Webinar Recordings


Critical Realism and the Academic Study of Religion

Presenter: Professor Kevin Schilbrack, Appalachian State University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Dr. Timothy Rutzou

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Abstract: In this webinar, I’ll explore how critical realism aids our understanding of both scholars who study religious agents and the religious agents themselves. I’ll briefly contextualize the debate among religious studies scholars today about the status of the central conceptual category of “religion”. Some contemporary scholars, influenced by genealogy and deconstruction, argue that religion was not discovered in those cultures but was rather manufactured, imagined, or invented in Europe and then imposed on the rest of the world. Here, religion is a social construction, a projection of the western imagination. On what grounds can Western scholars retain the concept? In response, I will argue that CR enables us to speak of religion as a real entity, a social structure, that operated even before the word was created. I will consider three arguments for abolishing the category of “religion” and show how CR provides tools with which we can respond to them. Second, how does CR help us understand religious agents? Religious people organize their lives around and claim to experience value-laden realities that those who are not members of their communities typically cannot see. What is needed, then, is a relational ontology where human beings are not independent substances but are rather constituted by their relations.

Recommended Readings:

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 1997. “A Critique of ‘Religion’ as a Cross-Cultural Category,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 9:2. pp. 91-110.

Chidester, David. 2007. ‘Real and Imagined: Imperial Inventions of Religion in Colonial South Africa,’ in Timothy Fitzgerald, ed., Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. London: Equinox.

Chemero, Anthony. 2003. “An Outline of a Theory of Affordances,” Ecological Psychology 15:2, pp. 181-195.

Flourishing: A Necessary Concept for Social Science

Presenter: Professor Andrew Sayer, Professor of Social Theory and Political Economy, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Dr. Timothy Rutzou

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Abstract: Why does social science need a conception of human flourishing? Like any living beings, humans have definite things that are good or bad for them, and if we don’t know whether they are flourishing or suffering then we don’t know much about them. But social scientists are often reluctant to make such judgements. One reason is that many believe that doing so would necessarily divert them from a scientific study of social life into purely normative thought, and sacrifice objectivity. The fragmentation of social science that has occurred since the late 19thC has resulted in an unfortunate split between positive sciences such as economics, sociology and political science, and normative thought in moral philosophy and political theory, with research and scholarship on both sides the poorer for the divorce, as they tend to ignore each other rather than learn from each other. Thus, even the capabilities approach, which addresses the subject of human flourishing, is typically developed and applied without adequate understanding of structures of the societies to which it is applied. The fact-value distinction, and the common tendency to associate objectivity with value-freedom are very much associated with this institutionalized split. A common wariness in social science – especially sociology – of concepts of human nature, usually based on the misconception that nature is immutable and a fear of ethnocentricism and normalizing judgements, creates further difficulties for understanding flourishing.

Recommended Readings:

Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People: Values, Social Science and Ethical Life (Cambridge UP, 2011) Chapters 2 & 4

Andrew Sayer, ‘Capabilities, contributive justice and unequal divisions of labour‘, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal for People-Centered Development.


Realist Ethnography

Presenter: Associate Professor Claire Decoteau, Department of Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Dr. Timothy Rutzou

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Abstract: This webinar will begin by comparing and contrasting interpretivist, materialist and realist approaches to ethnographic data collection and analysis. It will then argue that critical realism is an important (but underutilized) post-positivist tool for ethnographers because it allows for the development of complex conjunctural explanations that pay heed to both ontological realism and historical contingency, retains a focus on emergence and social change, and allows ethnographers to link the structural, cultural and practical levels of analysis. However, the paper will also suggest ways in which critical realism should incorporate insight from both grounded theory and extended case method to avoid essentializing actors’ motivations or reifying structural determinants.

From National to Global Fields? Transnational Theorizing and Critical Realism

Presenter: Assistant Professor Larissa Buchholz, Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Professor Philip Gorski

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Abstract: A central challenge for contemporary sociological theory is to reassess the theoretical resources that were developed from within the frame of the Western nation-state to engage with new and often qualitatively different problems of transnational or global research. This webinar takes field theory as an example to discuss strategies for re-examining and re-conceptualizing “Western” sociological concepts beyond their national boundaries. Drawing from empirical research, Professor Buchholz proposes criteria for delineating a global field and introduces the concept of relative vertical autonomy to account for the multi-scalar architecture of certain transnational or global fields. Vertical autonomy contributes to the development of a globalized field analysis with regard to theorizing emergence, global-national interdependencies, and denationalizing Bourdieu’s concept of “national capital.” The webinar closes by pointing out how Critical Realism provides a fertile foundation for developing causal explanations within globally extended field analysis, beyond the pitfalls of causal reification and Northern reductionism.

Recommended Readings:

Buchholz, L. 2016. “What is a Global Field? Theorizing Fields Beyond the Nation-State.” Sociological Review 64 (2): 31-60.

Buchholz. L. 2016. “Causal Explanation in Global Analysis. A Critical Realist Rapprochment”

Go, Julian and Monika Krause. 2016. “Fielding Transnationalism.” Sociological Review 64 (2): 1-30.

Benson, R.. 2015. “Public Spheres, Fields, Networks: Western Concepts for a De-Westernizing World?” In C.C. Lee, ed., Internationalizing International Communication (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press): 258-280.

Connell, R. 2007. “The Northern Theory of Globalization.” Sociological Theory 25(4): 368-385.

Reed, I. A. 2013. “Theoretical labors necessary for global sociology: critique of Raewyn Connell’s southern theory.” Political Power and Social Theory 25: 157–171.

Symbolic Interactionism, Ethnography, and Critical Realism: A Conversation on Cautious Naturalism

Presenter: Professor Gary Alan Fine, James Johnson Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Professor Philip Gorski

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Abstract: In this webinar, Professor Gary Alan Fine (Northwestern University) will take part in a conversation about the relationship between his ethnographic research and critical realism. As a symbolic interactionist of micro and meso-level research, his discussion will focus on where these theoretical and methodological traditions are similar to or different from CR. He will begin with a summary of his overall research agenda, focusing on his empirical work as a cultural sociologist and social psychologist of small groups, and the “cautious naturalism” of his research. Professor Fine will then join a conversation moderated by Professor Philip Gorski about “cautious naturalism” and critical realism.

The Intellectual Property of Nations: An In-Progress Book Project

Presenter: Dr. Laura R. Ford, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bard College

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by a Q&A with Professor Philip Gorski

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Abstract: The goal of this webinar will be to offer a basic overview of the book project, and to discuss ways in which the book is informed by (and may be strengthened further through) engagement with critical realism. A new type of property is making itself felt in our world: intellectual property. This is a category of legal property that includes patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. This new type of property is increasingly pervasive in everyday life, and is increasing in economic significance. It has spread around the world, and is now instituted in nearly all nations of the world. My in-progress book is driven by a simple (but very big) question: why? Why did this new type of property emerge? Furthermore, why is this new type of property playing an increasingly significant role in our societies and our economies? In other words, what explains the emergence and expansion of intellectual property?

In the book, I argue that intellectual property emerged as part of the modern nation-state.  I locate the first emergence of intellectual property in Eighteenth Century Britain, and I show how intellectual property subsequently emerged in the United States, France, and Germany. Intellectual property, I argue, constitutes an important element in the socio-economic transformations of modernity, and it does so as a vital component of the modern nation-state.

What is Critical Realism?

Presenter: Dr. Timothy Rutzou, Yale University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q&A

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Abstract: What is critical realism? Is there such a thing as Critical Realism (capital C capital R)? Do critical realists hold to common concepts? Themes? principles?…dogmas? Why is positivism wrong headed? Why do we need philosophy? What do critical realists mean when they talk about ontological realism? epistemic relativism? judgmental rationality? In this webinar Rutzou answers these questions and more, offering a lay of the land a giving a broad and novel introduction and expression to the question “what is critical realism?”.

Critical Realism and the Generative Structuralism of Pierre Bourdieu

Presenter: Professor Frederic Vandenberghe

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q&A

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Abstract: Bourdieu has now become the hegemon in the field of social theory. Everybody knows the concepts of field, habitus, practice and symbolic violence by now. The common language even allows for discussion among colleagues and among disciplines. Commentaries on Bourdieu’s critical sociology usually focus on the concept of habitus, but as everything else in his work, it is overdetermined by the field. The notion of field can be disclosed as a form of generative structuralism that is quite akin to critical realism. In this webinar, I will analyze the more epistemological parts of his work, show the influence of Cassirer and Bachelard with the intent to reclaim Bourdieu for critical realism.

A Philosophical Vocabulary for Critical Realism

Presenter: Professor Ruth Groff, St. Louis University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q&A

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Abstract: Why do we need philosophy? Why do we need to have a philosophical vocabulary? Why do we need to be realists? What is metaphysics? What is ontology? What is epistemology? What is truth? What is judgmental rationality? What is the epistemic fallacy? What is epistemological relativism? In this webinar, Professor Ruth Groff explores these questions, defining and explicating the key philosophical concepts in critical realism.

Recommended Reading- A Philosophical Vocabulary – Ruth Groff

Critical Realism, Heterogeneity, and Assemblages

Presenter: Professor Daniel Little, University of Michigan

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

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Abstract: In this webinar, Professor Little addresses the question of whether the ontology of critical realism is compatible with the idea of a highly heterogeneous social world. In the social world there are many diverse phenomena and many kinds and tempos of causation at work. It is therefore crucial that we avoid the impulse to reduce social change to a single set of underlying causal factors. Sociologists sometimes describe this fact as the conjunctural nature of social causation.  Social events, changes, and forms of stability depend on contingent alignments of forces and causes, which do not recur in regular sequences of Humean causation. Instead social causes are generally historically conditioned, with the result that we do not have a general statement of, same cause, same effect. But what does this mean for how we understand and research the social world? How do we classify heterogeneous social phenomena such as riots, revolutions and states? Drawing on his research in China, Professor Little will explore the potential of critical realism and assemblage theory to answer such questions. 

Suggested readings from Dan Little’s Blog – Understanding Society

Understanding Society – Assemblage Theory

Understanding Society – Assemblage Theory as a Heuristic


Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods

Presenter: Associate Professor Margarita Mooney, Princeton Theological Seminary

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

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Abstract: Every good researcher is to some extent a good theoretician. Yet, typical approaches to teaching and writing about sociological research methods emphasize data collection techniques, often to the detriment of exploring the ontological assumptions made in any research project. Critical realism consistently points to the epistemological implications of implicit ontological commitments in sociological research. Recently, critical realist scholars have paid greater attention to the methodological implications of critical realism for sociology. In this webinar, Dr. Mooney will illustrate how critical realism led her to reflect on the ontological assumptions and practical implications of her empirical work on vulnerability and resilience. Based on her review of sociological research methods classes from more than 30 universities, she will also suggest concrete ways that sociological research methods courses could incorporate modules on the philosophical foundations of research and the application of research findings to concrete cases. She will also discuss how her engagement with critical realism led her write research articles that preserve the dramatic narrative of her cases while also analyzing causal factors interacting at multiple levels. She will argue that the best sociological research combines rigorous data collection techniques with metatheoretical and practical reflections.

Suggested ReadingsComplex Causality and Mental Health – [under review]

Emergence and Demergence

Presenter: Professor Stephen Mumford, Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

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Abstract: There are two difficult notions in metaphysics that are connected but typically treated as distinct. One is emergence and the other is top-down causation. The issue of emergence versus reductionism is kept apart from the issue of top-down versus bottom-up causation, partly because emergence or reductionism is a question of constitution, hence a synchronic matter, while top-down vs bottom-up is a question of causation, hence a diachronic matter. If one accepts the simultaneity of causes and their effects, however, the way is open for an understanding of emergent phenomena as top-down causes. How this can be so has seemed a metaphysical mystery but the case of social causes makes the issue easier to comprehend. The causal powers of wholes can be understood as more than sums of the causal powers of their parts. Societies are to be understood as wholes composed of, but not reducible to, a plurality of individuals. To constitute a society, a plurality must essentially be interacting, which is a condition of the emergent phenomena. Where social powers in turn then operate upon the individuals composing that society, we have a plausible case of top-down causation.

Beyond the Mechanistic Paradigm: Towards a Quantum Social Science

Presenter: Professor Alexander Wendt, Ohio State University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

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Abstract: For those interested in social theory in general and critical realism in particular this webinar will address the possible implications of quantum mechanics in helping to resolve some of the classic dualisms which inform sociology and its practice, namely those of structure/agency and mind/body.  There is an underlying assumption in the social sciences that consciousness and social life are ultimately classical physical/material phenomena. Wendt challenges this assumption by proposing that consciousness is, in fact, a macroscopic quantum mechanical phenomenon. In the first half of the book, Wendt justifies the insertion of quantum theory into social scientific debates, introduces social scientists to quantum theory and the philosophical controversy about its interpretation, and then defends the quantum consciousness hypothesis against the orthodox, classical approach to the mind-body problem. In the second half, he develops the implications of this metaphysical perspective for the nature of language and the agent-structure problem in social ontology. Wendt’s argument is a revolutionary development which raises fundamental questions about the nature of social life and the work of those who study it. Wendt’s approach is equally revolutionary. In considering the implications of our current understanding of the natural world to the social sciences, Wendt returns to the best traditions of speculative grand theorizing that is often sadly lacking in the social sciences today.

Recommended Reading:

Alexander Wendt, Quantum Mind, “Preface to a Quantum Social Science” Chapter 1

To read a review of Alexander Wendt’s new book by Professor Douglas Porpora (Professor of Sociology, Drexel University), click here.

The Emergence of Ethical Concepts in Social History

Presenter: Professor Webb Keane, University of Michigan

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

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Abstract: This webinar is based on Webb Keane’s recently published book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, whose introduction is available at the link below. The book can be read as an example of how a critical realist approach might work in practice. It responds to the challenge posed by competing claims between naturalist and constructivist depictions of human ethical life, the one grounding it in universals of psycho-biological development, the other in particular political, cultural, and social histories. The book draws on both approaches, arguing that the concept of affordances can provide an alternative to reductionism, determinism, and strong forms of constructivism. It shows how anything recognizable as “ethical” must be understood as emerging from the interplay between first and third person stances. The first person stance can be identified with the self that psycho-biology tries to describe, the third person is found in the materials favored by social history. Mediating between the two terms are the dynamics of social interaction, in which a first person must give an account of itself to a second person, drawing on the resources of the third person stance. The latter includes “historical objects,” namely, ideas, values, and the institutions and practices that support them. In this webinar, we consider consider the role that objectifications play in catalyzing the changes that give ethical life a social history.

Recommended Reading: Introduction in Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories Princeton 2016

Critical Realism, Sociology, and History

Presenter: Professor George Steinmetz, University of Michigan

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q & A with Professor Philip Gorski

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Abstract: What is the best approach to historical research, a search for general causal laws, an ideographic description of unique events, or some combination of those approaches? How did scholars such as Rickert, Weber, and Dilthey view comparative work in the social sciences and history? How have historians and humanities scholars understood comparison? What are the particular challenges to social science theory and comparison from poststructuralism and postcolonial theory? On the one hand, many historians and humanities scholars argue that the singularity and incommensurability of their cases places them outside scientific methods. On the other hand, many social scientists believe that the only substitute for statistical and experimental methods in the social sciences is “The Comparative Method” – comparing cases in order to identify a general model or “General Theory,” a constant conjunction of events. This approach is rebarbative to most practicing historians and humanities scholars. In this webinar, Professor Steinmetz will address the implications of critical realism for the work of historians and historical social scientists. Critical realism defends the scientific value of historical and hermeneutic case studies. Critical realism provides compelling arguments against objections from both the “Comparative Method”/“General Theory” camp and the super-historicist/incommensurablist camp. Especially important features of critical realism are its emphasis on ontological stratification, open systems, and causal powers. Causal powers in the social sciences are understood as varying across history, geography, and culture. Critical realism helps us see how we can explain unique cases and compare multiple cases, not to discover universal laws but to identify causal powers that produce contingent outcomes and to refine our understanding of causal powers.

Recommended Reading(s):

George Steinmetz. “Comparative History and its Critics: A Genealogy and a Possible Solution.” In A Companion to Global Historical Thought, edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy and Andrew Sartori. Blackwell (2014), pp. 412-436.

George Steinmetz. “Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study, and “Small N’s in Sociology.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 22, number 3 (2003), pp. 371-400.

George Steinmetz. “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology. A Review Article.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 40, No.1 (Jan., 1998), 170-186.

Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach

Presenter: Professor Douglas Porpora, Drexel University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q&A

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Abstract: Professor Porpora has completed a new introduction to critical realism which is now available through Cambridge University Press. This work offers a critical account of the strengths and limitations of sociology as found in the United States and situates critical realism in relation to the major philosophical currents in contemporary sociology including post-structuralism, pragmatism, interpretivism, practice theory, and relational sociology. Porpora argues that sociological theory and practice is operating with deficient accounts of truth, culture, structure, agency, and causality that are all better served by a critical realist perspective. In particular, Porpora argues against the dominant and often implicit positivism which privileges statistical techniques and experimental design over ethnographic and historical approaches. The questions this webinar will address include: How does CR contribute to contemporary American sociology? What does critical realism contribute to social theory and empirical research? Why does social science need to re-engage with theory? Why do social scientists need to consider and perhaps reassess the metatheoretical assumptions behind their work? Why sociology requires an explicit engagement with questions of ontology?

Using Emergence as a Sociological Concept

Presenter: Professor Philip Gorski, Yale University

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q&A

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Abstract: Emergence is the simple but profound idea that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. At some level this idea is tacitly accepted by most sociologists, but Critical Realism can help us to be clear about what we mean when we talk about emergent structures (e.g., fields, institutions, or groups). It also provides helpful counter-arguments against various forms of reductionism (e.g, psychological, neurological or genetic) and powerful arguments for the reality of the social. Topics addressed in the webinar will include: various degrees and types of emergence (e.g., epistemological and ontological); the similarities and differences between physical, biological and social emergence; an emergentist theory of social structure; the importance of materiality (esp. human artifacts) for social emergence; and the implications of emergence for our understanding of causation. We will also discuss the importance of emergence for various research methodologies, including ethnography and comparative-historical sociology, and how it can provide sociologists a language which enables them to ask the bigger questions of sociology including issues surrounding emancipation, human flourishing and the common good.

  • What is emergence?
  • What are the different types of emergence?
  • How does social emergence differ from physical and biological emergence?
  • What are the main arguments for and against emergence?
  • What does social emergence mean for social theory and social research?