What critical realists mean when they go on about the ‘real’, the ‘actual’ and the ’empirical’…

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.

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