What is progress in social theory?

At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.

On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.

This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:

This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)


This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research. 

So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas? 

*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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