Agents of Possibilty: The Complexity of Social Change

June 14-16, 6-9 PM
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Potsdamerstraße 33, Berlin


Sally Haslanger is certainly the most prominent thinker bridging the gap from analytic philosophy to social and political activism. In her upcoming lectures on Agents of Possibility she will address the complexities of social change and highlight the role of social movements for actual transformations.


Societies are not planned and implemented by anyone. They are complex dynamic systems, as are hearts, ant hills, economies, and ecosystems. Although legislatures and policy makers undertake to construct and intervene in social systems – and what they do matters – they are not in control. Well-informed and morally motivated interventions can have unpredictable and often inimical effects. The society, so to speak, has a life of its own, and much of what happens is not designed or intended by anyone.

Moreover, agents in a social system are shaped by it – we come to “fit” niches in the structure by internalizing the relevant norms for the positions we occupy – and coordination on available terms is imperative. This can make it difficult to even imagine escaping the system or intervening in a way that substantially transforms it.  So one might worry that it is hard to see beyond our current circumstances and undertake substantial change, and even when we try, the impact of our efforts is far from being under our control. What can we actually do to promote a better, more just, world?

The lectures will consider how a social theory sensitive to dynamic systems can help us understand social stability and radical social change. One of the most significant features of contemporary societies is their longstanding patterns of injustice, oppression, and harm. And yet, there are times when change seems to happen remarkably quickly, e.g., the movement for marriage equality in the US. How should we understand the systematic interaction between broad structures of race, gender, and class? What methods are promising for promoting positive social change? On what basis do we intervene in social systems that enable coordination – especially if disruption may make things worse before they get better?

Wednesday, 14.06
Who’s in Charge Here? Micro, Meso, Macro Interactions

Thursday, 15.06
What Can We Do? Co-Designing Social Interventions

Friday, 16.06
Who Cares? Networks of Knowledge and Solidarity

Sally Haslanger is a unique voice in the international sphere of social critique. With analytical clarity and socio-theoretical ambition, she explains the efficacy of ideologies and exposes underpinnings of sexism and racism. Her ground-breaking works in philosophy and social theory not only bear witness to her incredible intellectual independence but also showcase her continued commitment to social and political activism. In her writings Haslanger develops a contemporary critique of the structural injustices characteristic of today’s society. Vividly she demonstrates how society must change, and, more importantly, how society actually can change. Unconcerned with traditional divides between theoretical schools and academic disciplines, Haslanger appears to be effortlessly capable of combining considerations inspired by various approaches to social criticism. This enables her to bridge the gap between the analysis of fundamental structures and the problems of everyday activities in a truly inspiring way. This engagement with daily social and political wrongs often focuses on the role of philosophy and the university in society as well as on topics that are dealt within the context of family and parenting.

Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and teaches in MIT’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She has published her reflections in numerous essays, a selection of which appeared under the title Resisting Reality Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford University Press 2012). Furthermore, Haslanger is the co-author of What Is Race? Four Philosophical Views (Oxford University Press 2019) and is currently preparing a book Doing Justice to the Social.

Further Material: Social Transformation 2022 - 2023

Agents of Possibilty: The Complexity of Social Change