of 6 /6
Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences by Berth Danermark; Mats Ekström; Liselotte Jakobsen; Jan Ch. Karlsson Review by: Freddy Winston Castro Acta Sociologica, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2002), pp. 246-250 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4194941 . Accessed: 12/06/2014 15:21 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] . Sage Publications, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Acta Sociologica. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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

Embed Size (px)

Text of Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciencesby Berth Danermark; Mats Ekström;...

  • 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

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]


    Sage Publications, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to ActaSociologica.


    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



    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

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • 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 from its formal properties (for example, the ages of the landlord and the tenant). The key question in this work is: What cannot be removed without making the object cease to exist in its present form?

    On the other hand, the chapter addresses the nature of the critical realist causality concept as radically different from the empiricist one, as well as its theoretical consequences for social research. Causal analysis, as the authors put it (pp. 52ff.), deals with explaining 'why what happens actually does happen', therefore is the concept so central to science's explanatory aims. Against empiricism and positivism, which sustain that causality has to do with observable conjectures of events or empirical regularities (the 'if A, then B' scheme), critical realism sustains that (a) the object's causal powers or generative mechanisms are located in their inner, mostly unobservable, structure, (b) the relation between the object's generative mechanisms and their actual effects is not determined but external and contingent: the mechanisms must be externally triggered and some appropriate external conditions must exist if they are to be able to operate, (c) as a consequence of this, causality must be under- stood in terms of tendencies characterizing objects because of their structure. These ten- dencies - and this is an important point - do not need to be realized as empirical events (as empiricism and positivism would expect it) in order to be real (for example, gunpowder has, because of its chemical structure, the real tendency to cause an explosion (possibly, an observable event), but this tendency will not be realized as such if some external factor does not first trigger its generative mechanisms (some- one lights the fuse) and some external condi- tions do not exist (the humidity degree has to be

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



    low). In the same fashion, it is the causal powers located in social structures (landlord-tenant, capital-wage labour relations) which allow/ constrain the human occupants of those posi- tions to act in certain ways. But actions will, or will not, take place dependent on the presence of human occupants who are both intentionally motivated and physically capable to act, draw- ing upon the structural powers at their disposal.

    This introduces us to the theme of closed and open systems. A closed system exists when the generative mechanisms can act in isolation from other mechanisms. For example, an experiment like that of Loewi, mentioned above, presupposes the creation of a 'closed system' where the researcher can isolate the generative mechanisms whose behaviour he/ she wants to study keeping the others under control. Social reality, on the contrary, consti- tutes an 'open system' characterized by the coexistence and interplay of a range of gen- erative mechanisms (social, cultural, human, and so on) which can operate independently of each other, reinforcing or counteracting each other's causal tendencies. Therefore there can be no scientific guarantee for the empiricist- positivist idea of society as a 'closed system' (the only system where constant conjectures of observable events can be possible) and, conse- quently, for the causality concept that was built upon it.

    The image of the world conveyed by the first part of the book is that of a structured, many-layered. stratified one, a world that cannot be reduced to the observable events taking place at the empirical domain and whose description and explanation requires a consis- tent combination of ontological/epistemological theories and theoretically informed methods. It is a world composed of a plurality of internally related objects bearing causal powers and coexisting in different strata (for example, social, psychological, biological). These strata are seen as possessing relatively independent, emergent properties, i.e. even if they are the result of singular combinations of elements at more basic strata, they are nevertheless non-reducible to them and able to have causal effects upon them. In this vain, one could argue, for example, that emergent psychological objects are non-reducible to biological objects by the same reason that the latter are non-reducible to physical ones. Thus, a committed non-reduc- tionism and relationism clearly stands out as a distinctive trait of critical realism. Finally, since these objects and their generative mechanisms

    are usually outside the reach of our observa- tional capacities, mere attempts at empiricism must be deemed as insufficient to provide an acceptable description of their substantial prop- erties. Only a meticulous work of abstraction can help the researcher to isolate these proper- ties in thought when he/she maps and analyses their observable effects at the empirical level. Informed by this theoretical work, new empiri- cal research will then be able to explore its explanatory craft, gaining new knowledge about the nature of the specific object under study.

    Chapter 4, opening Part II, "Methodologi- cal implications", is focused on the social sciences and on three methodological themes in particular: generalization, inference and explanation.

    Against the empiricist concept of general- ization as empirical inductive generalization. pre- supposing an extrapolation from a limited amount of empirical events to a larger popula- tion, critical realism opposes a realist concept of generalization that builds upon the Bhaskarian ontological insight that 'significant generality does not lie on the face of the world, but in the hidden essence (or structure, FWC) of things' (p. 77). While empirical generalization is attained by way of induction as a mode of logical inference, it is through retroduction that we are able to attain a realist one. This presupposes the reconstruction in abstracto of the transfactual, unobservable conditions or mechanisms (for example, class, patriarchal structures) that must exist for the factual, observable phenomena (for example, poverty, gender inequality) to happen and be what they are.

    This takes us directly to the second theme, inference. Few people would contradict the statement that our ability to analyse, interpret and draw conclusions is a precondition of all knowledge. including sociological knowledge. However, books that aim to increase the sociologists' competence in the area of logical inference are extremely rare. Taking this into consideration, I believe that the authors' con- tribution must be welcomed. They distinguish, namely, between four complementary modes of inference: deduction, induction, abduction and retroduction and discuss their particularities. The use of the last two modes of inference, and especially the last one, distinguishes critical realist researchers as they emphasize the difference between observable events and unob- servable structures/generative mechanisms and reject a metatheoretical stance that reduces

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • Book Reviews 249

    knowledge to knowledge about the directly given or observable.

    Finally, there is the concept of explanation. Critical realism asserts that social science aims at explaining social conditions; therefore the question about which the explanatory model will be used to accomplish this is a very crucial one. The authors discuss two essentially differ- ent models: on the one hand, the well-known positivist Popper-Hempel explanatory model and, on the other, the critical realist explanatory model. While the former builds upon an empiricist causality concept related to a world consisting of conjectures of observable events, the latter builds upon a realist causality concept according to which the object's causal powers are located in their inner, and mostly unobser- vable, structure. The model, which the authors consider 'as a guideline and not as a template to be followed to the letter' (p. 109), consist of six stages: (1) description (of the concrete event X under study), (2) analytical resolution (of the various components or aspects of X), (3) abduction/theoretical redescription (the compo- nents and aspects above are redescribed in a new theoretical framework), (4) retroduction (the reseacher makes a theoretical reconstruc- tion of the necessary conditions that must exist for X to be what it is), (5) comparison (the researcher estimates the explanatory power of the theory by way of comparison with the results of other competitive theories), (6) concretization and contextualization (the researcher examines how structures and gen- erative mechanisms manifest themselves and interact in concrete situations).

    Chapter 5 discusses the role of theory in the methodology of the social sciences. Three different views are distinguished. First, is the positivist view, where the role of theory is to explain and predict empirical regularities. Sec- ond, the relativist view, where theories are regarded as mere constructions of imagined factual relations that lack real referents to be tested against. And third, the critical realist view, where the production of theory founded on the analysis of experiences - but not reducible to them - is seen as fundamental in social research, particularly because its objects of study rarely appear to us as given, observable things. Fallible as they are, critical realists reason, theoretical concepts help us to define, distinguish and discern the properties of reality and thus offer a necessary guide to empirical research.

    Furthermore, the authors make the valu-

    able assessment of two major traditions in social research: those that build upon Robert Merton's middle-range theory and those on Glaser's and Strauss's grounded theory. Both their contribu- tions and limitations are analysed.

    Chapter 6 takes up methodological issues and their relations to some of the ontological and epistemological positions mentioned above. Central is the claim that the choice of meth- odological approach is always governed by the theoretically defined nature of the object of study. This means that ontological theory and its epistemological theoretical consequences, whether explicit or implicit, have a central role in scientific research, something that the researcher must be well aware of when it is time to choose a research design. Relying upon this insight, the authors offer a way out of the strong, dichotomized dispute between the respective advocates of quantitative and quali- tative methods in the social sciences and its commonly associated positivist respectively her- meneutic and phenomenological metatheories. Starting from a critical realist metatheory, they authors propose going beyond this limiting dichotomy, distinguishing instead between intensive and extensive design, a dual, but non- dichotomized, concept which allows mutual combinations with special regard to the nature of the study object. By intensive design, they mean the study of 'how a large number of qualities become noticeable in a certain situa- tion' and by extensive design the study 'of a large number of objects, which as a rule only results in obtaining a few qualities' (p. 162). But this is not only an issue of much information about few entities respectively little information about many entities. It also involves, among other things, the question of the type of account produced: descriptive (representative) general- izations respectively causal explanations. How- ever, these two types of account can be fruitfully combined, the authors argue, but only if the empiricist idea that 'experiences' are the pri- mary object of knowledge is abandoned. Not surprisingly, they call this model critical meth- odological pluralism.

    Chapter 7 articulates the preceding discus- sion about the substantial relation between science and practice to the field of social sciences. An important argument here is that the knowledge that social science can provide can be emancipatory, an assumption that critical realists share with Habermas and Marx, among others. Although, this presupposes for its consistency the human possibility of winning

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



    knowledge about the real properties of the social world, not the least those involving the relations between social structure and human agency. This topic has been discussed at length by realist social scientists such as Lawson (1997), Collier (1994) and Archer (1995), whose theoretical work is outlined.

    Particularly significant here, from my point of view, is the work of Margaret Archer (1995), who introduces a time dimension to the analysis in order to focus on the interplay between structure and agency over time (p. 181). Archer calls her procedure, analytical dualism. 'Dualism' refers to the fact that social structure and human agency possess different emergent properties and relatively independent causal powers, constituting different, non-reducible strata in society. On the other hand, 'analytical' emphasizes the fact that structure and agency are dependent on/dynamically related to each other but that scientific analysis is needed in order to detect the phases of their interplay in the heterogeneous flow of social action. Within this non-reductive framework, social structures are interpreted as in time preceding and conditioning human agency, although not deter- mining it, and human agency as capable of reproducing and transforming social structures.

    After addressing the practical relation between social science and social planning, where some of the authors' own research work is used to illustrate the point, the chapter ends with an interesting discussion about the rela- tion between social science and social criticism. The main argument here is that any scientific explanation of the structures producing obser- vable social phenomena (for example, poverty, segregation, oppression) comprises a social criticism of the causes of those phenomena and of the ideologies or false beliefs that help to legitimize and sustain them. Such unmasking, exvplanatory criticisnm is seen as bearing the power to motivate people to engage in social practices that ultimately can lead to the replacement of unwanted and unjust structures by new and emancipating ones.

    Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, recap- itulates the book's central methodological con- cepts and arguments.

    To sum up: Explaining Society constitutes a relevant introduction to the fundamental trains of reasoning within critical realism. Some of these are: (i) that there is a reality independent of human consciousness, which is non-reduci- ble to our knowledge of it, (ii) that social reality is structured and deeply stratified and, there-

    fore, only superficially available through human experience, (iii) that the task of explaining society, i.e. of identifying the causal powers producing observable events is the main task of social research, (iv) that this task cannot be accomplished - if one takes (i) and (ii) into consideration - without the guiding role theory, the skilful use of research methods which are consistent with the theoretically defined nature of the objects of study, and the continuous production of knowledge through the recon- struction in theory of the necessary conditions of existence of the phenomena under study, and (v) that scientific knowledge is an emancipatory and explanatory critic to the extent that it unmasks the real mechanisms generating social phenomena. In short: Explaining Society is a book that reclaims the place of social reality in social research and is a book worth reading.

    Freddy Winston Castro Department of Sociology

    Goteborg University Sweden

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 15:21:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    Article Contentsp. 246p. 247p. 248p. 249p. 250

    Issue Table of ContentsActa Sociologica, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2002), pp. 177-250Front Matter [pp. 177-177]Industrialization and Intergenerational Mobility in Sweden [pp. 179-194]Me -- A Consumer? Consumption, Identities and Lifestyles in Today's Finland [pp. 195-210]CommentsOccupational Sociology, Yes: Class Analysis, No: Comment on Grusky and Weeden's "Research Agenda" [pp. 211-217]A Class Analysis for the Future? Comment on Grusky and Weeden: 'Decomposition without Death: A Research Agenda for a New Class Analysis' [pp. 217-221]Class Perspectives: Shrink or Widen? [pp. 221-225]Deconstruction and Decomposition? A Comment on Grusky and Weeden [pp. 225-227]

    ReplyClass Analysis and the Heavy Weight of Convention [pp. 229-236]

    Book ReviewsReview: untitled [pp. 237-238]Review: untitled [pp. 238-240]Review: untitled [pp. 240-242]Review: untitled [pp. 242-243]Review: untitled [pp. 244-245]Review: untitled [pp. 246-250]

    Back Matter