Taking Critical Ontology Seriously: Implications for Political Science Methodology

Angela Wigger, Laura Horn

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To be ‘critical’ has become fashionable among social scientists in various disciplines. Only a few decades ago, the prefix ‘critical’ was almost automatically associated with Western Marxism and in particular the Frankfurt School. Today, the term critical is no longer limited to a single theoretical approach, but pertains to a vast range of approaches, including feminist, reflexive, postcolonial, postmodern or poststructuralist studies, and studies committed to a post-positivist epistemology more generally. But what does critical social science actually mean? Which implications does critical research have for fundamental questions of ontology (the central premises on the constitutive elements that underpin social reality), epistemology (the assumptions about how knowledge about this reality can be produced) and methodology (how this knowledge is gathered and ordered)? This chapter offers a primer on a few core dimensions of critical social science and its central premises. It discusses first what critical social science is not, and clarifies key differences between what is commonly referred to as ‘mainstream’ and ‘critical’ social science perspectives. It addresses the role of normative claims and identifies the emancipatory commitment inherent in critical approaches as a distinguishing feature. Drawing on critical realism as an illustration of a philosophy of science and as a critical ontology, the chapter then engages with meta-theoretical questions about why critical perspectives privilege ontology over epistemology – that is, why we need to accept that social reality is constituted by complex power relations that evolve from a constant dialectical interplay of structure and agency over time, and that these power relations are revealed in both ideational and material dimensions. To illustrate what a critical ‘way of knowing’ looks like, critical feminist perspectives in political science are highlighted as concrete examples. In the concluding part, we emphasize the core arguments for indeed taking critical ontology seriously, and outline avenues for further engagement and debate.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Research Methods and Applications in Political Science
EditorsHans Keman, Jaap Woldendorp
Number of pages16
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing
Publication date2017
ISBN (Print)9781784710811
ISBN (Electronic)9781784710828
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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