Margaret Archer, University College, London
Claire Decoteau, University of Illinois, Chicago
Philip Gorski, Yale University
Daniel Little, University of Michigan
Doug Porpora, Drexel University
Timothy Rutzou, Yale University
Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame
George Steinmetz, University of Michigan
Frédéric Vandenberghe, Univ of Rio de Janeiro
While critical realism may be a heterogeneous series of positions, there is one loose genetic feature which unites it as a metatheory: a commitment to formulating a properly post-positivist philosophy. This commitment is often cast in the terms of a normative agenda for science and social science: ontological realism, epistemic relativism, judgmental rationality, and a cautious ethical naturalism.
At the heart of critical realism is realism about ontology—an inquiry into the nature of things. Ontological realism asserts that much of reality exists and operates independently of our awareness or knowledge of it. Reality does not wholly answer to empirical surveying or hermeneutical examination. Historically, social science, rightly seeking to ground itself in empirical investigations, has paid attention to epistemology at the expense of ontology—that is to say, sociology has focused on how we know what we know, while questions about the nature of the known are largely treated as an afterthought. The result has been a focus on methods and forms of explanation, with insufficient (or naïve and misguided) attention to questions about what kind of entities actually exist in the social world and what are they like. This has often left sociology with what amounts to be an implicit realism when it comes to empirical data, an unexamined relativism when it comes to forms of explanation, and a certain skittishness to any claims about the nature of the world.
However, ontology is not easily thrust aside. Sociology (and the practice of sociology) relies on certain broad beliefs about the nature of the social world which inform our investigations. Sociologists operate with certain beliefs about the nature of order, structures, processes, persons, and causes. These beliefs are not reducible to our empirical data, and are often taken for granted when we construct our theories. Many of the determinate and important features of the world are not empirically verifiable or quantifiable, and may in fact resist articulation into theory, language, numbers, models, or empirical scrutiny. In such cases, these things can only be reconstructed through retroductive or abductive inferences; arguments which move from a social phenomena to a theory which is able to account for that phenomena. To do this, we require a toolbox stocked with conceptual resources that are appropriate and sensitive to the particular nature of things in the social world. Because of this, critical realists often concern themselves with relatively abstract or philosophical questions that arise from, and undergird, our empirical investigations.
Critical realism is concerned with the nature of causation, agency, structure, and relations, and the implicit or explicit ontologies we are operating with.
Critical realism is concerned with the nature of causation, agency, structure, and relations, and the implicit or explicit ontologies we are operating with. It asks what we mean by realism in the social world? Whether there are social kinds? Do capitalism, or classes, or the state, or empires exist as social entities? What constitutes a social entity? Are there consistent traits of fascism? Are there consistent traits of any social entity? These are not only questions which need to be the subject of empirical investigation, they are investigations undergirded by deeply philosophical ones. These meta-theoretical investigations have a bearing upon our accounts of the social world, but do not necessarily determine or legitimate any particular approach, or empirical investigation. While our models need to be answerable to empirical investigations, we need to be sufficiently “ontologically reflexive” and “vigilant” about our investigations.
Critical realists are concerned with mapping the ontological character of social reality: those realities which produce the facts and events that we experience and empirically examine. In saying this, critical realists do not reject either interpretivism or statistical modeling wholesale. Instead, combining explanation and interpretation, the aim is an historical inquiry into artifacts, culture, social structures, persons, and what affects human action and interaction. However, critical realists approach causation critically, using the partial regularities, facts, and events we encounter in the social world as a springboard or gateway to understand the complex, layered, and contingent processes or structures which cause those regularities, facts, and events. This must be done without reducing causation to constant conjunction forms in which event A is always followed by event B; but in order to do this, we require a thick and robust account of causation, structures, and processes which is able to do justice to the complexity and heterogeneity of the social world. In other words, we require a good account of the nature of the social world which does not naïvely import causal models from natural sciences.
Ontological realism is committed to the relatively autonomous existence of social reality and our investigations into the nature of reality; however, our knowledge about that reality is always historically, socially, and culturally situated. Knowledge is articulated from various standpoints according to various influences and interests, and is transformed by human activity—in other words, our knowledge is context-, concept-, and activity-dependent. Critical realists believe we cannot be naïve about this, and must embrace a form of epistemic relativism. Realism is not a high handed way of trumping interpretation or agents’ understanding of the world, or claiming a privileged access to reality. There is no way of knowing the world except under particular, more or less historically transient descriptions. Our accounts are fallible, and while realism entails a commitment to truth, there are no truth values or criteria of rationality that exist outside of historical time. Because of this, all of our representations and our particular perspectives, have limitations. Science is fallible and scientific knowledge is always formulated in terms of conceptual frameworks which are themselves not unique ways of parsing the empirical world. We are only ever able to get at the reality of things in different ways. Depth of insight generally comes at the cost of breadth of scope and vice versa.
This does not imply that knowledge is hopeless or the possibility of realism is a futile quest; it simply means that our representations of the world are always historical, perspectival, and fallible, entailing, among other things, the necessity of methodological pluralism. As such, ontological realism does not entail the “reality” of any of our constructions, putting a big stamp of approval on our accounts; neither does it justify a “derogation of the lay actor” (Porpora 2015). Rather, for critical realists, ontology must simply be understood as having a relative degree of autonomy from epistemology and interpretation.
Here we need a third term: judgmental rationality. Judgmental rationality, as opposed to judgmental relativism, simply suggests that being realists about ontology and relativists about epistemology, we must accordingly assert that there are criteria for judging which accounts about the world are better or worse. The goal of any investigation is the creation and relative stabilization of a descriptive or explanatory account which provides a plausible model of our object of inquiry. But not all accounts are created equal. We are able to, and required to, adjudicate between rival or competing accounts, and there are often relatively objective reasons for affirming one model over another. Critics of critical realism have been quick to attack the strong emphasis on ontological realism. There is perhaps something to this critique insofar as strong realisms may overstep their limits at the expense of the concept-dependence of the social world, but the stakes here are not unimportant either.
Critical realists hold that is possible for social science to refine and improve its knowledge about the real world over time, and to make claims about reality which are relatively justified, while still being historical, contingent, and changing.
Cautious Ethical Naturalism
Finally, given a commitment to realism, some critical realists also attempt to reconnect facts and values, resisting the overstated case for value neutrality and “objectivity” (Archer 2015; Gorski 2013b; Sayer 2011; Smith 2010, 2015). The simple equation of “is” and “ought” (the naturalist fallacy) must be avoided; however, a commitment to realism seems to entail the possibility of a cautious normative dimension to our knowledge. Facts and values are not insulated from one another (Gorski 2013b). While facts are, of course, “value-laden,” both in terms of the descriptions we provide and the phenomena we choose to investigate, what is less often noticed is the manner in which values are often “fact”-laden. For better or worse, values have a “factual” element to them which is grounded in certain ontological accounts about the nature of social world, such as an account of persons or social relations. This means that, in principle, values are open to empirical investigation and critique. As a result, in theory at least, insofar as values are concerned with a degree of both empirical and ontological investigation, the social sciences may be able to tell us something about the “good” life or the “good” society and the conditions under which human beings can “flourish.” This, of course, is far more difficult than it sounds, and is a point of contention amongst critical realists. Not only is there no immediate passage between “is” and “ought” (what is and what should be), but the social world is inextricably and irreducibly historical, concept-dependent, and embroiled within power relations. As a result, any such ethical inquiry must inherently be both cautious and pluralist. However, such a cautious (and critical) ethical “naturalism,”—in conjunction with ontological realism, epistemic relativism, and judgmental rationality—opens up values for empirical and ontological investigation, and perhaps even situates sociology as a uniquely positioned discipline when it comes to the questions of values, politics, and ethics.
What, then, would an empirical project drawing upon critical realism look like? To cite some examples, it could use interviews to reconstruct the internal conversation of individuals as they reflexively interpret and navigate certain objective social structures in which they find themselves, focusing on critical decision-points in their lives (Archer 2003). It could be an ethnography that uses abduction, abstraction, and retroduction to explore the relationship between structure and agency in the health-seeking behavior of HIV-infected South Africans (Decoteau 2016). Critical realism can shed light on the methodological issues that have plagued social science since the beginning—problems such as studying unique events or small numbers of cases, and the logic of comparison (Steinmetz 1998, 2014). Such insights provide a warrant for a historical sociology that uses small-N case comparative analysis to reconstruct the complex, contingent, and conjunctural nature of causality and to overcome the problem of incommensurability between historical events (Steinmetz 1993), while resisting the search for constant conjunctions (Steinmetz 2003). As these examples highlight, the broad framework of critical realism represents a generative schema capable of grounding a variety of empirical projects by providing a philosophically informed metatheory which is in accord with the best practices of sociology.
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