Building interdisciplinary theory and research on social change and peace
Tromsø University Realist Research Group (TURRG) and Network (TURRN)
The Aim of the project
The overriding goal is to initiate an interdisciplinary research programme at the University of Tromsø based on important developments in the realist tradition within the philosophy of social science. The programme will start out as a collaborative project grounded in two disciplines, political science and education, under a common umbrella of realist social theory and meta-theory. Though not primarily at the level of the philosophy of social science, the project takes its point of departure from that position of meta-theoretical realism inspired especially by the work of Roy Bhaskar ( 1997,  1998) and illuminating the social theory of Archer (1998) and others. Bhaskar himself will be an active partner in establishing the programme.
In the interests of providing a professional framework for the programme, we will organise and coordinate a network among researchers in Norway who currently apply, or are interested in applying, realist approaches, and support their integration into relevant international networks and groups. As network coordinators we will serve as an international information-centre concerning realist research by establishing a website and net-based working-paper series, and organising internationally advertised events: lectures, workshops, seminars and courses.
The Significance of scientific research programmes in the social sciences
Since Kuhn's groundbreaking study of paradigmatic shifts in scientific development, the nature and status of social "science" has been contested: Is it pre-paradigmatic, multi-paradigmatic, or hardly a science at all? More recently, any "radical constructivists" have relinquished the idea of social and cultural theory-building in favour of the mediation of multiple voices and first-person accounts.
More recently, however, postmodernism and radical versions of constructivism have faced a renewed challenge by those believing that knowledge may grow through the development of theory. Interestingly, this challenge rejects both the naïve empiricism rightly ascribed to much positivistinspired research and the radical relativism implied by positivism's harshest critics. The "realist critique" revisits issues highly current in the 1960s and 70s in the aftermath of Kuhn's publication. Lakatos (Lakatos & Musgrave 1993) recently interrogated Popper's famous contention that what distinguishes science from everyday knowledge is the falsifiability of its propositions. Lakatos argued that such propositions cannot be considered in isolation from their context in scientific practice: as components of broader research programmes. These include concepts and theories at different levels of generality, from core concepts to more peripheral theories and propositions. While single theories and propositions (but not all) may be falsified, this may not threaten core concepts, which can be used to modify and elaborate new theories and propositions within the same programme. If such problem-shifts are progressive the body of theory will gradually increase its explanatory power. Hence the distinctive attribute of a successful scientific programme is its generation of progressive rather than degenerative problem-shifts.
This notion of a theoretically integrated-or integrating-research programme is the basis for our proposed realist research group at the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Tromsø (TURRG). The realist meta-position may be considered a core binding a broader body of theories, some of which may be interdisciplinary but may also pertain to specific domains or disciplines. Our research group will be interdisciplinary, since the realist position is sufficiently general to encompass all the social (and natural) sciences. Our point of departure, however, is taken from disciplines (and themes) where realist theory is already established: political science and education. The basic tenet of realism is that reality exists independently of our knowledge of it. Realist theory does not claim to represent absolute truth through direct access to reality, however. On the contrary, realist social theory has been developed from the premise that all data are theory dependent and reality can only be known under a particular description. Since we have no direct access to reality, we can have no absolute knowledge of it. Our knowledge is fallible and so can always be corrected, but it is possible to distinguish theories' relative explanatory power. Bhaskar (2002) has summarised the basic principles of critical realism to be ontological realism, epistemic relativism and judgemental rationalism. Social theory based on a realist philosophy of social science theorises ontology, claiming that ontology, implicitly or explicitly, regulates conceptualisations in all social theory, since ontological assumptions determine which entities we investigate. Invariably, those who explicitly declare that they do not ground their social theory in ontological conceptions do so nonetheless implicitly. (Bhaskar  1998, Archer 1995, 2003).
The impact of realist thinking is apparent across many disciplines. In sociology, Margaret Archer has formulated a realist social theory (Archer 1995, 2001, 2003). Andrew Sayer, trained as a geographer but now a declared "post-disciplinarian", has written a classic text on realist research methods in the social sciences, first published in 1984 and reprinted several times up to the 1990s. In economics Tony Lawson (1997, 2003) has developed a realist alternative to classical economics to considerable acclaim. In international relations theory Alexander Wendt (1999) has situated his work in the framework of Bhaskar's realist philosophy and initiated "constructivist turn" in mainstream international relations theory by rejecting postmodernism and advocating a platform of "scientific
realism". In such diverse fields as jurisprudence and gender studies realism has also been adopted as a basis for developing new theoretical perspectives (Norrie 2001, New 1998). Current international debates on basic issues in social science invariably entail references to Bhaskar as the founder of critical realism, thus acknowledging the centrality of his realist philosophy.
In September 2004, the European Sociological Association's social theory division has included on its agenda a discussion of critical realism's potential as a research programme. The impact that realism, as a position in the philosophy of social science, has had on a wide range of disciplines resonates with its conception as a scientific research programme. This has been the impetus behind the realist research groups established at several European universities, including Cambridge, Leicester, Warwick, Amsterdam, Gothenburg and Örebro. Nevertheless, social scientists doing realist research are in general highly dispersed, connected through discussion groups (such as the Bhaskar-list), the Journal of Critical Realism and annual conferences of The International Association for Critical Realism (IACR). Our aim is to establish Tromsø as an important meeting-place for realist researchers globally, and thereby galvanise the University's own programme of social scientific research, lodging it more firmly in meta-theoretical and epistemological foundations.
For more information, please contact Stuart Robinson