Gender, democracy and ethics: A critical realist analysis

Conference on critical realism and complexity
"The Complexity of a Nebula - NGC 5189" by NASA Hubble is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Next week critical realists will gather at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) to discuss complex realism, amongst other topics, during the conference ‘Realist complexity between Causal and Complex Systems’. What makes critical realism so valuable in these times and why should you attend the conference?

Gender, democracy, ethics: name any topic and critical realists will analyze it, deploying the instruments the philosophy of critical realism offers them.

Take for instance gender. Should this be perceived as a social construct or is it biologically determined? A realist might suggest it is merely a social construct. Whereas a critical realist will include biological aspects and try to figure out how the social and biological interact.

‘Stratification and emergence’ 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that critical realists are critical, digging deeper to find answers to scientific questions. Explaining critical realism in a nutshell wouldn’t do justice to the rich and nuanced lenses through which critical realists observe the world. But for those unfamiliar with the philosophy, it is worth mentioning a couple of core elements.

First, critical realisms believes that scientific analysis should encompass various dimensions and should go beyond empirical observation. A fundamental claim of critical realism is that one shouldn’t conflate the reality of the world with one’s perception if it. There are things under the surface that you might not immediately see but that are all part of reality. A critical realist will thus look for the ‘absent’ or ‘dormant force’ in reality that helps to explain why things are the way they are.

Critical realism is always about the bigger picture

In fact, a critical realist distinguishes between different levels or reality: the real (where entities, relations and processes exist in potentiality), the happening of events/processes and the empirical (how we observe and experience these happenings). This is what is meant with the depth of reality and what is referred to as the concept of stratification.

In addition, critical realists believe it is important to be conscious of the ordering of things. The reality you present, is your experience of that reality and the way you have categorized its elements. Another important concept of critical realism is emergence, which means that things should be explained in relation to other elements. In other words, that wholes are bigger than the sum of their parts.

The complexity of things means that reality should always be explained via complex interactions where parts are wholes of other parts, and wholes are parts of other wholes. Therefore, a critical realist doesn’t look for the ‘driver’ of a phenomena but will try to explain something by looking at the totality of the context and conduct. Critical realism is always about the bigger picture, avoiding linearity and simple explanations.

Karim Kniou, Associate Professor in International Political Economy and Governance at ISS, one of the organizers of the conference and a critical realist himself: ‘Critical realism deals with today’s world. It offers a perspective that helps us to understand the multiplicity of phenomena. In doing so, critical realists recognize that science is not neutral or objective, nor that it is free of emotions, actions, interests and perceptions. Moreover, it acknowledges that researchers are vulnerable and fallible. This all helps to move science forward.’

Renowned critical realists

In all its complexity, critical realism has a lot in common with complexity theory. The similarities and differences of the two will be further explored during the upcoming conference, as the overarching theme is complexity. The conference will shed light on ‘realist complexity’: what is it and why is it complex?

The conference offers a unique chance to listen to speeches from key figures in the field of critical realism, among which the acclaimed Margaret Archer, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK and trustee of the Centre for Critical Realism and Philip Gorski, a comparative-historical sociologist at Yale University in the USA.

Associate professor

Dr Karim Kniou

More information

Conference registration

Curious to learn more about critical realism and complexity and engage in lively panel discussions? Click on the related content below to register for the conference or the pre-conference. For more information about the programme visit the conference website.

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Realist Complexity between Causal and Complex Systems Conference

Conference and public presentations on what Critical Realism (CR) can contribute to the literature on complexity.

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