Monday, 28 August 2017

Moral realism and explanatory critique

Image result for bhaskar scientific realism and human emancipation

Daniel Little's blog post 'Moral progress and critical realism' raises some important issues for critical realists and indeed social scientists more generally. I'm sympathetic to the general orientation of his piece, and have made similar arguments elsewhere (summarised in my previous post on Materially Social). I thought it would be useful, though, to add some further discussion of how Daniel's argument relates to critical realism itself, and in particular to the status of Roy Bhaskar's theory of explanatory critique 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Realism, values and critique

One of the many ways in which critical realism goes beyond positivism is in rejecting the idea that social science can or should be ethically neutral. Like most critical realists, I see it as part of the role of the social scientist to criticise unjust social arrangements. But for philosophically oriented social scientists, critique cannot come from nowhere - it requires an ethical justification and that justification must be coherent with our wider ontology. Critical realists have taken a variety of conflicting positions on how such a justification could be developed. This post, based on my 2010 paper Realist critique without ethical naturalism and moral realism (open access version) and my address to the Beyond Positivism conference in Montreal in August 2017, argues briefly against Roy Bhaskar's attempts to justify critique on the basis of moral realism. Instead, we must recognise that values are social products and cannot have absolute justifications. That means abandoning the belief that values could be objective, but as I will argue below we can still be judgementally rational about values when we recognise that our values are the product of continuing social debates.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Social structures built on other social structures

One feature of my book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy that may puzzle careful readers is that the central ontological concept in it does not match up immediately and transparently with the social ontology developed in my earlier books. PGDE argues that we should explain the economy in terms of complexes of appropriative practices, while my earlier work stresses that causal influence is exerted by entities - people, objects, and social entities like organisations (which are in turn composed of people and often objects too). In this post I propose to explain the relation between the two - and the explanation is of wider importance because it leads us to think about how some social structures can be built on or from other social structures.

Monday, 19 September 2016

We need to move on from existing theories of the economy

Image result for adam smith
Adam Smith. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
[This was originally published a few days ago as a guest post on Dan Little's excellent blog Understanding Society following his review of my book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy.]

Let me begin by thanking Dan Little for his very perceptive review. As he rightly says, my book is more ambitious than the title might suggest, proposing that we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of “many distinct but interconnected practices”. Neither the traditional economist’s focus on firms in markets nor the Marxist political economist’s focus on exploitation of wage labour by capital is a viable way of understanding the real economy, and the book takes some steps towards an alternative view. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy: extract from chapter 10

This text, from the closing pages of the book, calls for a different kind of economy: an evolving diverse economy with more space for gift and alternative forms, and much less for the more oppressive forms of capitalism. If they are successful, books like this one form part of a spiral in which political arguments and political movements influence each other and develop iteratively.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy: extract from chapter 5

My second extract from Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy discusses the concept of a complex of appropriative practices. It contrasts various applications of the concept with Marxist approaches to capitalism as a mode of production (which are criticised more directly in chapter 3):

The most significant economic forms are not defined by single appropriative practices. Rather, they are interacting complexes of them. Thus, for example, the pursuit of capital accumulation by the employment of wage labour to produce commodities, which I shall call canonical capitalism (due to its role in Marx’s system) is a complex that combines at least three practices: capital accumulation, wage labour and commodity production. 
Canonical capitalism. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Rcragun)

Friday, 3 June 2016

Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy: extract from chapter 1

Over three billion times a day, someone types a search term into Google and within a few seconds receives a list of search results on their screen (Internet Live Stats, 2014). This service, delivered entirely free to the user, has become a cornerstone of the work and knowledge practices of a substantial portion of humanity.[1] But the Google Search business model – like many others in the digital economy – confounds and undermines some of our best established ways of thinking about the economy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Causality, method and imagination

Increasingly, critical realist scholars have been discussing the implications of realist theories of causality for the research methods we use in the social sciences. The usual view - which I will agree with - is that realism is compatible with a wide range of different research methods. But that doesn't mean that the question of how to approach realist research is simply solved by picking whichever existing methods fit with our research interests. In this post (based on a talk I gave at Kings College London recently) I will suggest that for realists there is a gap between conventional methods and the explanatory task, and then speculate a little on how we might fill that gap in practice.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Realism and practice theory

As a realist who uses the concept of practices (not least in my forthcoming book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy), I've occasionally been surprised by hostility to the concept from some other critical realists.Here I'd like to defend the concept, while putting some caveats around how realists should use it.

Let's start with a simple definition of practices: a practice is an tendency for multiple social actors to act in a similar way. Blogging and tweeting, for example, are practices, but there are also a huge number of others. Note the word similar: practices are never executed identically in any two cases. In at least some respects, my blogging is different from anyone else's blogging, and my blogging is different every time I do it. But there are identifiable similarities between different cases of blogging that enable us to call blogging a practice.
Image source:

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas gift theory

Photo source: Petr Kratochvil
'Tis the season to think about the things that people do at Christmas - or at least some people in certain cultures. Let me take you on a whistlestop tour of some ideas from economics, anthropology and sociology that might cast some light on the practice of giving gifts that is so central to contemporary celebrations at this time of year.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Is critical realism a modal realism?

One of Roy Bhaskar's central ontological claims is that in addition to the actual - the things and events that occur in the material universe - our ontology must also recognise a domain of the real, which includes the actual, but extends beyond it. In his first book, A Realist Theory of Science, he argued that the non-actual includes real causal powers, a very strong argument that I explained towards the end of my last blog post. However, if we accept this argument this opens up rather a large question: what else could be real but not actual? This is a crucial question for materialist realists, because it provides a door through which non-material stuff could reappear in our ontology, and we only want to open that door rather carefully! This post suggests one way of thinking about what sorts of stuff should be admitted.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Materialism and critical realism

Image result for keywords raymond williams

In the first couple of substantive posts on this blog I pinned my colours firmly to a materialist perspective on the social sciences. But what does this 'materialism' actually mean? The word is used in many ways, and I should probably start by making clear some of the senses that I'm NOT invoking. First, I'm not arguing for materialism in the common everyday sense of "an overriding or primary concern with the production or acquisition of things or money" (as Raymond Williams put it in his indispensable Keywords). Nor am I invoking a Marxist "historical materialism" or "dialectical materialism" - Marxists are materialists, but materialists need not be Marxists.

Materialism, in the sense I'm using, is about ontology