Bend it like Bhaskar

Bhaskar, R. & Danermark, B. (2006). Metatheory, interdisciplinarity and disability research – A critical realist perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8, 278-297.

zenoIn this paper, Bhaskar and Danermark argue that historically dominant models of disability are reductionist. Reductionism has been tutted at in the other Critical Realist readings – Sayer and Pring – as well as being the topic of one of the early chapters of my current ‘light’ bedtime reading, Zeno and the Tortoise (a dummies’ guide to philosophy). In all these publications, critical realists are seen to embrace complexity and optimism, and argue against overly simplistic (reductionist) or fatalistic (postmodernist) world views.

The specific model proposed in this paper is that of a ‘laminated’ system; where all the possible perspectives are available to draw upon in order to enable and enhance understanding. It’s – somewhat appropriately – very inclusive 😉

The authors gave a nod to Gustavsson’s earlier attempt to develop a suitably complex model for understanding disability. I think they probably liked the complexity of it… maybe they found it too prescriptive? Gustavsson proposed two ‘non-theoretical perspectives’ – seemingly capturing different objectives relating to disability (reform and affirmation?) – and four ‘theoretical perspectives’, two of which rely on essentialism (the notion that things and phenomena have specific attributes); Individual essentialist (corresponding to the medical model), contextual essentialist (corresponding to the social model), social constructionist (the socially constructed reality of disability, e.g. cultural discourse around it), and relative interactionist (a comparative view; eg. disability versus ability/normality).


Three of these seem to fit quite neatly on a matrix of individual/social against idealist/materialist (as per my scrappy little diagram). The top-left quadrant – according to Bhaskar & Danermark – is where phenomenology comes into the frame, perhaps – it seems to me – revealing one of Gustavsson’s non-theoretical perspectives… or something else.

Bhaskar and Danermark argue that models like these need to be incorporated into a many-layered system, and that this is particularly important with disability because it is so very contingent on perspective. They explain that each model accentuates just one of many mechanisms involved in the formation and reproduction of disabilities; therefore such models are not mutually exclusive. Interestingly, they suggest that social models may actually be less valid than others because some types of disability may have social causes – a point that I didn’t understand at first but was then illustrated well in the specific example of dysphagia given in the second half of the paper.

The authors contrast critical realism with naive realist approaches; those which aim to explain ‘what happens on the ground’ through theories that describe only certain aspects of phenomena. A critical realist approach views such theories merely as co-determiners. Another contrast of note is that of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ constructionism; the former viewing phenomena as purely socially constructed, and the latter appreciating the existence of an interpreted element in the construction of any theoretical understanding. Not that any of this is specific to understanding disability… but it’s relevant. And interesting… kind of.

catClearly critical realists believe in ‘weak’ rather than ‘strong’ or ‘radical’ constructionism. They believe that there is a mind-independent object (a ‘referent’) of ‘disability’, and that when we talk about it – as when we talk about anything – we are making ‘signifiers’ for the ideas and concepts that exist in our minds. This triad of signifier/signified/referent is illustrated in another one of my scribbles on the left using my favourite concept (‘cat’).  The authors claim that if we argue that signifiers are a social construction then we lose the real world object (the ‘referent’). I think they are just warning against getting caught up in interpretation and further away from truth.

Towards the end of the paper there is a little diversion into Marxism and Neo-Kantianism. I’m a long way off feeling comfortable with what’s going down here, particularly regarding the latter, although it seems to promote a focus on the actual and observable as a rational response to our subjectivity (e.g. ‘a non-disabled person cannot know the experience of a disabled person’).

However, the worked example of a patient with dysphagia was an excellent illustration of how the layered system might work in practice, and it is not too much of a conceptual leap to see how one could take another disability and make similar assessments across different strata with different conclusions. I am enjoying the term ‘integrated pluralism’ – the notion that a number of models can exist not merely simultaneously in a mutually inclusive way. It was really useful to see Critical Realism explained and rationalised in the context of a specific case study in a particular area of research.

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