Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciencesby Berth Danermark; Mats Ekström; Liselotte Jakobsen; Jan Ch. Karlsson

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  • Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences by Berth Danermark; Mats Ekstrm;Liselotte Jakobsen; Jan Ch. KarlssonReview by: Freddy Winston CastroActa Sociologica, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2002), pp. 246-250Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4194941 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 15:21

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    Berth Danermark, Mats Ekstrdm, Liselotte Jakobsen and Jan Ch. Karlsson:

    Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences.

    London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    T he revised English edition of this book - the original Swedish edition, without the sub-

    title, is from 1997 - should be considered as an important contribution to sociology and social science in general to the extent that it is a clear and well-structured introduction to critical realism, one of the most recent and vigorous theoretical streams in the field of the social sciences, if we take into consideration the influential work of Margaret Archer (1995: Realist Social Thaeory: The Morphogenetic Approach), Tony Lawson (1997: Econonmics and Reality), Andrew Sayer (1992: Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach), Andrew Collier (1994: Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bh2askar's Philosophy) and William Outhwaite (1987: New Philosophies of the Social Sciences: Realism, Hermneneutic and Critical Theory), among others.

    In the cautious terms of its authors, the main concern of the book is to discuss some methodological inmplications of a critical realist approac!i to social science (p. 1). However, at the end of day, the reader will discover that these 'implications' have grown to encompass a good number of relevant and complex ontological, epistemological, strictly methodological and analytical issues, something that by no way simplifies the work of the reviewer.

    The material is organized following the tripartite regulatory relationship that, in the authors' opinion (p. 4), should prevail in social science; namely, 1. Ontology - 2. Methodology - 3. Social theories and practical research. Accord- ingly, Part I 'Introduction to critical realism', Chapters 2 and 3, is concerned with general philosophy, while Part II, 'Methodological impli- cations', Chapters 4-8, is concerned with the issues of generalization and scientific inference, theory and methodology and the role of social science in society. The relevance of the first part of the book for the comprehension of the second requires particular attention and some expanded space.

    Chapter 2, opening Part I, 'Introduction to critical realism', spins around the strategic concept of practice, which constitutes the critical realist key answer to the problem of the

    relationship between science and reality. The concept is addressed at three different levels:

    First, all human practice, including the practice of social research, needs a conceptual- ization of the nature of the objects it intends to manipulate or investigate (ontology) and of how one gains knowledge about them (epistemol- ogy). Therefore it is decisive for social research to go beyond the false gap between philosophy of science and social science practice in order to hold a necessary discussion about the relation between the objects of knowledge and sheer human knowledge.

    From the perspective of the book, this issue implies, first, an understanding of the reality of the objects of knowledge as independent of our consciousness and, second, an understanding of our knowledge of these objects as socially and conceptually mediated. This is framed in the critical realist distinction between the intransi- tive respectively transitive dimensions of reality, warning against the commission of the epistemic fallacy, i.e. the reduction of 'being' (ontology) to our 'knowledge about being' (epistemology), typical of empiricism.

    The transitive, socio-historical character of all knowledge is made explicit in the critical realist statement that facts are theory-laden but not theory-determined, the latter formulation having the significant role of keeping all idealistic, jtudgmental relativism of Rortyan type, alleging the human 'impossibility'to evaluate and compare knowledge, at arm's length. Thus, critical realism assumes the socio-historical, hermeneutical and fallible character of all knowledge, without asserting for that matter that all knowledge is equally fallible. The purpose of science is and can only be to bring the (intransitive) objects of study under closer, better, truth-like (transitive) descriptions. There- fore, judgmental relativism is utterly rejected as the ultimate 'inward collapse' of radical relati- vism, which thus deprives itself of the possibility of driving a scientific argument. If no general knowledge or truth is possible, as radical relativists argue, then they are totally prevented from making an exception of the truth claim that 'all knowledge is relative', at least if they cherish the ambition of being logically consis- tent.

    Secondly, it is in real practical research work and not in abstracted scientific knowledge (the result of the former) that the relation between science and reality must be addressed. The pregnant question here is Roy Bhaskar's onto- logical one: What must reality be like to make the

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  • Book Reviews 247

    existence of science possible? (p. 18). In order to answer the same we are recommended to pay attention to what researchers do, for example, in the framework of scientific experimental practice, and then to try theoretically to reconstruct the conditions that are necessary for this practice and its results to take place.

    Otto Loewi's famous experiment that led to the discovery of the chemical substances that mediate nervous electric impulses and muscle activity provides a good illustration of the point. Loewi's experiment is primarily interpreted as practical evidence of the fact that (i) there is a reality independent of human consciousness and human knowledge (for example, the chemical transmitters discovered by the experi- ment), (ii) that an experiment presupposes human intervention in reality, forcing nature to reveal its hidden causal powers, something that unmasks the mythical character of the Humean and positivist idea of the passive observer of conjectures of events, and (iii) that reality is not transparent and flat but structured, elusive and deeply stratified, containing causal powers or mechanisms not accessible for immediate obser- vation, which ultimately justifies the role of scientific theory and scientific research as a whole.

    It is by analysing this kind of experimental practice that Roy Bhaskar, in A Realist Theory of Science (19 75), originally developed his 'onto- logical map', where three different domains of reality are distinguished: the empirical, the actual and the real. The empirical domain consists of everything we experience. The actual domain, encompassing the first one, consists of events that we might or might not experience. Finally, the domain of the real, encompassing the other two, includes the causal or generative mechan- isms which produce events in the world, i.e. what we can experience, or not, at the level of the actual and the empirical domains.

    Thirdly, the practical relevance of knowledge is taken to be one important indicator of the connection between human knowledge and the real world. The plausibility of this assumption builds mainly upon the fact that it is usually when we fail, that is, when a constraining outside world makes our expectations come to nought (for example, when we cannot walk on water) that we understand that more knowl- edge about the real structure of the world is needed. Furthermore, it is in these situations that we realize that knowledge is an instrument to help us deal with reality, whether building flying machines or more just societies, and that

    reality makes it clear for us that its structural properties cannot be ignored with impunity.

    Chapter 3 discusses some implications of the fact that all knowledge is conceptually conveyed, particularly the importance that we not merely think with the concepts, but also think about them (41ff.). This presupposes, at least for critical realists, the centrality of abstraction in scientific work; i.e. abstraction aims at identifying and isolating in thought the substantial, structural properties of the concrete object of study (for example, the substantial relation between landlord and tenant), since it is these properties that ultimately determine the object's causal powers, i.e. what actions or effects the object can produce in the world; and these, as distinct fr