Critical Realism, History, and Philosophy in the Social Sciences: Volume 34

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(8 chapters)


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The article argues for the necessity of theory within sociology, in general, and metatheory, in particular. It explores how theoretical, metatheoretical, and philosophical background conditions affect sociological research. It makes the case for why attending to background conditions is important for both the sociologist as an individual and also sociology as a collective and a discipline. In this context, it makes the case for critical realism as a useful program of metatheoretical reflexivity that focuses upon the more philosophical dimensions of sociology including the place of ontology and even how theory itself should be understood.


Since its resurrection during the 1980s, comparative-historical sociology has been repeatedly critiqued on two fronts. Quantitative methodologists have argued that its “causal inferences” are unreliable due to its “small n.” And methodological individualists have argued its explanatory accounts are unacceptable because they do not specify “microfoundations.” But these critiques are built on faulty foundations, namely, a regularity theory of causation and a reductionist social ontology. In this article, I propose an alternative foundation derived from Critical Realism: a production theory of causation and an emergentist account of social structure.


The underdetermination argument establishes that scientists may use political values to guide inquiry, without providing criteria for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate guidance. This chapter supplies such criteria. Analysis of the confused arguments against value-laden science reveals the fundamental criterion of illegitimate guidance: when value judgments operate to drive inquiry to a predetermined conclusion. A case study of feminist research on divorce reveals numerous legitimate ways that values can guide science without violating this standard.


Once again, we are going through “dark times.” The current juncture is critical. For those who associate themselves with critical social theory, broadly understood, there are two options: hypercritique or reconstruction. Either one darkens the picture, uses all possible theories at hand (Adorno, Bourdieu, Foucault, Luhmann) to sketch out a general theory of domination and “closes the system.” Or, alternatively, with the hope of the desperate, one looks for a way out and aligns various theories that propose an alternative vision of the world. This is the task of reconstruction. Drawing on critical realism (Bhaskar), critical theory (Habermas), and antiutilitarian social theory (Caillé), this chapter outlines some principles of reconstructive social theory. Following the distinction between metatheory, social theory, and sociological theory, it explores the epistemological, normative, and existential foundations of reconstructive theory; proposes an articulation between culture and agency as an alternative to the agency-structure debate; and indicates some promising signs that configure a future ontology of the present.


This chapter suggests that moving beyond positivism entails a recognition that the social world is made up of complex phenomena that are heterogeneous, and events are caused by contingent conjunctures of causal mechanisms. To theorize the social world as heterogeneous is to recognize that social causes, categories, and groups combine different kinds of phenomena and processes at various levels and scales across time. To speak of conjunctural causation implies not only that events are caused by concatenations of multiple, intersecting forces but also that these combinations are historically unique and nonrepeatable. Both the historical materialist conception of the “conjuncture” and the poststructuralist theory of “assemblages” take heterogeneity and multicausality seriously. I compare and contrast these formulations across three dimensions: the structure of the apparatus, causation, and temporality. I argue that these theories offer useful tools to social scientists seeking to engage in complex, multicausal explanations. I end the article with an example of how to use these concepts in analyzing a complex historical case.


The relationship between ontology, realism, and normativity is complex and contentious. While naturalist and realist stances have tended to ground questions of normativity in ontology and accounts of human nature, critical theories have been critical of the relationship between ontological and normative projects. Queer theory in particular has been critical of ontological endeavors. Exploring the problem of normativity and ontology, this paper will make the case that the critical realist ontology of open systems and complex, contingent, conjunctural causation deeply resonates with queer theory, generating a queer ontology that both allows for and undermines ontological and normative projects.


Pages 159-162
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Cover of Critical Realism, History, and Philosophy in the Social Sciences
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Political Power and Social Theory
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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