Step 5: Society is neither a thing that exists independent of human action, nor is it ever entirely a product of our action

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source Huggy’s Eye

For realists, the goal of science is the identification of things and their causal powers. This goal can not be achieved, Roy Bhaskar (1998) asserts, through the faithful recording of the natural and social phenomena we sense, observe, and record. Empirical observation simply does not exhaust the possibility of what really exists in the world. Realists reject this empiricist and flat ontology, preferring instead a stratified ontology, which, as I suggested in Step 2, distinguishes between events and the power of things. We can go further and identify three different domains. These three domains are the empirical, actual, and real. In this stratified model, the domain of the empirical refers to human sensory experience and perception, the actual to events occurring in the world, and the real to the mechanisms and structures that have causal powers and shape events.

It is these causal powers, that have their expression in events, that realism gets to grips with. Of society, for instance, realists argues that people do not create society. Society is always there before we are, but we can’t act unless it is there. For Bhaskar (1998: 36) society is ‘an ensemble [of the causal powers] of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so.’ Society is neither a thing that exists independent of human actions, nor is it ever entirely a product of our actions.

From Step 9 onwards I will discuss the implications of this observation to the social act of choosing cases. In short, I will argue that cases are neither things in the research (an error of reification), nor are they entirely of our making (an error of voluntarism).

Recognising that this dialectical relationship flows from society to our actions in society, like doing social research for instance, provides a window onto the possibilities for interpretation and explanation in social research, I will argue. But before I consider the relation between realism and explanation, there is a methodological bridge to cross, what are ideas in social research. This will be the topic of my next post.

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