critical realists distinguish the real from the actual and the empirical. The ‘real’ refers to objects, their structures or natures and their causal powers and liabilities. The ‘actual’ refers to what happens when these powers and liabilities are activated and produce change. The ’empirical’ is the subset of the real and the actual that is experienced by actors. Although changes at the level of the actual (e.g. political debates) may change the nature of objects (e.g. political institutions), the latter are not reducible to the former, any more than a car can be reduced to its movement. Moreover, while empirical experiences can influence behaviour and hence what happens, much of the social and physical worlds can exist regardless of whether researchers, and in some cases other actors, are observing or experiencing them. Though languages and other semiotic structures/systems are dependent on actors for their reproduction, they always already pre-exist any given actor (or subset of actors), and have a relative autonomy from them as real objects, even when not actualised.
Critical realism and semiosis (revised version). Fairclough, N. , Jessop, R. D. & Sayer, A. 2004 In: Realism, discourse and deconstruction. Joseph, J. & Roberts, J. (eds.). London : Routledge p. 23-42. 20 p.