The soft side of critical realism

Critical realism has appealed to a range of sociologists and political scientists, in part because of the legitimacy it renders for the study of social structures and organizations. However, many of the things sociologists study are not “things” at all, but rather subjective features of social experience — mental frameworks, identities, ideologies, value systems, knowledge frameworks. Is it possible to be a critical realist about “subjective” social experience and formations of consciousness? Here I want to argue in favor of a CR treatment of subjective experience and thought.

First, let’s recall what it means to be realist about something. It means to take a cognitive stance towards the formation that treats it as being independent from the concepts we use to categorize it. It is to postulate that there are facts about the formation that are independent from our perceptions of it or the ways we conceptualize it. It is to attribute to the formation a degree of solidity in the world, a set of characteristics that can be empirically investigated and that have causal powers in the world. It is to negate the slogan, “all that is solid melts into air” with regard to these kinds of formations. “Real” does not mean “tangible” or “material”; it means independent, persistent, and causal.

So to be realist about values, cognitive frameworks, practices, or paradigms is to assert that these assemblages of mental attitudes and features have social instantiation, that they persist over time, and that they have causal powers within the social realm. By this definition, mental frameworks are perfectly real. They have visible social foundations — concrete institutions and practices through which they are transmitted and reproduced. And they have clear causal powers within the social realm.

A few examples will help make this clear.

Consider first the assemblage of beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral repertoires that constitute the race regime in a particular time and place. Children and adults from different racial groups in a region have internalized a set of ideas and behaviors about each other that are inflected by race and gender. These beliefs, norms, and attitudes can be investigated through a variety of means, including surveys and ethnographic observation. Through their behaviors and interactions with each other they gain practice in their mastery of the regime, and they influence outcomes and future behaviors. They transmit and reproduce features of the race regime to peers and children. There is a self-reinforcing discipline to such an assemblage of attitudes and behaviors which shapes the behaviors and expectations of others, both internally and coercively. This formation has causal effects on the local society in which it exists, and it is independent from the ideas we have about it. It is by this set of factors, a real part of local society. (If is also a variable and heterogeneous reality, across time and space.) We can trace the sociological foundations of the formation within the population, the institutional arrangements through which minds and behaviors are shaped. And we can identify many social effects of specific features of regimes like this. (Here is an earlier post on the race regime of Jim Crow; link, link.)

Here is a second useful example — a knowledge and practice system like Six Sigma. This is a bundle of ideas about business management. It involves some fairly specific doctrines and technical practices. There are training institutions through which individuals become expert at Six Sigma. And there is a distributed group of expert practitioners across a number of companies, consulting firms, and universities who possess highly similar sets of knowledge, judgment, and perception.  This is a knowledge and practice community, with specific and identifiable causal consequences.

These are two concrete examples. Many others could be offered — workingclass solidarity, bourgeois modes of dress and manners, the social attitudes and behaviors of French businessmen, the norms of Islamic charity, the Protestant Ethic, Midwestern modesty.

So, indeed, it is entirely legitimate to be a critical realist about mental frameworks. More, the realist who abjures study of such frameworks as social realities is doomed to offer explanations with mysterious gaps. He or she will find large historical anomalies, where available structural causes fail to account for important historical outcomes.

Consider Marx and Engels’ words in the Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This is an interesting riff on social reality, capturing both change and persistence, appearance and reality. A similar point of view is expressed in Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities: beliefs exist, they have social origins, and it is possible to demystify them on occasion by uncovering the distortions they convey of real underlying social relations.

There is one more perplexing twist here for realists. Both structures and features of consciousness are real in their social manifestations. However, one goal of critical philosophy is to show how the mental structures of a given class or gender are in fact false consciousness. It is a true fact that British citizens in 1871 had certain ideas about the workings of contemporary capitalism. But it is an important function of critical theory to demonstrate that those beliefs were wrong, and to more accurately account for the underlying social relations they attempt to describe. And it is important to discover the mechanisms through which those false beliefs came into existence.

So critical realism must both identify real structures of thought in society and demystify these thought systems when they systematically falsify the underlying social reality. Decoding the social realities of patriarchy, racism, and religious bigotry is itself a key task for a critical social sciences.

Dave Elder-Vass is one of the few critical realists who have devoted attention to the reality of a subjective social thing, a system of norms. In The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency he tries to show how the ideas of a “norm circle” helps explicate the objectivity, persistence, and reality of a socially embodied norm system. Here’s is an earlier post on E-V’s work (link).

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