Critical Realism in the Social Sciences, Agency and the Discursive Self


1. The present collection of papers comes out of a small workshop held in the South of France in June of 2012. The event enjoyed the presence of two eminent scholars: Hugh Willmott (Cambridge and Cardiff University) and Tony Lawson (Cambridge University). Heterodox economist, ontologist, ardent scholar of the philosophy of sciences, Lawson is the founder of the long standing Realist Workshop (over 15 years) that is still regularly held at the University of Cambridge, and, more recently, of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group (CSOG). Lawson is also an original contributor to the Critical Realist movement in economics (founding member of International Association of Critical Realism and of the Journal of Critical Realism). Willmott, a management scholar, is one of the leading references in Critical Management Studies (CMS). Critical Realism and ontology are topics that have found a place of their own in the CMS movement (Al-Amoudi & Willmott 2011). As such, the combined presence of Willmott and Lawson is less surprising than may at first appear.

2. Whilst the special number of the present journal includes neither Willmott, nor Ismaël Al-Amoudi’s papers, their participation at the workshop greatly contributed to adjusting and refining the ideas presented by those attending, and the final papers here published. In the end, the picture would not be complete if we did not further acknowledge the regular face to face exchanges, that took place in recent years, between the various contributors at meetings, such as (but not only) those held by the realist workshop and CSOG.

3. In a sense, the papers collected in this number are the product of long-standing and more recent debates on the topics of critical thinking, critical realism, management and economics, by scholars who, for the most, have had plenty of opportunity to interact. Taken in this context, last summer’s workshop has for one been an opportunity to dispel disagreement, where there was none. It has further allowed participants to better and more subtly gage where ideas did conflict. And indeed, tensions appear to persist on the epistemological question of access to knowledge. If, according to Lawson, the alleged opposition is in places due to misunderstanding rather than genuine disagreement, others, such as Mark Johnson, Willmott and Al-Amoudi, remain uncomfortable with (their best interpretation of) critical realist perspectives on questions of the self, and the self as researcher.

4. Vinca Bigo, in the first of the contributions below, observes the spread of formalism in the social sciences, a phenomenon in which the ‘(re) searching self’ effectively conforms to what is reassuringly scientific, and located within a familiar comfort zone for many. She is particularly concerned with the damaging effects of methodological dogmatism, and with the noted tendency of a dormant (rather than active) criticality, as hampering scientific progress—on a conception of science coherent with the critical realist tradition. Lawson, on his part, begins by noting that Soros correctly observes that, due to a process of reflection and consequent action, economic agents and academics continuously transform the world. Contrary to Soros, however, Lawson argues the process does not diminish the possibility to understand and theorise the social realm in a way that is any less scientific, than the natural realm. At least not according to a conception of the natural sciences that resonates with critical realist ontology.

5. Nuno Martins argues critical realism makes a special contribution to the various projects of the Cambridge heterodoxy. Critical realism, on the one hand, advances an ontology of an open social realm that unifies and guides the various heterodox traditions. On the other hand, the specific development of a theory of agency by scholars (Lawson, Archer) that built on critical realist ontology, is a contribution that inscribes itself in Cambridge Political Economic thinking, following the footsteps of theories of value (Ricardo, Marx and Sraffa), and theories of well being (Sen). Stephen Pratten puts the place of agency in critical realism at the centre of his discussion, as he divulges how Mead’s and Singer’s conception of agency compares and contrasts with one that is consistent with the critical realist project. Both his and Martin’s discussion of agency deconstruct the naïve interpretation of critical realism as defending an arrogant notion of the knowing self (or the self capable of knowing). Finally, Johnson engages with epistemological concerns pertaining to the relation between abstraction, absences, time and knowing. His contribution can be taken as fleshing out the notion of agency developed (and accepted) by above authors, in particular, by proposing ways for the (re) searching self to access knowledge through specific lived experiences. Below, we offer a brief summary of the contributions of each author taking part in this volume.

6. Vinca Bigo notes a systematic and unquestioning tendency, observable in the social sciences, and especially of late in economics (Fullbrook 2004; Lawson 1997) towards considering formal models as superior, for somehow more scientific to other non-formal methods. In her paper titled, in “God, Providence and the Future of the Social Sciences”, the concern is with the methodological dogmatism that surrounds the claim of superiority. The non acceptance in dominant economics of alternative methods is evidence of an anti pluralist orientation, which if adopted across the social sciences, does not favour progress in the understanding of all things social—especially, where economics and its emphasis on formalism, is by many regarded as the most scientific of social sciences. Bigo further observes questions of methodology, though central to good scientific inquiry, are too often relegated to ‘lofty’ philosophers of science. The researcher is never an isolated individual, and in the current context she notes how scholars from different disciplines share a common plight. In the end, Bigo encourages social scientists to (re) engage in methodological reflexivity, and to become active agents, acting collectively, in an effort to protect intellectual freedom.

7. In his paper, “Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity: a critical comment”, Tony Lawson discusses the relevance of Soros’ (2009) theory of reflexivity for the reorientation of modern academic economics. Soros highlights that the study of social phenomena generates interference between the cognitive functions (understanding reality) and participating functions (influencing reality) of beings: while any change in social reality will affect human understanding of it, this modified understanding will in turn alter human decisions and ultimately feed back into reality. According to Soros, this two-way exchange puts market actors and regulators into a state of uncertainty and indeterminacy at odds with the mainstream concepts of rational expectations, market equilibrium and market efficiency. The failure of mathematical deductivism to successfully predict financial market outcomes (such absolute or relative market price patterns) is hence explained by the ontological openness of financial systems. While Lawson accepts the above argument, he also highlights two caveats to Soros’ theory of reflexivity. First, he outlines that reflexivity does not necessarily impede human understanding of reality. On the contrary, humans tend to have a better ability to understand phenomena whose existence partly depends on them, as they are intrinsic to their activities. As a consequence, he argues that the problem does not stem from the distinction between natural and social phenomena, but rather from the ambition of the mainstream economics’ project to predict specific concrete outcomes of open systems before they happen. Finally, he points to the ambiguity of Soros’ assessment of mathematical deductive modelling, and suggests it does not go far enough to truly renew economic thinking.

8. Nuno Martins revisits “The Nature of the Cambridge Heterodoxy” in the light of the connections between critical realism and the various traditions of the Cambridge Heterodoxy. In particular, he makes references to the theory of value, the theory of well-being, and the theory of agency developed by these traditions. His contribution is twofold. Martins shows that the appeal of critical realism stems from its capacity to address the plurality of languages that characterise the Cambridge Political Economy tradition. We see how core ontological concepts such as internal relations and open systems underpin various heterodox economic traditions that share a rejection of (the emphasis on) mathematical deductivist methods and methodological individualism. Critical realism, in virtue of its focus on the reproduction of social structure as an open system, thus offers an overarching ontological basis for the various heterodox traditions. Second, the various contributions to the Cambridge Political Economy project have in one way or the other built on the classical political economy framework brought to its most advanced stages by Marx. Martins suggest that over time the focus has shifted from economics structures to social ones, from questions of surplus and institutional distribution to social structures, and the role played by agency therein. In particular, early critical realist scholars, such as Lawson and Margaret Archer, can be taken to deepen and develop socio economic thinking in the Cambridge Political Economy tradition.

9. Stephen Pratten in “Community, Rights and the Self” sets out to contrast the social ontology developed by critical realists to that of George Herbert Mead and Beth Singer. While previous analyses focus on the divergences between these approaches, his article underlines the existence of similarities, in particular between the concepts of community, norms, rights and obligations. The author notes that, if ontological elaboration and theorising is a shared concern for various critical realist contributions, disagreements over the nature of the social structure are a sign of the vitality of the project. For instance, Mead’s distinction between an active and a latent perspectival community echoes Lawson’s definition of communities for itself and in itself. In addition, critical realists’ conceptions of a moral community and Singer’s normative community are based on similar accounts of norms (or collective practices), in both cases seen as pervading the social realm, and necessary for the coordination of individuals. Similarly, rights and obligations are inherently mutual and involve a normative attitude of the community in both social ontologies. In the last section of his paper, Pratten analyses how Singer’s response to Mead’s overly socialized vision of the self can be reconciled with core elements of the critical realist social ontology as defended by Archer. In particular, both Singer and Archer appear to criticize Mead’s pre-eminence of the “me” over the “I” and emphasise the combined role of structure and agency in the constitution of the self.

10. Mark Johnson (Bolton University) takes as starting point the historical relation between ontology as informed by critical realist thinking, on the one hand, and methodological trends in economics, on the other. His paper titled “Time, mechanisms and technology: challenges of abstraction and decision in realist economic theory” comments on the role played by mechanisms, emergence, abstraction, time and absences, as advanced by Roy Bhaskar (1977, 1993), forefather of critical realism. Johnson suggests that the notion of mechanisms in critical realism carries an implicit ontology of temporal successionism (excluding for example the reversibility of time) that unnecessarily limits the process of abstraction inherent in the acquisition of knowledge. Drawing on Cybernetics, a branch of research that emerged after World War II, Johnson identifies a number of similarities between Bhaskar and Cybernetic thought. He stresses the importance of the fundamentally “negative” character of cybernetic thinking, emphasizing negative causes that turn on the notion of absence, or restraint, one still largely compatible with Bhaskar’s ontology. The author, nonetheless, finds limitations with the notion of abstraction developed in critical realism (by Lawson in particular), as one linked to an understanding of mechanisms, conditioned by temporal (or causal) successionism. Finally, he suggests that if time cannot be addressed abstractly, it can be dissolved in ‘lived experience’, “where is it not the logical consistency of the abstraction which matters, but the emergent social and psychological effects of exploring an abstraction together”. Such lived experience in Cybernetics typically takes on the form of the scientist as performer, accessing knowledge by playful engagement with technology.


  • Al-Amoudi, Ismaël and Hugh Willmott. 2011. “Where constructionism and critical realism converge: interrogating the domain of epistemological relativism”. Organization Studies, vol. 32 n°1, pp. 281–301.
  • Bhaskar, R. 1977. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso
  • Bhaskar, R. 1993. Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso
  • Fullbrook, Edward (ed.). 2004. A guide to what’s wrong with economics. London: Anthem Press.
  • En ligneLawson, Tony. 1997. Economics and reality. London and New York: Routledge.