Range of reactions to realism about the social world

My recent post on realism in the social realm generated quite a bit of commentary, which I’d like to address here.

Brad Delong offered an incredulous response — he seems to think that any form of scientific realism is ridiculous (link). He refers to the predictive success of Ptolemy’s epicycles, and then says, “But just because your theory is good does not mean that the entities in your theory are “really there”, whatever that might mean….” I responded on Twitter: “Delong doesn’t like scientific realism — really? Electrons, photons, curvature of space – all convenient fictions?” The position of instrumentalism is intellectually untenable, in my opinion — the idea that scientific theories are just convenient computational devices for summarizing a range of observations. It is hard to see why we would have confidence in any complex technology depending on electricity, light, gravity, the properties of metals and semiconductors, if we didn’t think that our scientific theories of these things were approximately true of real things in the world. So general rejection of scientific realism seems irrational to me. But the whole point of the post was that this reasoning doesn’t extend over to the social sciences very easily; if we are to be realists about social entities, it needs to be on a different basis than the overall success of theories like Keynsianism, Marxism, or Parsonian sociology. They just aren’t that successful!

There were quite a few comments (71) when Mark Thoma reposted this piece on economistsview. A number of the commentators were particularly interested in the question of the realism of economic knowledge. Daniel Hausman addresses the question of realism in economics in his article on the philosophy of economics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link):

Economic methodologists have paid little attention to debates within philosophy of science between realists and anti-realists (van Fraassen 1980, Boyd 1984), because economic theories rarely postulate the existence of unobservable entities or properties, apart from variants of “everyday unobservables,” such as beliefs and desires. Methodologists have, on the other hand, vigorously debated the goals of economics, but those who argue that the ultimate goals are predictive (such as Milton Friedman) do so because of their interest in policy, not because they seek to avoid or resolve epistemological and semantic puzzles concerning references to unobservables.

Examples of economic concepts that commentators seemed to think could be interpreted realistically include concepts such as “economic disparity”.  But this isn’t a particularly arcane or unobservable theoretical concept. There is a lot of back-and-forth on the meaning of investment in Keynes’s theory — is it a well-defined concept? Is it a concept that can be understood realistically? The question of whether economics consists of a body of theory that might be interpreted realistically is a complicated one. Many technical economic concepts seem not to be referential; instead, they seem to be abstract concepts summarizing the results of large numbers of interactions by economic agents.

The most famous discussion of realism in economics is that offered by Milton Friedman in relation to the idea of economic rationality (Essays in Positive Economics); he doubts that economists need to assume that real economic actors do so on the basis of economic rationality. Rather, according to Friedman this is just a simplifying assumption to allow us to summarize a vast range of behavior. This is a hard position to accept, though; if agents are not making calculating choices about costs and benefits, then why should we expect a market to work in the ways our theories say it should? (Here is a good critique by Bruce Caldwell of Friedman’s instrumentalism; link.)

And what about the concept of a market itself? Can we understand this concept realistically? Do markets really exist? Maybe the most we can say is something like this: there are many social settings where stuff is produced and exchanged. When exchange is solely or primarily governed by the individual self-interest of the buyers and sellers, we can say that a market exists. But we must also be careful to add that there are many different institutional and social settings where this condition is satisfied, so there is great variation across the particular “market settings” of different societies and communities. As a result, we need to be careful not to reify the concept of a market across all settings.

Michiel van Ingen made a different sort of point about my observations about social realism in his comment offered on Facebook. He thinks I am too easy on the natural sciences.

This piece strikes me as problematic. First, because physics is by no means as successful at prediction as it seems to suggest. A lot of physics is explanatorily quite powerful, but – like any other scientific discipline – can only predict in systemically closed systems. Contrasting physics with sociology and political science because the latter ‘do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences’ is therefore unnecessarily dualistic. In addition, I’m not sure why the ‘inference to the best explanation’ element should be tied to predictive success as closely as it is in this piece. Inference to the best explanation is, by its very definition, perfectly applicable to EXPLANATION. And this applies across the sciences, whether ‘natural’ or ‘social’, though of course there is a significant difference between those sciences in which experimentation is plausible and helpful, and those in which it is not. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that natural sciences are experimental and social ones aren’t. There are plenty of natural sciences which are largely non-experimental as well. And lest we forget, the hypothetico-deductive form of explanation DOES NOT WORK IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES EITHER!

This critique comes from the general idea that the natural sciences need a bit of debunking, in that various areas of natural science fail to live up to the positivist ideal of a precise predictive system of laws. That is fair enough; there are areas of imprecision and uncertainty in the natural sciences. But, as I responded to Delong above, the fact remains that we have a very good understanding of much of the physical realities and mechanisms that generate the phenomena we live with. Here is the response I offered Michiel:

Thank you, Michiel, for responding so thoughtfully. Your comments and qualifications about the natural sciences are correct, of course, in a number of ways. But really, I think we post-positivists need to recognize that the core areas of fundamental and classical physics, electromagnetic theory, gravitation theory, and chemistry including molecular biology, are remarkably successful in unifying, predicting, and explaining the phenomena within these domains. They are successful because extensive and mathematicized theories have been developed and extended, empirically tested, refined, and deployed to help account for new phenomena. And these theories, as big chunks, make assertions about the way nature works. This is where realism comes in: the chunks of theories about the nature of the atom, electromagnetic forces, gravitation, etc., can be understood to be approximately true of nature because otherwise we would have no way to account for the remarkable ability of these theories to handle new phenomena.

So I haven’t been persuaded to change my mind about social realism as a result of these various comments. The grounds for realism about social processes, structures, and powers are different for many social sciences than for many natural sciences. We can probe quite a bit of the social world through mid-level and piecemeal research methods — which means that we can learn quite a bit about the nature of the social world through these methods. Here is the key finding:

So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the “inference to the best explanation” argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.

(Sometimes social media debates give the impression of a nineteenth-century parliamentary shouting match — which is why the Daumier drawing came to mind!)

The case for realism in the social realm

Image. Orderly chaos in flight path of ocean-foraging albatross

The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because we cannot directly observe or measure the properties of the hypothetical entities. But the theories as wholes have a great deal of predictive and descriptive power, and they permit us to explain and predict a wide range of physical phenomena. And the best explanation of the success of these theories is that they are true: that the world consists of entities and forces approximately similar to those hypothesized in physical theory. So realism is an inference to the best explanation, based on the engineering and observational successes of physics, chemistry, and biology. (In the diagram above we might hypothesize that the foraging strategies of the albatross have evolved towards a combination of random walk and orderly search pattern through a process of natural selection; this hypothesis can be empirically investigated in a variety of ways.)

If we lived in a more chaotic physical world, with a larger number of more variable forces at work, our physical theories would be greatly less successful at representing the behavior of observable physical systems, and we would have much less confidence in the idea that various snippets of our physical theories are “true” of the world. If space were more like a pudding with abrupt variations in curvature and gravitational force, and were in addition subject to a numerous other factors and forces, our confidence in the science of mechanics would be greatly undermined. We would never know even approximately where the fly ball will go.

The situation in political science and sociology is quite different from astronomy, atomic theory, and mechanics. First, there are no theories in the social sciences that have the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. Second, the social world is more like the fantastic and chaotic scenario just mentioned than it is an ice rink with frictionless surfaces and predictable mechanics. The social world embodies multiple heterogeneous causal and structural influences that aggregate in contingent and surprising ways. Third, sociologists and political scientists sometimes make hypotheses about unobservable or hypothetical social entities. But these hypotheses do not assume the logical role of that played by hypotheses in the natural sciences. Hypothetical social entities may be unobservable in a fairly ordinary sense — no one can directly observe or measure a social class. But in fact, these concepts do not depend on holistic confirmation in the way that hypotheses in the natural sciences do. Rather, it is perfectly possible to further refine our ideas about “social class”, “prisoners’ dilemma”, or “bipolar security field” and then investigate the manifold aspects of these concepts through direct social research. Sociology and political science do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences; instead, it is possible to investigate essentially every sociological or political concept through various direct methods of research and inquiry. (This ability is not unique to the social sciences. The study of animal behavior likewise admits of a variety of hypotheses at various levels that can be independently studied.)

In short, the social sciences do not possess the remarkable coherence and predictive accuracy of physics, so confidence in realism is not grounded in the high level of success of the enterprise. Sociology is not like physics.

But equally, the concepts of the social sciences are not “hypothetical constructs” that depend upon their role in a developed theoretical system for application. It is therefore possible to be piecemeal realists. Again, sociology is not like physics.

So it seems that two specific ideas follow. First, the inference to the best explanation argument for realism doesn’t work at all in sociology or political science. We simply don’t have the extraordinary predictive successes of a theoretical system that would constitute the ground of such an argument. Social science theories and models remain heuristic and suggestive, but rarely strongly indicative of the reality of the social factors they highlight.

But second, there is a very different kind of argument for social realism that is not available in the natural sciences: the piecemeal investigation of claims and theories about social entities, properties, and forces. If we believe that class conflict is a key factor in explaining political outcomes, we can do sociological research to further articulate what we mean by class and class conflict, and we can investigate specific social and political processes to piece together the presence or absence of these kinds of factors.

So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the “inference to the best explanation” argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.

This perspective converges unexpectedly with some of the thinking that Peter Manicas put forward in his book on social-science realism, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding. What is realism, in the natural sciences, he asks? It is not a general claim to have discovered the universal laws of everything.

Rather, more modestly, theory (at least in one of its clear senses) aims to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience. We understand why the planets move in ellipses, why materials burn, and why salt dissolves in water (if and when it does) when we have a physical theory that provides a causal mechanism. By providing the principles detailing the nature of molecules, the atomic structure of salt and water, the principles of their action, and so on, we can understand combustion and solubility – and other chemical processes. (1)

So what are the generative mechanisms in the social world? Manicas argues that these mechanisms proceed from the actions and relations of social agents:

The foregoing has also argued that persons are the dominant causal agents in society – even while, of course, they work with materials at hand. It follows, accordingly, that in the social sciences, the generative mechanisms of social outcomes are the actions of persons and no further reduction is either plausible or demanded. (75)

So his most general idea about the social world is “social mechanisms as agent-generated causal mechanisms” (2).

If this is the approach we take, then our claims about what is “real” in the social realm will be more modest that some have thought. We will understand that there are real social processes, mechanisms, and powers; that they derive from the actions and agency of actors; and that these processes can be traced out through fairly direct sociological and historical research. And we will understand too that claims about the reality of “capitalism”, the world financial system, or fascism are to be understood less weightily than they first appear. Capitalism exists in a time and place; but it is understood to be an ensemble of relations and actions by the people of the time. It is not a “thing” in the way that deoxyribonucleic acid is a thing.

These thoughts should perhaps lead us to consider that the topic of realism is less important in sociology, political science, and economics than it might appear to be. Social scientists have every reason to be realist about the actions, relations, and interactions of individuals. They are justified in thinking that the practices of education and socialization that bring children to adulthood are “real” and can be empirically investigated. And they are justified in observing that there are higher-order configurations of action, power, and social relationship that are “real”, insofar as they are present in the activities of the individuals who constitute them and they possess some stable characteristics over time. In other words, social scientists are justified in postulating the social reality of the social processes and institutions that they postulate and investigate. But this is a very weak and qualified conception of realism, and it suggests a fairly weak social ontology.

It will be noted that this conclusion is somewhat in tension with the argument I offered in the prior post on “flat social ontology”. That’s the virtue and the challenge of open-source philosophy: conclusions and arguments shift over time.

Realism and methodology

Methodology has to do with the strategies and heuristics through which we attempt to understand a complicated empirical reality (link). Our methodological assumptions guide us in the ways in which we attempt to collect data, the kinds of data we collect, the explanatory hypotheses we bring forward for that range of empirical findings, and the ways we seek to validate our findings. Methodology is to the philosophy of social science as historiography is to the philosophy of history.

Realism is also a set of assumptions that we bring to empirical investigation. But in this case the assumptions are about ontology — how the world works, in the most general ways. Realism asserts that there are real underlying causes, structures, processes, and entities that give rise to the observations we make of the world, natural and social. And it postulates that it is scientifically appropriate to form theories and hypotheses about these underlying causes in order to arrive at explanations of what we observe.

This description of realism is couched in terms of a distinction between what is observable and what is unobservable but nonetheless real — the “observation-theoretic” distinction. But of course the dividing line between the two categories shifts over time. What was once hypothetical becomes observable. Extra-solar planetary bodies, bosons, and viruses were once unobservable; they are now observable using various forms of scientific instrumentation and measurement. So the distinction is not fundamental; this was an essential part of the argument against positivist philosophy of science. And we might say the same about many social entities and structures as well. We understand “ideology” much better today than when Marx theorized about this idea in the mid-19th century, and using a variety of social research methods (public opinion surveys, World Values Survey, ethnographic observation, structured interviews) we can identify and track shifts in the ideology of a group over time. We can observe and track ideologies in a population. (We may now use a different vocabulary — mentality, belief framework, political values.)

There are several realist methodologies that are possible in the social sciences. The methodology of paired comparisons is a common part of research strategies in the historical social sciences. This is often referred to as “small-N research.” (Here is a description of the method as practiced by Sid Tarrow; linklink.) The method of paired comparisons is also based on realism and derives from causal ideas; but it is not specifically derived from the idea of causal mechanisms.  Rather, it derives from the simpler notion that causal factors function as something like necessary and/or sufficient conditions for outcomes. So if we can find cases that differ in outcome and embody only a small number of potential contributing causal factors, we can use Mill’s methods (or more general truth-table methods) to sort out the causal roles played by the factors. (Here is a discussion of some of these concepts; link.) These ideas contribute to methodology at two levels: they give the investigator a specific idea about how to lay out his/her research (“seek out relevantly similar cases with different outcomes”), and they embody a method of inference from findings to conclusions about causal relations (the truth-table method). These methods allow the researcher to arrive at statements about which factors play a role in the production of other factors. (This is a logically similar role to the use of multiple regression in quantitative studies.)

Another possible realist approach to methodology is causal mechanisms theory (CM). It rests on the idea that events and outcomes are caused by specific happenings and powers, and it proposes that a good approach to a scientific explanation of an outcome or pattern is to discover the real mechanisms that typically bring it about. It also brings forward an old idea about causation — no action at a distance. So if we want to maintain that class privilege causes ideological commitment, we need to be able to tell an empirically grounded story about how the first kind of thing conveys its influence to changes in the second kind of thing. (This is essentially the call for microfoundations; link.) Causal mechanisms theory is more basic than either paired comparisons or statistical causal modeling, in that it provides a further explanation for findings produced by either of these other methods. Once we have a conception of the mechanisms involved in a given social process, we are in a position to interpret a statistical finding as well as a finding about the necessary and/or sufficient conditions provided by a list of antecedent conditions for an outcome.

It is an interesting question to consider whether realism in ontology leads to important differences in methodology. In particular, does the idea that things happen as the result of an ensemble of real causal mechanisms that can be separately understood lead to important new ideas about methodology and inquiry?

Craver and Darden argue in In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences that mechanisms theory does in fact contribute substantially to contemporary research in biology, at a full range of levels (link). They maintain that the key goal for much research in contemporary biology is to discover the mechanisms that produce an outcome, and that a central component of this methodology is the effort to explain a given phenomenon by trying to fit one or more known mechanisms to the observed process. So working with a toolbox of known mechanisms and “problem-solving” to account for the new phenomenon is an important heuristic in biology. This approach is both ontological and methodological; it presupposes that there are real underlying mechanisms, and it recommends to the researcher that he/she be well acquainted with the current inventory of known mechanisms that may be applied to new settings.

I think there is a strong counterpart to this idea in a lot of sociological research as well. There are well understood social mechanisms that sociologists, political scientists, and other researchers have documented — easy riders, prisoners dilemmas, conditional altruism — and the researcher often can systematically explore whether one or more of the known mechanisms is contributing to the complex social outcomes he or she is concerned with. A good example is found in Howard Kimeldorf’s Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. Kimeldorf compares two detailed case histories and strives to identify the concrete social mechanisms that led to different outcomes in the two cases. The mechanisms are familiar from other sociological research; Kimeldorf’s work serves to show how specific mechanisms were in play in the cases he considers.

This kind of work can be described as problem-solving heuristics based on application of a known inventory of mechanisms. It could also be described as a “normal science” process where small theories of known processes are redeployed to explain novel outcomes. As Kuhn maintains, normal science is incremental but creative and necessary in the progress of science.

A somewhat more open-ended kind of inquiry is aimed at discovery of novel mechanisms. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly sometimes engage in this second kind of discovery in Dynamics of Contention — for example, the mechanism of social disintegration (kl 3050). Another good example of discovery of mechanisms is Akerlof’s exposition of the “market for lemons” (link), where he lays out the behavioral consequences of market behavior with asymmetric knowledge between buyer and seller.

So we might say that mechanisms theory gives rise to two different kinds of research methodology — application of the known inventory to novel cases and search for novel mechanisms (based on theory or empirical research).

Causal-mechanisms theory also suggests a different approach to data gathering and a different mode of reasoning from both quantitative and comparative methods. The approach is the case-studies method: identify a small set of cases and gain enough knowledge about how they played out to be in a position to form hypotheses about the specific causal linkages that occurred (mechanisms).

This approach is less interested in finding high-level generalizations and more concerned about the discovery of the real inner workings of various phenomena. Causal mechanisms methodology can be applied to single cases (the Russian Revolution, the occurrence of the Great Leap Forward famine), without the claim to offering a general causal account of famines or revolutions. So causal mechanisms method (and ontology) pushes downward the focus of research, from the macro level to the more granular level.

The inference and validation component associated with CM looks like a combination of piecemeal verification (link) and formal modeling (link). The case-studies approach permits the researcher to probe the available evidence to validate specific hypotheses about the mechanisms that were present in the historical case. The researcher is also able to try to create a simulation of the social situation under study, confirm as much of the causal internal connectedness as possible from study of the case, and examine whether the model conforms in important respects to the observed outcomes. Agent-based models represent one such set of modeling techniques; but there are others.

So the methodological ideas associated with CM theory differ from both small-N and large-N research. The search for causal mechanisms is largely agnostic about high-level regularities — either of things like revolutions or things like metals. It is an approach that encourages a more specific focus on this case or that small handful of cases, rather than a focus on finding general causal properties of high-level entities. And it is more open to and tolerant of the possibility of a degree of contingency and variation within a domain of phenomena. To postulate that civil disorders are affected by a group of well-understood social mechanisms does not imply that there are strong regularities across all civil disorders, or that these mechanisms work in exactly the same way in all circumstances. So the features of contingency and context dependence play an organic role within CM methodology and fit badly in paired-comparisons research and statistical modeling approaches.

So it seems that the ontology of causal-mechanisms theory does in fact provide a set of heuristics and procedures for undertaking social research. CM does have implications for social-science methodology.

Peggy Somers’ contribution to realism

Peggy Somers is an important contributor to the active field of sociological theory. And she identifies as a critical realist when it comes to understanding the logic and epistemology of the historical social sciences. Her views were extensively developed in “We’re no angels” (1998; link). The title picks up on the epistemology that she favors: non-perfectionist, anti-foundationalist, historically situated. In the essay she moves back and forth between post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and specific controversies in the methodology of the historical social sciences.

The essay takes its origin as a rebuttal to a critical review of the methodologies of historical sociology offered by Kiser and Hechter in “The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology” (1991; link). A central target of Somers’ arguments here is the idea defended by Kiser and Hechter that rational choice theory is the preferred theoretical framework for historical social science. Somers believes — as do most historical sociologists — that rational choice theory (RCT) is a legitimate but partial contribution to a pluralistic approach to historical sociology. Emphatically, it is too narrow a basis for constructing explanations of important large-scale historical movements and outcomes. So RCT advocates like Kiser and Hechter make the mistake of “theoretical monism” — imagining that a single theoretical premise might be sufficient to explain a large, complex domain of social phenomena.

A key theme in Somers’ treatment here is a contrast among several kinds of realism. Here is Somers’ brief description:

All versions of realism accept that causal mechanisms—despite being unobservable—must be used as the basis of explanatory theoretical accounts; but only rational choice realism generates those mechanisms using on “ontic methodology” (Salmon 1984) in which the causal mechanisms of social explanation are postulated a priori from the same general theory that “guides” their research. (726)

And here are some key examples of what she means by causal mechanisms in the social world: “price mechanisms, maximizing preferences, class consciousness, value-driven intentionality, or domination” (726).

Somers identifies at least two kinds of realism — what she calls “theoretical realism” and “relational and pragmatic realism”. She favors the latter:

Relational realism posits that belief in the causal power of unobservables—such as states, markets, or social classes—does not depend on the rationality or truth of any given theory but upon practical evidence of its causal impact on the relationships in which it is embedded…. Relational realists believe that, while it is justifiable to theorize about unobservables, any particular theory entailing theoretical phenomena is historically provisional. For relational realism that means one can believe in the reality of a phenomenon without necessarily believing in the absolute truth or ultimate reality of any single theory that claims to explain it. (743-44)

And she believes that the two realisms have very different epistemological backgrounds — deductivist and pragmatist:

Where the two realisms differ, then, is that while theoretical realism attributes an ontological truth to the theoretical phenomenon (e.g., the theory of electrons or the theory of market equilibrium), relational realism focuses on the relational effect of the phenomenon itself (e.g., the impact of the hypothesized electron on its environment or of the hypothesized market forces on an observable outcome). (745)

The most basic criticism that Somers offers of Kiser and Hechter is their mono-theoretic deductivism — their claim that rigorous social science requires deductive derivation of a given social outcome from a theoretical premise. It is the theory that is at the heart of the explanation, according to this view of methodology. But for Somers — and in the relational, pragmatist version of realism that she favors — the ontology comes first. We may not know exactly what an electron is in detail; but we know the reality of electricity by the effects and causal properties we can probe practically and experimentally. This is the pragmatic aspect of her favored realism:

Social phenomena endure; but the “theoretical entities” that have purported to explain them are socially constructed—some more convincingly than others because they are more pragmatic and relational.

Somers faults what she calls theoretical realism for its commitment to explanation and confirmation through the hypothetic-deductive method. So what are the chief characteristics of her preferred alternative?

First, relational realism is “minimalist” —

[Relational realism is] minimalist because it recognizes that the partial concept- dependence of social life puts limits on the general realist premise of the absolute mind-independent status of the social world; yet realist nonetheless, in contrast to hermeneutics or radical constructivism in that some degree of concept-dependence does not in any way subvert the premise of a social world that exists independently of our beliefs about it. (766)

This amounts to an anti-foundationalist epistemology: we cannot establish the truth of all the premises and presuppositions of an explanation.

Second, relational realism is pluralistic; it encourages the discovery of multiple causal factors within a complex circumstance. This is in opposition to the theoretical monism of RCT supporters and is consistent with Robert Merton’s advocacy of a social science based on a search for theories of the middle range (link).

Third, relational realism is anti-essentialist; it recommends that the researcher should look at the social world as consisting of shifting configurations of social actors and institutions.

A relational ontology thus follows Popper’s rejection of essentialism and instead looks at the basic units of the social world as relational identities constituted in relational configurations. In place of a language of essences and inherent causal properties, a relational realism substitutes a language of networks and relationships that are not predetermined but made the indeterminate objects of investigation. (767)

An earlier post here raised a rather similar question about several kinds of realism, and the conclusions I reached were somewhat parallel as well. I offered support for scientific realism over critical realism. Here is the crucial passage:

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  1. I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  2. I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  3. I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  4. I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  5. I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  6. I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  7. I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  8. I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  9. I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.

I wonder which of these premises Somers would endorse, and which she would criticize? I suspect that premise (5) will make her uneasy, given her desire to emphasize relationality in the social world; but that is certainly not ruled out in an actor-centered approach to social research. (This was also a contrast that Chuck Tilly drew between his approach to the social world and mine: “Dan, your approach is more individualistic than mine. I prefer to emphasize relations among the actors!”)

What kind of realist?

I’ve always felt that scientific realism is almost self-evidently true. Scientific theories and hypotheses put forward ideas that go beyond the evidence of direct experience. They postulate the existence of entities and forces that cannot be directly observed but whose effects can be teased out through the assumptions we have made about their characteristics. And when we have a theory that “succeeds” in explaining a domain of observation and experimentation, we have reason to believe that its hypothetical entities and forces actually exist. The existence of the hypothetical entities is the “best explanation” for the success of the theory or hypothesis.

This is not, of course, a deductively certain inference from the success of the theory to the reality of the unseen entities. There may be other explanations for the observational and experimental success of the theory. And the history of science in fact offers plenty of examples where this has turned out to be the case. Reality sometimes turns out to be more complicated, and structured differently, than our theories postulate.

This is the position that I would describe as “scientific realism”. It represents a garden-variety ontology; it simply holds that the entities postulated by successful scientific theories are likely to exist in approximately the form they are postulated to possess.

There are coherent alternatives to scientific realism. Phenomenalism and instrumentalism are coherent interpretations of the success of scientific theories that do not postulate the real existence of unseen entities. Milton Friedman’s instrumentalist treatment of economic theory is a case in point. However, instrumentalists have a hard time accounting for the success of scientific theories in the absence of a realist interpretation of the theoretical premises. Why should cloud chambers show the specific arcs and tracks that are predicted by theory if the underlying model of the mechanisms is not correct?

So how does all of this play out for the social sciences? In my view, the social sciences are substantially different from physics when it comes to hypothetical entities and theoretical hypotheses. The entities and forces to which we want to refer in the social world are not highly theoretical; rather, we can probe our concrete assumptions about these social entities and forces fairly directly. We don’t need to turn to the Duhemian deductivism and theoretical holism that physics largely forces us into. Instead, we can devise strategies for probing them piecemeal.

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  • I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  • I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  • I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  • I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  • I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  • I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  • I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  • I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  • I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, or a scientific realism.

“Critical realism” is a term of art; it refers to a very specific bundle of philosophical and ontological ideas that have been developed by Roy Bhaskar and his followers. It makes substantive philosophical claims about how the social world works, and it depends resolutely on a philosophical method of discovery and justification. And this means that the reasons we have for embracing realism of a more general kind do not necessarily extend to support for critical realism. One can be realist about the social world without accepting the assumptions and doctrines of critical realism. In fact, I suspect that the kind of realism I advocate here would be criticized as “empiricist” and “not truly realist” by the CR world.

There is much to admire in the literature of critical realism, both in the writings of Bhaskar and those who continue the research in this tradition. But it remains just one approach out of a spectrum of possible realist positions.

Kaidesoja’s naturalistic social ontology

Tuukka Kaidesoja provides an important analysis and critique of Roy Bhaskar’s philosophical method in his theory of critical realism in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. This work provides a careful and detailed account of the content of Bhaskar’s central ideas, as well as the relation those ideas have to other positions within and adjacent to critical realism. For Kaidesoja, the hope of discovering fundamental truths through transcendental reasoning is unpersuasive, and he advocates instead for a strategy of “naturalizing” the arguments for critical realism.

TK agrees with Bhaskar about the importance of ontological theory, and he thinks these topics are important for practitioners of the social sciences as well as philosophers. Here are some of the ways in which he characterizes the role of an ontological theory:

[Ontology is important] because specific research practices in social sciences as well as the theories and methods used in these practices always contain ontological assumptions and presuppositions no matter whether the practising social scientists and philosophers of social sciences acknowledge or discuss them. These assumptions and presuppositions concern, for example, the basic ontological categories of which the entities studied belong; the relationships between different kinds of entities studied; between them and those studied in the other social sciences and non-social sciences; and the causal structure of the social world (or the lack of such structure). In addition, ontological assumptions and presuppositions of this kind are not inconsequential in empirical research. Rather, they affect what are considered as proper social phenomena to be explained; what methods are thought to be suitable for studying different types of social phenomena; what are regarded as the sound explanations of these phenomena; and what are considered as possible factors in those explanations. Differences in opinion as to how to answer questions like these are reflected, for example, in the debates between the proponents of various forms of individualism (or microfoundationalism) and collectivism (or holism); and between the advocates of statistical causal modelling, the mechanism-based model of explanation and interpretative methods. (1-2)

So what is the ontology that Bhaskar articulates? According to Kaidesoja, it comes down to a fairly simple set of ideas:

The main ontological point in RTS then is that structures, or rather structured things (e.g. atoms, molecules, chemical substances and living organisms), possess causal powers by virtue of which they are able to generate empirically observable effects. (56)

Bhaskar describes the relationship between the structure of a thing and its power by using the concept of natural necessity. The essential structure of a thing both determines its causal powers — or at least those powers that are explanatorily the most fundamental — and constitutes its identity by fixing its membership in a natural kind. (57)

(These passages make clear the direct lineage from critical realism to causal powers theory.)

So how should we go about arriving at a defensible ontology for scientific knowledge? Bhaskar’s answer is, through the philosophical strategy of transcendental argument. He wants to argue that certain ontological premises are the necessary precondition to the intelligibility of some aspect of the enterprise of science. Like Cruickshank, Kaidesoja attributes a philosophical apriorism to Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism (5), and he holds that Bhaskar’s method of argument is one grounded in apriori transcendental reasoning (82).

Kaidesoja argues against this aprioristic strategy and puts forward an alternative: “naturalized critical realist social ontology”. Here is his preliminary description of this alternative:

In very rough terms, naturalists contend that theories in social ontology should be built by studying (1) the ontological assumptions and presuppositions of the epistemically successful practices of empirical social research (including well-confirmed theories produced in them); and (2) the well-established ontological assumptions advanced in other sciences, including natural sciences. This procedure is needed because naturalists hold that ontological theories cannot be justified by means of philosophical arguments that rely on a priori forms of conceptual analysis and reasoning. (2; italics mine)

So the heart of the approach that Kaidesoja advocates is the idea that the activity of formulating and evaluating scientific theories through empirical research is the only avenue we have for arriving at justified ideas about the world, including our most basic ontological beliefs. We might refer to this as a “boot-strapping” approach to ontology: we discover the more fundamental aspects of the world by constructing and evaluating scientific theories in various areas of phenomena, and then extracting the “ontological assumptions” these theories make.

This position makes a difference in the status of the resulting claims about ontology, according to Kaidesoja. Bhaskar wants to hold that the ontological claims established by transcendental arguments are different in kind from the claims about the physical or social world made by ordinary scientific theories (5). For Kaidesoja, by contrast, all ontological claims are on the same footing; they are part of the empirical scientific enterprise.

This means that all naturalist ontological theories should be understood as knowledge a posteriori which is always hypothetical, because, as will be later argued, there is no specifically philosophical or transcendental (as distinct from empirical) warrant for any philosophical ontology. (5)

Here is how Kaidesoja summarizes Bhaskar’s typical transcendental argument:

In order to discuss them in detail, Bhaskar’s arguments in RTS can be analysed 

into the following steps:

  1. X is generally recognized natural scientific practice.
  2. It is a necessary condition of the possibility (or intelligibility) of X that the world is P1,. . ., Pn.
  3. X is possible because it is real.
  4. If the world were Q1, . . . , Qn, as is presupposed in competing philosophies of science, then X would be impossible or unintelligible.
  5. Therefore, it is conditionally (i.e. given that X exists) necessary that the world is P1, . . . , Pn. (88)

And here is the naturalistic argument form that Kaidesoja prefers:

  1. X is an epistemically successful scientific practice described on the basis of empirical analysis of the practice. 
  2. It is hypothetically (and in the explanatorily sense) a necessary condition of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description that the ontological structure of the world (or some of its aspects) really is as described in propositions P1, . . ., Pn. 
  3. Propositions P1, . . . , Pn are compatible with the ontological commitments of current scientific theories which have stood the test of critical evaluation by the relevant scientific community. 
  4. The explicit ontological propositions or implicit ontological presuppositions of competing philosophical positions,  say Q . . . ,  Qn, are incompatible with propositions P1, . . . , Pn and the epistemic successfulness of X under our description remains impossible or unintelligible from the point of view of Q1, . . ., Qn. 
  5. The best explanation of the epistemic successfulness of practice X under our description currently is that (a certain aspect or region of) the world is as described in propositions P1, . . . ,  Pn. (98)

It seems to me that Kaidesoja’s naturalistic alternative permits a very smooth respecification of the status and content of critical realism. Instead of arriving at conclusions that have philosophical certainty (philosophical transcendental ontology), we arrive at potentially the same conclusions based on reasoning to the best explanation. This was Richard Boyd’s best argument for realism in the 1970s (what he called “methodological realism”), and it provides a philosophically modest way of giving rational credibility to the ontological conclusions critical realism wants to reach without presupposing the validity of philosophical transcendental arguments.

Since defenders of critical realism like Elder-Vass, Hartwig, and Groff have emphatically insisted that Bhaskar does not aspire to philosophical certainty with his scheme of argumentation, it may be that Kaidesoja’s account will be understood as a clarification rather than an objection to the approach. The difference between the two argument forms here comes down to this: The naturalistic argument consistently replaces “reasoning derived from transcendental necessity” by “reasoning within the general framework of what we know about the world”, but leaves the deductive flow of the argument unchanged. And this might be a reasonable way of accounting for the defenders’ view that Bhaskar’s philosophy has been fundamentally fallibilistic all along.

Cruickshank on philosophical issues with critical realism

Justin Cruickshank is an interesting commentator on the philosophical underpinnings of critical realism. Critical realism was developed initially by Roy Bhaskar in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences, and has been further elaborated by a number of philosophers. The theory is now playing a lively role within sociology and sociological theory. Cruickshank’s key ideas are developed in several papers, “A tale of two ontologies: an immanent critique of critical realism” (2004) (link), “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s Attempt to Derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge” (2010) (link), and “The positive and the negative: Assessing critical realism and social constructionism as post-positivist approaches to empirical research in the social sciences” (2011) (link). Fundamentally Cruickshank takes issue with the nature of the arguments that critical realists have offered for their specific ideas about ontology.

Cruickshank regards the doctrines of critical realism as expressed by Bhaskar and his successors as fundamentally a philosophical theory rather than a highly general and abstract social theory; and he finds that the theory is justified on several lines of philosophical argumentation. The arguments that he criticizes involve apriori philosophical reasoning and inference from lay concepts about the natural and social worlds.

“A tale of two ontologies” highlights the philosophical presuppositions and language of critical realism — assumptions about the variants of ontology (transitive and intransitive), absolute metaphysical knowledge, transcendental metaphysical knowledge, conceptual science, immanent critique. Cruickshank finds that Bhaskar embraces the idea that critical realism is a philosophical theory rather than a scientific theory, and that this places the theory on shaky ground:

In support of the differentiation of philosophy from science, and contrary to the claim made about the historical transitivity of ontology made in response to Chalmers, Bhaskar says he avoids the epistemic fallacy by producing a philosophical ontology. He argues that if we conflate scientific and philosophical ontologies then we commit the epistemic fallacy, by remaining confined within questions about knowledge.  (573)

The transcendental method that Bhaskar uses, according to Cruickshank, is based on Kant’s philosophical theories:

Against empiricism, Bhaskar’s transcendental realism (which was later renamed ‘critical realism’) holds that the condition of possibility of science is the explanation of causal laws which are different from the changing contingent observable regularities we may perceive outside experiments. The ontological turn advocated in RTS is meant to render explicit the ontological presuppositions implicit within the practice of science. In doing this, Bhaskar argues that the condition of possibility of science is the existence of underlying causal laws in open systems (i.e. systems characterised by change with no observable constant conjunctions), rather than causal laws being observed constant conjunctions within artificial closed laboratory systems. (569-570)

But this method leads to a conundrum:

The version of ontology required to allow critical realism to fulfill its hegemonic project rests on a dogmatic metaphysical claim to know a stratum of ultimate reality beyond knowledge. Critical realists try to avoid such explicit dogmatism by defining ontology in terms of the transitive domain rather than the intransitive domain. However, defining ontology in terms of the transitive domain commits the epistemic fallacy, and precludes any possibility of the ontology being used as the basis for an hegemonic project, as the ontology would be fallible and hence open to revision (unless dogmatically privileged). [my italics]  (581)

So Bhaskar et al have painted themselves into a metaphysical corner: they require that ontology should be about reality as it really is (intransitive); they retreat from the implication of a dogmatic philosophical position; and they wind up in the position of conceptual relativism (transitive domain) that they sought to avoid.

Cruickshank plainly prefers to deal with these issues in a way that is not so dependent on purely philosophical arguments. Here is the position that Cruickshank thinks is most reasonable:

We may accept the view that ontological questions are important questions, and argue that we ought to regard ontological theories as fallible interpretations of reality. In other words, the focus in this article is on the status claimed for ontology, and not the issue of wether one or other substantive social ontology is the definitively correct or incorrect definition of social reality. The emphasis is on continually developing ontological theories through critical dialogue, rather than arguing that an individualist, or structuralist, or praxis based ontology, etc., is the correct definition of social reality. (568-569)

In contrast to foundational epistemology which defines reality to fit a subjective, mentalistic foundation, we may adopt an anti-foundational approach that rejects the starting point of epistemology as the separation of the lone mind from the world. We may instead hold that our beliefs are engaged with the world and that we need to revise and replace our theories in the course of our engagement in the world.  (582)

As regards social ontology this means that social scientists need to become engaged in an on-going debate about the ontological theories currently existing in the transitive domain. This debate needs to turn not just on the use of immanent critique, to assess the internal coherence of a position, but also on the usefulness of an ontology in informing empirical work. (583)

And in fact, this seems like an entirely defensible way of thinking about the role of ontology: not as a set of philosophical truths to be established by a priori arguments, but rather as a revisable set of ideas coherently related to the best scientific conceptual systems we have developed to date.

Structural realism and social realities?

ether wind

The topic of realism has come up frequently here — causal realism, critical realism, scientific realism. Each of these realisms comes out of somewhat different fields of questions and assumptions. Within mainstream philosophy of science there is another realism that has been debated in the past twenty years, referred to as structural realism. The view has been developed by philosopher John Worrall, and his 1989 article “Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?”, sets the stage (link). So what is this view, and does it have any relevance to the social sciences?

First, what is the view? It is a refinement to the theory of scientific realism advocated by philosophers like Hilary Putnam and Dick Boyd — the view that we have reason to believe that the world has approximately the features attributed to it by the best available scientific theories. As Boyd put the view quite a few years ago, what else could explain the success of those theories if not their approximate truth and successful reference to the entities and properties of the world?

The problem that gives rise to structural realism is what Worrall calls the “pessimistic meta-induction” (109): in the history of science, most scientific theories have eventually been proven to be false. So how can scientific realists claim, after all, that there is a rational basis for believing that the world has the characteristics asserted by the current generation of scientific theories?  The answer to this question, Worrall argues, comes down to a judgment call about the history of science: “just how radical theory-change has standardly been in science” (105). If successor theories have nothing in common with their antecedents except a broader but overlapping range of empirical consequences, then it is hard to say that there is an approximate truth that is captured by both stages of the theory. “If, on the contrary, the realist is forced to concede that there has been radical change at the theoretical level in the history of even the mature sciences then he surely is in deep trouble” (107). Realism, then, depends on some degree of approximate continuity across successor theories. Here Worrall turns to Richard Boyd:

“The historical progress of the mature sciences is largely a matter of successively more accurate approximations to the truth about both observable and unobservable phenomena. Later theories typically build upon the (observational and theoretical) knowledge embodied in previous theories.” (Boyd, 1984, “The Current Status of Scientific Realism” in Leplin, ed., Scientific Realism)

But many philosophers and historians of science have disputed the degree of continuity that Boyd postulates here. They emphasize the discontinuities that often occur across the process of theory change in physics. However, Worrall argues that there is a more abstract way in which physical theories show substantial continuity. This continuity isn’t found at the level of entities and causal powers, but rather a set of more abstract characteristics that are attributed to the features of the world under study.

Structural realism gets going, then, if we concede that the history of physics shows radical change at the level of the properties attributed to natural objects but we maintain that it also shows a strong degree of continuity when it comes to the basic structural properties that are postulated by theories of physics.

In application to the series of theories offered to explain the behavior of light, the continuity was abstract:

There was continuity or accumulation in the shift [from Fresnel to Maxwell], but the continuity is one of form or structure, not of content. (117)

Worrall attributes this idea about a specific but abstract kind of continuity in physics to Henri Poincare, and he argues that it lays the basis for a weaker form of realism that might be described as syntactic or structural realism (117).

Roughly speaking, it seems right to say that Fresnel completely misidentified the nature of light, but nonetheless it is no miracle that his theory enjoyed the empirical predictive success that it did; it is no miracle because Fresnel’s theory, as science later saw it, attributed to light the right structure…. There is no elastic solid ether. There is, however, from the later point of view, a (disembodied) electromagnetic field. The field in no clear sense approximates the ether, but disturbances in it do obey formally similar laws to those obeyed by elastic disturbances in a mechanical medium.  (117-118)

So structural realism when applied to the history of the theory of light says two things: successor theories had radically different and inconsistent hypotheses about the mechanics and substance of light; but they agreed approximately about the mathematical properties of light. And it is the latter that is preserved across the progress of this area of science.

This is a very weak form of realism, as Worrall acknowledges:

[The structural realist] insists that it is a mistake to think that we can ever “understand” the nature of the basic furniture of the universe…. On the structural realist view what Newton really discovered are the relationships between phenomena expressed in the mathematical equations of his theory, the theoretical terms of which should be understood as genuine primitives. (122)

So the commonsensical questions we might want to ask of contemporary physics — are there electrons, is space curved, is the speed of light constant — do not have defensible answers, according to structural realism. What the success of modern physics allows us to conclude is something much weaker: whatever the fundamental components of matter, space, time, light, and gravity are, the world conforms to the mathematical transformations that are specified by our best confirmed contemporary physical theories. It is the transformations, equations, and constants that we can be realistic about, not the concrete theories of the mechanics of the things that embody these equations.

My real interest in opening this topic was to consider whether it has any relevance to the social sciences. And the short answer seems to be — not much. Theories in the social sciences rarely have the mathematical specificity that is crucial to the structural realist argument. So it is difficult to make the argument that Ricardo, Marx, Pareto, and Keynes were describing the same structural reality when they wrote about capitalism. Their substantive assumptions are quite different; but further, the expected “mathematical” behavior of the capitalist market system is also substantially different across the theories. Perhaps a more plausible case is the transition from Marx’s classic theory of exploitation, based on the labor theory of value, to John Roemer’s theory of exploitation in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, based on neoclassical and game-theoretic economic assumptions. The two theories arrive at similar “structural” features of a capitalist economy, in spite of the fact that the underlying substantive assumptions are quite different.

(Katherine Brading and Elise Crull offer a very nice treatment of Worrall’s interpretation of Poincare in “Epistemic Structural Realism and Poincare’s Philosophy of Science (link).)

Causality and metaphysics

descartesduck2Advocates of the causal powers approach attach a great deal of importance to the metaphysics of causation — the sorts of properties and relations that we attribute to the kinds of things that we want to postulate. The neo-Aristotelian point of view represented by Ruth Groff and others appears to have metaphysical objections to the causal-mechanisms approach: the CM approach postulates the wrong kind of relations among entities, according to this group. So if I want to argue that mechanisms and powers are compatible, as I do, then I need to take into account the metaphysical arguments. It will be necessary to tell a story about the nature of the world that gives a place and meaning to the metaphysical premises of each theory.

The possibility of fundamental metaphysical incompatibility cannot be trivially ruled out. Consider this different kind of example: the distance between the premises of analytical Marxism and the neo-Hegelian theory of internal relations espoused by Bertell Ollman in Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (link). Even if there were the possibility of some degree of convergence in conclusions about capitalism — e.g. the likelihood of recurring crises — the two schools of thought differ fundamentally on the nature of social entities and structures. They differ in terms of their social metaphysics. Analytical Marxists take the view that the structures of capitalism are the composite effect of variously motivated individuals; so there is an underlying atomism in the ontology of AM. Causes are fully distinct from the things they affect. Ollman, by contrast, believes that we need to conceive of the structures and social relations of capitalism relationally: the wage labor relation is not an atomistic relation between capitalist and worker, but rather a mutually implicating set of relations between the two that cannot be fully separated. Here is a passage in which Ollman attempts to capture the distinctive features of Marx’s social metaphysics:

What is distinctive in Marx’s conception of social reality is best approached through the cluster of qualities he ascribes to particular social factors. Taking capital as the example, we find Marx depicting it as “that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation” (Marx and Engels, 1945, 33). What requires emphasis is that the relation between capital and labor is treated here as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of “capital”. This tie is extended to cover the worker as well, where Marx refers to him as “variable capital” (Marx, 1958, 209). The capitalist is incorporated into the same whole: “capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist . . . the capitalist is contained in the concept of capital” (Marx, 1973, 512). Elsewhere, Marx asserts that “the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society”, “the products of laborers turned into independent powers”, “money”, “commodities” and even “value that sucks up the value creating powers” are also capital (Marx, 1959b, 794-5; Marx, 1958, 153; Marx, 571). What emerges from these diverse characterizations is a conception of many tied facets, whose sense depends upon the relations Marx believes to exist between its components: property, wage-labor, worker, his product, commodities, means of production, capitalist, money, value (the list can be made longer still). (Chapter 2, section ii)

This example demonstrates the possibility of a genuine and deep incompatibility between two social theories at the level of the assumptions they make about the nature of the world — their metaphysical theories.

So what about causal powers and causal mechanisms? The primary metaphysical commitment that the CP theorists advocate derives from their treatment of powers and essences — two characteristic ideas from Aristotle. A power is thought to inhere in a thing in a particularly deep way; it is not an accidental expression of the empirical properties of the thing but rather an essential and active expression of the nature of the thing. The causal powers theory comes down to the idea that things and structures have an active capacity to bring about certain kinds of effects. In Groff’s terms, things are not passive but rather active.

Here is how Tuukka Kaidesoja introduces the metaphysical framework of critical realism in relation to causality in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Kaidesoja finds that the concept of a causal power is fundamental to critical realism (105). A thing’s power is the characteristic of the world through which causal influence arises; without the concept of causal power, we would indeed be stranded in a Humean world of pure constant conjunction. Kaidesoja quotes Harre and Madden in these terms:

“X has the power to A” means “X (will)/(can) do A, in the appropriate conditions, in virtue of its intrinsic nature”. (Kaidesoja, 106)

So what about the metaphysics of the causal mechanisms theory? Generally speaking, advocates of the mechanisms approach have not been very interested in the metaphysical issues. They (we) are generally realist, so we postulate that there are real causal interactions. This is indeed a metaphysical position. But this family of thinkers tends to be mid-range realists: they want to understand the necessity of causal relations at one level as deriving from the real workings of the physical or social system a bit lower down; but they generally don’t seem to want to pose the ultimate question: how could any event or structure exert causal influence on another? So the causal mechanisms theorists are perhaps better described as scientific realists rather than philosophical or critical realists. They take the view that the world has the properties (approximately) that our best scientific theories attribute to things. (Could we call them “Galilean realists”?)

Curiously enough, this contrast seems to have a lot to do with the quibble I raised for Ruth Groff in the earlier post: whether powers should be thought to be “irreducible”. Scientific realists would say they are not irreducible; rather, we can eventually arrive at a theory (molecular, genetic, economic, psychological, rational choice, physical) that displays the processes and mechanisms through which the ascribed power flows from the arrangement and properties of the thing.

On this standpoint, powers are attributions we make to things when we don’t know quite enough about their composition to work out the physics (or sociology) of the underlying mechanisms. They do attach to the entity or structure in question, surely enough; but they do so in virtue of the physical or sociological composition of the entity, not because of some inherent metaphysical property.

We might try to reconcile these two perspectives with a few simple ideas:

  1. Entities and structures at a range of levels of being have causal powers: active capacities to influence other entities and structures.
  2. Whenever we identify a causal power of a thing, it is always open to us to ask how this power is embodied; what it is about the inner constitution of the entity that gives it this power.
  3. When we succeed in arriving at a good scientific answer to this question, we will have shown that the power in question is not irreducible; it is rather the consequence of a set of mechanisms set in play by the constitution of the entity.

So the discovery of a given causal power of a thing is not a metaphysical fundamental; it is rather an empirical scientific discovery that invites analysis into its underlying composition.

Social structures and causal powers

The idea of a causal power has been appealing to the realist tradition within the philosophy of science, and especially so for the philosophy of social science. Proponents of this idea include Nancy Cartwright (Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurements), Margaret Archer (Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach), and Dave Elder-Vass (The Causal Power of Social Structures). Elder-Vass provides a succinct description of the tradition:

Bhaskar offers us an alternative way of understanding causality, a causal powers theory. This draws on a different, realist, tradition of thinking about cause, one that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, but one that has been less influential than the covering law model in twentieth-century social science. As [Ruth] Groff puts it, ‘realists about causality think, contra Hume, that causal relations are relations of natural or metaphysical necessity, rather than of contingent sequence’ — and that this necessity arises from the nature of the objects involved in those causal relations (Groff 2008:2-3). (43)

Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum’s Getting Causes from Powers is an important contribution to this debate. Here are several useful comments from Mumford’s contribution to the The Oxford Handbook of Causation, “Causal Powers and Capacities”:

Where it is most radical, the powers ontology proposes a major reconceptualization of causation. Hume, as traditionally interpreted, understood the world to consist of distinct and discrete, unconnected existences. If this is accepted, then the best that can be made of causation is that it is a contingent and external relation between such existences. The powers ontology accepts necessary connections in nature, in which the causal interactions of a thing, in virtue of its properties, can be essential to it. Instead of contingently related cause and effect, we have power and its manifestation, which remain distinct existences but with a necessary connection between.

One such tradition was based in Britain and came from the work of Rom Harré (1970; 2001, and with Madden 1973; 1975), which seems to have been an influence on Roy Bhaskar (1975) and Nancy Cartwright (1983; 1989; 1999). In Cartwright, the commitment is to capacities, which in her account differ from dispositions in that they ‘are not restricted to any single kind of manifestation … [but] can behave very differently in different circumstances’. (1999: 59)

Putting the point simply, the assertion that an entity has a causal power comes down to a claim about the nature of the entity and the strong dispositional properties that this nature gives rise to. Sugar has the causal power to stimulate the taste of sweetness in typical human subjects; this power derives from the chemical structure of the sugar molecule and the micro-organization and functioning of taste receptor neurons. A magnet has a power to attract a piece of iron, in virtue of its microstructure. In each case we have identified a real feature of the entity, and this feature is a consequence of real properties of its microstructure.

This approach makes sense with regard to social structures and institutions as well. If paramilitary organizations have a propensity to create young adherents who are easily mobilized in support of fascist politics (as argued by Michael Mann in Fascists), then we can make reference to this causal power in our explanation of the rise of Italian fascism. University X’s tenure system produces a teaching environment in which students get little attention from their faculty, as a consequence of the incentives and habits it cultivates in young faculty. This means something fairly straightforward: given the specific arrangements associated with this tenure system, the interactions that individuals have within this institution inculcate patterns of behavior that bring about the consequence. On this story, “producing a faculty climate that gives little priority to undergraduate students” is a causal power of this institutional arrangement. Change the internal arrangements and you get different causal properties.

In the case of the social world, however, the fundamental constituents of social powers are the constrained and developed actions of persons who act within the context of a given set of institutions and structures. Unlike the iron magnet, whose powers derive from identical iron atoms arranged in certain geometries, a tenure institution or a safety organization derives its properties from the structured actions of the individuals who compose it.

The rationale for asserting necessity in either the natural or the social realm — the idea that the power is a real property of the thing — is the theory of scientific realism: things actually have the causal powers we observe because they have an inner constitution that propels their interactions with other entities. So the causal relation is a kind of necessary relation, not just a brute fact about regularities. Metals conduct electricity because of the chemical-physical structure of the copper wire. And universities have the properties they possess because of the institutional arrangements they embody and the actions of individuals within those arrangements.

So the theory of causal powers doesn’t have to presuppose an objectionable form of metaphysical essentialism. Instead, it can be a defensible framework for embodying the idea of causal realism: things have the causal properties and dispositions they have in virtue of their micro-composition.

Why is it useful to use the language of causal powers? Because we can encapsulate a large amount of the pertinent causal properties of an entity into a fairly simple set of expectations. If iron is magnetic (a causal power) we can derive a large number of expectations about its behavior in a variety of circumstances; and we can explain those circumstances based on the powers we have empirically or theoretically established. If a certain kind of regulatory organization is observed to have the causal power of “contributing to an abnormal number of accidents” — then one part of an explanation of a particular accident may be the fact that it occurred within the scope of that kind of regulatory organization. (Charles Perrow offers an argument along these lines in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.)

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