Critical realism and social heterogeneity

Is the metaphysics of critical realism compatible with the idea of a highly heterogeneous social world?

Here is what I mean by heterogeneity in this context. First social causation is inherently multiple, with many kinds and tempos of social causation at work. It is therefore crucial that we avoid the impulse to reduce social change to a single set of underlying causal factors. The occurrence of a race riot at a time and place is partly caused by the instigating incident, partly caused by the long-simmering background conditions, partly caused by the physical geography of the city in question and partly caused by a legal and political context far from the site of rioting. We sometimes describe this fact as the conjunctural nature of social causation. Second, social events, changes, and forms of stability depend on contingent alignments of forces and causes, which do not recur in regular sequences of Humean causation. Third, social causes are generally historically conditioned, with the result that we do not have a general statement of, same cause, same effect. I characterize these points by saying that social causation is contingent, contextual, and conjunctural.

Another important aspect of heterogeneity in the social world has to do with the status of social kinds or social types. I take the view that social entities do not constitute social kinds, in that there is substantial and deep variation across the instances of items which we classify under riot, revolution, or state. Another way to put this point is to observe that social things do not have essential natures. Being Muslim is not an essential social or cultural or religious identity. Being a late industrial city is not an essential characteristic of a group of cities. Being a social revolution is not an essential underlying set of characteristics of the Chinese, French, and Russian episodes. Rather, in each of these examples there is broad variation across the instances that are embraced by the term.

So my question here is a simple one. Is Bhaskar’s version of realism consistent with this treatment of heterogeneous social entities and heterogeneous social causes, or does Bhaskar presuppose social essences and universal causes in ways that are inconsistent with heterogeneity?

There are elements Bhaskar’s theory that point in both directions on this question.

His emphasis on the logic of experimentation is key to his transcendental argument for realism. But oddly enough, this analysis cuts against the premise of heterogeneity because it emphasizes exceptionless causal factors. He emphasizes the necessity of postulating underlying causal laws, which are themselves supported by generative causal mechanisms, and the implication is that the natural world unfolds as the expression of these generative mechanisms. Here is a clear statement from The Possibility of Naturalism:

Once made, however, the ontological distinction between causal laws and patterns of events allows us to sustain the universality of the former in the face of the non-invariance of the latter. Moreover, the actualist analysis of laws now loses all plausibility. For the non-invariance of conjunctions is a condition of an empirical science and the non-empirical nature of laws a condition of an applied one. (PON p. 11)

And his account sometimes seems to rest upon a kind of “mechanism fundamentalism” — the idea that there is a finite set of non-reducible mechanisms with essential properties:

On the transcendental realist system a sequence A, B is necessary if and only if there is a natural mechanism M such that when stimulated by A, B tends to be produced. (PON p. 11)

Concerns about mechanisms fundamentalism are allayed, however, because Bhaskar notes that it is always open to the scientist to ask the new question, how does this mechanism work? (PON 13) So mechanisms are not irreducible.

These are a few indications that Bhaskar’s realism might be uncongenial to the idea of social heterogeneity.

More compelling considerations are to be found on the other side of the issue, however. First, his introduction of the idea of the social world as an “open” system of causation leaves space for causal heterogeneity. Here is a relevant passage from A Realist Theory of Science, deriving from an example of historical explanation:

In general as a complex event it will require a degree of what might be called ‘causal analysis’, i.e. the resolution of the event into its components (as in the case above). (RTS kl 2605)

For the different levels that mesh together in the generation of an event need not, and will not normally, be typologically locatable within the structures of a single theory. In general the normic statements of several distinct sciences, speaking perhaps of radically different kinds of generative mechanism, may be involved in the explanation of the event. This does not reflect any failure of science, but the complexity of things and the multiplicity of forms of determination found in the world. (RTS kl 2613)

Here is how Bhaskar conceives of social and historical things in The Possibility of Naturalism:

From this perspective, then, things are viewed as individuals possessing powers (and as agents as well as patients). And actions are the realization of their potentialities. Historical things are structured and differentiated (more or less unique) ensembles of tendencies, liabilities and powers; and historical events are their transformations. (PON 20)

The phrase “more or less unique” is crucial. It implies the kind of heterogeneity postulated here, reflecting the ideas of contingency and heterogeneity mentioned above.

Another reason for thinking Bhaskar is open to heterogeneity in the social realm is his position on reductionism.

But, it might be objected, is not the universe in the end nothing but a giant machine with inexorable laws of motion governing everything that happens within it? I want to say three things: First, that the various sciences treat the world as a network of ‘machines’, of various shapes and sizes and degrees of complexity, whose proper principles of explanation are not all of the same kind as, let alone reducible to, those of classical mechanics. Secondly, that the behaviour of ‘machines’, including classical mechanical ones, cannot be adequately described, let alone understood, in terms of the ‘whenever x, then y’ formula of regularity determinism. Thirdly, that even if the world were a single ‘machine’ this would still provide no grounds for the constant conjunction idea, or a fortiori any of the theories of science that depend upon it. Regularity determinism is a mistake, which has been disastrous for our understanding of science. (RTS kl 1590)

Here Bhaskar is explicit in referring to multiple kinds of causal processes (“machines”). And, indeed, Bhaskar affirms the conjunctural nature of social causation:

Now most social phenomena, like most natural events, are conjuncturally determined. And as such in general have to be explained in terms of a multiplicity of causes. (PON p. 54)

Similar ideas are expressed in Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:

Social phenomena must be seen, in general, as the product of a multiplicity of causes, i.e. social events as ‘conjunctures’ and social things as (metaphysically) ‘compounds’. (107)

Finally, his discussion of social structures in PON as the social equivalent of natural mechanisms also implies heterogeneity over time:

(3) Social structures, unlike natural structures, may be only relatively enduring (so that the tendencies they ground may not be universal in the sense of space-time invariant). (PON 49)

So on balance, I am inclined to think that Bhaskar’s philosophy of social science is indeed receptive to social heterogeneity. And this in turn makes it a substantially more compelling contribution to the philosophy of social science than it would otherwise be, and superior to many of the positivist variants of philosophy of science that he criticizes.


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