Three thousand more words on critical realism
The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance. The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance. But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.
My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).
That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.
I think that Kieran is descriptively accurate in noting that in the general discourse of philosophy of science CR is a peripheral position, one that does not command much attention. I also agree with Kieran’s descriptive statement that essentially every major topic that somehow falls under the umbrella of CR is covered in some major subfield of contemporary philosophy, and is probably covered in more sophisticated ways (note that this has to be true almost by definition, since most people who do CR are themselves philosophers by necessity not by training). Kieran is also descriptively correct in noting that sociology, qua empirical science, “needs very little philosophy in order to thrive” (although here of course CR people will not accept Kieran’s implicit [Mertonian] definition of what a thriving sociological science looks like). Kieran is also correct that innovation in science happens at the interfield level and that it is in fact interfield sciences that have rocked the boat of post-1970s philosophy of science (see for instance Philip Kitcher’s (one day old!) NYT op-ed, or the work of Lindley Darden, Peter Machamer, Carl Craver, especially this and this). The point is that the world just does not come pre-packaged in some neatly organized nested ontology, but is much messier and “dappled” (in Nancy Cartwright’s terms) than our usual (armchair) ontological pictures allow.
The overall premise of Kieran’s post (which I don’t think any of the CR commenters did anything to convince anybody otherwise) is that CR seems when presented as a giant (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, practical, deontological), package to which you must convert and/or express your assent as a whole is overkill for the everyday conduct of science of most people in the discipline. Note that it could be that your basic point is that you have a problem with the scientific image (gold star for getting the reference to the–brilliant–anti-realist philosopher Bas van Fraassen) that governs the conduct of most people in mainstream American sociology, and it is this scientific image that you are going to try to deflate (this, as I understand it, is one of Chris Smith’s major critical points). But note that this is a huge conditional that is seldom explicitly laid out on the table by proponents of CR (because they prefer to argue against ideological ”positions”, and not institutional realities as I note below [is this ironic in a non-Alanis sense?]).
What a lot of CR proponents seem to fail to understand is that American’s sociology scientific image is not a set of philosophical “positions” (postmodernism, positivism, etc.) in the British or continental style. I hope I don’t have to bring up Randall Collins to make the point that in a resource poor, largely qualitative environment, where sociology resolves itself into lonely people sitting in offices writing books about the human condition, then it would seem that sociology is just a collection of such thought camps. But the problem is that American sociology is no such animal. Instead, it is a complex network of invisible colleges, cross-generational intellectual projects, highly differentiated subfields endowed with heterogeneous methodological and epistemic standards, strongly coupled to really existing (material) technologies of knowledge production, and firmly ensconced in a university complex of such size and magnitude (Michele Lamont when talking to her European counterparts usually refers to American sociology as a “machine”) as to make British (or French, or German, or Dutch) sociology the equivalent of an ASA section. In this environment, the standard CR rhetorical tack of arguing against “positions” does not work, because such positions do not really exist. Instead, the critic is reduced to inventing such positions and then imputing them to people. But you do not have to be a Bourdieusian field theorist to understand that this is a strategy that is bound to fail because (as Bourdieu loved to remind us) the word “categorization” comes from the Greek kategorien which meant “to accuse publicly.” Meaning that when you categorize me (in a context in which the category does not make much sense, and thus gives me a lot of leeway to controvert your categorization), those are fighting words, and I’m going to categorize you back. Unfortunately, a lot of recent CR work has resolved itself into this (wasteful) project of position construction and associated name-calling and this is going to make it even less palatable to a larger sociological audience. One thing that proponents of CR need to understand is that the intellectual strategies that worked in the British intellectual field will not work in American sociology, because the nature of the field is radically different.
Doug Porpora’s attempt to defend CR is actually telling in this respect. Here, a set of binary choices are presented (habitus or agency?, culture or structure?), one side is characterized as the “bad” side, the other one is the “good” side and CR is good because it tells you which one it is. Doug (facetiously) commented on his (institutional) age, but I think there was unintended wisdom in that comment. And it is this: It is precisely a setting up of choices like this and of the presumption that you can tell people what the choices are that will turn off every single young sociologist interested in theory from CR. For one, kids don’t like being told what to do. Second, this is actually a mis-representation of CR, which is actually much more liberal and much more accepting of intellectual diversity than it comes off when being “defended” by proponents. So if you want young theorists in sociology to begin to take a serious look at CR, then this is (in this forum or in more serious writings on the topic) the face of CR that you want to emphasize.
The CR habitus of “arguing against positions” does not work in the American field because position distinctiveness is not the main prize, instead it is “pragmatic synthesis” (provisionally putting humpty dumpty together again). CR of course packages itself of as a synthesis, but by the time they are done giving you the tour, you figure that you have to make so many enemies to join the club that that it is definitely not worth it. Bit of advice: stop it with the position criticism and let’s do more constructive work. This is already there in some of the best CR inspired work (e.g. What is a Person?), but people have such a negative taste on their mouth by the time they get to the constructive stuff that they no longer trust the messenger (this problem besets John Martin’s The Explanation of Social Action, so there is nothing particularly CRish about this issue).
An added problem of arguing against positions is that it has left CR with a somewhat outdated picture both of the scientific image of American sociology, but also of the field of Philosophy of Science in general. The problem is that this can lead to an over-valuation of the novelty of what you are saying, because you think that Philosophy of Science is Popper and Hempel, when in reality (as I alluded to above) it is in fact Cartwright, Darden, Bechtel, Bunge, etc. My favorite philosopher of science (Ronald Giere) wrote a book called Science without Laws, but you would not know this from the modal CR paper trying to introduce basic Philosophy of Science to sociologists. Now this is weird because convergent developments in modern (analytic) philosophy of science should be making CR people happy: “told you, Bhaskar was right after all.” But (this is the most incisive field-theoretic point made by Kieran which has been missed by most people) the fact that it does not has to make you a bit suspicious, in the sense that maybe CR people don’t want you go shopping around for functionally equivalent insights from others, because they want you to buy their product. I don’t think that this is true, but the (sometimes odd) recalcitrance to update CR with contemporary insights from Philosophy of Science not only reproduces the (objectively; this is not a value judgment) peripheral position of CR in the field, but seems to show a sort of “in-groupy” (and certainly not healthy) tendency to revel in your marginality. Once again, I don’t think that this is true, but this will be the objective payoff of continuing to pursue an isolationist and not than synthetic intellectual strategy vis a vis mainstream philosophy of science.
To put it more bluntly, why should I, a person who is familiar with the literature on mechanisms, cite a CR article on mechanisms (with the possible intellectual consequences that may come from being associated with a (faux) “controversial” movement), when I can cite a bunch of other functional equivalents (e.g. Bunge on systemism, Machamer et al 2000; Bechtel and Abrahamsen, and so on). This is without mentioning an advantage of “regular” Philosophy of Science (RPoS) over CR: the fact I can consume RPoS “buffet style” but CR (seems) to want to force me to sit down for a five course dinner and finish every plate. But sometimes I just want the HBO package by itself (because I only like GoT and Girls) without having to get a bunch of other channels that for all I know only have bad programming. The other problem is that CR may (and it already has at some level) become disconnected from those areas of philosophy of science that most directly impact everyday practice (and where the most exciting philosophical work is being done) at the danger of becoming stuck in an endless discussion on (possibly irresolvable) metaphysical matters. Once again think of the exciting work on “models” in science (Morrison, Morgan, Giere); there have been some CR people who have contributed to this, but there are usually overshadowed by people working on more abstruse (less useful for everyday scientific practice) topics.
In this respect, I think that Phil’s Contemporary Sociology review, while well-intended (because it sends the right message) sends the wrong meta-message (in Bateson’s terms). The review struck me as a classic example of (actually excellent) CR writing (although the penchant to criticize non-existent positions remains). Phil made many points with which I wholeheartedly agree, points that (and this is where I am 100% behind CR) I wish nobody needed to make (this is where I imagine in Don LaFontaine’s voice “In a world, in which American sociologists are familiar with basic philosophy of science…”). But the meta-message was terrible, (and this is another point where I thought the CR responses to Kieran’s main point were completely tone-deaf): “Are you (American sociologist) concerned about your epistemic and ontological salvation? Then here, read the basic works of our founder and savior!” This meta-message is terrible because it links the “take or leave it as a big package” presentation with an umbilical connection to a “founding father.” George might have chafed at the guru jokes (although speaking of not well thought-out attempts at a sociology of knowledge, the orientalist insinuation is just a performative demonstration that maybe Mannheim was right on some basic issues), but he misses their grain of truth. The point is that Bhaskar is a huge legitimating problem for CR (and no amount of foot-stomping is going to change that), but most importantly, I don’t see why it has to be this way.
Why can the basic ideas just be presented as good sound ideas without the “let’s cite the founder” habitual impulse? (By the way, this is a rhetorical question because the basic ideas have been presented this way already, but the point is that now this work is undone because they will be retroactively linked to the Bhaskar issue). Why can’t the basic ideas be presented in strategic, disaggregated fashion (in the way of Phil’s awesome Sociological Methodology piece, or George’s excellent article on Historical Sociology) and not as a part of grand package? As alluded to already, cable companies have made people suspicious about signing up for things that you don’t need, so CR people can learn a lesson here. Why the presumption that I have to read 12 books by some dude whose more recent choices display dubious intellectual instincts to have a sound sense of how science works (I don’t, and neither should you, and don’t listen to anybody that tells you that you should). What can I just listen to Phil, or Chris, or Kieran? Why hook the entire fate of the enterprise to Bhaskar? None of the CR proponents have a convincing answer to this question (because, of course this was not an intellectual choice, but *literally* a founder effect). But the point is that it does not matter what their answer is and they are kidding themselves if they think that you can just paper over it. The link to Bhaskar is an inherently deligitimating one and is something that CR people (if they don’t want to be dismissed for superficial reasons) need to deal with. Once again, in the European field, connection to a founder figure works. In the American scene if your founder figure did not die before WWII you are looked at with suspicion. That is why there are no (influential) “people branded” intellectual movements in the US. But the larger point is that CR need not be a person-branded scientific-intellectual movement.
I will close with one last point. The CR “debate” can lead people to believe that CR is some sort of highly controversial entity in the contemporary philosophical marketplace. But I believe that a key mistake that CR people are making is to overestimate their “controversial” status. This was another point that Kieran made that has been lost in the shuffle. The most disturbing thing that I find about CR is that I agree with a lot of it. This makes me suspicious because (and this is where self-reflexivity kicks in) it makes me wonder whether CR is telling me what I want to hear. Kieran speculated that this is part of the appeal of CR, and I think that CR people (because they read this comment as inflammatory or as impugning their intellectual integrity) need to worry about this. Because if you have a “system” that just wraps everything under one big bow, and “resolves” every single ontological, metaphysical, and epistemic issue in the social sciences in one fell swoop, it would make everything boring. And to be honest, a key problem with a lot of CR writing is that, after all is said and done (and Swidler, or whoever has been swiftly disposed of as hopelessly confused) the CR “solution” to the problem ends up being a giant definition-like list, in which all of the previous contradictions regarding whatever (agency, structure, culture) are “resolved” by the rhetorical tack that the previous position was “partial” and that the solution is that the theorist just missed the (obvious) fact that the partial thing actually just has its place in a larger whole, a whole that also has slots for the things that the partial theorist said did not exist. This makes me suspicious because, used in this mode, CR becomes a tool to defuse a lot of the intellectual issues that actually motivate good theoretical work. In that respect, a good chunk of CR theory has a lot in common with another system builder who used the same rhetorical tack. His name was, of course, G. W. F. Hegel. We know what happened after that.
* The fallacious claim in Fabio’s original post is that the “orgtheory crew” is unanimous in agreeing that “critical realism is lame.” I think that what Fabio meant to say is that “I think that critical realism is lame” and that I usually presume that my opinion is shared by other people unless told otherwise.”