Critical realism in political ecology: An argument against flat ontology



This theoretical article takes issue with how 'new materialisms' have been employed in political ecology, and it explores the 'depth ontology' of critical realism developed by Roy Bhaskar as an alternative to the 'flat ontologies' of new materialism. While political ecology was initially informed by political economy, the field has become much more heterogeneous and includes various post-structuralist, socio-constructivist, and new materialist approaches. Most, though not all, of these approaches typically destabilize science, try to break with problematic dichotomies (especially nature-society), distribute agency, and sometimes entertain the idea that multiple realities may exist. This contribution argues that new materialism, in Bhaskar's language, may be characterized as 'actualism' and identifies its associated problematic implications. While critical realism has occasionally been invoked in political ecology to give credibility to the external reality of nature, I argue that the full potential of critical realism for political ecology has yet to be explored. Holding that the world is stratified, with the 'real' not limited to events and interactions, creates the possibility of exploring 'unseen' mechanisms and trends.

Keywords: New materialism, actor network theory, Roy Bhaskar, depth ontology, tragedy of the commons, social constructivism

How to Cite: Knudsen, S. (2023) “Critical realism in political ecology: An argument against flat ontology”, Journal of Political Ecology. 30(1). doi: