Why Does American Sociology Need Critical Realism?

In this brief video interview, Professor Douglas Porpora explains how he became increasingly interested in critical realism. He briefly and eloquently addresses questions that critical realism provides better answers to than most other metatheories: What is causation? What is a good explanation? Porpora narrates how he was led to critical realism because he questioned the covering-law model of causality dominant in sociology. And he argues that motivations are not only real but potentially causal. If critical realism were to become the dominant metatheory in sociology, our methods would become not only pluralistic but integrated.

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PorporaProfileIn case you missed it, you can still hear Professor Porpora discuss his new book, Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach, on the webinars page of Critical Realism Network website. (You will still need to “register” to access the webinar.)

Also see Timothy Rutzou’s blog post about Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology on the Critical Realism Network website.

Want to learn more about critical realism? Check out our past webinars with Philip Gorski and George Steinmetz.

And be sure to register for our upcoming webinar, January 19th, 2016, at 10 am EST with anthropologist Webb Keane of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on “The Emergence of Ethical Concepts in Social History.”

Professor Porpora, Steinmetz, Gorski, and Dr. Rutzou and myself, will be leading two summer seminars in 2016 on philosophy of social science, one for graduate students in sociology and the other for post-docs and junior faculty in sociology. Those application deadlines are both in January, so be sure to consider it!

The Critical Realism Network is also still accepting applications for two working groups: Human Flourishing, Social Solidarity and Critical Realism, and one on Using Critical Realism in Sociological Research–A Graduate Student Working Group. Both of those application deadlines are also in January-please check it out soon!

To keep updated, join our Facebook group and follow us on Twitter (@EngageCR). And be sure to sign up to receive our monthly newsletter.


Want to fight Islamophobia? Deal with Christianophobia.

My article on Islamophobia and Christianophobia can be found at The Stream. As many of you know I will respond to some comments here if you want to make them. But I will also eliminate comments that are merely argumentative and do not move the conversation forward. Have a Happy New Year!!!

American and Chinese ways of mourning

While loss of a loved one is universal, the way we mourn that loss varies by culture. This is important to sociologist Becky Yang Hsu‘s research on happiness in China as she observed the difference between Chinese and US ways of facing loss. She shares her reflections here mixing research and personal experience, particularly on the different ways friends and colleagues offered solace or connection when they received news of her mother’s passing.

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Critical Realism, Sociology and History Webinar, Dec. 9th 2015, 2:30 EST with George Steinmetz

What is the best approach to historical research, a search for general causal laws, an ideographic description of unique events, or some combination of those approaches? s part of a 3-year grant, I’m working with several senior scholars to teach critical realism and explore its implications for sociological research. Join us tomorrow, December 9th, 2015 from 2:30-4 pm with Professor George Steinmetz (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) who will talk about Critical Realism, Sociology and History. In this webinar, Professor Steinmetz will address the implications of critical realism for the work of historians and historical social scientists.

The webinar is free, but you do need to register so we can send you the readings before the seminar. Even if you can’t be there tomorrow, please register anyway so you can get a link to the recording after the webinar. To learn more about Critical Realism, including our blogs, reading lists, and other webinars, visit the Critical Realism Network homepage. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Here’s more information about the webinar.

Professor George Steinmetz

Critical Realism, Sociology, and History

PresenterGeorge Steinmetz, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Moderator: Philip Gorski, Yale University

Date: Dec. 9, 2015, 2:30 – 4 pm EST (US)

Meeting Registration: Here

Meeting Description: 35 minute lecture followed by Q and A

What is the best approach to historical research, a search for general causal laws, an ideographic description of unique events, or some combination of those approaches? How did scholars such as Rickert, Weber, and Dilthey view comparative work in the social sciences and history? How have historians and humanities scholars understood comparison? What are the particular challenges to social science theory and comparison from poststructuralism and postcolonial theory? On the one hand, many historians and humanities scholars argue that the singularity and incommensurability of their cases places them outside scientific methods. On the other hand, many social scientists believe that the only substitute for statistical and experimental methods in the social sciences is “The Comparative Method” – comparing cases in order to identify a general model or “General Theory,” a constant conjunction of events. This approach is rebarbative to most practicing historians and humanities scholars.

In this webinar, Professor Steinmetz will address the implications of critical realism for the work of historians and historical social scientists. Critical realism defends the scientific value of historical and hermeneutic case studies. Critical realism provides compelling arguments against objections from both the “Comparative Method”/“General Theory” camp and the super-historicist/incommensurablist camp. Especially important features of critical realism are its emphasis on ontological stratification, open systems, and causal powers. Causal powers in the social sciences are understood as varying across history, geography, and culture. Critical realism helps us see how we can explain unique cases and compare multiple cases, not to discover universal laws but to identify causal powers that produce contingent outcomes and to refine our understanding of causal powers.

Recommended Reading(s):

George Steinmetz. “Comparative History and its Critics: A Genealogy and a Possible Solution.” In A Companion to Global Historical Thought, edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy and Andrew Sartori. Blackwell (2014), pp. 412-436.

George Steinmetz. “Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study, and “Small N’s in Sociology.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 22, number 3 (2003), pp. 371-400.

George Steinmetz. “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology. A Review Article.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 40, No.1 (Jan., 1998), 170-186.

(readings will be distributed to those registered closer to the date of the webinar)

For more great resources on critical realism, be sure to visit the Critical Realism Network homepage and sign up for our newsletter!


Virtue and Vulnerability



This post was originally published on my homepage, margaritamooney.com, on September 3, 2015.

Is Viktor Frankl’s life a story of resilience or vulnerability? It’s both, I think. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps and went on to an influential career as a psychiatrist and writer. Yet, he never forgot how his experiences of pain and suffering formed his own social ethic. As he writes in the epilogue entitled “The Case for a Tragic Optimism”, added to the 1984 edition his famous memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.  And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.  In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation.  “The best,” however, is that which in Latin is called optimum—hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for:  (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

Similarly, in a paper I’m working on, I explained how I learned that resilience and vulnerability aren’t opposites: they often go together. I’m particularly interested in further developing the important point that resilience and vulnerability aren’t only about personal outcomes, but about how our experiences of suffering form a calling to take responsible action for others–our close kin, neighbors, countrymen and women, and complete strangers. Frankl modeled this ethic in his own life, and taught the same ethic in his psychiatric profession. I admire Frankl because he sought to live a coherent ethic in his professional and personal life, not separating out his theories from how he lived his own life. Many social scientists fall into the trap of using theories of human nature–such as humans are driven by self-interest, status, and power–that they would never apply to their own behaviors.

You can hear more about my thoughts on virtue and vulnerability in this presentation I gave in July at the International Association of Critical Realism Annual Meetings held at the University of Notre Dame.

Click her to hear my talk “Vulnerabilty and Virtue.”

The abstract of my paper is below. If you would like to read a draft of this paper, please email me.

Abstract for Margarita Mooney, “Vulnerability and Virtue”:

This paper is part of a larger book about the lived experiences of 26 young adults who have experienced traumatic life events. This paper uses 4 of the 26 life history interviews to show how critical realism provides a better metatheoretical framework to understand the complex causality behind experiences of mental health disorders and addiction I encountered in my interviews. I draw on virtue ethics and realist hermeneutics to argue that social science approaches to mental health and addiction should not stop at analyzing their causes or treatments, but need to ask about the moral purpose that guides people’s lives. I further argue that overlooking that vulnerability is an enduring part of the human condition has limited the ability of social science to adequately understand the struggles of people with mental illness and addiction.

Because my interviews elicited narratives that connect events and emotions across time, these narratives illustrate the complex, contingent and conjunctural nature of causality that is often overlooked in many approaches to mental health and addiction. As with any method, the knowledge gained from interviews is limited and potentially fallible. But rather than falling into skepticisms about our ability to access reality through interviews, I maintain a realist stance towards lived experiences without necessarily assuming all experiences can be treated as facts. Interviews challenge those of us with a certain kind of authority as researchers to not simply jettison what people say as fallible and explain their lives with our own theories. Taking seriously what people say about their experiences of the world is one important way science advances because people can challenge the frameworks of science we use. For example, my interviews led me to question whether resilience and vulnerability are two opposite ends of a spectrum or can exist alongside one another. Because interviews reveal the complex causal forces in any person’s life, they remind us that scientific explanations should not be reductionistic. The interviews I conducted combined a scientific approach (selecting interviewees based on criteria of theoretical interest, developing a questionnaire based on theoretical expectations) and a humanistic, artistic, and highly interactive, dramatic approach about each person’s unique meanings and interior struggles.