Basic Critical Realism, ‘Interdisciplinarity’ and Health

By | November 19, 2012

I recently convened an afternoon workshop on ‘interdisciplinarity and health’ as part of UCL’s Behaviour Change Month. I spoke briefly about philosophy, Henry Potts about methods and Caroline Selai about applications. The ensuing discussion was lively and there will I am sure be follow-up gatherings. In this blog, the first of two, I summarize what Roy Bhaskar, its founder, calls ‘basic critical realism’, and go on to suggest that his approach offers a helpful way of thinking about and ‘framing’ attempts to do genuinely interdisciplinary research. In the second blog I will seek to apply it to a particular research topic: the varied mechanisms that shape ‘epilepsy-related quality of life’.

Bhaskar’s distinctive philosophical approach can be interpreted as emerging out of a critique of Humean empiricism in general and the regularity theory of causation in particular. Bhaskar deploys a Kantian transcendental argument to insist that, given the developments in human knowledge that have in fact occurred, there must exist real – that is, mind-independent – ‘objects’ of that knowledge, possessed of certain properties and emergent powers. This argument leads to a postulate of ontological stratification. Bhaskar contends that if, as Humean empiricism would have it,    human knowledge were restricted to atomistic events given in experience, then something akin to the regularity theory of causation would obtain. However, the world is, and must be, stratified: it is not comprised merely of events (the actual) and experience (the empirical), but also of underlying mechanisms (the real). These mechanisms can be ‘retroduced’ (that is, their existence inferred) from the experiential study of events. Mechanisms are ‘intransitive’ (that is, they exist whether or not they are detected); ‘transfactual’ (that is, they are enduring not transitory); and they govern events. This is as true for knowledge of the social as it is for knowledge of the natural world. The true objects of social and natural scientific enquiry alike are ‘real mechanisms’.

In the social world most obviously, but by no means exclusively, patterns of events tend to be ‘unsynchronized’ with the mechanisms that govern them. As Lawson puts it, this is because they are conjointly determined by various, perhaps countervailing, influences so that the governing causes, though ‘necessarily’ appearing through, or in, events, can rarely be read straight off. The governing causes, or generative mechanisms, can rarely be ‘read straight off’ because they only manifest themselves in open systems (that is, in circumstances where numerous mechanisms are simultaneously active and there is therefore limited potential for experimental closures).

Sociology differs from biology, however, in that the objects of its enquiries not only cannot be identified independently of their effects, but they do not exist independently of their effects. Furthermore, sociology must accept an absence of spontaneously occurring, and the impossibility of creating – for example, through laboratory experiments – closures. This denies sociologists, ‘in principle’, decisive test situations for their theories. Since the criterion for the rational confirmation of theories in sociology cannot – after the positivist injunction – be ‘predictive’, it must be ‘exclusively explanatory’. Thus explanation displaces prediction; and to explain a phenomenon is to provide an account of its causal history

Bhaskar’s ‘transformational model of social action’ holds that agents do not create or produce structures ab initio, but rather recreate, reproduce and/or transform a set of pre-existing structures. The total ensemble of structures is society. Thus:

People do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which invidividuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so. Society does not exist independently of human activity (the error of reification). But it is not the product of it (the error of voluntarism)’ (from Bhaskar’s The Possibility of Naturalism).

Following Margaret Archer, Sean Creaven maintains that a ‘strong account of human nature’ and of the ‘non-social subject’ is indispensable for a credible theory of social structure and human agency. He contends, again deploying a transcendental argument, that human nature and the non-social subject denote ‘an ensemble of species powers, capacities, dispositions and psycho-organic needs and interests’ that logically must exist if we are to account for the existence of human society:

At the same time as humanity’s species-being and attendant powers and capacities are transmitted ‘upstream’ into social interaction and socio-cultural relations (supplying the power which energizes the social system, constraining and enabling socio-cultural production and reproduction, and providing a certain impetus towards the universal articulation of particular kinds of cultural norms or principles), structural-cultural and agential conditioning are transmitted ‘downstream’ to human persons (investing in them specific social interests and capacities, shaping unconsciously much of their psychological and spiritual makeup, and furnishing them with the cultural resources to construct personal and social identities for themselves)’ (from Creaven’s Marxism and Realism).

So far I have noted the argument for ontological stratification and focused on sociology’s explanatory potential. It is important also to record that according to basic critical realism events are governed by mechanisms at different levels. These levels include the physical, chemical, biological and so on … to the social. Bhaskar uses the concept of emergence here. He maintains (a) that higher-order levels are irreducible to lower-order levels (e.g. we do not try and explain the power of people to think by reference to the cells that constitute them, as if cells too possessed this power); and (b) that the emergence of a higher-order level involves a specific combination of generative mechanisms at the level immediately ‘basic’ to is (e.g. biological reality is ’emergent’ from a specific interaction of causal powers internal to the chemical level).

In the second, follow-up blog I will attempt to illustrate the value of basic critical realism via an analysis of the impact of epilepsy on quality of life. I will simplify things by writing only of biological, psychological and social levels. I will go on to suggest that the impact of epilepsy on quality of life constitutes: (a) a mix of the biological, psychological and social (causality travelling both upstream and downstream); (b) the interaction of biological, psychological and social mechanisms; (c) variously and variably the ‘primary’ power of biological or psychological or social mechanisms; and (d) an outcome more accessible to a critical realist, interdisciplinary analysis oriented to open systems than to a discipline-specific positivistic variable analysis presuming the possibility of experimental closure.

I am aware both that non-philosophers may find this first part of the blog too technical and that philosophers may find it too terse. The content of the second part of the blog will be the test.

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