Peggy Somers is an important contributor to the active field of sociological theory. And she identifies as a critical realist when it comes to understanding the logic and epistemology of the historical social sciences. Her views were extensively developed in “We’re no angels” (1998; link). The title picks up on the epistemology that she favors: non-perfectionist, anti-foundationalist, historically situated. In the essay she moves back and forth between post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and specific controversies in the methodology of the historical social sciences.
The essay takes its origin as a rebuttal to a critical review of the methodologies of historical sociology offered by Kiser and Hechter in “The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology” (1991; link). A central target of Somers’ arguments here is the idea defended by Kiser and Hechter that rational choice theory is the preferred theoretical framework for historical social science. Somers believes — as do most historical sociologists — that rational choice theory (RCT) is a legitimate but partial contribution to a pluralistic approach to historical sociology. Emphatically, it is too narrow a basis for constructing explanations of important large-scale historical movements and outcomes. So RCT advocates like Kiser and Hechter make the mistake of “theoretical monism” — imagining that a single theoretical premise might be sufficient to explain a large, complex domain of social phenomena.
A key theme in Somers’ treatment here is a contrast among several kinds of realism. Here is Somers’ brief description:
All versions of realism accept that causal mechanisms—despite being unobservable—must be used as the basis of explanatory theoretical accounts; but only rational choice realism generates those mechanisms using on “ontic methodology” (Salmon 1984) in which the causal mechanisms of social explanation are postulated a priori from the same general theory that “guides” their research. (726)
And here are some key examples of what she means by causal mechanisms in the social world: “price mechanisms, maximizing preferences, class consciousness, value-driven intentionality, or domination” (726).
Somers identifies at least two kinds of realism — what she calls “theoretical realism” and “relational and pragmatic realism”. She favors the latter:
Relational realism posits that belief in the causal power of unobservables—such as states, markets, or social classes—does not depend on the rationality or truth of any given theory but upon practical evidence of its causal impact on the relationships in which it is embedded…. Relational realists believe that, while it is justifiable to theorize about unobservables, any particular theory entailing theoretical phenomena is historically provisional. For relational realism that means one can believe in the reality of a phenomenon without necessarily believing in the absolute truth or ultimate reality of any single theory that claims to explain it. (743-44)
And she believes that the two realisms have very different epistemological backgrounds — deductivist and pragmatist:
Where the two realisms differ, then, is that while theoretical realism attributes an ontological truth to the theoretical phenomenon (e.g., the theory of electrons or the theory of market equilibrium), relational realism focuses on the relational effect of the phenomenon itself (e.g., the impact of the hypothesized electron on its environment or of the hypothesized market forces on an observable outcome). (745)
The most basic criticism that Somers offers of Kiser and Hechter is their mono-theoretic deductivism — their claim that rigorous social science requires deductive derivation of a given social outcome from a theoretical premise. It is the theory that is at the heart of the explanation, according to this view of methodology. But for Somers — and in the relational, pragmatist version of realism that she favors — the ontology comes first. We may not know exactly what an electron is in detail; but we know the reality of electricity by the effects and causal properties we can probe practically and experimentally. This is the pragmatic aspect of her favored realism:
Social phenomena endure; but the “theoretical entities” that have purported to explain them are socially constructed—some more convincingly than others because they are more pragmatic and relational.
Somers faults what she calls theoretical realism for its commitment to explanation and confirmation through the hypothetic-deductive method. So what are the chief characteristics of her preferred alternative?
First, relational realism is “minimalist” —
[Relational realism is] minimalist because it recognizes that the partial concept- dependence of social life puts limits on the general realist premise of the absolute mind-independent status of the social world; yet realist nonetheless, in contrast to hermeneutics or radical constructivism in that some degree of concept-dependence does not in any way subvert the premise of a social world that exists independently of our beliefs about it. (766)
This amounts to an anti-foundationalist epistemology: we cannot establish the truth of all the premises and presuppositions of an explanation.
Second, relational realism is pluralistic; it encourages the discovery of multiple causal factors within a complex circumstance. This is in opposition to the theoretical monism of RCT supporters and is consistent with Robert Merton’s advocacy of a social science based on a search for theories of the middle range (link).
Third, relational realism is anti-essentialist; it recommends that the researcher should look at the social world as consisting of shifting configurations of social actors and institutions.
A relational ontology thus follows Popper’s rejection of essentialism and instead looks at the basic units of the social world as relational identities constituted in relational configurations. In place of a language of essences and inherent causal properties, a relational realism substitutes a language of networks and relationships that are not predetermined but made the indeterminate objects of investigation. (767)
An earlier post here raised a rather similar question about several kinds of realism, and the conclusions I reached were somewhat parallel as well. I offered support for scientific realism over critical realism. Here is the crucial passage:
So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?
My own philosophy of social science has several key features:
- I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
- I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
- I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
- I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
- I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
- I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
- I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
- I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
- I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.
These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.
I wonder which of these premises Somers would endorse, and which she would criticize? I suspect that premise (5) will make her uneasy, given her desire to emphasize relationality in the social world; but that is certainly not ruled out in an actor-centered approach to social research. (This was also a contrast that Chuck Tilly drew between his approach to the social world and mine: “Dan, your approach is more individualistic than mine. I prefer to emphasize relations among the actors!”)