Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Daniel Little’s curiously pragmatic realism

In a number of ongoing discussions with IR philosophy of social science dynamo Patrick Thaddeus Jackson I have argued that there are noteworthy realist alternatives to Critical Realism in the social sciences–that there are prima facie coherent but less radical views of social ontology, causality, and explanation than the systematic set of views traceable to Roy Bhaskar. One such alternative may lie with Daniel Little. However, it is hard to know whether this is the truly the case, because Little is often very general in how he defines realism writ large, and then prefers to be a little more substantively grounded once he begins his discussions of realism in the social sciences in particular. This leaves opaque the finer points of his metaphysical positions. It would have been helpful if, in his stunningly rich academic blog Understanding Society, he’d simply offered a point by point comparison of his views and those typical of Critical Realists, but in the absence of this, I can only rely on my best hermeneutic efforts.

Here is where Little says something I find most illustrative of where his position contrasts with ‘stronger’ views like Critical Realism, and also where I find myself asking the most questions of him.

His view is basically that social life exhibits such heterogeneity that it is impossible to specify particular forms cutting across historical time and space. In other words, each moment has enough uniqueness that it cannot be described as a formation of token instantiations of broader types of entities. Rather, the only kind of thing a social scientist can be a realist about is the mechanism. And meanwhile, any discussion of types in fact refers to analytical constructs created through a reification of given aggregations of dynamic and diverse social material.

This has some intriguing implications. First, what kind of view of mechanism does this entail? Elsewhere Little relies on a dispositional view of causality as capacities inherent within objects that govern their behaviour. This means the view of mechanism advocated by Charles Tilly under his ‘relational realism’ (which Neil Gross has argued is better understood as Deweyan pragmatism) seems too weak, too nominalist, for Little’s purposes. Instead it suggests that descriptions of social mechanisms refer to concrete particular processes–in Little’s case to local agency and action. But how coherent is this? Can Little get away with being a realist about causal powers without presuming that they exist together with their objects in essential bundles–in other words, social kinds? Or does all realist talk about mechanisms suppose essences?

Second, what actually ends up being the reference status of our theories? It may imply that some kind of ‘objective’ historical description can be offered (of mechanisms at least), but that any attempt to theorise beyond specific and concrete circumstances involves the imposition of organisational schema onto a diverse array of things that do not ‘naturally’ go together, but are thrust together for some purpose. This sounds awfully pragmatic, but introduces a tension between the realist imperative to describe and explain reality and the instrumentalist imperative to orient theory around purpose.

Little appears to be trying to build a pragmatic methodology out of realist metaphysics. I’m awfully sceptical, and not yet persuaded. At the same time, though, he has at least avoided some of the metaphysical doctrines of Critical Realism that I find border on the pseudo-mystical, such as strong emergence and downwards causation.


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