Methodology and Southeast Asian Studies (Part 3 of 2)

Following up on posts here and here on methodology in Southeast Asian studies, let me collect and respond to some of the very interesting reactions that I’ve received here and elsewhere.

Sam says

 it may have been interesting to have thematic panels consisting of individual presenters from different disciplines rather than dividing the panels by discipline

My response: Agreed! It would also have been fascinating to hear more about Sam’s own research.

Elvin says

Political scientists and economists are generally students of positivism, whereas fellow academics in anthropology and cultural studies are more rooted in perspectives similar to critical theory or constructivism (Peter Winch and Michel Foucault come to mind). Thus, in positivism, academics may be more open to utilizing a plurality of methods to get at an explanation of a particular phenomenon. In contrast, constructivists or critical theorists are more interested in descriptions of power dynamics and understanding the world as it is.

My response: I think that’s right. What I find puzzling, though, is why there is less direct confrontation from the critical theorists’ perspective of the positivists. I would imagine that both sides would be interested in discussing why they do things the way they do, but I only see engagement from one side. Curious.

Now for some non-blog comments. S says

as political science and economics expand their gaze to new areas and feel more confident about their work, they generate push-back, most of which is emotional rather than really intellectual. Intellectual (and constructive) resistance to social sciency imperialism tends to come more from within social science rather than outside, with exceptions of course.

My response: this may be true, but what strikes me so is the lack of any pushback, even emotional pushback, from the non-political science crowd. I would have liked to see emotional pushback; what I saw was eyes cast down at the papers.

U says

I’m struck by the contrast between South and Southeast Asian area studies. In S[outh] Asia, the usual complaint is that poli sci and postmodern anthro folks are not interested in empirical details due to their theoretical pre-commitments.

My response: Very interesting observation. The distinction here is less between positivist and postmodern than it is between “soak and poke first” and “ensure that the natives confirm your preconceptions or your theory.” I wonder if there are good interdisciplinary debates in South Asian studies. I bet there are.

P says

I think the basic issue is that the two schools have different and mutually incompatible ontological and epistemological assumptions…Almost everyone in the social science group adheres to some kind of realism: the world exists and our debates concern how best to show how it works. To someone with a pure “idealist” ontology all such debates are about as useful as debating the true temperature of hell.

My response: Very well put and I think that this is consonant with what I’m thinking here. But still I think we need to ask why the positivist SE Asianists want engagement with the non-positivists, while the non-positivists seem either uninterested or unwilling to go the other way.

C says

you’re conflating the humanities writ large with a particular way of doing anthropology…it’s simply a question of being interested in answering very different questions. In other words, the disagreement is not over how you answer a particular question, but why you are asking it in the first place. I also think that much of this is about the perceived value of making comparisons, which is fundamental to much of the social sciences but marginal at best (if not deeply distrusted) in many humanities disciplines.

My response: I agree with almost all of this. I run the risk of painting all of the humanistic social sciences as being postmodern, and I know that’s not right: lots of historians, both in the glory days of SEA studies and today, act more in the manner that the harder social scientists do today. George Kahin is a great example. Maybe C is too. I also recognize the suspicion of comparison, although I do not think that it holds much weight as an organizing principle for Southeast Asian politics. What remains unexplained, though, is why—given disagreement about what makes a good question—we don’t see more engagement from all camps about the value of the question. There’s more going on here, I think, if we want to explain the asymmetries I’ve described.

Comments 23

  1. Matt June 8, 2012


    I enjoyed this series of posts.

    I’ve had quite a few encounters along the lines of what you describe; most of them were at the University of Chicago with either Anthro students or Alex Wendt’s Ph.D. students in political science.

    My read is that the anthro/cultural studies people think that positivist and realist ontologies (not at all the same thing, by the way, though political scientists routinely conflate them) were decisively routed many decades ago. It’s not a matter of different perspectives; it’s more that “hard science” people in the social sciences are like pre-Copernicans who just haven’t gotten the memo yet. What are you supposed to say to people like that? It’s a waste of time. It’s like trying to persuade Holocaust deniers or people who believe the CIA has planted a chip in their head.

    The other complication is that, when pressed, a lot of these folks haven’t really delved all that deeply into the philosophical debates which they believe to have settled these issues, or at least they did so long ago and really don’t remember the details all that well. Since I used to be an avid consumer of continental philosophy, I was in a good position to demand that people explain their reasoning, which they were often not fully able to do.

    In philosophy, it’s simply not the case that positivism and realism were routed in some grand battle of the paradigms. These are quite active issues, but that’s not how many cultural studies people see things.

    So, for them, it’s like trying to talk a schizophrenic out of their delusions with a really bad stutter. I personally came to the conclusion that it’s not worth it to engage with people who adopt that attitude at the outset.

  2. Julia Azari June 8, 2012

    I’m reading this with great interest (not only because I am supposed to be packing for my brief trip to the Policy History Conference, but that’s undoubtedly a small part of it). I’ve been to a conference that was about 70% communications scholars and 25% political scientists (with a couple of other disciplines making up the rest), and I encountered the same phenomenon. We asked them lots of questions, some of which implicitly engaged their assumptions and epistemology – how they interpreted words and pictures, how they defined concepts, etc. They did not reciprocate, for the most part. More recently, I’ve received an anonymous review that was written by a historian (not a guess) which mostly criticized my piece for having objectionable political implications. I actually agree with this assessment. But I don’t think it makes the findings any less true. I am prepared to deal with lots of probably totally deserved criticisms, but not that one. The question of how we can use research to improve human outcomes should not be taken lightly; the stakes are obviously quite high in many of the problems we study. I perceive this as a version of the epistemological debate to which you alluded in your earlier post: instead of “here’s how I felt,” the guiding principle is “here’s who we are trying to help.” I do not see this as a central operating principle of research on the level of say, developing a determinate research design, eliminating alternative explanations, or testing causal processes. Can a debate exist between these two perspectives?

  3. Tom June 8, 2012

    Thanks, guys, for reading!

    MATT: I see your point. If this really is just about positivism (I guess this means the basic epistemology of mainstream PS, no?) and realism (our basic ontology?) being considered so obviously out-of-date as to not warrant even a comment, then this makes sense. I just don’t believe that even most humanists really believe in something different. Or at least, they certainly act as if they believe that they know things about ME AND WHAT I DO enough to conclude that I cannot know things about Southeast Asian politics and how it works.

    JULIA: ouch, that criticism is no good. We shouldn’t change our findings because we don’t like the implications; we should strive our hardest to reason from our findings. This is basic Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

    I think that a dialogue can exist, and that it ought to. The most frustrating thing that I see is that some of the people who know the most about the murk and the quirk of Southeast Asian societies (but who are not political scientists) are the least likely to place themselves in a position of being criticized about the basic facts of how SEA works. It’s a shame.

  4. T F Rhoden June 11, 2012

    These posts are super interesting for me. They cover two things which I really enjoy talking about: SEA and questions of method. I hope that I’ll be free the next time another one of these types of conferences pops up.

    Since I wasn’t there I can only speculate, but of those five you mentioned in your initial post, I thought the question asked by the poli-sci fellow—“what I’d really like is a guidebook that tells me what counts as good anthropological research in Southeast Asia. I’m not an anthropologist, so how do I know it when I see it? What standards do you use?”—was very instructive. It sounds like a very (American) poli-sci question to ask. I say this because there are what I call “the big three” of umbrella-like methodologies at play in contemporary empirical poli-sci (survey-based stats, rat-choice, hist inst). Within American poli-sci then, we are somewhat used to having to ask such questions. In fact, I feel like we get something of a training in having to defend whatever method or mix of methods we choose to utilize. I know if I were at the conference I would have been asking quite a few questions myself…which helps to collaborate some of your musings since I’m American, a poli-sci student, and male (and occasionally a jerk ^__^).

    But what I would want to add to the discussion early on is that I think it’s interesting that the one audience member asked about “standards”. Ever since reading Larry Laudan, I’ve realized that “standards” is a kind of weaker way—maybe more polite way, I think—of saving “values.” And if that is the case that standards are a byword of cognitive values (“axiology” in the Laudan’s phraseology), then we must admit that the discussion is no longer one of methodology, but a discussion of something else. When it comes to discussing axiologies, as apposed to methodologies or theories, I wonder if everyone is really ready or equipped to have such a discussion in public. What’s-the-point-of-this-all type questions are not everyone’s cup of tea. But, for better or worse, for the American-trained poli-sci student, we get a good dose of such questions early on. I understand now after reading Sewell’s Logic of History that history and anthropology grad students (at least within America) don’t have quite the same focus so early on as us poli-sci kids do on these types of discussions.
    The one thing that I have learnt quite quickly is that methodology discussions are never only about methodology. If they are any good, then they quickly slip into discussions of what Laudan called axiology. And if they are really good, then they take in ontology/theory, method, and axiology. It’s by having to spend so much time fighting it out with others within our own “discipline” of poli-sci, that I can easily see why the American poli-sci participants might be more used to (eager to) engage in such discussion.

    Since I wasn’t there though, I can’t say much else without sounding too silly. But I can say that I would very much like to attend such a conference, and I hope another one comes along soon.

    Wishing you all the best from Burma! Cheers, -Thomas R

  5. Tom June 11, 2012

    Thanks for reading, Thomas, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the posts.

    I agree with you entirely that “standards” actually stands in for “values” in discussions like this. But the thing that I wonder is this. The humanistic social sciences (which includes anthropology but also lots of other allied disciplines too) clearly DO have standards/values. My fellow political scientist just wanted to understand what they were. I’d love to know the same thing.

  6. Uday June 19, 2012

    I have found “realism” to be a good middle ground between positivist (both quant. and qual. versions) and interpretivist (postmodern and other) epistemologies can converse. On realist terms, we can talk about a set of evaluative standards for a wide range of research. Whether one does a natural experiment or an ethnography to answer one’s research question then becomes a secondary question, and there’s nothing to prevent someone from using both. Very few US-trained political scientists begin with realist assumptions, however, in my experience. Certainly, grad training does not equip one to think beyond the positivist canon.

    Every time interpretive work comes up for evaluation among positivists, it is roundly abused and dismissed. Interpretivists outside political science have taken note of how grad training and journals operate, and they are merely responding to fundamental disagreements of what is good research. They expect to be dismissed as “woolly humanists” by scholars they cannot bring themselves to appreciate. Until we have common realist grounds for debating substantive political questions and how to study them, the best we can do is to understand the different intellectual standards that prevail among positivists and interpretivists. Without mutual understanding, we will simply continue reproducing the old misconceptions about each other, and simply fail to learn what is worth learning from the other side.

  7. Tom June 19, 2012

    Thank you for reading, Uday. I do often read that realism is the super-epistemology, the dominant epistemology for the natural sciences for sure, and for the social sciences too.

    Two reactions.

    (1) I suppose that my folk understanding of realism is pretty compatible with the way that most empiricists in the social world actually act. By that I mean simply this: most “positivist” social scientists who spend any time working with actual people are fairly open to most of the points that a realist would make in criticizing a standard positivist epistemology. Not all, for sure. But when it comes to area studies and the social sciences, the death-blow of realism to the things that self-identified positivists actually do is unclear to me. I cannot identify anything like a “do this, not that” statement for any realist critique of “positivist” empirical work.

    (2) I disagree that realism offers a bridge between the various epistemologies. I do not think that true interpretivists believe that it is a productive exercise for researchers to try to make true statements about the social world. The correspondence theory of truth is either wrong or very seriously misleading, and my understanding (supported by 20 minutes of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and UnderstandingSociety) is that realists do indeed adhere to some sort of correspondence theory of truth.

    Additionally, let me write down this paragraph for you and get your reaction:

    Every time positivist work comes up for evaluation among interpretivists, it is roundly abused and dismissed. Positivists in political science have taken note of how grad training and journals operate, and they are merely responding to fundamental disagreements of what is good research. They expect to be dismissed as “rat choicers” by scholars they cannot bring themselves to appreciate.

    But your final point, that applied researchers (like me!) need more discussion and understanding among the various epistemologies employed by different scholarly communities is a good one. It is exactly what prompted me to write these posts.

  8. Uday June 20, 2012

    Thanks, Tom, for your very thoughtful response. By “realism,” I specifically meant the kind of postpostivisist philosophy of science that the likes of Roy Bhaskar and Andrew Sayer have heralded. I do not believe it has made any impact to date on political science yet. Critical realists, as they call themselves, do not accept a correspondence theory of truth in the Cartesian sense, and that’s where they primarily differ from positivists. They share with interpretivists the notion that we construct the social world in different (knowable) ways, but unlike postmodern scholars, critical realists believe that the external world can be known, however incompletely, to us via social science. Our theories are always under-determined in this view. Multiple mechanisms, diverse methods, and fine-grained variations within phenomena are important for critical realists. But so too is the notion that science is a social activity undertaken within epistemic communities, and hence, knowledge-production is itself open to the kinds of scrutiny that we subject the rest of society to.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of anthropologists (whom I know) conduct ethnography on critical realist assumptions, and are highly critical of postmoderns within their discipline who do not. I highly recommend Andrew Sayer’s very clear introduction to critical realism in social science (in case you haven’t come across it yet).

    The biggest concern regarding US political science from a realist or interpretive perspective is that a lot of the work on democracy, conflict, etc, is firmly committed to a hypothetico-deductive method. Democracy or civil war is defined a priori, and there is insufficient immersion in an area of the world. Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea’s Interpretation and Method, I think, offers very cogent rebuttals to the standard positivist criticism of interpretivists, namely, “anything goes” given the lack of standards. This is of course a grossly unfair criticism, largely borne out of insufficient engagement with the Other. At the same time, they take pains to separate their own intellectual practices from postmodern types who reject social science per se. I certainly learned a lot from reading the clear, well-argued and reasonable articles in that volume. They make a lot of implicit knowledge explicit for readers.

  9. Tom June 20, 2012

    Thanks for the follow-up, and I’m happy to read both of those two works, neither of which I had come across before.

    Some unconnected thoughts, though. First, I think that Bhaskar is rather atypical among critical realists w.r.t. his position on the correspondence theory of truth. Many who identify as critical realists hold that Bhaskar is in fact mistaken on this. (The problem I have with the philosophy of social science is that at the philosophical level, there is way too much disagreement on what are the essential features of various different epistemologies. I cannot pretend to be an expert, or to follow these debates with sophisticated knowledge. The problem is mine, not theirs.)

    Second, I don’t think that critical realism has been uninfluential in political science. Any good IR theory course will at the very least go over these debates. (For example, I read Bhaskar and Bhaskar-inflected IR theory with Darden in 2002.) Mainstream comparative politics is different.

    But let me get down to the meat of my response. When you write that “Democracy or civil war is defined a priori, and there is insufficient immersion in an area of the world” I agree with you as a matter of *personal taste*, but not as a foundational position. There is nothing *wrong* or *false* about defining democracy a priori. Democracy is a theoretical statement that exists independently of whether or not it applies to any actual thing in the social world. So what if it doesn’t have much relevance to local politics in West Java? It might have relevance somewhere else.

    The objection that you raise, I think, is that failing to be immersed in an area of the world leaves you vulnerable to saying things that are *inapposite* or *irrelevant* to that area of the world. If you say, “I will only look to see if democracy—defined the way that I define it—exists in West Java” then you run the risk of simply not being able to say much about the things that matter to people in West Java. You will misunderstand what they are saying to you when they tell you that they support “democracy.” You will confidently return to your home base with “findings” that do not have the meaning that you attribute to them.

    But that said, a scholar might not care about how people in West Java interpret democracy. She might simply be interested in whether or not the thing that she labels democracy correlates with some other thing in West Java. Does this make me a positivist or a realist? I don’t know. I suspect the former.

  10. Uday June 20, 2012

    The problem with a priori definitions of any political concept is that it hides various ideological, ethnic and other biases under the Science carpet. In the case of democracy in particular, a distinctly Euroamerican understanding of “democracy” is taken to be the yardstick to judge real existing democracies. Now, some scholars such as Kanchan Chandra are talking of “patronage democracy” as a subtype. But this is deeply satisfactory because the very idea of democracy and the institutions that embody it (not just subtypes) depart from the a priori notion, whether in S.Asia, W.Africa or even the US. When ethnographic fieldwork or historical analysis brings to light how democracy really works in most of the world, there are all kinds of interesting comparative analyses between how brokers, lobbyists, politicians, voters, etc, actually exist. In this spirit, I am looking forward to a new edited volume on democracy in India and the US edited by Ira Katznelson and Partha Chatterjee, both of whom are immensely respected within American and S.Asian politics respectively.

    What’s the need to start with Plato/Aristotle or even Enlightenment philosophers? Why not begin by comparing the empirics and arriving at working definitions? Of course, these will shift over time as democratic institutions themselves change in form and substance. If, however, one begins with a priori notions of anything complex, especially one prejudiced deeply by ethnocentric and ideological baggage, we continue to misinterpret sociopolitical phenomena in much of the world. What is even worse people will start counting populations and filling a priori boxes without enough sifting of the evidence. That bothers me deeply in a way that hasn’t been discussed enough in comparative politics at least yet.

    P.S. I did mean comparative politics when discussing critical realism. Every time I’ve discussed it in a conference or classroom, people have looked blankly at me.

  11. Tom June 20, 2012

    I think we will disagree here. I do not think that it is necessary that any particular definition of any particular concept will be irretrievably tarnished by cultural, political, ethnic, ideological, or other biases. That is only true for bad and unreflective scholars.

    Best example of this was the use of consociationalism (derived from the Netherlands) to describe and catalogue Malaysian politics in the 1970s. It didn’t take long for anyone who knew anything about Malaysia to be critical of such uses of a Western concept in the case of Malaysia. So a nice, productive debate emerged about the essential features of consociationalism (turns out, not so clear) and how to identify them in practice (turns out, pretty tough). This was done using local knowledge to critique Western concepts, and I can think of no reason to hold that this was a fundamentally anti-positivist activity. In fact, it seems to be exactly what good social science ought to be.

    The reason why we shouldn’t just start with the empirics is that I don’t trust myself or anyone else to be a faithful and unbiased interpreter of the world as it is. There is always and everywhere a dialogue between theoretical presuppositions and the act of observation. Better to recognize our preconceptions and prejudices as much as possible than to pretend otherwise.

    Furthermore, our goal ought to be to *strive* for definitions that cease being working definitions. That can only be done through open, critical dialogue among scholars who are willing to admit that they—and the definitions that they use—are fallible and therefore should be subject to public scrutiny. If comparative politics does not at least strive for that, then we are on the way to critical studies and relativism, like it or not.

  12. Uday June 20, 2012

    Yes, we should agree to differ here. But that of course explains the difficulties in having these conversations between scholars with totally opposed analytical priors. The notion that there can be politically neutral definitions seems very odd to me as a student of power. Likewise, it must seem very odd to you why someone might actually prefer working definitions rather than watertight or even mathematically precise ones.

    There is no easy resolution of these differences, no matter how hard we try, and it is not surprising that anti-positivists avoid pushing their critiques beyond a point. The power differentials between (say) anthropology and economics are immense within the social sciences are immense, it’s never a fair contest, and very rarely are people trained well enough in multiple epistemological traditions (and methods) to actually evaluate work in a different traditions than one’s own. Sadly, then, our motto has to be living together separately…

  13. Tom June 20, 2012

    This is, I think, the heart of the matter. You’re right, I don’t see why working definitions should be the end goal for political analysis rather than merely a step on the way in our imperfect quest to understanding and describe and predict the social world. You disagree…and that’s the end of the conversation.

    I do think that it’s surprising that the anti-positivists don’t push their views beyond a certain point. I do not have a similar inclination in reverse.

  14. Uday June 21, 2012

    I am glad to see your inclination to engage with the other side of this debate. That’s already much more than the majority of faculty members I encountered during my graduate training. Of course, anti-positivists within political science are always keen to engage and show up positivists to be pseudo-scientists by revealing their underlying ideological and ethnocentric assumptions. Lisa Wedeen does it best, I think, when she asks her students to do a discourse analysis of KKV at the end of her methods course. But for anthropologists, historians, etc committed to understanding real world phenomena, positivism is not the big enemy, postmodernism is. So, they ignore positivism much in the way that an average political scientist ignores postmodern writings. Different sociological realities we face, especially when it comes to journals, committees, hiring, tenure, etc.

    P.S. I don’t think working definitions should be the end goal. I am all for a cumulative understanding of a social phenomenon over time. At a given point in time, however, our understanding can only be provisional rather than definitive. I don’t think we disagree on that count at least, though we may disagree on whether such a cumulative body of knowledge has been produced using positivist methodologies.

  15. Matt June 21, 2012

    I’ve been observing this conversation without dipping a toe in to this point. I have a few observations, however.

    1) Scientific realism is not a methodology. If true, it implies that some approaches to studying the world are misguided, but it leaves open quite a bit of ground.

    2) Rational choice theory is, I believe, one approach that scientific realism would require us largely to abandon. Unlike positivists, realists are committed to the existence of real mechanisms. So any as-if approaches to constructing theoretical objects are deeply suspect. Rationalist assumptions have been pretty thoroughly undermined by experimental research. Realists would say we have to abandon them, regardless of successful predictions; positivists would say that the predictions are pretty much what counts. We might be able to identify special cases in which rationalist assumptions appear to function as advertised, but as a general approach to social theory, it would have to go.

    3) There is nothing generally objectionable about the workhorse of “positivist” social science, the analysis of correlations and counterfactuals, on realist suppositions. The goal of these analyses is different from what a positivist/empiricist would aim for. Realists are interested in identifying generative mechanisms. Correlations and counterfactuals are excellent tools for doing that, but theory is indispensable. Theory ultimately tells us what there is.

    4) Given the complexity and endless creativity of the human capacity to create structures of meaning, and especially the human capacity for reflexivity, one always has to be on the lookout for novel mechanisms, structures, institutions, and processes. The extent to which these things are static or dynamic over time, constant or variable over space, are empirical questions, answerable only through research.

    5) Interpretation would seem to offer an important set of approaches, but I share Tom’s sense that we lack a “toolbox” for this type of research: a “do this, not this” set of rules in the way that we (sort of) have for counterfactual and correlational analysis. Nothing I’ve seen in this thread has helped to clarify what such a toolbox would look like.

    6) I find the disagreement over a priori versus working definitions to be a red herring. The important question is whether or not definitions refer. If they do not, it doesn’t matter where you get them from. People who are deeply steeped in the politics of a country are quite capable of being totally and catastrophically wrong, while people with relatively little acquaintance are capable of being right. Tetlock’s research would seem to put this claim on a pretty solid empirical foundation.

    7) To me, the most telling sentence in this dialogue has been this one: “The notion that there can be politically neutral definitions seems very odd to me as a student of power.” It is hard to see how this can be a realist insight. Once again, definitions refer or not. One has to consider very carefully the extent to which power may distort the scientific process, but it is not a priori certain that it will. If it is, per Uday’s claim, then the search for real processes and mechanisms should close up shop.

  16. Tom June 21, 2012

    Thanks for weighing in, Matt. When I read all that you wrote here, it leads me to believe that the distinction between realism and positivism as positions in the philosophy of the social sciences is relatively unimportant for the enterprise of actual social science research. I see realism and positivism as being fairly close, and more clearly defined by their joint opposition to interpretivism.

  17. Matt June 21, 2012


    I think that’s somewhat right, but not completely. Political science seems to have a spectrum, where the center is a sort of implicitly hybrid positivist/realist stance. There are extremes, however. The Yale experimentalists, for instance, are positivist extremists. Also, in my experience, most political scientists seem to accept the “methodology of positive economics” position on rational choice assumptions, which is totally indefensible on realist grounds, as I’ve said. That would seem to cover a pretty substantial chunk of the discipline, including a lot of its “high prestige” side. Pure positive theory articles are virtually impossible to place in top journals in political science. Historical sociology-style pieces are increasingly rare in the top tier journals, if for no other reason then due to the word-count requirements. I think the discipline would be healthier if it paid more attentive to scientific realist principles.

  18. Tom June 21, 2012

    That makes loads of sense. I agree: the experimentalists and the EITM folks cannot be reconciled with the realist epistemology.

  19. Uday June 21, 2012

    Thanks, Matt, for those comments. I don’t think I ever said critical realism is a “methodology” because it obviously isn’t. It is an ontological position that is agonstic about methodology. Roy Bhaskar and his mentor Harre as well as other realists who differ from them (e.g. Hilary Putnam) have always been fervent critics of positivism. If anything, Ayer’s positivism is what provoked them to think epistemology afresh and find a way out. Bhaskar explicitly says he looked for alternatives in response to “a very unrewarding dispute between positivism and hermeneutics” during his grad school days (

    The ontology implied by critical realism is simply that the world, albeit constructed and mediated by language and power, is understandable at varying levels of depth in the form of generative mechanisms. He says critical realism is an “ontology in which the world was seen as structured, differentiated and changing. And science was seen as a process in motion attempting to capture ever deeper and more basic strata of a reality at any moment of time unknown to us and perhaps not even empirically manifest.” There need be no commitment to a correspondence theory of truth, an assumption of rationality, a prior preference for experimental research, methodological individualism, etc. At no point has any critical realist proclaimed that it is more or less the same as positivism or that thin statistical descriptions are somehow a priori preferable to thicker descriptions of social reality. If anything, Roy Bhaskar (and disciples such as Collier and Sayer) explicitly rejects the hypothetico-deductive method in favour of his RRME model, and disavows any fact/value distinction that is central to positivism. Bhaskar says instead that critical realism is a radical ontology of science that extracts “facts from values.”

    So, I totally disagree with the characterization of realism as positivism in another garb. It is difficult to read Harre, Bhaskar, Sayer, Putnam, etc, and come away with that lesson. On power, concepts, and method, Bhaskar’s books explicitly engage with the growing literature on sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), especially its more radical fringe comprising the likes of Bloor and Latour. Detailed studies of how scientists actually work, which is the focus in SSK, show repeatedly how power relations operate in scientists’ everyday practices. And this is real scientists we’re talking about, not the fake ones who engage in numerology. Robert Adcock and Mark Bevir have an excellent history of the discipline essay in which they explain how the H-D method, the covering law principle, etc, came to be seen as “science” in the post-WWII US context anyway. Read in conjunction with the critical realists, we can learn a lot about how the mainstream of the discipline works today.

    P.S. On explicit discussions of how to improve, evaluate or criticize interpretive research (the intellectual standards, in short), I still recommend Yanow and Schwartz-Shea’s Interpretation and Method. I absolutely agree that explicit standards, however debated, need to be formulated in transparent terms and used to judge better and worse arguments. I am not an interpretivist insofar as I do not reduce social realities to hermeneutics, but I found the book to be clear and jargon-free in its exposition.

  20. Tom June 21, 2012

    I don’t think that either Matt or I think that realism is “positivism in another garb.” In fact, the entire point of our little exchange here is that there are irreconcilable differences.

    What I do think (and Matt might agree, might not) is that once we understand that the world “is understandable at varying levels of depth” then we have a basis for dialogue about those things that we strive to understand, one that the strict interpretivist does not share. And positivism, too, needs no preference for “assumption of rationality, a prior preference for experimental research, methodological individualism, etc.”

    I still don’t think that you’re right about the correspondence theory of truth for all realists, although Bhaskar himself seems pretty clear about his own position as a critical realist. Part of this comes from the unclear relationship between critical realism and scientific realism taken more generally.

  21. Uday June 21, 2012

    There’s nothing to prevent an interpretivist even as strict as Geertz to embrace a realist ontology of science. Geertz himself compared how Islam operated in two very different contexts, and he certainly believed that interpretation meant working through layers of empirical complexity. That sounds like depth to me at least. Even the likes of Jim Scott, who concern themselves with the workings of power in society, work with a realist ontology in which better interpretations get to the deeper layers of meaning embedded in particular contexts. And none of these scholars have shied away from broad comparative studies despite their commitment to a meaning-centered social science. It is of course totally different within the mainstream of contemporary anthropology, most of whom have rejected Geertz, Scott, etc, long ago, because the postmoderns do not believe themselves to be describing a layered reality that can be known in an additive or cumulative way by a body of scholars. Too often interpretivists are lumped with this lot by political scientists today despite the very real divides that exist among them (the latter don’t even cite the former).

  22. Tom June 21, 2012

    You’ll note that in the essay that spawned this whole discussion, I specifically include Scott and Geertz as representing what I consider to be the mainstream of comparative Southeast Asian political studies, and opposed to the pure area-studies brand.

    But a strict interpretivist, no, really cannot adopt a realist ontology. The Geertz of the Balinese Cockfight is just incompatible with the Geertz of Islam Observed. The latter, and Scott, these are just not real interpretivists.

  23. Uday June 21, 2012

    Haha ok…I see no contradiction (and neither would they if the question were put to them), but if you do, that’s fine too…we can all agree then that not-so-strict interpretivists are able to do good empirical research on realist assumptions. That’s, I suppose, what we all care about. Maybe we can leave it there.

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