Getting Real

by johnmccreery

My current project using social network analysis has led me to The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods in which a recurring theme is “complex realism,” an approach described in David Harvey’s chapter on “Complexity and Case” as requiring ontological as well as methodological and epistemological considerations. Harvey writes,

Three levels of ontological interest are germane to sociological inquiry: (1) philosophical ontology; (2) scientific ontology; and (3) social ontology. Philosophical ontology deduces from the structure of speculative thought the fundamental nature of the entities that constitute our everyday world. Scientific ontologies are nested within philosophical ontologies to the extent they flesh out the local details of a terrain in a way philosophical ontology cannot. Finally, social ontologies are nested within scientific ontologies in that they deal with the elemental entities and dynamics sociohistorical formations must exhibit if they are to sustain themselves over time.

A clear understanding of ‘casing’, to use Ragin’s (1992, pp. 219-220) suggestive term, requires a full explication of a case-object’s ontology at all three of these levels. Moreover, in keeping with the complex realist paradigm, we assume that case-objects are ontologically real, i.e., they exist prior to the research act itself. Of course, the conceptual imagery of the case-object is undoubtedly a product of operationist research strategies. The case-object, however, is not a wholly nominalist invention. Casing does not create the case-object, but only a construct of the case-object. Consequently, there is always an aspect of the case-object that eludes or stands over and against casing and its epistemology.

Or, in my own simpler terms, how we conceive a case never exhausts the reality to which our construct points as it tries to say something useful about it.

My first question is, How many of us here have heard of “complex realism” and seen it described in this way?

My second question is, What do you think of this account?


12 Responses to “Getting Real”

  1. I have not heard of it. What I like about the formulation is the metaphor of “nesting” rather than the usual metaphor of strata or levels. It reminds me of something I read recently by John Doyle — it was a dream about a “fold” into which people went to escape something. It was a sanctuary and an exile. Inside the fold another fold opened up that led deeper inside and deeper down. But the dreamer realized that the second fold was really a return from exile — that the people, seeking further protection, would become protectors.

    That was poorly paraphrased, but I wouldn’t want to quote it without permission. In any case, I think the nesting of ontologies works like that.

  2. Interesting. The nesting was something that instantly raised yellow flags for both Ruth and me. A shared scientific ontology is easy to accept, given that none of the entities in question is given credence without operational definitions that people with different languages and cultural backgrounds can agree on. In so far as the philosophical ontology depends on “the structure of speculative thought,” we have to wonder how universal that is. It is one of the great conceits of Western philosophy that the Cartesian exercise, properly undertaken, reveals undeniable truths. But what if the thinker in question is a Hindu, Chinese or Japanese philosopher? I think, for example, of schools of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy for whom all entities are, by definition, mere heaps, aggregates that appear and disappear like candle flames.

  3. Right, there are conceptual consequences in the metaphor. Nesting suggests containment at decreasing levels of generality. What if instead we thought of ontologies as modular, like Legos, or interpenetrative, like Venn diagrams, or even relationally constellated, like Calder mobiles?

    Btw I had never heard of ‘complex realism’ per se but as you present it, it seems like a common enough concept.

  4. Ontologies as elements in a Calder mobile! What a marvelous image! Have you given any thought to how the connections work?

  5. That’s a good point about universality, John. I tend to think that there are multiple and wildly different ways of expressing the truth. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to re-formulate physics in terms of teleological causes.

    As to the nesting, I think rather than universality, what’s needed is a sort of inter-consistency between the respective ontologies. A philosophical ontology might take as axioms, for example, things which are destinations for the scientific ontology or the social ontology. So I guess I like “embedded” better than nested.

  6. One of the things I like about Carl’s comment is the way in which it invites us to explore concrete metaphors for philosophical ideas. Over on Kvond’s blog Frames/ing, there’s a bit of a thread exploring the analogy of philosophies to computer operating systems. There I just posted the following comment

    I wonder how far one can push the analogy. Do different philosophies, seen as operating systems, require different different CPUs, i.e., different realities? Or can different philosophies be written for the same underlying reality, in the way that Linux, Windows and MacOS all run on Intel processors?

    Pressing a bit further in light of what Asher has just said, I wonder if “embedding” is just part of the software or, alternatively, if reality imposes hardware restrictions that none of us can escape.

  7. Personally, I think the more interesting question is not “How are philosophies like operating systems?,” but rather, “How are operating systems like philosophies?” What I mean by this is that each operating system is always already premised on certain tacit metaphysical assumptions, such as with regards to interface design, file organization, and even the relationship between the developers, the code, and the end-users. Obviously, the dialectical trinity (always, of course) Linux-Windows-Mac OS offers a glimpse into three competing modes of interface-structure-distribution. Linux is obviously autopoetic, anarchistic, one might say Deleuzian, with Windows as a top-down hierarchy lacking openness or transparency, a transcendent rather than immanent system relying on the central “little Other” of Bill Gates, and then Mac OS I would call transcendental just to top things off.

  8. Transcendental because in MacOS the ding-an-sich is concealed behind the sensuous interface?

    It is interesting, though, that the most common use of “ontology” outside of philosophy (in which I include theology) is information science, especially in database, data mining, and knowledge management applications, where deciding on which entities to include and how they relate to each other are crucial questions in system design.

  9. “Ontologies as elements in a Calder mobile! What a marvelous image! Have you given any thought to how the connections work?”

    Thanks! Not to hijack the thread, but I actually make mobiles, mostly for my own amusement but I’ve shown and sold in a couple of local galleries, so I’ve got a certain craft understanding of how they work.

    I’d say that the primary ‘ontological’ features of mobiles are balance, surface, articulation, and interlock (interconnection of elements). Density and weight are secondary features. Mobiles that are low on surface and high on interlock are hardly mobiles at all (I think of them as ‘architectural’) – they’re basically stabile hanging sculptures. With high interlock and high surface you get something that’s axis mobile but not chaotic mobile, still pretty linear. For a ‘real’ Calder-style mobile you need low interlock and high surface. The surfaces are the energy-collecting ‘engines’ of motion and the low interlock gets you a big possibility space of configurations.

    Articulation is how the elements are actually connected. There are various ways of doing it that afford different degrees of movement and influence. A swivel lets each element move basically independently, since energy generated by the surfaces is not resisted and the element rotates freely. A direct loop articulation restricts rotation by torquing the slopes of the loops against each other. Energy is stored and released in a mutual countermovement. Varying the sizes of the loops varies the scope and intensity of this effect. Basically the tighter the loops, the higher the torque. Adding a third loop in the middle is an intermediate solution. For fun we could refer to these articulations as translations.

    Balance of course is dynamic, although less so with high interlock. Basically the whole thing won’t work at all if the elements are not balanced around each other, so in this sense the system is highly interdependent regardless of articulation; but unbalanced elements will be more locally or more globally catastrophic depending on how the system is articulated. Surface, density and weight have to be calibrated with balance and articulation; too much energy input on a dense but light system leads to high chaos, and the reverse gets you stasis, a hanging paperweight.

    I would certainly consider this a promising metaphor for what Harvey calls ‘social ontology’. It might have some use as a simple model for the transitions from linear to non-linear systems in ‘scientific ontology’, although here I’m out of my depth. Incidentally, I don’t think anything is gained by talking about ontologies in these two areas except the jargony patina of serious intellection, but so it goes in our world. An articulation effect, no doubt, and social scientists are sometimes prone to ‘weight’ issues. As for ‘philosophical ontologies’, that is, ontologies proper, I don’t have a clue.

  10. The nested, folded ontology to which Asher alludes is itself nested and folded: a dream within a short story within a novel. It’s a very specific sort of fictional ontology, conjured in the imagination of a diasporate talmudist over 1500 years ago. Fiction is, I think, a good place to conduct thought experiments with speculative ontologies. Are these ontologies less serious by being treated explicitly as imaginary, rather than as descriptions of the real world? And if we grant reality to fictional entities, can’t we assign fictional ontologies to them? And can’t fictional ontologies themselves be real in this same sense?

  11. Are these ontologies less serious by being treated explicitly as imaginary, rather than as descriptions of the real world?

    And if so, is it because they have less flesh than rigorous philosophical ontologies, because they are not wholly focused on truth, or because they are just more playful and speculative.

    There is stuff you can do in a novel that wouldn’t be “acceptable” as straight philosophy. I remember reading Merleau-Ponty and being really disappointed when he called for a method of investigation that was almost like story-writing (metaphorical; seeking a language that exceeds itself), and then proceeded in a totally expository manner.


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