Critical Realism

How to Learn Critical Realism

Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame (Fall 2013)

Critical Realism (CR) is, in my view, the most promising general approach to social science for best framing our research and theory. CR, as a philosophy of (social) science (not a sociological theory per se), offers the best alternative to the problems and limits presented by positivist empiricism, hermeneutical interpretivism, strong social constructionism, and postmodernist deconstruction. It is the meta-theoretical direction in which American sociology needs to move.

My own work in CR involves, first, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago 2010) (with Moral, Believing Animals (OUP 2003) forming a pre-CR theoretical backdrop); and, second, To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil (Chicago 2014).

CR is a significant position within which scholars work in Britain, Scandinavia, and Europe. Yet few American sociologists are aware of the substance and importance of the CR account. CR is a genuinely alternative approach to reality and social science that requires serious, focused study and intellectual re-tooling in order to learn well enough to not simply fall back into the old assumptions, instincts, and paradigms. I suggest that those interested in learning CR read the following (mostly linked) chapters, books, and articles, roughly in the sequence specified.


1. A First, Quick Overview: Begin by reading these two short, easy works:

Phil Gorski, 2013, “What is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?” Contemporary Sociology, 42: 658ff.

Andrew Sayer, “Introduction” (pp. 1-28), 2000, Realism and Social Science, New York: Sage. 


2. A More Systematic Introduction: Next read this good introductory survey:

Andrew Collier, 1994, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy, London: Verso.


3. Some Methodological Implications: Perhaps next read these books, which spell out some of the broader conceptual and methodological implications of CR:

Berth Danermark et al., 2002, Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences, New York: Routledge.

Andrew Sayer, 1992, Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, New York: Routledge.

Douglas Porpora, 2001, "Do Realists Run Regressions?" In Garry Potter and Jose Lopez (eds.), After Postmodernism? Critical Realism, London: Continuum.


4. Some Foundational Works: Well worth engaging are two key early works:

Roy Bhaskar, 1975 / 2008, A Realist Theory of Science, London: Routledge.

Rom Harre and E.H. Madden, 1975, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity, Oxford: Blackwell. 

Roy Bhaskar, 1979 / 1998 (3rd ed.), The Possibility of Naturalism, London: Routledge.


5. Focus on Causality and Mechanisms: These readings help sharpen thinking about causation and mechanisms in social science, core issues in CR (about which more below):

Philip Gorski, 2009, Social ‘Mechanisms’ and Comparative-Historical Sociology: A Critical Realist Proposal,” The Frontiers of Sociology, Björn Wittrock and Peter Hedström (eds.), Leiden: Brill.

Ruth Groff (ed.), 2008, Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Routledge (especially the chapter by Doug Porpora, “Sociology’s Causal Confusion”)

Douglas Porpora, 2008, “Recovering Causality: Realist Methods in Sociology,” in A. Maccarini, E. Morandi, R. Prandini (eds.), Sociological Realism, Genova-Milano: Marietti.


6. Pursue Specific Interests: Dig deeper into specific areas of possible interest, such as:

(a) Powers-Based-Causes Alternatives to Humeanism (by analytic philosophers, not necessarily CR, but who demonstrate the basic CR viewpoint):

John Greco and Ruth Groff (eds), 2012, Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Routledge.

Anjan Chakravartty, 2007, A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism: Knowing the Unobservable, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brian Ellis, 2001, Scientific Essentialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Brian Ellis, 2002, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Stephen Mumford, 2004, Laws in Nature, New York: Routledge.

Stephen Mumford, 2003, Dispositions, New York: Oxford University Press.  

Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, 2011, Getting Causes from Powers, New York: Oxford University Press.

Anna Marmodoro (ed.), 2010, The Metaphysics of Powers: Their Grounding and their Manifestations, New York: Routledge.

George Molnar, 2003, “Powers: A Study in Metaphysics,” in Stephen Mumford (ed.), Powers in a Study of Metaphysics, New York: Oxford University Press.

(b) Emergence—the Critical Realist Account

Philip Clayton and Paul Davies (eds.), 2006, The Re-Emergence of Emergence, New York: Oxford University Press (not explicitly CR but similar views).

R. Keith Sawyer, 2002, “Durkheim’s Dilemma: Toward a Sociology of Emergence,” Sociological Theory, 20(2): 227-247.

(c) Critical Realist Theory of Social Structure, Culture, and Agency:

Margaret Archer, 1995, Realist Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas Porpora, 1987, The Concept of Social Structure, New York: Greenwood Press.

Douglas Porpora, 1989, “Four Concepts of Social Structure,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 19(2): 195-211.

Douglas Porpora, 2002, “Social Structure: The Future of a Concept,” in Sing Chew and J. David Knottnerus (eds.), Structure, Culture, and History, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Douglas Porpora, 1983, "On the Prospects for a Nomothetic Theory of Social Structure," Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 13: 243-264.

Douglas Porpora, 1993, "Cultural Rules and Material Relations," Sociological Theory, 11(2): 212-229.

Christian Smith, 2010, “The Personal Sources of Social Structures,” chapter 6 in Smith, What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and Moral Good from the Person Up.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Colin Wight, 2006, Agents, Structures, and International Relations: Politics as Ontology, New York: Cambridge.

Margaret Archer, 1982, “Morphogenesis versus Structuration: On Combining Structure and Action,” British Journal of Sociology, 33(4): 455-485.

Bob Jessop, 2006, "Critical Realism and the Strategic-Relational Approach," New Formations, 5: 40-53.

(d) Critical Realism and Empirical Methodology:

Bob Carter and Caroline New, 2004, Making Realism Work: Realist Social Theory and Empirical Research, New York: Routledge.

Ray Pawson, 1989, A Measure for Measures: A Manifesto for Empirical Sociology, London: Routledge.

Sam Porter, 2002, “Critical Realist Ethnography,” in Tim May (ed.), Qualitative Research in Action, London: Sage.

David Byrne, 2011, Applying Social Science: The Role of Social Research in Politics, Policy, and Practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

 (e) Critical Realism and Historical-Comparative Sociology:

George Steinmetz, 1998, “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 40(1) (Jan): 170-186.

George Steinmetz, 2013, “Comparative History and its Critics: A Genealogy of the Debates and a Possible Resolution.” In Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy, and Andrew Sartori (eds.), A Companion to Global Historical Thought, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Philip Gorski, 2009, “Social ‘Mechanisms’ and Comparative-Historical Sociology: A Critical Realist Proposal,” The Frontiers of Sociology, Björn Wittrock and Peter Hedström (eds.), Leiden: Brill. (forthcoming).

(f) Critical Realism and Human Personhood:

Christian Smith, 2010, What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Margaret Archer, 2000, Being Human: The Problem of Agency, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas Porpora, 1983, "On the Post-Wittgensteinian Critique of the Concept of Action in Sociology," Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour,13(2):129-146.

Douglas Porpora, 1997, "The Caterpillar’s Question: Contesting Anti-Humanism’s Contestations," Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 27(2/3): 243-264.

(g) Critical Realism and the History and Philosophy of Social Science:

George Steinmetz (ed.), 2005, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others, Durham: Duke University Press.

Peter Manicas, 1989, A History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Peter Manicas, 2006, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ted Benton, 1978, Philosophical Foundations of the Three Sociologies, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ian Craib and Ted Benton, 2010, Philosophy of Social Science, New York: Macmillan.

(h) Dialectical Critical Realism:

Alan Norrie, 2009, Dialectic and Difference: Dialectical Critical Realism and the Grounds of Justice, London: Routledge.

Roy Bhaskar, 2008, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, London: Routlege [note: this book is tough sledding]

Roy Bhaskar, 1994, Plato, Etc.: Problems of Philosophy and their Resolution, London: Routledge.

Craig Reeves, 2013, “Freedom, Dialectic and Philosophical Anthropology,” Journal of Critical Realism, 12(1): 13-44.

(i) Human Flourishing, Ethical Naturalism, and Critical Realism:

Christian Smith, 2014, To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Phil Gorski, 2013, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction,” Society, (Nov/Dec), 50:6: pp.

Andrew Sayer, 2011, Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Christian Smith, 2010, What is a Person?, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 384-490.


7. Additional Resources: Learning CR further can benefit from the following resources:

Centers and Websites:

Center for Critical Realism

International Association for Critical Realism

International Center for Critical Realism

Cambridge Realist Workshop

Lancaster Realist Workshop

London Realist Seminar

Journal of Critical Realism                   

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour

Routledge Studies in Critical Realism (series)

Mervyn Hartwig, 2007, Dictionary of Critical Realism, New York: Routledge.

Stephen Ackroyd and Steve Fleetwood (eds.), 2000, Realist Perspectives on Management and Organizations, New York: Routledge.

Priscilla Alderson, 2013, Childhoods Real and Imagined: An Introduction to Critical Realism and Childhood Studies, New York: Routledge.

Margaret Archer et al. (eds.), 1998, Critical Realism: Essential Readings, New York: Routledge.      

Margaret Archer, 1996, Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Margaret Archer, 2003, Structure, Agency, and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Margaret Archer and Jonathan Tritter (eds.), 2001, Rational Choice Theory: Resisting Colonization. New York: Routledge.

Margaret Archer, Andrew Collier, and Douglas Porpora (eds.), 2004, Transcendence: Critical Realism and God, New York: Routledge.

Margaret Archer (ed.), 2012, The Morphogenetic Society, New York: Springer.

Roy Bhaskar et al. (eds.), 1998, Critical Realism, New York: Routledge.

Bob Carter, 2001, Realism and Racism, New York: Routledge.

Andrew Collier, 2007, In Defense of Objectivity and Other Essays, New York: Routledge.

Andrew Collier, 1999, Being and Worth, New York: Routledge.

Sean Creaven, 2001, Marxism and Realism, New York: Routledge.

Justin Cruickshank, 2002, Realism and Sociology: Anti-Foundationalism, Ontology, and Social Research, New York: Routledge.

Mats Ekström, 1992, “Causal Explanation of Social Action: The Contribution of Max Weber and of Critical Realism to a Generative View of Causal Explanation in Social Science,” ActaSociologica, 35: 107-122.

Dave Elder-Vass, 2011, Causal Power of Social Structures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dave Elder-Vass, 2012, The Reality of Social Construction, New York: Routledge.

Steve Fleetwood, 2005, Critical Realism in Economics, New York: Routledge.

Jon Frauley and Frank Pearce (eds.), 2007, Critical Realism and the Social Sciences: Heterodox Elaborations, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Edward Fullbrook (ed.), 2008, Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and His Critics, New York: Routldege.

Philip Gorski, 2004, “The Poverty of Deductivism: A Constructive Realist Model of Sociological Explanation,” Sociological Methodology, 34:1-33.

Ruth Groff, 2004, Critical Realism, Post-positivism, and the Possibility of Knowledge, New York: Routledge.

Branwen Gruffyd-Jones, 2006, Explaining Global Poverty: A Critical Realist Approach, New York: Routledge.

Cynthia Hamlin, 2002, Beyond Relativism: Raymond Boudon, Cognitive Rationality, and Critical Realism, New York: Routledge.

David Harvey, 2002, “Agency and Community: A Critical Realist Perspective,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 32(2): 163-194.

Jonathan Joseph and Colin Wight, 2006, Scientific Realism and International Relations. New York: Cambridge.

Stephen Kemp and John Holmwood, 2003, “Realism, Regularity, and Social Explanation,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 33(2): 165-187.

Tony Lawson, 2003, Reorienting Economics, New York: Routledge.

Dustin McWherter, 2013, The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar contra Kant, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

William Outhwaite, 1987, New Philosophies of Social Science: Realism, Hermeneutics, and Critical Theory, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Heikki Patomaki, 2001, After International Relations: Critical Realism and the (Re)Construction of World Politics, New York: Routledge.

Jose Lopez and Garry Potter, 2005, After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism, Continuum International.

Keith Sawyer, 2005, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Andrew Sayer, 2000, Realism and Social Science, New York: Sage Publications.

Frédéric Vandenberghe, 2013,  What's Critical About Critical Realism? Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory, New York: Routledge.

And much more on specific topics besides….