Step 6: Theories about social objects refer to actual features of the real world

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Photograph: Rogan Josh mourgeFile

Joseph Maxwell (2012: 13) contends that:

‘our concepts refer to real phenomena, rather than being abstractions from sense data or purely our own constructions [… and more than this (on pg. 18), for realist researchers …] concepts, meanings and intentions are as real as rocks; they are just not as accessible to direct observation and description as rocks. In this way they are like quarks, black holes, the meteor impact that supposedly killed the dinosaurs, or William Shakespeare: we have no way of directly observing them, and our claims about them are based on a variety of sorts of indirect evidence.’

Let me start by dealing with the first part of this quote. Here Maxwell works out the implications of a stratified ontology for research. The focus on sense data and constructions remind us that all we want to know about the social world is not available from empirical observation (as I discussed in Step 5). We (and indeed participants in research) simply can’t produce convenient descriptive fictions about social processes from experiences of events.

As I will explain in much more detail later, a realist methodology depends upon constantly trying to work out the relation between ideas and evidence. This is also Maxwell’s point in reminding us concepts, meanings, and intentions are as real as rocks. Once again he is emphasising the stratified nature of the real. He is also pointing to the ways in which we get at real explanations of social processes.

One challenge we face in a realist research methodology is the very problem of a stratified ontology. Knowing that empirical observation will not provide an adequate explanation of the real can be, potentially, quite paralysing. We can end up in a ceaseless ontological debate about the location of things and their causal powers.

Maxwell’s strategy, and the strategy of many realists, is to accept that indirect evidence of the casual powers of things allow us to work out, as best we can, social and institutional norms, values, and inter-relationships (Pawson and Tilley, 1997) in particular ecologically bounded cases (Harvey, 2009). The realist goal is to express these connections in particular contexts. We accept these to be actual, yet fallible features of the real world.

As an example, Maxwell asserts in the quote above that what we know of William Shakespeare is based on indirect evidence. We know, for instance that Shakespeare left his second best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway. ‘I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’ he wrote in his will. And we may assume that this was derisory and contemptible. But Carol Anne Duffy knows better, and gets nearer the real in her poem, The World’s Wife:

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

To understand why Shakespeare bequeathed his wife his second best bed requires that we understand the norms of the 17th Century England, as Carol Anne Duffy implies. The best bed was reserved for guests. The second best bed was the marital bed. Only when we bring theories and evidence into relation with each other can we explain the social and institutional values expressed in Shakespeare’s will.

Theories (or put less grandly, ideas) are the intellectual work we bring to bear in interpreting and explaining social phenomena. Ideas play a significant part in all realist explanation; indeed they precede any attempt to explain the social world. I turn to this precedence of ideas in my next step.

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