critiquing criticical realism

So let it be known: not all the orgtheory bloggers dislike critical realism. My aesthetic disposition, of course, is a function of particular field formations: Phil Gorski was my dissertation chair and I did some research for him on critical realism near the end of graduate school. Reading Margaret Archer helped pay my bills. I wrote a piece on a big critical realism conference (and, actually, the brouhaha here at orgtheory) for the Theory Section newsletter some years ago and then, as now, I argued the proof will be in the pudding.

At that time, I was a bit hesitant to call myself a critical realist, mostly because I resented what I interpreted as a colonizing mentality (no different, mind you, from many other research programs with grand ambitions in the social sciences, but equally disturbing). I sometimes felt like Critical Realism treated sociology like theologian Karl Rahner’s famous concept of the “anonymous Christian.” For Rahner, if you were a Buddhist who lived an ethical life that highlighted particular virtues, you were actually a Christian without knowing it. I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that critical realists thought all good sociology was “anonymous critical realism” rather than just, you know, good sociology. Calling for a better and more reflective awareness of our philosophical priors is well and good (and frankly necessary) , but then claiming that such reflexivity means I’m on a particular team seemed a bit too much.

But critical realism is in a different position now (or perhaps it was always different and I misrecognized it). I’ve spent the past year in a really excellent series of discussions set up loosely around Critical Realism. They were actually divided into two groups: the first based on ethnography, the second on comparative-historical methods. I was in the ethnography group, and we had some excellent conversations about causation, agency, comparison and qualitative methods more broadly. We had a great conference at our last meeting.

I never felt like I was being indoctrinated. I felt like I was in a group that made unapologetic space for theory, and that really wanted to engage the best and hardest arguments. (This was especially true for an excellent meeting in Ann Arbor in which the comparative-historical and ethnography groups met.) These were great meetings that brought together sociologists from across the discipline. I’m incredibly grateful for them, and for those folks who call themselves critical realists for setting them up. Look: I’m still probably not going to call myself a critical realist. But I can tell you that none of the people there cared. I certainly think I’m a better sociologist for having been part of these conversations and working through some thrillingly difficult meta-theoretical questions. And becoming a better sociologist, is, I think the point.

Which brings us to Neil Gross’s recent review of two new books on critical realism. The review is pretty brutal, as Fabio described recently, which might or might not be warranted (I haven’t read either of these books). But I’d hesitate to judge critical realism based on these books, or to use this review as the final word on CR. I’d instead suggest you all read an excellent response from Timothy Rutzou. Tim is charitable and incisive in acknowledging legitimate complaints about CR, but then he shows why the work continues to matter. There’s a footnote with responses to Gross’s post (Fabio, it turns out Doug does JSTOR bro). But more important is the laying out of legitimate critiques of CR and an explanation of what CR can contribute to sociology as a whole.

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

At the very least I want to suggest critical realism opens a space in sociology for these discussions to take place. It tries to reflect upon the best practices of sociology and systematize those insights. It identifies certain problematics, and explores the traction certain philosophical concepts might have for sociology. It wants to explore the relationship between philosophy and sociology, and how one can inform the other. It creates a space for theoretical reflections, gives a useful orientation for how to do philosophy in sociology, and it provides access to a few good tools for thinking through certain problematics. Critical realism has been doing this for a while, and brings different but often overlapping and complementary perspectives and concepts than other theoretical positions. In short, critical realists tries to make space for different forms of reflexivity in sociology by engaging with certain traditions of philosophy. And in summation, frankly, friends should let friends do philosophy … particularly since they are already doing it (whether they want to or not).

But read the whole thing! Tim Rutzou’s work is always interesting. He’s a philosopher sociologists should know.



Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. For the record:

    1. In orgtheory 1.0, there was not unanimous opposition to CR, as our friend Omar gently reminded us. I count Jeff as part of the orgtheory 2.0 crew. Jeff bears no responsibility for the initial counter-assault on CR forces.

    2. Jeff needs to be commended for fostering CR relations with the outside world. The first time I met Jeff in person, we had lunch and a long “heart to heart” about CR. We even exchanged tokens of appreciation and promised to be friends. A scholar and a gentleman.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 5, 2017 at 6:12 pm

  2. Thanks Fabio! And that was a wonderful lunch, even if I remember most of that heart to heart being about Guardians of the Galaxy (I was extremely impressed by your knowledge of the Marvel universe). I’m proud to be representing the orgtheory 2.0 crew!



    July 6, 2017 at 6:16 pm

  3. I’m glad Jeff wrote this, and glad he and Fabio had a nice lunch in spite of their different views on CR (and why shouldn’t they?). But I’d also like to add that in my experience, most of those in the CR “camp” who are regularly subject to vehement and uncharitable critique, not just on this board but also in the hallowed halls of AJS, etc. are also “scholars and gentle(wo)men” who have no other interest than improving the quality of theoretical debate in our discipline. This includes Porpora, Archer, Gorski, Steinmetz, Smith, and the super-bright up-and-comers like Claire Decoteau using CR to great effect in actual explanation.

    No, they don’t always get it right, and their styles range from the more combative to the more judicious; but nor is their work any more bonkers or intentionally adversarial than any other social theorists writing today (you want adversarial, read JLM’s biting and suspiciously citation-sparse chapter on CR in TTT). Furthermore, like Jeff intimates, the spaces for dialogue and collaboration opened up by the senior CR folk have been the richest and most supportive I have found in this discipline, and I have never felt the need to learn any secret handshake or carry any card to take part.

    So, my point: I’m tired of this shade-throwing. If anyone doesn’t like what CR sociology is doing for/to theory in American sociology, then they should go ahead and try to do better. I for one am grateful for the time, energy, and social capital that the ppl named above are investing in collective dialogue, which they could easily be spending other ways, and I hope other young scholars will be able to take advantage of it as I have, in spite of the mystifying efforts to make CR a tainted category.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 9, 2017 at 9:32 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: