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Emergence and Reduction



The question of the ontological status of social wholes has been formative to the development of key positions and debates within modern social theory. Intrinsic to this is the contested meaning of the concept of emergence and the idea that the collective whole is in some way more than the sum of its parts. This claim, in its contemporary form, gives exaggerated importance to a simple truism of re-description that concerns all wholes. In this paper I argue that a better way to test the ontological status of wholes is to ask whether their causal properties can be reduced to the qualities of their parts. If reduction is possible the ontological status of emergent wholes is diminished. A close analysis of William Wimsatt's definition, conceptualisation, and characterisation of emergent phenomena provides an understanding of the relationship between wholes and their parts and suggests, also, that the properties of collective phenomena of a social kind reduce to the activities of people. Social wholes and their parts reside in the same mode (or level) of organisation. This paper concludes by employing Jaegwon Kim's method of ‘functional reduction’ to demonstrate how to reduce the qualities of wholes to those of their parts.