A Word on Critical Realism

Seeing as Fabio has promoted some off-the-cuff remarks I made on Twitter about Critical Realism, I suppose I should say something a little more about it. All the moreso seeing as some anonymous commenters have been getting quite huffy at the very idea that anyone who called themselves an academic could make a dismissive comment without, presumably, devoting themselves full-time to “thoughtful debate and analysis” on the work in question. I have a general and a specific response to that. Speaking generally, online commentary should not be a kind of Markov process where every single contribution must start from scratch with no memory of anything that has gone before. The demand that any particular comment or post provide a full and complete accounting of everything on the topic (before it can count as “thoughtful debate and analysis”) is a hallmark of annoying Internet discussion. My specific response is that some time ago I did in fact devote myself full-time to thoughtful debate and analysis about Critical Realism, for a period of about eighteen months. I read pretty much everything on the topic that had come out until that time, which was a real barrel of monkeys let me tell you. I wrote and published an article on a current debate in the field, and then I moved on to other projects.

My conclusion, then as now, was that Critical Realism is a low-quality, confused, and misleading body of work. It is a justly peripheral branch of 1970s philosophy of science. The philosophical demands it satisfies amongst sociologists could be met elsewhere at much higher quality and far lower cost. In practice it does literally nothing substantive for the work of the sociologists who have taken it up, and I am dismayed to see it gain a foothold in the United States.

Why has CR gotten traction in sociology? In the UK, it was initially attractive mostly to a certain sort of humanist Marxist, especially after it became clear that very strong versions of structuralist Marxism had some unpleasant qualities. The backlash against structure (whether in its Marxist or Parsonian forms) led to various middle-way programs, most notably Giddens’s structuration theory. To many observers this was thin gruel indeed. (They were right about this.) In response, some began to cast around for a way to say social structures were “real” in some strong sense. They sought some philosophically respectable means of defending that idea. Bhaskar’s work, beginning with A Realist Theory of Science, presented itself as an attractive answer. A little later, Margaret Archer retrofitted her already in-progress critique of Giddens with Bhaskar’s vocabulary. This was one of the key pieces of CR’s consolidation in British sociology, as Archer’s theoretical work was a clear and effective attack on the whole structuration program. In the United States, meanwhile, there seem to have been two channels of diffusion. The first, via Michigan, was through historical sociologists like George Steinmetz and, latterly, Philip Gorski. The second was through religiously-minded sociologists like Chris Smith. I admire the work of these scholars a great deal, by the way. The same goes for Archer, whose work got me reading CR in the first place in 1996. Between them, they jump-started American interest in CR, which up until then had been confined to papers written by a small number of scholars mostly publishing in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior.

The diffusion of CR was slightly hampered by the transformation of Bhaskar from fringe philosopher of science to full-blown guru. Having recruited followers in sociology on the basis of his realism, he began to pull the rug out from under them in the late 1990s, first with the merely absurd Plato, Etc and then with the frankly embarrassing From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (which closed with a final chapter titled “The Dance of Shiva in the Age of Aquarius”). This work, in retrospect, seems like the culmination of the unpleasant cult of personality that grew up around Bhaskar in CR circles in the 1980s and which he seems to have done little to discourage.

CR presents itself in a way that some social scientists—with next to no real background in philosophy—feel gives them just what they need to shore up their empirical research and metaphysical intuitions. You want to be realist in your philosophy of social science? Sure! You want your preferred level of analysis to also be an ontologically emergent level of reality? No problem! You want to talk about social structures as irreducible in some serious-but-not-really-analyzed fashion? You got it. You want your theory to be critical? I mean, who doesn’t, right? Just call yourself a Critical Realist and cite some Bhaskar. After all, he has repeatedly asserted that his work is a “Copernican Revolution” in the philosophy of science—the near-total indifference of everyone else in that field notwithstanding, but never mind that for now.

It’s understandable that sociologists have been susceptible to this sort of thing. The field has long been attracted to strongly expressed emergentist claims. At least since Durkheim, many sociologists have felt that a scientific discipline needs a self-subsistent and “ontologically real” subject matter all of its own. Otherwise, the fear is that the field would become “reducible to” psychology, or worse. Sociological journals are filled with a repeated insistence on the reality of “society” or “the social”, and–conversely—a rejection of “methodological individualism” or “reductionist” approaches to explanation associated with the less social social sciences. No wonder that we’re attracted to a philosophy that seems to “ground” this idea, that guarantees that society or social structure or some supra-individual entities are really real, really. Conveniently, CR also links the allegedly fundamental layered structure of reality with the social organization of academic disciplines round about 1975, with Physics and the bottom, then Chemistry on top of them, then Biology, then Psychology, and then Sociology. (Above that is the Divine bonus layer which you can take or leave as you like.) Each layer has its own emergent properties and causal powers.

The case of emergent properties is a nice example both of what makes CR attractive to some sociologists and of how detached CR became from both the philosophy of science and metaphysics in the 1970s. Many of the claims about emergence characteristic of CR rest on repeated (and probably unwitting) conflation of different senses of what is “emergent” about emergent properties, and what it is to be able to “reduce” something to something else. CR writers typically make the case for their emergence and irreducible properties by way of some stock examples. For instance, they will say that new properties emerge at “higher” levels, as when atoms of hydrogen and oxygen—separately, flammable gases—combine to form water, a molecule that has a property—”wetness”—not “deducible” (CR people will say) from the properties of its component parts. This kind of reasoning is extremely attractive to social scientists for obvious reasons, but it is also very slippery.

Reduction can mean two things. It can refer to the business of translating or defining sentences from one theoretical language in the language of another. For example, we might try to translate statements or theories about water in chemistry, or whatever, into the theoretical language of, say, physics. Or, we might want to “reduce” the propositions and theories of psychology into the language of biology. Whether and to what degree this is possible was the topic of an extensive debate in the ’60s and ’70s (on the “special sciences”, with Putnam, Fodor, and others, involved). The result of this debate was that you generally can’t reduce theories in this way. (Fodor is especially clear on this.)

Second, and separately, there’s the question of ontological reducibility. This is question of whether, independent of your theoretical language, something like a water molecule just is a matter of hydrogen and oxygen (or more fundamental physical entities) in some particular configuration. There’s a further wrinkle here depending whether you are talking about the reducibility of some particular thing or a natural kind.

This distinction between explanatory and ontological emergence is why it doesn’t make sense to talk about about physical properties being deducible from other properties. That can only be true of the linguistic stuff — axioms, theorems, sentences, predicates. CR advocates repeatedly seem to miss this distinction as they want to use examples of alleged ontological irreducibility to shore up claims for the need for a number of distinct disciplines at particular levels of analysis — physical sciences, biology, psychology, sociology, etc. One minute they’re talking about emergence of physical properties in the world (a question of ontology), the next about relationships between theories from this or that discipline at various levels of analysis (a linguistic matter). Running the two together reliably generates an enormous mess.

This is just one of the many ways CR fails to deliver. I am not going to catalog them all here. Again, this isn’t to say that, for example, substantial parts of Archer’s critique of Giddens weren’t correct, or that sociologists shouldn’t—when it comes to developing or testing explanations—rely on “higher level” concepts in their explanations. (Remember: facts about linguistic reduction don’t entail ontological claims about what fundamentally there is.) But there is an awful lot of philosophy that will give sociologists the frankly minimal machinery they need to go ahead and do this work without fear of incoherence. None of the problems CR presents itself as solving are uniquely explicable by (or even originate with) the CR approach itself. Sociologists interested in emergence or macro-level explanations have no need to run together that interest with the specific CR position or view. (This was the point of my old article on Archer, Mouzelis, and CR.) There are large and immediately accessible literatures on all of these topics in philosophy, leading naturally to more technical or specialist work. Consider the SEP article on Emergent Properties, for instance, and the one on Supervenience, or the one on Scientific Explanation, or Scientific Realism. Go from there to, say, Jonathan Schaffer’s Is there a Fundamental Level? (for the metaphysics) or Michael Strevens’ Depth for one take on the philosophy of science, or—for something in parts similar to Bhaskar but far more creative and central—read Nancy Cartwright on laws of nature. I feel confident in asserting that different sociologists could ally themselves with quite incompatible positions in these debates and much of our work would go on as before.

You’ll notice, if you work through this material, that Bhaskar and Critical Realism are basically not discussed at all. There are good reasons for this, some of which I have mentioned. You might be tempted to feel offended at my dismissal of CR as peripheral. Maybe you think there is some kind of conspiracy in philosophy. “They laughed at Einstein!” you say. (They didn’t really, but never mind.) Well, of course expert scholarly opinion is not infallible. The center of a field doesn’t have a monopoly on insight or valuable argument. But I don’t see anything wrong with asking and taking seriously the views of experts in other fields, especially when CR itself makes such strong claims about its revolutionary effects on those fields. Hence my line on Twitter about Toffler. I bet you’d be at least bemused if you came across a bunch of philosophers building some quasi-sociological research program around the insights of Sociology’s central Tofflerian school. And you might get a little annoyed if they dismissed your efforts to explain that, although sociological insights might be found here and there his work, Toffler is also a somewhat unreliable guide to both the field and the world—his own grand claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

My own view is that sociology needs very little philosophy in order to thrive. Most of the exciting work in sociology has not come from self-conscious theorists seeking to fit the field to some philosophical system, least of all when that system is not even defensible. Much of it, indeed, arises interstitially and out of cross-cutting research groups and programs. This is an imagery of science very much at odds with the carefully-layered picture provided by CR. Indeed, one of the things philosophers of science began noticing in the 1970s was that when two sciences met at a boundary the result typically was not some process of tectonic subduction, with the more “fundamental” science consuming the other by reduction, but rather a the appearance of a new science with its own specialist sphere and field-specific concepts and theories—molecular biology, biochemistry, cognitive anthropology, or what have you. CR claims to ground social science with its picture of the fundamental ontology of things, tightly bound to a particular view of what scientific explanation is. And yet in CR-inspired books and articles, it appears more like a lump of cream cheese sitting on top of a bagel: laid on too thick, added after the baking was done, obscuring the stuff you want to chew on, and probably bad for you in the long run. Eat something else.


Written by Kieran

September 4, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Posted in philosophy, sociology

122 Responses

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  1. Yes, your initial comment merely made me think there was something called Critical Realism that might have merit, but then I am the sort of person who wonders why, exactly, does he read orgtheory. A short google session led me to believe CR is philosophy, and philosophy seldom results in anything good, whether it gets the sociologists in a huff or not. So, you can fire broadsides from pseudo-ology to pseudo-ophy with aplomb. It’s just as fun and pointless as that Zizek/Chomsky dust up. Weirdly satisfying, but slightly disturbing since so many of these nuts are getting paid.



    September 4, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  2. I did a quick citation cluster analysis of articles that had cited R. Bhaskar over the last few years:

    The data includes a couple wrong Bhaskars and other errors, but does show some influence in one branch of IR centered around Alexander Wendt. I was not familiar with his work but did note that Wendt’s home page says his current work is on, “the possibility that consciousness is a macroscopic quantum mechanical phenomenon – in effect, that human beings are walking wave/particle dualities.”


    Neal Caren (@HaphazardSoc)

    September 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm

  3. “And yet in CR-inspired books and articles, it appears more like a lump of cream cheese sitting on top of a bagel: laid on too thick, added after the baking was done, obscuring the stuff you want to chew on, and probably bad for you in the long run. Eat something else.”

    Wish I’d written that! Kieran, what DO you have for breakfast? And can I have a bite?


    Howard Aldrich

    September 4, 2013 at 5:38 pm

  4. Wendt is an IR “constructivist” – which seems (to me) to mean when political scientists import sociology-ish theories into political analysis (political sociology, I suppose?). He wrote some interesting stuff in the past but also has written recent stuff on the relevance of UFO’s to the state and international relations or something – I haven’t tried to read anything of his from around that time…


    Andrew B. Lee

    September 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm

  5. “A short google session led me to believe CR is philosophy”

    A sort Google session is one way to investigate complex ideas, @August. I have, instead, engaged philosophers at my university (lots of higher education institutions have them) about the status of CR. They try very hard not to surrender to paroxysms of laughter, then earnestly attempt to explain to a poor social scientist why they never paid attention to Bhaskar and how it is better to invest the time in understanding other (see Kieran’s links to Cartwright and Strevens, for example). One even suggested that I see what Kieran Healy is writing about.

    “and philosophy seldom results in anything good”

    This is why philosophy will become even more important field for social scientists (even B-school denizens); the field must expunge such shallow dismissive thinking.



    September 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm

  6. this essay after all has two points against CR: 1. CR theorists confused emergence at ontological and epistemological level, which is not true. CR theorists believe in ontological emergence, and when you believe on ontological emergence you would necessarily believe in epistemological emergence too. 2. CR is bad because philosophers (meaning tenured faculties in philosophy departments in American universities) do not take it seriously. Well, these very philosophers also do not take Heidegger and Husserl serious either (check author’s network of philosophy citation. Does that mean that these philosophers are useless?
    this essay makes a good point that there are better philosophical theories to use but leaves us with a lot of questions when it says we don’t need much philosophy. Phil Gorski’s essay instead shows why we are in need of a good philosophy of science. He argues that our criteria for publication are still old positivist criteria such as testing or falsifying a hypothesis. So no we know positivism is problematic, and we need to find some better criteria. CR is offering a possible answer. this essay is saying CR answer is not good and there are better solutions. Great. What are those other solutions?

    Liked by 1 person


    September 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  7. “Most of the exciting work in sociology has not come from self-conscious theorists seeking to fit the field to some philosophical system, least of all when that system is not even defensible. Much of it, indeed, arises interstitially and out of cross-cutting research groups and programs.”

    Most of the exciting work in sociology has not come from self-conscious theorists seeking to fit the field to some philosophical system, least of all when that system is not even defensible. Much of it, indeed, arises interstitially and out of cross-cutting research groups and programs” Suffice to say this made me laugh out loud: excitement comes and goes, as do the research programs, which must be mushed together every 10-20 years in order to produce new excitement and enable sociologists to suspend their disbelief. The basic theoretical questions persist – there has been not real progress. There are highly cited works but they are cited for ritualistic reasons. With no enduring theories the discipline must hope for other things, exciting exciting work, keep it coming.


    David Piper

    September 4, 2013 at 7:50 pm

  8. Also, why wasn’t Stephen Turner in the list of serious philosophers to read? Key books in the last decade on social properties and normativity should be widely digested. No cream cheese in his work.


    David Piper

    September 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm

  9. I note that of the thirty-odd citations Healy, 1998, “Conceptualizing Constraint” has received, none appear to come from philosophy journals. Thus I conclude that his contribution is peripheral, like too-salty jus left untouched at the margins of a French Dip…

    …see how annoying that is?

    Yeah, and with that, I think I’m out. Goodbye cruel world! I’m taking my ball and going home!

    Been reading Orgtheory for a while for the nice little book forums and such, but the snark has gotten out of hand, especially when you guys (<–male pronoun used pointedly) talk about anything you don't like. Too much bifurcation between fanboy-ism and snark.



    September 4, 2013 at 8:19 pm

  10. …see how annoying that is?

    It’s not annoying at all. That paper is not a contribution to philosophy.



    September 4, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  11. Also, why wasn’t Stephen Turner in the list of serious philosophers to read?

    Because I was making a series of quick suggestions, and not compiling a bibliography.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 4, 2013 at 9:35 pm

  12. There is something weird about Critical Realism, bits of it that make sense can be found in a different CR, the Critical Rationalism of Karl Popper but you would never know that from reading Bhaskar and his followers.

    It is true that it is a peripheral branch of 1970s philosophy of science but sadly practically all of the 1970s philosophy of science (like positivism and logical empiriciism from the 1930s onward) was itself peripheral to science (natural and social). The exception was the work of Popper and associates which was marginalised to the point where you can spend whole career in a university without meeting a person who can provide a straight feed on Popper’s ideas. Consequently it is likely to come as a surprise to find the synergy between Popperism and good economics, especially Austrian economics.

    Happy reading!


    Rafe Champion

    September 4, 2013 at 11:09 pm

  13. I should have said, if you are in a hurry, check out The Poverty of Historicism first, you can read most the 12 page Guide in the preview on the Amazon site. The point is to see the affinilty between Talcott Parsons of (1937) before he lost the plot, von Mises in Human Action (1940/49) and Popper’s Situational Analysis of 1944/45. They all identified the same errors that became embedded in the social sciences as they bloomed (in numbers) after WW2 but they and their associates and followers never generated any synergy by taking a stand on their common ground and debating their differences.


    Rafe Champion

    September 4, 2013 at 11:27 pm

  14. KH’s dismissal of CR may comfort some who are relieved not to have to read and think for themselves about something beyond sociology’s standard account. But the relief is misplaced. Despite his professing to having spent 18 months full-time (!!) studying CR 15 years ago, I can say as someone who actually understands CR that it is far from clear that KH does. What he writes shows us that, rather than engaging the key early works of Bhaskar’s CR, KH is wigged out by B’s later works on “meta-reality.” So am I. But what matters for American sociology are B’s core early works and their developments, not the meta-reality business, so let’s deal with that. KH’s one relevant published 1998 article references but does not engage Bhaskar, but focuses instead on critiquing Margaret Archer on a few particular points. Fine. But let’s not pretend that was or is an adequate answer to CR generally today. KH repeatedly asserts with a near ontophobia that sociology can accomplish all it needs to without adopting “CR metaphysics.” But we have yet to see spelled out exactly how that works, so it stands as a mere assertion, not an argument, not to mention a persuasive argument. In fact, American sociologists operate with plenty of metaphysics running in the background, except they are usually simply ignorant about their own metaphysics and how their work is shaped by their default assumptions, which is hardly impressive. Ontology is unavoidable, like it or not–we might as well face ontology and get it right. As one among many of a growing number of sociologists convinced that CR has much to offer that we badly need, I suggest serious engagement, not facile dismissals, citations of old papers, and other silly responses we see here. And that raises the next question: whether American sociology has the intellectual umph anymore to even be able to do that, especially when the alternative of the same-old standard account is as comfortable as it is incoherent.

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris Smith (the "religiously minded" one, though wtf that ambiguous locution intends to suggest is beyond me)

    September 5, 2013 at 3:57 am

  15. Hi Chris,

    thanks for the response.

    (the “religiously minded” one, though wtf that ambiguous locution intends to suggest is beyond me)

    I’m not trying to insinuate anything. It think it’s pretty clear that one of the appealing things about CR to some people is that its picture of the world seems consistent with—or actively friendly towards—their religious beliefs. I think that’s comes across quite straightforwardly reading What is a Person? and Moral, Believing Animals. You see this in Archer, too. Do you think I’m being unfair here?

    Ontology is unavoidable, like it or not–we might as well face ontology and get it right.

    Believe me, I know. And I sympathize. I never said Sociology could do without Philosophy, just that it probably didn’t need all that much to get by. And that I’d prefer that, insofar as we need Philosophy, it should be the good stuff. The clear thrust of my post here was that of all the metaphysics to rely on, CR is a terrible choice. Your comment is of the form “Something must be done. This—CR—is Something. Therefore this must be done.” CR is indeed an answer to a certain set of real problems that social theory faces. The trouble is, it is a bad answer. Many better ones are available. I pointed to some of them, and to introductory discussions and bibliographies that would help orient people in these topics. If people want to get into this literature—the modern literatures on explanation, emergence, grounding, ontology generally—it’s all there for people to read and learn from.

    My dismissal of CR is not “facile”, it is well-informed by a reading of that body of literature and a working knowledge of the alternatives. My decision not to pursue it further myself after a relatively intense engagement with it was based on my assessment that it just wouldn’t be worth it. Here I similarly urged other sociologists not to waste their time, by letting them know that the bundle of arguments being presented to them under the CR banner is neither internally all that coherent, nor taken seriously by philosophers who work full time on these topics. Again, I say this not because the philosophical questions aren’t important but because the CR answers are not good enough. The gut reaction of many sociologists to statements like that is a kind of vague resentment at the very idea that people in some other field might actually know something about their own domain of knowledge. The comments have already brought out some of that. Well, too bad. I’m not saying we should unilaterally defer to philosophers, just that philosophers might know more about philosophy than sociologists. I’m not advocating a particular ontology, just that many other good answers to these questions are there. I’m not trying to close off discussion, and I’m not saying these questions are out of bounds or pointless. Quite the opposite. I am trying to open up the field of discussion here and let sociologists know about the existence of a much broader arena of current work on ontology and explanation, and thus hopefully help them avoid a big waste of effort. You, Gorski, Steinmetz—you’re all smart people who’ve done great work. From where I’m sitting I can see books by all of you on my shelves. I’d prefer not to see talent like that in my discipline disappear down a rabbit hole for a decade.



    September 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm

  16. Kieran, a few more observations and then a response to the follow-up above:
    – Your argument above tries to work by playing off two contradictory positions: (1) don’t pay any attention to philosophy because sociology does not need it; (2) don’t pay any attention to CR because it’s not good philosophy. Which is it? I think the case is: #1 is false and anti-intellectual. #2 is wrong, and sorting out whether that is so and why is precisely what is at issue here.
    – CR is a serious endeavor in the UK (at least England and Scotland, can’t say about Ireland), Scandinavia, and parts of continental Europe. The U.S. is actually the exceptional case in the Atlantic theater in being clueless about it (mostly because of American sociology’s general ignorance of philosophy and its pragmatist allergies to anything other than immediate “problem solving”). Are we to believe, then, that many of our colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic have simply been duped by a philosophy of science that is “low-quality, confused, and misleading?” Sounds like some bad kind of intellectual American isolationism.
    – You cite a bunch of texts as superior that were written decades after RB’s RTS and PON, and which make no mention whatsoever of sociology. RB’s early positions are not best viewed as out of the mainstream, but more like ahead of their time in sorting out crucial issues while most everyone else was still confused. Let’s give credit where credit is due, at the very least, and keep the temporal chronology of unfolding arguments in perspective here.
    – Your pivotal objection to RB as being treated by some as a “guru” is understandable, but immaterial in the end. Roy lost more friends in the UK over meta-reality than he kept. More importantly, of those of us in American sociology who wishes to raise CR as a better philosophy of social science to those currently on the table, none of us view RB as a guru or have any investment in his meta-reality phase (although the dialectic CR is open for discussion). I, for one, am invested entirely in basic CR, not the latter stuff, as everything I have written shows. More generally, playing the “guru” card above is distracting from the intellectual substance of matters (imagine someone dismissing Bourdieu because too many sociologists functionally treated him as a guru). Can’t we deal with the ideas and not focus on perceptions of personalities? Or do we want to mimic the way American media treat politics?
    – That CR-friendly people tend to publish stuff in JTSB says nothing about the merits of CR; it only tells us about the prejudices of most American sociology journal editors and reviewers.
    – The reliance of some sociologists on certain approaches in analytic philosophy to dismiss philosophy from sociology needs more critical attention. Most analytic philosophers do not know or care about sociology, which tells us something important. Most analytic philosophers (except the few genuinely open-minded and gracious ones, who are extremely helpful) are also more concerned with their own persnickety territorial boundary-drawing and protection than in serious cross-disciplinary engagement on substantively important issues that matter for social science. That many analytic philosophers would not find RB compelling I think hardly tells us anything of use to our own project. Again, let’s engage the actual substantive ideas that matter instead of floating a bunch of philosophy citations that supposedly dismiss the issue.
    – Even so, please note the recent groundswell of philosophical works in the Philosophy of Chemistry, the New Essentialism, the New Aristotelianism in Philosophy, etc. etc. It is likely that in a decade CR is going to make obvious sense to very many people for very good reasons, and those (whether on pragmatist or other grounds) who could not get on board CR are going to sound funny (kinda like the way the strong pomos who were taken so seriously in the 1990s sound to us today). In short, casting CR as the useless past gets it backwards—in fact, it got things right before its time and is in substance where good thinking is now headed.
    – Most generally, let me cast this doubt upon the boundary work that the above piece attempts: some set of “young” social theorists who claim to know philosophy well enough to put the rest of sociology at dismissive ease about CR are not in fact the only American sociologists who know the relevant philosophy, and find the dismissal groundless. Monopoly as gatekeepers over that gate is now being contested by those who also know philosophy and think CR is the way forward. Brushes aside with waves of the hand will no longer suffice. So get ready to engage with a lot more substance or cede the floor.

    Now, as to the response above:
    – “Religiously minded” stands out as odd insofar as we do not analogously hear of others being described as “organ-donationly minded” (if the reference is to one of my fields of interest) or “secularistly minded” (if the reference is to something about me personally). So why the interest in focusing on religion in particular, I wonder? Is there some unstated beef operating below the surface here? In my own case, the thrust of my CR work is built squarely on Aristotle, not the Upanishads, etc., if that says anything—in fact, I am committed to writing in naturalistic, secular discourse. So I wonder why all this even comes up? As to religion and CR generally, the latter on the other side of the Atlantic in fact attracts as many atheists and neo-Marxists as anything else. Even so, are you suggesting that a meta-theory that is more intellectually friendly to religious reflection than, say, positivist empiricism, is FOR THAT VERY REASON itself somehow more theoretically suspect? If so, then we’re dealing in sheer mindless prejudice. Again, can’t we engage the actual ideas and arguments instead of such side matters?
    – Re your second point: quite to the contrary, which brings us back to the central issue, no, CR is not a “bad answer” or “a big waste.” You are wrong on that. I think your original reading of CR got it wrong. You seem to have focused on the wrong things, gotten distracted by a few alarming features, and missed the real promise. So, to those now who may be tempted to dismiss CR based on your personal testimony, I simply suggest that they sort it out for themselves with genuine intellectual openness.


    Chris Smith

    September 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  17. Kieran,

    Fantastic post. I was wondering if you might recommend some more systematic places to get started getting some of that little bit of contemporary philosophy that would be most useful for practicing sociologists (apart from the SEP). As an outsider, I’ve found it quite hard to get started with contemporary philosophy. For example, I’d never heard of David Lewis until quite recently (and partly through your posts). Reading a couple of his essays on causation was incredibly helpful. I imagine there are many more gems out there. Is there any chance you would compile a bibliography of, say, “philosophy *for* social science”? Or point to one that’s already out there? I feel like such a list / course would be as or more useful than the standard philosophy of social science that I’ve been exposed to. Does anyone teach anything like that?

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    September 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm

  18. To Dan Hirschman’s question: Two overviews of some issues in the philosophy of social science that I found very useful when I read them (albeit some years ago) are Daniel Little’s Varieties of Social Explanation and Erik Wright, Andrew Levine, and Elliott Sober’s Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History.

    More generally, I think sociologists can learn a lot from the philosophy of science, even though philosophers usually engage much more directly with the natural sciences than they do with us. Yes, David Lewis is the giant here. For things that touch perhaps more directly on sociological concerns, I’ve found a lot of relevant debate happening in the philosophy of biology, where some of the explanatory issues seem closer to ones we need to grapple with than, say, most work I’ve encountered in my limited engagement with the philosophy of physics. For example, Elliott Sober’s Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science starts with an excellent and thought-provoking, if perhaps idiosyncratic, take on statistical inference. (The later chapters are less directly relevant to us, although the whole book is fun and accessible.)

    The other area that I’ve found especially worthwhile has been work on causal inference as developed at the intersection of philosophy, computer science, and statistics. Though he’s not a philosopher, Judea Pearl remains, I think, the best place to start. (I was glad to learn, in the other CR thread, that Morgan and Winship are producing an updated edition of their invaluable book on counterfactual methods in the social sciences.)

    Finally, I would welcome others’ recommendations for favorite readings in the areas that Kieran discusses in his post (e.g., emergence, supervenience, other issues relating to levels of analysis) that are especially relevant to social scientists. I was lucky enough to take a course on related issues with Michael Strevens while he was working on Depth, but have otherwise read only eclectically in these areas, and most of what I’ve read is either too abstract to be of much sociological use (or so it seems to me), or just focused on issues that are unlikely to have much bearing on whether we have a coherent understanding of what it is we’re doing in our research. Has anyone read anything great?



    September 5, 2013 at 5:44 pm

  19. @Elizabeth – I took a Philosophy of Social Science class from Daniel Little and very much enjoyed it! But we read a lot of social scientists thinking about philosophy (Hedstrom and Swedberg, Elster, etc.), and not very many philosophers thinking about related problems in other contexts. That is, it wasn’t an introduction to the philosophy of science, or philosophy more generally, which I think would have been (and would still be) as helpful as jumping into the issues as applied to (and mostly by) social scientists.


    Dan Hirschman

    September 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm

  20. Kieran,

    Thank you for the response to my question in the earlier thread (and sorry for starting the “world star” thing). I was unaware of your paper, but familiar enough with the substance to have come to a similar position on CR a number of years ago via a chain that also began with Archer. I assumed you were in a better position to provide the view from within philosophy and you do provide some good leads for people like Dan above.

    I find Chris Smith’s comments a bit strange, protesting that he’s not a member of the cult of Bhaskar while intimating that Bhaskar less is nonetheless in possession of some revealed wisdom that – just you wait, you’ll see! – will prove the critics wrong. He also asks with astonishment, “are we to believe…that many of our colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic have simply been duped by a philosophy of science that is ‘low-quality, confused, and misleading?’” I have no problem believing that. Why should I? (Similarly, we can note, Chris Smith has no problem believing the same of his colleagues on this side of the Atlantic.)



    September 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm

  21. I won’t claim to have read as much CR as Gorski, Healy, Smith, or others, but I have read a good amount. To the extent that we should be interested in finding some form of workable postpositivist realism for sociology, I agree. There are indeed many currents of thought on offer, realisms of one type or another, and it hasn’t seemed to me that CR has anything particularly unique or helpful to offer. That being said, I will punt entirely on whether what I see as useful about other realist perspectives is in fact stolen from the ur-Bhaskar. But, overall, debating this stuff is useful, and so I thank both Healy and Smith, and even Gorski, for generating a debate. I know of a Cornell student who, although not a CR adherent, did at least get something out of attending the CR conference at Yale this summer.

    The intersection with religion in this debate is perhaps the most amusing. The religious overtones come through as I read CR, but the source of the overtones may well be me. On the one hand, I am about as secular as they come, and so when I am confronted with all sorts of zany irreducibility claims about things that can’t be perceived by humans, I wonder: “Is this what religion is? I guess so. I don’t know. Sort of seems a bit like maybe it is.” On the other hand, the more likely source is the fact that I have stumbled upon other work that is overtly religious that is written by some of the same people. For example, there is the edited volume, Transcendence: Critical Realism and God, which is described on amazon, presumably from the dust jacket, as “This book explores religious experience as a justifiable reason for religious belief. It uniquely demonstrates that the three pillars of critical realism – ontological intransitivity, epistemic relativity and judgemental rationality – can be applied to religion as to any other beliefs or theories. The three authors are critical realists by philosophical position. They seek to establish a level playing field between religion and secular ideas, which has not existed in the academic world for some generations, in order for reasoned debate to be conducted.” So, the fact that CR seems particularly useful to some people when they attempt to explain religious experience, and that these are some of the same people, may have gotten mixed up in my mind. But, it’s hard to get it out, and I do joke with graduate students who profess interest in CR, with wisecracks like “Oh, the ‘God is the mechanism’ people … good luck with that.” Probably should stop doing that. I’ll try. Or maybe it’s just too fun.


    Steve Morgan

    September 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm

  22. Dan:

    I also look forward to more suggestions from Kieran and hope he has time to help us all out.

    I’ve found the work of Mario Bunge- whom Omar has recommended in previous posts-really helpful as connecting philosophy of science to social sciences. Bunge is a realist- but definitely not a Critical Realist, a distinction that sometimes seems to get lost in discussions amongst sociologists.

    -Especially useful as an introduction (for me at least) is “Realism and Anti-realism in the Social Sciences” (1993) in the journal Theory and Decision.

    -I’ve also liked the few parts I’ve read of his book Social Science Under Debate: A Philosophical Debate

    Also Bill Wimsatt, has written on ontological reduction and emergence, including as it relates to social sciences. I can’t remember specific cites but his UChicago website has an extensive list.



    September 5, 2013 at 7:09 pm

  23. Ahk. The name of Bunge’s book is Social Science Under Debate: A Philosophical _Perspective_



    September 5, 2013 at 7:10 pm

  24. Also, the website for Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science has free PDFs of classic pieces.



    September 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm

  25. Yes, CR is used in theology (mainly Christian theology) but it should be considered that CR is more than Bhaskar and we are talking a less Bhaskar-centric CR in theology. Examples include N.T. Wright (as a historian), Alister McGrath and A. R. Peacocke.

    I agree with Christian Smith, there is a prejudice here, and so what if CR is more intellectually friendly to religious reflection. Enquiry culminates in truth seeking, which is always a nameless point; it matters little if you irreligious or whatever. If there is no propensity to be besides ourselves in this, then we might as well give up!


    Basem Adi (@basemadi)

    September 5, 2013 at 7:31 pm

  26. Example of a good (and American-sociological) way of engaging with CR?


    The last theory prof

    September 5, 2013 at 7:51 pm

  27. Daniel Little’s position is actually very near to CR if you read him closely on causal mechanisms. So is Isaac Reed’s, for that matter, in my view, although I can’t blame him for denying it in this intellectual climate. Mario Bunge’s view of causation is essentially that of CR too. We’re not talking about a five-headed monster here.

    Re: some of the comments above, one might guess that accepting “critical” in realism causes cancer. What’s the big deal? Do people even know what “critical” in CR even denotes? Why the all the worry and allergic reactions? If anything, I would think it would be the “realism” in CR, not the “critical,” that would give most people pause.


    Chris Smith

    September 5, 2013 at 8:12 pm

  28. Chris Smith:

    Then what do you see as the advantages of CR over the positions of, just for example, Cartwright, Hacking, or Bunge?



    September 5, 2013 at 8:22 pm

  29. I’d like to note that 28 comments into a social theory/philosophical debate, and not one actual example, drawn from illustrative empirical realities, has been offered. Not one. (The closest we came was on religion, but that was shoddily done, and then rightfully shot down, given the shoddiness.)

    Under which cases or contexts has CR been shown useless or useful? What empirical happenings does it illuminate or obscure? How does it apply to US or other societal political actions, economic actions, cultural actions?

    If these questions are not relevant, I fail to see how the entire debate is relevant. Usefulness is all that matters in a theory. How is CR useful, or how is it useless? Explain, don’t assert. Show, don’t tell.



    September 5, 2013 at 9:53 pm

  30. Anon: The entire, larger, coherent framework that pulls all the pieces together in an integrated way that makes great sense and shows how and why the parts relate. Instead of misc pieces here and there.

    Austen: Agreed. But these questions have already been plenty answered. You just won’t find the answers in a blog post, it requires some real reading. If you’re interested, there are lots of references one might give.


    Chris Smith

    September 5, 2013 at 11:29 pm

  31. Austen,

    I’m using CR for CDA (Fairclough). ‘Discourses in Late Modernity’ lays down the theoretical basis of Fairclough’s approach to CDA. For the application of CDA, as method, than I recommend – ‘Analysing Discourse: Textual analysis for social research’.

    If you’re interested in the sociology of education, than ‘Realism and Educational Research: New Perspectives and Possibilities’ by David Scott is an application of CR in educational research. This is a good overview and you can use the references for further research:

    Hope that helps!


    Basem Adi (@basemadi)

    September 5, 2013 at 11:44 pm

  32. Let me argue further why social-theory audiences should be thoroughly put off with how this debate proceeded, notwithstanding Hirschman predictably commenting a professional senior to himself made a “fantastic” post.

    First, Healy proposes he is an expert on critical realism, cites 18 months of “full-time” work on the subject, and celebrates the culmination: a paper published fifteen years ago. I happily click on the link to the paper. Critical realism is absolutely not the subject of that paper; Archer and Mouzelis are. That these two theorists are representative of the entirety of critical realism, I highly doubt. A nice paper, I pleasantly admit, but not what it was billed as being. A rather flagrant bait-and-switch.

    Second, Smith says, yes, I agree, more empirical grounding is necessary for this argument to be actually meaningful — helpful, useful — but, he says, a blog post is not the place for this meaningful work. Hard for me to agree, because I don’t think it’s my imagination that you, Smith, used thousands of words in this comment thread to say basically nothing about how critical realism is useful. I get the defensiveness, because of the nature of the attack you had to withstand. And I get you were already playing on the field Healy devised.

    But people: 700-1000 word blog posts can be empirical, theoretical, useful. Economists do it all the time.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 6, 2013 at 12:50 am

  33. My last contribution to this discussion… KH suggests that no analytic philosophers recognize or would endorse CR. I have already spoken above about the problem of relying on analytic philosophers to validate a meta-theory we might entertain for sociology. Even so, when it comes to specific key position, counter KH’s claims, there is plenty in analytic philosophy that clearly supports CR. Take the matter of causation. Here for evidence is a raft of analytic philosophers who in the last decade have embraced, developed, and otherwise championed exactly the view of causation that has been advanced by CR since the 1970s. They may not formally ID as “critical realists,” but they are at the least showing that the long-standing CR view of causation is the most compelling view:

    John Greco and Ruth Groff (eds), 2012, Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Routledge.

    Anjan Chakravartty, 2007, A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism: Knowing the Unobservable, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (I just had lunch with A.C. last week, and he finds CR really interesting and congenial to his approach, wants to learn more about CR.)

    Stephen Mumford, 2004, Laws in Nature, New York: Routledge.

    Stephen Mumford, 2003, Dispositions, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, 2011, Getting Causes from Powers, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Brian Ellis, 2001, Scientific Essentialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Brian Ellis, 2002, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

    Anna Marmodoro (ed.), 2010, The Metaphysics of Powers: Their Grounding and their Manifestations, New York: Routledge.

    George Molnar, 2003, “Powers: A Study in Metaphysics,” in Stephen Mumford (ed.), Powers in a Study of Metaphysics, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Among others….

    One of the original sources of this general approach, of course, was: Rom Harre and E.H. Madden, 1975, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity, Oxford: Blackwell—which had direct ties to CR in intellectual genealogy.

    Similar lists of serious philosophical support for many other CR commitments, such as emergence, reductionism, human flourishing, and beyond are also available for those interested. So, the argument re “real” philosophers ignore or undermine CR just doesn’t hold any water at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 12:54 am

  34. Smith, I find this contribution to be helpful, more helpful than any response I expected to my sanctimonious rhetoric. Thanks.



    September 6, 2013 at 1:49 am


    One of my former graduate students mentioned that there was a bit of a debate about CR going on in these parts, and I see that he’s right. I don’t hang out here much, but since a couple of the posts have mentioned my name, I thought it might be OK for me to jump in and say a few words. Reading through the posts, I detected a couple of recurring themes I’d like to speak to. Some of my thoughts echo earlier posts

    1. “Real philosophers don’t take CR seriously.”

    I’m not sure what a real philosopher is, or who gets to decide — a little “boundary work” going on here, no? – but there are certainly plenty of academic philosophers – maybe even an increasing number? — who have arrived at similar views concerning causation and emergence in recent years. On causation, my favorites are Hugh Lacey, Ruth Groff, Brian Ellis, Anjan Chakravartty and Stephen Mumford. (Not a big fan of David Lewis, I’m afraid; that’s just Hume all over again, in my view.) On emergence, I especially like Mark Bedau, William Wimsatt and Claus Emmeche. Another area where CR and academic philosophy have converged is in ethics, where eudaimonism has made a big comeback. Here, I am thinking, not only of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum but of Philippa Foote and Elizabeth Anscombe. Are these folks entirely mainstream? Probably not. Is sociology entirely mainstream? Definitely not. So what?

    2. “Other people have said it, and said it better.”

    Yeah, maybe. Here, I’d really just make four quick points. A) Bhaskar (and Rom Harre) were saying it a lot earlier than most of these other folks, back when scientific realism was pretty unpopular. So, credit where credit is due. B) Few if any of the folks that Kieran and others mention have had anything to say about sociology. CR has thought harder about how to get from metatheory to theory to explanation to application. Not to say that anyone’s connected all the dots. C) Some of the folks other posters mention, such as Dan Little and Erik Wright, have been strongly influenced by Critical Realists. Ditto for Peter Manicas and Mario Bunge, though there are subtle if important differences, to be sure. D) Finally and most importantly, CR bundles a bunch of things together in a powerful and coherent way: powers, mechanisms, emergence, systems, eudaimonism and so on. Why rush all over the place when you get most of what you need in one bundle?

    3. “CR is a stalking horse for God or spirituality.”

    Are certain versions of CR compatible with certain forms of religion or spirituality? Sure. So are certain versions of monism, empiricism, idealism, historicism, pragmatism and postmodernism. Does that mean we should dump Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Hegel, James or Caputo? Seems like a bad criteria for theory choice, if you ask me.

    [Sidebar: Overall, this whole line of criticism seems kind of retro to be honest, at a time when an ur-Enlightener like Habermas is about to publish a 500 page book on religion and Ronald Dworkin’s opus postuum is an essay on atheist spirituality. Not everyone will be interested, of course, and that’s OK.]

    Actually, if you are looking for a common denominator that links many of the folks in CR together it would actually be Aristotle. Obviously, there are some bits you want to lose — let’s start with “natural slavery”, shall we, proceeding on to male superiority — but there’s also some stuff that’s worth recovering, too, like a strong (ontological) version of emergence, a more complex approach to causation, an ethics of human flourishing, a dynamic view of matter, a more robust notion of participatory politics, even a pretty decent political sociology.

    4. “CR = Roy Bhaskar.”

    The term “critical realism” was actually coined in the late 1920s by the American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, father of the better known Wilfrid Sellars. British Critical Realism was a wider intellectual movement that included Ted Benton, William Outhewaite, Andrew Collier, Andrew Sayer, Peter Manicas, Charlie Smith, Rom Harre and others. And more recently Maggie Archer, Doug Porpora, Dave Elder-Vass, Tony Lawson, Alan Norrie and others. Bhaskar’s first two books, A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism do capture many of the core ideas, to be sure, and still merit careful reading, in my view, but they’re neither the first nor the last word on the subject.

    In other words, CR is not a finished product or a closed system. It could not benefit from constructive dialogue with kindred positions like classical pragmatism or critical hermeneutics or a humanistic Marxism. There was actually a lot of productive and respectful dialogue across these positions at the conference on “Realism and Explanation” that I convened after this year’s ASA. Hopefully, that will continue in the coming years.

    Liked by 1 person

    Phil Gorski

    September 6, 2013 at 2:29 am

  36. PS:

    I absolutely agree that the implications of CR for particular methods and subfields have not been adequately spelled out. And I think there is widespread agreement about this amongst the CR folks who’ve been posting here. There are a few exceptions, to be sure: Fairclough’s version of CDA has been rightly mentioned. Still, this is the order of the day for sure.


    Phil Gorski

    September 6, 2013 at 2:32 am

  37. Erratum. I of course meant to say that “cr could benefit from constructive dialogue….”


    Phil Gorski

    September 6, 2013 at 3:26 am

  38. That’s an enlightening post and extremely generous given the snarky way this whole thing started out. All three cheers to Phil Gorski.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:32 am

  39. To begin with, I agree with Kieran and have a long-standing general dislike of CR as empty authoritative posturing about things that we cannot really say anything authoritative about. I do not understand why sociology “needs ontology”? It is often claimed that hard sciences never benefited at all from any ontology put forth by philosophers. I believe Feuerabend has put this forth most forcefully and makes a very compelling point that philosophers have nothing to tell to empirical scientists concerning the vocabularies and schemes they should use. Philosophy can criticize, synthesize, point out inconsistencies, etc., but it cannot offer a ready made framework of layers and typologies of concepts we should stick to.

    Rorty has made the same point about the necessity of inventing vocabularies that let us talk about new things. In the domain of ethics Hilary Putnam has a nice small book called “Ethics without ontology”, which warns us against grounding our arguments on some set of ex ante vocabulary like Nature, Humanity, Freedom, etc. (capital letters not incidental). I think this is exactly the “religious” undertone of CR: here are some Big Words that tell you the Structure as made by God/Nature and revealed to the Prophet (Bhaskar?). Those big words are compelling and soothing because they suggest there is structure that you can rely on and it gives additional meaning to analysis. Yet, it is really as scientific to distinguish something in your empirical analysis as ‘Real’ or ‘Empirical’ (I believe these are CR categories) as it is to pronounce something profane or holy. Indeed, I have once suggested (not fully in jest) that if you replace the word ‘real’ in a typical CR article with the word ‘holy’ no significant difference in what is claimed can be detected at all.

    But let me ask you Kieran, what is up with “Mechanisms”? Lots of senior highly intelligent people seem to have gotten excited about mechanisms, which in many ways relate to realist position. Isn’t this mechanims-talk really just largely a rhetoric trick to turn what used to be called propositions (i.e. tentative claims) to mechanisms (i.e. something real, out there, not so very tentative)?



    September 6, 2013 at 8:02 am

  40. I wanted to respond to a couple of the points raised by Henri. The first concerns CR and ontology. The idea that various forms of human practice presume or “secrete” an ontology of some sort is, I think, a pretty old one that is still accepted by a lot of philosophers (e.g., Charles Taylor). In ethics, for instance, there is the principle that should presumes could. In other words, a moral rule or principle should not require people to do things they are physically or constitutionally incapable of doing. When various early modern philosophers started to develop a “science of man”, this butted up against the traditional concerns of moral philosophy. Descartes sought to escape this problem by positing a dualistic ontology of a material body and an immaterial mind (i.e. had no extension in time or space). The ethical writings of Kant’s early critical period dealt with it by locating human freedom in the realm of the noumena which was distinct from but not incompatible with the realm of phenomena, were which governed, he thought, by deterministic laws. But I’m sure you know this. I just want to make clear that Bhaskar is not coming from nowhere…

    In his first book, A Realist Theory of Science, Bhaskar takes a page from Kant’s first Critique. He asks: “What would the world have to be like for natural science to be the way that it is?” Bhaskar starts from the premise that “constant conjunctions” of events can only be observed in the closed system of a laboratory setting. (Cartwright will later make a similar point in her writings about “nomothetic machines.”) So, if laws actually obtain in nature, it is not at the observable level of events, as Hume and neo-Humeans had claimed, and scientific investigation cannot be based purely on some kind of inferential or inductive process.

    Later, in his second book, The Possibility of Naturalism, Bhaskar does something similar for the social sciences, though not, I’m afraid, with quite the same rigor. Here, his starting point is not “social science as we find it” but rather the observation that experimental closure is not possible in the social world. Why? Well, for one thing, because the human mind is internally “open” even under closed conditions. (Primo Levi on Auschwitz describes the limit situation.) For another, because human beings change their behavior based on past experiences.

    The ontology that results is a weak and fallibilistic one. Core tenets include the following: many of the entities and processes that the sciences study are not directly observable (e.g., a magnetic or social field); some of these entities and processes have emergent powers and properties some of which may be irreducible to those of their constituents (whence the “special sciences”); social structures exist only in virtue of human activity and concepts. This ontology rules out some things but not many. For example, it rules out a social science that denies the existence of social structures (e.g., some forms of RTC); it also rules out strong forms of physicalist reductionism (e.g., certain philosophies of mind) that effectively deny the reality of human persons. But that is not nothing. These are both live positions in academic discourse and, to some extent, in “folk” discourse as well.

    Now, you may be thinking: “But that’s not all that different from what Putnam says.” To which, I would say: “Exactly.” I haven’t studied Putnam closely enough to remember all of the twists and turns in his intellectual positions, but he was a pretty staunch defender of scientific realism for much of his career, right? I know contemporary pragmatists are often uncomfortable with ontology and metaphysics. I think this is Rorty’s influence, mostly. Because a number of the classic pragmatists wrote on these subjects. I am thinking especially here of James, A Plural Universe and Dewey, Experience and Nature. Which is to say that I don’t think being a pragmatist has to mean running the other way whenever you hear the word “ontology.”


    Phil Gorski

    September 6, 2013 at 11:27 am

  41. Postmortem (I know I said my previous was my last contribution, but I’m hoping that the “postmortem” label will buy me one more):

    1. CR has been dismissed in some parts of American sociology without, it seems to me, it having had a fair hearing. Some critics seem simply to have read the wrong things or gotten hung up on extraneous matters. A number of us are now suggesting that CR deserves a serious hearing in the U.S. We’d love to have conversations with those who are open to something different and, we think, very helpful. Some may be convinced and others not. Fine. But, if engaged well, the conversations should be interesting and productive.

    2. Not all of us have the time to thoroughly investigate new meta-theoretical systems well, so many of us have to rely on the judgments of trusted others who seem to know enough to say so. But that poses the danger of Type II errors: a few people for weak reasons claim that CR has null value and, based on their trusted word, others, who don’t have the time to sort it out for themselves, fail to reject their hypothesis/claim. Given the importance of what is at stake, however, it would be good if (a) more American sociologists looked seriously into CR and (b) those who cannot afford to do so remained more open about it until more and better discussions are had.

    3. CR is not one simple piece, and it helps to pull the pieces apart and treat them differently. RB likes to divide things into (1) Basic CR, (2) Dialectical CR, and (3) Meta-Reality. He insists that they all go together, but not everyone is convinced of that. All of us who find CR compelling on this side of the Atlantic (and many on the other) only want to advance (1) Basic CR in American sociology. That is what we should focus on and debate. Whether or not (2) Dialectic CR is useful for us can be left an open question. But be clear that one can buy CR and not the Dialectics part. For all practical purposes in America, (3) Meta-Reality can and should be set aside. Just ignore it. (When you hear someone claim that CR is “nuts,” “spiritualism,” etc., this is the part to which they are referring.) Bottom line: CR can be taken as three packages, and all that those of us to advocate CR in the U.S. wish to promote is the first package, the basic, first-phase CR.

    4. Austen rightly noted that the discussion above, at least until the end, included very few specifics. From my perspective, many CR thinkers, myself included, have already put a lots of specifics out there, in terms of concrete critical arguments and constructive alternatives, with specific implications for scholarship. It’s there for the engaging. On the other hand, at least some CR critics seem to want to keep things at the level of, “Trust us, we already know that CR is bunk, so don’t even waste your time asking for the details.” Who, I ask, is doing the real “posturing” here?

    5. There seems in American sociology to be an odd animus against CR in some circles that gives rise to a degree of vicious snark that is hard to explain on the grounds of pure intellectual disagreement. I suspect that if the real reasons for that animus were identified and brought into the open for inspection, that would bring some very helpful clarity to the larger discussion.

    6. As the discussion proceeds, we can expect to hear some of the same objections dragged out for flogging: “RB is treated like a guru.” “CR is just a cover for sneaky religion and weird New Age spirituality.” “The ontological baggage is unnecessary.” Blah, blah. Some of these (e.g., ontology) are well worth engaging. Others are distractions and obfuscations. We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.

    7. To help make the CR learning curve less steep, I have these suggestions online: Later next week this will be updated with more references and links, so check it out then if you’re interested. Perhaps the curious and open-minded will find it helpful.


    Chris Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm

  42. I have to disagree with Phil. An ontologically grounded realism is exactly what both classic and contemporary pragmatisms reject. Whether or not James and Dewey wrote about ontology in some book or another, pragmatism as a philosophy is, and really has to be, by definition anti-CR. It wouldn’t be pragmatism anymore if it wasn’t.


    Per Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  43. I guess Phil never said that pragmatism and CR were compatible, so let me rephrase. Pragmatists would not find any usefulness in a critical realist discussion of ontology.


    Per Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm

  44. In the most recent link Smith provides, he writes, “Critical realism offers the best alternative to the problems and limits of positivist empiricism, on the one hand, and postmodern linguistic constructionism and even hermeneutical interpretivism, on the other.”

    This is interesting, because I think there is a real-world tension articulated in that statement. I’d love this point to be explicitly drawn out. For my take, I am a committed empiricist, yet recognize that modern social worlds create forms of data that cannot always be reconciled with traditional empirical methods. Some call these new forms of data “post-modernism,” and that’s fine. But too often post-modernism, I believe, devolves into an anti-empirical standpoint. With the proliferation of images, text, and other symbols, “How to be empirically post-modern?” is, I would argue, a central question of modern-day social science. And, if nothing else, Smith asserts CR attempts to solve this question, and I don’t see such a question being raised, much less answered by the critics.

    On the other hand, I come at this debate as an outsider, non-expert, who may have no idea what I am talking about. So I will make two points, perhaps both wrong, and hopefully someone can respond.

    1. It is untenable to think social scientists cover what they need by empirically studying only that which is “measurable” or “observable.” A sign of my ignorance is that I’m not sure if this argues against CR, or with it.

    2. I find nothing so far (so far) in CR, from CR’s point of view not its critics’, that isn’t covered better by Deweyan pragmatism (something I actually do know a little bit about)

    Finally, I’d just like to thank everybody who’s been giving sources, links, citing books — including and especially Basem Adi; that paper was quite interesting — so that the uneducated though curious can learn something. Thanks.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm

  45. Austen, essential to the CR view is that you are right on #1. That is what moves us beyond Humean empiricism back into ontology. One major discussion that still needs to be sorted out (which, for obvious reasons, they have not done much with across the Atlantic) is the relationship between CR and pragmatism. That is on the agenda. The answer is clearly nether pure opposition or pure agreement. So the discussion should be fun. (And re: the comments about Dewey and James above, I’d also like to bring in C.S. Pierce as a question here–I actually have no point to make, I’m genuinely interested in learning more about these relations).


    Chris Smith (clearly did not say my last word before)

    September 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  46. Per Per Smith, I found myself reading that: “Pragmatists would not find any usefulness in a critical realist discussion of ontology.”

    Yes and no.

    Here’s James:

    “All pragmatist writers…[believe in] our ultimate ability to penetrate theoretically into the very core of reality. [We] only ask what we mean by truth…”

    “It is this perception, that truth is a resultant and that minds and realities work together in producing it, that has launched the pragmatist writers…. Reality as such is not truth, and the mind as such is not a mere mirror. Mind engenders truth upon reality….Hence arises the idea that our minds are not here simply to copy a reality that is already complete.”

    My interpretation of these words is probably similar to yours: they represent a view in which “mind engenders truth upon reality.”

    Nonetheless, they also signal (as Gorski already pointed out) that pragmatists are quite willing to use ontological language — like “the very core of reality” — so long as they adapt it in the way they wish.

    I would also point you to the first chapter of Walter Lippmann’s ‘Public Opinion’ titled the “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.” In this, in part a debate with Dewey, Lippmann argues that the problem with reality is reality can only ever be partly (or falsely) absorbed by human minds. In response, Dewey did not disagree, only that it is the conflict between truth and reality (“problematic situations”) that allows the human mind to develop, and so on and so on.

    All of this is to say, I think it is highly “pragmatist” to say there is a reality, but minds can never fully process it, so we are left “engendering truth upon reality” in an attempt to construct it. Per Smith, you tell me if this is ontological per se, but at the very least it shows ontology is not useless in the pragmatist formulation, if only as a base from which to further explicate.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm

  47. Thanks to Phil and Chris for their further contributions. I’d like to reiterate that I regret my offhand tweets were assembled into an inflammatory broadside. The tone wasn’t productive and, when you start from there it’s too easy for everything to go to hell, to the dismay of some and the evident glee of others. At the same time, there’s no denying that I disagree very strongly and directly with Chris and Phil. My argument has gone more or less like this:

    – The problems in social theory that Phil and Chris seek to address are often serious and important. There are a series of broadly metaphysical problems, and associated issues having to do with explanation, that sociologists should think about.
    – They advocate for a school or system of thought, CR, centered on Roy Bhaskar’s work but not limited to him, as a set of solutions to these problems.
    – CR is not a good solution to these problems. As a system of thought, I think it is not persuasive. First, an internal reading of the material in this tradition, beginning with Bhaskar’s own work, raises many serious problems, especially with respect to CR as a systematic metaphysics. Second, the way that CR gets deployed in practice does not seem to me to be conducive to better social science. And third, when placed in the broader context of developments in twentieth century and current philosophy of science and metaphysics, it is clear that neither Bhaskar himself nor CR as a system has had anything like the influence its advocates claim.

    Now, both Chris and Phil (and others) have suggested that by bringing this last point up I am merely engaging in “boundary work”. But as I see it, I am trying to situate CR in this wider field of discussion and alert sociologists to several facts—and I think they are facts—that come from contextualizing it in this way. Phil reasonably says that CR is not just Bhaskar. Here and in his review article he mentions some others in the CR movement, notably Archer, Lawson, and Sayer. At the same time, though, his review covers fourteen books. Twelve of those are authored by Bhaskar alone. Of the other two, one is co-authored by Bhaskar, and one is a dictionary of terminology. A sociologist reading Bhaskar gets a specific story about the development and content of metaphysics and the philosophy of science that is, in my view, highly partial and misleading. Despite his repeated claims to have done so, Bhaskar did not effect a “Copernican revolution” in the philosophy of science. The general notions of causal powers, dispositions, emergence, and realist explanation are not unique to him. Rather, there are a number of distinct traditions in philosophy that explore these ideas and have developed them in different ways. There are varieties of scientific realism, and there are various accounts of causal powers and dispositions, emergence, and so on. Importantly, Bhaskar’s particular version of these ideas has not been especially influential. Neither, importantly, has the systematic aspect of CR had any strong influence outside of a quite small group of followers. Instead, a fair accounting of Bhaskar and his influence would see him as one of several philosophers who worked on the notion of causal powers, in particular, and whose ongoing (and in my view increasingly grandiose) elaboration of his own grand metaphysics was essentially detatched from the rest of the field.

    This matters because, as both Chris and Phil note, there are other philosophers and philosophical traditions that explore some of the ideas discussed by Bhaskar and CR generally. Chris and Phil want to claim that writing for CR. In his essay on “Causal Powers” in the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics for example, Stephen Mumford notes several traditions of thought: one centered on Rom Harré which influenced Bhaskar and perhaps also Nancy Cartwright, another (separate) British tradition around Hugh Mellor, and a third “developed in Australia, where the main considerations were metaphysical rather than scientific. The originator of this tradition was C.B. Martin … with George Molnar” (267). There is also a developed American line of thinking on causal powers associated with Sydney Shoemaker. Each of these can be connected with the general tenor of Australian realist metaphysics associated with David Armstrong. All of these traditions have things to say about causal powers. What is not true, in my view, is the idea that Bhaskar can be credited with originating some canonical account of things, or that he (or CR) was notably influential on other philosophers working on this topic, or that his account was especially prescient. The fact that several other streams of thought work with the idea of “causal powers” is not by itself any kind of evidence that Bhaskar’s or CR’s version of things is the source of the notion, or its best articulation, or seriously influential. It’s notable, I think, that Mumford and Anjum’s recent book Getting Causes from Powers engages neither with Bhaskar specifically nor Critical Realism generally. Instead the main interlocutors are philosophers like Armstrong, Molnar, and Shoemaker. Other contributions in this literature are similiar—they sometimes (not always) mention Bhaskar’s initial contribution in the early 1970s, but the main source of influence is elsewhere, as is the work seen as worth engaging or developing directly.

    Again, this is relevant in two ways: first regarding knowledge of a field, second regarding substantive intellectual commitments. In the former case, it is not simply “boundary work” to try to properly contextualize someone’s writing, especially when its main exponents make very strong claims about its importance and centrality. It’s not an effort to police people, it’s an attempt to show there is more to this field than meets the outsider’s eye. Second, once we see Bhaskar’s work, and CR generally, in its context, several substantive things become clearer, too. Most importantly, we see that if we want scientific realism, or a theory of emergence, or an account of causal powers, we can have these things without buying in to the CR version of any particular one of them, and just as importantly without buying in to the whole Bhaskar system. There are well-developed, widely-discussed, fleshed out metaphysically realist theories of causal powers, supervenience, and ontology generally. Phil and Chris think sociology should take the time to care about metaphysics and the philosophy of science. I agree. But I think there are much better places to start than CR.

    Phil argues, I think reasonably, that CR isn’t a finished product or a closed system. I think that one of the best ways to see this is simply to set it in the context of the philosophical literature on the topics it addresses. My own view is that many of the alternatives are better developed and better argued. You may disagree, but I’d like sociologists to have a clear picture of what those alternatives are.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:29 pm

  48. Now, let’s debate the contributions of Niklas Luhmann.



    September 6, 2013 at 3:40 pm

  49. Austen – welcome.

    The edited book (Margaret Archer) ‘Conversations About Reflexivity’ covers themes on reflexivity and realism/pragmatism and that might be useful.

    Also Justin Cruickshank discusses related issues, so you might want to consider his works (e.g. ‘Realism and Sociology: Anti-Foundationalism, Ontology and Social Research’).


    Basem Adi (@basemadi)

    September 6, 2013 at 3:50 pm

  50. Austen, one good way to think about CR is as the required combination of (1) ontological realism, (2) epistemological perspectivalism, and (3) judgmental rationality. That means belief that (1) a ordered, structured reality exists beyond our minds (additional premise: composed of real entities with natural causal powers and limitations that produce effects in the actual world), (2) all human knowledge of reality is had from particular places in history, culture, etc., which entails an inescapable interpretive dimension and which makes it personal, particular, and fallible, yet (3) is it possible to use empirical evidence and reason to make truthful claims about reality and to progress through the making of judgments about better and worse account in the adequacy and value of our knowledge (while keeping in mind the frequent under-determination by the evidence of the best theoretical accounts, and the fallibility of all our knowledge, which sets CR off from some versions of scientistic realism). it seems to me that’s something like what you’re saying above. (Obvious here is the CR project of taking the best from positivism, empiricism, hermeneutics, post-structuralism/modernism, etc., and leaving the dross behind, to formulate the best into one coherent approach (intellectual coherence is a real value in CR, which may not be everywhere)). It seems to me there is a lot of overlap with pragmatism there, but some real points of difference.

    Kieren, while resisting the idea that CR is worthless, none of us is invested in RB getting all the credit for everything. The issue is not who gets credit for what ideas, the issue is what background philosophy of social science will situate us to do the best social science. CR is it, some of us think. Of course lots of non-CR thinker have things to say that are similar, different, etc. Great. What makes sense can be assimilated, the project is ongoing, RB is hardly the final word, etc. But that is a whole different ballgame than CR being dismissed as “low-quality, confused, and misleading.”


    Chris Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

  51. 1. K.H suggests that social science does not need much philosophy to get along. Note that Phil Gorski addresses this question quite well in the Contemporary Reviews article that K.H lampooned (but did not engage with). The central point: if we proceed from bad philosophical priors we are unlikely to do good work. Also recall that classical sociological theory emerged from intellectual contexts where philosophy and the social sciences were intimately related. Could that early work have gotten by without philosophy?

    2. K.H suggests that the most “exciting” areas of research often emerge at the intersection of different empirical fields, not between philosophy and empirical research. Maybe, but one of the more significant features of contemporary social science is indeed the exchange between empirical research and a branch of philosophy – namely the philosophy of language. Indeed, the attention to meaning in much current work (including that, say, of Zelizer) was rendered possible because of this exchange.

    3. K.H’s forecasting depends upon a fair bit of clairvoyance. It strikes me that great care is due whenever we use our clairvoyance, especially if we hope to forecast complex social phenomena, e.g., scholarship. The exchange between sociology and CR may go on for decades, it may involve dozens of scholars, it may attract the interest of philosophers, it may become something completely unrecognizable to its founders. What then about current forecasts as to the fruitfulness of this exchange?

    4. Other clairvoyance in the discussion concerns what X or Y may find useful in CR: given that we cannot know the minds (or future minds) of all Xs or Ys (e.g., pragmatists), it is just silly to project what they (we) may or may not find useful in CR. The point made in #3 above also seems relevant here.

    5. This is probably deflationary, but the proof will ultimately be in the pudding: the exchange between American sociology and CR is already happening. Its pudding may come soon, it may take some time, and it may never arrive. Until then withholding judgement – and abstaining from forecasting and twitter – seems prudent.



    September 6, 2013 at 6:12 pm

  52. Austen, I do not want to confuse “using the language of ontology” with making ontological claims. When I hear someone say that sociology needs ontology, I assume they mean that sociology ought to be grounded, as a science, in ontological claims. If those ontological claims are of the realist sort, I still believe pragmatists, James included, would not have any use for them over and above explicating their own divergence from those claims. I think we need to historicize James and Rorty a bit here. Consider the James wrote over 100 years ago and a lot of his intellectual foes were neo-Hegalians. Rorty on the other hand was writing in the midst of postmodernism, etc. Now I do not claim to be a philosopher, a historian or an expert on either thinker, but I believe I know enough to understand that James wrote to a very different audience…one that needed some of the language of ontology to understand James’ ideas, even if those ideas meant declaring ontological claims (certainly those of realism) unnecessary and counterproductive.

    James’ pragmatism is simply not concerned with what does or does not exist outside of human experience. It is is concerned with effect, action, practice … with processes and their consequences, with things that are observable. On the other it isn’t concerned with denying the existence of that which is not observable either. In the text you quote (from an interview he did apparently) I take James to mean the “core of [lived] reality,” which he was certainly interested in. But James’ “core” didn’t include the type of ontological truth claims about the nature of reality that realism(s) posit. If anything there is an indifference to these types of claims…a declaration that they aren’t relevant. That’s all I mean.

    P.S. I want to apologize to Phil Gorski for only using his first name above. It’s a bad habit I have in online forums of thoughtlessly taking after interlocutors who are actually familiar with each other. I mean no disrespect or feigned familiarity.


    Per Smith

    September 6, 2013 at 6:29 pm

  53. It’s been a while since I’ve touched “A Realist Theory of Science”, but from what I remember it doesn’t really do anything markedly different from what was going on in mainstream analytic philosophy in the US around the same time (e.g., the whole Boyd/Putnam “no miracles” line of arguments). I don’t know what the state of the art looked like in the UK in the 1970s, but it is clearly not the case that Bhaskar was some kind of lone trailblazer here. It also seems pretty obvious to me that the reason why no one in mainstream analytic philosophy cares about Bhaskar is not because they are ignorant of or even hostile towards the kind of arguments he made in RST (surely someone can dig up the recent surveys of american philosophy departments where it is revealed that a majority buy into scientific realism), but because unlike everyone else who was developing similar arguments in the 1970s he then veered off into mystical nonsense.

    Also, concerning C.S. Peirce:

    Peirce has received a fair deal of attention in the general literature on scientific realism, but not really for his “pragmatism”, but because all defenses of scientific realism are abductive (e.g., Bhaskar’s “transcendental” argument). I think it was Arthur Fine who noted back in the 1980s that the issue between realists and empiricists is not really about ontology, but about philosophical method. If abduction is not actually a valid mode of inference, then all defenses of scientific realism automatically fail. So, naturally, all defenders of scientific realism affirm that abduction is an epistemologically justifiable inferential principle while those who oppose scientific realism deny it. All the talk about whether there is “ontological depth” or not is really a secondary problem (and hence why there is a huge literature on “inference to the best explanation” etc).



    September 6, 2013 at 7:19 pm

  54. I just want to say that I think it’s wonderful that sociologists are actually debating something here rather than mumbling about a lame let-1000-flowers-bloom-but-never-cut-any theoretical pluralism. I think this debate has been fascinating and very constructive. I’d love to hear, to take just one example, a more focused debate about different kinds of emergence (i.e., whether we really need ontological emergence). But I’m just glad to see a real discussion, no matter how it happened to get started.

    Liked by 1 person

    Steve Vaisey

    September 6, 2013 at 7:59 pm

  55. I am not (at all) well read on CR, but it seems to me that there is some equivocation happening among some of its defenders in this thread. I’ll explain why in the hopes that, if I am misunderstanding, they can help me locate where.

    On the one hand, CR is an extremely minimalist program, as defined in Chris Smith’s last comment, for example. I have no objection to that program, as Chris defined it in that comment (indeed I have trouble imagining the sociologist who would), but it strikes me that this is the mainstream of philosophy and I am not sure what is gained by attaching to it the label of “critical realism.” It also strikes me that these claims are so incredibly basic that it is hard for me to see what our social science gains from them, although I suppose that articulating them is preferable to either articulating nothing at all, or articulating something silly. But if all the real intellectual work must be done in the details, this “theory” doesn’t seem, to me, to account to much.

    On the other hand, CR is revolutionary and accepting it will rescue us from some epistemological sins that we are otherwise committing in our research.

    Are there some stronger claims being smuggled in here somewhere? Or what am I missing?



    September 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm

  56. * Where I said, “to account to much,” I meant “to AMOUNT to much,” of course.



    September 6, 2013 at 8:03 pm


    CR and Pragmatism:

    Like Chris, I think that a more sustained dialogue between CR and Pragmatism could be very fruitful. Interestingly, Sellars’ version of CR developed out of a dissatisfaction with American pragmatism particularly of the Deweyan variety. Ruth Groff includes an essay by Sellars in her volume, Revitalizing Causality. Here’s a little excerpt to give you the flavor: “my thesis [is] that scientific knowledge, that is, empirical, and not formal or purely mathematical, knowledge, is highly probable knowledge or disclosure about what exists, and that its facts and theories inexorably involve an ontology for their reference and philosophical meaning.” (p. 27)

    That said, I’m not quite ready to cede the point. It seems to me that classical pragmatists, including Dewey and James, believed that ontology was unavoidable and that the other branches of philosophy (i.e., ethics and epistemology) inevitably “secrete” one. Here’s James in the concluding page of “A Pluralistic Universe”: “A conception of the world arises in you some how, no matter how.” (p. 148). Here’s another passage, plucked more or less at random from the early pages of Experience and Nature: “Things interacting in certain ways are experience; they are what is experienced. Linked in certain other ways with another natural object—the human organism—they are how things are experienced as well. Experience thus reaches down into nature; it has depth.” Peirce sounds even more metaphysical at times.

    This is not to deny that American pragmatism was partly a reaction against Hegelian idealism. Nor is it to deny that many contemporary pragmatists do have a deep aversion to ontology. But I still wonder whether this is Dewey speaking, or whether it is Rorty speaking for Dewey. IOW, I wonder whether classical and contemporary pragmatism do not differ a bit on this score.


    Phil Gorski

    September 6, 2013 at 8:21 pm

  58. Mike, your post suggest that mainstream analytic philosophy has for decades now covered everything CR offered but adds the virtue of “not later veering off into mysticism.” So, can you please tell us SPECIFICALLY a coherent PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL SCIENCE from the 1970s or since that accomplishes what CR does, either equally or better? I don’t mean this or that particular philosopher who is said to be similarly arguing x, y, and z back when. I mean a SPECIFIC, serious, coherent, philosophy of science that is equal to or better than basic CR—the kind of thing one might teach to graduate students as the meta-theoretical framework that should underwrite their scholarship. I doubt it. All I can see are sundry specific arguments on focused issues disconnected from each other, and survey books organized according to the same old positivism-hermeneutics-rational choice-etc. schemes. Please, do offer some specifics.

    Elizabeth, I did not say the combined 3 points were the sum total of CR. I said it was one useful way to think about it (in response to another post re pragmatism). There is obviously lots more to CR than that, which is the stuff so many people choke on (the ontology, strong emergence, anti-reductionism, natural-powers-causation, etc.). Nothing is being smuggled. Just don’t expect some blog posts to describe the fullness of what something like CR offers. If one really wants to understand CR, like most things of value, it takes some work to dig in below the surface to get it.


    Chris Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 12:16 am

  59. Drat! I just finished an email request of two assistant professors in the philosophy of science to read this thread and tell me what they think of the discourse. I attended their phil sci seminar a couple of years ago and I have enjoyed their tutelage since. Now they will see Chris Smith’s demand for “a specific … philosophy of science” that will serve as “the meta-theoretical framework that should underwrite [sociology] scholarship” and they will dismiss my request out of hand. I have not met a philosopher yet who would support the existence of anything like what Chris Smith demands. Nor have I found one yet that would wish to weigh in to prescribe or proscribe any philosophical approach for any field of scientific inquiry.



    September 7, 2013 at 2:07 am

  60. I wish to highlight the work of Derek Layder as a model of CR that provides a unique template on the selective uptake between individual predispositions and systemic factors, from the domain situated activity. His tripartite split in social ontology is a way of articulating this causal history (interaction of morphogenetic and morphostatic causes) and how certain capacities can be triggered or not. A unitary view of social processes or a single reading of ontology just can’t capture the complexity of the interaction and so focuses on elements of the social over others (if it acknowledges kinds at all). The theory of social domains maps this movement (lifeworld and system domains) as presupposed by this tripartite split in social ontology. Importantly each domain comes with its own emergent properties, even the domain of psychobiography (this means the subjective and objective have causal properties and the systemic setting becomes an empirical point in the manner they may interact). This complexity can be seen in how we may study something like emotional contagion that in certain situations may take their own dynamic. He is also one of the richest critical realists in developing strategies for social research and linking theory to practice e.g. ‘New Strategies in Social Research’, ‘Sociological Practice: Linking Theory and Social Research’. I also just realised he released another book ‘Doing Excellent Small-Scale Research’. Personally I predominantly work with Fairclough and CDA but have used Layder in the process.


    Basem Adi (@basemadi)

    September 7, 2013 at 3:22 am

  61. I have been (uncharacteristically, for me) lurking and following this conversation with some interest. At our Cultural and Political Sociology Workshop yesterday we had an interesting discussion on the topic as well. Rather than take a position, I’d like to ask a question, with some apologies for its pragmatist leanings.

    The CR proponents have argued, in various ways, that adopting CR will make sociology better as sociology. Chris Smith’s tone suggests that it is quite urgent that sociology adopt CR in order to rescue the discipline from whatever its ills are. Could someone provide either (a) some examples of work in sociology (i.e., that standard sociologists would recognize as sociological research) that benefits from having adopted CR; or (b) some examples of sociological research that is worse because it does not adopt CR?



    September 7, 2013 at 11:35 am

  62. Andy, fair questions (although I would replace “urgent” with “important”).

    In the sociology of religion, 15 years of argument centered in the 1990s turned out in retrospect to be mostly a black hole, because the rational-choice/religious-economies debate that dominated then was based for both advocates and opponents on a neo-positivist empiricist presupposition that sent everyone looking for a covering law specifying the probabilistically modified constant-conjunction between religious pluralism and religious adherence (Hume, in short). The fighting was intense but in the end no such (even weak) covering law existed (as Chaves & Gorski’s nice 2001 ARS showed) and we gained little from more than a decade of research and debate. The problem was the neo-positivist premise of the whole debate, which few at the time even recognized, much less doubted. HAD WE KNOWN CR, we could have saved ourselves 15+ years of lost time and exhaustion, from which that field has still not recovered. (This and more I discuss in a 2008 Social Forces article.)

    I doubt soc of religion is the only place where this sort of waste happens. It is endemic to any sociological project working on an RKM-like “middle range theory” that presupposes (as is standard) that explanation and theory should take the form of “If x –> (probably) y (all else being equal).”

    More: in my book, What is a Person? (apologies for blowing my own horn, but you asked), I discuss at length problems in American sociology’s use of social constructionism, potholes in structural network analysis, and lots of problems in standard variables sociology. If we had been and were CR, we would be positioned to avoid these kinds of problems.

    In my CR-informed book coming out next year, To Flourish or Destruct, I argue similarly that American sociology has been beset with a bunch of self-inflicted problems rooted not only in our dominant “positivist unconscious” but also in our strong social situationism, a general discounting of human beliefs and motivations, and more. All of this involves basic views of explanation that affect many fields in Soc. Cultural sociology, for instance, has been screwed up by some of this for a long time, for example in the form of the great influence of Swidler’s 1986 piece, which launched more problems than it answered. A whole raft of social situationist claims have also screwed up the minds of lots of sociologists and their students, and persist today.

    Also see George Steinmetz’ 2005 book, The Politics of Methods in the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others, among his other CR-shaped work, to show how many of our current mentalities harm us in ways that CR can help correct.

    That is just a start. Of course, for decades CR has been demonstrating how sociology does itself a disservice by adopting (usually unawares) other philosophies of social science that screw us up. It’s all out there for anyone who wants to read it.

    But the deeper question here seems to be this: Are we satisfied or dissatisfied with what we in American sociology are doing and producing? CR is an answer for those who are dissatisfied. I am dissatisfied. I think CR is the best remedy. But if someone is satisfied with what American sociology is and does now, then they should stop reading this discussion and go back to doing the same old thing—they’ll get more published by not reading these blogs.


    Chris Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm

  63. RE: Pragmatism.

    I would not disagree that there are differences between classical and contemporary pragmatism(s), even perhaps in ways related to ontology (and metaphysics more broadly). I just have a problem reading James and Dewey as doing anything but pulling their readers away from those branches of philosophy. Perhaps Phil Gorski is right that Rorty has pulled even further away, but I think that trajectory starts with the classics and the act of pulling away from ontological concerns is essential to what pragmatism is. I do not read, “[a] conception of the world arises in you some how, no matter how,” as an invitation to take ontology seriously. To the contrary, I read it as a pretty clear indication of disavowal. While I do see a concern with the human act of conceptualizing the world, I don’t see a concern with the actual reality of the referents (of whatever concepts arise). Prior to the quote mentioned above James writes that, “[f]or pluralism, all that we are required to admit as the constitution of reality is what we ourselves find empirically realized in every minimum of finite life.”

    I think Dewey is a more difficult onion to crack in this regard. In Experience and Nature (which I’m only now reading excerpts from for the first time) Dewey does write about nature as something external to human subjectivities that can be partially revealed to humans through experience. While it is still the process of experience that Dewey is primarily concerned with it might not be unfair to argue, as Phil Gorski has, that Dewey is concerned with ontology. I’m certainly seeing secondary references interpreting the work in question in that manner. On the other hand Dewey does not seem to argue that we should take that which is outside of human experience seriously, or that we should consider the possible objective reality of something simply because humans claim to have experienced it. So while I admit to being convinced that Dewey wasn’t as ready to run away from ontology as Rorty is, I’m still not convinced that he would find much use in the ontology of CR.


    Per Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm

  64. Chris Smith: According to CR, how capable are human minds of accessing this ontological objective reality? If answer is very (as Bhaskar’s later books devolve into arguing?), then no, pragmatism would seem to have nothing or at least very little in common.

    If answer is human minds have limited or actually zero access to this ontological objective reality — or they have access only in false, often misleading fashions — then pragmatism has lots to talk about with CR.

    It can be an ontological statement that human minds have no access to ontological reality, or even to knowing if there is one. There is always *something* human minds do not know & cannot know.

    Also, I am glad to see Per Smith move quite a bit on his earlier statements.

    It is more or less an ontological belief of pragmatism that whatever objective reality is, the human mind can only attempt to construct it, and quite often does a miserable time doing so.

    In fact, ontology is *necessary* to Dewey in that human minds develop by coming across new data — new images of reality — that don’t square with previous images. In this moment something has to change, or develop anew. Objective reality, and the human’s ever-present need to develop theories of it, is central to all Dewey, not just the stuff on nature.



    September 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm

  65. […] I tweeted that comment because of an ongoing discussion at Org Theory about critical realism. Allow me to be blunt. I don’t find critical realism very appealing and in general I’m […]


  66. Austen: Briefly, neither the extremes of “very” nor “limited/zero,” but instead, within the broad valuable and realistic space between those. Enough that we can genuinely learn a great deal that we are justified to believe is true about reality (judgmental rationality), but not enough that we can think we may be complete or never wrong (epistemic fallibalism/perspectivialism). Essentially, that is what the actual history of science shows we can do, when not read through a strong Kuhnian incommensurability lens.

    Still, CR rejects the Kantian transcendental idealism reflected in your “only construct it” idea, if I understand your meaning. CR is a form of transcendental realism, not transcendental idealism. Hence the need and capacity for retroduction that referenced what must be true about reality, rather than just the categories of the human mind. Without the epistemic capacity of reality itself to be able to break through our cultural categories, expectations, filters, assumptions, etc. to genuinely inform our knowledge, then we’re stuck in the paper bag of total cognitive relativism, and so left to just play cards with Rorty (until those who provide the resources funding us find out that we’re just wasting their money and liquidate social science).

    Beyond that, I put the ball back in your court and say, again, all of this and more is out there in print. If you want to know more, go read. If you want to know what to read, email me offline. Meanwhile, my sense is that this particular discussion has wound down to its natural end point.


    Chris Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  67. Steve, thank you for speak on behalf of all of orgtheory; it is good to realize, even if too late, that intellectual openness and civil discourse are not welcome here.


    Chris Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

  68. Chris Smith writes:

    “Without the epistemic capacity of reality itself to be able to break through our cultural categories, expectations, filters, assumptions, etc. to genuinely inform our knowledge, then we’re stuck in the paper bag of total cognitive relativism, and so left to just play cards with Rorty…”

    This notion of the “epistemic capacity of reality itself” is incommensurate with William James. It is perhaps an opening to conversation with the work of Dewey, but I’m not sure the conversation would go very far because of the alarming necessity posited by Chris Smith. I also want to disagree with the picture of Rorty as a “total cognitive relativis[t].” The choice we have as human beings and scholars is not a binary one between insisting upon the existence of a “reality itself” on one hand and “total cognitive relativism” on the other. I would argue that it’s exactly somewhere between those positions that pragmatism finds itself, and I would caution against getting stuck in this polarity. It’s a bit like insisting that all human beings either believe in the objective reality of a personal god or else are atheists.


    Per Smith

    September 7, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  69. This is a response to Andy Perrin’s questions a few comments upstream. Andy asks: “Could someone provide either (a) some examples of work in sociology (i.e., that standard sociologists would recognize as sociological research) that benefits from having adopted CR; or (b) some examples of sociological research that is worse because it does not adopt CR?”

    These are good questions. We discussed these issues quite a bit at the “summer camp” I co-taught here at Yale in early August and also at the “Realism and Explanation” conference we had after ASA. So, I’ve had some time to think about them, and I can offer some tentative responses.

    1. CR is first of all a metatheory or philosophy of science, not a theory of society or a method for studying it. CR does not say: ‘you have to be a card-carrying Critical Realist to do good research” or even “once you read CR you will be able to do good research. Critical Realism helps you to think about what makes good research good in the first place and also about how you might improve the research you do.

    2. Some of the things that CR says about what makes good sociology good are pretty widely accepted in the discipline by now. For example, CR says that a good explanation is one that identifies causal mechanisms or generative structures. This was pretty heterodox 35 years ago, when Bhaskar published The Possibility of Naturalism; but it’s pretty orthodox by now, even if there’s a lot of disagreement (and in my view: confusion) about what a mechanism is (e.g,, it is not an “intervening variable” or a connection between two”events”).

    3. There are some other things that CR says, however, which will be hotly contested. Let me note a few of them: a) Causality is best understood in terms of the powers of structures, be they physical, biological, social or whatever and not in terms of i. nomothetic or ii. counterfactual statements (i.e. the old and the new orthodoxies.) b) Scientific knowledge does not consists of laws, predictions, counterfactuals or, indeed, of linguistic propositions of any kind. Rather, it consists of symbolic descriptions (linguistic, mathematical, graphical or whatever) of kinds or entities and their powers or dispositions. c. Some of these entities and powers are ontologically emergent and irreducible to their constituent elements. For example, a human person is (roughly) a body, a mind and a culture. A social structure is (roughly) human persons, their symbolically mediated relations and various material artefacts. This is not to deny the possibility of properties that are only epistemologically emergent because they arise solely out of interactions between persons (e.g., the paradigmatic Schelling models of traffic jams and classroom seating or the bird swarms and butterfly effects of complexity theory). But it is to refuse the “where are your microfoundations” dictum that still obtains in some quarters. If and how something is socially emergent is an empirical question. d. Social science is not (entirely) value free or ethically natural. Instead, it is axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom. This is not to say that social sciences provide ready answers to policy questions like “is proportional representation better than first past the post?” Those are of a different order. Nor is it to deny that justice must be part of a social ethics, either.

    4. Now, a number of people have tried to develop a CR version of social theory, too. The person who has worked longest and hardest on this is Maggie Archer. Her work can be divided into two trilogies. The first begins with Realist Social Theory. The central claim is that social structure and human agency are both real and that realist social theory should focus on their interplay. The second trilogy begins with Being Human. The central claim in this series is that human beings are inherently reflexive and that social theory must include a robust conception of the human person. (A point that Chris has also developed at some legnth.) But it is important to stress that CR qua metheory does not lead directly to a CR version of social theory.

    5. A few people have also tried to put a CR version of social theory into practice in their social research. Earlier posters already mentioned Colin Wight’s work on IR and Norman Fairclough’s version of Critical Discourse Analysis. One might also point to Archer’s recent book, Making Our Way Through the World.

    6. Particularly in Scandinavia, there are also a number of scholars who are trying to do “applied CR.” Berth Danermark’s work in disability studies provides a good point of entry. Others have tried to do CR policy analysis. Guy Pawson is the best known.

    Now,the fact that paragraphs 5 and 6 does tell you something. (Andy, are you nodding?) It tells you that Critical Realists have put more time into metatheory and theory than into explanatory programs and applications. We are all well aware of that. So, if one of our main agendas is to generate dialogue with kindred approaches such as pragmatism, another is to work out what a realist version of ethnography or econ soc would look like, and how that would change what people in different fields do. Which is a very long-winded way of saying to Andy: ask us again in a couple of years.


    Phil Gorski

    September 7, 2013 at 6:32 pm

  70. Did Chris Smith really write that “…intellectual openness and civil discourse are not welcome here” after a series of multiple posts in response to multiple questions by a number of commentators wanting to learn more about his position?



    September 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm

  71. Nothing against this debate; this is a total aside, not meant as a contribution to philosophy, or the philosophy of science, of the sociological use of philosophy of science.

    Most sociologists run from conversations like this. It’s embarrassing (at least that’s why I do). So here is a comment for the silent plurality.

    I used to always remember the difference between oncology and ontology – neither of which I knew anything about – because the C in oncology was for cancer. Now that I’ve had to hear myself say, “my oncologist,” ontology seems less important than oncology. That’s my story though, not a claim about what’s really important.

    Anecdote: I never studied evolution seriously. I decided to do some reading on it once, and started from the presumption that Stephen Jay Gould was right because I liked his politics. That’s not crazy; we have to start somewhere, and it’s too late to go back and start again in high school with the chemistry, physics, philosophy, Latin, and calculus I never learned. Life is literally too short. Of course I knew Gould could have been wrong, but I hoped he wasn’t.

    More superficial anecdote: When Chris Smith mentioned Aristotle, who (which?) I also know nothing about, I thought, “Aristotle, Aristotle, where have I heard that name before?” And then I remembered seeing it recently on the webpage of a right-wing religious group masquerading as a “new academic initiative”: (see the last guy). That’s just the way the mind works. That doesn’t mean everything about Aristotle is necessarily wrong.

    Leading up to: Chris Smith is outraged that, “a meta-theory that is more intellectually friendly to religious reflection than, say, positivist empiricism, is FOR THAT VERY REASON itself somehow more theoretically suspect?” To him that’s “sheer mindless prejudice.” That’s funny, because to me it’s obvious: not necessarily false, but obviously suspect.

    And finally getting around to my point: I’m never going to be an expert on this, but I know philosophy is important, so I realize this debate might someday affect sociology in an important way. When and if it does, my (opening) position on it – like the position of most other sociologists – will start with weights based on the research I see that engages the debate, from what I know. Maybe (in all seriousness) that’s because I’m an ignorant American sociologist obsessed with problem solving, by which I mean providing solutions that serve my thinly-concealed leftism.

    I don’t mind embarrassing myself in the orgtheory comment section. Some other people might, though, and I’m sensitive to that – it’s an intimidating crowd. So if you agree with me, just don’t say anything. I’ll understand.


    Philip N. Cohen

    September 8, 2013 at 4:23 am

  72. Thank you to Chris Smith and Phil Gorski for thoughtful answers to my inquiry.

    I think one of the reasons I am resistant is what Chris implies: I don’t actually see such a foundational crisis in sociology, so therefore I am not partciularly in search of a cure for that crisis. Rather, I think there’s a lot of really smart work that emerges from the kind of pragmatist empiricism that defines the mainstream, and there’s room for substantive theory-building as well. I’m happy to believe that the religious-marketplace paradigm was a dead end, but would at least want to consider what fruitful research lines might have been foreclosed by adopting CR a priori.

    While I think many sociologists are suspicious of value-neutrality claims, I suspect many would also be uncomfortable with “Social science is not (entirely) value free or ethically natural. Instead, it is axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom.” I am uncomfortable with that statement (although I have nothing against human flourishing or freedom), for a variety of reasons that probably deserve their own blog post. In short, they have to do with (a) substantive normative disagreement about what constitutes flourishing and freedom; (b) the limits to empirical ascertainment of flourishing and freedom; and (c) most interestingly, all the ways in which flourishing may diminish freedom, freedom diminish flourishing, and even some flourishing diminish other flourishing.

    The relevant question for this debate, though, is whether this axiological commitment is entailed by, or even compatible with, the principle of realism that is apparently at the core of CR. If one accepts the realist premise, is there a reason one must also accept the flourishing-and-freedom premise?



    September 8, 2013 at 11:18 am

  73. It seems that this is getting around to the heart of what is a worthwhile dispute: what is the best philosophical grounding for sociologists interested in generating persuasive causal accounts of really existing patterns in the world?

    It may be that there is no universal answer because sociologists are interested in providing deep accounts of many different types events and outcomes, and we live in a Cartwrightian world of causal eclecticism where it would be foolhardy to expect any type of consensus (and that there is no real need for a consensus anyway).

    In the fields in which I work — mainly stratification and education — I think CR has no chance whatsoever. Structural models that encode counterfactual dependence are — as Gorski implies above — both old and new and deeply entrenched. What happened, precisely when Bhaskar started writing, was that these types of researchers started to forget that mechanistic explanation was always meant to be part of the enterprise. In fact, as many on this blog know, 1950s and 1960s sociology was replete with mechanistic accounts. Take one of the most important (but largely failed) structural models in sociology, the 1969 Wisconsin model of Sewell, Haller, and Portes, which was introduced with a framing that sounds like it was written by a 2009 devotee of Judea Pearl:

    “… we present theory and data regarding what we believe to be a logically consistent social psychological model. This provides a plausible causal argument to link stratification and mental ability inputs through a set of social psychological and behavioral mechanisms to educational and occupational attainments. One compelling feature of the model is that some of the inputs may be manipulated through experimental or other purposive interventions. This means that parts of it can be experimentally tested in future research and that practical policy agents can reasonably hope to use it in order to change educational and occupational attainments. (Sewell et al. 1969:84)”

    I like to use this example because the Wisconsin model is always held up as the favorite example of “path models gone bad.” If you’ve actually read it, before attacking it as a mechanismista, you’d be surprised how much you would be arguing against yourself.

    The problem was that regression models became so easy to estimate that we’ve then had a few decades of shallow work, with silly horse races between coefficients in estimated models and little attempt to develop deep causal accounts of anything (largely because we’ve eschewed the measurement of the mechanistic pieces we have assume in the models, which is another post altogether).

    However, this bad practice led all kinds of other people to jump all over survey-based work as a fetishism of general linear reality and offer up the the well-known critique of “variable sociology.” These are critiques of practice between 1975 and 1995, and they are well deserved. But, there is nothing inherently wrong with variables (i.e., mathematical structures that represent multiple values!) or estimation procedures for data (a rather irreplaceable piece of our scientific machinery!). And the idea that sociologists didn’t know what a mechanism was until 1998 is just crazy talk. Maybe the idea that a mechanism is not precisely about intervening variables is the craziest of all. A generative function that relates an input to an output cannot be written without a mathematical representation that is exactly equivalent to a variable. You can lay all kinds of formal structure on top the dreaded variables to build up a model, but the input dies without something to carry it forward, which is a variable even if not called such. (One of these days, I am going write a paper titled, “In Defense of Variables,” but I suspect a few dozen other people have already done this and just been ignored.)

    So … the bottom line for me is that the CR folks need a beachhead and some successes in the areas where CR is ideally suited. Then, they can break into other areas. If sociology of religion was looking for covering laws for religious experience until only recently, I am shocked (and think rather less of a few of my friends!). But, I’ve ordered Chris Smith’s personhood book on amazon, and I’ll get reading and make a judgment about how convincing it is to me — both overall and whether his successes could have been had without the CR. I recommend the same to others. I’d welcome other self-interested reading suggestions, although I’d ask for ones that are examples of using CR to develop an explanation, not additional discussions of the inherent worth of CR.


    Steve Morgan

    September 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm

  74. Wow. A lot of heat here.

    I don’t know if this discussion has played itself out, but as someone who has been involved with critical realism from near the beginning (I’m old), perhaps I can list the problems I see with American sociology that I think critical realism (CR) addresses:

    1. What is American sociology’s conception of truth? Do we need such? Well, we do if we want our criticisms to be taken seriously, for there is no sense listening to a critique that isn’t saying something true. So what is our conception of truth? CR was born situating itself between positivism and postmodernism. The former had a naïve conception of truth; the latter was relativist. The latter has also largely disappeared, but the question for sociology remains. CR tries to answer that question.

    2. Do we believe any longer in anything extra-discursive? In American sociology today, it seems to me, any kind of objective social structure has been swallowed up by culture. Structure now means rules or procedures or scripts. Really? And culture has been swallowed by practice. So actually, now – it just seems to me – American sociology has veered toward a neo-behaviorism. Against that, CR has been holding the line for a more objective, extra-discursive account of social structure, something we might use to counter say, a resurgence of culture of poverty theory. But maybe that is too Marxist?

    3. Anyway don’t we have relational sociology now for structure? Sure. In relational sociology, everything is relations, somehow without relata. That position does not seem problematic? It does to me. And agents? According to relational sociology, to equate agency with actors is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. I confess I do not at all know what that means in that context. I’m just saying . . .

    4. We in sociology have been trying to kill off persons since Durkheim, and it seems at least to me that we are still at it. Either as in network theory, we relegate all motives and reasoning to psychology or else like practice theory, we deny that anything much is going on inside people’s heads or we dissolve persons Lacan-style into subject positions. Who is acting? I think that is a valid question.

    5. Alternately, we attribute action to habit or habitus. Do we really think, Bourdeusian-style, that much social action takes place without intentionality? Really?! Try running that one by the analytical philosophers, who still remember their Donald Davidson. Along with structure, CR affirms a robust conception of conscious personhood, and I think it is needed.

    6. Speaking of analytical philosophy, of which I am actually a big fan, check out the paper, “What Do Philosophers Believe” by David Bourget and David Chalmers. A slight majority of philosophers are physicalist reductionists. David Lewis in particular is a grand reductionist. He thinks everything – including human behavior – supervenes on the most elementary particles of the universe. We okay with that? I’m not. I agree that critical realists toss around the concept of emergence too cavalierly, but I think we do need a theory of emergence, and CR at least stands for that. Nor does it seem to me that the analytical philosophers have answered this question at all satisfactorily. Check out SEP and see for yourself. Neither Thomas Nagel nor David Chalmers seem satisfied.

    7. Then there is the status of regression equations and ethnography in our discipline. Are both equally scientific? Do they need to be? Where outside of critical realism is there any extended discussion of such matters? I am not seeing it. I see Earl Babbie in our methods texts telling our students that neither love nor prejudice really exist. You can’t see them. Only cooing and kissing. That seems like a problem to me. No?

    8. Finally, I look at sociology, which has christened itself a multi-paradigm discipline. What’s that? To me, it’s a discipline that refuses to address for long any larger, synthetic questions that are not answered by more data. It seems to me that our discipline exhibits an entrenched empiricism that critical realism tries to overcome.

    I have gone on too long. Sorry. The critical realists have been a community that addresses these various questions and argues about them among ourselves. It would be great to have others to argue with. Rather than just be summarily dismissed. I hope I have added some perspective to where we are coming from.


    doug porpora

    September 8, 2013 at 8:51 pm

  75. My attention was called to this discussion initially because of the screeching that CR is “Bollocks” & “You Shouldn’t” care, and the quasi–Orientalist insinuation (regarding an Anglo-Indian philosopher in a country that still has never come to grips with its colonial past) that CR was a “cult” led by a “guru,” borne by “religiously-minded” followers and that it adhered to an idea of “revealed wisdom”. The idea that “it’s pretty clear that one of the appealing things about CR to some people is that its picture of the world seems consistent with—or actively friendly towards—their religious beliefs” is an example of a terrible, pop version of the “sociology of knowledge” and is a smear, intended as one. CR argues that science could not work without positing causal mechanisms that are theoretical, abstract, hence empirically invisible; social theories like those of Marx, Freud, or Bourdieu operate with these sorts of realist concepts. Does that make all of them religious? If so, which religion do you have in mind? Of course, my own atheism may be a kind of religious belief too. But in that case, everyone is either religious or non-religious and we should all be equally susceptible to CR. Or do Kieran’s beliefs stem from a different, as
    yet unnamed religious belief system which predisposes people to an anti-CR stance?

    Let me respond to (a few) of the more serious points. Kieran argues that “most of the exciting work in sociology has not come from self-conscious theorists seeking to fit the field to some philosophical system, least of all when that system is not even defensible.” Maybe, but the converse is not true: some of the worst work in sociology, like that discussed by Chris Smith and Phil Gorski, has come from adopting a basically positivist epistemology and empiricist ontology somewhat automatically.
    The argument that good science “arises interstitially and out of cross-cutting research groups and programs” and that this “imagery of science [is] very much at odds with the carefully-layered picture provided by CR” makes no sense to me. I am not sure what the phrase “carefully-layered picture” meant here but it seems to suggest that CR differs from cross-cutting and interstitial research groups and programs and prefers unidisciplinarity. Nothing could be more opposed to CR than this. CR’s metatheory does not rule out collaboration between even natural and social scientists, and CR’s view of social science requires a historical and hermeneutic approach, since social kinds, entities, or mechanisms are “concept-dependent” (that is, embedded in meaning) and time and space dependent (that is, variable and changing). Given CR’s arguments about the near impossibility of experiments in the social sciences and the resulting necessity of making sense of events and processes that are conjuncturally and contingently overdetermined, we will need to bring in theories from disciplines beyond any one discipline even to explain the simplest event.

    As for reduction being a confused concept, I think this red herring has already been debunked. But it is fascinating that Kieran point to sociologists’ need for “a self-subsistent and “ontologically real” subject matter of their own as if that were absurd and also as if that really characterized sociologists. In fact, many of them have been quite willing and interesting in programs of reduction (to physics, biology, genetics, etc.) and have felt no disciplinary anxiety at all about that. CR argues that such reductionisms (ontological, not linguistic ones) are problematic qua reductionism, not because they threaten sociology or social science professionally.

    In one of his posts, Austen asked about the real-world tension articulated in the statement that “critical realism offers the best alternative to the problems and limits of positivist empiricism, on the one hand, and postmodern linguistic constructionism and even hermeneutical interpretivism, on the other.” The real world tensions both within the sciences and in the extra-scientific world have been discussed at length in The Politics of Method but also in the sociology of social science.
    It is ironic that when Dan Hirschman asked for something than CR, the references he was given were to Little’s Varieties of Social Explanation and Erik Wright, Andrew Levine, and Elliott Sober’s Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History. As Chris noted, “Little’s position is actually very near to CR if you read him closely on causal mechanisms.” I would add that Wright explicitly endorses CR. I also agree that Isaac Reed’s book is extremely close to CR in its combination of realism, ethics, and hermeneutics.

    Phil noted that CR is “not a finished product or a closed system.” Indeed, this is built into CR’s post-Kuhnian idea of epistemic relativism.

    Finally, Phil summarized CR as bundling things together in a powerful and coherent way, and asked whether anyone can point to another philosophical system that does this. These include powers, mechanisms, emergence, systems, and eudaimonism. I would add several others: the idea that determination in open systems is conjunctural and contingent (that is, the rejection of general theory) and the related critique of the idea that scientific knowledge consists of laws or predictions rather than “symbolic descriptions (linguistic, mathematical, graphical or whatever) of kinds or entities and their powers or dispositions”. Also important for sociologists are the critique of Popperian falsificationism (which is still a fallback position among some social scientists); the critique of actualism, that is, of restricting theory and explanation to the empirical; and the related critique of variabalism (which is not as entirely dead as some believe).

    As for Andrew’s query about actual research that has benefitted from this, I would also point to the debates within US historical sociology. As Craig Calhoun commented, the 1980s and 1990s versions of historical sociology were dominated by an epistemology that largely was pseudo-experimentalist, positivist in seeking general laws, and actualist in equating theory with “constant conjunctions of events.” This was codified most notably in Skocpol’s deployment of Mill’s methods of difference and agreement. Of course, as Isaac Reed shows, it is possible to read (or reinterpret) Skocpol or Barrington Moore as critical realists. The point, however, is that several generations of US historical sociologists were being taught to adopt a faulty epistemology and ontology.

    that’s all for now; sorry I’m even later to this discussion than Andrew but it has been a fascinating exchange so far


    George Steinmetz

    September 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm

  76. many of them have been quite willing and interesting in programs of reduction (to physics, biology, genetics, etc.)

    Yes, if there is any thriving project in contemporary sociology, it’s genetic reductionism. Do comparative-historical sociologists actually believe things like this? If so, then don’t be annoyed if demographers and such believe your favored philosophical paradigm is really just a 1970s cult of personality that involves meta-reality and thetans as it exalts someone who writes sentences like this.



    September 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm

  77. Thanks to Doug and George for their comments. I’ll respond to George first.

    My attention was called to this discussion initially because of the screeching

    As I said earlier in the thread and am happy to say again here, I regret my offhand tweets were assembled into an inflammatory broadside. In the main post and subsequent comments (here and here) I have tried to engage substantively with the main questions at hand.

    The idea that “it’s pretty clear that one of the appealing things about CR to some people is that its picture of the world seems consistent with—or actively friendly towards—their religious beliefs” is an example of a terrible, pop version of the “sociology of knowledge” and is a smear, intended as one.

    No, it absolutely is not a smear, nor was it intended as one. It simply helps explain why CR’s particular formulation—out of many alternatives—of scientific realism, emergentism, and ethics might appeal to some sociologists.

    CR argues that science could not work without positing causal mechanisms that are theoretical, abstract, hence empirically invisible; social theories like those of Marx, Freud, or Bourdieu operate with these sorts of realist concepts. Does that make all of them religious? If so, which religion do you have in mind?

    I do not think it is helpful to claim that Marx, Freud, and Bourdieu operate with the same sort of concepts as CR. Either the description is too general to be useful, or it is false on the details. As I argued, and documented, above, generally realist accounts of scientific explanation and causal powers are very well-established and well-developed in contemporary philosophy. Many philosophers are scientific realists; some defend accounts of causal powers; and so on. What is at issue here is whether CR’s particular account of these concepts, and the associated general system it is packaged up with, is better than the alternatives—whether considered in detail as philosophy or more generally as an orienting framework for working sociologists. I have argued that in both cases, for substantive philosophical reasons, CR is not the best available version of scientific realism. Advocates of CR don’t get to help themselves to the general prevalence of metaphysical views that defend causal powers, emergence, or realism about objects as evidence that their particular version of them is correct. Nor do efforts to characterize CR as the only, or the original, modern source of these ideas hold up to scrutiny.

    … [S]ome of the worst work in sociology, like that discussed by Chris Smith and Phil Gorski, has come from adopting a basically positivist epistemology and empiricist ontology somewhat automatically. …

    I agree. But, again, this is arguing “Something must be done; this [CR] is something; therefore this must be done”. I can agree that Sociology is in need of a much more sophisticated ontology and a better theory of explanation, and I can point—as I did earlier—to several alternatives that meet the requirements but are not CR.

    I am not sure what the phrase “carefully-layered picture” meant here but it seems to suggest that CR differs from cross-cutting and interstitial research groups and programs and prefers unidisciplinarity. Nothing could be more opposed to CR than this. CR’s metatheory does not rule out collaboration between even natural and social scientists, and CR’s view of social science requires a historical and hermeneutic approach, since social kinds, entities, or mechanisms are “concept-dependent” (that is, embedded in meaning) and time and space dependent (that is, variable and changing).

    My point here was not about collaboration or interdisciplinarity. It was that the layered ontology presented in the canonical CR work was far too neat, and in retrospect inconsistent with the actual development of scientific activity. The supposed emergent layers (we start from elementary particles, then move to molecules, to cells, and so on upwards) map far too well onto a very stock picture of the disciplinary ordering of the sciences.

    But it is fascinating that Kieran point to sociologists’ need for “a self-subsistent and “ontologically real” subject matter of their own as if that were absurd and also as if that really characterized sociologists.

    No, that is not my view. I am not out to make sociologists look absurd for wanting a realist ontology or emergent properties. What I said was that it was unsurprising, given sociology’s long history of strong emergentist thinking, that the advertised features of CR would seem initially attractive to them. I also said this was unsurprising given that Durkheim explicitly argued that we needed a discipline of Sociology because of the reality of irreducible social facts. My contribution to the Archer/Giddens/CR literature was not some argument for reduction to Psychology, or a call for methodological individualism. Nor did I say it was absurd to ask for social explanations involving “higher level” properties. Instead, I tried to show how there were other ways to coherently talk about macro-level entities, using well-analyzed concepts that did the job required, and did not commit one to a CR view of the world. Again, my main argument throughout has been that a knowledge of the philosophical literature makes it absolutely clear that that CR is not the only realist ontology in town. Secondarily, I have argued that it’s not anything like the best game in town. That’s obviously just my own view, but outside of the CR community it’s not that controversial a claim.

    In fact, many of them have been quite willing and interesting in programs of reduction (to physics, biology, genetics, etc.) and have felt no disciplinary anxiety at all about that.

    I myself am not a reductionist, in the sense usually used in CR circles. But while I can think of a few exceptions, I guess I would dispute the claim that sociologists have shown willing to entertain programs designed to reduce social explanation to physics, biology, or genetics.

    This was codified most notably in Skocpol’s deployment of Mill’s methods of difference and agreement. Of course, as Isaac Reed shows, it is possible to read (or reinterpret) Skocpol or Barrington Moore as critical realists. The point, however, is that several generations of US historical sociologists were being taught to adopt a faulty epistemology and ontology.

    I’ve always thought it a little odd that Skocpol felt it useful to return to Mill’s methods in States and Social Revolutions, and that this took hold so strongly in that subfield. But I strongly disagree with Reed’s reading of Skocpol or Moore as critical realists. They are not critical realists. If you presented them with the full bill of goods, they would reject most of it. They could also equally well (in fact, probably more easily) be read as making arguments consistent with many other realist ontologies of cause and effect amongst complex social entities. But that does not make them adherents of those philosophies. It just shows that a book like Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is working at a level of explanatory generality and ontological complexity that is compatible with a whole range of philosophically realist accounts of social ontology, emergent properties, causal powers, or causation generally. At such a general level, the specific account given does not much matter to the working sociologist. But obviously this will not satisfy a CR adherent, because they think their particular view is correct. If we focus our attention on the details—if we get closer to the philosophy—then the finer grain of arguments will matter to us more. In that case, I have argued that we will find CR much less attractive than many alternatives, and that this is reflected in its place in the mainstream philosophical literature on the metaphysics of causation, grounding, and objects. In neither case should sociologists interested in basing their work on a realist ontology feel that CR is in any sense the only or best available rock to build on.



    September 9, 2013 at 12:08 am

  78. I like the reference to Babbie. If someone could give an example of how an intro methods text would be different depending on the winner of this argument that would be cool. (If not, at least I got a chance to learn the word “eudaimonism.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    Philip N. Cohen

    September 9, 2013 at 1:21 am

  79. This thread is actually 23,000 words on critical realism.

    Just sayin’.



    September 9, 2013 at 1:33 am

  80. To jeremy:

    My comment on CR and amergence does not only refer to Cr contemporary sociology but to socialscience in general.

    As for the idea that the philosophical paradigm is a 1970s cult of personality that involves meta-reality; CR started in the interwar years with Roy Sellars as Phil pointed out and has much older antecedents; Bhaskar only published the first 2 books of his original triology in the 1970s and continued with the basic stage 1 project until the 1990s (see Philosphy and the Idea of Freedom from 1991), and the Metareality project did not emerge until later, I still don’t understand the reference to a 1970s cult of personality since many of the best philosophers are thousands of years old; maybe you just want work by people who have 15 minutes of fame?


    George Steinmetz

    September 9, 2013 at 1:54 am

  81. FR says: “This thread is actually 23,000 words on critical realism.

    Just sayin’.”

    How about using your roughly .0004 of that 23,000 total to actually comment on the interesting discussion that developed. Or is THAT bad when trolling gets interrupted? You, after all, referred to how “everyone” in the Orgtheory community can agree that CR is “lame.”



    September 9, 2013 at 2:11 am

  82. George: It is obvious you did not understand Jeremy’s comment. Look again at what he quoted: “many of them have been quite willing and interesting in programs of reduction (to physics, biology, genetics, etc.)”. Then look at the next sentence, which is sarcasm. He’s telling you he thinks that quoted sentence is as ridiculous a statement as claiming that CR is nothing more than a personality cult, and that writing it delegitimated your whole argument in his eyes. He’s not saying CR is a personality cult.

    And for the record, I also think the sentence you wrote is ridiculous, although it did not annoy me the way it annoyed Jeremy.



    September 9, 2013 at 2:34 am

  83. Eh: I’ve actually written previously on CR in at least two other posts, no need to repeat myself. And to be honest, I can’t outdo Kieran, who expresses my views with much more depth and eloquence than I could on this topic.

    I prefer to spend my time this evening working on a forthcoming article on the history of Black Power, which is not based on any theory of emergence, multiple levels, actualized social processes, or transcendental reality. I just stick to what my tiny brain can handle – trying to explain what happened with evidence in a way that doesn’t contradict itself.



    September 9, 2013 at 2:44 am

  84. Having studied analytical philosophy as an undergraduate I could not help but weigh in here, not about the varieties of realism but rather the structure of the argument which set off this discussion. Healy’s position contains a double-barreled argument from authority, so I’m surprised it was given the attention it has – I can only assume that its significance has little to do with its content. Consider Healy’s arguments in analogical form. Imagine a group of scholars who were interested in understanding value in markets. Some of them suggest that it may help to read some economic sociology, since economic sociologists have studied value from many angles – they’ve studied the value of art, organs, money, and what not. But one of their number yells “Do not go there! It will not pay!” To the scholars’ surprise, this man paints his claims on walls and, when pushed, he even writes them out for a small newsletter. His colleagues eventually ask “Why are you so sure?” The adamant man has two big reasons. First, he read “pretty much everything” in economic sociology when he was a graduate student and he concluded then that it was “rightly peripheral” in the social sciences. (He even wrote a minor article on the topic, though it did address the value of economic sociology.) His colleagues doubt his reasoning: they wonder why they should they accept his judgment if he will not explain its basis. Exactly why did he conclude that economic sociology was bollocks?, they wonder. The adamant man goes further. He rails that economists, who are experts on the question of value, do not take economic sociology seriously. In fact, economists make much fun mocking economic sociologists. The man concludes: “It would be ludicrous to read economic sociology. Let us read economics.” And again, his colleagues wonder, “But why should we accept the judgment of economists? What are their reasons? Why will this man not say? Why should we accept his authority? Why that of economists?” An argument like this would not have survived five minutes in one of my undergraduate philosophy classes. It may even have been named and shamed! It’s a bit ironic that we’re discussing philosophy here.



    September 9, 2013 at 3:07 am

  85. You’re working on a forthcoming artcle? Fabio, you are either lying or confused. Just sayin’..



    September 9, 2013 at 3:15 am

  86. I, for one, look forward to Steve Morgan’s “In Defense of Variables.” A quick Google search suggests that this paper has not, in fact, already been written. So have at it, Steve!

    In the meantime, though I would certainly call myself a realist, I have some objections to the idea of an ordinally layered reality. These take the form of questions that nag me whenever I think about these issues. For example:

    1) When does “the social” level kick in and emerge on top of the psychological? When there are two people in the room? Three?

    2) Is the memory or imagined prospect of social interaction enough for the social to be at work even when no one else is actually co-present with me?

    3) Are the (e.g.) dyadic, triadic, small group, organizational, and world-historical on different levels? If not, why not?

    I’m sure there are reasonable responses to these questions and I hope they don’t come across as offhand. My sympathies lie very much with the “where are your microfoundations” approach that Phil critiqued. It seems to me that even if there are ontologically emergent social level(s) they would necessarily supervene on whatever particular microfoundations human beings, in fact, possess. Even if those particular microfoundations do not determine what happens socially, they certainly circumscribe the possibilities in useful ways.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 9, 2013 at 3:25 am

  87. Eh: It’s been accepted conditional on some rewrites. Would you like to read it? It’s ontology is horribly under theorized. Maybe you can help me with it.



    September 9, 2013 at 3:26 am

  88. Fabio Rojas: “The orgtheory crew hails from across the globe, our methods range from computer simulations to ethnography, and we have varying levels of tolerance for Graham Peterson. But do you know what we all agree on? That’s right, critical realism is lame. I was reminded of this when Kieran started a critical realism flame war on Twitter this evening, in response to Phil Gorski’s essay defending CR in the most recent Contemporary Sociology. Each tweet is a one inch punch of academic truth.”.



    September 9, 2013 at 3:31 am

  89. Eh: Can CR admit recursive explanations?



    September 9, 2013 at 3:34 am

  90. olderwoman: Yep, thanks. I was indeed being sarcastic with my earlier comment (and am not being meta-sarcastic with this one). I probably found the earlier assertion more annoying than you did because issues regarding the relationship between genetics/”biology” is one of the main areas in which I work.

    Just to be clear, the problem I have is that, while there are a modest number of sociologists with active interests in genetics or “biology”–not the hordes sometimes imagined–no sociologist is doing this as “reduction” project in any of the various accepted senses of that word. But, if you do this line of work, the word “reductionism” gets hurled your way often, almost as often as people insinuate you are a stealth eugenicist. It’s a lazy and uninformed critique, which I would nevertheless typically let slide, but it was just too much to see here in a post that was (1) making claims about philosophical sophistication and (2) complaining about research areas being unfairly smeared. Talk about the pot calling the bhaskettle black.



    September 9, 2013 at 5:16 am

  91. Who is being dismissive now?

    Gorski writes:

    “even if there’s a lot of disagreement (and in my view: confusion) about what a mechanism is (e.g,, it is not an “intervening variable” or a connection between two”events”).”

    Steinmetz writes:

    “some of the worst work in sociology, like that discussed by Chris Smith and Phil Gorski, has come from adopting a basically positivist epistemology and empiricist ontology somewhat automatically.”

    “The point, however, is that several generations of US historical sociologists were being taught to adopt a faulty epistemology and ontology.”

    “In fact, many of them [sociologists] have been quite willing and interesting in programs of reduction (to physics, biology, genetics, etc.) and have felt no disciplinary anxiety at all about that.”

    Smith writes:

    “In fact, American sociologists operate with plenty of metaphysics running in the background, except they are usually simply ignorant about their own metaphysics and how their work is shaped by their default assumptions, which is hardly impressive.”

    “And that raises the next question: whether American sociology has the intellectual umph anymore to even be able to do that, especially when the alternative of the same-old standard account is as comfortable as it is incoherent.”

    “I discuss at length problems in American sociology’s use of social constructionism, potholes in structural network analysis, and lots of problems in standard variables sociology.”

    “I argue similarly that American sociology has been beset with a bunch of self-inflicted problems rooted not only in our dominant “positivist unconscious” but also in our strong social situationism, a general discounting of human beliefs and motivations, and more. All of this involves basic views of explanation that affect many fields in Soc. Cultural sociology, for instance, has been screwed up by some of this for a long time, for example in the form of the great influence of Swidler’s 1986 piece, which launched more problems than it answered. A whole raft of social situationist claims have also screwed up the minds of lots of sociologists and their students, and persist today.”

    “Of course, for decades CR has been demonstrating how sociology does itself a disservice by adopting (usually unawares) other philosophies of social science that screw us up.”

    When asked who has done effective empirical research using CR, 2 of 3 Smith’s examples are himself. Also, if Smith has such a good judgment on what empirical sociologists are doing, I wonder how he could possibly be so aggressive in advocating for the “scholarship” of Regnerus. If Smith thinks Regnerus represents decent empirical sociology, I’m afraid he loses a lot of credibility for being a good observer of sociology as it is currently practiced.

    I am a quantitative empirical sociologist that often writes about emergent properties of groups. Yet, I’m also at least open to the challenge of reductionism or at least from reductionists. Depending on the research question, subject of study, etc, it is not unreasonable for sociologists to have to justify why and demonstrate how emergent explanations make sense in their empirical work. I have not read as much philosophy of science as some of the commenters, but it is weird how the CR proponents are creating this binary of positivist vs. CR, and then proceed so much empirical sociology as solely positivist. I don’t think that represents philosophy of science or empirical sociology in any reasonable way. This crude debate of Popper vs. Bhaskar is quite misleading, and I’m afraid so is the caricature of sociology put forth. I don’t really know any empirical sociologists that are particularly dedicated to Popper (I don’t know many empirical sociologists that have even read Popper). Nevertheless, lots of us take philosophy of science seriously, agree sociology needs to think harder about ontology, causality, etc. Instead of the caricatures put forth by CR proponents, I’m reminded or reading the philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg who said that the best case for emergentism was the empirical proof. After a few decades of multi-level models, neighborhood and school effects, cross-national institutions, and strikingly “org theory”, I think a lot of sociologists have tried to demonstrate emergent effects. Whether they have been successful does not matter. What matters is that empirical sociologists do take these issues seriously and do attempt to show rather than simply talk about social structure.

    So, if the proponents of CR want to have a real discussion as they keep telling us, I would recommend a genuine and serious reading of empirical sociology. You’ll find there is a lot of work that takes these issues seriously, even if we make mistakes and have not worked out all the problems (sort of like how you defend CR). You’ll also probably find your treatments are not much deeper than what one can find on twitter.



    September 9, 2013 at 9:24 am

  92. @Anonymous: I think the work you describe is precisely what many of the CR folks are genuinely interested in. Indeed, I think the latter direction of this conversation has gotten quite unfortunate. Let’s remember that it began, after all, with a dismissal of CR as bad philosophy, which–I think understandably–drew the entire conversation in a somewhat highfalutin direction and invited precisely the kind of gross distinctions you’re now decrying. (When the conversation took place in the register of “supervenience,” there were multiple comments about how the conversation was difficult to understand; when it is boiled down to Bhaskar versus Popper, it is too crude.) I think it is also likewise understandable that the senior professors’ defenses of CR sound somewhat programmatic, given that they’re responding to internet commenters on short notice. (Blog posts, as we have learned from Fabio’s “contributions” to the discussion, are not the best place for the kind of debate you’re asking for.) Finally, if we are even slightly generous towards a developing paradigm of sociological analysis and meta-theory, it is also understandable that we still await an empirically paradigmatic, self-conscious case of its deployment in mainstream sociology (depending, though, on how what we think Kuhn meant by “paradigm.”) (So, CR, right now and late at night, is simultaneously supposed to be a promising direction for thought and research AND have mature examples of its craft on display for evaluation.)

    My own view, as someone who does historical sociology but is quite sympathetic towards and impressed by the work in other subdisciplines in the field, is that CR provides an excellent groundwork for pluralistic discussion among sociology’s different subdisciplines. I’m not cultist, and I refuse some elements of CR and only implicitly use it in my own work (even as I admire the work of some people who do), but I’m also really sympathetic with the dilemma it faces: too-strongly state the need for its existence, and you will be seen as disrespecting extant excellent work; too-strongly express affinity for that same excellent work, and you will be seen as unnecessary. I’m personally in the middle: CR is a name for what the best work in each of sociology’s subdisciplines already does, and is a nice “bundle” that keeps people from having to reinvent the wheel. It is, moreover, a nice vocabulary to have a discussion between, say, ethnography or historical sociology (subdisciplines which seem to have traditionally been seen as idiographic and descriptive–which explains lots of Skocpol’s strategy of adopting Millian causal inference, I think–and fields like demography or network analysis.) I also think that a fair reading of what CR actually says would provide many skeptics on this list with a surprising amount of food for thought, so I was happy to see at least a few people offer to actually read the work.

    I suppose, thinking now about it on an internet forum and early in the morning, that what makes CR attractive is the way it can transform the “back-end” of a conversation between an historical sociologist and a demographer about something like “generalizability.” Normally, I would suggest (having had conversations like this many times), the conversation usually occupies the ground of “scope conditions” on a demographer’s theory (if that demographer is even feeling generous enough to have the conversation in the first place). But (somewhat like the rage for institutional economics these days, I suppose), CR provides a new set of exciting empirical questions to ask that seem to give historical soc a nice place at the table: what did it take, for example, to make up (to borrow Hacking’s term) the kinds of actors with the causal powers which animate demographic models? What did it take to “cage” (to borrow Mann’s term) economic, military, social, and ideological power within “the state” such that it appears (sometimes!) as a unified “agent”?

    To me, those are exciting questions on their face, but it also implies an exciting idea about the contemporary world: if we take emergence or causal powers seriously, so too can we imagine the birth of new structures, new kinds of people, and new modes of organization. Yeah, it’s true that you have have that coupling of imagination and explanation with other forms of sociological analysis, but since CR gives you that in one place (with, compared to some other analytical schools, both mathematical and philosophical, about average difficulty for uninitiated), it seems like a good “buy” for me. (Caricatures aside, I also think what CR has to offer would be perfectly compatible with Jeremy’s work on genetics as well; to wit: “Social scientists should not take this challenge from psychology as suggesting any especially fundamental explanatory place for either it or genetics, but the contingent importance of genetic and psychological characteristics is itself available for sociological investigation.”)

    Again, it seems like a little much to expect the defenders of CR to at once express their philosophical defense of the system (what they were originally invited to do), provide mature empirical evidence of its deployment, strategically justify its need both analytically and empirically, and respond thoroughly and with nuance to questions from all comers–and do all of this on short notice in an internet forum!


    Whoa there Nelly!

    September 9, 2013 at 11:28 am

  93. So as one of the popcorn munchers who glazes over at discussions that use words like ontology, and echoing Phil Cohen, would anybody on either side of this dispute (or perhaps one of the knowledgeable bystanders) be willing/able to do a bullet point summary of what the implications of this debate are for working empirical sociologists? Or is this irrelevant to the debate and the point is to stay at the level of philosophical abstraction? Is the whole point of the discussion the implied assumption that those of us who don’t like to debate philosophy couldn’t possibly do good empirical research, where by “good” I mean research that would address whatever concerns are at stake in the debate? I don’t need philosophy to criticize what seem to me to be mindless articles summarizing regression tables or qualitative descriptions of people or events. What I need to know is whether this dispute has anything to do with helping me understand the phenomena I’m trying to study.



    September 9, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  94. Have we really gotten to the point where the only place we are willing to learn something new is in bullet points on blogs?! Sound like a bunch of undergrads. For god’s sake, people, go read some real books and articles if you’re interested! How many times does it have to be said?: If you’re not really interested, then just go work on your next article. If you are, then go read something serious and stop asking for the easy baby-food version fed on a plastic spoon.



    September 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm

  95. Olderman: Get out from behind anonymity and recognize that what olderwoman (who is not anonymous to anyone who reads these blogs) has just done is tried to help the people in this debate recognize that the key to getting the attention of active sociologists in general is showing the relevance of the debate to them. You’ve just issued a statement that is the functional equivalent of “if you can’t hang with the big boys, then shut up.” That is offensive on so many levels that I won’t even begin (and, no, I am not olderwoman’s friend, having met her once in my career). I am usually pretty laid back in my blog commentary, but this one pushed my buttons.


    Steve Morgan

    September 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm

  96. The use of anonymity in these comments is befuddling. I’d love to eavesdrop on the internal dialogue leading to that decision (wait, is eavesdropping on an internal dialogue “supervenience”?).


    Philip N. Cohen

    September 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm

  97. I found yesterday’s posts by Phil Cohen, Andy Perrin, and Steve Morgan as a triad most helpful, in this sense: I suspect they nicely represent the distinct camps that resist CR on different grounds, as follows:

    1. Morgan: thoughtfully skeptical, but motivated to explore
    2. Perrin: satisfied/complacent, so mostly unmotivated (“satisfied” from Andy’s view, “complacent” from mine)
    3. Cohen: shamelessly ignorant and devoted to other causes, so unmotivated to care/learn

    I would love to see the results of a good poll of sociologists to know how we are distributed among the above 3 positions (and any other possible others).

    In this discussion, we have not heard much “4. Interested: dissatisfied with sociology as it operates and so quite interested in CR as a possible help.” Perhaps they are just munching popcorn, or perhaps there are just precious few of them.

    But to repeat myself, the value of the CR discussion hinges on how motivated anyone is to find something different/better. People happy with what they are eating have no reason to search out new and unusual recipes, especially when that costs. Alternatives are only of (perceived) value if/when the status quo is not working (how’s that for pragmatist sensibilities?) I agree with Doug Porpora’s list of problems posted yesterday and would add a bunch more. Any replies to him? Or just yawns?

    A few other misc comments:

    Andy, am not saying “foundational crisis.” More like “endemically debilitating confusions.” Sure, we can muddle through, and (with the help of reality imposing itself upon our work despite our bad orienting ideas about reality) with some success. But can’t we do better? And, if so, shouldn’t we be motivated to?

    Phil: Babbiesh methods texts would be different in many ways, beginning with an approach to causation and explanation that is not focused entirely on variables/variation, associations between events, and other haunts of the positivist unconscious.

    Re: pragmatism as a general posture: CR and pragmatists *agree* that the received positivist framework is a big problem. CR thinks we can build a better framework. Pragmatists think we should abandon looking for frameworks, just dissolve the problem (supposedly) rather than solve it. In response, CR observe that, in actual consequence, that simply leaves the old positivist unconscious to dominate the discipline; and it tends to mask all that ways that all of us continue to carry ontological baggage (whether we admit it or even know what the word means).

    S. Morgan: Amen on the anonymity point just made. If everyone posting were more transparently themselves, the quality of discussion would surely improve. Why, I wonder, is anyone posting allowed to be anonymous? (Forgive my ignorance about such things, I’m not a regular participant on any of these blogs.)


    Chris Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm

  98. Given that the blogging collective oscillates between collective insight and collective stupidity, I think anonymity has a role. I suspect most readers of orgtheory subscribe to the following views, perhaps you too: It allows one to lay out a sustained argument that would be harder to make if one’s identity were known. It also provides some degree of reputation management. You may want to make an argument without opening yourself up to the possibility that you will be labeled as having politics that you don’t have. But, using anonymity purely for snark (or, in this case, a poorly played dominance move) is cowardly. And you throw off the whole commentary because someone (usually not me) has to come in and tell you to go away. If we follow the typical script, olderman is probably going to come back with some lame snark on top of it all, plucking some isolated sentences from one of my prior comments and hurling a “kettle” comment back at me.


    Steve Morgan

    September 9, 2013 at 1:41 pm

  99. CR is not just a philosophy of science, it’s a nascent social movement in US sociology. So it’s not unreasonable to ask for bullet points or examples if its proponents want to increase their “market share.” If you’re selling something (even a great product you really believe in) you don’t scold people who ask you for reasons why they should check it out. It’s not anti-intellectual in the least. There are countless things we know very little about. The question is why should a person invest learning more about this particular thing rather than other things we might spend time digging into. The choices aren’t (a) learn about CR or (b) go back to kitchen sink regression modeling. There are so many things a sociologist might study with great profit. The question, “Why this?” is perfectly reasonable.

    That said, I wish people would get out from behind anonymity and treat this particular conversation more like a grad seminar. A 2-3 hour discussion between a bunch of people who don’t know much about the topic at hand may not be ideal, but it is the foundation of our disciplinary pedagogy! :)


    Steve Vaisey

    September 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm

  100. I was hoping to step away from this debate and get caught up on other things. But it’s just too interesting to ignore, and there a few issues I want to comment on.

    1. Reductionism. CR is not holist. It does not involve a blanket rejection of all reduction. Rather, CR is emergentist. What it rejects is the claim that reduction always works. IOW, it accepts reduction as one methodological strategy amongst others while rejecting ontological smallism, namely, claim that the smaller some is, the more real it is. As such, I think it is pretty well in line with the world picture most sociologists have anyway. It just makes that world picture a bit more explicit and provides with a philosophical rationale.

    2. Supervenience. Some analytical philosophers — particularly analytical philosophers of mind — have proposed another via media between strong holism and physicalist reductionism, namely, “supervenience.” Some versions of emergentism (including the early Bhaskar) rest on what Jaegwon Kim (perhaps the most influential philosopher of mind) have called a “layer-cake ontology” in which the social sits on top of the biological sits on top of the chemical sits on the of the molecular and so on. Kim says: assume a cake. What happens at a higher level will supervene on what happens at the lower level. For example, when we have a thought, certain things will happen in our brains. So, why even look at thoughts at all? Why not just focus on the neurological or biochemical processes. In other words, doesn’t it all just reduce down to the physical in the end? That is exactly the conclusion that Kim has finally come to. He says that supervenience is not really a via media between physicalism and dualism (the old Cartesian idea that the mind is a non-material substance). Since dualism doesn’t seem plausible to him, or to many people these days, you’re left with physicalism. [As Kieran has rightly noted, there is just a ton of literature on this subject. If you’re interested in an overview, there is a nice volume edited by Mark Bedau, though he himself is an emergentist…]

    3. Ontological stratification. So, how do you escape Kim’s conclusion? Well, you start by rejecting the layer-cake ontology. It’s actually kind of silly if you think about it. It is not the case that you have a layer of strings, then a layer of quarks, then a layer of elementary particles with a cosmos perched on top. Rather, the one is made out of the other is made out of the other.So, the causal interactions between the levels are not ones of efficient causality as Kim’s account tacitly presumes (i.e., we have a thought at T1 and this leads to neurological changes at T2; the psychological and neurological processes are going on at the same time.) What is “stratified” in the layer-cake sense, is the sciences, not reality itself. (Of course, you can think of the strata in archaeological terms, insofar as new stuff emerges over time in the longue longue duree of cosmic history.) Nor should one hypostasize the layer cake. This is not Platonic metaphysics where you start out with some abstract formal principles (e.g., “the one”) that are prior to scientific investigation and then work out your metaphysics from there. On the contrary, you start out with the history and results of science as you find them and ask yourself “well, what would the world have to be like for science to be the way that it is.” I would submit that the persistence of the “special sciences” (everything that is not physics) and the continual emergence of new sciences in the interstices of the old ones provides a pretty good warrant for some version of emergentism. Of course, it may turn out that physicalism will win out in the end, once we’ve got more computing power or better math or whatever, but there are some pretty good reasons to doubt that (e.g., based on information theory). In short, I think the “stratification” metaphor is potentially misleading and has to be defined carefully.

    4. Causal Deflation. One of the reasons I think we all have such a hard time wrapping our heads around this, is that we are continually trying to think of all causation in terms of efficient causation (i.e, small hard particles whamming into each other, as JL Martin likes to say). But “mereological” (i.e., part/whole) relations are not like this. They involve constraint and enablement. Take the famous example — famous in analytical philosophy anyway — of a rubber molecule that is part of a tire on a bike that is being pedaled down the street. Now, the motion of that particle in no way violates any laws of physics. But it certainly can’t be predicted via any elementary laws of particle physics either. The same is true a fortiori of a human person who occupies a certain role within a social institution — let us say a “pin factory.” It is a lot easier to think about part/whole relations like this if you have a more complex approach to causality that includes, say, material and formal causality in the Aristotelian sense. (I’ll punt on final causality for now.)


    Phil Gorski

    September 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

  101. Chris: I won’t turn down the flattery that makes me look so agreeable, but I think you underestimate how skeptical I am and how much of my skepticism is actually based on having read CR in the past. In truth, I feigned a little be of shallowness at first, because I didn’t want to get drawn in. But, now I am …

    What I am open to, and I suspect Kieran is too, is that CR may well be helpful to some people in their own research. And, if so, I am fine with that. But, as a methodologist, I also feel that it is a professional responsibility to push back against excess.

    My position before this exchange was that too many people in the CR crowd (especially in the emergence, agent-based modeling world) have latched on to particular pieces of the edifice and have become confused. They too frequently have written as if a compelling theoretical argument, which has some connection to empirical data (and sometimes not in the case of simulate), is the same thing as using empirical data to justify an causal warrant. And somehow, while backing away from Popper (which is in general a good thing), the whole idea that worthwhile social science debate should still move toward explanations with empirical support has been lost (or at least downgraded too much). I had a bruising but fun intellectual exchange with a CR adherent and agent-based modeler this summer over a series of emails, and he was even European! I learned some of his perspective but was not moved very much by his positions.

    In response to this commentary, I am very open to exploring applications of CR I knew nothing about, especially those where CR has been used to generate useful theoretical mechanisms (and, in part, my openness is because I am actively writing on this stuff now for the second edition of my book). But, it would take a major and unforeseen divergence miracle if anything I read were to get me to sign on to the whole CR edifice. I am already well convinced (maybe you’d say stuck in my ways) by my own reading and writing that counterfactual dependence is the best cornerstone for clear thinking about causal claims, whether represented as narrow effects attributable to interventions or systems of effects conveyed in narrative form. I have come to this position, even though I hold the uncontroversial subjectivist position that causal analysis should be backed by a realism that allows us to talk about causal states that have never been observed. And I generally don’t believe that there is much value in trying to work out type-level causal warrants, which makes me an actualist through and through. I value relevance to the real real world, and, as much as I enjoy reading type-level theorizing, I am a token-level guy.

    I don’t think it is necessary for everyone to agree with me, and I think it will be interesting to see (from your book) how you have been able to use CR to realize the ideas you have produced. It may be that all we differ on is the value of attempting to unite explanations across levels of a reality that one could characterize as ordered and/or the extent to which emergence is genuine rather than artefactual. If these are the only real differences, then I would regard all of this as a matter of taste rather than fundamental differences of any sort.


    Steve Morgan

    September 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

  102. Those bound to the notion that uncovering reality hinges upon accepting certain ontological truth claims are left constantly trying to convert their interlocutors, while those unbound by such ideas (or heck even ignorant of them) are much more free to truly converse with their interlocutors. Note that the first group are by no means restricted to Critical Realists. From a pragmatic perspective I believe that the social sciences flourish through conversation, not conversion(s), whether failed or successful.

    Chris Smith writes: “Pragmatists think we should abandon looking for frameworks, just dissolve the problem (supposedly) rather than solve it.” When it comes to delineating the “really real,” pragmatists may not think there is a problem worth solving, certainly not for social scientists. In fact they may think, as I have proposed above, that focusing on such problems has the effect of holding collaborative problem solving in the social sciences back. In any event it’s not “frameworks” per say that are problematic. Frameworks can be constructed on empirical observation, or more broadly on shared experiences of the world. They do not require ontological truth claims, which often have the effect of eroding the coherence of those shared experiences exactly because they demand adherence to something more.

    Some critical realists seem to be arguing that mainstream sociology works on ontological assumptions (whether conscious or not) that restrict conversation with those who don’t share those assumptions (like those critical realists), yet refuse to recognize that it’s precisely the very act of adhering to ontological assumptions, which they are strongly in favor of, that’s causing the disconnect. As an aside, I think this is exactly one of the problems that makes religious pluralism so difficult. Think about it…


    Per Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm

  103. On anonymity: well, considering that a bunch of senior professors are engaged in a heated debate where words like “worthless” and “lame” are getting thrown around; considering that basically the only people who are NOT anonymous are at least mid-career folks with secure employment; and considering that the only grad student, postdoc, or junior faculty person to reveal themselves publicly got shamed for it (albeit by a semi-anonymous person–Austen) further up the thread, keeping that veil for “reputation management” seems pretty rational, don’t you think?

    (That is roughly what the “supervenient” internal dialogue sounds like.)

    I personally very much like that the discussion has gotten productive–or at least is in the process of negotiating what a productive path forward would look like. But a graduate seminar it is not.


    Whoa there Nelly!

    September 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm

  104. Whoa there Nelly! If you’re talking about me I don’t feel remotely shamed by anything Austen wrote. I sure hope that people keeping “veil[s] of reputation management” aren’t also in favor of uncovering the true nature of reality, because that would be ironic. I don’t expect others to follow my advice but I always own my ideas in public. Cheers.


    Per Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 2:33 pm

  105. Mr. Smith, forgive me. I was actually referring to someone else, but subsequently realized you, too, are a junior participant. I applaud your courage.


    Whoa there Nelly!

    September 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm

  106. I cannot comprehend those who insist on scorning and ridiculing ALL of the work of Roy Bhaskar—including the early CR that some of us are commending here—merely BECAUSE later in his life he wrote books that commend a kind of mysticism. Since that seems to be a sticking point for some still, it may be worth being more explicit about.

    I have 0 investment in defending Bhaskar’s meta-reality stuff. But I see no reason why that should taint his early CR arguments.

    To think otherwise would compel us to dismiss and ridicule all of the work of, say (plucked from among zillions of possible examples), Charles H. Cooley, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—since Cooley was an overt racist/eugenics advocate, Einstein was a Spinozian pantheist religiously, and King was an in-your-face Christian.

    I am not equating Bhaskar with any of these others. I am simply saying that we should expect anyone beyond the sophomore level of college to be able to be open to and, where deserving, appreciative of the ideas of a person or position even though some other things they said elsewhere and at a different time are unacceptable. Criticizing basic CR is welcome, on informed and reasonable grounds, but can we please have an end of the “mysticism,” “crazy man,” “guru” “critique?”

    Evidence for my claims above, in case it is necessary:

    Charles Horton Cooley, 1922, Human Nature and Social Order: Discussing Darwinian “natural selection or survival of the fittest”: “Why not make selection conscious and intelligent, and thus improve the stock of men somewhat as we do that of domestic animals?…. There has, in fact, arisen a science of Eugenics or Race-Improvement, seeking to stimulate the propagation of the desireable types of human heredity and prevent that of undesirable types…. There is no doubt that some things can and should be done. Scientific tests should be made of all children to ascertain those that are feeble-minded or otherwise hopelessly below a normal capacity, followed by a study of their families to find whether these defects are hereditary. If it appears that they are, the individuals having them should, as they grow older, be prevented from having children to inherit their incapacity.” Cooley then laments the “race suicide” of the wealthy, charging that “the upper classes are falling short of their quota,” since “the immigrant stocks in the northern and eastern states are multiplying faster than the native stocks, and…the negroes are kept from outrunning the whites only by their high death-rate…. Speaking of “an imminent Yellow Peril in the fecundity of the oriental peoples,” Cooley then advocates for “social improvement,” the “development of knowledge, arts, and institutions that takes place in the social process with little or no alteration of the germ-plasm,” and eugenics, saying that, “social improvement and eugenics are a team that should be driven abreast.”

    Einstein: “Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order… This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza).” “God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver.” “Fanatical atheists…are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium of the people’—cannot bear the music of the spheres.” “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

    MLK: “I just want to do God’s will.” “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” “If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.” “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.” “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately, that you die on.” Obviously, this could go on indefinitely.

    So, is everyone ready to bash Cooley, Einstein, and King out of existence?

    Since some in this conversation has shown themselves to be allergic to anything having to do with religion, to minimize the chance of a bad reaction, let me reiterate my precise point: *Any of us is STUPID to trash ALL of someone’s ideas simply because SOME things they said we think are wrong, even if they sound religious or mystical.* If we cannot be more intellectually discerning than that, we do not deserve to be scholars and educators.

    Having said that, to keep things in perspective, Bhaskar was only one among many CR thinkers. All attention should not be spent on him.


    Chris Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm

  107. Steve, well, however skeptical you are, you at least exhibit in appearances a readiness to learn more and talk. (And that is all actualism and empiricism can take to be real, eh? :)

    But (Steve still) what do you mean, “theoretical mechanisms?” The only mechanisms that are theoretical are those that get us to think differently, theories that have causal force on our thinking. Causal mechanisms are NOT theories (ontologically). They are the operation of real capacities and powers of entities in the real world that make things happen. We of course can theorize ABOUT them, but that is the transitive dimension of scientific knowledge; the causal mechanisms themselves belong to the intransitive reality that we are trying to understand and explain. (Or have I misunderstood you?)


    Chris Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 2:55 pm

  108. I was the junior person called out above. I probably should have elaborated a bit more than “Fantastic post.” given the lengthy debate that ensued. I found Kieran’s post to be helpful from the standpoint of someone who has read a little CR, but not a lot, and is curious about whether or not I should spend a lot of time reading more. Yes, it’s largely an opinion or argument from authority (as someone criticized), but it’s an informed opinion presented humorously, and that’s about the best you can expect from a blog post on a difficult topic (with a good bagel joke thrown in for good measures). Additionally, it suggests some alternative routes for addressing the same issues that may have been underexplored, and which I’d be curious to hear more about (especially if some of the proponents of CR have thoughts on how CR is distinguished from or similar to these alternatives, as with George Steinmetz’s comments on Little, etc. above).

    In re: anonymity and its purposes here – it’s worth distinguishing pseudonymity from anonymity. As Stephen Morgan notes, but new readers of this blog might not understand, olderwoman is not anonymous. Olderwoman is a pseudonym used consistently by a single individual who doesn’t want her bloggerly reflections connected directly to her public sociology work (that is, more political, outside the academy work). I think that’s why “olderman”‘s use of anonymity triggered a few of us – anonymity in the service of trolling as opposed to pseudonymity in the service of keeping one set of comments somewhat separate from a public, political persona (with additional and obvious gender elements thrown in for additional fun).


    Dan Hirschman

    September 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm

  109. Chris: I don’t think Kirean is any less interested in reading, learning, and talking. He just got put in a box (thanks to Fabio!), and he is a useful foil for you all for that reason. I know him well enough to know that he thinks carefully and deeply, and his humor (which I very much admire) has simply gotten him into hot water that he doesn’t deserve.

    On “theoretical mechanism,” this is an unfortunate elision. I meant a theoretical conjecture about a possible real mechanism, which may include pieces that have not yet to been measured. (I am comfortable writing in this way, without getting into all of the trascendentalism and unreleased potentialities that one finds in overtly-CR-based work, or at least the stuff I have read.)


    Steve Morgan

    September 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm

  110. As a non-academic nobody — but as an ever-dissatisfied curmudgeonly “4” in Chris Smith’s formulation — let me argue CR does help explain something currently going on in the human world.

    First, to quote Steinmetz:

    “CR argues that science* could not work without positing causal mechanisms that are theoretical, abstract, hence empirically invisible”

    I find this statement helps empirically explain something: the number of sociologists & other social scientists on Twitter who promote particularly strong views about the NSA scandal and/or US foreign policy in Syria (a) without having any special insight about NSA, US foreign policy, or Syria; (b) without having any “sources” in NSA or US government; (c) without having engaged in any sustained study of these subjects; and in sum (d) without having any relevant knowledge beyond their own mental image.

    And yet they express rather hardened conclusions.

    US foreign policy and national security are widely thought to be practiced almost entirely in secret. Meaning, sociologists comment on subjects on which by definition they have no data, or next to no data.

    I am not saying they should stop commenting, or that Twitter comments=science. I am only saying scientists display a willingness to turn their mental images into hardened conclusions about the world, and in certain cases they do so out of necessity. The latter part — the necessity — seems to be central to CR, though I could be wrong.

    The alternative would be to have *no* opinion on NSA, which seems worse to me.

    *The only thing I’d like to change is the word “science” to “scientists”



    September 9, 2013 at 3:11 pm

  111. […] continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has […]


  112. Too much of this discussion is beating around the bush, it seems to me, only mentioning specifics here and there, especially, in my view, by CR antagonists. If bullet point lists are acceptable to ask for, here is the one I would like to see. Which specifically of the following key CR ideas is either (a) wrong in its claims, and how and why so; or (b) unnecessary because the work it does can be done more simply by some other idea, and, if so, which allegedly better idea?:

    * belief in reality as existing non-mind dependent (ontological realism)
    * the distinction between the empirical, the actual, and the real
    * reality as complex, differentiated, and “stratified”
    * reality as composed of entities with natural causal powers/incapacities
    * the dual (material and causal) criteria of being real
    * emergence (strong/ontological, not just weak/epistemological)
    * explanatory anti-reductionism (distinguished from analytical anti-reductionism, which is legit)
    * downward causation
    * causation as operation of natural powers of entities in reality (an anti-Humean “essentialist” account)
    * rejection of D-N, Hempelian covering-law forms of explanation
    * explanation as showing causal mechanisms that produce outcome/condition of interest
    * distinguishing the intransitive objects of scientific knowledge from the transitive knowledge itself
    * commitment to the perspective-positioning and fallibility of knowledge
    * commitment to the hermeneutic dimension of all human knowledge
    * belief that human reasons are/can be causal powers
    * belief that science can over time often adjudicate between right/wrong, worse/better accounts (judgmental rationality)
    * belief in the unity of science in purposes & disunity of science in object studied and type of explanation required
    * belief that social structures are real
    * rejection of the strong fact/value divorce as impossible and unattractive
    * among others….

    If this discussion is not yet exhausted, perhaps bringing the discussion down a level to specifics would help sort out where the fault-lines are and are not. If this discussion is exhausted, fine with me. But these are the sorts of questions a CR advocate is going to have.


    Chris Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 4:34 pm

  113. Just for the record, not that it matters, I personally don’t buy the argument for selective identification of contributors. I also don’t buy the argument for the legitimacy of anyone perpetually asking for summary justifications, bullet point lists, etc. Perhaps early on. But at some point, if people are interested, they need to learn more on their own. So I actually think my post just above is fairly ridiculous. I don’t really expect Steve Morgan or anyone to spend their time online hashing things out at that level of detail, making cases to people half of whom are pseudonyms who may or may not take any of it seriously. Maybe if I organized a conference and paid people to come, think, and write in specifics I would expect that. But not in this kind of venue, not after the first points are laid out. Then again, I engage in such blog discussions about once a year, so I’m an outlier, I guess.


    Chris Smith

    September 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  114. Chris: Thanks for the invitation to leave. (I am not joking! I’ve given this as much time as I can, and it has been interesting, indeed at times even fun.) Good luck to all.


    Steve Morgan

    September 9, 2013 at 4:49 pm

  115. I understand that junior people are reasonably afraid of senior people. I just wouldn’t think expressing reasonable disagreement about issues this abstract is likely to produce the kind of career repercussions associated with, say, actual political beliefs that are controversial or marginalized.

    Anyway, I agree any academic seriously interested should go read a book. A forum like this is just a good place to convince people to do that. So far I’m not getting that (taking whole chapters out of Babbie alone is not a very useful suggestion). I’m not shameless about ignorance in general, just acknowledging the limits of knowledge.


    Philip N. Cohen

    September 9, 2013 at 6:43 pm

  116. Without commenting on most of this (beyond some readings on Object Oriented Ontology, I’m largely ignorant of SR) I think some of the comments on pragmatism are a bit disappointing. I’m with David Hildebrand in his _Beyond Realism and Anti-realism_ in thinking that the neopragmatists just get the early pragmatists wrong. In a certain way both Dewey and Peirce offer a third way between the debates over realism in the early 20th century in US philosophy. That third way was often misunderstood. I think that the debates continue, sadly with the neopragmatists often repeating the early mistakes in the debate. I’m not sure but what the CR and OOO folks might be doing the same, although I’m unsure.

    Of course, being largely a Peircean, I think Peirce offers a way out of a lot of these debates. He calls himself a scholastic realist which I think avoids the problem of ontological emergence (or even seeing that as necessary as a category of discussion). You can have generals in terms of power, influence, potential, etc. which are real (i.e. independent of any finite number of minds) without needing to think of such things in terms of ontological substance. It sometimes seems to my admittedly superficial readings that the OOO and SR folks tend reify powers and the like when there is a different “realist” way of treating them. (Realism is quotes since this isn’t normal realism and exactly how Peirce is a realist is still a matter of debate)



    September 9, 2013 at 9:39 pm

  117. In case anyone missed it, this discussion moved to and seemed to have come to a resting place here:



    September 10, 2013 at 2:14 pm

  118. Clark, I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed. I’m not fond of arguments that essentially assert that everyone else just got so and so wrong, and it could be argued that such claims are by definition anti-pragmatist. Collective truths, as much as we can understand them, are the products of shared experiences. If too many smart people “just don’t get it,” it’s a good indicator that the “it” may be the problem.

    Regarding these so called misreadings, contemporary pragmatists have merely continued the process initiated by James, of taking and expanding upon the various ideas they came to conclude were relevant to pragmatism as a method and/or an orientation towards the world. Not everything a certain thinker produces will be coherently held together, certainly not coherently held together with the ideas produced by others. I get that you and Phil Gorski, and perhaps others, are not happy with what many pragmatists (and I’m including James here) decided to keep and what they decided to discard from Pierce. I think it’s a good thing that Pierce’s metaphysical or “scholastic” realism was mostly discarded, because it draws attention away from the ideas shared by James, Pierce, Dewey and others.

    That said, I’m not sure what critical realists are supposed to do even with Pierce’s scholastic realism, which you describe thus:

    “He calls himself a scholastic realist which I think avoids the problem of ontological emergence (or even seeing that as necessary as a category of discussion). You can have generals in terms of power, influence, potential, etc. which are real (i.e. independent of any finite number of minds) without needing to think of such things in terms of ontological substance.”

    Avoiding “the problem of ontological emergence” and discussing reality “without needing to think of [it] in terms of ontological substance,” are exactly what makes pragmatism, at it’s heart, incompatible with critical realism. This is apparently true even for Pierce, but it’s certainly true for James, for whom “reality” becomes “realities.” My disagreement with Phil Gorski stems from the fact that I simply can’t see a dialogue between pragmatism and CR. Clark can you?


    Per Smith

    September 10, 2013 at 6:03 pm

  119. Fair point. Let me say it offers a different way of looking at it and leave it at that. It’s hard to offer compelling arguments in a paragraph. I’d look at Hildebrand’s book which I think does a great job criticizing neopragmatism from the perspective of early pragmatism. I should note that in a certain way Putnam (who certainly knows his Peirce) simply is after a different question. Peirce largely ignores traditional epistemology and Putnam returns to it with his writings on Warrant.

    I don’t know enough about SR or even OOO to say how it is incompatible with pragmatism. I’m not sure pragmatism (meaning Dewey or especially Peirce although I think James is open to more readings than you suggest) is necessarily opposed to ontological emergence so much as it reorients the way one poses the questions. I know of pragmatists who accept ontological emergence and scholastic realism. Without commenting on the broader SR movement I will say that I think questions of time and space (and thus substance) are perhaps underdeveloped in my limited reading of OOO. (That may just be because I’m not reading the right books though) I should add some folks are very well versed in Peirce. Levi Bryant in the OOO tradition certainly appears to be from past conversations I’ve had with him.



    September 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm

  120. […] Smith. I’ll note that Smith objects to being classified in this way, but I agree with Kieran’s response to that […]


  121. “(Alexander Wendt) He wrote some interesting stuff in the past but also has written recent stuff on the relevance of UFO’s to the state and international relations or something – I haven’t tried to read anything of his from around that time…”

    The paper you mention is about how the refusal of elites to give serious scientific status to phenomena such as UFOs has implications on the modern notion of sovereignty. If you want to understand Wendt’s argument in different terms, one could say he is trying to understand the effect of anthropocentrism on modern conceptions of sovereignty by using elites’ positions about a taboo phenomenon (the UFOs) as an instrument variable.

    Oh, and his work on the implications of the concept of “quantum mind” for the social sciences (in progress) seems quite promising, and as far as I can tell it has completely been ignored by sociologists.



    September 11, 2013 at 2:01 am

  122. […] A Word on Critical Realism ( […]


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