Critical realism and scientific explanation

3 Mar, 2016 at 11:56 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

18350‘Critical realism’ is very similar to the jargon-dense, literary ‘critical theory’ taught in literature departments.



One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. But the researcher cannot stop at this. As a consequence of the relations and connections that the researcher finds, a will and demand arise for critical reflection on the findings. To show that unemployment depends on rigid social institutions or adaptations to European economic aspirations to integration, for instance, constitutes at the same time a critique of these conditions. It also entails an implicit critique of other explanations that one can show to be built on false beliefs. The researcher can never be satisfied with establishing that false beliefs exist but must go on to seek an explanation for why they exist. What is it that maintains and reproduces them? To show that something causes false beliefs – and to explain why – constitutes at the same time a critique of that thing.

explThis I think is something particular to the humanities and social sciences. There is no full equivalent in the natural sciences, since the objects of their study are not fundamentally created by human beings in the same sense as the objects of study in social sciences. We do not criticize apples for falling to earth in accordance with the law of gravitation.

The explanatory critique that constitutes all good social science thus has repercussions on the reflective person in society. To digest the explanations and understandings that social sciences can provide means a simultaneous questioning and critique of one’s self-understanding and the actions and attitudes it gives rise to. Science can play an important emancipating role in this way. Human beings can fulfill and develop themselves only if they do not base their thoughts and actions on false beliefs about reality. Fulfillment may also require changing fundamental structures of society. Understanding of the need for this change may issue from various sources like everyday praxis and reflection as well as from science.

Explanations of societal phenomena must be subject to criticism, and this criticism must be an essential part of the task of social science. Social science has to be an explanatory critique. The researcher’s explanations have to constitute a critical attitude toward the very object of research, society. Hopefully, the critique may result in proposals for how the institutions and structures of society can be constructed. The social scientist has a responsibility to try to elucidate possible alternatives to existing institutions and structures.

bhaskarIn a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is reveal what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like.

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this independent reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I cannot see that the main task of science is to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, that task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is “closed,” and since social reality is fundamentally “open,” models of that kind cannot explain anything of what happens in such a universe. Positivist social science has to postulate closed conditions to make its models operational and then – totally unrealistically – impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure.

In the face of the kind of methodological individualism and rational choice theory that dominate positivist social science we have to admit that even if knowing the aspirations and intentions of individuals are necessary prerequisites for giving explanations of social events, they are far from sufficient. Even the most elementary “rational” actions in society presuppose the existence of social forms that it is not possible to reduce to the intentions of individuals.

archerThe overarching flaw with methodological individualism and rational choice theory is basically that they reduce social explanations to purportedly individual characteristics. But many of the characteristics and actions of the individual originate in and are made possible only through society and its relations. Society is not reducible to individuals, since the social characteristics, forces, and actions of the individual are determined by pre-existing social structures and positions. Even though society is not a volitional individual, and the individual is not an entity given outside of society, the individual (actor) and the society (structure) have to be kept analytically distinct. They are tied together through the individual’s reproduction and transformation of already given social structures.

With a non-reductionist approach we avoid both determinism and voluntarism. For although the individual in society is formed and influenced by social structures that he does not construct himself, he can as an individual influence and change the given structures in another direction through his own actions. In society the individual is situated in roles or social positions that give limited freedom of action (through conventions, norms, material restrictions, etc.), but at the same time there is no principal necessity that we must blindly follow or accept these limitations. However, as long as social structures and positions are reproduced (rather than transformed), the actions of the individual will have a tendency to go in a certain direction.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the “deep structure” of society.

We have to acknowledge the ontological fact that the world is mind-independent. This does not in any way reduce the epistemological fact that we can only know what the world is like from within our languages, theories, or discourses. But that the world is epistemologically mediated by theories does not mean that it is the product of them.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Social science is relational. It studies and uncovers the social structures in which individuals participate and position themselves. It is these relations that have enough continuity, autonomy, and causal power to endure in society and be the real object of knowledge in social science. It is also only in their capacity as social relations and positions that individuals can be given power or resources (or the lack of them). To be a chieftain, a capital-owner, or a slave is not an individual property of an individual, but can come about only when individuals are integral parts of certain social structures and positions. Social relations and contexts cannot be reduced to individual phenomena – just as a cheque presupposes a banking system and tribe-members presuppose a tribe.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

Contrary to the well-known symmetry hypothesis, I would also maintain that explanation and prediction are not the same. To explain something is to uncover the generative mechanisms behind an event, while prediction only concerns actual events and does not have to say anything about the underlying causes of the events in question. The barometer may be used for predicting today’s weather changes. But these predictions are not explanatory, since they say nothing of the underlying causes.

Methodologically, this implies that the basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events is what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

If we want the knowledge we produce to have practical relevance, our the knowledge we aspire to and our methods have to adapt to our object of study. In social sciences – such as economics, history, or anthropology – we will never reach complete explanations. Instead we have to aim for satisfactory and adequate explanations.

As is well known, there is no unequivocal criterion for what should be considered a satisfactory explanation. All explanations (with the possible exception of those in mathematics and logic) are fragmentary and incomplete; self-evident relations and conditions are often left out so that one can concentrate on the nodal points. Explanations must, however, be real in the sense that they “correspond” to reality and are capable of being used.

The relevance of an explanation can be judged only by reference to a given aspect of a problem. An explanation is then relevant if, for example, it can point out the generative mechanisms that rule a phenomenon or if it can illuminate the aspect one is concerned with. To be relevant from the explanatory viewpoint, the adduced theory has to provide a good basis for believing that the phenomenon to be explained really does or did take place. One has to be able to say: “That’s right! That explains it. Now I understand why it happened.”

While positivism tries to develop a general a priori criterion for evaluation of scientific explanations, it would be better to realize that all we can try for is adequate explanations, which it is not possible to disconnect from the specific, contingent circumstances that are always incident to what is to be explained. I think we have to be modest and acknowledge that our models and theories are time-space relative.

Besides being an aspect of the situation in which the event takes place, an explanatory factor ought also to be causally effective; that is, one has to consider whether the event would have taken place even if the factor did not exist. And it also has to be causally deep. If event e would have happened without factor f, then this factor is not deep enough. Triggering factors, for instance, often do not have this depth. And by contrasting different factors with each other we may find that some are irrelevant (without causal depth).

Without the requirement of depth, explanations most often do not have practical significance. This requirement leads us to the nodal point against which we have to take measures to obtain changes. If we search for and find fundamental structural causes for unemployment, we can hopefully also take effective measures to remedy it.

Scientific theories (ought to) do more than just describe event-regularities. They also analyze and describe the mechanisms, structures, and processes that exist. They try to establish what relations exist between these different phenomena and the systematic forces that operate within the different realms of reality.

Explanations are important within science, since the choice between different theories hinges in large part on their explanatory powers. The most reasonable explanation for one theory’s having greater explanatory power than others is that the mechanisms, causal forces, structures, and processes it talks of, really do exist.

When studying the relation between different factors, a social scientist is usually prepared to admit the existence of a reciprocal interdependence between them. One is seldom prepared, on the other hand, to investigate whether this interdependence might follow from the existence of an underlying causal structure. This is really strange. The actual configurations of a river, for instance, depend of course on many factors. But one cannot escape the fact that it flows downhill and that this fundamental fact influences and regulates the other causal factors. Not to come to grips with the underlying causal power that the direction of the current constitutes can only be misleading and confusing.

All explanations of a phenomenon have preconditions that limit the number of alternative explanations. These preconditions significantly influence the ability of the different potential explanations to really explain anything. If we have a system where underlying structural factors control the functional relations between the parts of the system, a satisfactory explanation can never disregard this precondition. Explanations that take the parts (micro-explanations) as their point of departure may well describe how and through which mechanisms something takes place, but without the structure we cannot explain why it happens.

But could one not just say that different explanations – such as individual and structural – are different, without a need to grade them as better or worse? I think not. That would be too relativistic. For although we are dealing with two different kinds of explanations that answer totally different questions, I would say that the structural most often answers the more relevant questions. In social sciences we often search for explanations of events because we want to be able to avoid or change certain outcomes. Giving individualistic explanations does not make this possible, since they only state sufficient but not necessary conditions. Without knowing the latter we cannot prevent or avoid these undesirable social phenomena.

All kinds of explanations in empirical sciences are pragmatic. We cannot just say that one type is false and another is true. Explanations have a function to fulfill, and some are better and others worse at this. Even if individual explanations can show the existence of a pattern, the pattern as such does not constitute an explanation. We want to be able to explain the pattern per se, and for that we usually require a structural explanation. By studying statistics of the labor market, for example, we may establish the fact that everyone who is at the disposal of the labor market does not have a job. We might even notice a pattern, that people in rural areas, old people, and women are often jobless. But we cannot explain with these data why this is a fact and that it may even be that a certain amount of unemployment is a functional requisite for the market economy. The individualistic frame of explanation gives a false picture of what kind of causal relations are at hand, and a fortiori a false picture of what needs to be done to enable a change. For that, a structural explanation of the kind mentioned above is required.


  1. When I came across Noah Smith´s post I thought that you might write something to reply. This post provides a very good methodological answer. But I think he is right to point out that the ability of heterodox economics to become stronger and gain wider acceptance does not lie in the critique, but in the alternative it can put forward. What do you think about agent based models? Despite their imperfections and limitations, it seems they would offer a more closer-to-reality tool to try explaining economic systems. Thank you

  2. this long statement does not undermine Noah’s point, however.

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