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

So, you have pledged allegiance to the big four critical realist axioms (Archer, et al., 2016) – what next?

Here are some ideas.

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 big four critical realist axioms provide a handy but broad 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. Good luck.


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.

Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind

“There’s something incredibly powerful – revolutionary, even – about challenging someone’s understanding of gender with your very existence.”
Emily Brehob

According to dominant ideas in “the West”, your gender ultimately reduces to whether you have XX or XY chromosomes, as inferred by inspecting your genitals at birth, and there are only two possibilities: woman or man. Yes, you will occasionally hear how sex is biological and gender is social, but under the dominant norms, (specifically chromosomal) sex and gender categories are defined to align.

The existence of transgender (trans) people challenges this chromosomal definition, since their gender differs from male/female sex category assigned at birth. People whose gender is under the non-binary umbrella challenge the man/woman binary since they are neither, both, or fluctuate between the two.

It is tempting for researchers to ignore these complexities since most people are cisgender (cis for short), that is, their gender aligns with their sex category at birth, and they are either a woman or a man. As the male/female demographic tickboxes illustrate, many do ignore the complexity.

A few years ago, analytic philosophers, having for centuries pondered questions such as “what can be known?” and “is reality real?”, discovered that theorising gender offered intellectual challenges too and could be used to support human rights activism. Although plenty of writers have pondered gender, this corner of philosophy offers clear definitions, so is perhaps easier to understand and critique than other approaches. I think it is also more compatible with applied social research.

One of the politically-aware analytical philosophers who caught my eye, Robin Dembroff, recently published a paper analysing what it means to be genderqueer. Let’s sketch out how the analysis goes.

“… the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.”

Genderqueer originally referred to all gender outliers – whether cis, trans, or other. Its meaning has shifted to overlap with non-binary gender and trans identities as per the Venn flags below.

Both genderqueer and non-binary have become umbrella terms with similar meaning; however, genderqueer carries a more radical connotation- especially since it includes the reclaimed slur “queer” – whereas non-binary is more neutral and descriptive, even appearing in HR departments’ IT systems.

The data on how many people are genderqueer thus far is poor – hopefully the 2021 census in England and Wales will improve matters. In the meantime, a 2015 UK convenience sample survey of non-binary people (broadly defined) found that 63% identified as non-binary, 45% as genderqueer, and 65% considered themselves to be trans. The frequency of combinations was not reported.

This year’s international (and also convenience sample) survey of people who are neither men nor women “always, solely and completely” found a small age effect: people over 30 were eight percentage points more likely to identify as genderqueer than younger people.

Externalist versus internalist

Dembroff opens with a critique of two broad categories of theories of what gender is: externalist (or social position) theories and internalist (or psychological identity) theories.

Externalist theories define gender in terms of how someone is perceived by others and advantaged or disadvantaged as a result. So, someone would be genderqueer if they are perceived and treated as neither a man nor a woman. However, this doesn’t work for genderqueer people, Dembroff argues, since they tend to reject the idea that particular gender expressions are necessary to be genderqueer; “we don’t owe you androgyny” is a well-known slogan. Also, many cis people do not present neatly as male or female – that does not mean they are genderqueer.

One of the internalist accounts Dembroff considers, by Katherine Jenkins, defines gender in terms of what gender norms someone feels are relevant to them – e.g., how they should dress, behave, what toilets they may use – regardless of whether they actually comply with (or actively resist) those norms. Norm relevancy requires that genderqueer people feel that neither male nor female norms are relevant. This is easiest to see with binary gendered toilets – neither the trouser nor skirt-logoed room is safe for a genderqueer person. However, it is unlikely that none of the norms would be felt as relevant. So the norm-relevancy account, Dembroff argues, would exclude many genderqueer people too.

Critical gender kinds

Dembroff’s proposed solution combines social and psychological understandings of gender. They introduce the idea of a critical gender kind and offer genderqueer as an example. A kind, in this sense, is roughly a collection of phenomena defined by one or more properties. (For a longer answer, try this on social kinds by Ásta.) Not to be confused with gender-critical feminism.

A gender is a critical gender kind, relative to a given society, if and only if people who are that gender “collectively destabilize one or more core elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society”. The genderqueer kind destabilises the binary assumption that there are only two genders. Dembroff emphasises the collective nature of genderqueer; as a kind it is not reducible to any individual’s characteristics and not every genderqueer person need successfully destabilise the binary norm. An uncritical gender kind is then one which perpetuates dominant norms such as the chromosomal and genital idea of gender outlined above.

Another key ingredient is the distinction between principled and existential destabilising – roughly, whether you are personally oppressed in a society with particular enforced norms. Someone who is happy to support and use all-gender toilets through (principled) solidarity with genderqueer people has a different experience to someone who is genderqueer and feels unsafe in a binary gendered toilet.

In summary, genderqueer people collectively and existentially destabilise the binary norm. Some of the many ways they do this include: using they/them or neopronouns, through gender expression that challenges dominant norms, asserting that they are genderqueer, challenging gender roles in sexual relationships, and switching between male and female coded spaces.

Although Dembroff challenges Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account, to me the general idea of tuning into gender norms is helpful for decoding your gender, and neatly complements Dembroff’s account. Maybe a trick is to add, and view as irrelevant, norms like “your genitals determine your gender” rather than only male and female norms. Additionally, adding probabilities rather than using binary true/false classical logic seems helpful to revise the account too. The externalist accounts are also relevant since they map out some ways that genderqueer people resist binary norms and dominant ways that (especially cis) people perceive and treat others.

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.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

We can safely assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves and try to work out our own gender.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It is not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

(For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).)

Now we can make sense of what it means to be assigned female or male at birth. What is assigned is a sex category. This is not arbitrary, but based on socially agreed and – for cisgender people – reliable biological criteria. However, those criteria could have been otherwise, for instance using a broader range of biological features and more than two categories. Also the supposedly biological male/female sex category quickly takes on a social role that is independent of genitals and operates even when they are hidden.

Critical theory – a clear explanation by Nancy Fraser

‘To my mind, no one has yet improved on Marx’s 1843 definition of Critical Theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” What is so appealing about this definition is its straightforwardly political character. It makes no claim to any special epistemological status but, rather, supposes that with respect to justification there is no philosophically interesting difference between a critical theory of society and an uncritical one. But there is, according to this definition, an important political difference. A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. Thus, for example, if struggles contesting the subordination of women figured among the most significant of a given age, then a critical social theory for that time would aim, among other things, to shed light on the character and bases of such subordination. It would employ categories and explanatory models which revealed rather than occluded relations of male dominance and female subordination. And it would demystify as ideological rival approaches which obfuscated or rationalized those relations. In this situation, then, one of the standards for assessing a critical theory, once it had been subjected to all the usual tests of empirical adequacy, would be: How well does it theorize the situation and prospects of the feminist movement? To what extent does it serve the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of contemporary women?’

Nancy Fraser (1985, p. 97). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.