Welcome to our blog for the Critical Realism Network. We are aiming to provide a dialogue about the current state of sociology and the need for a more robust theoretical framework for our research is conducted. This is certainly not novel. There seems to be a fairly broad awareness that the research methods of mainstream sociology are built on a flawed foundation and there are many debates about what this means. We maintain that one of, if not the, flawed foundation par excellence, is the philosophy of positivism and its continual influence in social thinking. At first glance this may not seem a little counterintuitive, even a little daft. Isn’t positivism a relic from 18th century France and August Comte? Or is it the early 20th century and the so-called logical positivists of the Vienna Circle? What exactly do you mean by positivism?
In this case we are taking positivism to be a broad philosophical movement of the late 19th and early 20th century which deeply influenced post-War accounts of science and social science. In particular, positivism set the standard for what we understand by science today, most notably through Popper and Hempel’s doctrines of explanation and falsification. In its essence positivism suggests that the only valid scientific knowledge derives from verified -or at least not falsified – empirical data. But more than this, positivism holds that this data provides access to general laws which govern the physical and social world. True science consists in finding these universal laws or, alternatively, finding “statistical laws” (such as in quantum probabilities). Scientists test putative laws or “hypotheses” by deducing “predictions” and then testing them empirically. If this putative law is not born out empirically, the hypothetical law is considered to be “falsified” and it is discarded. If it is born out by the empirical data, it remains as a plausible hypothesis until such time that this ceases to be the case. So what is wrong with this account?
In short, the account assumes and indeed requires the existence of universal laws from which empirical predictions can be unambiguously derived via a sort of deductive logic. Science is understood as an ongoing process of conjecture and empirical accumulation with periodic moments of falsification. Regularities are the name of the game, and science attempts to subsume empirical data under general laws. But is this what actually science does? We believe to speak in such a way is to profoundly misunderstand what science is doing. Science is less concerned with finding general laws than with understanding things, and their powers, structures, and capabilities and not their “empirical” characteristics our sense data or general laws.
We will continue to explore this in the blog over the next few weeks, however, for now, the positivist account of science, when it becomes the model for social science, encounters distinct problems arising from the nature of the social world. For the workaday social researcher (as opposed to the card-carrying philosopher or historian of science), the key fact is this: the social sciences have not yet discovered any universal laws. Statistical findings in sociology do not have a law-like character; at best, they are imprecise and local generalizations. This lack of law-like findings is key, because – to repeat: no laws, no falsification. While the methodology of falsification may still provide a useful heuristic device for developing hypotheses and comparing theories, these methods cannot and should not be used as the basic foundation for sociological methodology, and to do so is profoundly misleading and not keeping with its subject matter. So, having failed to discover any general laws of social life, social scientists have turned their sights on statistical correlations qua empirical generalizations instead of directly understanding the real entities and powers that generate such correlations. In other words, many sociologists have confused the means of discovery (the empirical patterns we can observe) with the real objects of science (the underlying structures and powers that bring them about).
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of positivism is its account of scientific knowledge. Knowledge is just waiting, in the world, ready for the scientist or social scientist to grab hold of it, to sift through their data and find a correlation which can become the basis for a generalised law. While we should be aware that not all correlations are causal, scientific realism is relatively easy. We just need enough data. We might even say the catch-cry of such a position is “give me a spreadsheet large enough and I will move the world”. In this automatic account of science, in which the world is laden with facts ready to be lifted, positivism attempts to commit the perfect crime; a crime which eliminates all trace of crime, both the victim and the criminal, while speeding away the corpse. The positivistic illusion is a special conjuring trick by which the thing we are trying to know, the production of knowledge and the producer of knowledge, are vanished and replaced by a correlation in the form of a constant conjunction, a general law ready for use, able to be falsified or not by ongoing data collection. Science is easy, automatic, and accumulative by nature.
But, hang on… isn’t positivism dead? Well… it certainly should be after been subject to critique for the past 100 years but, like the undead, it lives still. While few people claim allegiance to positivism directly, its influence lives on as accounts of science and social science have not found it easy to cast off its legacy without remaining level trapped by its logic. British critic Raymond Williams once suggested positivism is a swear word by which no one is swearing. And yet, it has formed our vocabulary. In particular it lives on in its reactions. We cannot understand constructionism, postmodernism, interpretivism etc. without understanding how they are a reaction to positivism.
To conclude, we will be exploring a philosophy the following questions: “how can sociology move past positivism?” and “how can we do social science better?” To that end, we think the philosophy of critical realism provides many helpful, useful, and – dare we say it – true answers. So what is critical realism (CR)? Over the few years, we will be outlining the key features, concepts and characteristics of CR, but for now we can say CR is a theory of science and social science which was and is being developed from the work of Roy Bhaskar, Rom Harré, Margaret Archer and many others. It expresses neither a naive positivism (which inevitably reduces the world to empirics), or a naive constructivism (which inevitably reduces the world to concepts or language), but a middle road which attempts to steer between the Scylla of positivism on the one hand, and the Charybdis of naïve idealism and constructivisms on the other. In short, CR attempts to sustain a delicate balance while outlining a coherent account of the nature of nature, society, science, human agency and philosophy by turning towards the things themselves.
Intrigued? Hopeful? Sceptical? Blasé?
Well, whatever your reaction, we hope you will join the network to learn more. Click here to join the dialogue.