Critical realism

15 Feb, 2020 at 11:26 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 7 Comments

royWhat properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us? My strategy in developing an answer to this question will be effectively based on a pincer movement. But in deploying the pincer I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental. Thus it is because sticks and stones are solid that they can be picked up and thrown, not because they can be picked up and thrown that they are solid (though that they can be handled in this sort of way may be a contingently necessary condition for our knowledge of their solidity).

No philosopher of science has influenced yours truly’s thinking more than Roy did, and in a time when scientific relativism is still on the march, it is important to keep up his claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level.

royScience is made possible by the fact that there exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this 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, the 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 about​ 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.

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.

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.

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.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events are​ 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.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.


  1. 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.

    This seems like an extravagant claim to be making about society and social science. To a very large extent, the deep structures of political societies and economic systems are rather obviously “fictions” of a sort: concepts and beliefs that shape human apprehension of the possibilities afforded by both the natural and social world and shape human behavior. What are the roles and rules prescribed by social, political and economic institutions if not concepts and theories?

    Our theories of the political economy are not independent of the ontological reality of the political economy. If anything, our concepts and frames and myths and theories of political economy are the very being of the political economy, the “fictional” stuff from which a social system is constructed.

    • The sun, the moon, wind, rain, genes, love, hate, etc, etc, sure exist “independently of our knowledge and theories of it.” Not to admit that you easily end up on a slippery slope to extreme (social) constructivism.

      • the sun, the moon, wind and rain, genes — OK, maybe, but “love, hate”??!!
        sure, I understand that emotions must have some physiological substrate, but surely we also understand emotions in a social and cultural context in which those emotions are aroused and defined and channeled by narrative fictions, which embody the theories and concepts we have concerning our relationships with friends and strangers, leaders and followers, kin and others. the physiology of the human animal may exist, but the motivating and expression of emotions requires an interpretation of social relationship and signals, the being of which is primarily information, story, symbol, and only secondarily, at best, blood pressure or adrenaline.
        an economist, it seems to me, deal with concepts that refer to things that do not exist apart from humans thinking: a “cost” does not have an “objective” existence apart from a particularly situated human agent’s decision or choice. “Cost” (in the classic sense of opportunity cost) is solely a property of that inherently subjective decision-frame; it has no objective existence. One could compile tables of the metallurgical properties of various steel alloys, by applying methodologically consistent tests of elasticity, hardness, malleability, tensile strength, et cetera. The methods make such assessments “objective” in that anyone following the methodologically prescribed formula for the test comes up with a result consistent with the results of others following the same methods. The cost of making a loaf of bread to the housewife and to the local bakery or to the some food processing giant with a massive plant are not “objective” facts in the same sense as the metallurgical properties of an alloy. The “cost” depends not just on the particular situation, but it may also depend upon how clever decision-maker is, in conceiving her options strategically.
        i do not know how “extreme” one has to be, to know that a social science must be a science of the socially constructed culture and institutions of a society.

    • Re: “Reality and our concepts of it are not identical” – this claim is perhaps ‘extravagant’ compared to strong ontological agnosticism (it is unknowable as to whether concepts of reality are identical or not to reality). But it does strike me as a little more ‘extravagant’ than ontological idealism (that concepts of reality are identical to reality).
      Talk of (non-)identity are perhaps more usefully couched in terms of (in)dependence. The existence of some real entities are entirely causally and constitutionally independent of (anyone’s) awareness of them. The exemplars come from the physical sciences. E.g. the molecular structure of a piece of wood is not dependent at all on anyone’s awareness of it. It is what it is, whether or not it is perceived, or theorised, or inferred.
      And the existence of some real entities are partly causally and constitutionally dependent on people’s awareness of them. The exemplars come from the human sciences. E.g. language, money. Without awareness of them by at least some people, they would not exist. But this *dependence* is not to say that these real entities are *identical* to concepts of them.
      Such real entities are *also* partly causally and constitutionally dependent on some real entities of the first kind (in these cases, the real entities of the first kind might be thought of as the ‘raw material’ out of which they existentially constituted, or the ‘material means’ by which they are brought into existence. E.g., a language partially depends for its existence on physical symbols, physical sounds, physical brains, etc. E.g., money partially depends for its existence on physical symbols, physical brains, etc.

      • Whoops – I meant to write “But ontological idealism (that concepts of reality are identical to reality) does strike me as a little more ‘extravagant’.”

  2. @ Bruce,
    To rescue yourself from “a slippery slope to extreme (social) constructivism”, it may be helpful to exercise your sense of humour by briefly dipping into:
    Roy Bhaskar – “Plato, etc.: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution”

    In the final sentence , on page 189, we learn that:
    “The real basis for the resolution of the problems of philosophy lies here — in the abolition of structurally sedimented power relations of domination (including relations of exploitation of nature) in the development of the life of four-planar social being (including the unfinished moral evolution of the species informing our response to the intra-social and eco-social contradictions currently confronting humanity); that is to say, in the project of universal human emancipation, which in Chapter 7 I sought to show to be implicit in every act.”

    • As you may have noticed, yours truly never refers to Bhaskar’s later publications. There’s a reason for that.

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