Recontextual Realism™ [April 1st, 2004]

A Critical Realist Theoretical Framework for the Radical Sociology of Religions

Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Johnson County Community College

Among the anti-essentialist, moderate realist assumptions of recontextual realism is that the transcendent and dialectical reality of any social structure is situated, not in some fanciful generalized Platonic quiddity or naive realism, which regards beings as mere appendages or manifestations of the ideal forms in a hypothetical mind of God, but in the historical preexistence of a structure to a present-day human population and its artifacts.

Sociality is not a manifestation of mind, whether divine or moral, but an emergent and malleable epiphenomenon of historically situated wills. Since no society or group can be divorced from its structural progenitors, all social construction must be regarded as contextualized reconstruction. Consequently, dialectical essences, rather than being universal, are always specific to a single, analytical social context.

Given that the metatheory of this radical sociology of religions is inevitably ensconced in the specific religious or spiritual hermeneutic of the individual sociologist, a reflexive sociology must be among its integral components. Thus, the radical sociology of religions can be both socially transformative and intensely personal.

A significant mode of reflexive praxis is voice. Inclusive forms of discourse as are socially, politically, and economically emancipatory are advocated. Accordingly, free speech must refer exclusively to such modes of self-expression which are fundamentally free of socially subjugating content, do not promote false consciousness, and, above all, advocate a universal freedom from all forms of oppression. Societies should educate their members to rigorously avoid establishmentarian language which champions the enslavement of others.

My theoretical orientation (perspective for explaining sociological data), is eclectic and has been most influenced by Roy's Bhaskar's critical realism, and, to lesser extents, by George Lakoff's embodied realism and Anthony Giddens' structuration theory. About structuration theory, John Lye wrote:

Structuration theory is a constructionist theory -- that is, a theory which holds that humans are social constructs and that their institutions of all sorts are constructs upheld by humans acting according to their images of what reality is. The formulator and major exponent of structuration theory is Anthony Giddens.

Bhaskar's primary criticism of structuration is that it neglects the history of structures. Thus, he correctly argues that a critical realist approach to sociology is really restructuration:

Is is because the social structure is always a given, from the perspective of intentional human agency, that I prefer to talk about reproduction and transformation than of structuration as Giddens does (although I believe our concepts are very close). For me structuration still retains voluntaristic connotations -- social practice is always, so to speak, restructuration.

-- "Beef, Structure and Place: Notes from a Critical Naturalist Perspective." Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, volume 13, no.1, p.84

Why not then continue to use the term critical realism? Although my approach is a species of critical realism, it differs sufficiently from Bhaskar's, especially with his more recent excursions into Indian metaphysical monism, that the new designation may prevent some confusion. On the other hand, Bhaskar's standpoint epistemology, making him perspectively and simultaneously a materialist and a supernatural idealist, is quite appealing to this writer.

Bhaskar's realism does not presuppose universals or essences. There is no universal field theory. Rather, the assumption is that ontological realism precedes epistemic realism. That is to say, scientific concepts and variables are not merely names, one of the premises of nominalism, but they describe real processes and structures, including historically reproduced social structures, which can be restructurated by each new generation and epistemized by scientists.

As the radical sociology of religions is developed in future projects, it will, in addition to those theorists already mentioned, incorporate elements of Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, George Herbert Mead's social behaviorism, Emile Durkheim's and Peter Blau's approaches to structuralism, Karl Marx's scientific socialism (essentially, his term for sociology), Pitirim A. Sorokin's integralism, Georg Hegel's dialecticism, Erving Goffman's frame analysis (post-dramaturgy), Charles Horton Cooley's social psychology, Arthur Koestler's and Ken Wilber's approaches to holonism, and various species of social constructionism, including Robert Heiner's critical constructionism.

I term this metaphysical, transmodernist (containing elements of modernism and postmodernism, i.e., accepting modernism while moving beyond it) framework for the philosophy of science, Recontextual Realism. Its postmodernism is largely limited to a deconstruction of oppressive metanarratives or structures.

This paradigm is also dialectical, meaning unity in diversity, which is my primary focus of analysis in examining social structure. Lacking unity, individual diversity is anarchy.

American society, in which a sociological imagination is conspicuously absent, scapegoats individuals for social problems; promotes a cult of the personality; glorifies fame and so-called celebrity; misapplies the star label to well-known, high-profile (unfortunately) performers, journalists, sports figures, and other media personalities; transforms supposedly counter-individualist behavior, such as low self-esteem and codependency, into diseases; hosts a huge cosmetics, and cosmetic surgery, industry; and advocates psychotherapy as the panacea for all that ails us.

All the above is, in my view, ultimately superstition and magic. When people attribute truth and meaning to people and things which just a little bit of critical thought would expose as highly problematic, they are really engaging in magical thinking.

My own view is that, in order to understand the individual, one must begin with the synergetic concept of social structure (on both the macro and micro levels). In a psychologistic society, such as exists in the United States, conceptualizing social structure as a force which dominates, and acts over and above, any individual influences, is virtually alien.

All societies and groups consist of both structure and people. Except in fictitious or propositional works, one without the other is inconceivable. A car, for instance, is built with both a blueprint and auto parts. Lacking the blueprint (the structure), the parts have no meaning.

Social structures, or frameworks, include the various social institutions (religion, the economy, education, the arts, etc.), in addition to gender, race, social class, sporting arenas, particular classrooms, and so on.

Manichean-like dualist conceptions of good and evil or of right and wrong - moralizing, in other words - have dominanted much of modern Western thinking. I propose a more structurally relativist model. Viewing social action in relation to frameworks of values and norms will allow degrees of approximation to a given structure and avoid the fallacy of bifurcation.

Furthermore, situations which might otherwise be perceived as mentally or emotionally problematic might instead be viewed as instructive. Indeed, our collective angst is, I believe, a product of excessive psychologism.

As social beings, learning takes place as we come into dialectical tension with our structural surroundings. But to become engaged in this type of trans-individual perception, one needs to develop a sociological imagination and avoid conceptualizing one's experiences in purely personal categories.

Knowledge, and what a culture defines as truth, are grounded in the contingencies of dynamic structures. And truth itself, or at least what may be referred to as such, emerges out of the particularities of social interaction. The Platonic worlds of forms and of outward appearances are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

To return to our main subject, there are both micro- and macro-structures. Each acts as a social force to delimit the range of socially acceptable statuses and behaviors (i.e., averages). Individual exceptions, such as those which may be attributable to neurological pathology, are not significant for sociological purposes.

These structures are both enabling and constraining. Society and the people who, along with social structures, constitute it, adapt, over long periods of time or during periods of significant large-scale crisis, through creative, dialectical interaction with these structures.

Structures cannot be legitimately viewed outside of history. The structure of race is the product of colonialism and slavery - both of which continue to the present day. Structures typically change only in response to the flow of history and its critical, often violent, events.

Slavery can be seen in the enslavement of African Americans to poverty, unemployment, and ghettoization. African Americans make up only 12% of the population. However, approximately 50% of the nation's prison inmates are people of color. And 24% of young African American males are under some form of correctional supervision.

Colonialism is most visible in the reservation system which, although of some benefit to First Nations peoples, is largely controlled by a European American power base in Washington.

The terms "structural" and "structuralism" are used with a variety of meanings in sociology. This fact is particularly confusing to those who come from some other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, and (especially) linguistics, for whom structuralism almost exclusively refers to the now largely unsubstantiated ahistorical, synchronic views of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers (such as Claude Levi-Strauss). To Saussure, meaning was found through word juxtaposition. For instance, I know that red is red because it is not blue.

As I see it, there are two dimensions of social structure. The first might be referred to as intersubjective structure. The second could be called objective structure. I am not, however using "intersubjective" in a psychologistic sense. I am referring to a shared mentality, a collective consciousness, or a psychosocial cognitive matrix. Each objective structure represents a particular type of social organization. Unlike intersubjective structures, objective structures are material and concrete.

For instance, I witness socioeconomic and demographic variation between social strata (objective structures), and, from it, I infer the existence of stratifying intersubjective structures. However, I am unable to directly observe (with my senses) those frameworks of inequality.

Yet, through attitudinal surveys and intensive interviews the researcher can probe into these underlying, psychosocial frameworks. So, when a set of commonalities in status/role perspectives are found in a population regarding a particular social fact, we term it an intersubjective structure.

Both levels of structure feed into one another through the dialectical process of reflection. We reflect what actually exists (objective structures) in the context of our a priori mental frameworks (intersubjective structures). The social fact of life in a world of objective racial inequality is internalized - reinforcing the (collective) intersubjective structures which are formed during childhood. In turn, the collectively shared intersubjective structures are projected onto experience and perpetuate objective structures of inequality (race, gender, class, age, etc.).

Non-material culture (ideologies, values, knowledge, and language) and material culture (artifacts) are both products of intersubjective and objective structure. In other words, what we both believe and possess are derived from our statuses. As a result, both aspects of culture are, according to the existing system of social stratification or differentiation, structured on the basis of power and resource allocation.

I will begin with a discussion of intersubjective structures. Following that, I will continue with a description of objective structures.

Any intersubjective structure, such as race, class, or gender, consists of a particular pattern of statuses (positions) and roles (arrangements of norms, or sets of behavioral guidelines, which instruct people on how to relate to other statuses). These intersubjective structures are perpetuated intergenerationally through socialization, and they are reinforced by living in a world in which they are seen objectively or materially in forms of (frequently stratified) social organization or objective structure.

Intersubjective structures are, as I conceive of them, frameworks of collective consciousness, i.e., matrices of knowledge internalized by populations and groups of statuses (positions) and roles (the behaviors expected from people occupying particular statuses when interacting with others possessing the same or different social statuses) and how they are organized (linked in affinity) in various social contexts.

Unlike Erving Goffman (who adopted Gregory Bateson's term), I do not regard frames as distinct from social structures. Roles (sets of norms), statuses, values, and language, as I see them, have their primary existence on the cognitive and affective levels and not on the physical plane of action and attribution.

The types of intersubjective structures (frames) prevalent in particular societies are expressions of the dominant structural mentality or collective consciousness (conscience). I refer to these mentalities/modes of consciousness as conflictive (sensory, diverse, attributional, or existing in the world of outward appearances) and integrative (synthesizing, unifying, reflective, hermeneutic, or existing in the world of ideal forms). Together, these mentalities are stages in the dialectical (rational) process of accomplishing synthesis out of observable conflict.

The conflictive mentality is diversity without unity. However, in the integrative mentality, social reality (diversity) is framed in a dialectical metaphysic of unity in diversity (focusing on the unifying factors in human populations). Communication patterns are restructured from a polarizing frame of contentiousness (making absolute assumptions of right and wrong) to one based on cooperative problem-solving.

The dominant structural mentality is typically demonstrated by those in positions of power. Structures often frame the world into permutations of oppressor and oppressed statuses. In addition, it is frequently to the advantage of power elites to promote chaos and conflict among the disenfranchised in order to maintain their social control. (I am not referring to any particular individuals but only to the structures in which they play roles.)

As to free will: Although, admittedly, humans have a degree of it, its extent is nowhere near to the level which many Americans believe to be the case. Our destinies are, in my view, essentially conditioned by the structures internalized within us. Thus, free will is relative - relative to social structure - not absolute. It operates within certain parameters.

The abolition of control, by government and by the capitalists, as advocated by Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists, is somewhat beside the point. Rather than eliminating coercive power (a dubious objective at best), the goal must be the establishment of a more humane system of normative coercion based on a consultative dialectic of unity in diversity.

Collective consciousness and its constituent structures are products of history. They change with the procession of history and as humans, acting within the context of their structures, respond to significant challenges and crises.

Now, continuing with objective structure, we here move from the intersubjective aspect of structure to concrete patterns of resource allocation and culture. Objective social structure consists of variations in wealth, property, and other resources. It is also geographic or spatial (human ecological, in other words). In addition, it includes the concrete acts people engage in (derived from their statuses and roles) and the manners in which people label the objects in their environment (also framed by their statuses and roles). Objective structure is mutually dependent with the intersubjective structures of prestige and power.

Objective structure consists of observable social differentiation and stratification, on the one hand, and cultural artifacts (the distribution of those artifacts, observable behavior, and the labels attached to people and things in our environment), on the other. As such, it is amenable to empirical investigation, while intersubjective structure itself, in my view, is not. The latter can only be studied by reference to its objective correspondant. Intersubjective structure and objective structure are interdependent and exist in dialectical tension with one another.

Thus, cultures (total ways of life) and subcultures may be regarded as the ephemeral correlates of collective consciousness and the idealized, or formal, social structures which those mentalities incorporate. They are, to take anthropologist Arthur Koestler's term (recently borrowed by Ken Wilber), holons - holons within holons. In a holarchy (again, Koestler's term), each holon, or structure of complexity, appears as a self-sufficient whole, until it is viewed in the context of the next highest holon.

Structure is a creation of history. We are the witnesses, in a succession of moments, to the culmination of all the influences preceding it. How can we encourage the establishment of social movements which will respond progressively to history's onward flow?

It appears to me that, at the present historical moment, the collective consciousness or structural mentality needs to be transformed from one so heavily dominated by social conflict to one which resolves relative contradictions within the context of unity in diversity, i.e., through a progressive internalization of the unific principle.

Ultimately, social structural change is realized in a dialectic between communities, with their existing structures, and history. It is the result of how society, in the context of existing structures, collectively responds to the challenges of history. It is not the property of individuals and their biographies.

Copyright © 1997-2004 Mark A. Foster, Ph.D. All rights reserved.