Monthly Archives: March 2016

Critical Realism, Emergence, and God

Thinking aloud (allowed)

Some of the theories that are (in)forming my thinking are Critical Realism (Baskhar and Archer); ontological and explanatory emergence (philosophy of mind and sociology); and structuration theory (Giddens, and others that Margaret Archer critiques, eg. methodological individualists, such as Rom Harre).

None of it is clear in my head at all because I simply haven’t read enough, BUT,  one thing that is crystallising in my mind is the controversy over what might constitute the (necessary and sufficient) conditions for something to count as ‘real’. This ontological anxiety seems to consistently run through sociological theory as it tries to define and differentiate itself from the physical sciences (although quantum science seems to befit sociological explanations, as argued recently by Alex Wendt).

I was coming to the neat conclusion that what counts as ‘real’ in emergence theory and epiphenomenal accounts of reality is the effect that something has on something else. So, for example, ‘racism’ or ‘inflation’ are real not because we can see, touch, quantify or smell them, but because of the tangible effects or causes that these social phenomena have: racism, which is an attitude or behaviour that cannot be located anywhere specific or physical, causes people to be afraid or to act aggressively (in turn, that ‘fear’ is also real because it triggers other forms of (in)action); inflation, which is a rate of increase which cannot be located in anything tangible, causes people to spend more or less. Each are ‘real’ in that they have ‘consequences’. This is akin to saying that Pluto, the (dwarf) planet, exists, not because anybody has actually observed it, but because of the gravitational and mathematical effects it generates, leading (causing) astrophysicists to believe that there is ‘something’ occupying the space which they are calling ‘Pluto’.image

I am trying to establish the reality of an ‘academic’ property in the texts we produce and I find this a challenge because what counts as ‘academic’ varies significantly across contexts and audiences. In this sense, ”academicness’, understood as a property of a text, is contested knowledge because it is not uncontroversially locatable – it cannot, for instance, be reduced to any physical-textual property – and it has different effects on people/institutions, i.e. supervisors and institutions accommodate variety in what counts as ‘academic output/product’ (See for instance the recent award-winning dissertation of Nick Sousanis).

On a realist account,  what would count as ‘academic’ is the ‘effect or cause’ that a text has on others … which would mean what? If I read something that makes me behave ‘academically’, does that make the cause of my behaviour ‘academic’? Wouldn’t this open up the possibility for anything to be ‘academic’? And would this, therefore, explain why Nick Sousanis’s work is academic?

The argument that ‘for something to be real it must have an effect’ also opens up an argument for God to be real: basically, ‘God’ – or whatever deity or other belief- is real IFF it causes people to believe in its reality.

Is this what I want to say?

What is the flaw in this argument?

Thoughts most welcome!




Academic courtesies and acknowledgments

Social media: an encounter on ‘what makes writing academic’

In this post, I wish to specifically acknowledge my interactions with Thomas Basboell who has often taken me up and challenged me on what I post on this blog, on what I tweet, and on what I comment on when he writes his posts (all available here).

Both Thomas and myself are somewhat ‘nerdy’ about academic writing, although I think we might be at opposite ends of the ‘spectrum’ (so-to-speak, and pun intended). Despite this, I am grateful to him for responding to my ramblings on writing.


Conversation Prism

I embraced social media when I started my part-time PhD in 2013 having never engaged with social media before (Facebook etc. remain redundant for me, whereas Twitter, Academia Edu., and WordPress have been and continue to be significant resources for my thinking, my research and my teaching). I am, therefore, relatively new to it, but I feel like I have taken to social media like a duck to water. It has become an extension of my thinking, I continue tailoring it to my needs, and I rely on the updates and notifications I have set up.

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), I have never met Thomas in real life. He could be an algorithm for all I know. My first encounter with him was here, on Pat Thomson’s blog, on the relationship between thinking and writing. Since then, he has missed few opportunities to pick me up on my views about academic writing!

A few weeks ago, Thomas and I got into a dispute about a text which I argued was ‘academic’ and which he argued wasn’t. The text can be found here; it is a sociological paper on the messiness of research and the difficulty of doing methodological justice to the complexities of social reality. If anybody is interested in our débâcle, it starts with comments I made on Thomas’ post here:

and carries on in chronological order here:

Basically, Thomas went to the trouble of re-writing the introduction of the text (written by John Law) to show how it should look. I haven’t yet fully engaged with Thomas’ edit, but I will because it will allow me to address and articulate some of the themes I am dealing with in my PhD, namely ‘what makes writing academic’.

All I will say, for now, is that, predictably, I disagree with Thomas. He is taking a break from the Internet until Easter so hopefully I have a little more time to gather my thoughts … (to be cont.)