Realistic relativism is all about politics

In the Second Edition of the Handbook of Organization Studies (2006), Stephen Turner presents an overview of the interaction between the philosophy of the social sciences and the organization studies. From the French Revolution and Bonaparte, via Marx, Weber, Popper and Kuhn he brings us to the reality of Hacking: “Reality is an attribute of representation.” Is science all about politics?

Unanticipated consequences

In Hackings’ opinion scientific theory and research can only be understood as an ongoing activity of ‘representing’ and ‘intervening’. Scientific data should be considered the product of the ‘intervention’ of the scientist. The scientists’ representations must be understood “as a part of a continuing dynamic process of performing interventions based on one’s representations and revising these representations as a result of the unanticipated consequences of these interventions.” (Turner, 2006: 420).

A dilemma of elaborate proportions


For the time being Hackings’ realistic relativism gives hope to those who can’t handle the reductionist idea that there is no reality in science. Nevertheless, Hacking has a point: science is not about reality. It’s about representations. Hackings’ concept of science is not a boon for those who want to convince people of, for example, the effects of human activities on the climate or ecosystems. This poses a dilemma of elaborate proportions. The climate and ecosystems are facts of life that are not open to Hackings’ favourite scientific intervention: experiments. So scientists can only find out whether these systems are threatened, if they are able to coax data from these systems. Seen from Hackings’ point of view, this only leaves us with representations, which are vulnerable to manipulation and, as such, are political issues. So in the end the science of climate change is foremost a political issue. As a consequence, you take the climate change serious, or you don’t. But if you don’t, don’t cry when the ship sinks.


Turner, S.P. (2006). The Philosophy of the Social Sciences in Organizational Studies, in Clegg, S.R., Hardy, C., Lawrence, T.B. & Nord, W.R. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Organization Studies (pp. 408-424). London: SAGE Publications. See also: Hacking, I. (1992). Experimentation and Scientific Realism, in Boyd, R., Gasper, P. & Trout, J.D. (eds.) The Philosophy of Science (pp. 247-260). Cambridge (USA): MIT Press.




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