Monday, January 2, 2023

Guest post: Varieties of realism by Jamie Morgan

[Jamie Morgan accepted my invitation to contribute a guest post to Understanding Society on the topic of the varieties of realism in the philosophy of social science. Jamie is Professor of Economic Sociology at Leeds Beckett University. He co-edits the Real-World Economics Review with Edward Fullbrook. He has published widely in the fields of economics, political economy, philosophy, sociology and international politics. Jamie is well positioned to provide this assessment. Thanks, Jamie!]



Scientific realism has many overlapping and parallel forms and one of the more prominent has been critical realism (CR). If we date from the original publication of Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science in 1975, then CR has endured for nearly half a century. Longevity, moreover, invites reflection in order to build institutional memory, and with this in mind the Critical Realist Network is engaged in a project to interview proponents, innovators and fellow travelers (link). Some, such as Tim Rutzou’s interview with Chris Smith, author of What is a Person? are available on YouTube. Others take a more longform ‘life and times’ approach and are published in the Journal of Critical Realism. Dan Little's is the latest in this ongoing process (link).

The interviews are a rich conceptual and bibliographic resource on CR as well as general issues in social theory, philosophy, history, methodology and social science, but in addition to this they serve a number of purposes. For those unfamiliar with CR, it tends to be most closely associated with Bhaskar’s work. However, many others have contributed to CR over the years. For example, in addition to Bhaskar’s transformational model of social activity (TMSA), CR associated thinkers have developed several different theorisations that deal with what is often described as the ‘agent-structure problematic’, but more broadly deal with the dynamics of social constitution. Readers are likely most familiar with the sociologist, Margaret Archer's structure, agency and culture (SAC), and morphostatic/morphogenetic (M/M) approach; but others include the political economist, Bob Jessop's strategic-relational approach (SRA), the economic philosopher, Tony Lawson's social positioning theory and the social theorist, Dave Elder-Vass's norm circles. As Dan notes in his interview, there are numerous points of convergence with his own advocacy of an actor-centred theory.

Dan Little, of course, is not merely a social theorist or philosopher, like many of those interviewed his work spans a variety of fields and numerous interests over the years. As Andrew Sayer, author of numerous influential books, such as Method in Social Science and Why Things Matter to People, notes in his interview, he has not found it necessary to always begin each thing he writes with an exhaustive list of CR concepts. They have often formed the background to how he approaches his work. Others, in contrast, have devoted most of their career to development of fundamental concepts. Since Bhaskar's untimely death, Ruth Groff, for example, has perhaps done more than any other within CR to develop realist conceptualizations of causation.

The interviews, then, establish that CR has a long history, is diverse and continues to develop. That said, most CR associated people subscribe to the triad of ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgmental rationality, as well as use of concepts of depth realism, stratification, emergence, open system cumulative causation and identification of ontic and epistemic fallacies. As the interviews also establish, there is, however, a great deal of debate within CR and continual engagement with interlocutors. Regarding the former (disagreement), there are different takes on various concepts, but also argument focused on different lines of development. Alan Norrie (a leading figure in UK legal studies) and Priscilla Alderson (who has done seminal work on the rights of the child and patient rights in healthcare), for example, are advocates of dialectics, but by no means all CR proponents agree. Regarding the latter (engagement), there are, as the recent special issue of Journal of Critical Realism on pragmatism and a previous interview with Nicholas Rescher illustrate, numerous instances of productive interchange.

Moreover, as readers of this blog are no doubt aware, positions evolve and a great deal of debate has taken place in various threads within Understanding Society, written by Dan and others and taking in reference to and commentary from many of those interviewed and already mentioned, as well as George Steinmetz, Peggy Somers, Guus Duindam, Tuuka Kaidesoja, Justin Cruickshank, Mervyn Hartwig, Phil Gorski and Doug Porpora. Doug Porpora is currently President of the International Association for Critical Realism (IACR) and is another who has been interviewed for the project. Mention of IACR, furthermore, is an important reminder that CR is a growing global community and the interviews conducted so far are no more than a snapshot, able to indicate something of the flavour of CR but not fully convey its organizational form, extent and significance. The Network provides access to various on-line courses and other educational resources, proponents can be found all over the world (from Scandinavia to Asia Pacific), works are available in many languages and the next IACR conference, organized by Johnny Go, is scheduled for August 2023 in Manila, the Philippines.

Finally, as the interviews and also Hubert Buch-Hansen and Peter Nielsen’s recent book Critical Realism makes clear, CR is not, to mix metaphors some ossified dogma, it is a living body of thought. CR at its best is philosophy and social theory to some purpose and advocates work on some of the most pressing issues of our time.


Here is a list of interviews conducted by Jamie Morgan and published in Journal of Critical Realism:

Nicholas Rescher, Jamie Morgan, 2020. Philosophical purpose and purposive philosophy: an interview with Nicholas Rescher, JCR, 19:1,

Margaret S Archer, Jamie Morgan, 2020. Contributions to realist social theory: an interview with Margaret S. Archer, JCR, 19:2,

Douglas V Porpora, Jamie Morgan, 2020. American sociology, realism, structure and truth: an interview with Douglas V. Porpora, JCR, 19:5,

Alan Norrie, Jamie Morgan, 2021. Realism, dialectic, justice and law: an interview with Alan Norrie, JCR, 20:1,

Tony Lawson, Jamie Morgan, 2021. Cambridge social ontology, the philosophical critique of modern economics and social positioning theory: an interview with Tony Lawson, part 1, JCR, 20:1,

Tony Lawson, Jamie Morgan, 2021. Cambridge social ontology, the philosophical critique of modern economics and social positioning theory: an interview with Tony Lawson, part 2, JCR, 20:2,

Dave Elder-Vass, Jamie Morgan, 2022. 'Materially social' critical realism: an interview with Dave Elder-Vass, JCR, 21:2,

Andrew Sayer, Jamie Morgan, 2022. A realist journey through social theory and political economy: an interview with Andrew Sayer, JCR, 21:4,

Bob Jessop, Jamie Morgan, 2022. The strategic-relational approach, realism and the state: from regulation theory to neoliberalism via Marx and Poulantzas, an interview with Bob Jessop, JCR, 21:1,

Daniel Little, Jamie Morgan, 2022. Understanding society: an interview with Daniel Little, JCR, Latest Articles,

Ruth Porter Groff, Jamie Morgan, 2022. Philosophy, metaphilosophy and ideology-critique: an interview with Ruth Porter Groff, JCR, Latest Articles,

Priscilla Alderson, Jamie Morgan, 2022. Realist by inclination, childhood studies, dialectic and bodily concerns: an interview with Priscilla Alderson, JCR, Latest Articles,

Heikki Patomäki & Jamie Morgan, 2023. World politics, critical realism and the future of humanity: an interview with Heikki Patomäki, Part 1, Journal of Critical Realism,

Heikki Patomäki & Jamie Morgan, 2023. World politics, critical realism and the future of humanity: an interview with Heikki Patomäki, Part 2, Journal of Critical Realism,

Berth Danermark & Jamie Morgan, 2023. Applying critical realism in an interdisciplinary context: an interview with Berth Danermark, Journal of Critical Realism,

Caroline New and Jamie Morgan, 2003. Making realism work, from second wave feminism to extinction rebellion: an interview with Caroline New. Journal of Critical Realism,


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Interesting. Way beyond my understanding of " things probably are, not how they might possibly be..." (Nagle). Critical Realism must mean a lot to those who understand it. Critical Thinking means a lot to me in the context of racism/race relations. This piece must be correct, from a historical perspective and from the commitments thinkers on the topic hold. No dispute there. No ossification, either.
Carry on,

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