Marxism and Realism: A Materialist Application of Realism in the Social Sciences

By Curry, Neil | Capital & Class, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Marxism and Realism: A Materialist Application of Realism in the Social Sciences


Curry, Neil, Capital & Class


Sean Creaven Marxism and Realism: A materialist application of realism in the social sciences Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 325 ISBN 0-415-23622-3 (hbk) 65.00

Marxism and Realism is a detailed and often laborious attempt to strengthen the ties between realism and Marxism through the concept of emergence. It is an important piece of work in a much needed and burgeoning area of research and is a timely contribution to a developing area of concern for those who still assume that Marxism is the most appropriate bed-fellow for critical realism. Such an assumption today seems less certain as critical realism has evolved at least as much for non-Marxist purposes as for Marxist ones.

The book is heavily influenced by one non-Marxist critical realist in particular, Margaret Archer, and has two main purposes. Firstly, to defend Marx's theory of human nature, considering how it functions within historical materialism, and to demonstrate how it has become indispensable in developing a useful theory of society. The second strand of Creaven's argument revolves around an analysis of the shortcomings of over-- naturalist and over-sociological accounts of subjects, agency and society. Both flatten out the other side of the dichotomous relationship between the natural and the social. This theoretical exploration is concerned with instilling a both/and approach to the nature/social debate rather than either/or.

In chapter one Creaven engages classical Marxism with realism and this lays the foundations for what follows. Chapter two deals primarily with human agency. Chapter three considers the constitution of the interaction order and its relationship to the structural properties of social systems and the psycho-organic and subjective capacities of individuals. Chapter four is a defence of the base-superstructure model in trying to understand-and by extension change-structure, power and conflict. Locating the argument in Marx's (not always consistent) notion of `species being', Creaven argues that it is the process of meeting the objective species needs and interests which founds social transformation. And, ultimately, it is class that is the prime mover and gives rise to epochal societal change.

The outcome of Creaven's efforts is to reinstall an anti-reductivist form of `emergentist Marxism'. So the key concept out of which the book stands or falls is the concept of emergence, which is a familiar one to those working in the realist tradition. For Creaven the notion of emergence has two basic meanings and functions. The first is as simply another way of describing and defending the thesis of the irreducibility of the constituent levels of reality. The second is as an explanatory thesis which locates the emergence of higher order stratum in a specific interaction or combination of generative mechanisms internal to those objects or structures which exist at a stratum immediately basic to it. …

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