Sayer 2000 (Chapter 1): New meanings for old words…

Critical Realism! I loved this idea of different levels of existence; the ’empirical’ (what we observe), the ‘actual’ (what exists and/or happens in practice, which is not necessarily what we observe),  and the ‘real’ ; the potential or capacity of phenomena (that may be unexercised). It seems to be a refreshingly divergent philosophy; a suitable antidote to the fatalism we encounter (and – I admit it – promote) on a daily basis. Calling the final category ‘real’ – rather than ‘potential’, for example, which would fit more easily with general discourse – is perhaps a deliberate attempt to privilege this level of existence over the others.

Considering critical realism has really helped my understanding of the other concepts we’ve looked at – for example, up until now I hadn’t really grasped the meaning of ’empirical’. Back when I drew my initial research methods map, it looked like ’empirical’ truth was the closest thing to truth that anyone was bothering to contemplate. Adding the two further levels of the ‘actual’ and the ‘real’ has helped me to put observation in context.

Schrodinger sucks

Reading this, I also noted that Schrödinger (him of the cat in the box) was definitely not a realist. He was possibly a pure idealist. I never understood Schrödinger’s perspective; it seemed exceptionally self-centered (human-centric?), probably because I love cats.

I also wondered for a minute whether, given the very specific use here of the word ‘real’, whether a critical realist would ever tell someone to “get real”. Would they say “get actual” instead? On reflection that’s probably the last thing a critical realist would say. They’d be more likely to say think outside the laserdome… or something.

Realists claim to hold a distinctive view of causation. At first I questioned whether the ‘conventional impulse’ really is to look for regularities and repeated occurrences; isn’t that just for your Daily Mail readers (bacon causes cancer, breast milk makes you cleverer etc etc)? But this is often as far as the scientific method gets. Isn’t it the case that we don’t as yet know the mechanism for how drugs like paracetomol or LSD work, for example; we just know that they do…? Also, a common question I’m asked when introducing action research methodology is ‘how do I know if it works unless I have a control group?’. It’s clear many of my students equate causation to a numerical correlation, rather than a mechanism to be identified. Deconstructing the school science dogma of the ‘fair test’ can be difficult.

It’s also difficult to identify causal responsibility in social science where there is so much interaction between different structures and mechanisms. The structures we examine in social science can be quite emotive and political, and links may be made between mechanisms and effects that seem to have face validity but may not be real. I got myself into a heated argument once with someone who claimed that the suppression of women was the reason why 70% of the education literature on her bookshelf was authored by men. I asked her what exactly she meant by the suppression of women, and if she could elaborate on the mechanism which caused this effect. I assured her I was genuinely interested (which I was), as I wasn’t personally aware of being suppressed and had no idea how this would manifest itself. She got quite upset with me, which was frustrating.

In summary, I’m still not convinced that the realist model of causation is something ‘special’… but this may be because I’ve found the Sayer chapter less readable than others. Maybe the distinction will seem clearer on reading the other introduction to Critical Realism we’ve been given (Pring 2000).

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3 Responses to Sayer 2000 (Chapter 1): New meanings for old words…

  1. Dave Aldridge says:

    “I also wondered for a minute whether, given the very specific use here of the word ‘real’, whether a critical realist would ever tell someone to “get real”. Would they say “get actual” instead?”

    You would perhaps be interested in Bhaskar’s later work in the philosophy of metareality (although it is not hugely accessible). As I see it, Bhaskar’s whole later turn to metareality is a critical realist’s attempt to grapple with *exactly* that question: issues of authenticity, reclaiming our ‘ground state’ etc.

    “I got myself into a heated argument once with someone who claimed that the suppression of women was the reason why 70% of the education literature on her bookshelf was authored by men. I asked her what exactly she meant by the suppression of women, and if she could elaborate on the mechanism which caused this effect. I assured her I was genuinely interested (which I was), as I wasn’t personally aware of being suppressed and had no idea how this would manifest itself. She got quite upset with me, which was frustrating.”

    This is great. I *really* wish I had read this before the session.

  2. …that was the same woman who called me ‘wilfully ignorant’ 😀

    Right, okay, it might take me a while to recover from Pring enough to tackle Bhaskar but I’ll bear it in mind 😉

  3. Pingback: By jove, I think she’s got it | Doctored

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