At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.

On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.

This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:

This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

http://essential.metapress.com/content/316934k1155kw362/

This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research. 

So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas? 

*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.

The Social Research Association will be hosting our fourth annual Social Media in Social Research conference on Friday 16 May 2014, at the British Library Conference Centre in London (Bronte room).  This well-established event brings together social researchers from many different areas to share experiences and issues.

We would like to receive papers and presentations on this subject to be showcased at the event. These can be from the academic research, practice, policy and client communities and cover varied aspects of social research in social media, including case studies, lessons from practice, ethical and methodological issues, and integrating social media as part of a broader research methodology on a project.

Submissions of no more than 500 words should be made to the SRA office, admin@the-sra.org.uk, by 10 March 2014. Please include a short (80-100 word) biography, and a phone number.  In the spirit of new media, we are being loose in our interpretation of the term ‘paper’.  The content needs to be sufficient for a 20-30 minute presentation, followed by questions.

Submissions to:  admin@the-sra.org.uk
Deadline: 10 March 2014

We’re very pleased to announe the Call for workshop papers for “Getting Social Research into Policy and Practice”, the Social Research Association’s annual conference on 9 December 2013 at the British Library, London.

The SRA annual conference is a unique event: it is the only forum the UK has for bringing together social researchers from all sectors and disciplines to share knowledge and ideas, to debate our most pressing professional issues, and, of course, to meet and talk.

As austerity continues to constrain the world of social research, what more can be done to make better use of evidence and bridge the gap with policy and practice?   This year’s conference will explore how researchers can engage more effectively with those who use research.  What can and should researchers do to ensure they inform policy processes and local practice?  How do we translate nuanced research findings into practical solutions?  How far should researchers stray into the world of policy-making?  How do we produce robust evaluations as budgets dwindle? What do policymakers and practitioners need from research, and can it realistically be delivered?

We are looking for engaging workshop papers which will address the broad theme of ‘Getting social research into policy and practice’ through the lens of one of the following:

•       Communicating and disseminating research with impact
•       Innovation in a time of austerity
•       Evaluating the ‘impossible’
•       Evidence-based policy vs. policy-based evidence
•       Maintaining quality
•       Overcoming methodological challenges
•       Ethical issues and dilemmas.

Papers are for workshop sessions of 20 minutes (followed by a 10 minute Q&A).  Up to two lead presenters will receive a solid discount on the delegate fee.

Please email your abstract of not more than 500 words to admin@the-sra.org.uk by no later than *Monday 19 August*.  Please write ‘SRA Conference Abstract’ in the subject line of your email, and include your name on all attachments.  Your abstract needs to include:  >Title of presentation  >Summary outline of content and areas of learning  >A description of your research methodology, if appropriate  >Name, affiliation, email and phone contact for each presenter.

Please do not send completed presentations or papers. The SRA website www.the-sra.org.uk will provide further details on the conference.

Underlying much sociological explanation is an attempt to bridge the gap between the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ within the context of a specific empirical inquiry. As the authors put it, “in the human and behavioural sciences, the analytical connection or co-relation between individual and social processes, between cognitive (mental) and social (group) structures, or between ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ … is often understood and elaborated as the big problem of bridging the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 68). The apparent diversity with which this ‘gap’ is characterised within social theory points to the intractability of the underlying issue: how do we make sense of the relationship between the individual actors we see around us and the wider social order which appears to shape but also be shaped by their actions? The dualisms which proliferate within social theory do so, in part, as a result of a failure to resolve this underlying question. An inability to establish consensus on the underlying explanatory question posed by social research has, as its flip side, the continual elaboration of a sometimes strikingly imprecise conceptual vocabulary which attempts to come to terms with various aspects of this foundational challenge: “constructivism-positivism, subjectivism-objectivism, intentionalism-functionalism, agency-structure, individual-society, or micro-macro” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 70). Depressingly large tracts of sociological discourse have proceeded from the personal investments and logical entailments which stem from occupying one side or another of these dualisms. Even as the last couple of decades have seen a variety of attempts to bridge these dichotomies, or even abandon them entirely as terms of reference, these moves have in turn bred new dichotomies (e.g. structurationist and post-structurationist) which, perhaps as the one last sign of my past life as a Rortyean philosophy student, never cease to appal me on an aesthetic level. 

Drawing on the work of Nicos Mouzelis, Lydaki and Tsekeris argue that this “pluralization of approaches seriously impeded the epistemologically healthy capacity for meta-theory  – that is, for a sincere, uninterrupted and open-ended dialogue between opposing worldviews and paradigms” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 71). The proliferation of competing paradigms, often driven by technical polemics rather than practical disagreement over shared aims, worked to erode the common frame of reference within which sociologists were able to evaluate ‘theories’ as competing ways of making sense of underlying practical questions of explaining the social world. It contributed to a ghettoization of social theory, with its practical implementation too often limited to those who, having seen the explanatory gains which emerged from a particular approach, ensconced themselves within it and worked with others to elaborate it within its own theoretical terms of reference e.g. bourdieusian theory. As a consequence, social theory ossifies as, with the conceptual logics of particular theoretical approaches increasingly insulated from the practical logics encountered in the practice of social research, the point of social theory becomes increasingly unclear. Likewise the uses to which social theory is put within social research become less helpful than they would otherwise be because of this broader lack of clarity. It almost seems, perhaps, that social theory becomes something which sociologists are self-conscious about. In a way it should be. The characteristics which many find frustrating about contemporary social theory are, I wish to argue, indicative of things having gone badly wrong. They are a sign of people having talked too much, for too long, about predominately practical issues which, it seems, we might have come to some sort of working agreement on if circumstances had been different. My point is not that we should all agree on one ‘paradigm’ but simply that the fixation on ‘paradigms’ has precluded a consensus about the practical purposes which these sorts of discussions should serve.

Tsekeris, C., & Lydaki, A. (2011). The micro-macro dilemma in sociology: Perplexities and perspectives. Sociologija, 53(1), 67-82. doi:10.2298/SOC1101067T