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Webinar Recordings

These webinars were recorded as part of the original Critical Realism Network project run from the Sociology department at Yale and led by Professor Phil Gorski and Dr Tim Rutzou. The webinars typically consist of an introductory talk of 35-45 minutes followed by a Q&A session. They are listed below in reverse chronological order, and are also available through our YouTube channel.

Mark Carrigan: Big Data, Critical Realism, Human Agency and the Future of the Social Sciences

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Abstract: The rise of big data is transforming the organisation of knowledge production and thus the process of social change. In this webinar Mark Carrigan discusses the implications for a wide range of social phenomena, most notably the question of how we can study the social. But he also also questions the ‘epochal cut’ introduced into our understanding of the social by theorists of social change, in this case theorists of digitalisation. Watch

Laura Gillman: From Identity to Non-Identity and Back Again: Towards a Feminist Dialectical Realist Recursivity

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Abstract: There has been little engagement of critical realism with feminist theory or postpositivist realism. A notable although not exclusive exception are the exchanges between Tony Lawson and a group of feminist scholars, published between 1999 and 2003. In the dialogue, Lawson suggested that feminist theorists strengthen their epistemological concepts of situated knowledge and epistemic privilege by bridging them with a social ontology. Feminist philosophers responded that scholars invoking generalities reinstate neutrality in research; mask or worse yet dismiss the deeply contextual and performative components of gendered, raced, and classed interventions in processes of discovery, understanding and knowledge creation; and fail to take their own social positioning into account in the construction of knowledge.

Feminists have always been concerned with ontology and metaphysics. The work does not get done, however, under the rubric of a sub-discipline, e.g. feminist metaphysics, but rather under the general rubric of feminist theory. In this presentation, I locate myself within this interdisciplinary wing of feminist thought, one that has always highlighted the constellated relationship of ontology and epistemology and the entanglement of both with values and interests. My goal is to highlight the convergences and divergences of postpositivist realism, a feminist and minority scholars studies project originating in the humanities, and critical realism, a project originating in the social and natural sciences beginning with the work of Roy Bhaskar. Watch

Click here to download Laura Gillman’s article

Steve Hitlin: The Sociology of Morality

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Abstract: The scientific study of morality is undergoing something of a renaissance over the last decade. While sociology was once central to this enterprise, the study of morality had gone out of fashion until recently. This webinar discusses how one can think about and empirically measure morality, and will outline how sociological can contribute to an interdisciplinary dialogue. It then talks about a couple of ongoing empirical projects as examples attempting to bridge a sociological understanding of morality with more conventionally psychological treatments. Watch

George Steinmetz & Phil Gorski: Real Types vs Ideal Types

Abstract: This webinar discusses the ways in which ontological and epistemological realism might change the way we think about explanation and concept formation in the social sciences and what it would look like to think in terms of real, rather than ideal, types. This webinar includes a helpful overview of Weber’s account of ideal types, as well as discussions about interpretation (verstehen), value-neutrality, and public sociology. Watch

Dave Elder-Vass & Tim Rutzou: Social Science and Realism after Assemblage Theory

Abstract: A central challenge faced by any realist sociology is the difficultly of building a social ontology which can cope with the problem of heterogeneity on the one hand, and stability on the other, and a methodology which able to cope with such an ontology. The social world is characterized by both the existence of wildly contingent causal constellations coming together in highly variable ways on different occasions, and recurrent structures which produce degrees of stability with repeatedly consistent causal powers and effects. Assemblage theory, developed in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Manuel DeLanda, and Daniel Little, offers a fruitful way forward in thinking through these issues, but has tended to neglect important aspects of the social world in the name of heterogeneity and process. Focusing on DeLanda’s book Assemblage Theory we trace the theoretical lineage of Assemblage Theory, evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, outline possible contributions of critical realism, and propose a synthesis centered around mechanisms of regulation and deregulation, and the tendencies of things to persist and recur. In this way we can see assemblage and structure as related and contrasting ideal types rather than alternative or competing social ontologies, and assemblage theory as a theory and a methodology able to cope with the challenges this raises. Watch.

Phil Gorski & Tim Rutzou: The Problem of Autonomy

Abstract: At the recent Values and Human Flourishing conference, a single issue continually emerged: how should we understand autonomy, and what place does it serve within ethical and political projects? Questions about autonomy, social solidarity, human dependency, and interdependency in many ways serve as the bridge between empirical research, social theory, ethics, and politics. Like the topic of structure and agency, the complex relationship between autonomy, dependency, and interdependency is a key problematic of social philosophy and sociology. The long tradition of Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber were all concerned with unpacking this problematic, often without shying away from addressing its moral, ethical, and political implications. Our modern understanding of autonomy is animated by this intellectual history and the many antimonies this tradition has generated.

How might critical realism help us to address or contribute to this contested history? The answer is not clear. In this webinar Gorski and Rutzou will discuss the manner in which critical realism might be able to help us navigate this problematic by providing an ontologically stratified view of self and society, and a complex account of causation. Does the ontology advocated by critical realism necessarily entail certain ethical and political positions? Do certain positions become incoherent when one adopts a critical realist ontology? Or is critical realism morally, ethically, and politically promiscuous? The webinar will explore these issues. Watch.

Kevin Schilbrack: Critical Realism and the Academic Study of Religion

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. Watch.

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

Andrew Sayer: Flourishing: A Necessary Concept for Social Science

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. Watch.

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.

Claire Decoteau: Realist Ethnography

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. Watch.

Larissa Buchholz: From National to Global Fields? Transnational Theorizing and Critical Realism

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. Watch.

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.

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

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. Watch.

Laura R. Ford: The Intellectual Property of Nations: An In-Progress Book Project

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. Watch.

Tim Rutzou: What is Critical Realism?

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?”. Watch.

Frederic Vandenberghe: Critical Realism and the Generative Structuralism of Pierre Bourdieu

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. Watch.

Ruth Groff: A Philosophical Vocabulary for Critical Realism

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. Watch.

Recommended Reading- A Philosophical Vocabulary – Ruth Groff

Daniel Little: Critical Realism, Heterogeneity, and Assemblages

Abstract: In this podcast, 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. Listen.

Suggested readings from Dan Little’s Blog – Understanding Society

Understanding Society – Assemblage Theory

Understanding Society – Assemblage Theory as a Heuristic

Margarita Mooney: Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods

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. Watch.

Suggested ReadingsComplex Causality and Mental Health – [under review]

Stephen Mumford: Emergence and Demergence

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. Watch.

Alexander Wendt: Beyond the Mechanistic Paradigm: Towards a Quantum Social Science

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. Watch.

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.

Webb Keane: The Emergence of Ethical Concepts in Social History

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. Watch.

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

George Steinmetz: Critical Realism, Sociology, and History

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. Watch.

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.

Doug Porpora: Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach

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? Watch.

Phil Gorski: Using Emergence as a Sociological Concept

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. Watch.

  • 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?