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Contingency of universality: some thoughts on discourse and realism

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Constructionism and realism are dominantly regarded as incompatible meta-theories. In this article, I argue rather that a realist epistemology offers some premises that can usefully ground discourse analysis in social scientific research. This has implications for the latter ' s modes of theorising and its potential for social criticism. The argument is in two moves. First, I discuss how the concept of discourse figures in three major critical traditions of social theoretical, sociological and political theoretical thinking. I argue that, for different reasons each, these traditions offer a less than satisfactory answer to the ontological question of how discourse figures in the social and/or to the epistemological question of how discourse is operationalised in theory and research. Second, I turn to a discussion of critical realist meta-theory. I critically discuss Bhaskar ' s ontology of the real and suggest that realist epistemology should be combined with a constructionist ontology, along the lines of feminist theorising. This is useful in providing discourse theory and analysis with more effective accounts on the nature of the social and on the modes of social inquiry. In so doing, I sketch a view of discourse informed by critical realist elements and point to its conceptual and analytical advantages.

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