entities are therefore not determined by spatially constrained relations (see Elder-Vass 2012b; Stephan 2011). Rather, what differentiates

social entities from “ordinary” material ones is that “the relations that bind

them together and generate their causal powers are not spatial relations but

rather intentional relations” (Elder-Vass 2012a, 20); this is because they

depend on the dispositions and beliefs of individuals.

From this it follows that being a part of a social system is determined

neither by the location nor the whereabouts of an individual (Stephan

2011, 138). I am, for example, still a citizen of my home country when

I am in the USA for a visit. Japan is still a member of APT when attending a meeting of the EAS. Consequently, any kind of causal influence of

a social system on its part is not dependent on there being “synchronic

spatial relations” with the other parts, so that a “temporal disarticulation

between causes and effects” might be the case (Elder-Vass 2012b, 88).



Sometimes, though, it may be exactly the fact of being in a certain place at

a specific time that is required to be part of social phenomenon, such as if

I am stuck in a traffic jam or if the Japanese prime minister attends the final

of a World Cup tournament. Also, space may make a difference in terms

of settings or contexts within which social processes take place. Although

most actors or institutions of the international systems show “spatial flexibility, ” in that they have “the ability to maintain their integrity and operate in a variety of different settings,” they are also always “set in a spatial

relation to other objects” (Sayer 2000, 115–116).

Moreover, spatial flexibility implies that individuals can be part of

numerous different social structures and systems (Elder-Vass 2012b, 88).

I am part of the citizenry of my home country and of the traffic jam I

am stuck in. Japan is a member of APT and the EAS, as well as of other

institutional arrangements. Again, this relates to the differences between

the kinds of relations that structure social and natural systems. If, as in case

of the latter, the spatial location is decisive for being part of a particular

system, then a particular entity can only be within several systems insofar

as these are hierarchically organized. A molecule, for example, can be part

of a cell, an organ, and an animal insofar as the cell and the organ are parts

of the animal. One and the same molecule can, however, obviously not be

part of two different animals. Human beings, on the contrary, can be also

part of several nonhierarchically organized social systems (Stephan 2011,

138), which means that social structures are not as neatly organized into

levels as the structures in natural systems are.

This point accords with what I discussed regarding the way in which

the hierarchical metaphor is used by some critical realists, which within

a complexity notion of emergence can be rather misleading. In terms of

complex social systems, such as the international one, a differentiated

reading consequently implies two main points: First, when looking at the

international system, we are dealing with both the emergent wholes (e.g.

regional institutions) and their parts (actors) at the same level of being

(the social), which means that we are interested in the underlying social

relations and mechanisms instead of in psychological processes or the

like. Second, the international system is understood as a complex set of

nested systems wherein each (sub)system is nested in another (sub)system.

Social structure from this perspective refers to the relations of interaction

between those (sub)systems. Inasmuch as systems interrelate and overlap, we cannot assume the existence of fixed or hierarchical relationships



between levels—so that the complexity of the social world is better made

sense of as a set of nested structures (see Carter and New 2004).

Following the critical realist ontology, each of those nested structures—

which together amount to the complexity of international relations—is

more or less enduring, insofar as it consists of a multilayered set or system of positions and practices that are relationally defined and part of the

reproducing and transforming of social structures (Bhaskar 1998). While

structures in natural and social systems may have in common the fact that

the arrangement or organization of the relations between the components

is a determining factor of emergence, they differ in the kinds of relation

that are relevant in each. Social systems, as argued above, are characterized by intentional relations between individuals. Concerning this matter,

human action is characterized by the intentionality called upon in order to

set up and pursue specific goals. Individuals as agents are, therefore, able,

to a certain degree, to decide for themselves which social systems they

belong to.11 Constituents of biological or chemical systems usually do not

have any influence over what system they belong to.

As agents, human beings also have the ability to act in a way that modifies or even changes the system(s) that they are in. While the constituent

parts of most natural systems do not have the capacity to influence the

structure or relations of those systems due to their concrete spatial arrangements, relationships between social systems most notably are based on the

interactions between their parts. Thereby, individual parts or groups are

able to influence the system through their actions, as for example, in the

political system through the passing of bills or the modifying of the rules

of procedure (see Stephan 2011, 139–140).

Goldspink and Kay (2007), who emphasize the importance of distinguishing between emergence in social systems and that in other natural systems, differentiate between nonreflexive emergence, where agents are not

self-aware, and reflexive emergence, where agents are both self-aware and

linguistically capable. Due to this distinction, agents notice patterns that

arise as they interact with each other and distinguish these patterns through

language. In this way, “language makes possible the emergence of domains

of interaction which can themselves become the target for further linguistic distinction and hence new domains” (Goldspink and Kay 2007, 52).

Human individuals are cognitive and intentional agents who pursue particular goals, and who have the capability to observe and internalize emergent

features of the system.



Gilbert defines this as “second order emergence,” which “occurs when

the agents recognize emergent phenomena, such as societies, clubs, formal organizations, institutions, localities and so on where the fact that you

are a member or a non-member, changes the rules of interaction between

you and other agents” (Gilbert 2002, 6, quoted in Goldspink and Kay

2007, 52). This refers to the agents’ capability to recognize the existence

of a social group or arrangement that emerged from their own collective actions. Similarly, de Haan (2006) considers the role of the observer

of instances of emergence in identifying different types of emergence.

The type he calls “reflective emergence” is typical for social systems and

includes the reflective capacities of the objects of a system, so that the

observers of emergence are actually among the system’s objects.

Hence, in contrast to natural systems, social systems have properties

of consciousness and reflexivity, and “also reproduce and develop formations of social power” (Cudworth and Hobden 2011, 132). Although

the previously mentioned “position-practice system” is inherently relational, critical realists rarely refer to the role of social power therein. This is

remarkable insofar as positions are said to include rules, duties, rights, and

so on that affect both the behavior of those individuals who occupy them

and the activities in which they engage. Such issues of power are critical to

social research, and remain a rather “underconsidered domain” in critical

realist accounts (Kaul 2002, 719). Power “in its broadest everyday sense,

serves as a summarizing term for situations where some change is made to

happen, or perhaps prevented” (Sayer 2012, 181).

From a critical realist perspective, this presupposes a notion of causation

insofar as a cause is understood as whatever produces change. According

to this, power is about “context-shaping, about the capacity of actors to

redefine the parameters of what is socially, politically and economically

possible for others” (Hay 2002, 185). This reading implies a positive connotation (power of), but in addition it serves as a basis to also conceptualize power in negative terms (power over). Thus, the term “power” can be

used in different ways. On the one hand, it can refer to the potential or

capacity that a person, an institution, or any other object possesses. When

we talk, on the other hand, about the power over something, we usually

mean that this particular capacity is being exercised. The capacity to redefine contexts consequently has an effect on the parameters of actions that

follow, and is thus an indirect form of power.

Tony Lawson (2012), to give one of the few examples, points out that

positions are indeed endowed with the capacity to shape context, thereby



affecting the behavior or actions of individuals. Positions can accordingly

be associated with specific rights and obligations, so that “the accepted

position occupants are the agents or bearers of these rights and obligations and [they] typically acquire a status or identity associated with them”

(T.  Lawson 2012, 367). Positional rights and obligations can be understood as (positional) powers, in that they influence the behavior of others

and enable them to engage in specific collective practices. The way in which

two or more different positions are connected is expressed in their respective relations, which are contingently actualized through social interaction.

Social relations are therefore always power relations, from which it follows

that any notion of relations or relational organization vis-à-vis a social system implies core issues regarding power, identity, and difference.12

To the effect that all social relations include some kind of relationships of

power, social relations thus have a political dimension to them. It is important to stress that this does not imply that social relations are only political

or that they can only be understood in political terms. Following this, the

political could be described as “an aspect or moment of the social, articulated with other moments (such as the economic or the cultural)” (Hay

2002, 75). Regarding the political in this way—as a process of governing

and consequently not confined to the sphere of the state or government—

means that it can occur in any kind of social context. Here, the emphasis

on process is particularly concerned with the distribution and consequences

of power. In this connection, the hierarchy metaphor seems to be more

suitable in the context of the power relations existing within the nested

structures of the international system. There is thus a “need to integrate

the analysis of relational systems of intra-human power” (Cudworth and

Hobden 2011, 125), and, in doing so, a political dimension—something

that is missing in most accounts of general complexity theory.

Another difference between emergence in natural and in social systems

is that while in biological evolution the process of emergence typically

takes long periods of time, the formation or building of new structural

formations in the social world can take place in much more rapid steps.

If we only take the feature of novelty as an indication for emergent properties in the social world, there would be far too many properties that

are emergent in this weak diachronic sense (Stephan 2011). What is of

concern with regard to emergence in social systems, however, is the relative autonomy of emergent social systems. Also of interest is the related

question of how we can best understand the ways in which they make a

difference, specifically through influencing the behavior and interactions

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2 Emergence in International Systems: Introducing the Concept of Emergence

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