The Review of Austrian Economics, 14:1, 5–24, 2001.
2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Manufactured in The Netherlands.
Bringing Social Structure Back into Economics:
On Critical Realism and Hayek’s Scientism Essay
JOCHEN RUNDE firstname.lastname@example.org
Judge Institute of Management Studies and Girton College, University of Cambridge, Trumpington Street,
Cambridge, CB2 1AG, United Kingdom
Received April 1999; Accepted January 2000
Abstract. This paper offers a critique of the critical realist (CR) interpretation of Friedrich Hayek’s famous essay
Scientism and the Study of Society presented in Tony Lawson’s recent Economics and Reality. It is argued, contrary
to Lawson’s reading, that Hayek’s social structures (1) do have an existence over and above the conceptions of
the individual actors and (2) serve as a precondition for human action on the lines proposed by CR. Some links
are made between Hayek’s essay and the theory of social reality recently proposed by John Searle, and some
comparisons drawn with CR.
Key Words: social structure, realist social theory, critical realism, Hayek
JEL classiﬁcation: B3, B4, P0.
A deﬁning feature of Critical Realism (CR) as presented in Tony Lawson’s (1997) recent
Economics and Reality is its emphasis on questions of ontology and its subordination of
epistemological to ontological considerations in economic analysis. The particular social
ontology favoured by Lawson is one that places equal weight on individual human agency
and social structure, the social rules, relations and positions that seem to permeate our lives.
Of course the idea that there exist social structures, institutions and so on, over and above
human agency, and that these structures often play an important role in economic affairs,
is hardly controversial (even in a discipline in which many believe that explanations of
economic phenomena are only properly grounded once couched in terms of the actions and
interactions of individual actors). More controversial is the precise nature of the relationship
between agency and structure. Lawson’s position on this question, as he presents it, is one
that steers a middle course between the extremes of voluntarism (according to which social
structure is reduced to, or is conceptualised as the mere creation of, individual actors) and
determinism (according to which human agency is reduced to, or is conceived of being
totally determined by, external, coercive structure). Instead, Lawson argues that human
agency and social structure are recursively organised, that each is both a condition for,
and a consequence of, the other. Human actors constantly draw on/are governed by social
structure in action, on this view, and it is only through human actions that social structures
arise at all, are reproduced and perhaps transformed over time.
It is not my intention here to challenge this image of the social world: at the (high) level
of abstraction at which it is presented in Lawson’s book, I ﬁnd it hard to imagine how it
could be anything other than right. But I do want to take issue with some of the critical