John Goldthorpe and Critical Realism

I have always been an admirer of the subtle, no-nonsense Weberian sociology of John Goldthorpe. Now he has written a volume on sociology ‘as a population science’ that leads me to reflect on the apparently narrowing gap between his notion of sociology and that promulgated by critical realists like me. He would, I suspect, be horrified.

Happily his thesis can be summarized quite readily, given that he has epitomized it in nine chapter sub-headings. They run as follows:

I: Sociology should be understood as a population science.

II: It should be understood as a population science primarily because of the degree of variability in human social life ‘at the level of sociocultural entities’, but also because of the degree of variability ‘at the individual level’ (thus far inadequately treated by holistic sociologies).

III: Sociology as a population science requires an individualistic rather than a holistic paradigm because of the high degree of variability at the individual level, and because individual action, notwithstanding sociocultural conditioning and constraints, has to be accorded causal primacy in human social life on account of the degree of autonomy it retains.

IV: For sociology qua population science the basic explananda are probabilistic population regularities rather than either singular events or groups of events ‘without any adequate demonstration of the underlying regularities that would warrant such a grouping’.

V: Statistics is foundational for sociology as a population science as it is the means by which population regularities are established; it comprises the explananda of sociology, in conjunction with the concepts that sociologists form.

VI: Statistics is foundational due to a need for methods that can capture the variation in human life at both social and individual levels; it offers ‘an adequate basis for the analysis of regularities occurring within the variation that exists’.

VII: Statistics is foundational because it provides a method for demonstrating ‘the presence and the form of the population regularities that are emergent from the variability of human social life’.

VIII: ‘While statistically informed methods of data collection and analysis are foundational in establishing the probabilistic population regularities that constitute sociological explananda, statistical analysis alone cannot lead to causal explanation of these regularities.’

IX: Causal explanations for established population regularities, causal processes, or ‘mechanisms’, must be hypothesized in terms of individual action and interaction that answer to two requirements: they should be in principle adequate to generate the regularities in question, and their actual operation should be open to empirical testing (and, ‘advantage lies with mechanisms explicitly specified in terms of action that is in some sense rational’).

There is much that I agree with here, and much which is compatible with critical realism. However, there are disagreements and qualifications too.

Goldthorpe lacks an ontology (as opposed to an epistemology). What is the ontological status of the mechanisms that he counsels sociologists to seek. To what extent are they enduring (like gravity for example)?

His search for causal or generative mechanisms via the statistical analysis of regularities (in critical realist terms, deploying retroductive inference) is in my view entirely appropriate (see my own inferences to the mechanisms responsible for health inequalities on the basis of socio-epidemiological data). But Goldthorpe sees no companion role for qualitative or ethnographic research (in critical realist terms, using abductive inference). Statistics is not the only route to the mechanisms that rightly interest sociologists (for a comprehensive account of the role of abduction see Chris Yuill’s excellent Ph.D thesis).

The pursuit of mechanisms ‘at the level of the social’ is not ‘reducible’ to mechanisms simultaneously active at other levels, like – to rely on a familiar shorthand – the biological or psychological. The social may be, and is, ‘emergent from’ and causally informed by the biological and psychological, but it is not reducible to them.

The reductionism implicit in Goldthorpe’s resort to Weberian ‘methodological individualism’, leading him to reject holism in all its guises, is a function of his failure to incorporate Bhaskar’s critical realist notion of emergence.

At the risk of upstart impertinence (although I am now 67), I would commend the following. Goldthorpe is right to acknowledge the ‘intrusion’ into the sociological project of contingency and the simultaneous (upstream and downstream) operation of mechanisms located in different ontological strata, but his response is flawed. The flaw most conspicuous is the resort to an individualistic orientation. We do not need to apologize for studying the social on its and our own terms. He is of course rightly renowned for his excellent quantitative work on social mobility. Maybe this has occasioned a misunderstanding and understatement of the pertinence of qualitative sociology (though re-read the ‘Affluent Worker’ series). There are diverse – quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods – routes to (in critical realist terminology) the ‘real’ mechanisms that constitute the true objects of ‘explanatory’ sociological enquiry.

Rational action theory, which lurks behind Goldthorpe’s prescriptions, is not necessary. Bhaskar’s transformative theory of social action allows for the theoretical, conceptual and substantive recognition of agency in a contingent, structured but not structurally determined social world.

A final comment on points made in Goldthorpe’s concluding chapter concerning Burawoy’s types of sociology. Why, Goldthorpe asks, is Burawoy’s characterization of ‘policy sociology’ so limited and limiting, confined to sociology done at the paid and taming behest of third parties? Because that is the way it is, and the more so in post-1970s neoliberalism, would be my reply! While Goldthorpe is committed to first-class professional sociology, extending to (his own ‘aspirational’ definition of) policy sociology, he seems to have little time for critical and public sociology. What he would think of my foresight and action sociology I dare not even imagine.

When celebrated researchers turn to philosophical, theoretical or political issues they somehow return to earth.






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