Being realist about social movements: ontological stratification and emergence

Being realist about social movements means being clear on the theoretical foundations that one uses to examine the social world. This post will expand on two key aspects of realist social theory – ontological stratification and emergence – and argue that, together, these ideas foreground any realist explanation of how social movements form.

In the previous post, I made the point that a realist is someone who believes that the social world has objects that exist and interact independent of our interactions with them. Based on the philosophy of Roy Bhaskar and his arguments in A Realist Theory of Science, this ontological position that has three key premises:

First, reality has a transitive and intransitive dimension. This can be summarised as follows,

‘Science itself, or the scientific results, always consists of a set of theories of this independent [intransitive] reality. These theories – not reality – constitute the ‘raw material’ (Collier, 1994, p.51) that science uses in the practical work, and science continually tries to transform the theories into a deeper knowledge of reality. Theories thus are the transitive objects of science; they constitute the dimension that indirectly connects science with reality’ (Danermark et al., 2002, p.22-23).

All this means is that reality consists of independent and enduring objects, structures and mechanisms (intransitive dimension) as well as human experiences, discourse and theories (transitive dimension). Theories, then, allow the realist movement researcher to better explain those structures of an independent reality, such as, the causal processes behind the formation of social movement activism.

Second, these powers are said to be transfactual, that is, they hold with necessity, operating independently of the theories that we use to probe them. If one believes that there are a set of principles that cause social movements to form, then, these principles are said to be universal. Such causes are always independent of whether we have or, indeed, can, appropriately discern them. Furthermore, such causes cannot be reduced to individual human agents or any particular form of social structure. All this means is that whatever we determine through empirical investigation cannot alone define reality. Thus, the emergence of social movement activism is subject to processes beyond the records of oral histories or the testimony of interviews.

One important implication of contemporary realism is that it explains the limitations of the empiricist trap. This is where sociologists define reality through their empirical research alone. What is also called an epistemic fallacy. The whole point of distinguishing between the transitive and intransitive dimensions of reality is to remind us that sense-experiences alone cannot be used to define what is real. In accepting that there is ontological depth to reality, realists reject any causal explanations that are based simply on patterns of events. Rather, following Bhaskar, realists recognise that social reality is an active and complex system, one which is open to human interference and disruption. This makes it an error to establish universal causal laws based only on tests within artificial environments (laboratory-based experiments that do not reproduce themselves within social life). As such, realists reject empiricism on the understanding that if social science is to be intelligible, then it requires an appreciation of the complexity afforded by open systems. Translated, if one seeks to find the principles of social movement formation, then one must depart with an ontological, rather than experiential, model of reality.

Foregrounding both of these principles is the ontological stratification of reality. In basic terms, stratification refers to the different ‘levels’ of reality within which objects, powers, mechanisms and their empirical effects exist. Realists distinguish the ‘empirical’ reality of social life from the ’real’ objects whose causal powers effect social change through ‘actual’ mechanisms. This stratification is hierarchical and complex and beyond this simple beginning these hierarchical metaphors can be misleading. All three domains are important to social research but, here, it is better to simply suggest that reality is understood as comprising ‘sets of nested structures’ whose effects on actors are ‘a plurality of interpenetrating constraints deriving from many recognisable “levels” looping back and around each other’ (Dyke, 1988 cited in Carter and New, 2004, p.8).

Such stratification is at the forefront of any realist investigation into social movements. To understand the principles of social movement formation requires this ontological depth, as we move beyond the contextual or experiential basis of social movement activism. This does not make human and social experiences epiphenomenal, on the contrary, but it does locate experience at a ‘level’ of reality within which wider (un)observable ‘happenings’ exist. What becomes of experience is recognised within the construction of collectivities based on wider causal processes.

If one seeks to understand what causes the formation of social movements, then one must turn to a model of reality that places its emphasis on the structures for their emergence. Emergence is a central theme for contemporary realists and it is a principle that is defended based on a stratified account of reality. On this reading, realists defend a form of emergentism that can be captured with the maxim: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This refers to the relationship between people (as ‘parts’) and social structures (as ‘whole’) and the interactions between them. The purpose of such theorizing is to allow for an analytical toolset by which we understand the duality of agency and structure. As the argument goes, people interact to create social structures that are then irreducible to the individuals involved, that is, social structures are the emergent products of human interaction.

Such a thesis is paramount to understanding the formation of social movements, where agents interact to create social structures with emergent hegemonic and resistant properties. By this account, human and social experiences are no longer epiphenomenal when individual and collective biographies serve as witness to the creation or reproduction of socio-structural forms of power and resistance. What we have here, then, is an ontology of social groups whose principles begin to account for the emergence of social movements. Mobilisation, in this respect, is mapped onto the fundamental organisation of social groups, but with human and social experiences as the mediating factor between existing social conditions and the social consciousness necessary for change.

What soon becomes of methodological importance are those (‘actual’) mechanisms that mediate such fundamental processes. Being realist about social movements means tracing (‘retroducing’) those mechanisms by which political action is mobilized but, also, by which activists target their efforts for social change.

Empiricism aside, it is important that our transitive theories of social movement formation be empirically grounded, albeit within a fallibilist philosophy. In the next blog post, I hope to further expand on the relevance of historical research for this project. Where the methods of historical sociology serve to trace how social movements emerge but, also, how activists deploy ‘repertoires of action’ (Tilly, 1978) to, arguably, resist the mechanisms by which hegemonic groups are formed.


Carter, B, and New, C. (2004). Making Realism Work: Realist Social Theory and Empirical Research. London: Routledge.

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., Jakobsen, L., and Karlsson, J. C. (2002). Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Tilly, C. (1978). From Mobilization to Revolution. London: Longman Higher Education.

Dr Thomas Brock is a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University. His research interests lie in realist social theory, histories of radical thought and movements of political action.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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