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).

A new exposition of assemblage theory

Manuel DeLanda has been a prominent exponent of the theory of assemblage for English-speaking readers for at least ten years. His 2006 book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity has been discussed numerous times in this blog (link, link, link). DeLanda has now published a new treatment of the subject, Assemblage Theory. As I’ve pointed out in the earlier discussions, I find assemblage theory to be helpful for sociology and the philosophy of social science because it provides a very appropriate way of conceptualizing the heterogeneity of the social world. The book is well worth discussing.

To start, DeLanda insists that the French term “agencement” has greater semantic depth than its English translation, assemblage. “Assemblage” picks up one part of the meaning of agencement — the product of putting together a set of heterogeneous parts — but it loses altogether the implications of process and activity in the French term. He quotes a passage in which Deleuze and Parnet explain part of the meaning of assemblage (agencement) (1):

What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns — different natures. This, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Dialogues II, 69)

This passage from Deleuze and Parnet highlights the core idea of an assemblage bringing together heterogeneous pieces into a new whole. It also signals the important distinction for Deleuze between interiority and exteriority. DeLanda explicates this distinction as indicating the nature of the relations among the elements. “Interior” relations among things are essential, logical, or semantic; whereas exterior relations are contingent and non-essential. Identifying a pair as husband and wife is to identify an interior relation; identifying a pair as a female architect and a male night club bouncer is an exterior relation. This is what Deleuze and Parnet refer to when they refer to alliances, alloys, contagions, epidemics: conjunctions of otherwise independent things or processes.

Let’s look at some of the high-level concepts that play an important role in DeLanda’s exposition.


DeLanda makes the important ontological point that assemblages are individuals: historically unique persistent configurations. “Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is therefore an individual entity: an individual person, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city” (19).

All assemblages should be considered unique historical entities, singular in their individuality, not as particular members of a general category. But if this is so, then we should be able to specify the individuation process that gave birth to them. (6)

In other words, the whole [assemblage] is immanent, not transcendent. Communities or organizations are historically individuated entities, as much so as the persons that compose them…. It is not incoherent to speak of individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities, or individual countries. The term ‘individual’ has no preferential affinity for a particular scale (persons or organisms) but refers to any entity that  is historically unique. (13)

These passages make it clear that the idea of an individual is not restricted to one ontological level (biological human organism), but is rather available at all levels (individual, labor union, farmers’ cooperative, city, corporation, army).


Several important meta-level distinctions about relations among components of an assemblage arise in DeLanda’s exposition. The distinction between relational interiority and exteriority is familiar from his earlier exposition in New Philosophy. Interior relations are conceptual or intrinsic — uncle to nephew. Exterior relations are contingent — street vendor to policeman. A second distinction that DeLanda discusses is coded/decoded. This distinction too is developed extensively in New Philosophy. Relations that are substantially fixed by a code — a grammar, a specific set of rules of behavior, a genetic program — are said to be coded; relations that are substantially indeterminate and left to the choices of the participants are decoded. A third distinction that DeLanda discusses in Assemblage Theory is that between stratum and assemblage. An assemblage is a concrete particular consisting of heterogeneous parts; a stratum is a more or less uniform group of things (organisms, institutions).

Here is a passage from New Philosophy on the concept of coded relations:

[Organizations] do involve rules, such as those governing turn-taking. The more formal and rigid the rules, the more these social encounters may be said to be coded. But in some circumstances these rules may be weakened giving rise to assemblages in which the participants have more room to express their convictions and their own personal styles. (16)

And in Assemblage Theory:

The coding parameter is one of the knobs we must build into the concept [of assemblage], the other being territorialisation, a parameter measuring the degree to which the components of the assemblage have been subjected to a process of homogenisation, and the extent to which its defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable. (3)

(In a later post I will discuss DeLanda’s effort to subsume each of these distinctions under the idea of a parameter or “knob” inflecting a particular concept of assemblage (city, linguistic practice). Also of interest there will be DeLanda’s effort to understand the ontology of assemblage and stratum in analogy with the idea in physics of a phase space (gas, liquid, solid).)


DeLanda believes that assemblage theory depends on the idea of emergence for macro-level properties:

The very first step in this task is to devise a means to block micro-reductionism, a step usually achieved by the concept of emergent properties, the properties of a whole caused by the interactions between its parts. If a social whole has novel properties that emerge from interactions between people, its reduction to a mere aggregate of many rational decision-makers or many phenomenological experiences is effectively blocked. (9)

Notice that this is a weak conception of emergence; the emergent property is distinguished simply by the fact that it is not an aggregation of the properties of the individual components. This does not imply that the property is not derivable from a theory of the properties of the parts and the causal interactions among them. (Several earlier posts have raised questions about the validity of the idea of emergence; link.)

And in fact DeLanda shortly says some surprising things about emergence and the relations between higher-level and lower-level properties:

The property of density, and the capacity to store reputations and enforce norms, are non-reducible properties and capacities of the entire community, but neither involves thinking of it as a seamless totality in which the very personal identity of the members is created by their relations. (11)

Up to the level of national markets the main emergent property of these increasingly larger trading areas is synchronized price movements. Braudel uncovers evidence that average wholesale prices (determined mostly by demand and supply) move up and down in unison within urban regions, provinces, or entire countries. (15)

These are surprising claims as illustrations of emergence, because all of the properties mentioned here are in fact reducible to facts about the properties of individuals and their relations. Density is obviously so; we can derive density by measuring the number of individuals per unit of space. The capacity of a group to store reputations is also a direct consequence of individuals’ ability to remember facts about other individuals and communicate their memories to others. The community’s representation of “reputation” is nothing over and above this distributed set of beliefs and interactions. And the fact of synchronized price movements over an extended trading area likewise has perfectly visible microfoundations at the individual level: communications and transportation technologies permit traders to take advantage of momentary price differentials in different places, leading to a tendency for all accessible points within the region to reveal prices that are synchronized with each other (modulo the transportation costs that exist between points).

These observations lead me to suspect that the concept of emergence is not doing much real work here. The paraphrase that DeLanda offers as a summary conclusion is correct:

Thus, both ‘the Market’ and ‘the State’ can be eliminated from a realist ontology by a nested set of individual emergent wholes operating at different scales. (16)

But this observation does not imply or presuppose the idea of strong emergence.

It seems, then, that we could put aside the language of emergence and rest on the claim that assemblages at various levels have stable properties that can be investigated empirically and historically; there is no need for reduction to a more fundamental level. So assemblage theory is anti-reductionist and is eclectic with regard to the question of levels of the social world. We can formulate concepts of social entities at a wide range of levels and accommodate those concepts to the basic idea of assemblage, and there is no need for seeking out inter-level reductions. But likewise there is no need to insist on the obscure idea of strong emergence.

Assemblage theory and social realism

This treatment of social theory from the point of view of assemblage theory is distinctly friendly to the language of realism. DeLanda argues that assemblages are real, mind-independent, and ontologically stable. Assemblages are in the world and can be treated as independent individual things. Here is a representative statement:

The distinction between a concept and its cases also has an ontological aspect. The concept itself is a product of our minds and would not exist without them, but concrete assemblages must be considered to be fully independent of our minds. This statement must be qualified, because in the case of social assemblages like communities, organizations, and cities, the assemblages would cease to exist if our minds disappeared. So in this case we should say that social assemblages are independent of the content of our minds, that is, independent of the way in which communities, organizations, and cities are conceived. This is just another way of saying that assemblage theory operates within a realist ontology. (138)

The most important transcendent entity that we must confront and eliminate is the one postulated to explain the existence and endurance of autonomous entities: essences. (139)

Both points are crucial. DeLanda emphasizes that social entities (assemblages) are real items in the social world, with a temporally and causally persistent reality; and he denies that the ideas of “essence”, “kind”, or “inner nature” have a role in science. This is an anti-essentialist realism, and it is a highly appropriate basis for social ontology.


There is much more to discuss in DeLanda’s current treatment of assemblage, and I expect to return to other issues in later posts. What I find particularly interesting about DeLanda’s current book are the substantive observations DeLanda makes about various historical formations — cities, governments, modes of production, capitalism. Assemblage theory is of real value for social scientists only if it provides a better vocabulary for describing social entities and causes. And DeLanda’s illustrations make a persuasive case for this conclusion.

For example, in discussing Braudel on the difference between markets and capitalism he writes:

These are powerful words. But how can anyone dare to suggest that we must distinguish capitalism from the market economy? These two terms are, for both the left and the right, strictly synonymous. However, a close examination of the history of commercial, financial, and industrial organizations shows that there is indeed a crucial difference, and that ignoring it leads to a distortion of our historical explanations. (41)

This discussion has some significant parallels with the treatment of the modern economy offered by Dave Elder-Vass discussed earlier (link). And DeLanda’s closing observation in chapter 1 is quite insightful:

Much of the academic left today has become prey to the double danger of politically targeting reified generalities (Power, Resistance, Capital, Labour) while at the same time abandoning realism. A new left may yet emerge from these ashes but only if it recovers its footing on a mind-independent reality and if it focuses its efforts at the right social scale, that is, if it leaves behind the dream of a Revolution that changes the entire system. This is where assemblage theory may one day make a real difference. (48)

More than the logical exposition of various esoteric concepts associated with assemblage, it is DeLanda’s intelligent characterization of various concrete social and historical processes (for example, his extensive discussion of Braudel in chapter 1) that cements the intellectual importance of assemblage theory for historical and social scientific thinking.

Another important virtue of the treatment here is that DeLanda makes a strong case for a social ontology that is both anti-reductionist and anti-essentialist. Social things have properties that we don’t need to attempt to reduce to properties of ensembles of components; but social things are not transcendent, essential wholes whose behavior is independent from the activities of the individuals and lower-level configurations of which they consist. Further, this view of social ontology has an important implication that DeLanda explicitly calls out: we need to recognize the fact of downward causation from social configurations (individual assemblages) to the actions of the individuals and lesser configurations of which they consist. A community embodying a set of norms about deference and respectful behavior in fact elicits these forms of behavior in the individuals who make up the community. This is so through the very ordinary fact that individuals monitor each others’ behavior and sometimes retaliate when norms are breached. (This was the view of community social power developed several decades ago by Michael Taylor; Community, Anarchy and Liberty.)

Critical realism meets peasant studies

Critical realism is a philosophical theory of social ontology and social science knowledge. This philosophy has been expressed through the writings of systematic thinkers such as Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer, and other philosophers and sociologists over the past 40 years. Most of the leaders have emphasized the systematic nature of the theory of critical realism. It builds on a philosophical base, the application of the transcendental method of philosophy, developed by Roy Bhaskar. The theory is now being recommended within sociology as a better way of thinking about sociological method and theory.

Critical realism has a number of very positive aspects for consideration by social scientists. It is inspired by a deep critique of the philosophy of science associated with logical positivism, it offers a clear defense of the idea that there is a social and natural reality which it is the task of scientific inquiry to learn about, and it gives valuable attention and priority to the challenge of discovering concrete causal mechanisms which lead to real outcomes in the natural and social world. There is, however, some tendency for this tradition to express itself in an inward-looking and even dogmatic fashion.

So how can the fields of sociological method and critical realism progress today? One thing is clear: the value and relevance of critical realism is not to provide a template for scientific research or the form that a good scientific research project should take. There are no such templates. Mechanical application of any philosophy, whether critical realism, positivism, or any other theory of science, is not a fruitful way of proceeding as a scientist. However, with this point understood, it is in fact valuable for sociologists and other social scientists to think reflectively and seriously about some of the assumptions about the social world and the nature of social explanation which are involved in critical realism. The advice to look for real and persistent structures and processes underlying observable phenomena, the idea that “generative causal mechanisms” are crucial to processes of change and stability, the ideas associated with morphogenesis, and the idea that causation is not simply a summary of constant conjunction — these are valuable contributions to social science thinking.

This answers one half of the question raised here: sociological method can benefit from involvement in some open-minded debates inspired by the field of critical realism.

But what about the field of critical realism itself? How can this research community move forward? It would seem that the process involved in textual argumentation–“what would Roy say about this question or that question?”–is not a good way of making progress in critical or any other field of philosophy of science. More constructive would be for philosophers and social scientists within the field of critical realism to think open-mindedly about some of the shortcomings and blind spots of this field. And an open-minded consideration of some complementary or competing visions of the social world would strengthen the field as well — the ideas of heterogeneity, plasticity, the social construction of the self, and assemblage, for example.

I think that one good way of posing this challenge to critical realism might be to undertake a careful, rigorous study of very strong examples of social research that involves good inquiry and good theoretical models. The field of critical realism has tended to be to self-contained, with the result that debates are increasingly hermetically separated from actual research problems in the social sciences. Careful and non-dogmatic study of extended, clear examples of social inquiry would be very productive.

As a first step, it would be very stimulating to identify the empirical and explanatory work of a genuinely innovative social scientist like James Scott, and do a careful, reflective, and serious investigation of the definition of research problem, the research methods which were used, the central theoretical or explanatory ideas which were introduced, and the overall trajectory and development of this thinker’s thought.

Scott’s key ideas include moral economy, hidden transcripts, Zomia, weapons of the weak, seeing like a state, and the social reality of anarchism. And Scott attempts to explain social phenomena as diverse as peasant rebellion, resistance to agricultural modernization, the ways in which English novelists represent class conflict, the strategies of the state and its elusive opponents in southeast Asia, and many other topics of rural society. Many of Scott’s narratives can be analyzed in terms of the discovery of novel social mechanisms, strategies of resistance and domination, and embodied large social forces like taxation and conscription. Scott’s social worlds are populated by real social actors engaged in concrete social mechanisms and processes which can be known through research. Scott is a realist, but realist in his own terms: he discovers real social relations, social mechanisms and processes, and modes of social change at the local level and the national level and he puts substantial empirical detail on these things. His way of thinking about peasant society is relational–he pays close attention to the relationships that exist within a village, across lines of property and kinship, in cooperation towards collective action. He gives a role to the important powers of the state, but always with an understanding that the power of the state must be conveyed through a set of capillaries of agents in positions extending down to the village level. And in fact, his treatment in anarchy and seeing like a state is a summing up of many of the mechanisms of control and supervision which traditional states have used to control rural populations. (Scott’s work has been discussed frequently in earlier posts.)

In fact, I could imagine a series of carefully chosen case studies of innovative, insightful social researchers who have changed the terms of debate and understanding in a particular field. Other examples might include researchers such as Robert Putnam, Robert Axelrod, Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, Clifford Geertz, Albert Soboul, Simon Schama, Bin Wong, Robert Darnton, and Benedict Anderson.

Studies like these would have the potential for significantly broadening the terms of discussion and debate within the field of CR and help it engage more deeply with social scientists in several disciplines. This kind of inquiry might help open up some of the blind spots as well. These kinds of discussions might give greater importance to processes leading to the social construction of the self, greater awareness of the heterogeneity of social processes, and a bit more openness to philosophical ideas outside the corpus. No philosophy can proceed solely on the basis of its own premises; interaction with the practices of innovative scientists can significantly broaden the approach in a positive way.

Niiniluoto on scientific realism

Debates over realism have been at the center of the philosophy of science for at least seventy-five years. The fundamental question is this: what exists in the world? And how do we best gain knowledge about the nature and properties of these real things? The first question is metaphysical, while the second is epistemic.

Scientific realism is the view that “mature” areas of science offer theories of the nature of real things and their properties, and that the theories of well-confirmed areas of science are most likely approximately true. So science provides knowledge about reality independent from our ideas; and the methods of science justify our belief in these representations of the real world. Scientific methods are superior to other forms of belief acquisition when it comes to successful discovery of the entities and properties of the world in which we live.

But this statement conceals a number of difficult issues. What is involved in asserting that a theory is true? We have the correspondence theory of truth on the one hand — the idea that the key concepts of the theory succeed in referring to real entities in the world independent of the theory. And on the other hand, we have the pragmatist theory of truth — the idea that “truth” means “well confirmed”. A further difficulty arises from the indisputable fallibility of science; we know that many well confirmed scientific theories have turned out to be false. Finally, the idea of “approximate truth” is problematic, since it seems to imply “not exactly true,” which in turn implies “false”. Hilary Putnam distinguished two kinds of realism based on the polarity of correspondence and justification, metaphysical realism and internal realism; and it seems plain enough that “internal realism” is not a variety of realism at all.

Another central issue in the metatheory of realism is the question, what kinds of considerations are available to permit us to justify or refute various claims of realism? Why should we believe that the contents of current scientific theories succeed in accurately describing unobservable but fundamental features of an independent world? And the strongest argument the literature has produced is that offered by Putnam and Boyd in the 1970s: the best explanation of the practical and predictive successes of the sciences is the truth of the theoretical assumptions on which they rest.

Ilkka Niiniluoto’s 1999 Critical Scientific Realism proceeds from the general orientation of Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism. But it is not a synthesis of the philosophy of critical realism as much as it is an analytical dissection of the logic and plausibility of various claims of scientific realism. As such it is an excellent and rigorous introduction to the topic of scientific realism for current discussions. Niiniluoto analyzes the metatheory of realism into six areas of questions: ontological, semantical, epistemological, axiological, methodological, and ethical (2). And he provides careful and extensive discussions of the issues that arise under each topic. Here is a useful taxonomy that he provides for the many variants of realism (11):

Here is how Niiniluoto distinguishes “critical scientific realism” from other varieties of realism:

  • R0: At least part of reality is ontologically independent of human minds.
  • R1: Truth is a semantical relation between language and reality (correspondence theory).
  • R2: Truth and falsity are in principle applicable to all linguistic products of scientific enquiry.
  • R3: Truth is an essential aim of science.
  • R4: Truth is not easily accessible or recognizable, and even our best theories can fail to be true.
  • R5: The best explanation for the practical success of science is the assumption that scientific theories in fact are approximately true.

These are credible and appealing premises. And they serve to distinguish this version of realism from other important alternatives — for example, Putnam’s internal realism. But it is evident that Niiniluoto’s “critical scientific realism” is not simply a further expression of “critical realism” in the system of Bhaskar. It is a distinctive and plausible version of scientific realism; but its premises equally capture the realisms of other philosophers of science whose work is not within the paradigm of standard critical realism. As the diagram indicates, other philosophers who embrace R0-R5 include Popper, Sellars, Bunge, Boyd, and Nowak, as well as Niiniluoto himself. (It is noteworthy that Bhaskar’s name does not appear on this list!)

So how much of a contribution does Critical Scientific Realism represent in the evolving theory of scientific realism within philosophy of science? In my reading this is an important step in the evolution of the arguments for and against realism. Niiniluoto’s contribution is a synthetic one. He does an excellent job of tracing down the various assumptions and disagreements that exist within the field of realism and anti-realism debates, and the route that he traces through these debates under the banner of “critical scientific realism” represents (for me, anyway) a particularly plausible combination of answers to these various questions. So one might say that the position that Niiniluoto endorses is a high point in the theory of scientific realism — the most intellectually and practically compelling combination of positions from metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, and methodology that are available in the assessment of the truthiness of science.

What it is not, however, is the apotheosis of “critical realism” in the sense intended by the literature extending from Bhaskar to the current generation of critical realist thinkers. Niiniluoto’s approach is appealingly eclectic; he follows the logic of the arguments he entertains, rather than seeking to validate or extend a particular view within this complicated field of realist arguments. And this is a good thing if our interest is in making the most sense possible of the idea of scientific realism as an interpretation of the significance of science in face of the challenges of constructivism, conceptual and theoretical underdetermination, and relativism.

Gorski on critical realism

Earlier posts have considered the reception of critical realism by two major historical sociologists, Peggy Somers and George Steinmetz (link, link). These researchers believe that the philosophical issues and positions raised by Roy Bhaskar in his evolving theory of critical realism are insightful and useful for the conduct of post-positivist sociology. Philip Gorski is a third contemporary sociologist who has weighed in on the relevance of critical realism for the practice of sociology. Gorski’s primary research divides between sociological theory and comparative historical sociology, and he is the most explicit of the three in his advocacy for the philosophy of science associated with critical realism. Several articles are particularly direct in this regard, including What is critical realism? (2013) in Contemporary Sociology, The poverty of deductivism (2004) in Sociological Methodology, and the concluding chapter in his recently edited and very interesting volume, Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (2013) (discussed earlier here).

The 2013 article offers both exposition and polemic. Gorski wants to make the case that sociologists benefit from the philosophy of science because it serves as an intellectual support for research and theory — there is a reason for sociologists to be concerned about debates in the philosophy of science; and that the alternatives on offer are woefully inadequate (positivism, interpretivism, constructivism).

Gorski makes the important point that sociological research needs to be pluralistic when it comes to methodology. Interpretation requires contextualization (662); causal hypotheses are often supported by statistical evidence; it is reasonable for realists about structures to look for the constitutive actions of lower-level powers that make them up. There isn’t a primary method of inquiry or empirical reasoning that works best for all social research; instead, sociologists need to define significant research topics and then craft methods of inquiry and inference that are best suited to those topics. Quantitative, interpretive, comparative, deductive, inductive, abductive, descriptive, and explanatory approaches are all appropriate methods for some problems of social research. So it is important for sociologists to “unlearn” some of the dogmas of positivist methodology that have often thought to be constitutive of the scientific warrant of sociology.

Against the dominant philosophies of social science of positivism, interpretivism, and constructivism, Gorski argues that there is only one credible alternative, the philosophical theory of critical realism. And this means, largely, the writings of Roy Bhaskar. So the bulk of this piece is an exposition of Bhaskar’s central ideas. Gorski provides a precis of Bhaskar’s thoughts in three stages of his work, A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. And he argues that the ontological framework embodied in these aspects of a specific philosophy of science — realism about underlying structures, powers, and processes — is the best available as a general starting point for the sciences.

Other philosophies of social science place epistemology or methodology at the center of what a philosophy of the sciences should resolve. Gorski, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of the ontology of critical realism — what CR conveys about the nature and stratification of the social world.

Crucial within that ontology is the notion of the reality of social structures and the idea that social properties are emergent. Here are a few comments about emergence:

[CR] does not deny that reduction can sometimes be illuminating, but it insists that the social is an emergent reality with its own specific powers and properties. (659)

The genesis of the social sciences hinged on the discovery of emergence, and major advances in them have typically involved the discovery of emergent proper- ties (e.g., of economic markets, social classes, collective conscience, value spheres, social fields, and so on). (662)

But they invariably fall short of their epistemic goals: to explain one strata of reality in terms of a lower-order one. Why? Because of ‘‘emergence.’’ The combination and inter- action of entities and properties at one level of reality generates ‘‘emergent’’ entities and properties at others. (664)

As I’ve observed elsewhere here (link, link, link), the concept of emergence is elusive, and it seems to shift back and forth between “fundamentally independent of lower level phenomena” and “dependent upon but autonomous from lower level phenomena”. The latter is the version that I favor with the concept of “relative explanatory autonomy”; link). Like Tuukka Kaidesoja, I’m not yet satisfied with the treatment of emergence that is associated with critical realism (link).

A related and more novel idea about social ontology employed by Gorski is the concept of “lamination” first introduced in Bhaskar’s Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom to describe the nature of the social world and the relations among levels of social action and structure:

Because there are multiple layers of agents and powers, moreover, observable events will have a “laminated” character; they are simultaneously governed by normic laws at various levels. This has important consequences for causal inference…. It is simultaneously and jointly determined by all of them. It is a “laminated” process. (665)

This is a vivid metaphor to use in conveying the idea of the “levels” of the social. But it has implications that may be unintended. For example, the idea of lamination suggests a sharp separation between layers; whereas many social domains seem to be better described as a continuous flow from lower to higher levels (and from higher to lower levels).

I find Gorski’s exposition of critical realism to be useful and clear. However, there is a large omission in Gorski’s account of the philosophical grounds of realism: Gorski assumes that there is no other serious tradition of post-positivist realism that serves as an alternative to critical realism. He dismisses what he calls the “conventional” realism of analytical sociology (659). He faults this version for its commitment to a form of individualism, structural individualism. Gorski insists on the “emergent” character of social structures and properties. And he presumes that there is no other viable form of realism available to the philosophy of science.

This binary and exclusive opposition between empiricism and critical realism as the only possibilities is misleading. There is a very substantial literature in the philosophy of science that rejects positivism; that maintains that theories are potentially good guides to the real “ontological” properties of the world; and that does not share the particular philosophical assumptions that Bhaskar brings into critical realism. I am thinking of Hilary Putnam, Dick Boyd, and Jarrett Leplin in particular. But there are dozens of other examples that could be considered.

A particularly clear exposition of this other tradition of post-positivist realism can be found in Richard Boyd’s 1990 contribution in Wade Savage’s Scientific Theories, “Realism, Approximate Truth, and Philosophical Method” (link). Here is how Boyd opens this piece:

Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. The characteristic philosophical arguments for scientific realism embody the claim that certain central principles of scientific methodology require a realist explication. In its most completely developed form, this sort of abductive argument embodies the claim that a realist conception of scientific inquiry is required in order to justify, or to explain the reliability with respect to instrumental knowledge of, all of the basic methodological principles of mature scientific inquiry. (355)

This is a form of realism that reaches similar conclusions to those advocated by Bhaskar, but derives from an independent path of philosophical investigation following the collapse of positivist philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s. And this version of realism makes substantially fewer philosophical assumptions than Bhaskar’s system puts forward.

(See also Jarrett Leplin, A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism.)

A short course in critical causality

For anyone interested in getting a deep exposure to current thinking about causation within the critical realist tradition, Ruth Groff’s 2008 collection Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science is a very good place to start. It begins with classic essays by Roy Wood Sellars from 1929 and 1943 — long before the formulations of critical realism in Roy Bhaskar’s writings — and ends with essays by Robert Albritton and Howard Engelskirchen on the role of causal ideas in Marx’s Capital. In between are articles by Christopher Norris, Charlotte Witt, Stephen Mumford, Anjan Chakravartty, Alexander Bird, and Rachel Cooper on various Aristotelian questions arising within the theory of causation, as well as articles by Douglas Porpora and Andrew Bennett on the applicability of causal realism to the social sciences.

Groff’s introduction does a good job of setting the context for the volume. She defines the unifying thread of the volume as the underlying and somewhat independent efforts to make sense of a neo-Aristotelian understanding of causation that will work for contemporary science. And the emerging theory is a realist theory of causation.

That philosophers engaged in argument about the nature of dispositions, and social scientists trying to determine the causal properties of macro-level phenomena such as vale, are working within and upon the same emerging neo-Aristotelian framework may not be readily apparent, given the normal configuration of conferences, journals, and disciplinary associations. Nonetheless it is so. (2)

Here are a few key themes and issues that readers will take away: causes are real; causal relations depend on real causal powers of active particulars; the theory of causation requires new (and old) thinking about metaphysics; things have essences; causal necessity is real; there are emergent causal powers.

Here is Roy Wood Sellars’ definition of realism:

As a physical realist I believe in physical systems (ordinarily called things) which exist independently of our knowing them and which have specific characteristics. (13)

And Sellars argues that realism requires a different ontology from that associated with empiricism — not “object with properties” but a “determinate object”:

Now if this basic reality of a determinate object, a that-what, is once granted, we can reject at once the scheme which dominated representative realism of the Lockian type and animated Berkeley’s dialectic. ‘Support’ and ‘inhere in’ and ‘spread under’ are clearly totally misleading metaphors for this basic unity. The determinate nature of an object is not something distinct in any fashion from the object. The object and its nature, or characteristics, are intrinsically one. (16)

A key question running through most of the contributions is the status of the idea of causal necessity. The authors share an anti-Humean point of view on causation — the idea that all there is to causation is constant conjunction — but they recognize that this creates an obligation to interpret the idea of causal necessity in a comprehensible way.

Harré and Madden offer their theory of natural necessity in “Conceptual and natural necessity”, drawn from Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. They note an intriguing parallel between conceptual and natural necessity and they offer a specific interpretation of the evolution of scientific vocabulary that allows a closer parallel between the two kinds of necessity than either Kant or Quine would countenance:

We have argued that in the two contexts of natural necessity, the inherence of essential properties in a thing or substance and causal production, a posteriori discoveries about the natures of things and the means of causal production are in certain conditions reflected in the establishment of meaning relations between the corresponding predicates. (72)

In their very interesting treatment of the development of the scientific concept of copper, they find that:

There are thus a multiplicity of explications of the concept ‘copper’: as a red, easily worked metal; a mixture of sulphur, mercury and salt; a collection of atoms each sixty-three and a half times the weight of a hydrogen atom; and finally a collection of atoms each with a definite and identical internal structure. It is our view that these explications disclose substantially different meanings of the concept, limited by a core of identity in the nominal essence, and the changes so disclosed are the product of a posteriori discoveries as to the nature of copper. (75)

And it is the “essential” nature of copper that gives rise to its causal properties.

Another idea, linked to the first, that comes in for a fair amount of attention is the idea of a natural kind (or a social kind). This idea is deployed to support the first issue of natural necessity, in that it invokes the idea that things have essential natures that give rise to their causal properties. A natural kind is a group of things that share an essential nature, and these things can be counted on to display similar causal properties.

Brian Ellis’s arguments for this perspective in his The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism are represented here.

A natural kind of process that is a display of a given dispositional property has a real essence. In the case of any simple causal process, this real essence will be a dispositional property, and the scientific problem will be to specify precisely what this property is. (90)

And, like Harré and Madden, Ellis regards the description of the essential properties of a natural thing to be the work of aposteriori investigation:

An attractive feature of this analysis is that it leaves dispositional properties to be identified and explicated rather than defined operationally. And the processes of explication is not philosophic, linguistic or lexicographic. It is a posteriori and scientific. (92)

Several other pieces are also noteworthy. Stephen Mumford further develops the ontology of powerful particulars in his contribution, “Powers, dispositions, properties or a causal realist manifesto”, with a view that seems to me to be consistent with R. W. Sellars’ insistence above on the primacy of the “determinate object”. And Alexander Bird takes up the question of emergent properties and their possible causal roles. “Genuinely natural, causally efficacious higher level properties that are not identical nor reducible to lower level properties are emergent properties” (168). He focuses particularly on “evolved” properties, including particularly the functional characteristics of species.

One thing I admire about the volume is that it is focused on the philosophical and substantive issues, not points of doctrine within the literature of critical realism since Bhaskar’s original formulations. Groff draws attention to this fact at the end of her introduction.

I have shaped the collection in this way because I believe that as interest in critical realism continues to grow internationally, the approach ought to be brought into closer contact with — and ideally integrated into — larger, directly relevant neo-Aristotelian currents within metaphysics and the philosophy of science. (8)

Readers will likely take issue with one or more of these premises; and the value of the volume is precisely that its contributors have made the issues clear enough to support fruitful debate.

Frédéric Vandenberghe’s social theory

Frédéric Vandenberghe is an important contributor to the philosophy of critical realism. His interesting book A Philosophical History of German Sociology appeared in 2008, which started life as his PhD thesis in 1994. Like an earlier tradition of historians of sociology (e.g. Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, de Tocqueville, Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848 and Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition), Vandenberghe traces the origins of sociology to the origins of modernity — in his chronology, the mid-nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth century.

Despite the quite understandable tendency of historians of ideas to trace the origins of sociology as far back as possible, returning to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, there is now a general acknowledgement that sociology emerged as a relatively autonomous discipline, distinct from economics and political science, in the nineteenth century. Sociology cannot be separated from the discovery of the relative autonomy of society, which is linked to the advent of modernity: right from the start, the new discipline expressed the self- reflexive attitude of modern societies towards themselves, and to what eludes them. As a sub-system of science, which is a sub-system of society, sociology can be viewed as a kind of large-scale psychoanalysis that seeks to reveal the historicity and facticity of functionally differentiated modern societies. (kl 169)

But unlike Aron and Nisbet, his account highlights the critical aspects of the sociological tradition. His key figures are Marx, Simmel, Weber, Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, and a persistent theme is that of criticism and demystification. This leaves him perfectly positioned to interpret and contribute to the philosophical corpus of critical realism.

What does he mean by the “autonomization” of society? It is the emergence in the modern world of a separation between social causation and the individuals who make up society; the development of a social environment in which individuals are “subject” to the constraints of society; a separation between society and the individual. Vandenberghe explicitly draws the connection between this concept and Marx’s conception of alienation: “human products are objectified, dehumanized, and eventually turn against their creators” kl 200). But he also suggests that this concept is inherently linked to the idea of reification — the mental creation of social entities independent of subjective individuals; the “hypostasis of concepts” (kl 428). “Whether in Marx, Weber, Simmel and Lukacs, or Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, in every instance we encounter the dual question of the reification of the world and the alienation of the human being as the central theme that forms and informs their work” (kl 248).

Throughout I’ve argued for the idea of the need for microfoundations for largescale social structures and forces. Does V’s version of social theory contradict that premise? There is a tension, to be sure. But nothing that I read here is inconsistent with the notion that the causal powers of the social world are made up of the actions and states of mind of the individuals who compose society. V’s point seems to be a different one: these congealed patterns of action and thought create constraints that are coercive for everyone in society — even though they are embodied in the actions of individuals. He writes:

In fact, the thesis about the

sui generis

existence of society is simultaneously an expression of the fundamental experience of modernity and a constitutive a priori of sociology. By definition, a sociologist accepts that “society” exists, distinct from the economy and the polity, and essentially irreducible to the psyche (or biology or chemistry). It does not mean, as Durkheim (1968) claimed, that social facts must always be explained by social facts, but rather that social facts – that is, social entities, relations and representations – exist, and that they cannot be reduced to psychological facts (or biological, chemical, neurological facts). The two fundamental claims that the sociologist should not question are that society is relatively autonomous in regard to individuals and that sociology makes a transcendental presupposition regarding the existence of this sphere. (kl 248)

This passage denies the possibility of reducibility. But it does not deny — explicitly, anyway — the ontological premise that social facts are constituted by the actions, thoughts, and dispositions of socially situated actors; and that is fundamentally what is required by the requirement of microfoundations.

The 2014 volume What’s Critical About Critical Realism?: Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory is an excellent treatment of contemporary social theory, grounded in critical realism but extending to theorists as diverse as Bourdieu, Habermas, and Boltanski. he describes this book as being “five books in one” — substantial essays on the pragmatics of internal conversations, the structuration of collective subjectivities, Bourdieu’s rationalist social theory, and “post humanism”, as well as his own developed concept of metacritical realism.

I understand metacritique as a critique of the metatheoretical foundations of sociology that takes its cues from Talcott Parsons, Jeffrey Alexander and Jurgen Habermas and have used it to systematically reconstruct the theories of alienation, rationalisation and reification in German sociology.

Vandenberghe offers an intellectual geography of Bhaskar’s influence:

Bhaskar may be a professional philosopher, but he has mainly been read by social theorists, first in the UK and then all over the world. Apart from a few incursions beyond the Anglo-Saxon world (like in Italy or Québec, for instance), French, German or Latin-American philosophers generally ignore his work, not because they disagree, but simply because it has not reached them. Unlike their colleagues from the philosophy department, sociologists, geographers, political economists and social psychologists with a Marxist background and a keen interest in social theory quickly realised the import of critical realism for the social sciences. By the mid-1980s, the first wave of critical realism had received a very favourable reception. High-quality books with a realist imprint were published by Ted Benton (1977), Russell Keat and John Urry (1982), William Outhwaite (1987), Derek Layder (1990) and Andrew Sayer (1992). At the intersection of philosophy, sociology and politics, social theorists were probing the philosophical foundations of sociology and cognate disciplines, assailing the ‘orthodox consensus’ (evolutionism + functionalism + positivism) of post-war sociology and reassessing the merits of structuration theory. Thanks to the good services of Anthony Giddens, social theory had meanwhile emerged as a relatively autonomous subfield within British sociology, while elsewhere, galvanised by ethnomethodology, structuralism and systems theory, new ambitious theoretical syntheses were published almost simultaneously. By now the story of the ‘new theoretical movement’ (Alexander, 1988) and its attempt to overcome the opposition of agency and structure has become a hackneyed one, but back in the 1980s when Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann were writing their main works, sociology was ebullient. (kl 449)

Vandenberghe analyzes Bhaskar’s theories into a series of nested stages: 

  1. Critical realism
    1. transcendental realism
    2. critical realism
    3. explanatory critique
  2. Dialectical critical realism
  3. The philosophy of meta-Reality
And he pays most attention to the first stage, the classical formulation of critical realism. Since this is the most impactful part of Bhaskar’s writings within sociological theory, V’s analysis is a valuable one.

These are just a few glimpses of Vandenberghe’s contributions to a better understanding of critical realism in its intellectual and ontological context. But perhaps they are enough to lead readers to take on both books to find the lucid and broad-ranging interpretations that Vandenberghe offers of the intellectual terrain of contemporary social theory and critical realism.


As a side note, Vandenberghe captures the aspect of Bhaskar’s writings that trouble some readers the most — his philosophical obscurity.

His trajectory reminds me somehow of the one of Auguste Comte and Charles Sanders Peirce. Like Comte, he started out with a strong belief in science and ended up in the mystical waters beyond religion. Like Peirce, he is a bit of a genius (he wrote his first book when he was 20), but as he advanced in his reflections and deepened his ideas, his writings and his language became more and more idiosyncratic, obscure and esoteric. He abuses neologisms, TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and semi-formalised arguments with N dimensional graphic representations, which may well constitute, as in the case of Peirce, his ‘natural language of self- communication’ (


Colapietro, 1989, xiv). Aware of the problem, he has added glossaries to his books, but as they are packed with internal references they are not always very helpful to make full sense of Bhaskarese. (kl 359)

Debates about field experiments in the social sciences


Questions about the empirical validation of hypotheses about social causation have been of interest in the past several weeks here. Relevant to that question is Dawn Langan Teele’s recent volume, Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences. The essays in the book make for interesting reading for philosophers of the social sciences. But the overall impression that I take away is that the assumptions this research community makes about social causation are excessively empiricist and under-theorized. These are essentially the assumptions that come along with an econometrician’s view of social reality. The researchers approach causation consistently as “empirical social arrangement,” “intervention,” and “net effect”. But this is not a satisfactory way of capturing the workings of social causation. Instead, we need to attempt to construct adequate theories of the institutions, norms, and patterns of action through which various social arrangements work, and the causal mechanisms and processes to which these social realities give rise.

The debates considered here surround the relative effectiveness of controlled observation and RCT-style experiments, with Gerber, Green, and Kaplan arguing on Bayesian statistical grounds that the epistemic weight of observation-based research is close to zero.

We find that unless researchers have prior information about the biases associated with observational research, observational findings are accorded zero weight regardless of sample size, and researchers learn about causality exclusively through experimental results. (kl 211)

A field experiment is defined as “randomized controlled trials carried out in a real-world setting” (kl 92). Observational data relevant to causation often derives from what researchers often call “natural experiments”, in which otherwise similar groups of subjects are exposed to different influences thought to have causal effect. If we believe that trauma affects students’ learning, we might compare a group of first-grade classrooms in a city that experienced a serious tornado with a comparable group of first-grade classrooms in a city without an abrupt and disruptive crisis. If the tornado classrooms showed lower achievement scores than the no-tornado classrooms, we might regard this as a degree of support for the causal hypothesis.

The radical skeptics about observational data draw strong conclusions; if we accept this line of thought, then it would appear that observational evidence about causation is rarely useful. The italicized qualification in the GGK quote is crucial, however, since researchers generally do have prior information about the factors influencing outcomes and the selection of cases in the studies they undertake, as Susan Stokes argues in her response essay:

Do observational researchers “know nothing” about the processes that generate independent variables and are they hence “entirely uncertain” about bias? Is the “strong possibility” of unobserved confounding factors “always omnipresent” in observational research? Are rival hypotheses ‘always plausible”? Can one do nothing more than “assume nonconfoundedness”? To the extent that the answers to these questions are no, radical skepticism is undermined. (kl 751)

Stokes provides a clear exposition of how the influence of unrelated other causes Xij and confounders Zik figure in the linear causal equation for outcome ϒ depending on variable Χ (kl 693):

This model is offered as a representation of the “true” causation of ϒ, including both observed and unobserved factors. We might imagine that we have full observational data on ϒ, Χ, observations for some but not all Χij, and no observations for Zik.

The logical advantage of a randomized field experiment is that random assignment of individuals to the treatment and non-treatment classes guarantees that there is no bias in the populations with respect to a hidden characteristic that may be relevant to the causal workings of the treatment. In the hypothetical tornado-and-learning study mentioned above, there will be a spatial difference between the treatment and control groups; but regional and spatial differences among children may be relevant to learning. So the observed difference in learning may be the effect of the trauma of tornado, or it may be the coincidental effect of the regional difference between midwestern and northeastern students.

Andrew Gellman takes a step back and assesses the larger significance of this debate for social-science research. Here is his general characterization of the policy and epistemic interests that motivate social scientists (along the lines of an earlier post on policy and experiment; link):

Policy analysis (and, more generally, social science) proceeds in two ways. From one direction, there are questions whose answers we seek—how can we reduce poverty, fight crime, help people live happier and healthier lives, increase the efficiency of government, better translate public preferences into policy, and so forth? From another direction, we can gather discrete bits of understanding about pieces of the puzzle: estimates of the effects of particular programs as implemented in particular places. (kl 3440)

Gellman concisely captures the assumptions about causality that underlie this paradigm of social-science research: that causal factors can take the form of pretty much any configuration of social intervention and structure, and we can always ask what the effects of a given configuration are. But this is a view of causation that most realists would reject, because it represents causes in a highly untheorized way. On this ontological mindset, anything can be a cause, and its causal significance is simply the net difference it makes in the world in contrast to its absence. But this is a faulty understanding of real social causation.

Consider an example. Some American school systems have K-8 and 9-12 systems of elementary school and high school; other systems have K-6, 7-8, and 9-12 systems. These configurations might be thought of as “causal factors”, and we might ask, “what is the net effect of system A or system B on educational performance of students by grade 12” (or “juvenile delinquency rates by grade 10”)? But a realist would argue that this is too macular a perspective on causation for a complex social system like education. Instead,we need to identify more granular and more pervasive causes at a more fundamental individual and institutional level, which can then perhaps be aggregated into larger system-level effects. For example, if we thought that the socialization process of children between 11 and 14 is particularly sensitive to bullying and if we thought that high schools create a more welcoming environment for bullying, then we might have reason to expect that the middle school model would be more conducive to the educational socialization of children in these ages. But these two hypotheses can be separately investigated. And the argument that System A produces better educational outcomes than System B will now rest on reasoning about more fundamental causal processes rather than empirical and experimental findings based on examination of the outcomes associated with the two systems. Moreover, it is possible that the causal-mechanism reasoning that I’ve just described is valid and a good guide to policy choice, even though the observations and experiments at the level of full educational systems do not demonstrate a statistical difference between them.

More generally, arbitrary descriptions of “social factors” do not serve as causal factors whose effects we can investigate purely through experimentation and observation. Rather, as the realists argue, we need to have a theory of the workings of the social factors in which we are interested, and we then need to empirically study the causal characteristics of those underlying features of actors, norms, institutions, and structures. Only then can we have a basis for judging that this or that macro-level empirical arrangement will have specific consequences. Bhaskar is right in this key ontological prescription for the social sciences: we need to work towards finding theories of the underlying mechanisms and structures that give rise to the observable workings of the social world. And crude untheorized empirical descriptions of “factors” do not contribute to a better understanding of the social world. The framework here is “empiricist,” not because it gives primacy to empirical validation, but because it elides the necessity of offering realistic accounts of underlying social mechanisms, processes, and structures.

Realism and empirical reasoning

Guericke Sulfur globe

How should a realist think about confirmation of hypotheses and theories about real social structures and properties?

Here is what the Ur-realist Roy Bhaskar has to say about the object of scientific knowledge in his approach in A Realist Theory of Science:

[CR] regards the objects of knowledge as the structures and mechanisms that generate phenomena; and the knowledge as produced in the social activity of science. These objects are neither phenomena (empiricism) nor human constructs imposed upon the phenomena (idealism), but real structures which endure and operate independently of our knowledge, our experience and the conditions which allow us access to them. (14)

So how would a realist confirm or justify the claims he or she want to make about these real underlying structures and mechanisms? What kinds of evidence and modes of reasoning are available to allow us to conclude that a given statement is true (or false)?

This is an important question, and it poses difficulties for critical realists. The problem arises from the rhetoric of CR and its staunch anti-positivism. The most obvious answer to the question takes us to the logic of observation, experiment, and testing through derivation of indirect implications of hypotheses. We are led to think immediately of Mill’s methods and the logic of causal inference as primary modes of scientific reasoning. And this begins to sound a lot like — the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, a key premise of neo-positivism (link). But critical realists are a little allergic to this answer.

So how can we sort out the reasonable and uncontroversial core of our ordinary intuitions about scientific reasoning from the full baggage of logical empiricism? One crucial difference is the neo-positivist presumption that scientific knowledge must take the form of general statements of lawlike regularities. CR focuses instead on singular statements about causal powers and mechanisms. And testing of singular causal statements has important differences from testing comprehensive unified theories. If we believe that vitamin C has the causal capacity to inhibit infection by the rhinovirus, it is fairly straightforward to design an experiment or observational study that helps to evaluate this belief.

Another important difference is the centrality of the observation-theoretic distinction for the neopositivist theory of science. Positivist and neopositivist philosophers of science often accepted the Duhem thesis about the nature of scientific knowledge (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory) — the idea that scientific knowledge takes the form of a unified body of theory that can only be evaluated as a whole, and that this system unavoidably includes the use of theoretical concepts that are inherently unobservable. The CR approach, on the other hand, rejects a strict distinction between social reality and social observation. There is nothing in social reality that is in principle unobservable.

Bhaskar places the idea of a scientific experiment at the core of his justification of the theory of transcendental realism. But surprisingly, he does not discuss the epistemic importance of experimentation. What does a successful experiment contribute to knowledge? The intuitive answer is fairly obvious: an experiment allows us to assign particular causal effects to particular interventions. C in the absence of I leads to O C in the presence of I leads to P. Therefore I causes P. The successful experiment gives us empirical and logical grounds for believing that “I causes P”. But perhaps surprisingly, Bhaskar does not pay any attention to the epistemic value of experimentation, or the role this method plays in inferences about real causes of changes in our world. Bhaskar prefers to argue that experimentation contributes to the ontology rather than the epistemology of science.

So, once again — how should a critical realist offer an empirical justification for a claim like this: structure S has causal powers P and tends to bring about outcomes O?

It seems to me that the answer is not esoteric. There is no better way of establishing the credibility of a social hypothesis than we can find through the familiar modes of causal inquiry, detailed sociological investigation, and an accumulation of knowledge about concrete aspects of the social world. A realist researcher is advised to pursue familiar approaches to the problem of assessing the truth or falsity of hypotheses about causal properties of social entities. Do we believe that a certain kind of industrial organization has the tendency to produce a higher-than-average level of industrial accidents? Then collect observational data about how this organizational form functions; how it is internally regulated; and how its internal composition gives rise to a propensity for industrial accidents. This is the kind of research that Charles Perrow carries out in books such as Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. Hypotheses about social structures and their powers can be investigated piecemeal, and we can tease out the causal properties that they possess through familiar methods along the lines of Mill’s methods (link, link).

Take two ideas about social structures in particular: the idea of an economic structure and the idea of a business corporation. Both these ideas can be articulated in reasonable detail and then investigated through piecemeal empirical inquiry. Consider the economic structure: what are the property relations through which labor and other resources are managed and controlled in specific instances of capitalist economies? How do these relations work in concrete detail? What variations exist? What failures do these relations experience? This is the kind of materialist historical research that is conducted by Charles Sabel and his colleagues offer in World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization.

Or take a specific corporation — the IBM corporation, for example. Here again, it is unproblematic to identify many independent avenues of research through which the relations, properties, norms, and patterns of behavior that make up the corporation. There is nothing occult about the corporation. Do we think that the power of management distorts the decision making of the corporation by favoring executives over shareholders and employees? It is straightforward to think of numerous independent ways of empirically investigating this hypothesis. Do we believe there are significant principal-agent problems among employees and corresponding solutions in the relations and roles embodied in the organization? Likewise these hypotheses can be empirically investigated.

So it seems most reasonable to argue that empirical reasoning looks the same for critical realists as it does for any other empirical scientist. There is no distinctive critical-realist model of empirical reasoning.

Margaret Archer on social change

In Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society Margaret Archer and several talented collaborators attempt to lay out a framework of thinking that will permit them to better conceptualize the nature of change the modern social world. The book continues a process of reflection and collaboration that began last year with the publication of Social Morphogenesis. Ultimately the aim is to create a full theory of “morphogenic society” based on Archer’s concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis. The idea of a morphogenic society is the notion that something important has happened historically to change the relationship between stasis and genesis (structure and agency) in the social world, and that the modern world embodies a significantly different kind of social change than earlier epochs. (Here is a discussion of Social Morphogenesis (link), and here is an earlier discussion of Archer’s theory of morphogenesis (link).)

Here is a helpful statement of Archer’s general approach in her current work:

Both the celebration of contingency and the importance attached to acceleration are hostile to the morphogenetic approach, as a framework for explanation that generically examines the sequence {structural / cultural conditioning → social interaction → structural / cultural elaboration or stasis}. This entails examining the specific ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of particular changes or instances of morphogenesis / morphostasis. Instead, both ‘liquidity’ and ‘acceleration’ theorists eschew such specification and the ultimate aim of detecting underlying ‘generative mechanisms’ in favour of talking metaphorically about ‘flows’ and ‘speed’. Thus, both ignore the growing predominance of positive feedback over negative feedback (morphogenesis over morphostasis) as the rock-bottom mechanism that makes considering the advent of Morphogenic society (in multiple forms) worthy of being entertained — the agnostic aim of this series of books. (Late Modernity, kl 178)

This passage captures the core of the morphogenetic approach. Archer is consistent in referring to these three “moments” of the M/M sequence, which she breaks into three phases T1, T2-T3, T4:

T1 structural / cultural conditioning →
T2-T3 social interaction →
T4 structural / cultural elaboration or stasis

At the risk of over-simplifying, we might summarize her view in these terms. Her view is that each phase involves constraints on action and interaction. T1 involves the large structural and cultural contexts in which individuals take shape and act. T2-T3 involves the interactions of individuals who bear interests and group identities and who strive to bring about outcomes that favor those interests and identities. And T4 represents a new formation (elaboration) of a complex of structural and cultural constraints. (It is striking how closely this summary resembles the theory of strategic action fields put forward by Fligstein and McAdam; link.)

An important line of criticism that comes through this volume is a persistent critique of unanalyzed ideas about speed and acceleration. “The modern world changes rapidly”; what does that tell us if we haven’t specified the dimensions and clocks according to which we measure the speed of a process? So the language of speed is simply uninformative, according to Archer and her collaborators.

More specifically, Archer and her colleagues take issue with the metaphor of “liquid modernity” as a way of understanding the contemporary world.  (Here is my earlier discussion of Zygmunt Bauman’s development of this idea; link.) Archer takes aim at the intuition that the contemporary social world is highly contingent and plastic (a central theme of a number of earlier postings here). She criticizes “liquid modernity” in these terms:

Labile ‘flows’ comprehensively displaced and replaced the determinate (not deterministic) influences of social structure and cultural systems on tendential change or stability. As structure and culture were pulverised under the tidal bore of liquidity, so was agency condemned to serial self-reinvention. (kl 166)

Archer’s complaint against liquid modernity (LM), then, is what she takes to be its extreme version of plasticity on the part of structures, cultures, and actors. LM views the individual as a free-styler, pursuing fleeting purposes and impulses within fast-changing circumstances, with the result of a form of chaotic Brownian motion in the social world.

She prefers substantive analysis of the social world organized around the poles of morphostasis (the mechanisms that preserve the properties of a social structure or cultural feature) and morphogenesis (the generative mechanisms of change that work to disrupt and change the existing structure and cultural elements). Both are critical and persistent features of the social world, and it is absurd (she believes) to imagine that modernity consists exclusively of morphogenesis unbound (7).

Archer puts the central question of her current work (and that of her active collaborators) in these terms:

Is some degree of enduring stability necessary amidst intensifying social change? Do agents and actors need this in order to plan their own lives and the courses of action they will take in the social order? (kl 152)

Of course the answer to this question, when considered in its most extreme version, is “yes”, for reasons much the same as those that led Kant to believe that the categories of space, time, and causation were necessary synthetic apriori. If there were no continuing stability in the social world from one hour to the next, then planning and action would be impossible. The harder question is this: how much stability is necessary for intelligible action within the social world? And the answer seems to be, rather less than Archer believes.

An important complexity in Archer’s account of stability is the fact that she believes that the processes of change (morphogenesis) can create their own conditions of stability and continuity that transcend the traditional forms inherited from the morphogenetic past. So the opposition is not between morphostasis and morphogenesis, but between activity and various forms of stability, both morphostasis and morphogenesis. “The alternative — not always recognized — is that there are forms of ‘stabilization’ produced by morphogenesis itself that furnish an equally adequate (and more consonant) basis for planning activities” (14). And this turns out to be a point to which Archer attaches a great deal of importance (19).

Several contributions to the volume are particularly noteworthy, in addition to Archer’s own introduction and her substantive contribution on “The Generative Mechanism Re-configuring Late Modernity”.

First, Douglas Porpora’s contribution to the volume (“Contemporary Mechanisms of Social Change”) is a valuable extension of the framework. Porpora relates the morphostasis/morphogenesis approach (MM) to Marx’s famous aphorism concerning structure and agency (78). Here is my own reflection on Marx’s aphorism in a post on actor-centered history (link):

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.

What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history”: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures. (Little, Understanding Society link)

This short reflection on actor-centered history seems to have significant affinities with the morphogenetic approach.

Porpora provides an analysis of four large causal mechanisms of social change in his piece:
  • capitalism
  • information, globalization, flows and networks
  • world inter-state dynamics
  • the environment and its effects
And he believes that these large causes work conjuncturally to bring about many of the large processes of change that we witness in the modern world: “Change derives from a conjuncture of different mechanisms, some but not all of which can be traced back to capitalist relations” (88).
Pierpaolo Donati’s contribution, “Morphogenic Society and the Structure of Social Relations”, is also of interest. Donati focuses on the nature of social relations as the “connectors that mediate between agency and social structure” (143). Though he does not use the terminology, it is possible to regard his work here as an effort to provide some of the microfoundations of the processes of morphogenesis that are postulated by Archer’s approach. Donati refers to the social relation as the “molecule of the social” (153), a concept that I’ve turned to in my explication of the idea of methodological localism (link). This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.

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