Critical realism is a social science metaphilosophy that offers ethnology an ontological grounding necessary to realize its full potential as the study of humanness. Humanness is a feature of the world derived from, but not reducible to, evolution by natural, sexual, and kinship modes of selection. An emergent feature of humanness is the ability to glean, winnow, and trade on information for sustenance in natural and social environments. Thus, any philosophical grounding of ethnology must explicitly accord due roles, in the interaction of matter and ideas, to both evolutionary structure and personal and social agency. The interaction of structure and agency, or dialectical process, centers on human experience. Experience, in turn, has a nature. It has certain properties and powers not derived from, or limited to, particular culturally specific worldviews. Critical realism intends to describe both the precultural world and the dialectics of socio-cultural forms, that is, to delineate the real conditions that make ethnology possible. Because critical realism has emerged in part to surmount ills of positivism on one hand and hermeneutics on the other, describing it is inherently historical and contrastive.
Ethnology’s Ambivalence Toward Ontology
The Absence of Ontology From Culturism
A significant strain of some but not all ethnology has for many decades lacked grounding in a defensible ontology. In place of an ontological basis for human affairs, this strain has tried to pose culture, and for this reason, it may be referred to as culturism. The term applies to any ethnology that either (a) neglects to theorize reality or (b) denies it, tacitly or explicitly, in any of three general ways: (1) regarding the world as unknowable or irrelevant, (2) believing the only referent of any proposition is some further aspect of culture, not the world, or (3) denying the capacity of evolved experience to access truth about reality. In addition, this disparate school often blurs the definition of culture, sometimes characterizing it in such ways as “traits,” “traditions,” elements,” or “the meaningful world.” This last phrase illustrates the problem, for does “culture is the meaningful world” mean that culture comprises those limited parts of the world certain subjects find meaningful? Or is it that the meaningful world is the only one knowable by them? Is culture the meaning? Or is culture the world itself, which is found meaningful, or even created by meaning?
Culturism typically does not probe such ontological distinctions, and large bodies of ethnological hermeneutics, reflexivity, constructionism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism all circle around it. These tend to see culture as a local mode of epistemology, that is, as meanings, ideas, and values. While not wrong in itself, the view is, in addition, hypostatized so that culturalized epistemology is placed in opposition to philosophical and scientific ontology. It claims that culture is an irreducible filter between people and any possible real objects of perception or conception. In such presentations, these objects themselves thus fade from consideration, to be replaced by representations without due links to concrete referents. The existence of culture is thus, self-contradictorily, said to preclude pursuit of knowledge about ontology; culture intercedes between humankind and whatever reality might lie behind it and ends up replacing reality with particular cultural views. These views then become the primary object of ethnological study, which turns out to investigate culture at the expense of the very people that culture informs. As a leading ethnologist of this persuasion recently wrote, ethnology should be the “genealogy of secondary descriptions.” That is, ethnology should concern texts and their relations, not people.
This culturist view misses two points emphasized in critical realism. First, ideas and culture are not wholly epistemic merely because they do concern knowledge. They also have an ontic status in their own right. Ideas themselves are real, as known from their possible and actual observable effects on humans and the world. For example, the idea of personal honor can underlie people’s structuring of many highly consequential behaviors, cooperative and agonistic. Likewise, the idea of justice can motivate people to redistribute social and economic goods. To claim that the ideas behind these effects are not real is to render the motivation behind the effects, and thus the effects themselves, partly causeless and unexplained. Second, ideas can be referred to as such. Were they not real, this would be impossible. When one person cites, however tacitly, what another just said as a reason for his or her own part in a dialogue, that person acknowledges the statement’s reality and renders the dialogue coherent. So, ideas are real conceptual tools with which real people really leverage reality.
To draw the sharpest heuristic contrast here, critical realism notes a contradiction within culturism, that it first hypostatizes culture by denying its connection to independent reality, then at the same time tries to locate culture in place of the world. The culturist freezing of culture above the flow of dialectical process amounts to theorizing the primacy of worldview over practice. Since worldviews are variable and fractious, humanness has almost gotten lost in the debacle, the breakup of ethnology, known as “cultural studies.” Cultural studies expressly rejects any possible grounding in theorized reality. To the extent that some warmer versions of culturism do melt into reality, they only prove its inescapability and the need for due theorization. But whether such engagement is even possible is a topic some try to rule out of court. The introduction of evidence concerning reality existing in its own right is often equated with reductionism, scientism, biologism, progressivism, racism, sexism, conservatism, empiricism, and/or Westernism. Culturism actually wishes to preserve humanness for humans, but the attempt to do so by isolating culture from anything material turns culturism instead into a kind of spiritualism, in which people are defined by something absolute, ineffable, essential, unassailable, and immaterial. Culture itself is placed beyond critique. So, culturism generally skirts the crucial issue of what the precultural world must be like for ethnology itself to be possible. Yet we know there is such a world precisely because the capacity to develop and use knowledge evolved in it.
Though stressing worldview, culturistic ethnology nonetheless remains haunted by the sub-rosa realization that viewpoints can and often do have consequences.
It therefore sometimes hedges on the question of reality, invoking untheorized presuppositions about it when an argument calls for them, yet discounting this very move by putting “reality” in quotation marks. The most ardent culturists even contend that there is no reality, that all is just viewpoint, interpretation, discourse, and politically motivated self-interest. Such reverse absolutism, that absolutely no view can access truth about the world, leads culturism to routinely commit three additional sorts of errors, as noted and avoided by critical realism: (a) self-contradiction, (b) theory-practice inconsistency, and (c) the epistemic fallacy. The self-contradiction appears in culturism’s declaring what is possible in a world it denies. The theory-practice inconsistency lies in proclaiming all knowledge cultural, while casuistically admitting precultural reality ad hoc. Also inconsistent is culturism’s presupposition that its own views are indeed materially consequential, for if they weren’t, they literally wouldn’t “matter.” Then, culturism would have no reason to argue them. Critical realism, by contrast, holds that if views can matter, there must be a world they matter in and it should be theorized.
Finally, the epistemic fallacy is the claim that what is real about the world can be adequately reduced to what is known, that knowledge alone establishes what is effectively real. The world as posited by a given cultural view is the only one relevant to it and may exist in epistemically grounded contrast to neighboring worlds. That claim is easily refuted by the mere fact that knowledge, as a general human capability, evolved in the matrix of reality as it was obtained in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, not vice versa. Knowledge is an adaptation; it is humankind’s occupation of the epistemological niche in nature. Nature itself contains information for creatures able to access it, and intelligence, the use of knowledge, evolved to exploit that possibility. A creature capable of accurately inferring the existence of a far-off edible carcass from the mere sight of wheeling vultures has a great advantage over one not so capable. But there’s the rub. Many ethnologists do not acknowledge evolutionary theory, hoping that humans can be shown to be exempt from its constraints.
Culturism’s Errors Regarding Evolution
The misgivings culturism has about evolution, coupled with its misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, together explain its weaknesses regarding reality and ontology. Such doubts first arose around the turn of the century, especially among Franz Boas and his students, who opposed an errant social Darwinism trying to co-opt the power of evolution by means of natural selection on behalf of social engineering. Social Darwinism posited group and even “racial” survival as an index of group “fitness,” and fitness as an indication of rightness in the moral sense. Rightness, in turn, implied a “natural” entitlement. Its conclusion was that more powerful groups should, by one means or another, weed out the less powerful. This provided an ostensible justification for some of colonialism’s and national socialism’s most heinous depredations.
But it only did so by profoundly distorting the evolutionary notion of fitness. Properly understood, “survival of the fittest” is an utterly amoral, nonevaluative, purely descriptive, nonprescriptive statement that notes the ex post facto contingent results of selective processes. It is neither good nor bad, in the hypothetical eyes of nature, that any life form should exist at any given time. Most that have ever existed are now extinct, including three genera and perhaps 10 species of pre-sapiens hominids. Evolutionary theory shows that which traits contribute to fitness always depends on the actual existing environment, and environments change. Thus, the adaptiveness of any specific traits may wax or wane. Because the detailed characteristics of future environments with which humans might be forced to cope are uncertain, we cannot accurately foresee what future fitness will entail. Thus, we do not now know with any precision what specific traits will be adaptive and selected for, other than general, basal, reality-linked intelligence, mobility, and creativity. For this reason alone, it is not justified to presume, with social Darwinism, that the aggrandizement of some present modes of power is “morally” enjoined.
But social Darwinism also fails a second time, and again on evolutionary grounds. We do know that future human environments will contain humans and that all humans have basic rights founded on nothing more than their humanness per se. Human rights are not culture dependent—though not all cultural practices are equally defensible in the court of human rights. Rights must be adjudicated, for intentions and outcomes vary. But it is indubitable that the legitimate idea of legitimate rights exists and that all peoples have a sense of natural entitlements. Moreover, though the full content of the category, “rights” can be argued; and critical realism holds two human rights to be grounded in the reality of humanness. They are liberty, that is, the right to be free of oppression, and the right to learn. Liberty inheres in humanness because social categorical distinctions between individuals are cultural impositions, despite often being propounded on the basis of supposed links between certain people and natural forces. Such suppositions can be attributed to personal merit evinced by good fortune, long tradition, class privilege, racial ascription, divine right, and so on, none of which prove essential to humanness. If such categorical distinctions are not natural, then rights ostensibly deriving from them cannot be natural either. Thus, liberty is the natural right to choose the social constraints under which one agrees to live. Learning, in turn, is essential to humanness because Homo sapiens evolved precisely as an information-seeking creature. By their very nature, humans exploit real information by means of evolved intelligence. Thus, to structurally deny anyone the opportunity to learn is to block the realization of his or her own humanness and violates a fundamental human right. Together, liberty and learning go far toward eudemonism, or pan-flourishing, which humanness itself thus enjoins as the final aim of human endeavor.
In this way, humanness is seen to have an inherent moral component, which establishes the real basis for rights to liberty and learning. It is important to demonstrate the ontic nature of morality per se, its existence prior to being given particular content, for only by so doing can the culturist claim that all morality is cultural, and none ontological, be thwarted in principle. This is done as follows: Humans are conscious; consciousness entails the ability to envision alternate actionable possibilities; mutually exclusive alternatives must be selected between; intentional selection demands, and implies the existence of, evaluative criteria; and criteria necessarily entail notions of preferable and not preferable, approach and avoid, “better” and “worse.” Thus, morality per se inheres in humanness. And two of its aspects, the twin rights of liberty and learning, also qualify as ontic, that is, existing prior to any culturalized inflection of humanness. Beyond liberty and learning, however, the ethical content of criteria informing any given strategy is not given in nature. Even the two natural rights are often more than a little difficult to operationalize. But all humans know that rights and wrongs exist as a categorical reality, regardless of the content variably ascribed to them. So although in prehuman nature, doing the “wrong” thing is not possible, because morality does not exist in prehuman nature, its possibility emerges when humanness does. Morality is an emergent property of the world, and its existence, the reality of moral naturalism, delegitimizes any attempt to exterminate people, whose right to liberty may be justifiably restricted only to the extent that they, by committing crimes, say, thwart the liberty and learning of others.
This evolutionarily grounded delegitimization of social Darwinism accomplishes two important things for ethnology. First, it allays fears that it might be evolutionary theory per se that, by “biologizing” people, robs them of their humanness. Quite to the contrary, it is precisely evolutionary theory that accurately describes humanness and its moral place in nature. By denying human nature, culturism unwittingly subverts its own best means of establishing rights. Second, to clarify the relation between humanness and reality is to free ethnology for its true task, the description of intelligibilia and their relation to consequential, morphogenic processes. “Intelligibilia” includes anything graspable by the human mind, anything intelligible, and it is the critical realist definition of culture. Culture, through agents’ appropriation and refashioning of intelligibilia, interacts morphogenically with real conditions to engender subsequent new conditions of either continuity or change.
Boasian objections to social Darwinism spawned the culturist, antibiology backlash that still distorts the culture concept itself. It tries to put culture in place of biology as humanity’s prime mover, when the solution in fact lies in realism, the dialectic of biology and culture, what has been called “coevolution.” This concept was first most clearly articulated by William Durham, and though the details of cases are highly complex, the prima facie contention that ideas and matter are coconstitutive in humanness is incontestable. But early 20th-century Boasian culturism and its latter-day adherents held and hold that everything from warfare to gender relations, childhood development, and religion are functions of culture unmodified by any proclivities rooted in nature. Now many ethnologists treat such tenets as received wisdom. The sole alternative seems reduction of humans to creatures of base instinct, incapable of channeling their appetites. Yet there aren’t even any animals that fail to channel their appetites, and humans obviously do channel them routinely.
By midcentury, another purported reason to eschew evolution appeared to an ethnology already committed to the hegemony of culture. Culturism’s stance against social Darwinism convinced it of the utter insupportableness of any mode of selection above or below the level of the individual. Thus, when William Hamilton posited his model of kin selection, culturism ruled it anathema. Kin selection shows that selection operates at both the level of specific genes and genetically related individuals (i.e., small groups). The new term sociobiology, used to describe the interaction of biology and culture in human affairs, was wrongly taken to imply that social circumstances were all mere epiphenomena of inviolable biological mechanisms. Such misunderstandings, and misrepresentations by some of sociobiology’s early proponents, created the impression that sociobiology intended to reduce humanness to biological drives. Again, that humans obviously do alter their behavior and conditions in light of many considerations should have sufficed to allay such fears. But in an over-reaction to sociobiology’s attention to our species’ evolutionary background in nature, culturism sought to denature humans by discounting evolution’s role in shaping humanness. Conversely, it also sought to make nature a purely human construct, something dependent on culture for its existence. Again, that such a thoroughly plastic world is, by all evidence, not the one we inhabit should have warned culturists off this course.
Learning, Liberty, and Practice
Thus, the implications of culturism are the very opposite of what most culturists intend. The antidote to totalitarianism is not culturism but eudemonism, pan-flourishing, the fostering of conditions that support the common weal through learning and liberty. These are natural rights and are conjoined very simply: Humans are information-seeking creatures that naturally wish to absent constraints on their happiness. Our innate craving to learn is a conative adaptation to the need to exploit information in the social and natural environments, motivating us to be active seekers of information. When drinking water is scarce and thirst creates dissatisfaction, humans seek information in and about the world. They mentally construct virtual models that hypothesize as to water’s possible whereabouts. Such basic approaches to human needs are not dependent on culture, though culture may constrain who in a group seeks water
where, how, and when. But no humans willingly brook what they regard as unwarranted constraints on their liberty.
Even beyond this level of basic needs, a great deal of everyday practical behavior is also comprehensible to humans by virtue merely of their being human. A person of Culture X seeing a person of Culture Y paddle a canoe will already understand much of the paddler’s present and near future experience, even though the person of Culture X may never before have seen a canoe. He will understand that the canoeist is an intentional being, the canoeist is male or female, he or she is of an approximate age, she wants to go a certain direction, he exhibits a certain level of accomplishment, the boat is floating, the river has a current, it’s easier to paddle with the current, the water will rise if it rains, rain comes from above, if the paddler falls out she will get wet, he will not be able to breathe under water, when the canoe disappears around the bend it disappears for everyone (not just those of a certain worldview), when night falls it will be harder to see, paddling will then be more difficult, the canoe will have to be secured for the night, the canoeist will likely be tired and hungry, and on and on. Such practically based knowledge comprises by far the better part of what is necessary for both successful paddling and the understanding of it. For this reason, critical realism highlights the primacy of practice and rejects the purported, culturist primacy of worldview. Culturally particular worldviews are irrelevant to the basic practice of getting a canoe upriver, precisely because intentionality, sex, age, floating, the current, rain, wetness, breathing, darkness, the laws of motion, gravity, fatigue, and so on are the same for everyone. This does not deny culture its own importance.
Dialectics and Reflectionism
But general flourishing, eudemonism, can be a guiding principle only under the recognition that both what flourishing entails and how to achieve it are subject to constant dialectical revision, and for two reasons. Both have to do with the philosophical, critical realist description of the pre-cultural world. First, both natural and social systems are inherently open. They are not experimentally closed to limit variables; they are subject to input from outside local systems; and they are subject to the emergence within them of novel properties and powers. This means that the best descriptions of them are always provisional and cannot be reified, for they must change with changes in the systems themselves. Second, human concepts and strategies are inherently fallible. We can make mistakes, these being our constant reminder that reality does indeed lie behind all possible conceptions of it. Eudemonism is thus not to be conceived as an absolute condition, for it is predicated on both the ongoing dialectic of structure and agency and the dialectic’s companion feature of reality, the human ability to learn.
One thing most humans learn quickly is that some models of reality are better than others precisely because they fit it better. The best matches make the best models, and so they also work the best, a fact of which no practically inclined indigene needs to be convinced. This position thus directly contravenes the absurd but prevalent culturist contention that knowledge does not, and cannot, “reflect” reality. This error results from the fallacy that a model must be perfect in every respect, that reflection must be an utterly undistorted image of reality, to be any adaptive good at all. But because errors are in fact part of the game, no model meets such specifications. Culturism mistakenly inflates this feature of models, that they are inherently imperfect, into the notion that all models must be completely arbitrary. Culturism thus adheres to a stanch antireflectionist philosophy. To debunk this position, just one telling difficulty will suffice: that people operating under grossly faulty descriptions of reality eventually fail to thrive.
In fact, a hypothetical reliance on errant views of real conditions in the environment of evolutionary adaptation would have prevented hominid intelligence from evolving in the first place. The grasping hand reflects the structure of tree branches for brachiating and, fortuitously, also that of stones that can be turned into tools. The grasping mind is ultimately no less beholden to real conditions for its adaptiveness. For evolutionary reasons, then, it is patently not the case, as Richard Rorty, a culturist philosopher, has put it, that no description of the world can be invalidated, on the grounds that the supposed invalidation would be just another redescription, under which no real world reposes. For Rorty and this school, the world is just texts all the way down. But from a due evolutionary position, it is obvious that any human group grounding its attempts to adapt to real conditions on arbitrarily selected descriptions of them, on the premise that no description can possibly be better or worse than any other, would soon be trying to comprehend the all-too-real speed of its demise. It is only because culturism has repressed the adaptive imperative, and repressed adaptation because culturism irrationally eschews evolution by natural selection, that it could paint itself into such a corner.
How Real? Why Critical?
Critical realism is realism because it theorizes the real social and natural dimensions of the world that exist apart from human knowing. As critical realism’s founder, Roy Bhaskar, describes it, the social world consists of a three-layered ontology, each with its own properties and powers: structural tendencies, as known by their effects; causally engendered events in time and space; and personal experience. The natural world consists of a four-layered ontology comprised of chemical, physical, biological, and conscious reality. Each layer is derived from, but not reducible to, prior layers. Emergent features are common, as when auto-mobility emerges from life and cities emerge from productive socioeconomic structures. Sociocultural processes in which structure and agency relate dialectically are summed by Margaret Archer as “morphogenesis.” In morphogenic processes, agents deploy and/or invent concepts to exert leverage on existing structures on behalf of their perceived interests. Such sociocultural phenomena are not culturally particular, for humans have agentive powers merely by virtue of being human, and they deploy them in and on the conditions they face.
Next to such matters—for matter is indeed what grounds practice—culture appears as a later and secondary development, which is exactly what it is in the evolutionary sense. Hominids did not suddenly lose their existing, practical, adaptive skills when and as culture emerged. Rather, culturally inflected values also evolved alongside practical activities that had sufficed on their own as adaptive schemes for millennia prior to culture’s emergence. Still, when culture emerges and is deployed, duly modified structures of society and nature become the real preexisting conditions that future agents will have to contend with. And at the conceptual level, ideas themselves have structural relations of compatibility, as in capitalism and market expansion, or incompatibility, as in mysticism and empiricism. Beyond this, critical realism theorizes many additional conceptual relations independent of culture, and demonstrates their possible sociopolitical correlates for interested agents. Both people and society have notable, emergent, culturally nonspecific properties and powers, and the details of the morphogenic model are to be found in Archer’s works.
Critical realism is critical because it recognizes that inherent in the best, most accurate descriptions of existing conditions lies an immanent critique of them. Right within a fact, an accurate description, is often expressed a value. This widely accepted observation is yet little known in ethnology, which still largely clings to the Humean posit that fact and value are utterly disjunct, that no “ought” can be derived from any “is.” Were this true, cultures could establish their own unassailable values and projects, in utter independence of the very world that makes them possible. Here lies another culturist self-contradiction. Yet most ethnologists are quite familiar with the prototypical immanent critique, Karl Marx’s description of capitalism. Marx simply showed that owners of capital were co-opting the surplus value of worker’s labor. This social and economic fact, in and of itself, both implied and violated an implicit value, that of fairness. It also implied an agentive course of action: redress. Critical realism argues the moral imperative of producing the best possible descriptions of social and natural conditions, so that the immanent critique of conditions contrary to eudemonism can be expressed and acted on.
Scholarly sociocultural models that allow either structure or agency to predominate misrepresent actual sociocultural process. Structures dominating agency reduce people to mere bearers of culture, making them its pawns. Despite Claude Lévi-Strauss’s immense contribution to ethnology, his overall model exhibits just this bias. Real people are missing from it. On the other hand, if agency dominates structure, conditions become largely irrelevant; indeed, would-be agents could encounter no real, resistant conditions on which their programs, strategies, or intentions could even be applied. This is the trap that hermeneutics, cultural relativism, and postmodernist discourse theory together all step into. They imagine culture as an omnipotent bellwether capable of leading docile conditions into any and every pen. A third error regarding the relation of structure and agency is found, for example, in Anthony Giddens’s “structuration.” This concept tries to conflate structure and agency, positing each as immediately constitutive of the other, to account for the influence of both in actual behavior and cognition. But conflation precludes the analytical disentangling of the respective roles of agency and structure, and confounds the processual dialectic of material and idea as people use ideas in the attempt to work their will.
Once anthropology itself was just philosophy. Philosophy was the investigation of humanness at a prescientific time when knowledge was still developed by deduction from first principles. Such a deductive principle was that humans are sinful, soul-bearing, instantaneously fabricated, immutable creatures of God. The span of this deductive approach to humanness, even outside the church, centered on the Enlightenment but stretched from well before it to the Victorian era just prior to the ethnographic revolution led by Bronislaw Malinowski. Philosophers from Descartes to Hegel pronounced on the nature of humankind. Cartesian dualism, Hobbesian strife, Rousseauian isolation, Lockean contracts, Humean experience, Kantian idealism, and Hegelian dialectics of the spirit all posited a kind of human being philosophically deduced. Such accounts remained clouded by the long shadow of medieval scholasticism. This largely precluded an investigation refigured, from the bottom up, as ethnographic description, to be followed by the induction of testable covering laws. Even Lewis Henry Morgan, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor, and James Frazer, despite a notable turn to the actual social world to enrich their models, were still essentially deductivists. They posited the nature of humanness, then adduced evidence cohering with the position.
Eventually, the naturalism of nascent science, powered by awareness of the ineluctability of natural and sexual selection, did induce investigators to take up the challenge of fieldwork. If it were true that humans are creatures subject to the same natural laws of selection as others, it called for the investigation of social forms as adaptive means. So, although anthropology was still philosophy, it had become philosophy by other means. The nature of humanness could no longer be deduced; nor, on the other hand, could ethnology be the mere acknowledgement of theory demanded by the force of raw data. The human study of humanness is dialectical, for our own understandings themselves become real and have real effects on the very social and ecological relations we study. Humanness evolved as the increasingly intelligent exploitation of available resources. This led to the eventual emergence of technological capacities geared to modifying reality in the interest of extracting yet more resources from it. Through fieldwork, in other words, the early ethnographers discovered culture.
Referential Detachment and Reflectionism
As we now would say, humanness is the adaptation that exploits the epistemological niche in reality. In 1872, the same year Charles Darwin published The Descentof Man, and well prior to the ethnographic revolution, A. Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers appropriately defined culture as “emanations of the human mind.” Such a view accepted that things can be known about the world, that people can know them, and that knowledge comprises humankind’s chief adaptive tool. However, the fact that culture does emanate from the mind, that it leaves the mind, and that culture escapes its creators and takes on properties of its own creates the vexing problem of referential detachment. The links between culture and the world become problematic because no logical necessity demands that culture—ideas—must fit nature like glove fits hand. People can devise understandings and create social forms that turn out to be maladaptive because they do not match reality. The possibility of maladaptive behaviors, taken by itself, makes humans no different than any creature. But the human capacity to comprehend has an entailment that cultural forms, though their evolutionary emergence was initially prompted by selective pressure from the hominid natural and social environment, become referentially detached objects of knowledge in their own right. Cultural forms are real in the three senses that they have observable effects, can themselves be objects of reference, and their effects, even when maladaptive, can reveal truth about both humanness and the world.
The discovery of culture and its property of referential detachment thus became for ethnology very much a two-edged sword. It enabled ethnology to flourish as an independent mode of inquiry and to contribute greatly to the store of human knowledge. At the same time, the seductions of referential detachment created the possibility of culturism. This soon became no longer the investigation of human adaptation to the real world, but the courting of notions detached from any possible reality. War, gender, adolescence, personality, religion, and much else were held, especially by still influential Boasianism, to be strictly functions of culture, behaviors that could and would change if socialization did. It was thus akin to behaviorism, its congener in psychology, and did not contravene positivism as it claimed to do.
Positivism explored the possibility that causation in social forms could be reduced to mechanics akin to chemical reactions. Though culturism despised the reduction of people to imitations of molecules, its own platform of socialization, or enculturation, presupposed just such a mechanical notion of cause in human affairs. Culturists seeking to free people from material constraints ended up fixing them to enculturation processes. The elaborate particularization of cultures did not change this central error, though it became a hallmark of culturism for the second halfof the 20th century. Now, in partial recognition of the erroneous relegation of reality to the status of an epiphenomenon, some cultural relativists are backtracking, and emphasize only methodological relativism, the due suspension of judgment about alien lifeways in the interest of accurately describing them. Nonetheless, culturism has yet to theorize the reality it thus furtively lets in the back door, having long ago turned it away from the front.
What this antiscientism misses is that no adaptation need be perfect to prevail. It need only offer its bearers a competitive advantage, however slight, and it will spread through a socializing and/or breeding population. In the final analysis, it is culturism’s posited impossibility of reflectionism that is impossible. Knowledge could not have evolved did it not provide a sufficiently accurate, and fallible, model of reality. Critical realism recognizes that fallibility is not merely an incidental feature of human modeling, but essential to it. Without fallibility, neither critique nor effective revision could obtain.
Of late, some culturism, finding no escape from its self-contradictions, has sought refuge in postmodernist irony. It avers that there is no truth, and no reality about which truth claims can be made. Culture is said to be the veil that humans create between themselves and whatever untheorized something it might once have been that prompted the rise of knowledge in the first place. Some maintain as a first principle that truth is but culture’s attempt at self-validation, behind which no reality resides. Thus, the human capacity for judging the merits of alternative views—a capacity inhering in consciousness, and not subject to dismissal—is dismissed. Critical real-ism, by contrast, maintains that the truly liberatory resides in dialectically pursued eudemonism, in which judgmental rationalism is essential in deciding what values have merit and what courses to them are worth pursuing.
The Inner Conversation and Experience
If, as critical realism maintains, there is indeed some central link between humans and the world, communities and landscape, persons and place, word and world, past and present, structures and agency, how are we to conceive of it? The process in which these linked facets of reality are processually coconstitutive is capsulized as morphogenesis, the dialectic of structure and agency. Archer identifies the central link as the individual’s internal conversation. In silent inward deliberation, constraints and volition briefly meld in informing thought and action, after which newly modified personal and social constraints and possibilities obtain. This formulation can profitably be augmented by John Dewey’s notion of natural experience.
Archer holds that all conscious humans have an inner domain of mental privacy, where the intentionality necessary to drive sociality is generated. Agents have a silent say in what strictures and strategies they will deem actionable. This life of the mind is essentially private, not amenable to “extrospection.” Even “introspection” inadequately describes the phenomenon, because it is not a matter of passively gazing into internal darkness to see what glimmer of self might catch the mind’s eye. The self is, in fact, the inner conversation. This belies the culturist tenet that all varieties of human selves are entirely matters of cultural artifice, such that some humans may not have selves at all. But however it might be culturally inflected, the phenomenological self is actively deliberative, and shot through with evaluations of practical and moral import. “What should I do?” is no mean aimless rumination, but the most fraught consideration anyone faces.
As most ethnologists recognize, it is insufficient to claim that in traditional societies, culture largely answers this question on behalf of the individual, who thus could get through life robotically. Even those who are normally compliant must continually decide whether and how earnestly to be so. Not infrequently, some decide to opt out one way or another, as when disgruntled hunter-gatherers leave the parent group to found a new settlement. No intentional, practical activity would be possible for a creature that did not have a sense of itself as an ongoing, agentive being with certain properties and powers. This is the universal, accurate sense that the individual is both distinct from his or her environment and can also affect it. The actual inner conversation merely comments on this reality and on the options it engenders.
Archer notes that all agents must respond to perceived conditions, assess their own aims and ambitions, and consider likely consequences for social stability or change. That is, being human, all people inwardly exercise discernment, deliberation, and dedication. Though modally subjective, the inner conversation is an ontic feature of human existence. It is the dialogical, dialectical realization of the relation of mind to world, for all humans must negotiate realities pertaining to nature, practice, and society. Yet the concrete situations deriving from these overlapping spheres of reality do not impinge mechanically on agents. They are mediated by the agent’s own concerns and processed in the internal conversation, the nexus of structure and agency. This mediation works to dialogically bring structure and agency together in the interests of individuals, as they understand them. It does not work, as would culture as posited by culturism, to first barricade people from, and then obviate, the world. It is precisely real consequences that people are concerned with and on which they inwardly deliberate. Agency meets structure both in the internal conversation and in practice. By addressing the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, Archer duly considers the natural links this mature practice theory has with pragmatism. Other recent work in critical realism suggests that the pragmatic linchpin of morphogenesis is experience as Dewey, another pragmatist, has theorized it.
In this view, the priority and centrality of experience derives from the fact that it is precisely about experience, had and likely, that the inner conversation takes place. Dewey was often at pains to disabuse his critics of the misconception that he equated experience with sense impressions, the psychological usage of the term. He meant, instead, the conjunction of humanness and the external world as realized in and through a given individual. Such a view of experience may be characterized, on Dewey’s behalf, as the personalized register of what takes place, and clarified as follows. The personalized register of what takes place is not limited to the particular consciousness of the hypothetically self-contained individual; it leaves room for shared experience, the sociality that in turn informs an individual’s consciousness. The register need not even be fully conscious, for input and output via the unconscious are also real, as known from their effects. The phrase “personal register” encompasses corporeal modes of registration, though in some ways, these may bypass cognition, for their effects will bear on future experience.
Finally, the fact that experience is the personal register of what happens duly recognizes the many parameters conditioning personhood. These include evolution, history, sociality, culture, the environment, and life course development. With these qualifications, experience becomes the crux of sociocultural process, that is, of morphogenesis. This recognizes that the inner conversation takes place with regard to experience and that practice, in part, is the result. Though it is indeed the individual who is the experiencer, of necessity, the strings of experience are tuned also to social and natural refrains.
Ethnological Investigations of Reality
Because philosophy and anthropology have the investigation of humanness as their common axis, there is a continuum from one to the other that takes as its parameter the adaptationist imperative. Adaptation is a tacit, post hoc imperative, because failure to adapt is ultimately failure to exist. It does not imply that any and all particular human endeavors are adaptive or that humans can necessarily know the difference between what may or may not prove adaptive in the long run. But sooner or later, in Archer’s phrase, reality will have its revenge. And because humanness is adaptively informed, evolutionary theory underwrites many subdisciplinary modes of ethnology. Critical realism’s embrace of the evolutionary paradigm makes it largely compatible with any anthropological mode of inquiry that grounds humans in reality. But more than mere compatibility is at stake. Critical realism intentionally theorizes what is often taken for granted, that conditions of the real world structure human endeavor. Thus, it accommodates social science to naturalism. Paleoanthropology, primatology, population genetics, and archaeology all implicitly exploit knowledge of the stratified ontology critical realism describes. Here follows a brief sample of modes of inquiry also immediately relevant to ethnology and the bearing of critical realism on them.
The plain conjunction of evolution and philosophy yields evolutionary epistemology. This field recognizes that knowledge exists because it evolved, and evolution can thus be presumed to have left its mark on the general structures of human knowing. As Dewey also emphasized, knowledge must be capable of being about the world, because the world spawned it. Just as the light-sensitive motility of a paramecium models the reality of sunlight and the bird’s wing models the resistance of air—those realities do have the properties from which such adaptations as motility and flight derive—so the representations made possible through consciousness also reflect pertinent structures of reality. These include space, time, location, motion, relation, contrast, cause, event, change, vitality, growth, and death. Thus, where Immanuel Kant posited a transcendental idealism in which categories of thought, such as space and time, imposed themselves on reality, which was thus rendered utterly inaccessible, critical realism properly sequences the real horse and the ideal cart it pulls. It is the world that shapes the structures of consciousness, a view that evolution substantiates. So, critical realism is a transcendental realism.
Beyond the basic structures of the world and human knowing, evolutionary epistemology theorizes that ideas evolve under the same selective principles as do life forms, namely, variation, selective retention, and transmissibility. In the long run, ideas that perdure are those experience shows to have been the most apt reflections of reality. Throughout this process, conceptual and theoretical mistakes are legion, as are vital “mistakes” in nature. The workers of the Soviet Union, let alone those of the world, never did meaningfully unite, because people’s primary attachments are not to class distinctions, and no amount of reculturalization could make them so. People’s primary attachments are to familiars and locale, as predicted in the evolutionary model of humanness. Richard Dawkins has advanced the concept of “memes,” on an analogy with genes, to account for the apparent attractiveness and consequent transmissibility enjoyed by certain ideas. Such features may be explained at least in part by the mind’s evolutionary preparedness to hold and convey them, a preparedness grounded in their previous adaptive effects. Pascal Boyer has usefully applied a similar model to the particular nature of religious ideas as found cross-culturally. He thus accounts for the attractiveness of notions that posit ostensible phenomena that are salient because unusual, yet not so bizarre as to be preposterous, at least by the terms of a given cultural milieu.
A step closer to ethnology per se is evolutionary psychology, a vibrant and expanding subdiscipline descended from an earlier sociobiology. Like everything evolutionary, it has dedicated opponents of its recognition that key determinants of human affect, cognition, and behavior are not pure products of utterly malleable socialization but are also proclivities inherited because the genes underwriting them got transmitted at higher rates in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. The idea was first outlined by Darwin, who by the principle of sexual selection accounted for the existence of the apparent adaptive liability that peacocks carry in their cumbersome, unwieldy, energy-consuming, predation-inviting tails. The answer lies in peahens’ preferential selection of such long-tailed males as mates. Handsome tails are informational proxies for a healthy inheritance; females mating with such males tended to produce more surviving offspring.
Despite much research intending to demonstrate that female humans, to the contrary, select mates on principles that vary haphazardly with culture, the vast preponderance shows that they too tend to select males for traits associated with vigor and power. Likewise, young men tend overwhelmingly to select mates on the basis of due female proxies for healthy genes, these being lush hair, clear skin, prominent breasts, a high waist-hip ratio, and the absence of visible disease and deformity—all components summarized as “beauty.” These observations largely hold true across cultures, for all such signs suggest a female’s fitness to bear and nurse children. Beauty has evolved to be inherently attractive to a male because mating with a healthy woman affords his genes a selective advantage. Power is attractive to females because mating with a good provider affords her genes a selective advantage. Because men often compete for preeminence, critics have uncomprehendingly faulted evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology, with justifying violence. The further irritant to such critics is that is has partly been female choice over the millennia that has produced male humans more than ready to indulge in violent competition, as witnessed by the near ubiquity of war.
But the sociobiological, evolutionary psychological claim is neither that men cannot control themselves, which in general they obviously can, nor that women are forced beyond measure to beautify themselves. The evolutionary theory only accounts for the obvious cross-cultural proclivities in play, understanding that can help establish such sociopolitical constraints as may be deemed appropriate. By many such examples, including the contribution to group fitness made by otherwise problematic phenomena such as depression and phobias, evolutionary psychology demonstrates that the human psyche is a product of evolution and that reality-based evolutionary theory is pertinent to everyday behaviors affecting societies in general. Its pertinence to critical realism is that it demonstrates the morphogenic process, as soma, psyche, and sociality coevolved.
Prospect-Refuge Theory and Cultural Ecology
Both prospect-refuge theory and cultural ecology capitalize on realities of the human-world relation. Prospect-refuge theory derives from Jay Appleton’s work in human geography. It predicts that humans will show marked preferences for landscapes that signify the availability of exploitable resources, exploitable refuges from potential danger, or the possibility of safe exploration for either. Thus, the response to narrow defiles is expected to be averse, to protected promontories favorable, and to winding paths through open country one of enticement. Psychological research has born this theory out, as the anthropologist would expect, given that humans evolved in hazardous environments to be omnivorous, hunting, information-seeking, colonizing, conflict-prone creatures. To say that humans are by nature colonizing creatures is only a due description of the fact that humans have, through exploration and the intelligent use of information gleaned from dispositional properties of reality, colonized every corner of the globe. It neither celebrates colonialism nor holds sociocultural aggrandizement to be an uncontainable passion.
While it is no doubt true that many people simply prefer familiar landscapes to unfamiliar ones, the principle of familiarity does not obviate people’s selective preference, within a given environment, for features promising prospects or refuge. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for intelligent creatures not to have developed discerning capacities due to selective pressures at work on their forebear’s choices of landscapes within which to provision, travel, or dwell. The dispositional, informational properties of nature, transformed into knowledge and exploited by humans as they occupy the epistemological niche, lie immediately in features of nature themselves. People do not give landscape its property of being able to conceal a person or reveal a resource; those properties are in the landscape. Humans turn such information to account by realizing, in both senses of the word, what those properties are. Caves can protect; defiles can trap. Intelligence realizes such properties first by becoming aware that they exist—independent of anyone’s knowing—and second by enabling humans to practically avail themselves of them. This ability to recognize and use information about reality, in particular, abilities involving high perspicacity in the assessment of landscape affordances, has duly evolved in humans. It is the ability Dewey described as experience, the pragmatic phenomenon of mining reality for practical information regarding its real dispositional properties.
Cultural ecology uses the principle of adaptation to describe, assess, and compare various human modes of production and sociopolitical organization. It is the socioeconomic perspective on the human-world relation, albeit one that readily incorporates both beliefs and history. Cultural ecology is in some ways the offspring of models of cultural evolution advanced in midcentury by Leslie White and Julian Steward. Such models have been considered both sophisticated and, nonetheless, problematic. Although they take an adaptationist view, the clear trend they reveal is one of increasing socioeconomic complexity, which can be misconstrued. White, for example, related cultural evolution to the amount of energy that a mode of production could harness and intentionally deploy. Since this amount has, in general, clearly increased through time, it leaves the impression that more-powerful societies are more adaptively advanced and less-powerful ones “backward.”
In fact, less-powerful societies usually have a quite viable adaptation of their own. Absent the intrusion of extrinsic forces, such systems most often exist in a cybernetic balance both with natural resources and neighboring socioeconomic systems. In the 1960s, Roy Rappaport showed that multiyear cycles of ritual, warfare, and pig production in highland New Guinea coincided in a cybernetic system that, overall, effectively related population size to carrying capacity. Today, cultural ecologists produce some of the most substantive studies of human adaptive modes, with clear implications for the future of humanity at large. The many instances of socioecological collapse, for example, as documented in the archaeological record, and ongoing processes of ecological degradation that can be studied now should give pause to advocates of policies for continued increases in resource exploitation.
Moral Naturalism and Material Culture
Moral naturalism has been arrived at independently by both philosophical critical realism and anthropology, which thus complement each other. The critical realist argument for moral naturalism has been given above and resides in the ontic ineluctability of choice, and thus justification, on the part of intelligent creatures. Evolutionary anthropology approaches the problem from the analysis of altruism, the apparent prevalence of other-benefiting, self-jeopardizing behaviors among humans and some other species. If genuinely altruistic behavior aids another to the actor’s own detriment, how could genes underwriting its continued behavioral manifestation be preserved? Altruists and their behavioral proclivities should be weeded out by natural selection, but they aren’t. Aside from the problem that what may appear altruistic from one perspective might actually be self-serving from another, the answer to the real problem that altruism poses lies in kin selection.
In the environment of human adaptation, bands of hominids would largely be comprised of kin in the first place. And specific, close kin recognition, evident among nonhuman primates, can be accomplished by a juvenile merely noticing to which other individuals its own mother provides care. Individuals do not need to be able to mathematically calculate degrees of relatedness in order for their behaviors benefiting kin to perdure, for those kin share some of the altruist’s genes, quite apart from any knowledge of the fact. So genes underwriting altruism can get passed on even if altruists die as a result of their own behavior. Such proclivities are not tantamount to biological reductionism, for humans can obviously choose, in the moment, whether to act altruistically or not. But altruism remains a genetically possible behavior because genes underwriting it pass collaterally through kin whom altruism benefits. Culturists have not answered the question of how morality divorced from matter could matter. And if morality does have material consequences, those consequences must have selective entailments.
At the other end of the naturalistic spectrum from moral naturalism lies material culture. This consists of objects, artifacts, buildings, tools, artwork, trash, icons, texts, roads, and all sorts of tangible products of consciousness working on reality. Such objects manifest and exemplify the leverage exerted by intelligibilia derived through reality-based experience. Items of material culture easily become objects of cathexis and in their embodiment of intelligibilia thus morphogenically exert further leverage on sociocultural conditions. Possessions shape the behavior of their possessors and so in a sense turn around to possess the possessors. This phenomenon remains just as true of people such as hunter-gatherers, who have very few possessions. If one’s only tool is a stone axe and it is lost, one either makes another axe or has an immediate, serious, existential problem. This contradicts the widespread culturist premise that materialism is a Western cultural phenomenon. The focus on materials for survival is a human trait; capitalism merely capitalizes on it, albeit in an extreme and often damaging form.
Critical realism is not without its limitations. The first is the difficult writing style of its chief exponent, Roy Bhaskar. This may have discouraged many from deciphering his reality-based model of human sociality, which does repay the effort. The second is a recent “spiritual turn” by some critical realists, which may have more to do with desired realities than ones demonstrably inhering in the world.
- Archer, M. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Archer, M. (2003). Structure, agency, and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Bhaskar, R. (1975). A Realist theory of science. London: Verso.
- Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming reality. London: Verso.
- Brereton, D. P. (2004). Preface for a critical realist ethnology, Part I: The schism and a realist restorative. Journal of Critical Realism, 3, 77-102.
- Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism: An introduction to Roy Bhaskar’sphilosophy. London: Verso.
- Sayer, A. (2000.) Realism and social science. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage.