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emergent propertiesany properties (of a social system or group) of which it can be asserted that they cannot be explained simply in terms of their origins or constituent parts – hence the notion that ‘the whole is greater than the parts’. The term is especially identified with functionalist sociologies, such as Durkheim's, which emphasize the AUTONOMY OF SOCIOLOGY from other disciplines (i.e. that sociological accounts should not be subject to REDUCTIONISM). The notion of emergent properties has often been criticized. For example, it has been seen as leading to a reified account (see REIFICATION) of social reality, and to a loss of visibility and recognition of the influence of the individual actor. However, the conception of emergent properties need not be associated with the notion that there are no links with, or no influence of, underlying levels of reality, but merely that there may be aspects of social reality which cannot be satisfactorily explained reductively In the physical sciences, too, emergent properties play an indispensable role (e.g. ‘weather systems’ in meteorology) where the complexity of reality and the unpredictability of the underlying variables defies a fully reductive account. In an important sense, the existence of separate disciplines in science is testimony to the existence of emergent properties; at the very least emergent properties prove analytically indispensable. The importance of these need not mean the existence of any absolute barriers to attempts at reductionistic analysis; simply that these attempts are unlikely ever to be entirely successful, and even if successful, will not overturn the utility of the conception of emergent properties. Compare HOLISM, METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000