One does not associate the term “realism” with CW Mills. Conventionally, pragmatism is his home. But, that’s mostly because no one (but the kids) took a peace-oriented realist seriously. But after reading The Causes of World War III there can be little doubt that Mills was a realist. A quick example, that I’ll deal with in more detail below:

It is less ‘realistic’ to spend more money on arms than to stop at once – and, if must be, unilaterally – all preparation of World War III. There is no other realism, no other necessity, no other need. If they do not mean these things, necessity and need and realism are merely the desperate slogans of the morally crippled. (1958:129)

If this doesn’t have all the hallmarks of what most contemporary sociologists can’t stand about Critical Realism I don’t know what does? Moreover, I also agree with Mills – any other such realism is a result of a lack of moral imagination, or at the very least, the sociological one.

I study Puritans in New England. Generally, people remember these folks negatively, and we shouldn’t be a surprised by this: the term was invented as an insult. So to start, I think it’s worth noting that I think insults have great value. So here I will briefly review all the nasty things people say about us critical realists, and then I’m going to show you that CW Mills was a critical realist, and that being a critical realist is far from a bad thing

Critical Realism’s Critics



Critical realism is sort of fun to make fun of these days in sociological theory. John Levi Martin, Neil Gross, Natalie Aviles and Issac Reed have all critiqued the movement. While certainly, these people see appealing things about critical realism, they all also emphasize that these do not outweigh its drawbacks.

For students, John Levi-Martins critique is probably the most devastating. In his appealing Thinking Through Theory, Levi-Martin decries the “Basket of Isms” (the first sub-heading), that is “The return of realism” (The chapter title). Levi-Martin’s assault puts the problem about as close to vernacular English as any human has yet to do (a feat he should be commended for). Defining realism as attempts to turn arguments about E(xperience) -> W(orld) into those about E(xperience)->R(eality), he notes

The big difference between the pragmatists (and phenomenologists here) and realists is that the former are satisfied with W[orld] and think that it gives you pretty much everything thing you could reasonably want form a world. Realist think this doesn’t live up to the real world they’ve constructed (in their imaginations, it should be noted), and so they keep on throwing their reel out into the bushes (and yelling, ‘Hey, please throw back one end back!) (81)

This seems a reasonable, and troubling critique. According to this view, what the realist is really doing ins “peddle[ing] you an ontology.” Not to leave rude enough alone, he uses the footnotes to reveal sense that he believes this to be debilitating to the literature as a whole admitting that “I haven’t read that much of the works of the central figures here [in Critical Realism], for the same reason I have never eaten chalk. (93)”

Insult 1 – Realists are “ontology peddlers”, who “imagine” that their claims to the real world should hold. In this they are unrealistic – they demand the craziness of the world to conform to a unitary abstract system. On its face, this means it is antithetical to sociology as a science.

Now let’s deal with Neil Gross. Again, Gross’ work is admirable in its clarity. This is particularly so with his bid to revive a pragmatist view of social science that moves beyond the individual and into institutional fields, and other forms of social cause.There are many valuable parts of Gross’ critique of critical realism, but we’re here for the dirt. Gross’ gripe is that critical realism’s arguments aren’t wrong, or even really wrong-headed, but rather that they are trivial these days. The problem he puts with realist sociology isn’t its empirical failings, it’s the broader sell “what does this mean for explaining stuff in society- you know the thing sociologists are supposed to do? Beats me. (299)” Sounding the war drums he notes “The world is in flames”, and while “maybe a sociologist will read some critical realism and get inspired to produce a brilliant explanation she or he wouldn’t have otherwise (301)” he concludes this doesn’t seem likely.

Insult 2 – The ideas critical realisms worry about points are trivial, thus it’s schemes for field wide rejuvenation are untimely impractical, and likely to only inspire failed journeys into theoretical heterodoxy.

Last,  is the spat of discussion involving critical realism through discussion of the “centrality” of mechanisms based exploration in contemporary social science. Here the critical realist story is in the work of Natalie Aviles and Isaac Reed. Going back to Nancy Cartwright’s and Paul Ricœur’s work, the pair urge for a more holistic reading of recent debate in theory. Casting a typology of mechanisms substantialist (Critical Realist), formal (Hedstrom and Winship), and metaphorical (what they develop from Ricœur), they conclude that the problem has been lost in the weeds while forgetting that Cartwright’s initial aim had been to pluralize our understanding of social cause and effect. Thus, rather than a bid against realism, they urge that the debates about realism have re-arranged the whole puzzle incorrectly. When improperly aligned like this, what is produced is a “methodological fundamentalism” that “tends towards irresponsibility towards evidence in so far as it combines the substantialist standard with a pursuit of parsimony as the primary epistemic value.” While they concede that “there is some argument for labeling this sort of pluralism [that Cartwright advocated] a brand of ‘realism’” they urge that this misses the whole tenor of the debate – “realism/antirealism is not the right dichotomy… at issue is the tension between parsimony and nuance, between fundamentalism and pluralism”. This leads us to our last insult – one that Aviles and Reed have since reiterated:

Insult 3 – Critical Realists are methodological fundamentalists in disguise. The causes of this fundamentalism are the hopes to find “something more” in the practice of social science. This is naïve vision of the role of social science in the broader discourse.

So now it seems we’ve cleared the air, but to summarize, let’s get this whole thing a bit punchier. The problem with critical realists is (1) they are unrealistic, (2) they impractical, and (3) they are naïve. All of these descriptions I would actually say hold quite well for one of contemporary sociology’s great heroes CW Mills. Indeed, when he opens his discussion of the “The Loss of Vision” he notes, “[m]any people no longer ask the intellectual and moral question ‘what is to be done?’ because their imaginations are paralyzed by the political question of who might do it. As a result, they have abandoned all interest in programs or they have narrowed their imaginations to the limits and interests of a power elite that displays its ignorance in so perilous a manner. Everything not within these limits is considered utopian, naïve, impractical, unrealistic. (92)”

If I have a choice, I want to make it

Whether or not you believe that CW Mills was a critical realist because he embraces these insults is not really the point of this essay. The point is Mills’ own confrontation with the purposes of social science along these lines comes out strongly in The Causes of World War III. Published between The Sociological Imagination and The Power Elite, the book won Mills little favor and has remained rarely cited. As a result, this is not the CW Mills most students meet. Here, I merely aim to highlight – as Mills does throughout the text – that the critiques of his arguments in WWIII are actually not anti-realist in nature, they are counter-realist. In this sense, I urge Mill’s argument takes on all the hallmarks of contemporary critical realism: it is unrealistic, impractical, and a kind of fundamentalism.  Moreover, he urges that retaining these impulses is an crucial part of keeping sociology a lively and relevant discipline.

Echoing the era’s classic Dr Strangelove, Mills assault in Causes is on the ideology of a power elite who remained willing to bring the world to the brink of nuclear winter in the name of waning ideologies. In this, Causes’ main enemy is what Mills calls “crackpot realism” which he defines as “a high-flying moral rhetoric… joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. (86)”. Urging that this ideology continued to permeate the power elite in America and the USSR, Mills concludes that this system of opportunism has only one broad conclusion an increasing and unrelenting drive towards war.


Mills defines the indifference about this “thrust towards war” as a part of larger problem associated with America’s “moral somnambulance (78 see also White Collar 1952:328)”, itself reinforced by the role of social science in sustaining and promulgating “crackpot realism” (83). As Mills would underline in the Power Elite,  how American elites would become ameliorated from their moral sense was a multi-form conjunctral process[1], and today the matter has gotten only more complex. As it relates to working sociologist however, Mills works to highlight how the acceptance of this realism by the cultural elite (not only sociologists, but priests, and political leaders too) results from the fact that “once the [arms] race is accepted as necessary, seem (sic) clear; the explicit problems it poses often seem ‘beyond politics,’ in the area of administration and technology (87)”.

The strong argument for thinking of Mills as a realist comes from his attempts to reject this crack-pot realism. Indeed, as I quoted in this paper’s introduction, for Mills a peace oriented realism is the only realism available. Here it is again:

It is less ‘realistic’ to spend more money on arms than to stop at once – and, if must be, unilaterally – all preparation of World War III. There is no other realism, no other necessity, no other need. If they do not mean these things, necessity and need and realism are merely the desperate slogans of the morally crippled. (1958:129)

First, we note that Mills rejects the claims of unreality on face for that they are – a way to shirk the argument towards existing structures of power. Second, Mills is a fundamentalist – a peace fundamentalist – but a fundamentalist for sure. Rather than reject this, his aim is to embrace it, to amplify it. Third, he bases critiques of practically on what they are a bid to short circuiting the individual’s creative (and sociological) capacities. Indeed, if we cannot claim that our concerns are a way of addressing reality, Mills isn’t sure we’re doing sociology at all. He notes, “[t]he passion to define the reality of the human condition in an adequate way and to make our definitions public – that is the guideline to our work as a whole. It is our first takes as an intellectually community publicly to confront the new facts of history-making and so of political responsibility and irresponsibility (139).”

In this sense, Mills aim in Causes is not simply to refute (or critique) crackpot realism, but to replace it. So Mills not only worries explicitly that his ideas may be “considered utopian, naïve, impractical, unrealistic (83)”, but also that an explicit and viable attempt to situate another realism is going to require a bid towards ontology and certain ideals,

To modify the ideas [for social change], or at least to file them away, and then, temporarily at least, to take up new allegiances and expediencies for which one might work in a ‘realistic’ way, this is the way that is called ‘practical politics’. The alternative is to retain the ideals, and hence by definition to hold them in a utopian way, while waiting. This is the way that is called impractical and unrealistic. Of course, the two can be combined in various sorts of holding action, the most usual being the combination of frenzied and ‘realistic’ next steps with great proclamations of principle. Nevertheless there is a real choice between them. As intellectuals and political men, we ought to choose, without qualification, the second way. We must reject the first way…  first, because it has now merely become merely an abdication of any possible role of reason, indeed of sanity, in human affairs; second, because it amounts to the surrender of any power we might possibly have to those now in charge of the decisions that make history and the decisions not made which might well turn history in other directions; and third, because the near universal adoption of this ‘realistic’ view by intellectuals is now among the causes of World War III (93)

In the order of Mills’ arguments, we could note that these demands for utopian thinking in sociology are themselves itself embedded in a vision of good sociological practice.  First, because to call warn against directions that seem “unrealistic” to the existing sociological imagination is simply to abdicate the role of reason in social life. Second, because to call our ideas ‘impractical’ is really to demand that they don’t fit within the confines of existing power structures. Yet, what is sociology if not the attempt to link public issues with personal troubles against the strains of already existing power structures?[2]

Third, because the claims about our naïveté are really only attempts to turn history in some – but, not other – directions we must embrace these insults.  In practice, this amounts to a firm and subtle refutation of claims that the ontology developed by critical realists fails to show why there is something more in the theory than simply a reason to demand that certain epistemologies hold true (Levi Martin 2015: 86-91; Avilles & Reed 2015:18). Here Mills urges that there is a “real choice” and that this choice amounts to an important reminder that social fields are directed towards goods of a particular kind. In Mills case, the idea is of a world that will refuse to understand political power as a march towards mutually assured annihilation. Perhaps he puts the matter most succinctly, “it must be recognized: what the powerful call utopia is now in fact the condition for human survival (94).”

Utopianism and Sociological Praxis: And Yes, Of Course, I’m Scared of Being Wrong



Certainly Mills’ critiques stung in in 1958, but what about today? Thus far, I’ve tried to get Mills wrangled into a critical realist camp, but is his rejection of “crackpot realism” really worth analogizing to the leaders in sociological theory today?

First, it seems that these critiques of critical realists strike deeper in our collective sociological DNA than it seemed at first. Indeed, one can’t read Mills defense of utopian thinking and be reminded of Olin Wright’s bid for Real Utopias, Burrawoy’s for Public Sociology or Hill-Collin’s for a renewed Intellectual Activism. In this sense, critical realism is much closer to the concerns of “mainstream” sociologists than those of “theory” (understood as a working part of the field, not a broad range of sociological activities).  That is, critical realists openly court utopian (or unrealistic) thinking in the hopes of transforming theory into practical change in the world. Hence, critical realism. This is not to deny that pragmatists have ideals too, but rather to emphasize that in critiquing critical realism’s bid to ontology as “peddling” they may be alienating others closer to home than they imagine.

The claim that some critical realist ideals may be “impractical” is to concede that sociological theory itself may be left to the contemporary neo-liberal versions of what Mills decried as “crackpot realists”. However, here I don’t actually worry much about people oriented towards theory (where critical realism is joined by post-colonial theory and critical race to balance out the normative offerings), I worry about people who don’t have any respect for the traditions and habits of social theory within sociology. People like Nicholas Christakis who believe that all of social science is need of some Silicon Valley styled “disruption” to finally set the record straight. That our discipline should proceed this way is not a forgone conclusion, but it does reveal that we need both descriptions with “a degree of reflexivity and sophistication”and some views of the social structure as our “own” and worthy of defending. To make claims that sociologists no longer “really believe” the claims of crackpot realists doesn’t mean that we don’t need better answers for the people who do.

Third is the issue of fundamentalism – itself a recurrent theme in the debates around critical realism. The problem according to these theorists is that the world simply isn’t such, that there will be clear, simple, or adequate moral frameworks to capture the plurality of values we need to back. In this sense, pragmatist moral thinkers have not advocated for a full closure on morality talk, but rather a refined version. For instance, Abbott has recently weighed in on these debates by noting the pragmatics of sociological theorizing necessarily brings up questions about morality and its role in social science, and this means sociology will need something akin to a political theory with a normative twist. Yet, while these claims would seem to open up for a great flowing of normative and ontological work in the field, Abbott warns that morality is too dangerous for us younger scholars to play with. Indeed, he imagines that much of this work should be confined to “late-career reflections by senior scholars”.

The problem with this demand however, is that the youth, as the victims of the parkland shooting are showing us everyday, are often more politically, morally, and culturally aware than their elders. Again, Mills,

‘Complexity’ is not inherent in any phenomena; it is relative to the conceptions which we approach reality; it is relative to the conception with which we approach reality. It is the task of those who want peace to identify causes and to clarify them to the point of action. It is I the inadequate definition of world reality and the lack of any imaginative program for peace that make the international scene appear now so complex and hopeless to the American elite, that make perilous those piecemeal reactions which constitute much of US official action and lack of action since the decision to obliterate Hiroshima. (82)

For those of us whose task it is to imagine a better world for ourselves, this actually means embracing some of the more orthodox elements of critical realism and all its unrealistic and impractical naivety. The ideas that appeal to us are ones like these: all humans have intrinsic dignity; ‘fields’ are directed to ultimate values; a society where flourishing is increased is a goal worth pursuing. That religion may also serve these ends, shouldn’t surprise us either. Does this mean that as practioners we will always be right in our claims to reality? Of course not. But does it give us some bid to a wider public whose minds are dumbed down by years of institutional and cultural neglect?  I think so.

Lastly, I think Mill’s own realism can help us to address a question that still bothers me. Why has (1) being a public sociologist seems more “natural than ever” but (2) the kind of “realism” Mills advocates in Causes weak? Well, it’s got to be some of the ways people “out there” are trying to undermine this style of utopian thinking. Here I’ve tried to highlight those insults as it relates to critical realism, but it seems to me that these are only one (particularly instructive) manifestations of a more widespread problems about how sociologists think about and adjudicate the moral value in their work. There is, however, another power in an insult too. Insults help people to organize other like minded folk. As a critical realist who believes in “unrealistic” ideals like human flourishing, world peace, and a viable critical social science, I don’t mind the insults. They help me to find other people dedicated to making this whole enterprise a force for positivity in radically new ways. Should you feel like one such person, try writing us a letter.

[1]Here he merely notes that elites opt for war in the end because they “prefer the bright, clear problems of war – as they used to be. For they still believe that ‘winning’ means something, although they never tell us what (88).”

[2]As an aside, the work pairs well with The Sociological Imagination– which one can’t help think of when reading Causes. In part, this is because many of the ideas we learn in Sociological Imaginationexist in nascent form here. Yet instead of what it means for science, Causes is about what these ideas mean for the world. That is for individual and social wide political and economic reality/history. Moreover, when coupled with the brief mentions of realism in The Sociological Imagination, a broader picture starts to appear – one more akin with Mills teaching us the tools to be a solid public socio-intellectuals instead of well-behaved professional sociologists.

Sam Stabler teaches sociological theory and methods at Hunter College and recently earned his PhD in Sociology from Yale University. He studies social conflict in morally diverse societies. His dissertation focused on understanding how such conflicts were shaped by the United State’s expansive colonial frontier. His work explores the religious and political uses of territory in the Puritan New England missionary context from colony founding (1630) through to the early national period (early 19th century). Amongst his other interests, Sam discovered critical realism through his work as a comparative historical sociologist and has found it useful to enrich his understanding of sociological theory, sociology of religion, and cultural demography.