The Critical Realism ‘moment’ in Essex Sociology

0485006170 The Critical Realism Research Group and Seminar Series emerged gradually in the Winter Term of 1997. It came into existence for the usual reason such theory oriented academic groups do: a number of Ph.D students took note of their academic discipline’s increasing interest in a relatively new academic discourse/theorist /intellectual fashion and they decided they needed to know more about it.  This group of Essex Ph.D students already knew all about the varieties of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory but had thus far only caught the scent of Critical Realism (CR). They knew the main figure in the movement was Roy Bhaskar but had found the difficulty of his writing rather daunting and wanted help. Critical Realism was primarily a development in the philosophy of social science and they were aware that a few of the Essex Sociology department professors were experts in this field. One in particular, Ted Benton, was quite connected to the Critical Realism movement and very knowledgeable about it. Garry Potter, one of the co-authors of this piece and a contract tutor in the department at the time, was also known to be very interested in Critical Realism, so they were approached and asked if they could give a tutorial/lecture/seminar on the subject.  Both of them did, pretty much just outlining the basic tenets of the subject and the debates around which Critical Realism was still in the process of emerging from. This could have simply been the end but for four equally important and mutually reinforcing factors.

These initial seminars had whetted people’s appetite rather than satiating their interest; the students became aware that other lecturers in the department had their own levels of knowledge about and points of agreement/disagreement about CR; it seemed to the Ph.D students quite possible that CR could be used in someway to help frame their own Ph.D research; and last but not least, the group of people who came to these first events found that they got on with one another socially quite well. The research and discussion group was to some extent a drinking and socializing group as well.

The Critical Realism Group was not in any way a line up of disciples of Roy Bhaskar or people who self-identified with the CR label. Indeed, most did not. Critical Realism is primarily a meta-theoretical perspective and the discussions tended to focus upon ontology and epistemology; but many brought to the table their own particular theoretical perspectives. Rob Stones, for example, explained to us his own theory of “past modernism”.

Tony Woodiwiss produced one of the most interesting theoretical moments of our CR Group. He argued his quite unflinching structuralist position: covering Saussure, Durkheim, Althusser and Foucault. Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism evolved out of the natural science realism of Rom Harré, with Harré arguing for the existence of natural structures but not social ones. Harré argued that the latter were a purely discursive phenomenon existentially dependent upon people and having no real existence of their own, holding a position (somewhat) similar to that of Weber. Bhaskar propounded an argument for the reality of social structures as well. Tony Woodiwiss took this on board and then some under the rubric of his ordinary as opposed to critical realism. His steadfast refusal to accept any distinction between the ontological status of natural structures and social structures, in the context of a lengthy debate with Ted Benton concerning Lacan’s proposition that “theory thinks us”, managed to shock many.

A different kind of shock was produced by Ph.D student Fethi Açikel when in a discussion he casually referred to Marx’s eleventh thesis; we were shocked at our own ignorance because none of us knew what it was. . . until he told us that it was actually inscribed upon his tomb in Highgate Cemetery: “hitherto philosophers have only tried to interpret the world; the point is to change it”.

A different kind of “moment’’ occurred when Roy Bhaskar came to Essex to debate Ernesto Laclau. The latter’s Center for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences had both a longer and more institutionalized moment at Essex. The debate seemed to pit not only Bhaskar against Laclau but also two armies of Ph.D students against one another. We (almost) all agreed that ‘we’ won.

Finally, the three most academically significant things that came out of the Critical Realism Group were the following. First, the 2nd annual Critical Realism Conference – After Postmodernism: Critical Realism? – took place at Essex in the fall of 1998 (organized by Garry Potter and José López the co-authors of this piece) during which both the International Association of Critical Realists and the journal The Journal of Critical Realism were born. Both still thrive today.

Secondly, the book After Postmodernism: an Introduction to Critical Realism  (López and Potter eds.) came out of this conference. Many Essex people both lecturers and students gave papers at the conference and/or wrote chapters for this volume including John Scott, Ian Craib, Ted Benton, Tony Woodiwiss, Rob Stones, Pam Highham and David Ford.

Thirdly and probably most importantly, while as said earlier, certainly not all the students in this group felt they were card carrying Critical Realists or produced Ph.Ds explicitly framed by this school of thought, the philosophical discussions and related readings very likely directly or indirectly found their way into the work of all of them: Andrea Zhouri, Pam Highham, David Ford, Damian White, Fethi Açikel, Leslie Cooper, Oonagh Corrigan, Tabitha Freeman and José López, to name just a few.


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