Social Theory as Optometry

The notion of philosophical under-labouring has been integral to the development of critical realism. It is, as Roy Bhaskar puts it, what critical realist philosophy most characteristically does. The metaphor comes from John Locke but it is deployed in a way that criticises Locke’s philosophical legacy, reframing it in terms of a much more substantive understanding of what under labouring entails as an activity. This concerns the relationship between theory and practice, something which philosophy has tended to violently misconstrue. Instead critical realist philosophy seeks to provide us with a deeper understanding of practices that are adequate and to contribute towards the transformation of practices which are inadequate. Doing this involves the development of a philosophical ontology but it is one which, at least in principle, should be orientated towards the practical activity of scientific investigation, with the caveat that being useful in this way necessitates a degree of congruence with the nature of things that means that truth cannot be collapsed into utility.

Given that ontological claims are continually secreted by statements about the social world, it seems obvious to me that there’s a value to be found in philosophical ontology. At the very least, this is a matter of rejecting quietism with regards to ontological matters – only by opening up the space of ontological questions can we serve to identify our assumptions and locate them within the range of logical possibilities in a way that facilitates critical distance. The problem is that ontological reasoning, with its complex relation to practice and reality, can sometimes spiral in a way that can ultimately lead to a scholastic abstraction that can prove deeply off putting to those with a less theoretical inclination. I think Jamie Morgan gives a really useful account of some of the dynamics that can take hold here:

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)

Morgan, J. (2014). What is Progress in Realism? An Issue Illustrated Using Norm Circles. journal of critical realism13(2), 115-138.

It occurs to me that part of the problem may be with the metaphor itself. Perhaps rather than under labouring we should think of optometry. This is how Wikipedia describes optometry:

Optometry is a healthcare profession concerned with the eyes and related structures, as well as visionvisual systems, and vision information processingin humans. Optometrists[1] (also known as ophthalmic opticians[2] outside the United States and Canada or optometric physicians in some states [3][4][5][6][7]) are trained to prescribe and fit lenses to improve vision, and in some countries are trained to diagnose and treat various eye diseases.

The term “optometry” comes from the Greek words ὄψις (opsis; “view”) andμέτρον (metron; “something used to measure”, “measure”, “rule”). The root word opto is a shortened form derived from the Greek word ophthalmosmeaning, “eye.” Like most healthcare professions, the education and certification of optometrists is regulated in most countries. Optometrists and optometry-related organizations interact with governmental agencies, other healthcare professionals, and the community to deliver eye- and vision-care.

The history of optometry can be traced back to the early studies on optics and image formation by the eye. The origins of optometric science (optics, as taught in a basic physics class) date back a few thousand years BC as evidence of the existence of lenses for decoration has been found. It is unknown when the firstspectacles were made. The British scientist and historian Sir Joseph Needhamstated in his “Science and Civilization in China” vol 4.1, that although it sometimes has been claimed that spectacles were invented in China, that believe may have been based on uses of a source that had addition to them from the Ming dynasty (14th – 17th century) and that the original document had no references to eye glasses, and that the references that were there stated the eyeglasses were imported.

The optometrist assesses a person’s needs, drawing on elaborated diagnostic techniques to prescribe lenses which enhance vision. What counts as an enhancement is relative to a particular kind of need (e.g. close reading) and the success of the enhancement is dependent upon finding the right apparatus for that person, given the present state of their vision and the character of the aforementioned need. Needs are dynamic and the interventions facilitated by optometry need to be similarly dynamic if they are going to help rather than hinder the person in question. After all the intervention is intended to enhance or ameliorate, as opposed to creating a capacity where there was not one previously.

I’m being slightly factitious in suggesting that we see social theory as optometry. Though I do think there’s a usefully epistemological aspect to it (measuring perception) as well as an ontological one (an understanding of the nature of the perceptual system, the world being perceived and the process of perception). But I like the idea as a way of drawing out a few beliefs which I hold strongly.

  1. Social research is not dependent upon social theory and can proceed without it.
  2. Social research can be enhanced by social theory because at least tacit theoretical assumptions are unavoidable in the practice of social research.
  3. Social research often isn’t enhanced by social theory because the practical relationship between the two is generally quite poorly attended to.
  4. Social research could be enhanced by social theory if more attention were paid to the specific ways in which different aspects of social theory play a practical role in the practice of social research.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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5 replies »

  1. Bhaskar and his followers missed the point of Locke’s original appeal to ‘underlabouring’, at least as far as critical realism’s own demonstrated practice is concerned. Locke was actually declaring to be an underlabourer for Newton’s world-view. A less polite way of putting it: ‘ideological mouthpiece’. In more polite terms: Locke’s philosophy should be seen as providing the philosophical implications of Newtonian mechanics. The point is that you underlabour for particular substantive theories. Underlabouring doesn’t make sense as a second-order activity, which is pretty much where critical realism exists. This is not to say that critical realists haven’t done empirical work, but usually that ends up challenging the established paradigms. (Although merely the godfather of critical realism, Rom Harre is probably truest exemplar of this approach.) Whatever else this might be, it is not ‘underlabouring’ in Locke’s sense. This misunderstanding of the term may go some way to explaining why many see critical realism as toadying to the natural sciences, when of course in fact it’s not.

    • Well that’s an argument I wasn’t expecting and you’ve made me realise that my sense of what Locke said amounts to little more than regurgitating Bhaskar and some vaguely remembered undergraduate philosophy lectures. However going off quotes selected from the former, I don’t see how what you’re saying holds but I recognise my flimsy textual basis for this – the difference between “providing the philosophical implications of X” and “being the ideological mouthpiece for X’ is massive IF you’re operating under the assumption that there’s more to advocacy of X than a power-relationship.

      I think critical realists do far too little empirical work but I can’t think of instances of these ‘challenging the established paradigms’. I think the problem is that the established paradigms are over-elaborated, kind of scholastic in a way that irritates me and dominated by philosophers – the under-labouring should stop somewhere and there’s little conversation about where and how that point should be reached.

      I mean at the end of day in practice under-labouring amounts to developing philosophical ontologies and domain specific ontologies. I can see why this could be seen as of limited or zero use but I’m puzzled by the idea that it doesn’t make sense. perhaps I’ve misread what you mean by ‘second-order activity’ though.

  2. I don’t know the critical realism lit, but I like the optometry metaphor. Few years back I participated on an ESRC sponsored panel at their “methods fair” on “methodological innovation in the social sciences,” argued that innovation in soc sci wasn’t method so much as conceptual, a different way to “see” the world, used Zadeh, Goffman, Bartlett, and Glaser/Strauss as examples. A German colleague said it was “objective hermeneutics” of Oevremann, that most people didn’t understand that he meant “objective” as in lens, like this third definition in my computer dictionary, ” (also objective lens)the lens in a telescope or microscope nearest to the object observed.” I never followed up on that. The article is displayed on a page I never heard of, If anyone wants a copy glad to send the PDF of the published version. Probably all came out of independent work for the last couple of decades–people in orbs contact me because I “see” things differently.

  3. That last line should be people in “orgs” as in “organization.” I didn’t catch the automatic correction. None of my work has been interplanetary.

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