File spoon-archives/bourdieu.archive/bourdieu_1997/97-04-25.090, message 19

Subject: More on Bhaskar & Bourdieu
Date: Mon, 10 Feb 1997 14:24:19 -0500

George Free wrote:

> There's a brief discussion about Bhaskar and Bourdieu in Bridget
> Fowler "An Introduction to Pierre Bourdieu's Understanding." (Theory,
> Culture and Society, 1996 vol 13, no.2). I haven't read Bhaskar myself, so
> I can't comment on it. I'd like to hear more though.

Thanks for the cite, I'll be interested to read that.  Per your request I'll
expand somewhat on Roy Bhaskar and critical realism, but I'm not certain if
this discussion belongs list-wide or should go private, so I'll try to be
brief.  Bhaskar views himself as an "underlaborer for the sciences," in the
sense that he strives to provide them a philosophical groundwork which
recognizes that knowledge is socially produced, but refuses to lapse into the
notion that the world is entirely socially or discursively constructed,
maintaining instead that for the most part the world (including the social
world) is independent of our thought.  His work started out in the philosophy
of natural science, then broadened to encompass the social sciences and
issues of philosophy itself.  I think one may say fairly that Bhaskar aims to
elaborate the philosophy underlying marxism, and to develop it further (at
times, critically).  Nevertheless, he and others recognize that marxism is
just one possible critical realist social theory, and that critical realism
can supply a theory with philosophical and methodological coherence but
cannot by itself prove it to be true--the theory needs evidence to clinch
that point.  (For what it's worth, I gather Bhaskar is gaining recognition in
Europe, but he's still little known here in the U.S.)

Among Bhaskar's major points is the distinction made above between the world
as an object of thought, and our thought about it.  Closely following this is
the idea of ontological stratification: critical realism maintains that
reality is *not* all on one level, that of experience, consciousness, or
discourse.  Instead, the world is highly stratified, and at its foundation
are numerous underlying structures and "generative mechanisms" which possess
various powers and susceptibilities.  (They range from physical ones such as
atomic and chemical structures, to biological ones like physiological and
ecological systems, to social structures such as the mode of production and
sex/gender relations.)  Powers and susceptibilities are causal properties,
and in fact Bhaskar argues that what defines something as "real" is not its
perceptibility, but its causal efficacy.  Such structures and mechanisms
interact in various ways, resulting in actual events; and some events become
experiences.  So consciousness and its contents are the tip of the
ontological iceberg, the contingent products of a myriad underlying dynamics
and conditions.  Bhaskar calls these ontological strata the real, the actual,
and the empirical.  The upshot is that there really is a real world outside
our minds, we really do have access to it, but much of the world cannot be
perceived by the senses, and so knowledge of it is often indirect and
requires thought, skilled observation, and *work*--which supports the
position that knowledge is socially produced, and incidentally also means
that it's quite possible for a theory to be wrong.

The world is stratified in another sense as well: entities can interact in
such a way that they create new beings.  For example, chemicals can combine
into molecules that gather into life forms; new life forms develop, and (as
things worked out) led to humans; out of certain transformations in feudal
society, capitalism arose; and there are many other examples of this sort of
development, for which Bhaskar uses the term "emergence."  The emergent
entity possesses new properties or powers which can't be reduced to those of
the entities it came out of (life is not simply chemical, society is not
simply biological), even though the "lower" level remains a condition of its
existence.  Bhaskar calls this analysis "emergent powers materialism."

One of these emergent entities is human society, which for Bhaskar involves
humans' emergent power of intentional embodied agency.  At the heart of this
argument is the recognition that reasons have causal efficacy and so must be
understood as real; because of this, social analysis must investigate
people's own understanding of their actions--among other things.  Society in
Bhaskar's view cannot be reduced to individuals or their reasoning: they
remain distinct but closely related--more exactly, they are the condition for
each other's existence.  Bhaskar has developed what he calls the
"transformational model of social activity," in which society is the
necessary historical and ontological condition of people's actions, but those
actions ultimately reproduce and/or transform society.  For its part, society
is an ensemble of structures, practices, and conventions, that Bhaskar has
described as a system of positioned-practices.

Knowledge, being the result of social practices, is necessarily shaped by the
history, society and social position from which it emerges: Bhaskar calls
this "epistemic relativism."  However, the fact that theories are socially
conditioned and transient does *not* imply that there are no grounds for
preferring one theory over another.  Bhaskar rejects such "judgmental
relativism" (the notion that all beliefs are equally valid): on the contrary,
the evidence drawn from the world remains, and we decide which theory most
adequately accounts for it ("judgmental rationalism").  Thus the theory of
oxygen, though it could (in principle) someday be superseded, is still better
than the theory of phlogiston, and the earth still orbits the sun rather than
vice versa.

That will probably suffice for a nutshell summary.  As I suggested in my
previous post, I think Bourdieu would feel quite comfortable with much or
even all of this.  I don't think there's any question that he believes we
have access to the world outside the mind or that knowledge of it requires
analytical and empirical research, otherwise his use of surveys would be
pointless and irrational.  His "structuring structures" have powers and
susceptibilities, along the lines of Bhaskar's real entities.  Bourdieu
clearly sees society as a system of positioned practices distinct from the
individuals who occupy those positions; and so forth.

Others who have written about social theory from a critical realist or
similar position include Margaret Archer, Jeffery Isaac, Russell Keat and
John Urry (together), Peter Manicas, and William Outhwaite; I haven't read
the last two, but the others are definitely worthwhile.  Recently Andrew
Collier published an introduction to Bhaskar, which I just bought and have
only leafed through, but it looks good.  And of course there's Bhaskar
himself, but if any of you are interested in reading him, I think I should
warn you that his recent books are marred by an extremely difficult, almost
impenetrable writing style; in fact a year or so ago he won an "award" for
the world's worst scholarly prose.  Personally I find Bhaskar rewards the
labor, and likewise it's worth noting that the person who nominated him for
that "award" is one of his supporters.  But I'd recommend starting with his
earlier writing, such as *A Realist Theory of Science* and *The Possibility
of Naturalism* (and, I'm told, *Reclaiming Reality*--I haven't gotten around
to that one either).  Finally, there's an e-mail discussion list on Bhaskar
sponsored by the Spoon Collective.

I hope this has been helpful.

Tobin Nellhaus
"Faith requires us to be materialists without flinching": C.S. Peirce


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