Philosophy as if the world mattered: critical development studies and the work of Tony Lawson

No reader of this blog needs reminding that positivism retains a powerful grip on development studies. Not because every theorist, researcher and department carries a card or flies a flag self-identifying as positivist, but because positivist concepts of what knowledge is and how it is assessed continue to dominate, in so far as these have captured the concept of ‘science’. As Ingrid Kvangraven’s critique establishes, one need look no further than the dominance of random control trials (RCTs) for evidence of this. While there are many specific problems one might identify with RCTs, such as the capture of policy by what can be researched using RCTs rather than by what may be more significant as structural causes of poverty, perhaps the fundamental one is the model form, which stands behind RCTs. It is this that lends authority to RCTs, as it does to many other branches of economics.

Tony Lawson is probably the best known critic of mainstream mathematical modelling and in a recent interview he reprises his argument. Lawson is a ‘critical realist’ and ‘social ontologist’ and his, and other critical realists’ argument, is deceptively simple. All knowledge claims involve assumptions about the nature of the world, what and how it might appropriately be investigated. Whether this is acknowledged or not this presupposes a theory of reality or being (an ontology) and an orientation to knowledge (an epistemology). Philosophy thus has an important role in making these assumptions explicit and in exposing them to critical scrutiny to address their plausibility, consistency etc. Such philosophy does not replace the sciences or social sciences, but rather ‘under-labours’ for or supports their endeavours and is itself subject to critique in this context.

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