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  • Mark 11:17 am on November 4, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism   

    Upcoming Critical Realism webinars 

    Join Us Because “Critical Realism Matters”

    Webinars on Saturday 16th November, 2019 & Launch of The Bhaskar Memorial Fund

    Critical Realism Matters is a new series of webinar events held to showcase and celebrate the enormous potential of critical realism. The first pair of webinars, taking place on Saturday 16th November, 2019, have been planned to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the death of Roy Bhaskar, the key founder of critical realism (CR). With this very much in mind, we are delighted that the webinars will also mark the launch of The Bhaskar Memorial Fund, a new fund supporting the work of critical realist scholars.

    The webinars are designed both to share CR’s essential features and key ideas with new audiences (especially early career researchers and interested students), and to showcase just some of the ways in which CR is being applied. In the first hour of each webinar 3 speakers will present a pre-recorded talk and discussion, via the webinar platform Zoom. This is followed, in the second hour, by a fully interactive live discussion in which audience members are invited to participate. We have timed the release to make them as accessible as possible to a global audience. They will then be uploaded on YouTube and the Critical Realism Network website.

    The details are as follows:

    Critical Realism Matters: Essentials   10-12.00 GMT (click here for your local time)

    Critical Realism Matters: Applications   14-16.00 GMT (click here for your local time)

    Confirmed speakers include:

    • Ismael Al-Amoudi (France) [ontological realism]
    • Priscilla Alderson (UK) [studying health using critical realism]
    • Angela Dy (UK) [race, gender and intersectionality]
    • Johnny Go (Philippines) [judgemental rationality]
    • Wendy Olsen (UK) [epistemological relativism]
    • Chris Sarra (Australia) [inspiring indigenous students]

    Up to date details and links are also available at http://criticalrealismnetwork.org/criticalrealismmatters/

    We hope very much that you can join us!

    Organisation Committee, Centre for Critical Realism

  • Mark 12:11 pm on August 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, new realism, , ,   

    The political significance of realism 

    This useful essay in the Hedgehog review links the contemporary flourishing of realism to the politics of ‘post-truth’, making a change from crass accusations that trump is the fault of postmodernism. While his focus is on speculative, critical and new realism, the point could be generalised to include new materialism, agential realism, ANT and assemblage theory as other forms of realism. It’s not so much that the rise of post-truth politics is encouraging the spread of realism but there’s an important idea to be explored here about the changing political context in which seemingly obscure debates about ontology and epistemology take place:

    While postmodern thought can bear only so much blame for a style of politics that destabilizes notions of reality and truth, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Donald J. Trump have all profited from the collapse of a broad cultural consensus about what is plausibly true and what is “fake news,” a collapse to which popularized postmodernist suspiciousness has contributed. Having observed Berlusconi’s roughshod abuse of reality during the media mogul’s off-again on-again career as Italian prime minister, Ferraris argues that without the idea that some things are the way they are, no matter what anyone thinks about them, it is unclear how one might resist the claims of the powerful. “Contrary to what many postmodern thinkers believe,” he concludes, “there are reasonable grounds to think, first of all on the basis of the teachings of history, that reality and truth have always constituted the protection of the weak against the oppression of the strong.

    From Nedelisky, P. (2019). Reality: A Shopper’s Guide. The Hedgehog Review, 21(2), 57-71.

  • Mark 9:41 am on July 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, empirical ontology, , theoretical ontology, theoretical parochialism, theoretical pluralism   

    A conversation between empirical and theoretical ontology 

    The tendency for critical realists to get irritated when people talk about political/empirical ontology gets in the way of what has the potential to be a fascinating dialogue if constructed in an open and engaging manner. In my experience, critical realists treat this tradition as self-evidently absurd or simply insist “that’s epistemology, not ontology” without being able to get past the fact that people use words in different ways so as to converse about what is being said about (CR) epistemology. The reverse is true such that people from this other tradition often say “that’s just ontology” without recognising how far removed the CR conception of natural and social ontology is from the metaphysical connotations this style of theorising is seen to entail. A good place to start for a conversation like this could be this passage from pg 111-112 of Material Engagement by Noortje Marres:

    The debate about whether non-humans ‘have agency’ misses the point, to an extent, because it assumes that the significance of non-humans to political and democratic life must be established once and for all. But non-humans do not play an equally significant role in different situations and in relation to different aspects of social and political life. Their contribution is both more dynamic and more specific than the general idea of non-human agency allows us to acknowledge. Non-human entities come to matter–and, sometimes, cause trouble–in particular settings and situations, and under such circumstances they become invested with specific normative capacities (or, as the case may be, dis-invested of them). It is then a task of social and political research and theory to attend to this circumstantial or empirical specification of the normative capacities of non-human entities (Marres and Lezaun, 2011; Marres, 2012).

    It is precisely this question of where, what and how that the two positions meet. In CR’s case, it’s a question of the relational mechanisms through which X comes to embody certain capacities within specific situations. Could we call this ontologising the empirical i.e. invoking the real to explain the empirical? In the other case, it’s a matter of specifying why things unfold in the way that they do e.g. empiricising the ontological? As Noortje puts it later in the book, “if we are serious about ‘empiricising’ ontology, a move in the opposite direction is required as well, that of ‘ontologizing’ the empirical”. My point is that CR is well placed to assist in this endeavour, if it can overcome its slightly parochial tendency to stop trying in the face of other traditions speaking a different language to it.

  • Mark 6:58 pm on March 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, , ,   

    Social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation 

    My notes on Lichterman, P (2017) On Social Theory Now: Communicating Theory Now. Perspectives 39(2)

    In this response to Social Theory Now, Paul Lichterman offers a compelling vision of social theory as sociology’s meta-conversation, with communicating theory being “to keep track of and facilitate that conversation, treating it as always in movement”. It is a sprawling conversation about the conceptual terms we use to articulate empirical research, linking together the particular subfields within which theories are generated in a topology of the discipline as a whole. Facilitating that conversation involves a kind of “temperature-taking”, “assessing where we are in the various sub-conversations, rather than a statement about which theories best reflect our historical era, or which theories are currently the best contenders for sociological immortality”. He contrasts this dialogical approach to theorising as transmission:

    Transmissive theorizing starts with a large conceptual framework, and promotes it, applies it, passes it down with improvements or at least updates.  I’m contrasting that with this book’s version of communicating theory — which I will call “dialogue.” Dialogical theorizing propounds questions, and a few central concepts such as “culture” or “gender.” It sustains questions and central concepts, more than sustaining master theorists or distinct schools as ends in themselves. In transmissive theorizing, the theorist or school is exalted. In dialogical theorizing, the theorist or school is. . .consulted.

    It is an overdrawn distinction but it’s an important one which captures the essence of my discomfort with critical realism, which I think suffers from being institutionally locked into a transmissive mode. Transmission gets in the way of “minding the conversation, recognizing its limits, checking out the rest of the party”. It is ill suited to the reality of contemporary social theory, consisting of “relatively porous conversations, where participants invite new participants now and then, rather than a world of masters, and apprentices working their way in”. Critical realism is far from alone in being transmissive but it is a powerful exemplar of this mode of theorising.

    He ends with an interesting discussion of vision questions: “the big normative questions that help us envision a society that is—more democratic (Habermas, or Dewey), more self-understanding (Shils), more radically democratic (Mouffe, Seidman), not to mention more solidary, more rational, or less alienating, to invoke the big three”. If I understand correctly, he’s claiming that these vision questions tend to be baked into theorising in the transmissive mode, locked within schools to be accepted or resisted as part of a whole. But could they not be better integrated into dialogue between subfields in a way which renders them autonomous from schools? Can social theorising involve “semi-autonomous, conversational room for explicit communication about vision questions and how they relate to concepts in subfields”? He suggest public sociology and civic sociology as contributing to this process. Could a broader dialogical approach to social theorising better integrate them?

  • Mark 10:04 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, , , Tony Lawson   

    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
  • Mark 6:52 pm on January 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , critical realism, , , , , ,   

    What the lost tradition of classical British social theory can teach us about the dangers of charismatic leadership 

    In the conclusion to their Envisioning Sociology, John Scott and Ray Bromley reflect on how the project of Patrick Geddes and the sociologists around him came to be forgotten, in spite of the influence they exercised in their own time. This lost tradition of classical British social theory was an energetic and multifaceted engagement with the changing world around them, drawn together in a powerful vision of a sociological movement which sought to reconstruct this world.

    How this project failed and how they came to be forgotten within the discipline is a complex story. But one particularly interesting aspect is how the intellectual charisma of Geddes himself might have contributed to this, imbuing the emergent movement with characteristics which lent it dynamism in its own time but failed to equip it to reproduce itself in subsequent generations. From 4554-4569:

    The circle was organized around Patrick Geddes as its inspirational and charismatic leader. This was clearly one of its strengths, as it provided the core set of ideas that went largely unchallenged among his followers. This structure was also, however, a source of weakness. Geddes’s charisma as a teacher attracted those who were seeking an answer to fundamental questions. His synoptic vision and the apparent completion of his theoretical system tended to ensure that his followers were immediately and absolutely committed to furthering his work. They believed they had discovered “the truth” and so felt an almost religious obligation to bring this truth to those who had not yet encountered it. They became disciples with a commitment to proselytize on behalf of the master and to take his words to the ignorant masses. As convinced believers, they felt that it was necessary only to bring these ideas to the attention of others for them to recognize and accept their truth. Argument and persuasion were felt to be unnecessary, given the “obviousness” of the ideas once stated. Hence, they emphasized didactic education rather than persuasive discussion. The members of the circle therefore felt no real need to enter into proper dialogue with advocates of other positions. Their absolute certainty—often perceived as arrogance—was viewed with suspicion by their intellectual rivals, who simply ignored what they had to say. Other sociologists felt alienated from the Geddes circle and refused to cooperate in any venture that they thought might be a mere pretense at cooperation designed to impose the Geddes viewpoint. Excluded from expanded professional activities, the Geddes circle became increasingly inward looking. Its members tended to overpromote the work of very minor members of the group, further undermining their credibility in the eyes of others.

    I find it hard not to see echoes of these tendencies in critical realism. There’s a much broader lesson here about the dangers of intellectual leadership, as the characteristics which lead ‘schools’ to form can in turn undermine the longevity of their ideas. I’ve long been drawn to the idea of a social life of theory which would unify the conceptual evaluation of theoretical ideas and their sociological explanation as cultural forms. These are two sides of the same coin and going back to the lost traditions, examining the failed projects which one promised so much, helps us look at the contemporary landscape of social theory in a new way.


  • Mark 11:41 am on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , casual powers, critical realism, , , , , ,   

    Critical Realism and Object-Orientated Philosophy on the Status of Objects 

    One of the key points of disagreement between Object-Orientated Philosophy (OOP) and Critical Realism (CR) rests on the epistemic status of the object. While OOP and CR are in agreement that, as Harman puts it on pg 2-3 of his Immaterialism, objects should be treated as a “surplus exceeding its relations, quality, and actions”, CR takes a more optimistic view of the epistemological challenge posed by this surplus.

    The key issue concerns the potentiality of objects. From Harman’s perspective, CR’s concern for casual power still constitutes a form of reduction. It’s an improvement on reducing objects to their effects. But, as he writes on pg 52, it’s still reducing objects to their potential effects:

    Yet this purported advance still assumes that at the end of the day, nothing matters aside from what sort of impact a thing has or might eventually have on its surrounding. This risks obscuring our view of objects in a number of ways, which not only poses an ontological problem, but has methodological consequences as well.

    I maintain that some of these methodological consequences can be avoided through a sophisticated account of how those casual powers are activated. In this way, the category of ‘effects an object might have in future’ always involves reference to a variable context, raising issues of how the features of an object and the features of a context combine to produce effects.

    I’m nonetheless taking his challenge seriously. I’d earlier seen his account of objects as unduly pessimistic on an epistemic level: underestimating our capacity for knowledge of the parts, their relational organisation, their ensuing qualities, their ensuing powers and how these might be expressed in different contexts. But I increasingly realise that the CR formulation I’m so used to using, ‘properties and powers’, reflects a much clearer understanding of the properties than the powers. I think the former is often subordinated to the latter, such that properties are those features of objects we invoke in order to explain their causal powers. There’s a depth to the ‘surplus’ of objects which I realise I hadn’t previously grasped, even if I’m still not entirely certain about Harman’s account of it.

  • Mark 11:06 am on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: analytical dualism, , , critical realism, , , , , , , ,   

    Archer and Harman on modes of reduction 

    Reading Immaterialism by Graham Harman, I’m struck by the overlap between his account of ‘duomining’ and Margaret Archer’s critique of conflation. As he writes on pg 27-28,

    “If we reduce an object downward to its pieces, we cannot explain emergence; if we reduce it upwards to its effects, we cannot explain change.”

    While Archer’s argument is made in terms of the structure/agency problem, it can easily be recast in terms of structure alone. If we reduce social structure to the individuals who comprise it (alongside other material elements, which Archer is less sensitive to), we cannot explain how certain arrangements of people and things assume characteristics which the same ‘pieces’ lack in other arrangements (upwards conflation). If we focus solely on the effects of social structure, identifying how it constrains and enables individuals, we cannot explain how that structure might itself undergo change because it is the only causal power we admit (downwards conflation).

    However this is only an overlap, as Archer and Harman’s arguments about modes of reduction are made for different reasons and they later diverge. Archer is concerned with the analytical temptations which inhere in the structure/agency problem that social science invariably confronts, even when it attempts to suppress it through various means. In contrast, Harman is concerned with ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ as two fundamental forms of knowledge which cannot be avoided: “what a thing is made of” (undermining) and “what a thing does” (overmining) (pg 28). Archer is concerned with a denial of relationality, as well as its temporal unfolding, with downwards and upwards conflation charged with suppressing the interplay over time between the different kinds of entities which make up the social word. Harman is concerned with the denial of objects as such, reducing their reality to the parts and their effects, losing a grip on the entity which is composed of these parts and capable of these effects without being reducible to either.

    Both approaches explore a tension between the analytical and the ontological. Harman’s notion of overmining, which I found much less straightforward to grasp than his notion of undermining, identifies its roots in the tendency to treat objects as mysterious and unknowable in themselves. An ontological claim licenses an analytical one, as the analyst focuses upon the effects of objects as something epistemically tractable in contrast to the objects themselves. Even if they continue to recognise the reality of the object, it is a notional recognition which doesn’t enter into their analysis. This is something Harman addresses explicitly on pg 28:

    After all, any claim that a thing is convertible into knowledge cannot account for the obvious and permanent difference between a thing and knowledge of it: if we had perfect mathematised knowledge of a dog, this knowledge would still not be a dog. It will be said that this is a “straw man” argument, since philosophers are obviously aware that knowledge is different from its object. Yet it is not a question of whether philosophers are personally “aware” of this, but of whether their philosophies sufficiently account for it.”

    To which we might add: ‘and whether they incline social scientists drawing on their ideas to factor this awareness into their explanations’. This interface between the ontological and the analytical one is one that has long fascinated me: how does theory constrain and enable the explanations which enter into social inquiry? What other forms of ‘conceptual slippage’ can we identify as ontological claims contribute to social analysis?

  • Mark 8:10 am on March 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , critical realism, , ,   

    The Impact of Social Theory 

    The Sociological Review has just published a thought-provoking review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. It gives a lucid, though brief, overview of the book’s core arguments: seven myths which afflict American sociology and seven philosophical counter-points. But what caught my attention was the account of how theoretical work can increase the discipline’s capacity for impact:

    Porpora shows how critical realism adjudicates across the plethora of sociological paradigms to create new consistency, which can strengthen the validity and usefulness of our discipline. Imagine governments redefining obesity or poor mental health from medical problems into social problems, to be tackled by wide-ranging interdisciplinary research coordinated through a coherent framework of sociology and covering, for example, the related economics and politics, industries and services, healthcare and urban planning, with studies of the complex everyday life of the groups and individuals concerned.


    The point is overstated but it’s nonetheless important: the internal dissensus of sociology militates against policy impact. The meta-theoretical (dis)orderliness of disciplines underpins the inarguable reality that “economists and psychologists are introduced as self-evidently respected scientists, whereas sociologists, if they are included at all, seem more likely to evoke scepticism than respect”. Rather than theoretical work being a distraction from aspiring to this status, it is in actual fact a condition for it:

    One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.


    Bringing meta-theoretical order to sociology doesn’t entail imposition of a unified paradigm on the discipline. It simply necessitates that we “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. Can we find unifying principles, providing standards by which we might draw out connections between otherwise isolated outputs of the discipline, which respect the intellectual diversity of the sociological enterprise? Can we begin to agree on standards about what constitutes ‘better’ and ‘worse’ sociology?

    The problem is that disciplines most in need of such standards, in order to provide a centripetal mechanism, prove least able to establish them. Calling for such standards doesn’t entail a final resolution of theoretical questions, as if we all have to agree on the same answers in order to move forward as a collective project. But it does entail clarity about why we are asking the questions to which we are offering different answers.


    • Martha Bell 8:26 am on March 20, 2017 Permalink

      I am so glad you wrote about critical realism, because I was just thinking the other day how we have to keep reminding ourselves to work with the sociological empirical and that bridges concerns about public engagement but also about demystifying sociology because one is compelled to keep coming back to the experiences that are being shared with you.
      Similar to your phone call from the woman in the interested public who wanted to chat but not to be interviewed. Critical thinking is really just so important but can get lost in the peer pressure to think like a theorist.

    • Dave Ashelman 3:48 pm on March 20, 2017 Permalink

      This has been my “battle cry” in Sociology for a while now; but not just mine alone. John Myles (2003) “Where have all the Sociologists Gone?” Canadian Journal of Sociology Vol 28(4) writes a similar critique. This has been going on for a while. There are a few aspects of this that I addressed at my Department’s Colloquium on “Where Does Sociology Go From Here?” The fundamental question was: can we do more than just trade papers amongst ourselves?

      I identified five main areas that need the most immediate addressing in our discipline:

      1) When society is complaining about the “elites” they are talking about us. We need to ask ourselves why.

      2) We have to become humble. When a theory doesn’t explain the everyday lived experiences of a society, we have to change the theory to fit social conditions; not change social conditions (vis-a-vis data) to fit the theory.

      3) We have to stop dictating the social (and economic) conditions of people, and return to studying them (this relates to #2). Empirics matter. Noah Smith, an Economics Professor friend of mine, makes this same argument for his field (posted here: http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.ca/2017/03/anti-empiricism-is-not-humility.html?m=1)

      4) We need to have an existential identity crisis. What is Sociology? What has it become? What is our purpose of existence? As Aristotle asked: do we have substance AND essence? What do we want to be when we grow up?

      5) We need to de-colonize Sociology. Sociology has completely ignored non-European/Western thought. How many have read the African Sociological Review (I have!)? The result is that we have applied our westernized social theories in an overarching way that inaccurately includes non-western people.

      I am one of those who has my social conditions dictated to me on a daily basis by my colleagues – I was not socialized by traditional western/European society. And I am not alone. Of course, I’ve gotten some hate-email over these points. Back to that humility thing.

      Your post is good stuff! It let’s me know that others are having the same thoughts as we trudge the road to happy Peacemaking within our own discipline.

    • Mark 11:46 am on March 26, 2017 Permalink

      Some great stuff to follow up there, thanks Dave

  • Mark 8:15 pm on June 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, , ,   

    A couple of places left for the Morphogenetic Approach workshop on Tuesday @SocioWarwick 

    Get in touch ASAP if you’d like a place – there will be a workshop session by Margaret Archer, a number of paper presentations & a chance for extensive discussion with others using the morphogenetic approach.


  • Mark 4:53 pm on January 17, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , critical realism, ,   

    an interview with Christian Smith about the need for sociology to do ontology 

  • Mark 8:44 am on December 12, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , critical realism   

    critical realism as the natural ontological attitude of physicians? 

    A thought I had when reading this description of medical decision making in The New Ruthless Economy loc 1842. Medical diagnosis is a form of causal reasoning, alive to its own provisionality and fallibility, seeking to identify real mechanisms which explain events that have manifested empirically:

    Physicians constantly have to make decisions based on incomplete or ambiguous evidence, decisions they must be ready to reverse in the light of the patient’s changing condition, and these decisions cannot be confined within the rigid straightjacket of process.

  • Mark 6:24 pm on November 26, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , critical realism, ,   

    cfp: the dehumanisation of contemporary societies 

    International Association for Critical Realism (IACR)
    19th Annual Conference

    Wednesday 20 – Friday 22 July 2016

    Pre-conference workshop: Monday 18 – Tuesday 19 July 2016

    Postgraduate Teaching Centre, Cardiff Business School
    Colum Drive, Cardiff CF10 3EU


    The dehumanisation of contemporary societies

    In many ways, our current epoch witnesses dehumanised social relations. While alienation (Marx) and disenchantment (Weber) or the deficit in social solidarity (Durkheim) are by no means recent phenomena, processes of dehumanisation continue to prevail in most spheres of society. In the public sphere, discussions privilege compliance with bureaucratic regulations and quantifiable indicators (such as GDP and its growth) over human needs and flourishing, have the effect of excluding large portions of the electorate from public debate while accelerating the demise of the Welfare State.

    In the economic sphere, the financialisation of the economy and the spread of market ownership tend to privilege economic profitability over human well-being. Corporate Social Responsibility is thus deployed as a rhetorical device whose injunctions are followed mostly when they are profitable to corporate shareholders. Yet, contemporary observers of capitalism witness suffering, destitution and ethical corrosion, both in richer and in poorer countries. Equally worryingly, the private sphere also seems to have undergone dehumanisation: for instance, impersonal relations are the lot of ever-growing urban centres, whilst familial duties of care are gradually replaced either by indifference or by reliance on salaried transactions with professional carers.

    The dehumanisation of the social sciences

    The dehumanisation of society is mirrored, and perhaps intensified, by the exclusion of the notion of ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ from the social sciences and humanities in the second half of the 20thCentury. While philosophers such as Foucault, or more recently Butler, have warned against taken for granted conceptions of the human, their warnings seem to have produced effacement, rather than problematisation, of the category of ‘human’.

    The realist tradition provides, however, salutary exceptions to this trend. In his dialectical critical realism, Bhaskar (1993, 1994) advances a theory of human flourishing alongside a diagnosis of the ills of modernity. Neo-Aristotelian authors such as Sen and Nussbaum have developed political philosophies that place human capabilities at the centre of the stage. In feminist studies, Lawson (2009) advocated ‘minimal humanism’ and in sociology Archer (2000), Sayer (2011) and Smith (2010) have taken stock of the absence of human subjects from social scientific accounts and sketched the contours of a humanist social science.

    Rehumanising society and the social sciences?

    The purpose of this conference is to explore how critical realism (CR) can contribute to rehumanising both society, and the social sciences. We welcome contributions from all areas of the humanities and social sciences. Equally welcome are contributions inspired by the various voices of CR, both within Bhaskar’s philosophy (critical naturalism, dialectical critical realism, metaReality) and by the various authors who contributed to CR’s flourishing.

    Full details are available on: https://www.eventsforce.net/cbs/156/home

    The organising team is Ismael Al-Amoudi, Tim Edwards & Joe O’Mahoney.

    Please circulate this call to your Networks.

  • Mark 11:09 pm on November 25, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , critical realism,   

    the 2016 international association of critical realism conference  

    The International Conference for Critical Realism will be held in Cardiff on 20-22 July 2016. It will be preceded by an optional pre-conference workshop on 18-19 July.This year’s theme is de/humanisation. We welcome contributions from all areas of the humanities and the social sciences. A number of grants will be available for PhD students.
    Registration and abstracts’ submission (250-500 words, deadline 31 Jan 2016) is now open.

    Full details are available on: https://www.eventsforce.net/cbs/156/home

    Please circulate this call to your networks. Apologies for cross-posting.

    The organising team (Ismael Al-Amoudi, Tim Edwards & Joe O’Mahoney)

  • Mark 1:17 pm on November 2, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , critical realism,   

    critical realism book launch, 8th december  


  • Mark 8:24 am on November 1, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , critical realism,   

    structure, culture and agency: selected papers of margaret archer 

    The Amazon page just went live for this book I’m editing with Tom Brock and Graham Scambler. As well as the titular selected papers, it will include an interview with Archer, an annotated bibliography, a foreword by Doug Porpora and an extended introduction to her work.

    This edited collection of papers seeks to celebrate the scope and accomplishment of Margaret Archer’s work, distilling her theoretical and empirical contributions into four sections, capturing the essence and trajectory of her work over almost four decades. Long fascinated with the problem of structure and agency, Archer’s work has constituted a decades long engagement with this perennial issue of social thought. Through an initial empirical study and two expansive trilogies, Archer has developed an explanatory framework that comes to grips with the complexity of social processes at different levels of analysis over time. The Morphogenetic Approach and, later, her work on the Internal Conversation, together, provide a detailed account of the interrelated processes by which structure, agency and culture come to take the forms they do. However in spite of the deep interconnections which unify her body of work, it is rarely treated as a coherent whole. Though its range and depth has been widely acknowledged, it nonetheless has an unclear place within the cannon of sociological theory. The proposed collection seeks to address this relative neglect through collating a selection of papers, spanning Archer’s career, which collectively elucidate both the development of her thought and the value which can be found in it as a systematic whole. It seeks to illustrate the empirical origins of her later ideas in her early work on the sociology of education, as well as foregrounding the diverse range of influences which have conditioned her intellectual trajectory: the systems theory of Walter Buckley, the functionalist Marxism of David Lockwood, the critical realist philosophy of Roy Bhaskar and, more recently, her engagement with American pragmatism and the Italian school of relational sociology.


  • Mark 7:30 am on April 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, , ,   

    CfP: Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism 

    Call for Papers (http://www.maneyonline.com/pb/assets/raw/PRT/REA_special_issue_gender.pdf)

    Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism
    Special Issue of the Journal of Critical Realism (15:5, 2016)
    Edited by Angela Martínez Dy, Lena Gunnarsson and Michiel van Ingen
    Email: lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se>

    An increasing number of gender scholars have become familiar with critical realism, finding it a robust alternative to the poststructuralist perspectives that currently dominate gender studies and feminism. This trend has coincided with an increased interest among feminist theorists in the issues of ontology, materiality and nature, which have always been at the heart of critical realist interventions. However, despite these thematic alignments, and despite the fact that both critical realism and feminist theory are inherently critical-emancipatory, the critical realist approach continues to occupy a marginal role within both feminist and gender studies debates. Concurrently, the field of critical realism is decidedly ‘masculine’ in nature, both in the sense that men dominate the field, and in terms of the issues with which critical realists have most commonly concerned themselves. Recent critical realist feminist work, the International Association of Critical Realism’s adoption of a proactive policy to enhance the representation of women in its organs and activities, and the growing critical realist preoccupation (particularly in Bhaskar’s philosophy of metaReality) with historically ‘feminine’ topics such as love, mark a potential shift away from these unfortunate trends.
    In order to encourage the development of this emerging field of critical realist feminism and gender studies, as well as critical exchanges between the respective branches of critical realism (including dialectical critical realism and metaRealism) and feminist theory/gender studies, we are happy to invite submissions for a special issue of Journal of Critical Realism on Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism. We welcome not only contributions that draw on critical realism in studying gender relations and/or engaging with feminist concerns but also critiques of critical realism from feminist or gender-based points of view.
    Topics of interest include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

    •      Critical realism and poststructuralist feminism/gender studies

    •      Critical realism and socialist/eco/radical/black/postcolonial feminism

    •      Critical realism and the ontological/materialist/naturalistic turn in feminist theory

    •      Critical realism and intersectionality

    •      Critical realism, metaRealism, love and gender

    •      Critiques/auto-critiques of existing critical realist work from a feminist/gender studies perspective

    •      Feminist epistemology, standpoint theory and critical realism

    •      Critical realism and feminist critiques of (social) science

    •      Examinations/critiques of feminist taboos on realism, nature and causality

    •      Critical realism and post-feminist culture

    •      Critical realism, dialectics and feminist deconstruction

    •      Revitalizing the explanatory feminist tradition: what is patriarchy?

    •      Critical realism and sexuality

    •      Critical realism and queer studies

    •      Critical realism and men/masculinity studies

    •      Critical realism, sex and gender identity

    •      Critical realism and gendered/sexual violence

    •      Critical realism, feminism, gender studies and war/conflict

    •      Critical realism and feminist ethics

    •      Critical realism and pornography

    •      Critical realism and feminist methods/methodology

    •      Agency, gender and critical realism

    •      Critical realism and feminist activism/politics

    •      Feminism, gender studies, critical realism and other realisms (Barad’s agential realism, post-positivist realism etc.)

    •      Critical realism as underlabourer for applied work in feminism/gender studies

    •      Critical realism, interdisciplinarity, gender and feminism

    •      Feminist spirituality and metaRealism

    •      Critical realism and feminist economics

    Instructions for authors
    Papers should be no more than 8,000 words (not inclusive of references). In all other respects, our instructions for authors apply. Please consult these at http://www.maneyonline.com/ifa/rea<http://www.maneyonline.com/ifa/rea> or use one of our recently published articles as a guide in setting out your work. Articles (as distinct from pieces for our Perspective and Debate sections) will be subject to external peer review.
    Submissions need not be exclusively concerned with critical realism or its critique, but should relate their arguments in some significant way to critical realism. For instance, the main focus of an article could be Karen Barad’s feminist appropriation of Bohr’s agential realism, but it should include consideration of critical realism.

    Important dates
    October 1, 2015: deadline for first drafts
    February 26, 2016: reviewers’ reports and editors’ decision provided
    May 23, 2016: deadline for final drafts
    June 30, 2016: final copy due with the publisher
    October 2016: publication of the special issue online and print

    Enquiries and submissions
    Please send any enquiries to lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se> Please upload articles for peer review to our online system, http://www.editorialmanager.com/rea/default.asp. When uploading you will be asked if your paper is for a themed issue. Please answer ‘Yes, the special issue on Critical Realism, Gender and Feminism’. If your paper is accepted but not included in the special issue, it will appear in a subsequent issue. Please send any other material for the special issue to lena.gunnarsson@oru.se<mailto:lena.gunnarsson@oru.se>.

    About the Journal
    Journal of Critical Realism is the journal of the International Association for Critical Realism (IACR), established in 1997 to foster the discussion, propagation and development of critical realist approaches to understanding and changing the world. It provides a forum for scholars wishing to promote realist emancipatory philosophy, social theory and science on an interdisciplinary and international b

  • Mark 5:56 pm on November 2, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism, social life of methods, ,   

    The Social Life of Methods 

    The suggestion that research methods have a double social life seems uncontentious to me. The claims being made are that (1) methods are shaped by the social contexts in which they emerge and (2) methods in turn help shape those contexts. So research methods should not be understood as neutral tools developed in isolation from the social world they are orientated towards. Instead, we need to recognise the manner in which methods are shaped by that world and in turn contribute to its shaping. This involves rejecting what Law, Savage and Ruppert describe as the ‘methodological complex’:

    It assumes that methods are tools for learning about the social world. That this is what they are. End of story. We see this in methods courses. Juxtaposed and differentiated both from theory, and from substantive courses, these tell us about techniques for knowing the world. Which to choose. How to use them. How to analyse data. And how to present it.

    There’s nothing wrong with this in certain senses: in social research indeed we need methods, and it’s not a bad idea to use those methods properly. But to think of methods in this way – simply as appropriate tools – involves consequences, some of them unanticipated, which create a baggage which can be heavy, even burdensome. We can distil this as ‘the methodological complex.’


    This ‘methodological complex’ entails a particular division of labour for empirical research and a particular conception of how research can be undertaken. Theory, methods and substance are construed as distinct spheres of activity. Research questions are derived from theory, inviting the use of methods to address them in relation to distinct areas of substance. They also argue that this involves the ontological presupposition of a stable world, with definitive features that can be reported and turned into data:

    We’re distinguishing between the world on the one hand, and representations of that world on the other. In this way of thinking it’s methods that bridge the gap. If we get those methods right then our representations will match the realities of the world. Tools have a better or worse capacity to do the job at hand. They  will, as the philosophers of science say correspond to it; or at least (this is what the  pragmatists say) they will describe it sufficiently well to be treated as accurate. This means that they are tools for handling the world. If we get them wrong then our accounts of reality, our data, will be flawed.


    I’m hostile to any attempt to refute naturalism on this basis, arising from the obviousness with which these points can be reconciled to a critical naturalism (see Roy Bhaskar’s Possibility of Naturalism). But I think it’s important to explore them because the analysis seems entirely plausible to me, even if I’m sceptical about the prescriptions many would draw on the basis of them. I also agree that, as the authors put it, “oscillates between an objectivist concern with ‘bias’ and a humanist response which seeks refuge in an ‘ineffable’ human moment which somehow lies outside this purview of representational methods”. Roy Bhaskar makes a similar point when he argues that positivism and hermeneutics share a view of natural science, framing reality in terms of a schism between matter and meanings with the former being the domain of the natural sciences and the latter the domain of the (hermeneutical) social sciences. In fact I find their analysis congruent with Bhaskar’s, complementing it productively as a result of a sightly different focus:

    By reducing issues to questions of technique, it allows different parties to come together around some kind of shared project, whatever their goals,values, orientations and identities. If we need to create random samples, then this is because it is important to avoid undistorted samples. If it is dangerous to avoid recruiting so-called professional participants to our focus groups, then this is because we’re looking for people who are naïve and untutored in appropriate ways. If the ethnographer needs to avoid the outsiders who flock to talk with her when she first arrives in the field, then this is because she’s on the lookout for gatekeepers or people at the core of the community rather than people with grudges on the periphery. We learn all these things in a million different versions in the hope of reducing bias; in the hope of knowing and describing the world accurately. This search to avoid bias and to use our ‘tools’ more effectively is pervasive, indeed ubiquitous. We share it. But it then also leads to an automatic response, from even the most positivistic researcher, about ‘what is left out’ by any specific method.


    Their point is not that a concern to use tools effectively is wrong but rather that an exhaustive treatment of methods in these terms serves to preclude consideration of others aspects of methods that are salient to the practice of social research. Their project seeks to recognise that “methods are fully of the social world that they research; that they are fully imbued with theoretical renderings of the social world” and to think through the implications of this for how we understand them. These are the questions that we lose sight of if we focus on using tools effectively. As I understand their point, they accept that tools are used in the production of knowledge but argue that to understand these ‘tools’ we need to stop and consider them as objects in their own right. Their point is not a trivial constructionist one, such as to assert that ‘methods are socially constructed’ (well of course they are, would anyone argue that methods are natural kinds?) because to do so would enact precisely the oscillation between objectivism (there is a world out there with fixed properties which we use neutral methods to investigate with a greater or lesser degree of efficacy) and subjectivism (there are first-person human realities which are intrinsically beyond the purview of objective representation using neutral methods) – in critical realist jargon, I think they’re proposing a systematic framework for investigating the transitive dimension of social science.

  • Mark 12:04 pm on October 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: critical realism,   

    Roy Bhaskar explains critical realism, dialectical critical realism, and metareality in less than 6 minutes 

    Via the ICCR blog

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