Archive for the ‘omar’ Category

More words on critical realism: Getting clear on the basics

One thing that I found dissatisfying about our earlier “discussion” on CR is that it ultimately left the task of actually getting clear on what CR “is” unfinished (or bungled).  Chris tried to provide a “bulletpoint” summary in one of the out of control comment threads, but his quick attempt at exposition mixed together two things that I think should be kept separate (what I call high level principles from substantively important derivations from those principles). This post tries to follow Chris Smith’s (sound advice) that ” We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.”

The task of getting clear on the nature of CR is particularly relevant for people who haven’t already formed strong opinions on CR and who are just curious about what it is. My argument here is that neither proponents nor critics do a good job of just telling people what CR is in its most basic form. The reason for this has to do with precisely the complex nature of CR as an ontology, epistemology, theory of science, and (most importantly) a set of interrelated theses about the natural, social, cultural, mental, world that are derived from applying the high level philosophical commitments to concrete problems. My argument is that CR will continue to draw incoherent reactions and counter-reactions (by both proponents and opponents) unless these aspects are disaggregated, and we get clear on what exactly we are disagreeing about.  One of these incoherent reactions is that CR is both a “giant” package of meta-theoretical commitments and that CR is actually a fairly “minimalist” set of principles the reasonable nature of which would only be denied by the certifiably insane.

In particular it is important to separate the high level “core” commitments from all the substantive derivations, because it is possible to accept the core commitments and disagree with the derivations. In essence, a lot of stuff (actually most of the stuff) that gets called “CR” consists of a particular theorist’s application of the high level principles to a given problem. For instance, one can apply (as did Bhaskar in the “original” contributions) the high level ontology to derive a (general) theory of science. One can (as Bhaskar also did) use the general theory of science to derive a local theory (both descriptive and normative) of social science (via the undemonstrable assumption that social science is just like other sciences).  And the same can be done for pretty much any other topic: I can use CR to derive a general theory of social structures, or human action, or culture, or the person, or whatever. Once again, the cautionary point above stands: I can vehemently disagree with all the special theories, while still agreeing with the high level CR principles. In other words I can disagree with the conclusion while agreeing with the high-level premises because I believe that you can’t get where you want to go from where you start. This may happen because let’s say, I can see the CR theorist engaging in all sorts of reasoning fallacies (begging the question, arguing against straw men, helping him or herself to undemonstrable but substantively important sub-theses, and so on) to get from the high level principles to the particular theory of (fill in the blank: the person, social structure, social mechanisms, human action, culture, and so on).

This is also I believe the best way to separate the “controversial” from the “uncontroversial” aspects of CR, and to make sense of why CR appears to be both trivial and controversial at the same time. In my view the high level principles are absolutely uncontroversial. It is the deployment of these principles to derive substantively meaningful special theories with strong and substantively important implications that results in controversial (because not necessarily coherent or valid at the level of reasoning) theories.

The High Level Basics.-

One thing that is seldom noted by either proponents or critics of CR is that the fundamental high level theses are actually pretty simple and in fact fairly uncontroversial. These only become “controversial” when counterposed to nutty epistemologies or theories of science that nobody holds or really believes (e.g. so-called “positivism”, radical social constructionism, or whatever). I argued against this way of introducing CR precisely because it confounds the level at which CR actually becomes controversial.

So what are these theses? As repeatedly pointed to by both Phil and Chris in the ridiculously long comment thread, and as ritualistically introduced by most CR writers in social theory (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass), these are simply a non-reductionist “realism” coupled to a non-reductionist, neo-Aristotelian ontology.

The non-reductionist realism part is usually the one that is much ballyhooed by proponents of CR, but in my view, this is actually the least interesting (and least distinctive) part of CR in relation to other options. In fact, if this was all that CR offered, there would be no reason to consider it any further. So the famous empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad is not really a particularly meaningful signature of CR. The only interesting high-level point that CR makes at this level is the “thou shall not reduce the real to the actual, or worse, to the empirical.” Essentially: the world throws surprises at you because it is not reducible to what you know, and is not reducible to what happens (or has happened or will happen). I don’t think that this is particularly interesting because no reasonable person will disagree with these premises. Yes, there are people that seem to say something different, but once you sit them down for 10 minutes and explain things to them, they would agree that the real is not reducible to our conceptions or our experiences of reality. Even the seemingly more controversial point (that reality is not reducible to the actual) is actually (pun intended) not that controversial. In this sense CR is just a vanilla form of realism.

When we consider the CR conception of ontology then things get more interesting. Most CR people propose an essentially neo-Aristotelian conception of the structure of world as composed of entities endowed with inherent causal powers. This conception links to the EAR distinction in the following sense: The real causal powers of an entity endow it with a dispositional set of tendencies or propensities to generate actual events in the world; these actual events may or may not be empirically observable. The causal powers of an entity are real in the sense that these powers and propensities exist even if they are never actualized or observed by anyone. To use the standard trite example, the causal power to break a window is a dispositional property of a rock; this property is real in these that it is there whether it is ever actualized (an actual window breaking with a rock event happens in the world), and whether anybody ever observes this event.

Reality then, is just such a collection of entities endowed with causal powers that come from their inherent nature. The nature of entities is not an unanalyzable monad but is itself the (“emergent” in the sense outlined below) result of the powers and dispositions of the lower level constituents of that entity suitably organized in the right configuration. What in earlier conceptions of science are called “laws of nature” happen to be simply observed events generated by the actualization of a mechanism, whereby a “mechanism” is simply a regular, coherently organized, collection of entities endowed inherent causal powers acting upon one another in a predictable fashion. Scientists isolate the mechanism when they are able to manipulate the organization of the entities in question so that the event is actualized with predictable regularity; these events are then linked to an observational system to generate the so-called phenomenological or empirical regularities (“the laws”) that formed the core of traditional (Hempelian) conceptions of science.

The laws thus result from the regular operation of “nomological machines” (in Cartwright’s sense). The CR point is thus that the phenomenological “laws” are secondary, because they are just the effect produced by hooking together a real mechanism to produce (potentially) observable events in a regular way. So the CR people would say that Hacking’s aphorism “if you can spray them they are real” is made sense of by the unobservable stuff that you can spray is an entity endowed with the causal power capable of generating observable phenomena when isolated as part of an actualized mechanism. The observability thing is secondary, because the powers are there whether you can observe the entity or not. That’s the CR “theory of science.”

The key to the CR ontology is that the nature of entities is understood using a “layered” ontological picture in which entities are understood as essentially wholes made of parts organized according to a given configuration (a system of relations). These “parts” are themselves other entities which may be decomposable into further parts (lower level entities organized in a system of relations and so on). Causal powers emerge at different levels and are not reducible to the causal powers of some “fundamental” level. Thus, CR proposes a non-reductionist, “layered” ontology, with emergent causal powers at each level.

This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations. Thus, CR is an ontological democracy which retains the part-whole mereology of standard realist accounts, but rejects the reductionist implication that the structure of the world bottoms out at some fundamental level of reality where the really real causal powers can be found (and with higher level causal powers simply being a derivative shadow of the fundamental ones).

Getting controversial.-

Now you can see things getting interesting, because we have a stronger set of position takings. Note that from our initial vanilla realism, and our seemingly innocuous EAR distinction, along with a meatier conceptualization of entities as organized wholes endowed with powers and propensitities, we are now living in a world composed of a panoply of real entities at different levels of analysis, endowed with (non-reducible) real causal powers at each level. The key proposition that is beginning to generate premises that we can actually have arguments about is of course the premise of ontological emergence. I argue that this premise not a CR requirement. For instance, why can’t I be a reductionist critical realist? (RCR) Essentially, RCR accepts the EAR distinction, but privileges a fundamental level; this fundamental level may ultimately figure in our theoretical conceptions of reality but it is the bedrock upon which all actual and empirical events stand. In other words, the only true “mechanisms” that I accept are the ones composed of entities at the most fundamental level of reality, which may or may not ever be uncovered. I don’t seriously intend to defend this position, but just bring it up as an attempt to show that CR hooks together a lot of things that are logically independent (emergentist ontology, Aristotelian conception of entities, part-whole mereology, with a “causal powers” view of causation, among others).

In any case, my argument is that most of the substantively interesting CR theses do not emerge (pun intended) from the Bhaskarian theory or science, or the account of causation, or the EAR distinction. They emerge from hooking together (ontological) emergentism and an Aristotelian conceptions of entities and dispositional causal powers. For emergentism is what generates the (controversial) explosion of real entities in CR writing. Not only that, emergentism is the only calling card that CR writers have to provide what Dave Elder-Vass has called a “regional ontology” for the social sciences, that does not resolve into just repeating the boring EAR distinction or the (increasingly uncontroversial) “theory of science” that Bhaskar developed in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism. 

How to be a (controversial) Critical Realist in two easy steps.-

So now that we have that covered, it is easy to show how to produce a “controversial” CR argument. First, pick a mereology. Meaning, pick some entities to serve as the parts, preferably entities that themselves do not have a controversial status (most people would agree that the entities exist, form coherent wholes, have natures, and so on), and pick a more controversially coherent whole that these parts could conceivably be the parts of. Then argue that the parts do indeed form such a whole via the ontological emergence postulate. Note that the postulate allows you to fudge on this point, because you do not actually have to specify the mechanism via which this ontological emergence relation is actualized (you can argue that that is the job of empirical science and so on). Then hooking the CR notion of causal powers and the EAR distinction and the postulate of ontological democracy of all entities argue that this whole is now a super-addition to the usual vanilla reality. That is, the  new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.

Now we have the materials to make some people (justifiably) discomfited about a substantive CR claim (or at least motivated to write a critical paper). For if you look at most of the contributions of CR to various issues they resolve themselves to  just the steps that I outlined above. So the CR “theory” of social structure, is precisely what you think. Social structure is composed of individuals, organized by a set of relations that form a coherent (configured) whole. This whole (social structure) is now a real entity endowed with its own causal powers, which now (may) exert “downward causation” on the individual’s the constitute it. These causal powers are not reducible to those of the individuals that constitute it. This how CR cashes in what John Levi Martin has referred to as the “substantive hunch” that animates all sociological research. “The social” emerges from the powers and activities of individuals but it never ultimately resolves itself into an aggregation of those powers and activities. Note that CR is opposed to any form of ontological reduction whether it is “downwards” or “upwards.” Thus attempts to reduce social structure to the mental or interactional level are “downward conflationist” and attempts to reduce individuals to social structure (or language or what have you), are “upward conflationist.” Thus, the “first” Archer trilogy can be read in this way. First, on the non-reducibility (and ontological independence between) social structure in relation to the individual or individual activity, then “culture” in relation to the individual or individual interaction, and later (in reverse) personal agency in relation to either social structure or culture.

Essentially, the stratified ontology postulate must be respected. Any attempt to simplify the ontological picture is rejected as so much covert (or overt) reductionism or “conflation.” Note that “conflation” is not technically a formal error of reasoning (as is begging the question) but simply an attempt by a theorist to simplify the ontological picture by abandoning the ontological democracy or ontological emergence postulates. A lot of the times CR theorists (like Archer) reject conflation as if it was such an error in reasoning, when in fact it is a substantive argument that cannot be dismissed in such an easy way. Note that this is weird because both the ontological democracy and the ontological emergence argument are themselves non-demonstrable but substantively important propositions in CR. Thus, most CR attempts to dismiss either reductionist or simplifying ontologies themselves do commit such a formal error of reasoning, namely, begging the question in favor of ontological emergence and ontological democracy.

Another way to make a CR argument is to start with a predetermined high level entity of choice. This kind of CR argument is more “defensive” than constructive. Here the analyst picks an entity the real status of which has (for some reason) become controversial, either because some theorists purport to show that it does not “really” exist (meaning that it is just a shorthand way to talk about some aggregate of actually existing lower level entities), or is not required to generate scientific accounts of some slice of the world (ontological simplification or reduction a la caloric or phlogiston). Here CR arguments essentially use the ontological democracy postulate to simply say that the preferred whole has ontological independence from either the lower constituents or higher level entities to which others seek to reduce the focal entity. Moreover, the CR theorist may argue that this ontological independence is demonstrated by the fact that this entity has (actualized and/or empirically observable) causal powers, once again above and beyond those provided by the lower level (or higher level ) entities or processes usually trotted out to “reduce it away.” This applies in particular to the “humanist” strand of CR that attempts to defend specific causal powers that are seen as inherent properties of persons (e.g. reflexivity in Archer’s case) or even the very notion of person (in Chris Smith’s What is a Person?) as an emergent whole endowed with specific causal powers, properties and propensities.

To recap, CR is a complex object composed of many parts. But not all parts are of the same nature. I have distinguished between roughly three parts, organized according to the generality of the claim and the specificity of the substantive points made. In this respect, I would distinguish between:

1) The parts that CR shares with all “vanilla” realisms. This includes the postulate of ontological realism (mind-independence of the existence of reality), the transitive/intransitive distinction, the EAR distinction, and so on. In itself, none of these theses make CR particularly distinctive, unique or useful. If you disagree with CR at this level, based on irrealist premises, congratulations. You are insane.

2) The Aristotelian ontology.- This specifies the kind of realism that CR proposes. Here things get more interesting, because there is actual philosophical debate about this (nobody seriously defends irrealist positions in Philosophy any more and most sociologists just like to pretend to be irrealists to show off at parties). Here CR could play a role in philosophical debates insofar as a neo-Aristotelian approach to realism and explanation is a coherent position in Philosophy of Science (although it is not without its challengers). Here belongs (among other things) the specific CR conceptualizations of objects and entities, the causal (dispositional) powers ontology (when hooked to the EAR distinction) and the specific “Theory of Science” and the “Theory of Explanation” that follows from these (essentially endorsing mechanismic and systems explanation over reductive, covering law stories). This is what I believe is the best ontological move and CR should be commended in this respect.

3) The stratified ontology.- This comes from yoking (1) and (2) to the ontological emergence and ontological democracy postulate. This is where you can find a lot of “controversial” (where by controversial I mean worth arguing about, worth specifying, worth clarifying, and in some cases worth rejecting) arguments in CR. These are of three types: ontological emergence arguments, augment the standard common-sense ontology of material entities to argue for the existence of higher level non-material entities; thus “social structures” are as real as the couch that you are lying on; the danger here is a world that comes to populated with a host of emergent “entities” with no principled way of deciding which ones are in fact real (beyond the theorist’s taste). This is the problem of ontological inflation, (2) “Downward causation” arguments add this postulate to suggest that the emergent (non-material or material) entities not only “exist” in a passive sense, but actually exert causal effect on lower level components or other higher-level entities, (3) “ontological independence” arguments attempt to show that a particular sort of entity that is usually done violence to in standard (reductionist) accounts has a level of ontological integrity that cannot be impugned and has a set of causal powers that cannot be dismissed. In humanist and personalist accounts, this entity is “the person” along with a host of powers and capacities that are usually blunted in “social-scientific” accounts (e.g. persons as centers of moral purpose) and the enemies are the positions that attempt to explain away these powers or capacities or that attempt to show that the don’t matter as much as other entities (e.g. “social structure”).

4) Continuing extensions of the stratified ontology argument.- This is the part of CR that has drawn (an unfair) amount of attention, because it extends the same set of arguments to defend both the reality but also the causal powers of a set of entities that (a) a lot of people are diffident about according the same level of reality to as the standard material entities, and (b) things that most people would have difficulty even calling entities. These may be “norms,” “the mental,” “the cultural,” “the discursive,” and “levels of reality” above and beyond the plain old material/empirical world that we all know and love (e.g. super-empirical domains of reality). You can see how CR can get controversial here.

5) Additional stuff.- A lot of other CR arguments do not directly follow from any of these, but are added as supplementary premises to round out CR as a holistic perspective. For instance, the rejection of the fact-value distinction in science is not really a logical derivation from the theory of science or the neo-Aristotelian ontology, and neither is the “judgmental rationality” postulate (that science progresses, gradually gets at the truth, etc.). I mean all realisms presuppose that we get better at science, but this is not really a logical derivation from realist premises (as argued by Arthur Fine). The fact/value thing is in the same boat, because it requires a detour through a lot of controversial group (3) and group (4) territory to be made to stick. For instance, given that persons are emergent entities, endowed with non-arbitrary properties and powers, then the “relativist” arguments that any social arrangement is as good as any other for the flourishing of personhood is clearly not valid. This means that social scientists have to take a strong stance on the value question (hence sociological inquiry cannot be value neutral). Because a mixture of Aristotelian ontology and ontological emergentism applied to human nature is incompatible with moral (and social-institutional) relativism, the the fact value distinction in social science is untenable. However, note that to get there  a lot of other premises, sub-premises, and substantive arguments for the reality of persons as emergent, neo-Aristotelian entities have to be accepted as valid. In this sense the fact/value thing is only a derivation from certain extensions of CR into controversial territory. As already intimated, What is a Person? is a (well-argued!) piece of controversial CR precisely in this sense.

Note that this clarifies the “giant package” versus “minimalist” CR debate. Let’s go back to the cable analogy. So you are considering signing  up for CR? Here’s the deal: The “basic” CR package would (in my view) be any acceptance of (1) and (2) (with some but not all elements of (3)). In this sense, I am a Critical Realist (and so should you). The “standard” CR package includes in addition to (1), (2) and all of (3), some elements of (4). Here we enter controversial territory, because a lot of CR arguments for the “reality” of this or that are not as tight or well-argued as their proponents suppose. In their worst forms, they resolve themselves into picking your favorite thing (e.g. self-reflexivity), and then calling it “real” and “causally powerful” because “emergent.” It is no surprise that Archer’s weakest work is of this (most recent) ilk. Here the obsession with ontological democracy prevents any consideration of ontological simplification or actual ontological stratification (meaning getting clear on which causal powers matter most rather than assigning each one their preferred, isolated level). Finally, the “turbo” package requires that you sign up for (1) through (5), this of course is undeniably controversial, because here CR goes from being a philosophy of scientific practice to being a philosophy of life, the universe and everything. Sometimes CR people seem to act surprised that people may be reluctant to adopt a philosophy of life, but I believe that this has to do with their penchant to suppose that once you accept the basic, then the chain or reasoning that will lead you to the standard and the turbo follows inexorably and unproblematically.

This is absolutely not the case, and this where CR folk would benefit most from talking to people who are not fully committed to the turbo, but who (like other sane people) are already 80% into the basic (and maybe even the standard). My sense is that we should certainly be arguing about the right things, and in my view the right things are at the central node (3), because this is the where the key set of argumentative devices that allows CR people to derive substantively meaningful (“controversial”) conclusions (both at that level—arguments for the reality of “social structure”—and about type (4) and (5) matters), and where most attempts to provide a workable ontology for the social sciences are either going to be cashed in, or be rejected as aesthetically pleasing formulations of dubious practical utility.

Written by Omar

September 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

congratulations to Omar!

Earlier this week the Theory Section of ASA announced in an email that Omar Lizardo is this year’s winner of the Lewis Coser Award for Theoretical Agenda Setting. Congratulations!  According to the Theory Section’s website, the award is “intended to recognize a mid-career sociologist whose work holds great promise for setting the agenda in the field of sociology.” This is a well-deserved recognition for Omar, whose research covers a diverse range of theory and empirical substance. It’s unlikely that you’ve read everything interesting that Omar has written lately (including his fantastic book reviews). My advice is just to dig in and start reading. You’ll learn something.


Written by brayden king

July 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Posted in just theory, omar, sociology

deep culture and organization theory

This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.

The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.

Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.

What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:

Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).

The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am

Rethinking Cultural Depth

The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).

One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”

These are not the same sort of statement.  Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that

…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).

So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”

Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,

…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different  circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).

Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist:  there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects.  Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian  not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.

The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument.  That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions).  However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly.  She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.”   Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).

This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said).  There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.

More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.

This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind).  This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things.  I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).

Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it.  But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.”  A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.

If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization.  In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so.  But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night).  Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture?  Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.

Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.”  Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).

Special Issue of Social Psychology Quarterly

Hi all, here’s an ad:


At the 2012 ASA meetings, a number of members of the Social Psychology Section sported pins announcing “Social Psychology—it’s actually everywhere!” The same may be true about culture and cultural processes. The Culture section “considers material products, ideas, and symbolic means and their relation to social behavior.” The new American Journal of Cultural Sociology and the long standing Poetics: Journal of Empirical Work on Culture, Media, and the Arts publish a wide array of studies focused on aspects of culture. The intent of a special issue of Social Psychology Quarterly is to highlight the deep connections between the omnipresent cultural context/processes and social psychological mechanisms in social life.
The intersection of culture and social psychology may take many forms. Claims that “culture is cognition” raise linkages between cultural meaning-making and a wide array of internal processes such as stereotyping, attribution, schematic processing, and the like. Identity processes involve recognition of shared and negotiated meanings and interpersonal dynamics within cultural contexts that may bolster or alter identity meanings and subsequent behavior. And, the varied status and power processes shaping dynamics among individuals and groups may underlie the production, consumption, and interpretation of cultural objects.
We welcome submissions from a broad range of empirical and theoretical perspectives, demonstrating the links between social psychological mechanisms and cultural processes to explain a wide variety of practices (pertaining, for example, to religion, health, politics, music, art, intergroup dynamics).  The deadline for submitting papers is May 1, 2013. The usual ASA requirements for submission apply (see “Notice for Contributors”). Papers may be submitted at  Please indicate in a cover letter that you would like your submission to be considered for the special issue. Prospective authors should feel free to communicate with the coeditors ( or or special issue editors, Jessica Collett ( and Omar Lizardo ( about the appropriateness of their papers.

Written by Omar

December 5, 2012 at 12:42 am

Posted in culture, omar

Why strong social constructionism does not work I: Arguments from Reference

In this and a series of forthcoming posts, I will attempt to outline an argument showing that most of the time claims to have derived a substantively important conclusion from constructionist premises are incoherent.   By a substantively important conclusion I refer to strong arguments for the “social construction of X” where X is some sort of category or natural kind that is usually thought to have general ontological validity in the larger culture (e.g gender, race, mental illness, etc.).

In a nutshell, I will argue that the reason for why these sort of arguments do not really work is that they require us to draw on a theory of meaning, language and reference that is itself inconsistent with constructionism.  To put it simply: substantively important conclusions derived from constructionist premises require a theory of reference that implies at least the potential for realism about natural kinds and a strong coupling between linguistic descriptions and the real properties of the entities to which those descriptions apply, but constructionism is premised on the a priori denial of realism about natural kinds and of such a strong coupling between language and the world.  Thus, most strong claims about something being “socially constructed” cannot be strong claims at all.  This argument applies to all forms of social constructionism, whether of the phenomenological, semiotic, or interactionist varieties.

Here I will first do two things:  1) give a more “technical” definition of what I mean by a “substantively important conclusion” within a constructionist mode of argumentation (noting that my argument does not apply to “softer” versions of constructionism) and 2) nail down the point that constructionism (and any other set of premises designed to draw substantively important conclusions about the natural and social worlds) depends on an “argument from reference” in order to work.  Finally, I will lay out the argument that 3) because of this dependence, strong constructionist conclusions are usually not warranted (they follow from an incoherent argument).

The shock value in constructionism.-  In a constructionist argument, a substantively important conclusion is one that has “shock value.”  By shock value, I mean that the argument results in the conclusion that something that we thought was “real” in an unproblematic sense is shown to be either a) a fictitious entity that has never been or could never be real or b) a historically contingent entity endowed with a weaker form of existence (e.g. a collectively sustained fiction or even delusion).  This is “shocking” in the sense that the constructionism thesis upsets the “folk ontology” heretofore taken for granted by lay and professional audiences alike.

A useful analogue (because it makes the technical argumentative steps clear) comes from the Philosophy of Mind. There, the most “shocking” argument ever put forth is know as “eliminativism” in relation to the so-called “propositional attitudes” (Stich 1983; Churchland 1981).  Note that this argument is actually espoused by people who consider themselves to be radical materialists almost blindly committed to a traditional scientific epistemology and an anti-dualist ontology.  Thus, I am not claiming a substantive commonality between constructionists and eliminativists.  All that I want to do here is to point to some formal commonalities in their mode of argumentation in order to set up the subsequent point of common reliance on an argument from reference.

According to the eliminativist thesis, the denizens of the mental zoo that play a role in our ability to account for ours and other’s people’s behavior (such as beliefs, desires, wants, etc.) do not actually exist. The reason for that is that the theoretical system in which they play a role (so called “folk” or “belief-desire psychology”) is actually an empirically false theory, one that relies on the postulation of theoretical entities (mental entities) that have no scientifically defensible ontological status.

According to belief desire psychology, persons engage in action in order to satisfy desires.  Beliefs play a causal role in behavior by providing the person with subjective descriptions of how means connect to desirable ends.  Using belief-desire psychology, we can explain why person A engages in behavior B, by postulating that “Person A believes that by doing B, she will get C, and she desires/wants C.” A belief is a proposition about the world endowed with a truth value and a desire is a proposition that describes the sorts of states of affair that the person would like to bring about.   Both are conceived to be mental entities endowed with “intentional” content (they are about something). Their intentional content dictates how they can relate to other entities in a systematic way (e.g. because some propositions logically imply others). We can then “predict” (or retrodict) the behavior of persons by linking desires to beliefs in a way that preserves the rationality of persons.

Accordingly, if I see somebody rummaging through the contents of a refrigerator, I can surmise that this person is engaging in this sort of behavior because she believes that she will find something to eat in there, and she wants something to eat.  Relatedly, when persons are questioned as to why they did something, they usually give a “reason” for why the did what they did.  This reason takes the form of a “motive report.”  If I question somebody about why they are rummaging through a refrigerator, they are likely to say “because I’m hungry.”

According to eliminativists, the main causal factors in belief desire psychology have no ontological status.  Thus, neither propositional beliefs of the sort of “I think that p” where p is a proposition of the sort “there is food in the refrigerator” nor desires of the sort “I want q” have any ontological status.  As such, belief-desire psychology stands to be replaced by a mature neuropsychology, one in which “folk solids” such as desires and beliefs (to use Andy Clark‘s terms) will play no role in explanations and accounts of human behavior.  These notions, previously thought to be natural kind endowed with unquestionable reality, are eliminated from our ontological storehouse and into the dustbin of fictional entities discarded by modern science (such as Phlogiston, Caloric, The Ether, The Four Humors, etc.).

Constructionism and eliminativism.- I argue that most substantively important conclusions within the constructionist paradigm are actually modeled after “eliminativist” arguments in the Philosophy of Mind.

All of the pieces are there.  First, a constructionist argument usually takes some (folk or professional) system of “theory” as their target. This is regardless this is a system of theory currently in existence or from a previous historical era.  This is usually a folk (or sometime professional) “theory of X” (e.g the “folk theory of race” or the “folk theory of gender”).  Second, within this system the constructionist picks one or more central theoretical categories or concepts (X), which, within the system are endowed with an non-problematic ontological status as real (e.g. gender  or racial “essence”).  Third, the constructionist shows the folk theory of X to be false from the point of view of a more sophisticated theory (modern population genetics in the case of the old anthropological concept of “race”).  Thus X (e.g. race), as conceptualized in the folk theory, does not really exist, even though it forms a key part of certain contemporary folk theories of race. The title of the famous PBS documentary: “Race: The Power of an Illusion” conveys that point well.

The constructionist may also argue for the indirect falsity of the current theory of X, by simply using the historical or anthropological record to show that there are cultures/historical periods  in which X either was not presumed to exist in the way that it exists today or was part of a different theoretical system which radically changed its status (the properties that define membership in the concept were radically different).  Here the constructionist will agree that X “exists” in the current setting, but it does not have the sort of existence attributed to it in the folk discourse (transhistorical and transcultural) instead it has a weaker form of existence: social; as in “sustained by a historically and culturally contingent social arrangement which could theoretically be subject to radical change.”  Foucault’s famous argument for the radically different status of the category of “man” within the so-called “classical episteme” is an example of that sort of claim.  The category of man in the modern era has a meaning that is radically incommensurate to the one that it had in the classical episteme.  The implication is that therefore the category of “man” does not refer and we can thus conceive of a possible future in which it plays no actual role, follows.

The common element here is that a category that we take for granted (within the descriptions afforded by some lay or professional theoretical system) to be ontologically “real” (race, gender, the category of “man”, etc.) is shown instead to  “actually” have a fictitious status because there is nothing in the world that meets that description. More implicitly, insofar as a concept has undergone radical changes in overall meaning (with meaning determined by its place within a network of other concepts in the form of a folk or professional theory), then there cannot be a preservation of reference across the incommensurate meanings.Hence the concept cannot really be picking out an ontologically coherent entity in the world. I refer to this as the “strong constructionist effect.”  The basic idea, as I have already implied is that in order for the effect to be successful, we must already be working from within some theory of reference, otherwise the claim that “there is nothing in the world that meets that description” is either vacuous or incoherent.

Constructivism and arguments from reference.- What are “arguments from reference”? Arguments from reference are those that implicitly or explicitly require a theory of reference for their conclusions to follow (or even make sense), as has been recently pointed out by Ron Mallon (2007).  When this is the case, it can be said that the substantively important conclusion is  dependent on the (logically autonomous) theory of reference. It is striking how little most social scientists spend thinking about reference. They should, because even though it is seldom explicit, we all require some theory about how conceptualizations link up (or fail to!) to events in the world in order to make substantive statements about the nature of that world. I argue that in order to produce the strong constructionist  effect, and thus derive substantively important conclusions, the argument from social construction requires a particular theory of reference.

One would think that when it comes to theorizing about how conceptual, theoretical or folk terms “refer” to the world there would be various competing theories.  Instead, twentieth century analytic philosophy was long dominated by single dominant account of how concepts refer.  This was Frege’s suggestion that “intension” (the meaning of a term) determines “extension” (the object in the world that the term picks out).  Lewis (1971, 1972) formalized this formulation for the case of so-called theoretical entities in scientific theories.  According to Lewis, terms in scientific theories purport to describe objects in the world bearing certain properties or standing in certain relations with other objects. This is the description of that term.  According to Lewis, the terms of Folk Psychology are theoretical entities that gain their meaning from their relations to other entities and observational statements within a system of theory.  Eliminativists built their argument on this suggestion, by suggesting that there is nothing in the (scientifically acceptable) world that meets the description for a propositional attitude (a mental entity endowed with “intentional” content); ergo, belief-desire psychology is false, its terms do not refer, and we need a better theory of the mental.

In short, from the viewpoint of a descriptivist theory of reference, a given term or concept defined within a given theoretical system refers if and only if there is an object in the world that bears the properties or stands in the relations specified in the description.  According to this theory, terms refer to real world entities when there exists an object satisfies the necessary and sufficient conditions of membership in the category defined by the term (which in the limiting case may be an individual).  Descriptions that have no counterpart in the real world are descriptions of fictional entities and thus fail to refer (and the validity of the theoretical systems of which they are a part is therefore impugned).  When competent speakers use the terms of any theory (scientific or folk) they have a description in mind, which specifies the set of properties that an object would have to have for that term to be said to successfully refer to it.

The basic argument that I want to propose here is that “shock value” constructionism depends on a descriptivist theory of reference. This should already be obvious.  The standard constructionist argument begins by a painstaking reconstruction of a given set of folk or professional descriptions.  The analyst then moves on to ask the rhetorical question: is there anything in the world that actually satisfies this description?  If the answer is no, then the conclusion that the term fails to refer (and is a fictional and not a real entity) readily follows.  The standard criteria for satisfaction of these conditions usually boil down to some sort of semantic analysis. For instance, in Orientalism, Edward Said painstakingly reconstructed a Western “image” (read description) of the Middle East as a kind of place and of the Arab “Other” as a (natural?) kind of person. Said pointed out that this description of Arab peoples (menacing, untrustworthy, exotic, emotional, eroticized, etc.) was not only logically incoherent; it was simply false, there had never been a group of people who met this description; it had been a fabrication espoused by a misleading theoretical system: Orientalism. Thus, Orientalism as a culturally influential theory of the nature of the Arab “Orient” needed to be transcended. The main theoretical entity implied by such theory, the Oriental “other” endowed with a bizarre set of attributes and properties was thereby eliminated from our ontological storehouse.

Houston we have a problem.- It would be easy to show that essentially all arguments that produce the “strong constructionist effect” follow a similar intellectual procedure.  There are at least two problems with this (largely unacknowledged) dependence of social constructionism on a descriptivist theory of reference. First, constructionism denies the conditions that make a descriptivist strategy an adequate theory of reference, which is at a minimum the validity of a truth-conditional semantics and the capacity of words to unambiguously (e.g. literally) refer to objects and events in the world.  This is not a problem for Gottlob Frege and David Lewis, or most descriptivist theorists in analytic philosophy, most of whom subscribe to some version of propositional realism (propositions have truth values that can be unproblematically redeemed by just checking to see if the “correspond” to the world).  However, this is a problem for constructionists because they cannot accept such a strong version of realism.

Thus, if the very theory of the relationship between language and the world that is espoused by social constructionism (skepticism as to the applicability of a truth conditional semantics and unambiguous reference) is true then descriptivism has to be false. This means that social constructionism is an inherently contradictory strategy; to produce substantively meaningful conclusions (the strong constructionist effect) it has to rely on a theory of the relationship between meanings and the world that is denied by that very approach. Second, even if this logical argument could be sidestepped, constructionism would still be in trouble.  The reason for this is that there is a competing (and equally appealing on purely argumentative grounds) theory of reference in modern philosophy: this is the causal-historical theory of reference most influentially outlined by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam.  The basic issue is not that this is a competing account of reference; the problem is that this account of reference actually denies a key link in the constructionist argument: that in order to refer, there has to be match between the description of the term and the properties of the object that the term putatively refers to.

Instead, causal-historical theories of reference allow for two possibilities that are seldom taken into account by constructionists:  1) that persons can refer to things in the world even though their mental description of the term that they are using to refer to those things those not at all match the properties of those things, and 2) that the description of a term can undergo radical historical change while the term continues to refer to the same entities or cluster of entities.  The first possibility undercuts the capacity of the constructionist to “correct the folk,” because reference is decoupled from the descriptive validity of the terms that are used to refer.  The second possibility undercuts the argument for social construction based on historical and cultural variability of descriptions. It opens up the possibility that there is “rigid designation” to the same set of social or natural realities across cultures in spite or radical differences in the cultural frameworks from within which these referential relations are established.

A reasonable objection is simply to point out that we simply do not have sufficiently strong grounds of picking descriptivism over causal-historical theories of reference, as equally respectable arguments have been put forth in defense of both. This is in fact the position taken by most philosophers who instead go on to worry about whether people are cherry-picking one of the two theories of reference to support their preferred argumentative strategy.  However, I believe that most constructionists in social science cannot be content with this non-committal solution. Instead, like other areas of Philosophy (e.g. epistemology, ethics, mind), there is a way to “break the tie” between various philosophical theories and that is to look to naturalize these types of inquiry by looking at what theories seem to be consistent with the relevant sciences.  Here we have good news and bad neews for constructionists.

Research in cognitive science, cognitive semantics and cognitive linguistics points to the inadequacy of descriptivist theories of reference from a purely naturalistic standpoint. This should be good news for constructionists because the upshot is that truth-conditional semantics roundly fails as an account of how persons generate meaning (Lakoff 1987).  The irony is that these theories redeem the original skepticism of constructionism vis a vis any form of truth-conditional semantics and propositional realism, but in so doing also undercut the ability of constructionists to engage in the sort of  argument that results in “shocking” or substantively strong claims for the social construction of X, because the rhetorical force of these arguments depends on descriptivism and descriptivism implies propositional realism and “objectivism” (that truth is the literal correspondence of statements and reality).  The resulting counter-intuitive conclusion is that it is precisely because linguistic meaning and natural categories meet the constructionist specifications that strong constructionist arguments are actually impossible.  In fact, it is precisely because language and semantics work the way that constructionist (implicitly) presuppose that they do that the norm in historical change may not be the radical transformation of reference relations in historical and cultural change (as implied by Foucauldian analysts), but rigid designation of the same (social, or natural) “essences” and relations even in the wake of superficial shifts in the accepted cultural description of those entities.

Written by Omar

March 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm


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