The Cambridge approach to social ontology

My notes on Lawson, T. (2009). Cambridge social ontology: an interview with Tony Lawson. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, 2(1), 100-122.

Tony Lawson is a key figure in critical realism, leading the Cambridge Social Ontology group over twenty five years and playing a primary role in establishing the International Association for Critical Realism, as well as producing decades of work on social ontology and its relationship to economic thought. Originally a mathematician, I was intrigued by this interview’s insight that it was student activism which left him interested in economics, specifically the capacity of economic jargon to get in the way of political discussion. His bewilderment at ubiquitous economic modelling began as soon as he moved into an economics department, leaving him scathing in his critique of those who “are rather pedestrian in their approach to, and often very poor at, mathematics, though seemingly in awe of it, or perhaps in awe of mathematicians” (101). As he puts it, “there are limits to the uses of any specific form of mathematics” which economists seem largely unaware of. In other words, the uses and abuses of mathematics have been central to his work on social ontology, particularly the character of social reality which was obscured by techniques which sought no connection with it. This line of argument led him to connect with others in the nascent intellectual movement of critical realism:

I produced stuff criticising economics from an explicitly realist perspective for ten years or so before coming across Roy. At some point, I discovered that a number of us were making similar or anyway related critiques of current social scientific practice, but situated in different disciplines. Margaret Archer was doing it in sociology; Andrew Sayer in human geography, and so on. Roy was doing a similar thing in philosophy and had the philosophical language. Eventually, we all sort of came together
picking up especially on Bhaskar’s philosophical language—and the rest of his contribution, of course.  (102)

However his interest in social ontology predates philosophical ontology. As he puts it on pg 102, “when I first came into economics at the LSE, my basic concern was that the methods we were taught presupposed a world of a sort very different to the one in which we actually seem to live”. These methods presuppose event regularities (if A then B), atomism (factors which operate uniformly in any context) and a non-processual social reality. The focus of this argument is upon the kind of reality presupposed, featured which can be concretely manifested in different ways as opposed to there being specific claims entailed by specific methods. It is paralleled by the question of what the world must be like for everyday social practices to work in the way that they do.

It follows from his that one can’t build ‘up’ from ontological reasoning into empirical claims and substantive theorising. Its value is rather that it “helps avoid inappropriate reductionist stances and aids explanatory and ethical work” (104). This is why he stresses his primary interest is in ontology rather than critical realism, with the former leading him to the latter rather than being reducible to it. This encompasses philosophical ontology (“the practice of seeking to uncover shared properties of phenomena of a given domain”) and scientific ontology (“to explore the specifics of a phenomenon in a domain”). His work is tied up with the rejection of monism in economic method, described on pg 112:

What I take to be essential to mainstream economics is the insistence that methods of mathematical modelling be everywhere and always employed in economic analysis. I emphasise the word ‘insistence’. It is this insistence that I reject wholesale. I do not, of course, oppose economists using or experimenting with mathematical methods, though I a m pessimistic about the likelihood of much insight being so gained. But I am opposed to the insistence that we must all use these, and only these, method
s, that the use of these methods constitutes proper economics, that employment and promotion be restricted to those who use only mathematical models, that only modelling methods be taught to students, and so on

The thing I found most interesting about this interview was his account of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group as a form of collective method, responding to the growing impersonality of the Cambridge Realist Workshop on Monday nights. The same people attend each time, with discussion focused around particular topics with continuity between the tweets. The focus of both is on questions rather than answers, though obviously the two cannot be separated. To what extent can this be seen as a method for doing ontology? The prevailing culture of the academy relegates organisation to a peripheral status but actually there are some fields of inquiry where it can function as a primary method in its own right. Getting this right is getting scholarship right, as opposed to initiating something which simply allows scholarship to be refined or transmitted.

There’s a little aside on 107 which doesn’t really fit into the rest of these notes but which I don’t want to forget:

I believe the emphasis on prediction in a world that is clearly open, is ultimately an aberrant form of behaviour that itself requires an explanation, probably a psychological one. In fact I am quite susceptible to the suggestion that, in many cases, the over-
concern with prediction is something of a coping mechanism resulting from earlier traumas in life

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