Critical realism: a via media between positivist empiricism & postmodern constructionism

In a review of sociologist Christian Smith’s ambitious work, What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up, D. Michael Lindsay, president and professor of sociology at Gordon College, defines critical realism:

Smith advances his understanding of personhood through the theoretical scaffolding of critical realism. Critical realism, which is much more popular in European sociology and in the humanities in North America than in the social sciences here, seeks to provide a via media between positivist empiricism and postmodern constructionism, which represent the two prevailing epistemological poles of contemporary social science. Positivist empiricism makes the mistake of conflating what’s real with what is observable; critical realism distinguishes between the two, insisting that a great deal of reality exists independent of humans’ consciousness of it. This line of thought draws an analogy with modern scientific discoveries: Just because scientists could not observe protons in the 17th century did not make protons any less real. So it may be with other dimensions of reality, such as divine inspiration or miraculous healings. To fully understand human personhood, Smith suggests, we have to make room for things such as intuition, even revelation, regardless of our ability to measure and test such things.

By the same token, critical realism critiques the postmodern claim that everything in life is socially constructed, that all we know and experience in the world is the product of humans’ making. Instead, there are dimensions of reality that exist independent of our efforts. This point most naturally comports with an orthodox Christian understanding of the world, one where God endows the world and humanity with certain things that humans did nothing to generate on their own.

– “An Ambitious Sociology” (Books & Culture, November/December 2011)


2 thoughts on “Critical realism: a via media between positivist empiricism & postmodern constructionism

  1. Another helpful idea put forth by Smith in that book is the concept of “emergence” wherein the whole frequently is best understood as more than a mere sum of its parts. For example, water molecules are composed of hydrogen and oxygen, but the nature of water molecules cannot be understood as a mere summation of hydrogen and oxygen. Water actually gains different properties from that of hydrogen or oxygen through their combination; different properties “emerge” from the combination of parts such that the end whole is something more than the parts.

    Emergence is very useful in combating the sorts of reductionism that are often found in modern sciences, e.g. viewing humans merely as collections of atoms or chemicals.

  2. Pingback: dreamers, critics, and realists « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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