Margaret Archer’s social theory as a revulsion in the fact of empiricsm

Many people will be familiar with the role empiricism plays in critical realism’s accounting of itself. However this tends to be framed in terms of the empirical legacy in British philosophy rather more than empirical social science of the mid twentieth century.  This interview with Margaret Archer (Monitoring of Public Opinion: Economic and Social Changes. No. 5. P. 15—20) echoed themes from when I interviewed her for this book. What really stood out to me was her boredom in the face of empiricism, the sense it got in the way of asking the interesting questions which get to the heart of things:

 I hope, it’s different because, I hope, other people have made it different, helped to make it different. Then it was very boring, particularly in England, it was like the bad old days in Russia. It was empiricist, you just counted things, observed things, treated your observations with the objective of correlating them and running regressions. The only thing, to tell you the truth, which I have never published is my PhD thesis, which is a model of empiricism. So, empiricism had to go. In terms of social ontology, we had to replace something better than sense data. I’m not saying sense data tells you nothing. It tells you, at least, that there are four people sitting around this table right now. But even the empirical statement that there are four people sitting around the table is not as self-evident as it appears. Two of you could be pregnant, in which case some people would argue there are six people sitting around the table. Or maybe one of you is having twins— seven people, both are having twins— eight people. So, a lot comes down to how we define things including what might look obvious things like who is here.

Interestingly, Margaret Archer shared a supervisor with John Goldthorpe. At an event earlier this year I heard Goldthorpe express discomfort with the quantitative sociology he was trained in that reminded me of Archer’s. It struck me there’s an interesting paper waiting to be written analysing Archer and Goldthorpe’s trajectories as contrasting responses to the same empiricism. In the same interview, she describes a sense of sociology as in the world, changing with it and necessitating that sociological theory is continually developed as a consequence:

We sociologists are commentators on current changes in the world, in the social environment: always some wanted to be more than that but always to some extent we are just that. We are a part of the world, and we are moving too, so we have to be refining and developing theories the whole time. And there is a big difference between many theories and critical realism

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