Guest Post: @TGJBrock Reflects on International Association of Critical Realism 2013

This year the International Association of Critical Realism (IACR) held a conference on ‘Organising for Alternative Futures’ at the University of Nottingham. IACR is something of a Mecca for critical realists who get to present their work to many of the ‘big names’ in the field, including to the founder of the philosophy, Roy Bhaskar. Whilst the conference can be considered ‘small’ by some standards, getting maybe 70-100 delegates this year, the line-up of speakers was particularly impressive with plenaries sessions from well-regarded realists, including, Margaret Archer and Dave Elder-Vass.

Of the plenaries that I could attend, Margaret Archer’s stood out in particular. Her discussion of the generative mechanisms of late modernity provoked some serious questions about the ‘mess’ that late modern society is in and the problems that face those who wish to resist. For many activists, argued Archer, the problems of the world are now intransigent; unshakable by their epistemological projects that do not adequately conceive of the problem, ‘kicking the remedial policy, rather than the cause of the event’. Dave Elder-Vass and Steve Fleetwood also showed appealed to ontology but this time to seriously reconsider why giving and reciprocity should be considered an important part of our economy, and why the labour market could be re-organised based on Basic Income. Fleetwood, in particular, suggested that it was the failures in the ontologies of orthodox and heterodox economics that left us without the appropriate language or concepts to talk about Basic Income as a viable option. There were also some fantastic paper sessions, most notably, Chris Dalton’s consideration of Batesonian epistemology to critical realist research, Jamie Morgan’s critique of Elder-Vass’ theory of norm circles, and a Critical Realism in Action workshop on developing concrete research projects. Each of these providing me with food-for-thought about critical realism and social change, which I will consider below.

Considering the title of the conference, there was one notable absence from the event: any serious discussion about how CR might help organise for collective political action. In fact, at one point, revolution was explicitly dismissed as a viable option for human emancipation. Whilst I can see why some might feel that utopian visions aren’t compatible with effective struggles against capitalism, I’m not sure if rejecting them is compatible with Bhaskar’s argument for a maximally inclusive ontology. This is not to say that discussions for social change were not had. Many of the delegates I spoke to recognised the extremely cruel and wicked behaviour of current austerity measures. Steve Fleetwood’s plenary addressed this best, expressed clearly in his critique of rational economic man. Yet, on the whole, I felt that a discussion about how we organise, provocatively, to achieve a change in the conditions of economic exploitation, was missing.

I think that this is curious considering the spiritual turn that has taken place in critical realism following Roy Bhaskar’s work on meta-Reality. I think there remains something of a disconnect between advocates of Basic Critical Realism (BCR), Dialectical Critical Realism (DCR) and meta-Reality. Many might not see this as a problem. Bhaskar himself referred to critical realism as a tool-kit from which we can be selective of what we want to make sense of reality. Yet, this is where I feel that the quandary lies with organising for alternative futures and challenging those dominant social groups whose economic, cultural and political power maintains the status quo. Indeed, this is what BCR is good at, describing and generating explanations of how each of these structures are actualised in reality, by reference to their underlying mechanisms. Again, it is in recognising the independent form that each of these structures take that we can then begin to adequately explore their relationality, as mechanisms interact to give to the conditions of possibility for economic, cultural and political decision-making. This descriptive project is at the heart of BCR and it is borne of the primacy given to ontology, over epistemology, when thinking of what structures give rise to the conditions within which we choose to act.

But this is not to say what human change is or what social transformation means. Indeed, this, I believe, is a normative project, one that requires, consequentially, an appeal to the further two stages of Bhaskar’s philosophy of social science. Now, I have to admit that I have a soft-spot for DCR and this is because I believe that to understand what social transformation means begins with an understanding of human nature. This is not the place to flesh out my (rather humble) understanding of DCR, but rather to to suggest that normative projects inevitably appeal to an understanding of human nature, whether we are explicitly aware of this or not. With that in mind, if we are to organise for alternative futures, an inherently normative project, then description alone is insufficient, and I wonder whether BCR can bring about social change through an explanation of generative mechanisms alone.

This might not appear to be an important concern until we think about how we operationalise concepts in social research. Some researchers might not feel that it is their place to make normative projects of their research. Fine. What I don’t think you can maintain is a plausible fact/value distinction in your research. No claim is ‘neutral’ in this regard and, unfortunately, if one is not clear about their conception of human nature (and I dont think the book is closed on what that is), then, like Bhaskar suggests, there is every chance that our research might create more ‘rubbish’, rather than clearing the ground for adequate social scientific knowledge. Now, it might be premature to suggest that Bhaskar has it right about human nature (and his ultimate appeal to non-duality in meta-Reality for a eudaimonistic society). But I think that is a debate worth having when thinking about how we operationalise our concepts, particularly when we are thinking about retroducing generative mechanisms, for it is this leap in imagination (what might the conditions of possibility be) where I think the blurring of the fact/value distinction is at its clearest and where our conception of human nature needs to be most explicit.

Let me wrap up with an example of why I think that this is important. Before the main event, I attended the two-day pre-conference workshop, which saw me re-visit all three stages of Bhaskar’s work. Now I am no moral philosopher, but I do think that questions of human nature matter to sociological pursuits, so these workshops I thought would be of practical value. In fact, they were much more than that and I would recommend them wholeheartedly (particularly for PhD’s/ECRs). As the workshop progressed into the second day, we moved into DCR and meta-Reality and, most notably, the notion of Moral Realism, which is central to critical realism. In its simplest sense, moral realism is a form of judgemental rationality that can emerge, theoretically, from careful social scientific research based on the explication of generative mechanisms that cause the conditions of possibility for social ills to take place. Much of this appears to reasonable enough – a social ill can be removed (or absented in critical realist terms) when what creates the social conditions are adequately identified and then challenged. Of course, this challenge, I would maintain, has to come from a conception of human nature, that is, what is social transformation in accordance with a presupposition of what is human nature.

With this in mind, I asked Alan Norrie, who was giving the session, if moral realism could, theoretically, create more ‘rubbish’ given that judgmental rationality is based on a secular idiom. The implication being that moral realism could create conditions for social ills to be experienced, such as, in the case of religious and spiritual groups, whose language might not could be considered rational. Norrie agreed that Habermas’ secular ‘ideal speech’ scenario could be a problematic platform from which to judge rationality. Indeed, Charles Taylor has been very good on raising this precise issue. Why I mention it is that it has left me wondering whether, finally, we are left (as critical realists) with a conception of human nature that implies freedom based on unfreedom, at least in the short-term, as some social groups will have to ‘suck it and see’ whether their values are considered conducive to Bhaskar’s ontology. In closing, I hope this at least hints at why I think that ontological questions remain, for all critical realists, but particularly for those who wish to position themselves as organising for alternative futures.

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