Postmodernism vs. Critical Realism
Over the last couple years as a graduate student in sociology (not in philosophy, I should note), I’ve been thinking and reading about various philosophies of science, for both the natural and social sciences, and how those differing underlying philosophies actually relate to the ways that sociologists think about and conduct research. For those (especially more philosophically inclined) people outside of the social sciences, you should know that this is actually a pretty strange thing for a sociologist to do.
Most sociologists, it seems, ignore or otherwise scoot around the philosophical assumptions underpinning their work, and simply go about running regressions, conducting interviews, and writing articles. And by doing so, many sociologists easily end up working in and implicitly accepting one of sociology’s two main frameworks currently animating the discipline: either positivist empiricism or interpretivist constructionism.
Recently, a different view of (social) science—critical realism—has jumped the pond and is now making waves in graduate seminars, at conferences, and through certain publications in sociology and other fields, including theology. I will briefly describe positivist empiricism, interpretivist constructionism, and critical realism below. For now, the main point is that until recently I have thought of these three philosophies of (social) science as more or less distinct buckets. But I have started to see how they fit together analytically in a more organized way—a way that helps us to understand and contrast them more systematically. I’ve sketched out my thoughts in the diagram below.
STRUCTURE OF THE DIAGRAM
First, this diagram is divided from left to right by what I have labeled, somewhat heuristically, as “hard” and “soft” positions.
When I refer to a position as “hard” I mean that it is more closely tied to face-value empirical observations and the nature of reality, and so can be thought of as “narrow” or “strict.”
When I refer to a position as “soft” I mean that it emphasizes theories, ideas, and the world of human subjectivity and preferences, and so can be thought of as “open” or “inclusive.”
Second, the diagram is divided into a top and a bottom. The top deals with positions regarding ontology, and the bottom deals with positions regarding epistemology. I know that most readers of this website know what ontology and epistemology are, but for those who don’t:
By “ontology” I am referring to the area of philosophical thought that seeks to answer questions about the structure and nature (or lack thereof) of reality.
By “epistemology” I am referring basically to the philosophy of knowledge, which addresses issues such as what knowledge is, what it means for a preposition to be true, what humans can potentially know, and how exactly we can know things.
FOUR POSSIBLE COMPONENTS
This structural division of the diagram results in four positions: A hard position on ontology, a soft position on ontology, a hard position on epistemology, and a soft position on epistemology. These four positions, as I understand them, are as follows:
By “realism” I refer to the position regarding ontology that holds that—while certain aspects of reality are socially constructed—much of reality nevertheless has a nature independently of human perception of it, knowledge about it, or projections onto it. Additionally, even those aspects of reality that are, in fact, socially constructed, once they are constructed and established, become relatively objective—that is, they “take on a life of their own.”
By “constructionism” I refer to the position regarding ontology that holds that reality is socially constructed. And so reality, within certain broad limitations of logical possibility, for the most part is amenable to human construction, (re)definition, and preferences. On this view, there is no nature or essence to reality independent of (collective) human thought, desires, norms, and perceptions. There is no objective reality. Confusion is easy on this point, since the terms “constructionism” and “constructivism” are often used to refer to a position in epistemology (namely, the view that scientific knowledge is only a human construction, not extracted from or reflective of the real world). But I use the term “constructionism” here to refer to a kind of ontology—namely, the view that all of reality (not just human knowledge about reality) is socially constructed and so largely malleable. In short, “constructionism,” as I use the term, can be thought of as a kind of anti-realism.
By “positivist empiricism” I refer to the position regarding epistemology holding that absolutely certain knowledge about the (material) world can only be gained through evidence from the five human senses. Of course, positivism and empiricism are two analytically different things, but in actual practice, and for our purposes here, they often go together. This position is basically foundationalist and evidentialist when it comes to human knowledge.
By “interpretivism” I refer to the position regarding epistemology recognizing that all data is theory-laden. In other words, on this position, claims about and observations of reality are always and already subject to human subjectivity, criticism, and interpretation. Once again, this can get a bit slippery, because some people use the term “interpretivism” in a strong sense to mean that, “all we humans can ever do is interpret” (rather than, say, know truth or actually explain something). That’s not what I mean here. Instead, I use the word “interpretivism” to refer to a position in epistemology that holds that all data is inescapably filtered through the lens of human subjectivity and interpretation. This is basically a post-foundationalist and intentionally epistemically humble position.
FOUR POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS
The normal human condition is for all persons—not just academic philosophers—to come down somewhere on the questions of epistemology and ontology, whether they ever think about it or not. When we combine an epistemology with an ontology, we get general approaches to thinking about social science, and, in fact, the broad way that we think about knowledge and the world. The next step, then, is to match epistemologies with ontologies and see what we get.
So, here are the four combinations:
Interpretivism + Constructionism = Postmodernism; Relativism. On this view of knowledge and the world, there is no absolute truth or objective nature to reality. Truth and morality are relative. Categories and institutions are highly malleable. All we humans can do, in the end, therefore, is offer our own personal interpretations and preferences.
Positivist Empiricism + Constructionism = Overconfident Postmodernism, along with Materialism. I suspect that many young persons in the West today hold to an inconsistent commitment to both positivist empiricism and constructionism. This is the kind of thinking from which we get ideas that sound something like: “Truth and morality are relative, and you ought to agree with that or else you’re wrong.” And, “I’ll believe in God only if I see Him.”
Positivist Empiricism + Realism = Direct or “Naïve” Realism; Scientism; Modernism. Broadly speaking, this would be the general approach to knowledge and the world that holds that humans can perceive (material) reality directly and objectively—unhindered by human subjectivity, and thus can simply compile evidence to discover what is true about reality.
Realism + Interpretivism = Critical Realism. This position is a post-positivist, post-empiricist, realist philosophy. On this view, there is an objective nature and structure to reality, and humans (should and often do) use the best of our necessarily subjective observations and interpretive theorizing to arrive, through collective reasoning and criticisms, at what is true about reality. I can’t do full justice here to the complexities of critical realism, including all of its specific ontological commitments regarding causal mechanisms, ontological stratification (i.e., the real, the actual, the empirical), the multi-layered nature of reality, antireductionism, ontological emergence, retroductive inferences, and much more. There is no shortage of good books on critical realism that one can read to get a full understanding of its basic commitments. At this point, though, it is enough simply to see that, at its most basic, critical realism is a combination of realism and interpretivism, as I have defined those terms here. Note also that in the equation above, I put realism before interpretivism to represent that critical realism—unlike the other approaches—starts with ontological commitments about the nature and structure of reality, rather than taking the modern (and postmodern!) approach of starting with an epistemology, whether hard or soft, and using it to draw conclusions about ontology.
I, for one, think that critical realism, not postmodernism, is the way to go, especially if we want to avoid the pitfalls of a strong constructionist ontology. I think that it is our best account of how to be a realist in our ontology, but also post-foundationalist and interpretivist in our epistemology.
This diagram and typology—as is the nature of diagrams and typologies—is admittedly overly simplistic. For example, it seems to imply that the only way to be a realist but not a positivist or empiricist is to be a critical realist, and that obviously isn’t true. So we need to be aware that not every position and possibility is laid out in the diagram and description above. But I do think that this way of viewing things does have the potential to start a productive conversation about the role of various ontologies and epistemologies in making sense of the differences between postmodernism and critical realism. With that, I’ll end with some questions and leave the rest for the comments section. I look forward to a lively and insightful discussion.
(1) Is this a helpful and productive way to think about these issues? Does the diagram “work?”
(2) What are some of the oversimplifications and oversights of this method of viewing things? For instance…
- Where does pragmatism fit into this diagram (and conversation)?
- Where does ethics fit into this diagram (and conversation)?
- Where does narrative fit into this diagram (and conversation)?
(3) What intellectual or practical benefits, if any, does postmodernism have over critical realism?
(4) It has been suggested elsewhere that one cannot be both a realist (ontologically) and a post-foundationalist (epistemologically). Is that right? Why might that be?
(5) How does (or should) commitment to Christ and the truth of Christianity influence the way we think about these general approaches?
(6) What are the differences between postmodern scholarship and critical realist scholarship?