Realism about social entities

Critical realism depends on the key notion that sociologists are justified in construing their statements about social entities as real, objective features of the social world — “intransitive” objects, in Bhaskar’s somewhat idiosyncratic vocabulary. But does a realist ontology actually require this assumption? Or are there realist interpretations of sociological theory that do not “reify” entities like social structures, ideologies, or normative systems? Could we be realist about the social analogues of atoms and forces but nominalistic about larger ensembles like proteins? In chemistry there would be no reason to ask this question; but in the composition of the social world, it is possible that the linkages between “micro” and “macro” are sufficiently loose as to make it plausible that the ensembles have less permanence and fixity than their components. It is possible that the social world is more akin to a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are square and can be fitted together in countless different ways; so there is no reason to attribute “existence” to the various combinations that occur.

This probably sounds needlessly paradoxical. But I think there are problems in asserting the independent, objective reality of a social structure like “the US system of academic tenure” that do not arise with respect to the building blocks of social structures and institutions like incentives, group priorities, property relations, and so on.

The ontological problem about large social entities arises from the open boundaries, multiple dimensions, and heterogeneity characteristic of the great preponderance of social “structures”. Take “tenure”: there are some important features commonly associated with tenure, like “protection of academic freedom,” “peer review,” and “self-governance”. But there is a great range of institutional arrangements, institutional priorities, and processes that make multiple instances substantially different from each other. Harvard’s tenure process looks very different from that practiced at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. And this is not a statement about elitism and status, but rather a reflection of different institutional priorities, needs, and the path-dependency relating to the historical composition of the respective arrangements.

We might be more confident in “realist” reference to a sociological entity when we refer to the particular instances of structures and ideologies, in a time and place, rather than the class of entities. So we might say that both Harvard and Lowell have particular tenure arrangements that are stable and well-defined and that can be selected as social entities. The class of all tenure systems, on the other hand, should be understood nominalistically as referring to a group of substantially different individual systems.

A more fundamental approach a realist might take is to abandon realist interpretations of large social things altogether and choose instead to refer realistically to the mechanisms, modular organizations, and interests and actions that make up the large macro structures and systems. This would represent a social realism about underlying processes, forces, and constraints, while adopting a nominalistic view of the higher-level entities. This orientation seems to point back to the view that I call “methodological localism”: the view that “the ‘molecule’ of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules” (linklink). And it suggests that sociological realism is most clearly justified when applied to social circumstances at the micro- and meso-levels — not the grand macro level.

This modest version of social realism preserves the key ideas of the objectivity, independence from the observer, and persistence and recurrence in the social world of the object of investigation. And this sustains the primary features of a realist understanding of social research and theorizing. On this more limited interpretation of realism, the social world exists independently from the researcher; causes, actions, incentives, and constraints exist, and social actors interact with each other in a variety of ways. Large structures, however, are too indefinite to count as “real” social entities. They have the shape-shifting status of the forest rather than the trees.

And what about the large structures that many of the critical realists care about the most — capitalism, mode of production, economic structure, forces of production, bourgeois ideology, …? It seems reasonable to construe these social things as conceptual constructs or ideal types rather than ontological entities. The “capitalist mode of production” is an intellectual construct, not an independent social reality. It is composed of real social actions, institutions, arrangements, and practices, all of which can be empirically investigated and which are independent from the observer. But when we think of the CMP along the lines of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Althusser, Deng Xiaoping, or Hayek, we are thinking of substantially different ways of conceptualizing the social and economic world. Further, the capitalisms in Britain, Germany, Japan, and post-Communist Poland all have important differences when it comes to their fundamental institutions and dynamics. The CMP is not a single abiding and theory-independent social reality.

Does the “economic structure of the United States” exist? It does, in that there are specific and empirically accessible institutions, relations, actions, and organizations that hang together and persist, and which we intellectually organize as the “economic structure”. And yet it does not exist, if by “exist” we mean something solid, unchanging, and specific. As Marx once wrote, “all that is solid melts into air” (link).

(An earlier post considers a different kind of retreat from ambitious realism in the natural sciences, structural realism (link).)

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