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Realism and antirealism in social science

Summary:
From Lars Syll The situation started to change in the 1960s, when antirealism went on the rampage in the social studies community as well as in Anglo-American philosophy. This movement seems to have had two sources, one philosophical, the other political. The former was a reaction against positivism, which was (mistakenly but conveniently) presented as objectivist simply because it shunned mental states. I submit that the political source of contemporary antirealism was the rebellion of the Vietnam war generation against the ‘establishment’. The latter was (wrongly) identified with the power behind science and proscientific philosophy. So, fighting science and proscientific philosophy was taken to be part of the fight against the ‘establishment’. But, of course, the people who took

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from Lars Syll

Realism and antirealism in social scienceThe situation started to change in the 1960s, when antirealism went
on the rampage in the social studies community as well as in Anglo-American philosophy. This movement seems to have had two sources, one philosophical, the other political. The former was a reaction against positivism, which was (mistakenly but conveniently) presented as objectivist simply because it shunned mental states.

I submit that the political source of contemporary antirealism was the rebellion of the Vietnam war generation against the ‘establishment’. The latter was (wrongly) identified with the power behind science and proscientific philosophy. So, fighting science and proscientific philosophy was taken to be part of the fight against the ‘establishment’. But, of course, the people who took this stand were shooting themselves in the foot, or rather in the head, for any successful political action, whether from below or from above, must assume that the adversary is real and can be known. Indeed, if the world were a figment of our imagination, we would people it only with friends …

Breit (1984, p. 20) asks why John K. Galbraith and Milton Friedman, two of the most distinguished social scientists of our time, could have arrived at conflicting views of economic reality. He answers: “there is no world out there which we can unambiguously compare with Friedman’s and Galbraith’s versions. Galbraith and Friedman did not discover the worlds they analyze; they decreed them”. He then compares economists to painters: “each offers a new way of seeing, of organizing experience”, of “imposing order on sensory data”. In this perspective the problems of objective truth and of the difference between science and nonscience do not arise. On the other hand we are left wondering
why on earth anyone should hire economists rather than painters to cope with economic issues.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the ‘deep structure’ of society.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events are​ what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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