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Critical Realism and the Analysis of Democratisation: Why Philosophy of Science Matters

Thursday February 28, 2008, at 14:00
Aula 4 - IBEI
Research seminar
Milja Kurki (Aberystwyth University)
Promotion of democracy around the world has been a key political trend in the late 20th and early 21st century. It is no surprise then that a wealth of literature in the social and political sciences now studies the successes and failures of democratisation around the world. Despite the richness of the empirical studies conducted on democratisation, it has been pointed out that theoretical and conceptual aspects have tended to receive less attention in the democratisation research agenda. Notably, examination of the ‘meta-theoretical’ assumptions that underpin democratisation research has often been sidelined. It is argued here that all accounts of the causes and consequences of democratisation are underpinned (explicitly or implicitly) by specific sets of meta-theoretical assumptions and that these assumptions are deeply consequential for the empirical research conducted. It is argued here that paying attention to the philosophy of science underpinnings of democratisation studies is important: theoretically, methodologically and politically. The account here makes reference in particular to a fairly new meta-theoretical position in the social sciences: critical realism. This meta-theoretical position, critical of both the positivist conception of science and radical interpretivism of the postmodernists, seeks to reclaim the idea of social science and what it entails in the study of the social world. This reclamation, which also includes reclaiming the idea of causal analysis away from the positivist focus on regular patterns and independent variables, has important consequences, it is argued, for the study of democratisation. Notably, it directs the study of democratisation towards methodological pluralism and more contextualised and complexity-sensitive analyses. It also highlights the importance of recognising the normative and political consequentiality of the way in which empirical studies are conducted on the subject.