More words on critical realism: Getting clear on the basics

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

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

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

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

The High Level Basics.-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting controversial.-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Omar

September 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

22 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this breakdown, Omar. One point that has long troubled me with CR as it is usually introduced:

    You said: “This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations.” (Emphasis added)

    I just don’t see why we must accept this form of ontological emergence when treating emergence as a epistemological shortcut works just fine, and has the further added benefit of underscoring the point that what we usually consider an emergent property is likely the result of a process we don’t fully understand. It is entirely possible I am missing something, of course, I can’t see much benefit in accepting this form of CR’s ontology, and I don’t think it is necessary to think in terms of mechanisms (or shortcuts) instead of covering laws. I’ve never been happy with any form of emergence other than one that is recognized as a cognitive shortcut, though, and I think I held this view before I read anything about CR.

    If your cable analogy holds, in cases like mine I must reject CR on this point alone, no matter the other points. This may simply be my own cognitive limitation, of course.



    September 14, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  2. Or emphasis would have been added here: “nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations.”



    September 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm

  3. Very informative post! Omar, you almost convinced me that I should throw my hat in with the critical realists. As I followed your logic, I was already foreseeing your conclusion that many organizational theorists already hold some strong CR tendencies.

    “That is the new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.”

    Teppo, Dave Whetten, and I actually wrote a paper about this very idea, arguing that organizational scholars ought to focus more on the organization as a distinct sort of actor – i.e., an emergent structure that has real causal powers. So I see the utility of the logic behind emergentism. I might even be tempted to say that our conclusion – that organizational scholars ought to more seriously consider the causal powers of organizations and put less causal emphasis on the environment – is derived from (or is at least consistent with) critical realism, Thus, if you’re a critical realist, you ought to also agree that organizations have a unique place in society as powerful social actors.

    But my problem with the CR camp, at least as it’s been explained to me on this blog, is that a theorist can associate a lot of claims in this manner, even though I expect that many of those claims are not entirely consistent. I think this is what you mean when you say that scholars in this camp add on lots of supplemental premises. Moreover, is my claim about organizations as uniquely agentic and powerful actors consistent with other CR derivations that prioritize the unalterable properties of humans (or any other emergent structure) as causal agents? I think both claims have weight but I don’t see how CR gives us a way to prioritize the causal propensity of one structure over another. And perhaps that is because this is not what CR is designed to do. But if that’s the case, then it seems like a lot of people are using CR for the wrong purposes, to legitimate whatever theoretical claim about the causal force of a particular structure they would like to make.


    brayden king

    September 14, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  4. As a grad student, I must say I find this extensive discussion of CR most helpful. I’m hoping that orgtheory (or scatterplot) should have more discussions like this in the future. I came across CR in Joey Sprague’s book, Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers. Although the book makes a really good case for standpoint theory, I find standpoint theory quite unsatisfying. So I started thinking about CR, which the book doesn’t go into depth as much as these past blog entries (and comments) have. These discussions have piqued my interest and gave me a somewhat working knowledge on CR. Not adequate for a substantive discussion, but enough for me to go off and read more.

    So I applaud everyone for this discussion and I look forward to have more of such discussions in the future. Thank you!



    September 15, 2013 at 2:07 am

  5. @Brayden: Your philosophy might make you a pragmatist, or at least a neo-pragmatist. Not a bad thing, IMHO.

    @Omar: Sincerest appreciation for this post.



    September 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm

  6. This is a great post, Omar. Should have waited for Monday though!

    I think I buy the “basic realism” package (1, 2, but not all of 3) and this is really helpful for situating myself in the broader CR discussion. The biggest danger I see with standard and turbo is the ontological inflation problem, in which I can just name stuff and call it “real.” Just because some things might be ontologically emergent (e.g., water from H and O) doesn’t mean that your preferred thing (e.g., “society”) is also emergent. This is where we should be arguing about emergence, in specific cases.

    Now I’m not an organization theorist by any stretch but I’ve always been skeptical of claims like Brayden’s that organizations are “real” or “act” in any sense. I freely admit I could be wrong (not having thought about that in great depth) but it seems you can get pretty far with human cognitive limitations, collective action dynamics, and principal-agent problems. But this is at least something we could argue about. Thanks Omar (and Brayden) for getting me thinking on that level.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 15, 2013 at 8:14 pm

  7. Omar, thanks for your thoughtful and erudite analysis of critical realism (CR). It does a great job of explaining core principle of CR and distinguishing between more and less controversial elements, as well as the difference between CR as a philosophy of science (and of social science) from CR as social theory. That being said, I believe that you are a bit too quick to ascribe consensus regarding the basic propositions of CR.

    I am no expert of philosophy of science, but there are several claims in your analysis, and in particular about its “trivial” features and the consensus around these that I find questionable:

    1. Whether or not most or all sociologists and organizational theorists would agree (in public or private) with basic CR precepts after they are explained to them, positivism and empiricism underlie, in practice, a great number, if not the majority of research in top journals. This is particularly true of quantitative research, but is also true of much qualitative research, at least in organization theory. Therefore to dismiss the basic tenets of realism (and of CR) as trivial, because any non- certifiably insane person would agree with them, is to ignore that research practice (and gatekeeping) does not typically follow CR precepts, and is often inimical to them. For example, in my own work my co-authors and I face reviewers who question positing unobservable mechanisms in our research (e.g., actor’s interests), even when we show empirical observations consistent with them that are not easily reconciled with alternative explanations.

    2. As I understand it, the transitive-intransitive distinction is at the core of “critical” realism relative to other forms of scientific realism. I could be wrong, but my understanding is that it is common among at least some scientific realists in the philosophy of science to be epistemologically committed to the validity of the scientific method, and thereby to believe that for mature sciences the transitive theories developed by scientists converge to an intransitive reality. It seems to me that implicitly, if not explicitly, many social and behavioral scientists have similar epistemological commitments, thereby privileging methods such as experimentation (often referred to as “the gold standard”), which are seen as most validated by “scientific” methods, thereby allowing constructs validated by such methods to correspond to an intransitive reality. The identification movement in economics follows a similar set of commitments and is now enamored with natural experiments. This movement is having significant influence in strategy and some parts of organizational theory, as econometric methods and assumptions become increasingly prevalent, at least among quantitative researchers. Consequently in much social scientific practice the transitive-intransitive distinction is viewed, implicitly, as something that more scientific methods can help us overcome, rather than an inherent feature of our knowledge of social, much less physical reality.

    3. At least in Europe, strong forms of constructivism seem to be alive and well, particularly in the social studies of science and among actor-network (ANT) theorists. Perhaps this is a reason why CR is more developed in Europe, as a reaction to such approaches.

    4. As I understand it a critical tenet of CR that social reality is mind independent even when this social reality is shaped by human minds and is socially constructed. This realist principle allows CR adherents to discuss culture, identity, and social structure as existing in the domain of the real, even though individual minds and social constructions are involved in their emergence. This principle is far from obvious or universally agreed-upon, particularly for those committed to explaining non-material aspects of the social, such as culture and identity. (The emergence of social structure is also mind dependent and socially constructed in my view, but many structural sociologists adopt a materialist epistemology and still implicitly treat culture as epiphenomal, privileging material reality). Interpretivist approaches often, although not always, implicitly reject a realist ontology, deny the possibility of causal forces associated with real structures, focusing on process and discourse, viewing social reality as ephemeral. I have been at conferences were non-insane scholars posit such anti-realist approaches with great seriousness and commitment.

    5. I find it hard to interpret the empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad of CR absent the what you describe as the more controversial neo-Aristotelian ontology associated with it. In particular, what makes the distinction between the real and the actual useful is the idea that real structures and objects exist (are ontologically real) even when not actualized. This only has meaning in a non-trivial sense if we ascribe reality to non-observable structures. The rock example you provide is not, in my judgment, a particularly good example because rocks exist in the domain of the actual. For a CR view of culture, for example, culture is real but not actual, although it has actual and empirical manifestations. It is for this reason that I believe that the EAR distinction in CR is much less obvious and trivial than you believe it to be. The reality of non-observables is a at the core of the EAR triad, in my view, and I don’t understand what a non-observable reality would mean absence some essence attached to it.

    6. Although I agree that the EAR triad and to me the essentialist ontology behind it are analytically separable from ontological emergence, what you would have without it could hardly be called CR. It seems to me that some form of ontological emergence is characteristic of realism in the philosophy of science more generally, and also of CR. Are chemical and biological properties not emergent and also real? Yes we have physical chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics, but do this mean that natural selection can be reduced to physics? Is physics the fundamental level that all science must be reduced to? If not what does it mean to be a reductionist CR? Is psychology or rational choice theory all that is fundamental?

    7. What are core and non-core properties of CR is subject to debate and contestation. Many if not most would include fact-value dependence and the emancipator role of social science as critical parts, but here I agree that they are not essential (pun intended). To me a mind-independent social (material and non-material) reality, ontological emergence, causal powers and an associated essentialist ontology are core components of CR. These are not obviously true, accepted by all non-committable academics, or even universally understood as to their meaning or implication. Empiricism, materialism, strong constructivism, reductionisms (of macro, micro, and flat variants) are all alive and well among the non-certifiable insane, in my experience. Some of these approaches are adopted at times by pragmatists who do not share realist commitments, critical or otherwise. But they also seem to be adopted as epistemological, if not ontological commitments by many, leading to fragmentation, ideological wars, and the privileging of certain methodologies and theoretical approaches as more “scientific” than others. The CR movement is certainly playing a similar game, which is probably why it infuriates many non-adherents.

    CR while providing a strong coherent ontological position is much less clear in its epistemological commitments (or guidance). Given this weakness, pragmatism, at least epistemologically, has much to say for itself, at least for now, given the current status of our field. But I am a believer in social science, and for me CR provides guidance of they type of commitments to which I adhere to in my own theorizing and research.


    William Ocasio

    September 16, 2013 at 12:14 am

  8. Brayden, it’s interesting that as I was first reading Omar’s post I also thought of your paper with Teppo and Dave, which as you know I like a lot.

    While CR,by itself, does not validate the ontological reality of organizations or their intentionality, it allows for the possibility of such an emergence to be real, something which is denied by principal-agency theory and social psychologists such as Karl Weick.

    The danger Steve Vaisey and you suggest, that CR can too readily be used to validate any level of analysis as ontologically real is definitely a problem. Part of the problem is that CR does not have a strong enough epistemology that allows us to know what is ontologically real and what is not. But here we also have to distinguish CR as a philosophy of social science, from social theory itself. CR does not, at least in the current state, distinguish between what are conflations among essential levels or between real structures and actual ones. I think all organization theorists would agree that organizations are actual entities, but whether they exist in the domain of the real, or if they do what constitutes their essence as understood by CR, is more contested. For example, transaction cost economics, at least in the Williamsonian version, implicitly ascribes ontological reality to organizations, as it does to markets, but defines the essence of organizations in terms of the authority relationship, not to collective intentionality, as does your theory.

    That CR does not tell us which social or organizational theory is right is not, in my view, a valid reason to reject it The legitimacy of a theory, according to the precepts of CR, does not mean that the theory is true. This certainly adds complexity to social theorizing, which is prevented by alternative more reductionist approaches which legitimate certain forms of theorizing (e.g., agent based, materialist, process theories) and delegitimate others.


    William Ocasio

    September 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

  9. Very good post. The essential categories of CR are fine — as long as they are not mixed with empirical research. The truth is that Rorty, Foucault, Wittgenstein and all these suspicious people still believe that the world is out there. Whether we can say anything meaningful about reality (other than its an English word) it is another issue.

    The few CR studies I have read tend to denote this and that as real. I find it difficult to see what the value added of attributing some labels to denote entities that are “real”, since such categorization cannot be empirical. I can agree that organizations are real and dragons are not real (although they are real as imaginary monsters). Is love real? It would seem so because it has strong causal powers (it makes men lose their minds). Why do imaginary monsters _not_ have real causal powers if they are able to make kids see nightmares and wake them up during the night? Should I decide whether fear is real or not real before I start studying fear in organizations?

    I am not simply mocking CR or trying to be smart (that would be a fail). It is just that I cannot make come up with better examples of “borderline real” things. I am deeply suspicious of these distinctions being rhetoric trickery that confounds necessary scrutiny. Some people may find inspiration for their research from thinking about emergence and what can and cannot be, but the few articles I have read in organization studies on CR seem to use it as authoritative argument to accept claims whereas I would hold that philosophical principles are essentially “made up” and cannot justify empirical claims.

    I like Brayden et al. article about organizational action, but I doubt I would like it nearly as much if it were accompanied with some CR claims about how a philosophical system we should all endorse states that we cannot really reduce organizations to individuals and that is the reason why everyone needs to see organizations as “real” and not just “empirical”.



    September 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

  10. Henri, it is clear from many in this long dialogue (including the original posts) that many sociologists and organizational scholars an have aversion to CR, and may even experience psychological reactance when CR is mentioned, as you express yourself in your last paragraph. I am still not clear exactly why that is.

    I would agree with you that if all CR were is a legitimating device it would be rhetorical trickery and as Fabio described it “lame.” Perhaps that is what a lot of CR claims are, in practice. Whether that is true or not is an “empirical question,” but not a necessary or sufficient condition of what CR claims to be. But given that attitude I can see why serious scholars who invoke CR, like Chris Smith, get upset when their commitments are dismissed as some form of pseudo-science, quackery, or religious myth.

    Regarding empirical claims, their validity presupposes some epistemological if not ontological assumptions, however made up these assumptions are. In what sense are econometric findings empirically valid (or any other method for that matter) and not just the fiction of our made up imagination?
    Empirical methods are social constructions; why should we trust them?

    Just to be clear, I only state the questions, not because I am arguing that any particular method is invalid. But implying that what really matters are empirical claims and not philosophical ones is itself a rhetorical device, and one, that however taken for granted it is, is preconditioned on some unstated philosophical assumptions.

    Your examples of dragons and love having causal powers are interesting by the way, but analysis of them only begins to scratch the surface of what a social scientific explanation of these causal powers would be. I am not going to provide the answer here either. But the empirical observation that the idea of dragons may have causal powers could point out to a more essentialist theory that cultural myths (once constituted) have causal powers beyond their origins. It is in this sense that cultural myths are real. Calling them real is not by itself an explanation. You would have to explain what is their essence and the mechanism by which cultural myths have the causal powers that they have to begin to claim you have an explanation. Love is even more interesting, particularly whether it is anything more than a cultural myth (beyond other distinct properties such as lust and social bonding).

    As for the King, Felin, and Whetten paper they were making both realists and essentialists claims (not empirical ones, of course), even if they did not tell their readers that is what they were doing (perhaps to avoid readers’ psychological reactance.. :) What makes that paper interesting, in my judgment is that they justify their controversial claim of collective intentionality on what were essentialist claims of organizations being constituted by their sovereignity and organizational identity. Without the essentialist claims their theoretical argument falls apart. The emergence of sovereignity and organizational identity is not fully developed in the paper, but it is hard for me to interpret their arguments otherwise.


    William Ocasio

    September 16, 2013 at 4:47 pm

  11. William: Very thoughtful comments. Agree on all points. Yes, what is “controversial” or not will definitely vary across thought collectives, although I meant to imply that just the very broad “vanilla realism” precepts would be uncontroversial. Definitely agree that positivism, empiricism, etc. do exist as habitualized practices, in various social science fields. What I meant to imply is that they don’t really exist as actual philosophical positions worth arguing about. Most practical positivists, empiricists, etc. are just people who don’t think about what they are doing very often (they are the philosophically unmusical practical social scientists just doing social science as best they learned how to in grad school). Most however, would reject the theory behind their practice if it were brought up to them explicitly. European style constructivism and Actor Network theory fall in the category of the sociology party show off. You say a bunch of silly things that you don’t really believe (or nobody really believes) just to keep the conversation lively. Your point 6 is an important one, and probably would deserve more detailed consideration. The (very short) answer is this: There is nothing in Rom Harre’s (which is actually the grandfather of CR if Bhaskar is the father) original formulation of causal powers, and entities as powerful particulars that could not prevent one from developing a reductionist account. The emergence stuff is an addition of Bhaskar the full coherence and ultimate validity of which is still very much in play (see e.g. an effective review of the relevant issues by Kaidesoja 2007). But once again, this is a complex topic that cannot be done justice to in this box.

    Steve: Exactly. That’s why node (3) is the most important, because arguing about (4) and (5) type matters presupposes a level of full commitment to CR that very few people can muster, and not only that presupposes that a lot of thorny theoretical and philosophical issues can be brought to a halt from the armchair. This is also where a lot of CR arguments do really need to be shored up and refined (and once again, some simply abandoned because they just don’t work). This is also where the relationship between CR armchair ontology and actual scientific research needs to be clarified. The separation of ontology from epistemology is nice as a theoretical point, but practically it has the potential to devolve into dogmatism, in the sense that you call something ontology just to protect from any kind of challenge.

    But the main point is that even really sophisticated attempts to clinch substantively important points at this level (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass’ heroic attemp to come up with a non-contradictory emergentist conceptualization of social structure as an entity with ontologically emergent casual powers), just fall apart under thoughtful scrutiny (see e.g. Wahlberg 2013). The ultimate issue is: do we need this greedy level of “reality” for the “objects” of social science to go on with our work? Some CR efforts sometimes resolve themselves into the establishing “aesthetic” points that don’t seem to ultimately make a difference (in the sense that my research practice would be exactly the same whether I buy into a weak or strong emergence argument). I mean is not like deans will stop hiring sociologists if we don’t nail down social structures as emergent holes with distinct causal powers not reducible (or not re-describable) to individuals and their relations. For other things, the stakes are obviously higher of course.



    September 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm

  12. Yo Omar! Maybe only insane people don’t personally believe in the real, but the question is what implications that has for scientific conduct. The answer is “none,” other than thinking science makes sense as a way to spend your time. Short answer: As Nietzsche said, the thing about these “real worlds” that we come up with is that they always turn out to be the world of appearance, ONCE MORE.



    September 17, 2013 at 1:42 am

  13. On ANT, and inspired partly by JLM’s last comment, I’m reminded of Latour’s essay, “Do you believe in reality?”. It might make for an amusing counterpoint (although this perhaps supports Omar’s criticism of ANT as fun party talk).

    Here’s the opening:

    “I have a question for you,” he said, taking out of his pocket a crumpled
    piece of paper on which he had scribbled a few key words. He took in his breath:
    “Do you believe in reality?”—“But of course!” I laughed, “what a question! Is
    reality something we have to believe in?” He had asked me for a private
    discussion in a place I found as bizarre as the question: by the lake near the
    chalet, in this strange imitation of a Swiss resort placed in the tropical mountains
    of Teresopolis, in Brazil. “Has reality really become something people have to
    believe in,” I thought to myself, “the answer to a serious question raised in a
    hushed and embarassed tone? Is reality something like God, the topic for a
    confession reached after a long and intimate discussion? Are there people on
    earth who don’t believe in reality?”


    Dan Hirschman

    September 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm

  14. Yes I think Dan is right — it’s an important parallel — Latour sometimes wrote in a silly way, but he is one of the most committed scientists I have ever come across, who holds us all to the highest standards of objectivity. The symmetry he requires in analyses–that we explain ideas we agree with and those we disagree with using the same general account–is absolutely necessary if there is to be a science of science. Bringing reality in as an explanation (scientists believe this because in the real world, it is so), as opposed to treating belief-in-this-as-reality as what is to be explained, turns science studies into fundamentalism. Reality was banned as a trump card in the scientific endeavor; it wasn’t a matter of personal belief. Our belief in the law, the degree of harm to the victim, isn’t relevant when assessing the guilt of a defendant, and we understand that it’s a sleazy tactic for a prosecutor to harp on these. We need to beware of the temptation to emphasize an irrelevant theological belief where and when we need to be thinking clearly, and we need to deprive others of any claimed epistemic gains they get from grandstanding their beliefs as if that carried evidentiary weight. The reason you shouldn’t even sign up for the basic package is that when it comes to the key puzzles that philosophers were struggling with, and CR claims to have resolved–such as “what would it mean to locate causality in the mind-independent aspects of the real (or trans-phenomenal) world?”–CR doesn’t have anything new (and CR’ers struggle with the same problems of defining causality and making it independent of reference frame that others do), it just says don’t worry. That might have made sense when we’re talking about mechanical causality, given that we can make water pumps and airplanes. But when it comes to social life, and various obscure forms of causality, you should be more than worried: you should be terrified.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 18, 2013 at 1:45 am

  15. I hope some guest bloggers who were dissing Latour and the whole science studies program as rubbish/trash/garbage/failure etc. could learn from the likes of JLM. And it is this close and appreciative engagement with other research fields that made JLM produce a classic such as “Social structures”, while the rest are rotting in their lame research programs.


    Mike Smith

    September 18, 2013 at 2:19 am

  16. For some context on JLM’s comments, see JLM review Christian Smith and vice versa…and their responses:



    September 18, 2013 at 5:01 am

  17. I remember, with wistful nostalgia, the good ol’ days when this thread wasn’t about Latour or the JLM/CS exchange. William?



    September 18, 2013 at 10:51 am

  18. William? Again? I think it is time for Sherkat to chime in…this has all his favourite ingredients (e.g., the workings of secret societies within sociology) and many of his favourite actors.



    September 18, 2013 at 11:11 am

  19. I was unaware until this morning of the JLM/CS exchange in Contemporary Sociology. In my judgement it was unwise for that journal’s Editor to allow/encourage a no holds barred review process, which quickly turned into rhetorical mudsling in the guise of intellectual debate. Clearly the passions behind that uncivil interchange have transferred into the discussion that was/is occurring in this blog.

    Organizational behavior scholars distinguish between cognitive and affective conflict and posit (based on empirical evidence) that the former improves group outcomes and the latter is detrimental. While it appears quite difficult to separate the two, professional norms that discourage and sanction the public expression of personal disrespect (which to an academic transfer to disrespect towards his/her intellectual commitments) would be, in my judgment, useful to have in blogs such as this one. Alas the blogosphere seems to encourage instead the opposite conventions and the level of discussion here seems at times no different than say that of

    While I was disappointed by the language used in previous posts on CR, I was encouraged by Omar’s relatively even tempered comments. Suggesting that anyone who disagrees with the basic tenets of CR is insane was not however helpful to move forward what had become a fascinating and thought-provoking intellectual debate, even if was mired by dismissive and at times insulting comments. My responses to Omar’s blog was meant to note that serious non-insane academics have intellectual commitments that are anti-realists. This includes the ANT and STS crowd, which offer valid insights, even if I disagree with their overall approach.


    William Ocasio

    September 18, 2013 at 11:48 am

  20. I think I have personally pushed against CR because it touches a fundamental questions of power and authority that philosophy has or should have over social science. As Willie said, all research is based on some epistemological assumptions (how can claims be justified) and ontology (what are the categories and concepts used). The question I have is whether those should be defined based on pragmatic concerns of the researchers or by some philosophical authority. As far as I know, the development of psychometrics and econometrics methods have not relied on philosophers, nor has the design of large atom colliders. Rather than disrespect or disagreement, I think this to be a question of authority.

    The purpose of my arguments has also been to try find if I am wrong. And indeed, maybe I have made a mistake in interpreting what advocates of CR imply by portraying it as “philosophy” rather than a “theoretical framework” (e.g. akin to structuration theory). It is just that positioning of certain assumptions as philosophical seems to move them to the outside of sociological arguments (which I have suggested to be an illegitimate move). I am sorry if in my questions and comments I have been dismissive of serious scholars’ commitments. It is not that those commitments would not be useful. I may be wrong in interpreting the incorporation of useful commitments under the guise of “realist philosophy” to be necessarily an attempt to reify them and to move issues from the debates of sociology to the domain of a (largely unquestioned) philosophy. However, I still hold this has often been an issue in management.

    And to be fair, I am no more fond of discourse analysis books (including one written by a good friend of mine) who say that it is not just a method but “methodology” with an underlying “philosophy” that dictates that reality is socially/discursively constructed. Such platitudes do disservice to the studies by defining issues that should be in the hands of social scientists (what concepts to use, how to justify empirical claims) to authoritative “philosophies”. This also implies that somehow a person needs to “subscribe” to some philosophy to be able to buy into a set of research results, which I find nonsensical. I would certainly expect research to convince me that some variance in observed phenomena can be explained by texts people produce and consume (discourse) rather than to require me to ask me to take that as a premise. I would also like to believe that my reader doesn’t need to subscribe to any particular school of philosophy to understand my methods and judge the claims I put forward.



    September 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm

  21. Henri I agree that the portrayal of CR or any philosophy can and is used as legitimating device, and invoking it can be used to convey power, authority, and I may add status.

    And yes a claim that any construct is “real” is an attempt to reify that construct. But note that using the term reify or reification is itself a rhetorical device to de-legitimize such claims. I would argue that gravity is a reified construct. We don’t directly observe gravity, we observe its consequences and posit its existence from our empirical observations of its consequences. Does that make gravity not real? Social reality is much more complex than physical reality so our empirical capacity to validate theoretical claims of reality is much more limited, hence why the critical part of realism is much more central to the social sciences than to elementary physics.

    Now academics play status games all the time. As Bourdieu might say, social science is a field where actors struggle for symbolic capital, and some are more successful than others at it. I see legitimizing claims based on philosophy as counterweights to legitimizing claims made by quantitative analysts.

    You are arguing that claims for authority and status based on philosophy are not legitimate. But you also seem to be arguing that claims made from quantitative methods are legitimate and authoritative. Note that quantitative methods are not sociology or organization theory. Statistics yes, philosophy no?

    The problems with statistical methods from a CR perspective, as I understand it, is not that statistical analysis of variance is necessarily invalid, but that if causal claims are made, they ignore that the model that is being estimated is not the same as reality, which is what positivists, and econometricians are implicitly claiming. There is always specification error of some kind. Why are some forms of specification error (those based on relying on a particular theory) legitimate and others (lack of fixed effects or endogeneity bias) illegitimate?

    Why I got involved in this conversation (without knowing all the previous controversy) was not because I believe only theorizing based on CR is valid or superior, but because there was, in my judgment, both unnecessary bashing and dismissiveness, partly based on misunderstanding, and partly based on having different sets of epistemological and ontological commitments, whether explicit or implicit.

    I have relied on emergent essentialist versions of CR to think through some issues in my work on vocabularies and institutional logics. I have found it useful. Others may not in their own.


    William Ocasio

    September 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm

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