Critical Realism and American Sociology

What was initially obnoxious ranting and then a mildly interesting but bad tempered argument is turning into a really fascinating discussion on org theory:

What a lot of CR proponents seem to  fail to understand is that American’s sociology scientific image is not a set of philosophical “positions” (postmodernism, positivism, etc.) in the British or continental style. I hope I don’t have to bring up Randall Collins to make the point that in a resource poor, largely qualitative environment, where sociology resolves itself into lonely people sitting in offices writing books about the human condition, then it would seem that sociology is just a collection of such thought camps. But the problem is that American sociology is no such animal. Instead, it is a complex network of invisible colleges, cross-generational intellectual projects, highly differentiated subfields endowed with heterogeneous methodological and epistemic standards, strongly coupled to really existing (material) technologies of knowledge production, and firmly ensconced in a university complex of such size and magnitude (Michele Lamont when talking to her European counterparts usually refers to American sociology as a “machine”) as to make British (or French, or  German, or Dutch) sociology the equivalent of an ASA section.  Inthis environment, the standard CR rhetorical tack of arguing against “positions” does not work, because such positions do not really exist. Instead, the critic is reduced to inventing such positions and then imputing themto people. But you do not have to be a Bourdieusian field theorist to understand that this is a strategy that is bound to fail because (as Bourdieu loved to remind us) the word “categorization” comes from the Greekkategorien which meant “to accuse publicly.” Meaning that when you categorize me (in a context in which the category does not make much sense, and thus gives me a lot of leeway to controvert your categorization), those are fighting words, and I’m going to categorize you back. Unfortunately, a lot of recent CR work has resolved itself into this (wasteful) project of position construction and associated name-calling and this is going to make it even less palatable to a larger sociological audience. One thing that proponents of CR need to understand is that the intellectual strategies that worked in the British intellectual field will not work in American sociology, because the nature of the field is radically different.

Between this debate and the realism event I organised (with Tom Brock and Michelle Farr) last Friday, I’ve been thinking a lot about position taking in social theory. I’ve sometimes wondered if I seem much more ideological than I am in this retrospect because there are certain issues which I can become deeply argumentative about. But the thought occurred to me during the event on Friday that there are actually only two such issues: reflexivity and ontological stratification. I feel the need to argue about these points because an awful lot hinges on them in explanatory terms. If you hold the views that I do then it follows that a failure to accept these two notions at a meta-theoretical level, though they can be conceptualised very differently at the level of substantive theory, will inculcate a tendency to significantly misrepresent the social world. For instance I’m  distinguishing between someone not accepting the notion of ‘internal conversation’ that I’m working with and someone outright denying that human beings have a capacity for reflexivity or that it is at least potentially causally efficacious. Disagreement at the former level is a great basis for constructive conversation given we work from a shared premise but disagree about its implications. The problem with disagreement at the latter level is not the disagreement itself but the practical implications I take the position I disagree with to entail. It’s a very specific category.

However beyond these two points, I couldn’t really care less about position taking in social theory & perhaps showing the residual influence of Rorty on my thought, it seems that a preoccupation with theoretical disagreement precludes sociological theory as a practical enterprise. But where my outlook has changed, rendering it superficially unrecognisable in terms of the the pragmatism I used to espouse, is that I don’t think quietism is any sort of  solution to this problem. Not talking about ontology doesn’t make ontological questions go away – it just licenses crap responses to them. What I’m interested in is how to recognise the irreducibility of ontological questions but to treat them pragmatically in terms of their practical implications rather than becoming preoccupied by abstraction. It’s just hard to claim that ‘irreducibility’ without giving the impression that you think sociological research hinges on the pronouncements of sociological theorists.

I mean I agree with 99% of what is being argued here. In fact we had a long discussion on Friday at our seminar about this tendency towards insularity and the need to conduct constructive dialogues across perspectives, though we were thinking of Actor Network Theory and Social Network Analysis (it’s easier to do this as an event) more than the sort of general engagement across the philosophy of social science being suggested here. But hopefully events like the former could help engender a climate in which more of the latter gets done as part of ongoing intellectual work.

 CR of course packages itself of as a synthesis, but by the time they are done giving you the tour, you figure that you have to make so many enemies to join the club that you figure that it is definitely not worth it. Bit of advice: stop it with the position criticism and let’s do more constructive work. This is already there in some of the best CR inspired work (e.g. What is a Person?), but people have such a negative taste on their mouth by the time they get to the constructive stuff that they no longer trust the messenger (this problem besets John Martin’s The Explanation of Social Action, so there is nothing particularly CRish about this issue).

An added problem of arguing against positions is that it has left CR with a somewhat outdated picture both of the scientific image of American sociology, but also of the field of Philosophy of Science in general. The problem is that this can lead to an over-valuation of the novelty of what you are saying, because you think that Philosophy of Science is Popper and Hempel, when in reality (as I alluded to above) it is in fact Cartwright, Darden, Bechtel, Bunge, etc. My favorite philosopher of science (Ronald Giere) wrote a book called Science without Laws, but you would not know this from the modal CR paper trying to introduce basic Philosophy of Science to sociologists. Now this is weird because convergent developments in modern (analytic) philosophy of science should be making CR people happy: “told you, Bhaskar was right after all.” But (this is the most incisive field-theoretic point made by Kieran which has been missed by most people) the fact that it does not has to make you a bit suspicious, in the sense that maybe CR people don’t want you go go shopping around for functionally equivalent insights from others, because they want you to buy their product. I don’t think that this is true, but the (sometimes odd) recalcitrance to update CR with contemporary insights from Philosophy of Science not only reproduces the (objectively; this is not a value judgment) peripheral position of CR in the field, but seems to show a sort of “in-groupy” (and certainly not healthy) tendency to revel in your marginality. Once again, I don’t think that this is true, but this will be the objective payoff of continuing to pursuit an isolationist and not than synthetic intellectual strategy vis a vis mainstream philosophy of science.

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