Critical realism
Escaping the straightjacket of cognitivism.
Developing a theoretical basis for planned
intervention and change in social systems
Nick McDonald
There are 2 main philosophical positions in social
science which deny that we can have knowledge
of reality
• All reality consists in conscious states
– ‘phenomenalist idealism’
– E.g. cognitive psychology
• Reality is socially constructed
– ‘social constructionism’
– Various theories from social cognition to critical theory
Organisations as mental
constructions - some examples
• Organisation theory as metaphor (Morgan)
Domination and suppression
• Organisations as relational processes (Hosking and
– Enactive, socially constructed processes
– Against reification, ‘entitative’ concepts,
• Organisations as ‘sensemaking’ (Weick)
Problems of cognitive & social
constructionist models
Cognition / social cognition
• Focus on internal states (mental
models) or local relationships
with technology (ergonomics)
• Tends to lack ecologically valid
evidence of actions in context
• No independent criterion
beyond intentionality
– When is an action correct/
appropriate/ effective?
– Takes external authority for
granted - cannot ever challenge
whether a rule or procedure is
Social construction
• Represents ‘reality’ as
experienced by participants
• Rich interpretation
• No evaluation criteria
– Cannot evaluate strengths or
weaknesses of social
• No causal analysis
– What social constraints
influence how people act?
• Cannot be used to design better
social systems
A logical fallacy
Denial of reality is based on a logical fallacy:
• We are only aware of reality through mental states
– Tautology
• The reality we experience is construed / constructed
– Restatement of tautology
• Therefore there is no reality other than our experience /
mental construction
– False inference
• Therefore the object of human / social science is only
cognition / mental constructions
– False conclusion
3 varieties of realism
• Naïve realism
– Gibson’s theory of visual perception
• Speech acts and institutional facts
– Searle: ‘Construction of social reality’
• Critical realism
– Bhaskar: ‘Possibility of Naturalism’
Critical realism (Bhaskar)
• Society socialises individuals who reproduce or
transform social reality through social action
• Social systems are real, with real causes and
constraints that are external to the individual
• They are created by people, unlike natural systems,
but can be investigated, like natural systems
• Role of agency - intentions as causes of actions
Reproduction /
What is a social system?
• Normative regularities of social action create social
• But, norm is an ambiguous concept
– What should be done
– What normally is done
• In social systems with important consequences
– Relations of power determine what ought to be done - the official
– The contingencies of situated action determine what is done
– The regularities of situated action create the real system
• The real system is what normally actually happens
A social theory should explain:
mental model,
Small scale
Short term
Action Movement
/ change
Long term
Large scale
Social system
Causality –
Micro Task/activity
Social institution
plus technology & environment
Macro Organisation /
Social system
Action, system, context
• Actions
– Make social processes work (or not)
– Are not necessarily governed by the functional logic of operations,
but by broader social processes
– Can be represented in narrative accounts
• System
– Aggregation of social action in regular generic pattern
– Operational processes are only part of the social system
– Formal system may differ radically from real system
• Context
– Causal influence on action, mediated by people making sense of
their situation, understanding (imperfectly) the constraints in which
they are acting and formulating intentions
– Understanding context often makes intentions transparent
Social Systems
• Reality of social systems (SS)
– They have compelling force upon their members
• Our knowledge of an SS is imperfect & partial
– We ‘construe’ reality rather than ‘construct’ it
• One starting point is to look at operational processes
– Most work we do is based on a functional sequence linking input
to outcome
• Other social processes (not directed at the functional goal)
may facilitate or inhibit operational processes
– Should not assume all social processes are goal-driven (teleology)
Some core elements of social
• Structural characteristics of relationships
– Power, affinity of interest, authority, expertise…
• Mechanisms of social interaction
– Co-ordination by mutual adjustment, supervision,
standardisation of skills, output, etc.
• Capacity of individuals/ groups
– Competence
• Quality of social relationships
– Trust
• Actions instantiate social processes
– Stability of social systems is only relative
– Constantly reproduced or transformed by aggregated
• Causal structure of action and consequence
– Intention, action, result, consequence
The logic of action
(according to von Wright)
• Acts create events which bring about change in the world
– Transition of one state of affairs to another
– Initiating, transforming or ending a process
• 4 logical possibilities
Doing something
Undoing something
Preserving some state
Preventing some state coming about
• Forebearing to act in the above ways gives 8 possibilities
of action
• Structured model of context / situation?
– Current social processes
– Actions of others
– Environment
• Physical, technology, social, organisational
– Relevant history
• Self, group, organisation
• Culture and system are ‘two sides of the same
• Therefore a cultural account has to mirror all the
same relations as outlined above
– In the domain of meanings and values
– Not the domain of functions and causality
• Culture links, through sensemaking, to intentions
• Cultural accounts give interpretive richness to
system descriptions
Stability and change
• The social system constrains/directs action, but not absolutely - role of
agency. People act intentionally as agents.
• Actions can reproduce or transform the social system
• Stability and change represent the resolution of the tension between
– Real actions in time of individuals and groups of individuals
• Influenced by socialisation, but directed by intentions
– Normative regularities of aggregated actions of individuals
• Reproducing or transforming the social system, socialising individuals
Reproduction /
Intention and action
• Incompatible theories
– (A) Intentions are causes of action (Bhaskar)
– (B) Intentions are retrospective justifications of action
(Cognitive dissonance theory)
• If B is correct then the motivation of action is not
comprehensible & cognition is essentially
conservative (no possibility of intentional change
in actions and hence of planned social change)
• It is difficult to reconstruct intentions, but it can be
done through exhaustive reconstruction of the
context of action
Relevance and Leverage
• Two questions about a useful theory:
– Does it address the mechanisms we wish to explain (is it relevant)?
– Does it enable us to change the situation in a positive way (does it give us
• Cognitive and social constructivist theories only address
cognitive/mental mechanisms
– Ignore causal mechanisms in social systems (lack relevance)
– Only focus on change mechanisms involving changing mindsets (e.g.
training) - not a powerful influence if nothing else changes (limited
• If we want to change the ways which social systems function in order
to improve outcomes, we need a theory which is relevant (addresses
actions in social systems) and which gives leverage (identifies how to
change the system to improve the outcome).
• Searle, J.R.(1995): The Construction of
Social Reality. Allen Lane: the Penguin
• Von Wright, G.H. (1963): Norm and Action.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
– Chapter III Act and Ability, pp 35-55
• Bhaskar, R (1979): The Possibility of
Naturalism. Brighton: Harvester
• Robson C. (2002): Real World Research (second
edition). Oxford: Blackwell
– Chapters 1 & 2, pp. 3-44
• Sayer, A. (2000): Realism and Social Science.
London: Sage
– Pp. 10-28
• Some of our own work discussed in the lecture
can be seen in:
– McDonald N.(2006): Organisational resilience and
industrial risk. In Resilience Engineering (Eds.: E.
Hollnagel, D. Woods., N. Leveson) Aldershot:Ashgate