A Word on Critical Realism, by Kieran Healy (2013)

I’ve just remembered this:

“[Critical realism] presents itself in a way that some social scientists—with next to no real background in philosophy—feel gives them just what they need to shore up their empirical research and metaphysical intuitions. You want to be realist in your philosophy of social science? Sure! You want your preferred level of analysis to also be an ontologically emergent level of reality? No problem! You want to talk about social structures as irreducible in some serious-but-not-really-analyzed fashion? You got it. You want your theory to be critical? I mean, who doesn’t, right? Just call yourself a Critical Realist and cite some Bhaskar. After all, he has repeatedly asserted that his work is a “Copernican Revolution” in the philosophy of science […]”

And:

“The diffusion of CR was slightly hampered by the transformation of Bhaskar from fringe philosopher of science to full-blown guru. Having recruited followers in sociology on the basis of his realism, he began to pull the rug out from under them in the late 1990s, first with the merely absurd Plato, Etc and then with the frankly embarrassing From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (which closed with a final chapter titled “The Dance of Shiva in the Age of Aquarius”). This work, in retrospect, seems like the culmination of the unpleasant cult of personality that grew up around Bhaskar in CR circles in the 1980s and which he seems to have done little to discourage.”

One section is constructive, providing alternatives to critical realism:

“Sociologists interested in emergence or macro-level explanations have no need to run together that interest with the specific CR position or view. (This was the point of my old article on Archer, Mouzelis, and CR.) There are large and immediately accessible literatures on all of these topics in philosophy, leading naturally to more technical or specialist work. Consider the SEP article on Emergent Properties, for instance, and the one on Supervenience, or the one on Scientific Explanation, or Scientific Realism. Go from there to, say, Jonathan Schaffer’s Is there a Fundamental Level? (for the metaphysics) or Michael Strevens’ Depth for one take on the philosophy of science, or—for something in parts similar to Bhaskar but far more creative and central—read Nancy Cartwright on laws of nature. I feel confident in asserting that different sociologists could ally themselves with quite incompatible positions in these debates and much of our work would go on as before.”

Two flavours of “ontology” in critical realism – and why it doesn’t matter

 

Bhaskar’s critical realism emphasises a distinction between intransitive and transitive objects. I think the easiest way to see how the distinction works in social science (as opposed to say, geology) is as follows. Find all the social theorists and make them and their books and journal articles vanish. The things that are left are intransitive objects, e.g., people and social institutions likes banks and governments, and all the things they do even though no theorists are around to observe. The things that vanish with the theorists are all the transitive objects – the fallible accounts of how the various intransitive objects “work”.

It should be recognised that the theorists and their theories are intransitive objects too and theories influence social life, e.g., through the pop psychology jargon people use when they talk to each other. Also everyone theorises, not just professionals. But let’s not get tied up in knots.

Ontology is about the kinds of things that exist, including material and abstract “things” like numbers. Cruickshank (2004) argues that ontology is defined in two different ways by critical realists. Sometimes it refers to all the things, knowable and not, in the intransitive sense. Other times ontology refers to critical realists’ theories of what there is – these theories are transitive objects.  But reducing what there is to what is known (philosophically) about what there is commits what Bhaskar called the epistemic fallacy – one of the key fallacies critical realists are trying to help us avoid.

Cruickshank concludes that Bhaskar shoots himself in the foot by making critical realist theories of ontology inevitably commit the epistemic fallacy (Cruickshank, 2004, p. 572):

“The problem though is that in defining the epistemic fallacy as the transposing of questions about being [ontology] into questions about knowing, Bhaskar has defined the said fallacy so broadly that any reference to what we know of reality (which may well be knowledge claims with a high degree of veracity) must commit this putative fallacy. Indeed the only way to avoid this fallacy would be to step outside knowledge to ‘see’ reality in itself.”

It’s a challenging debate, aiming for precise understandings of concepts like ontology and exploring the possibilities and limits of philosophical reasoning, but it seems unhelpful for the day-to-day work of doing social science. Perhaps more helpful  is to emphasise the role of creativity in doing science.

We can’t just go out and rigorously observe reality (whether social life or the cosmos) and perceive theories directly. Although rigorous observation is important, science involves speculating about what might be out there – a creative process – based on what we currently know, and then working out what evidence we would expect to see if we were correct or if plausible alternative theories were true.

My favourite analogy comes from trying to crack encrypted texts. We can systematically analyse letter and word frequencies in cyphertexts to try to spot patterns. But it helps to guess what people might be trying to say to each other based on something beyond the ciphertext, e.g., that they open with “How are you?” or that they are likely to be talking about a particular event. These knowledge-grounded guesses, drawing on a wealth of experience and prior evidence, can then be used to reduce the search space of possible encryptions.

References

Cruickshank, J. (2004). A tale of two ontologies: An immanent critique of critical realism. Sociological Review, 52, 567–585.

So, you have pledged allegiance to critical realism – what next?

Critical realism, initiated by Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014), is a popular package of meta-theories and principles to help guide how we conduct research. It is often framed as an alternative to positivism and postmodernism. Margaret Archer and eight fellow critical realists (2016) composed a helpful summary of four key critical realist principles:

  • Ontological realism
  • Epistemic relativity
  • Judgemental rationality
  • Ethical naturalism

Here are some thoughts on what these may mean for the everyday work of conducting social research and evaluations.

1. Ontological realism

What is it? There is a social and material world existing independently of people’s speech acts. “Reality is real.” One way to think about this slogan in relation to social kinds like laws and identities is they have a causal impact on our lives (Dembroff, 2018). Saying that reality is real does not mean that reality is fixed. For example, we can eat chocolate (which changes it and us) and change laws.

What to do? Throw radical social constructionism in the bin. Start with a theory that applies to your particular topic and provides ideas for entities and activities to use and possibly challenge in your own theorising.

Those “entities” (what a cold word) may be people with desires, beliefs, and opportunities (or lack thereof) who do things in the world like going for walks, shopping, cleaning, working, and talking to each other (Hedström, 2005). The entities may be psychological “constructs” like kinds of memory and cognitive control and activities like updating and inhibiting prepotent responses. The entities might be laws and activities carried out by the criminal justice system and campaigners. However you decide to theorise reality, you need something.

How an intervention may influence someone’s actions by influencing their desires, beliefs, and/or opportunities (Hedström, 2005, p. 44)

2. Epistemic relativity

What is it? The underdetermination of theories means that two theorists can make a compelling case for two different accounts of the same evidence. Their (e.g., political, moral) standpoint and various biases will influence what they can theorise. Quantitative researchers are appealing to epistemic relativity when they cite George Box’s “All models are wrong” and note the variety of models that can be fit to a dataset.

What to do? Throw radical positivism in the bin – even if you are running RCTs. Ensure that you foreground your values whether through statements of conflicts of interest or more reflexive articulations of likely bias and prejudice. Preregistering study plans also seems relevant here.

There may be limits to the extent to which an individual researcher can articulate their biases, so help out your colleagues and competitors.

3. Judgemental/judgmental rationality

What is it? Even though theories are underdetermined by evidence, there often are reasons to prefer one theory over another.

What to do? If predictive accuracy does not help choose a theory, you could also compare them in terms of how consistent they are with themselves and other relevant theories; how broad in scope they are; whether they actually bring some semblance of order to the phenomena being theorised; and whether they make novel predictions beyond current observations (Kuhn, 1977).

You might consider the aims of critical theory which proposes judging theories in terms of how well they help eliminate injustice in the world (Fraser, 1985). But you would have to take a political stance.

4. Ethical naturalism

What is it? Although is does not imply ought, prior ought plus is does imply posterior ought.

What to do? Back to articulating your values. In medical research the following argument form is common (if often implicit): We should prevent people from dying; a systematic review has shown that this treatment prevents people from dying; therefore we should roll out this treatment. We could say something similar for social research that is anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQI+, intersections thereof, and other research. But if your research makes a recommendation for political change, it must also foreground the prior values that enabled that recommendation to inferred.

In summary

The four key critical realist principles provide a handy but Big metaphysical and moral framework for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to do social research. Now we are presented with further challenges that depend on grappling with substantive theory and specific political and moral values. I wish you the best of luck on your endeavour!

References

Archer, M., Decoteau, C., Gorski, P. S., Little, D., Porpora, D., Rutzou, T., Smith, C., Steinmetz, G., & Vandenberghe, F. (2016). What is Critical Realism? Perspectives: Newsletter of the American Sociological Association Theory Section, 38(2), 4–9.

Dembroff, R. (2018). Real talk on the metaphysics of gender. Philosophical Topics, 46(2), 21–50.

Fraser, N. (1985). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique35, 97-131.

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice. In The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (pp. 320–339). The University of Chicago Press.

Hedström, P. (2005). Dissecting the social: on the principles of analytic sociology. Cambridge University Press.

The aim of critical realist philosophy

“The aim of critical realist philosophy is, when the practice is adequate, to provide a better or more adequate theory of the practice; and, when it is not, to transform the practice in the appropriate way. That is to say the aim of critical realist philosophy is enhanced reflexivity or transformed practice (or both). […]

“Since there is only one world, the theories and principles of critical realist philosophy should also apply to our everyday life. If they do not, then something is seriously wrong. This means that our theories and explanations should be tested in everyday life, as well as in specialist research contexts.”

—Bhaskar, Roy (2013) The consequences of the revindication of philosophical ontology for philosophy and social theory. In: Archer, Margaret and Maccarini, Andrea, (eds.) Engaging with the world. (pp. 11-21). Routledge: London.