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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Philosophical Realism

Much of the literature on social mechanisms is indebted to Philosophical Realism, which leads scholars to treat mechanisms as having material reality. In other words, mechanisms are not simply metaphors or constructs of the scholar’s mind, but their causal force has objective existence; they have power of their own.

This realist image of causality sits more easily with some feminist Construc- tivisms than with other types, depending on epistemological commitments. Thus, feminist literature on norms can easily adapt to understandings of causes (i.e., norms) as real. In contrast, projects as different as deconstruction and standpoint analysis are incompatible with ideas of independent causation because these methodologies suggest that scientific knowledge not only depicts but also produces realities. A researcher’s self-conscious positioning as a feminist, the adoption of a “standpoint,” and an approach to knowledge as always situated contradict the idea that causation could operate independently of the interpretation of the observer (Haraway 1988; Hartsock 1998). The postulate that researchers be reflexive towards their own positionality in the research process presumes that truth does not reveal itself from an objective reality but emerges from a process of negotiation. Similarly, the deconstructionist understanding of scientific knowledge as part of the social imaginary firmly places any identification of social mechanisms in the realm of ideas (Tickner 2005; Ackerly, Stern, and True 2006).

If social mechanisms are not part of an objective world, what would it mean to identify mechanisms reflexively? Feminist methodologies would suggest an emic approach - that is, a mechanismic interpretation of the causes driving processes from the perspective of those participating in them. But it is not simply the subjective interpretation of agents that can establish the validity of a cause or the existence of a mechanism. Interpretations of a situated standpoint need to be accomplished actively, collectively, and politically (Hartsock 1998). And feminist scholarship contributes to this effort.

Indeed, a standpoint approach to mechanisms invites a pragmatist conceptualization of causation. This entails thinking of the causal power of mechanisms not only as formal in the Aristotelian sense (here as inherent in norms and discourse), but more importantly as final (i.e., by reference to the effects that they produce). In other words, the effect, rather than the cause, may be a productive starting point for considerations of causality. Some forms of pragmatism go so far as to make manipulability the main criterion for calling something a cause. Thus, a cause refers to “whatever event, process, thing, power, condition, which human agents can control in order to produce or prevent another state of affairs (their ‘effect’)” (Kurki 2008, 152). A constellation of final causes becomes a mechanism if it is specific, can be imagined as set off by a trigger, and can be imagined to operate in more than one context.

This pragmatist formulation of causality in mechanisms is suggestive because it puts emancipatory purposes at the center of consideration. Outcomes of particular interest to feminists - such as inequality, subordination, oppression, equality, emancipation, and empowerment - can thus be treated as the starting points to identifying causal mechanisms.

In sum then, for the purposes of adding to a feminist Constructivist research agenda, social mechanisms are best conceptualized as:

  • • Having a level of generality;
  • • Theorizing the productive force of gender beyond Methodological Individualism;
  • • Exhibiting causality as understood from a situated feminist perspective geared towards political goals.

In the following I offer a discussion of a set of mechanisms derived from my study of gender equality policy-making in the European Union (Prugl 2011a). They meet the criteria developed above in the sense that they are general and identify gendering as a productive force filtered through very different theories. While they do not meet the criterion of being emically derived, they meet the pragmatist logic of reading cause backwards through the lens of effects.

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