Time for a critical-realist epistemology

The critical realism network in North America is currently convened in Montreal in a three-day intensive workshop (link). In attendance are many of the sociologists and philosophers who have an active interest in critical realism, and the talks are of genuine interest. A session this morning on pragmatist threads of potential interest to critical realists, including Mead, Abbott, and Elias, was highly stimulating. And there are 29 sessions altogether — roughly 85 papers. This is an amazing wealth of sociological research.

Perhaps a third of the papers are presentations of original sociological research from a CR point of view. This is very encouraging because it demonstrates that CR is moving beyond the philosophy of social science to the concrete practice of social science. Researchers are working hard to develop research methods in the context of CR that permit concrete investigation of particular social and historical phenomena. And this implies as well that there is a growing body of thinking about methodology within the field of CR.

CR theorists began with ontology, and a great deal of the existing literature takes the form of theoretical expositions of various ontological theses. And this was deliberate; following Bhaskar, theorists have argued that we need better ontology before science can progress. (This seems particularly true in the social realm; link.) So ontology needs to come first, then epistemology.

I believe the time has come when CR needs to give more explicit and extended attention to epistemology.

What is epistemology? It is an organized effort to answer the question, what is (scientific) knowledge? It attempts to provide a justified theory of empirical justification. Epistemology is an attempt to articulate the desired relationship between evidence and assertion; more specifically, it is an attempt to uncover the nuances of the domain of “evidence” across the realm of social research. Most fundamentally, it is an attempt to articulate how the practices of science are “truth-enhancing”: a given set of epistemic practices (methodologies) are hoped to result in a higher level of veridicality over time.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement’s visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take. For example, The two following statements sound very similar:

A “Sociological claims must be evaluated on the basis of objective empirical evidence”

B “Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified”

And so the CR theorist is inclined to reject A as well as B. But this is a philosophical misstep caused by fear of the blind side. A is actually a perfectly valid requirement of epistemological rationality.

So what do we need from a developed epistemology for CR? Essentially we need three things.

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

Second, we need a nuanced discussion of the complications involved in identifying “empirical evidence” in social research; for example, the impossibility of theory-independent or perspective-independent social data, the constructive nature of most historical and social observation, and the problem of selectivity in the collection of evidence.

Third, we need a discussion of the modes of inference — deductive, inductive, statistical, causal, and Bayesian — on the basis of which social scientists can arrive at an estimate of likelihood for a statement given a set of evidence statements.

Finally, our CR epistemology needs to give an appropriate discussion of the fallibility of all scientific research.

The epistemological frame that I currently favor is the coherence methodology described by philosophers like Quine and Goodman. The social sciences constitute a web of belief, and provisional conclusions in one area may serve to establish a method or valuation for findings in another area of the web. both ontological positions and epistemological maxims may require adjustment in light of future empirical and theoretical findings. Rawls’s conception of reflective equilibrium illustrates this epistemology in the moral field. This approach has an unexpected affinity for CR, because there is an emerging interest in the pragmatist philosophy from which this approach derives.

Epistemology allows us to place various specific methodological approaches into context. So we can locate the method of process tracing into the context of justification, and therefore into epistemology. It also validates the idea of methodological pluralism: there are multiple avenues through which researchers can create evidence through which to prove and evaluate a variety of sociological claims.

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

%d bloggers like this: