Interdisciplinarity, Sustainability and Critical Realism

I have a new paper to add to my collection of favourites. Hidden in the somewhat obscure Journal of Critical Realism it touches on several issues that I often find myself thinking about and studying: Interdisciplinarity, Ecology and Scientific Theory.

Karl Høyer and Petter Naess also have plenty to say about sustainability, planning and decision-making and, although they use the case of sustainable urban development, much of what they discuss is relevant to broader issues in the study of coupled human and natural systems. Their perspective resonates with my own.

For example, they outline some of the differences between studying open and closed systems (interestingly with reference to some Nordic writers I have not previously encountered);

… The principle of repetitiveness is crucial in these kinds of [reductionist] science [e.g. atomic physics, chemistry] and their related technologies. But such repetitiveness only takes place in closed systems manipulated by humans, as in laboratories. We will never find it in nature, as strongly emphasised by both Kvaløy and Hägerstrand within the Nordic school. In nature there are always open, complex systems, continuously changing with time. This understanding is in line with key tenets of critical realism. Many of our most serious ecological problems can be explained this way: technologies, their products and substances, developed and tested in closed systems under artificial conditions that generate the illusion of generalised repetitiveness, are released in the real nature of open systems and non-existing repetitiveness. We are always taken by surprise when we experience new, unexpected ecological effects. But this ought not to be surprising at all; under these conditions such effects will necessarily turn up all the time.

At the same time, developing strategies for a sustainable future relies heavily on the possibility of predicting the consequences of alternative solutions with at least some degree of precision. Arguably, a number of socio-technical systems, such as the spatial structures of cities and their relationships with social life and human activities, make up ‘pseudo-closed’ systems where the scope for prediction of outcomes of a proposed intervention is clearly lower than in the closed systems of the experiments of the natural sciences, but nevertheless higher than in entirely open systems. Anticipation of consequences, which is indispensable in planning, is therefore possible and recommendable, although fallible.

The main point of their paper, however, is the important role critical realism [see also] might play as a platform for interdisciplinary research. Although Høyer and Naess do highlight some of the more political reasons for scientific and academic disciplinarity, their main points are philosophical;

…the barriers to interdisciplinary integration may also result from metatheoretical positions explicitly excluding certain types of knowledge and methods necessary for a multidimensional analysis of sustainability policies, or even rejecting the existence of some types of impacts and/or the entities causing these impacts.

These philosophical (metatheoretical) barriers include staunchly positivist and strong social constructionist perspectives;

According to a positivist view, social science research should emulate research within the natural sciences as much as possible. Knowledge based on research where the observations do not lend themselves to mathematical measurement and analysis will then typically be considered less valid and perhaps be dismissed as merely subjective opinions. Needless to say, such a view hardly encourages natural scientists to integrate knowledge based on qualitative social research or from the humanities. Researchers adhering to an empiricist/naive realist metatheory will also tend to dismiss claims of causality in cases where the causal powers do not manifest themselves in strong and regular patterns of events – although such strong regularities are rare in social life.

On the other hand, a strong social constructionist position implies a collapsing of the existence of social objects to the participating agents’ conception or understanding of these objects. …strong social constructionism would typically limit the scope to the cultural processes through which certain phenomena come to be perceived as environmental problems, and neglecting the underlying structural mechanisms creating these phenomena as well as their impacts on the physical environment. At best, strong social constructionism is ambivalent as to whether we can know anything at all about reality beyond the discourses. Such ‘empty realism’, typical of dominant strands of postmodern thought, implies that truth is being completely relativised to discourses on the surface of reality, with the result that one must a priori give up saying anything about what exists outside these discourses. At worst, strong social constructionism may pave the way for the purely idealist view that there is no such reality.

At opposite ends of the positivist-relativist spectrum neither of these perspectives seem to be the most useful for interdisciplinary research. Something that sits between these two extremes – critical realism – might be more useful [I can’t do this next section justice in an abridged version – and this is the main point of the article – so here it is in its entirety];

The above-mentioned examples of shortcomings of reductionist metatheories do not imply that research based on these paradigms is necessarily without value. However, reductionist paradigms tend to function as straitjackets preventing researchers from taking into consideration phenomena and factors of influence not compatible with or ignored in their metatheory. In practice, researchers have often deviated from the limitations prescribed by their espoused metatheoretical positions. Usually, such deviations have tended to improve research rather than the opposite.

However, for interdisciplinary research, there is an obvious need for a more inclusive metatheoretical platform. According to Bhaskar and Danermark, critical realism provides such a platform, as it is ontologically characterised doubly by inclusiveness greater than competing metatheories: it is maximally inclusive in terms of allowing causal powers at different levels of reality to be empirically investigated; and it is maximally inclusive in terms of accommodating insights of other meta-theoretical positions while avoiding their drawbacks.

Arguably, many of the ecologists and ecophilosophers referred to earlier in this paper have implicitly based their work on the same basic assumptions as critical realism. Some critical realist thinkers have also addressed ecological and environmental problems explicitly. Notably, Ted Benton and Peter Dickens have demonstrated the need for an epistemology that recognises social mediation of knowledge but also the social and material dimensions of environmental problems, and how the absence of an interdisciplinary perspective hinders essential understanding of nature/society relationships.

According to critical realism, concrete things or events in open systems must normally be explained ‘in terms of a multiplicity of mechanisms, potentially of radically different kinds (and potentially demarcating the site of distinct disciplines) corresponding to different levels or aspects of reality’. As can be seen from the above, the objects involved in explanations of the (un)sustainability of urban development belong partially to the natural sciences, partially to the social sciences, and are partially of a normative or ethical character. They also belong to different geographical or organisational scales. Thus, similar to (and arguably to an even higher extent than) what Bhaskar and Danermark state about disability research, events and processes influencing the sustainability of urban development must be understood in terms of physical, biological, socioeconomic, cultural and normative kinds of mechanisms, types of contexts and characteristic effects.

According to Bhaskar, social life must be seen in the depiction of human nature as ‘four-planar social being’, which implies that every social event must be understood in terms of four dialectically interdependent planes: (a) material transactions with nature, (b) social interaction between agents, (c) social structure proper, and (d) the stratification of embodied personalities of agents. All these categories of impacts should be addressed in research on sustainable urban development. Impacts along the first dimension, category (a), typically include consequences of urban development for the physical environment. Consequences in terms of changing location of activities and changing travel- ling patterns are examples of impacts within category (b). But this category also includes the social interaction between agents leading to changes in, among others, the spatial and social structures of cities. Relevant mechanisms at the level of social structure proper (category [c]) might include, for exam- ple, impacts of housing market conditions on residential development projects and consequences of residential development projects for the overall urban structure. The stratified personalities of agents (category [d]) include both influences of agents on society and the physical environment and influences of society and the physical environment on the agents. The latter sub-category includes physical impacts of urban development, such as unwholesome noise and air pollution, but also impacts of the way urban planning and decision- making processes are organised, for example, in terms of effects on people’s self esteem, values, opportunities for personal growth and their motivation for participating in democratic processes. The influence of discourses on the population’s beliefs about the changes necessary to bring about sustainable development and the conditions for implementing such changes also belongs to this sub-category. The sub-category of influences of agents on society and the physical environment includes the exercise of power by individual and corporate agents, their participation in political debates, their contribution to knowledge, and their practices in terms of, for example, type and location of residence, mobility, lifestyles more generally, and so on.

Regarding issues of urban sustainability, the categories (a)–(d) are highly interrelated. If this is the case, we are facing what Bhaskar and Danermark characterise as a ‘laminated’ system, in which case explanations involving mechanisms at several or all of these levels could be termed ‘laminated expla- nations’. In such situations, monodisciplinary empirical studies taking into consideration only those factors of influence ‘belonging’ to the researcher’s own discipline run a serious risk of misinterpreting these influences. Examples of such misinterpretations are analyses where increasing car travel in cities is explained purely in terms of prevailing attitudes and lifestyles, addressing neither political-economic structures contributing to consumerism and car-oriented attitudes, nor spatial-structural patterns creating increased needs for individual motorised travel.

Moreover, the different strata of reality and their related mechanisms (that is, physical, biological, socio-economic, cultural and normative kinds of mechanisms) involved in urban development cannot be understood only in terms of categories (a)–(d) above. They are also situated in macroscopic (or overlying) and less macroscopic (or underlying) kinds of structures or mechanisms. For research into sustainable urban development issues, such scale-awareness is crucial. Much of the disagreement between proponents of the ‘green’ and the ‘compact’ models of environmentally sustainable urban development can probably be attributed to their focus on problems and challenges at different geographical scales: whereas the ‘compact city’ model has focused in particular on the impacts of urban development on the surrounding environment (ranging from the nearest countryside to the global level), proponents of the ‘green city’ model have mainly been concerned about the environment within the city itself. A truly environmentally sustainable urban development would require an integration of elements both from the former ‘city within the ecology’ and the latter ‘ecology within the city’ approaches. Similarly, analyses of social aspects of sustainable development need to include both local and global effects, and combine an understanding of practices within particular groups with an analysis of how different measures and traits of development affect the distribution of benefits and burdens across groups.

Acknowledging that reality consists of different strata, that multiple causes are usually influencing events and situations in open systems, and that a pluralism of research methods is recommended as long as they take the ontological status of the research object into due consideration, critical realism appears to be particularly well suited as a metatheoretical platform for interdisciplinary research. This applies not least to research into urban sustainability issues where, as has been illustrated above, other metatheoretical positions tend to limit the scope of analysis in such a way that sub-optimal policies within a particular aspect of sustainability are encouraged at the cost of policies addressing the challenges of sustainable urban development in a comprehensive way.

In conclusion; critical realism can play a very important role as an underlabourer of interdisciplinarity, with its maximal inclusiveness both in terms of allowing causal powers at different levels of reality to be empirically investigated and in terms of accommodating insights of other meta-theoretical positions while avoiding their drawbacks

I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about this but there seems to be plenty to get ones teeth into here with regards the study of coupled human and natural systems and the use of agent-based modelling approaches. For example, agent-based modelling seems to offer a means to represent Bhaskar‘s four planes but there are plenty of questions about how to do this appropriately. I also need to think more carefully about how these four planes are manifested in the systems I study. Generally however, it seems that critical realism offers a useful foundation from which to build interdisciplinary studies of the interaction of humans and their environment for the exploration of potential pathways to ensure sustainable landscapes.

Høyer, K.G and Naess, P. 2008 Interdisciplinarity, ecology and scientific theory: The case of sustainable urban development Journal of Critical Realism 7(2) 179-207 doi: 10.1558/jocr.v7i2.179

2 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity, Sustainability and Critical Realism

  1. Two questions from a non-expert:1. Is critical realism any different from positivism minus the (always dubious) claim that if you can't count it, its not really there? From the way its described in this piece, I'm struggling to see what could possibly be disagreeable about it…how does CR deal with the problem of defining criteria for what makes a good/plausible/well-supported theory versus a bad one, in a manner that can be applied across all the theoretical disciplines it promises to include?2 (ok, its more like 3 or 4 by now, but still). From first impressions, Bhaskar's four planes seem to be heavily weighted towards the social end of the physical-social spectrum. Its almost as if he's expanded the social sphere into at least 3 distinct sub categories (corresponding to b-d) but left the physical environment as unitary (with only one corresponding level of analysis – a). If this is right, it would only make sense that this approach works for study of urban dev. But would applying it to non-urban settings require an analogous expansion of plane a?And one comment: love the blog


  2. Hi Neil, I think the main way Critical Realism differs from positivism and the “if you can't see it, it doesn't exist” perspective is that CR doesn't expect to be able to see 'underlying reality' but claims that what we do see is a reflection (albeit a reflection containing interference) of what really exists.One thing people have found to be disagreeable about CR is that it hasn't made a very good job of providing 'stopping criteria'. That is, if we can't expect to see reality and only see reflections of it, how do we know when we've found a good enough reflection? How do we know when to stop looking through our empirical lens to try to clarify the reflection? I think Andrew Sayer would answer this by saying that it is sufficient to distinguish between what conditions or structures are necessary for given phenomena to occur from those that are 'merely' contingent upon the particular history of the system (i.e., initial and boundary conditions). You are right that CR (and Bhaskar in particular) has focused on interpreting social reality. Sayer for example is a human (social) geographer. Keith Richards (not the rocker – the Cambridge Prof and one of my PhD examiners) was one of the first people to write seriously about taking a CR perspective for examining the physical world (i.e., environmental science) and James Brown (NOAA hydrologist and possibly a former student of Richards, not the Godfather of Soul) has also discussed it from that stand-point. Keith Beven has talked about more of the relativist dimensions of environmental science.Cheers


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