Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

I think that Kieran is descriptively accurate in noting that in the general discourse of philosophy of science CR is a peripheral position, one that does not command much attention.  I also agree with Kieran’s descriptive statement that essentially every major topic that somehow falls under the umbrella of CR is covered in some major subfield of contemporary philosophy, and is probably covered in more sophisticated ways (note that this has to be true almost by definition, since most people who do CR are themselves philosophers by necessity not by training).  Kieran is also descriptively correct in noting that sociology, qua empirical science, “needs very little philosophy in order to thrive” (although here of course CR people will not accept Kieran’s implicit [Mertonian] definition of what a thriving sociological science looks like). Kieran is also correct that innovation in science happens at the interfield level and that it is in fact interfield sciences that have rocked the boat of post-1970s philosophy of science (see for instance Philip Kitcher’s (one day old!) NYT op-ed, or the work of Lindley Darden, Peter Machamer, Carl Craver, especially this and this). The point is that the world just does not come pre-packaged in some neatly organized nested ontology, but is much messier and “dappled” (in Nancy Cartwright’s terms) than our usual (armchair) ontological pictures allow.

The overall premise of Kieran’s post (which I don’t think any of the CR commenters did anything to convince anybody otherwise) is that CR seems when presented as a giant (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, practical, deontological), package to which you must convert and/or express your assent as a whole is overkill for the everyday conduct of science of most people in the discipline. Note that it could be that your basic point is that you have a problem with the scientific image (gold star for getting the reference to the–brilliant–anti-realist philosopher Bas van Fraassen) that governs the conduct of most people in mainstream American sociology, and it is this scientific image that you are going to try to deflate (this, as I understand it, is one of Chris Smith’s major critical points). But note that this is a huge conditional that is seldom explicitly laid out on the table by proponents of CR (because they prefer to argue against ideological “positions”, and not institutional realities as I note below [is this ironic in a non-Alanis sense?]).

What a lot of CR proponents seem to  fail to understand is that American’s sociology scientific image is not a set of philosophical “positions” (postmodernism, positivism, etc.) in the British or continental style. I hope I don’t have to bring up Randall Collins to make the point that in a resource poor, largely qualitative environment, where sociology resolves itself into lonely people sitting in offices writing books about the human condition, then it would seem that sociology is just a collection of such thought camps. But the problem is that American sociology is no such animal. Instead, it is a complex network of invisible colleges, cross-generational intellectual projects, highly differentiated subfields endowed with heterogeneous methodological and epistemic standards, strongly coupled to really existing (material) technologies of knowledge production, and firmly ensconced in a university complex of such size and magnitude (Michele Lamont when talking to her European counterparts usually refers to American sociology as a “machine”) as to make British (or French, or  German, or Dutch) sociology the equivalent of an ASA section.  In this environment, the standard CR rhetorical tack of arguing against “positions” does not work, because such positions do not really exist. Instead, the critic is reduced to inventing such positions and then imputing them to people. But you do not have to be a Bourdieusian field theorist to understand that this is a strategy that is bound to fail because (as Bourdieu loved to remind us) the word “categorization” comes from the Greek kategorien which meant “to accuse publicly.” Meaning that when you categorize me (in a context in which the category does not make much sense, and thus gives me a lot of leeway to controvert your categorization), those are fighting words, and I’m going to categorize you back. Unfortunately, a lot of recent CR work has resolved itself into this (wasteful) project of position construction and associated name-calling and this is going to make it even less palatable to a larger sociological audience. One thing that proponents of CR need to understand is that the intellectual strategies that worked in the British intellectual field will not work in American sociology, because the nature of the field is radically different. 

Doug Porpora’s attempt to defend CR is actually telling in this respect. Here, a set of binary choices are presented (habitus or agency?, culture or structure?), one side is characterized as the “bad” side, the other one is the “good” side and CR is good because it tells you which one it is. Doug (facetiously) commented on his (institutional) age, but I think there was unintended wisdom in that comment. And it is this: It is precisely a setting up of choices like this and of the presumption that you can tell people what the choices are that will turn off every single young sociologist interested in theory from CR. For one, kids don’t like being told what to do. Second, this is actually a mis-representation of CR, which is actually much more liberal and much more accepting of intellectual diversity than it comes off when being “defended” by proponents. So if you want young theorists in sociology to begin to take a serious look at CR, then this is (in this forum or in more serious writings on the topic) the face of CR that you want to emphasize.

The CR habitus of “arguing against positions” does not work in the American field because position distinctiveness is not the main prize, instead it is “pragmatic synthesis” (provisionally putting humpty dumpty together again). CR of course packages itself of as a synthesis, but by the time they are done giving you the tour, you figure that you have to make so many enemies to join the club that that it is definitely not worth it. Bit of advice: stop it with the position criticism and let’s do more constructive work. This is already there in some of the best CR inspired work (e.g. What is a Person?), but people have such a negative taste on their mouth by the time they get to the constructive stuff that they no longer trust the messenger (this problem besets John Martin’s The Explanation of Social Action, so there is nothing particularly CRish about this issue).

An added problem of arguing against positions is that it has left CR with a somewhat outdated picture both of the scientific image of American sociology, but also of the field of Philosophy of Science in general. The problem is that this can lead to an over-valuation of the novelty of what you are saying, because you think that Philosophy of Science is Popper and Hempel, when in reality (as I alluded to above) it is in fact Cartwright, Darden, Bechtel, Bunge, etc. My favorite philosopher of science (Ronald Giere) wrote a book called Science without Laws, but you would not know this from the modal CR paper trying to introduce basic Philosophy of Science to sociologists. Now this is weird because convergent developments in modern (analytic) philosophy of science should be making CR people happy: “told you, Bhaskar was right after all.” But (this is the most incisive field-theoretic point made by Kieran which has been missed by most people) the fact that it does not has to make you a bit suspicious, in the sense that maybe CR people don’t want you go shopping around for functionally equivalent insights from others, because they want you to buy their product. I don’t think that this is true, but the (sometimes odd) recalcitrance to update CR with contemporary insights from Philosophy of Science not only reproduces the (objectively; this is not a value judgment) peripheral position of CR in the field, but seems to show a sort of “in-groupy” (and certainly not healthy) tendency to revel in your marginality. Once again, I don’t think that this is true, but this will be the objective payoff of continuing to pursue an isolationist and not than synthetic intellectual strategy vis a vis mainstream philosophy of science.

To put it more bluntly, why should I, a person who is familiar with the literature on mechanisms, cite a CR article on mechanisms (with the possible intellectual consequences that may come from being associated with a (faux) “controversial” movement), when I can cite a bunch of other functional equivalents (e.g. Bunge on systemism, Machamer et al 2000; Bechtel and Abrahamsen, and so on).  This is without mentioning an advantage of “regular” Philosophy of Science (RPoS) over CR: the fact I can consume RPoS “buffet style” but CR (seems) to want to force me to sit down for a five course dinner and finish every plate. But sometimes I just want the HBO package by itself (because I only like GoT and Girls) without having to get a bunch of other channels that for all I know only have bad programming. The other problem is that CR may (and it already has at some level) become disconnected from those areas of philosophy of science that most directly impact everyday practice (and where the most exciting philosophical work is being done) at the danger of becoming stuck in an endless discussion on (possibly irresolvable) metaphysical matters. Once again think of the exciting work on “models” in science (Morrison, Morgan, Giere); there have been some CR people who have contributed to this, but there are usually overshadowed by people working on more abstruse (less useful for everyday scientific practice) topics.

In this respect, I think that Phil’s Contemporary Sociology review, while well-intended (because it sends the right message) sends the wrong meta-message (in Bateson’s terms). The review struck me as a classic example of (actually excellent) CR writing (although the penchant to criticize non-existent positions remains). Phil made many points with which I wholeheartedly agree, points that (and this is where I am 100% behind CR) I wish nobody needed to make (this is where I imagine in Don LaFontaine’s voice “In a world, in which American sociologists are familiar with basic philosophy of science…”). But the meta-message was terrible, (and this is another point where I thought the CR responses to Kieran’s main point were completely tone-deaf): “Are you (American sociologist) concerned about your epistemic and ontological salvation? Then here, read the basic works of our founder and savior!” This meta-message is terrible because it links the “take or leave it as a big package” presentation with an umbilical connection to a “founding father.” George might have chafed at the guru jokes (although speaking of not well thought-out attempts at a sociology of knowledge, the orientalist insinuation is just a performative demonstration that maybe Mannheim was right on some basic issues), but he misses their grain of truth. The point is that Bhaskar is a huge legitimating problem for CR (and no amount of foot-stomping is going to change that), but most importantly, I don’t see why it has to be this way.

Why can the basic ideas just be presented as good sound ideas without the “let’s cite the founder” habitual impulse? (By the way, this is a rhetorical question because the basic ideas have been presented this way already, but the point is that now this work is undone because they will be retroactively linked to the Bhaskar issue). Why can’t the basic ideas be presented in strategic, disaggregated fashion (in the way of Phil’s awesome Sociological Methodology piece, or George’s excellent article on Historical Sociology) and not as a part of grand package? As alluded to already, cable companies have made people suspicious about signing up for things that you don’t need, so CR people can learn a lesson here. Why the presumption that I have to read 12 books by some dude whose more recent choices display dubious intellectual instincts to have a sound sense of how science works (I don’t, and neither should you, and don’t listen to anybody that tells you that you should). What can I just listen to Phil, or Chris, or Kieran? Why hook the entire fate of the enterprise to Bhaskar? None of the CR proponents have a convincing answer to this question (because, of course this was not an intellectual choice, but *literally* a founder effect). But the point is that it does not matter what their answer is and they are kidding themselves if they think that you can just paper over it. The link to Bhaskar is an inherently deligitimating one and is something that CR people (if they don’t want to be dismissed for superficial reasons) need to deal with. Once again, in the European field, connection to a founder figure works. In the American scene if your founder figure did not die before WWII you are looked at with suspicion. That is why there are no (influential) “people branded” intellectual movements in the US. But the larger point is that CR need not be a person-branded scientific-intellectual movement.

I will close with one last point. The CR “debate” can lead people to believe that CR is some sort of highly controversial entity in the contemporary philosophical marketplace. But I believe that a key mistake that CR people are making is to overestimate their “controversial” status. This was another point that Kieran made that has been lost in the shuffle. The most disturbing thing that I find about CR is that I agree with a lot of it. This makes me suspicious because (and this is where self-reflexivity kicks in) it makes me wonder whether CR is telling me what I want to hear. Kieran speculated that this is part of the appeal of CR, and I think that CR people (because they read this comment as inflammatory or as impugning their intellectual integrity) need to worry about this. Because if you have a “system” that just wraps everything under one big bow, and “resolves” every single ontological, metaphysical, and epistemic issue in the social sciences in one fell swoop, it would make everything boring. And to be honest, a key problem with a lot of CR writing is that, after all  is said and done (and Swidler, or whoever has been swiftly disposed of as hopelessly confused) the CR “solution” to the problem ends up being a giant definition-like list, in which all of the previous contradictions regarding whatever (agency, structure, culture) are “resolved” by the rhetorical tack that the previous position was “partial” and that the solution is that the theorist just missed the (obvious) fact that the partial thing actually just has its place in a larger whole, a whole that also has slots for the things that the partial theorist said did not exist. This makes me suspicious because, used in this mode, CR becomes a tool to defuse a lot of the intellectual issues that actually motivate good theoretical work. In that respect, a good chunk of CR theory has a lot in common with another system builder who used the same rhetorical tack. His name was, of course, G. W. F. Hegel. We know what happened after that.

* The fallacious claim in Fabio’s original post is that the “orgtheory crew” is unanimous in agreeing that “critical realism is lame.”  I think that what Fabio meant to say is that “I think that critical realism is lame” and that I usually presume that my opinion is shared by other people unless told otherwise.”

17 Responses

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  1. fantastic post Omar – really thought provoking and it’s nice to see an initially bad tempered and negative discussion take such a positive turn.



    September 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  2. Bravo. This sums up exactly why I’m perfectly comfortable calling myself a “realist” but have always balked at calling myself a “critical realist.” Thank you so much for writing this, Omar!


    Steve Vaisey

    September 9, 2013 at 4:53 pm

  3. Some great points here in the above. As a junior person who, with some trepidation, is going to bite the bullet and sacrifice my anonymity, I find it frustrating to no end to be presented with some really good stuff on social structure and relationality in Archer, Porpora, Sayer, et al, but then to feel like I have to decide whether, by citing their stuff, I am somehow taking a clear position on the CR or anti-CR debate. I know that CR proponents–many my close colleagues and friends–will argue that “pragmatic synthesis”, being our most highly-valued prize in American sociology, is another word for “ontological incoherence”, and that is why we need to buy into the whole CR package. My response after much thought is that yes, it can be, but it is not necessarily so. Truly incoherent positions have a way of dissolving upon further investigation, whether those doing the investigations adhere to a meta-theoretical “ism” or not.

    Ironically, CR proponents tend to assert the idea that “reality pushes back”, i.e. in the long run false ideas about the world are proven to be false in practice. Yet this sounds EXACTLY like the early pragmatists (Dewey in particular) to me, and furthermore it seems like something that many thoughtful American sociologists would agree with. Certainly the ghosts of positive empiricism still haunt us in the form of intro texts and papers that unreflexively presume/imply that if enough controls are included they can arrive at deductive certainty. Yet those problems, as I see it, are far more due to the lack of time/resources that so many of us suffer from rather than any kind of deep commitment to empiricism. In fact, I am not so sure that the problems that American sociology faces are truly ideological; I rather think that they are built into our conventions, and scientific conventions–as emergent realities–are the result of many more factors than simply philosophies of science.

    That said, let me reiterate my view that a well-thought-out form of realism and elaboration of the concept(s?) of emergence is absolutely where the field needs to go. In fact, after following this conversation, I think it’s exactly where the field IS going, whether it buys into the CR version or not. I agree with Phil and Chris that CR people should be read carefully and thoughtfully by sociologists, but I can’t agree–at least not yet–that CR as a whole package is THE answer for the problems of modern-day sociology as a discipline.

    One more thing re: Swidler, who of anyone has gotten the least favorable treatment in this whole conversation. No, she clearly does not answer ontological questions of personhood, or even the question of what primarly motivates human beings at the deepest levels. Like many other theories, however, her dominant theoretical trope–the cultural repertoire–has purchase. Again, if “reality pushes back”, and her conception is really so poor, why have so many sociologists in the past twenty years found it useful?

    Liked by 1 person

    Nicolette Manglos

    September 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm

  4. ** Omar, I hope you are being humorous in the footnote. If anything, the community of this blog routinely tells me that I’m wrong on a whole host of issues.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm

  5. Omar,

    At summer seminar on philosophy of social science at Yale in August, and at the New York City conference on critical realism, different sides of the debate were presented, people disagreed with each other, and even people who call themselves critical realists disagree with each other.

    So the “when” in your statement quoted here is important:

    “CR seems when presented as a giant (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, practical, deontological), package to which you must convert and/or express your assent as a whole is overkill for the everyday conduct of science of most people in the discipline.”

    I don’t think critical realism, either in the US or in Europe, necessarily has to be presented a a “giant…package to which you must convert.” As Phil mentioned, critical realism itself is an open system that is evolving, changing, and growing.

    I agree with you that the way forward is informed dialogue and engagement, which did occur this past summer in New Haven and New York.


    Margarita Mooney

    September 9, 2013 at 6:36 pm

  6. Neuroscience and biology are two fields of inquiry that have in recent times benefitted enormously from engaging with the philosophy of science. We have seen neuroscientists and biologists publishing in philosophy journals and philosophers publishing in biology and neuroscience journals. The interaction has been productive – it would seem – because at present both biology and neuroscience face very hard conceptual challenges, and these are precisely the challenges that philosophers are trained to deal with. In neither case has there been a wholesale uptake of a particular philosophical program – neuroscientists and biologists do not claim to be pragmatists or realists or whatever. What matters is the incisive thinking imported from philosophy – thinking that helps expose dead-end research programs, as discussed above vis. certain streams of “variables” and “rational choice” religion sociology. A widespread knowledge of critical realism may have averted those wasted years, but so too might have any reasonably deep understanding of the philosophy of science. It’s a boring conclusion – our goal should be deeper reflection, and where necessary we should draw on philosophy and philosophers to help us out (after all, that’s what they’re there for).



    September 9, 2013 at 7:27 pm

  7. Critical realism has come, so that they might have life … just kidding!

    Thank you for posting this, Omar. Why not now pen many posts to go through the different bullet points put forward by Christian or whatever point you wish to put forward and state why you agree/disagree and explain why. It would also open a healthy discussion, I think, and provide focus too.

    My impression is that CR is more liberal than you are stating here. I believe Bourdieu’s conception of the habitus is problematic but this doesn’t mean that there is a CR consensus in rejecting any conception of the habitus or necessarily viewing things in the binaries you describe e.g. see Andrew Sayer on the habitus (he also has a chapter in ‘Conversations on Reflexivity’ on just this issue, engaging with Margaret Archer’s own critique of Bourdieu’s view of the habitus). As an idea, why not set a whole post on just this issue, engaging with Margaret Archer’s critique.


    Basem Adi (@basemadi)

    September 9, 2013 at 9:57 pm

  8. Omar, thanks for the attempt to make sense of this. I think some of what you say is insightful (which I will not focus on), and you certainly extend a mostly gracious hand to CR. Then again, your post seems to me to resemble too much the ritual end-of-contentious-conference niceties of, “So nice to meet you” and “Thanks for participating and your great input.” Helps make everyone feel better after the glove had been taken off. At the risk of alienating anyone who is still attending to this discussion, however, and for the record, I wish to state some objections to some of your claims and suggestions:

    You write: “The point is that the world just does not come pre-packaged in some neatly organized nested ontology, but is much messier and “dappled” (in Nancy Cartwright’s terms) than our usual armchair) ontological pictures allow.” My observation: You are conflating “the world” and “our pictures” of it here. My objection: CR does not view THE WORLD as coming in a nice, pre-packaged, organized ontological shape. Its view of reality is actually much MORE messy, complex, mysterious, difficult, and intractable than any other view I have encountered elsewhere in sociology. In my experience, it is nearly everyone else in sociology that wants to grossly over-simplify for the sake of “parsimony” (slashing around with “Ockham’s chain saw”). In my experience, it is CR that gets criticized for wanting to let in too much complexity. To clarify, the only thing CR would like to better organize is OUR BASIC THINKING about our assumptions, categories, etc. ABOUT REALITY, the idea being that there is some underlying order to reality, and we should try to theorize it as best as we can. To me that is basic to and ineliminable from any science. If anyone wants to say that that is a hopeless task, we can talk about how science might then proceed (I can’t imagine). But if nothing else, I have to object to the implication that CR tries to sell a neat, orderly, tidy world. What it offers is a complex-but-manageable framework by which to make some sense of that messy world.

    You write: “CR seems when presented as a giant (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, practical, deontological), package to which you must convert and/or express your assent as a whole is overkill for the everyday conduct of science of most people in the discipline.” Two responses. First, CR may come off that way in some cases, but it need not. The pieces do hang together coherently, I believe, but the image of it demanding that people “must convert” is itself overkill. This is a great theory on offer for voluntary acceptance by persuasion and payoff, obviously, not a forced conquest. And the kind of subtly conditional presentation you give above (“when presented as”) I suspect has the performative effect of reinforcing a false indicative (“definitely that”). If people want to buy into only part of CR, great. I think in due time they will see the inherent attraction of the other parts that prove even more helpful. But whatever helps us do better sociology is the goal.
    Second, CR is not out to crowd into the minds of any of us working at an everyday level. The whole point of it being an orienting and sensitizing meta-theory is that it runs in the background. HOWEVER, it just is the case that everyone’s operating background assumptions, defaults, and instincts do affect what they do in their everyday science and how they do it. The basic issues that CR is contesting are not escapable (reality, causes, emergence (or not), explanation, etc.). People have operating “positions” on them one way or another, whether by ignorance, default, or reflectively. The recurrent idea that sociology can just set all that stuff aside (for the philosophers to worry about) delusional. In short, I deny your claim that American sociology today does not involve “positions.” It does. They are simply less reflected upon, less ideological, less intentionally adopted. But no less powerful in influence despite that, perhaps more so, being commonly invisible.

    You write: “In this environment, the standard CR rhetorical tack of arguing against ‘positions’ does not work, because such positions do not really exist.” To repeat, I think this is false. It may FEEL this way to many sociologists, so that that’s how they perceive themselves operating. And that may fit nicely the intuitive sensibilities especially of “younger” scholars—the sense that one is not locked into any system, label, school, or anything else that would compromise the autonomous self’s capacity to engage life as a true bricoleur—that is the normative spirit of the age in emerging adulthood for a few decades now, which surely sticks with people as they move into their 30s and 40s. But such feelings, perceptions, intuitions, and desires do not themselves make it true. I think they are misleading. If what you say was true, all of our experiences of trying to publish in sociology journals would be quite different from what they are. There are all kinds of “positions” operating with big influences in American sociology today. They may be more subtle, confused, various, worn out, invisible, complex, or something else than in the days of Paul Lazarsfeld. But “positions” have not disappeared. The CR rhetorics may oversimplify them (in the context of demands for bullet points) but CR is addressing significant, influential, common positions. To think otherwise involves a lot of naïve projection and wish-fulfillment. At the least, while your point here may resonate with lots of readers, I’m saying I think it is false.

    You ask: “Why should I, a person who is familiar with the literature on mechanisms, cite a CR article on mechanisms, with the possible intellectual consequences that may come from being associated with a “controversial” movement, when I can cite a bunch of other functional equivalents.” You’re bulldozing over differences here. They are not equivalents. There are on the table today genuinely different accounts of what a causal mechanism is. And the differences between them make a difference in what we mean by things like analysis and explanation. It’s just not all the same between Hedstrom/Swedberg, Sorenson, Hedstrom/Bearman, CR, etc. The temptation may be to becoming annoyed at CR for seeming to wants to split hairs. But the fact is, they’re just not equivalents. And if we just want to paper over all that (in order to have an effective citation to get published), then we’re compromising and cutting corners where we should be thinking hard. (That was one of Phil’s points in his CR causal mechanisms paper that you praised.)

    You write: “the point is that it does not matter what their answer is and they are kidding themselves…. The link to Bhaskar is an inherently deligitimating one and is something that CR people (if they don’t want to be dismissed for superficial reasons) need to deal with.” As a descriptive, strategic point, you may be entirely right. However, as I wrote near the end of the other discussion, I think sociologists making that fact true is worse than idiotic. If sociologists cannot handle CR because of the role played in it by RB, and that because of some later stuff he wrote that people think is nuts, all that tells us is that they are simplistic, undiscriminating, opportunity-missing thinkers. If that’s the way it is, so be it. But it is anything but impressive.

    You write: “I believe that a key mistake that CR people are making is to overestimate their ‘controversial’ status.” My reply: This is largely an artifact of the self-contradicting skepticism and sometimes antagonism that CR faces by what often seems to be people looking for any reason to dismiss it. Specifically, anytime a CR proponent explains it in common sense, able-to-connect-to terms, the predictable response is, “Big deal! Nothing new there. Why should anyone care about THAT?” Then, when one goes on to try to explain the larger, more profound, challenging implications of CR, the same persons predictably respond, “What?! Are you kidding? You expect anyone to believe THAT?” I’ve been through that routine so many times I could probably perform it in my sleep as a Three Stooges skit at ASA as a warm-up for Doug Mitchell’s jazz band. If people were in good faith open to engaging CR, rather than conservatively reacting against it at every turn, the “controversial status” surrounding it could disappear. I find it a bit galling to want to have reasonable conversations with colleagues about CR, only to have them demand to be shown what is so controversial about CR, and then be told that CR should not try to be so controversial.

    You write: “…ends up being a giant definition-like list, in which all of the previous contradictions regarding whatever…are “resolved” by the rhetorical tack that the previous position was “partial” and that the solution is that the theorist just missed the (obvious) fact that the partial thing actually just has its place in a larger whole, a whole that also has slots for the things that the partial theorist said did not exist.” I see some of this in some UK CR, I must admit. But, I have to say, this is not at all my personal experience of encountering and being helped by CR. I find it nothing but illuminating, interesting, explaining, and encouraging. Not to “settle” this point, but if anyone is still listening to this who is unsure about but open to CR, be aware that the characterization just given is not at all the necessary experience and process of engaging CR.

    In short, I don’t think your assessment is entirely fair to CR or totally works. However, it is very helpful for people like me assessing what CR us up against in the U.S. And I think the larger discussion certainly clarified where the basic disagreements lay. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris Smith

    September 10, 2013 at 3:01 am

  9. Sorry, am missing an “is” before “delusional.”


    Chris Smith

    September 10, 2013 at 3:18 am

  10. Another system-builder would be Parsons, who was also much-aligned in his lifetime. It seems to me that it is in the present period that people are starting to take what was useful in Parsons’ work and use that – perhaps we’ll see the same with Bhaskar’s stuff: we’ll use what’s useful and disregard the transcendental whatever


    Andrew B. Lee

    September 10, 2013 at 7:09 am

  11. Chris: one thing to take away from Omar’s post is that if you’re actually interested in influencing sociological practice, it would be better to “unbundle” CR’s offerings. Write a paper on causal powers. Write a paper on retroduction. Write a paper on strong vs. weak emergence and why we should prefer the former. In all cases bring in many positive examples from actually existing sociology. Give people tricks they can start using to make their work better.

    Here’s an analogy: Bourdieu has had an enormous influence without making very many “Bourdieusians” because people have taken what they’ve wanted from him and left the rest. Some use habitus, others use cultural capital, still others are developing field theory. He insisted all of these terms must necessarily go together in a coherent package. Most of us ignored him, to our great benefit.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

  12. Steve, thanks, yes, got that. Quite doable. Thanks.


    Chris Smith

    September 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

  13. As an aspiring sociologist, I found your post both enlightening and slightly unnerving. I only have my undergrad degree in sociology, but as I explore grad school, I find myself more and more concerned with intellectual debates going on within the field itself. It’s interesting to read theorists in class, but I’ve only recently begun to see the near religious fervor of some intellectual movements. It’s nice to see someone offer a leveled criticism of critical realism, but I think its issues are endemic to lots of intellectual paradigms, i.e. they are encompassing, and proselytizing in their claims to truth.



    September 10, 2013 at 5:08 pm

  14. To enlighten this debate I highly recommend Justin Cruickshank’s recent work where he rejects CR on sound philosophy of science grounds (surprisingly he hasn’t been cited in these blogs as far as I know).

    For example, I recommend “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s Attempt to Derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge”

    Cruickshank’s main critique is that CR’s primacy on ontology (via the transcendental question and the transitive domain) leads to a largely unsophisticated and commonsensical understanding of (social) reality (that paradoxically falls back into one more “lay” epistemic fallacy).



    September 10, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  15. From the twitter buzz, I gather someone got censored in this thread. Disappointed. Unless it was Scott Rose. But only Scott Rose.



    September 11, 2013 at 8:57 pm

  16. […] Three thousand more words on critical realism ( […]


  17. @RD: See Orgtheory Commandment 26: Thou shall not mention Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and Critical Realism in the same comment. (That makes Kieran’s head really hurt.)



    September 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

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