The real domain

Brad C. Anderson

Within the real domain, social structures exist that enable or constrain people’s actions within a social setting. Though the word ‘structure’ gives the impression of something physical, like the structure of a house, social structures are, in fact, intangible.[1] Structures may include the policies and procedures staff follow during their workday or the education levels within a labour pool from which a company hires employees.[2][3]

Social settings are complex, open systems. This complexity is reflected in the web of structures governing these settings. Different structures may contradict each other–for example, structures influencing professional conduct within a work environment may moderate structures of racism.[4][5]

The time between when a structure influences a person’s behaviour and when that person chooses to act may make it difficult to establish cause-and-effect relations between the structure and action.[6] At times, there may exist forces that hide the role another structure had in generating an event,[7] or there may exist structures that exist but lie dormant until certain circumstances activate them.[8]

An earlier section asked why, since teacher-student relations are the product of human imagination, are you unable to change the nature of this relation when you dislike a class. The philosophy of critical realism would argue the answer lies in the structures governing our education system.

Structures enable and constrain action. These structures constrain you from unilaterally changing the roles, responsibilities, and authorities inherent in our education system’s teacher-student dynamic.

The following section describing the actual domain will introduce an exploration of how these structures, though intangible, have the force to prevent you from changing the education system on a whim. Later chapters of this textbook discussing power will then elaborate on how societies imbue intangible structures with the force to control behaviour.



There are countless structures active in society. Consider a social setting with which you are familiar. This setting could include, for example, your workplace, a sports team you play with, one of your classes, a religious organization you belong to, and so on. Reflect on the activities of that group. Who does what? How do they do it? What is your role in the group?

  1. Reflect on the definition of structures. What are some of the structures that enable people to take the actions they do in the social setting you have chosen? What structures constrain the actions people might want to take?
  2. Think broadly about what enables and constrains action in the social setting you have chosen. Are there policies and procedures that determine who can do what? Traditions? Culture? Does gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth, or other factors influence who can take what actions?
  3. Consider how these structures enable and constrain action. To do this, start by considering an action someone cannot take (for example, a woman may want to join an all-male hockey team but is not allowed). What happens they try to do something they are forbidden from doing? What, specifically, prevents their action? Likewise, consider an action someone is allowed to do in a social setting (for example, the head coach may determine the drills the team performs during practice). What is it that allows them rather than someone else to take those actions?
  4. The more detailed you can get with your answers to these questions, the stronger your understanding of social structures.

Key Takeaways

  • The real domain is the deepest layer of social reality.
  • The real domain contains structures.
  • Structures are those forces that enable or constrain action.

  1. Tsoukas, H. (1994). What is Management? An Outline of a Metatheory. British Journal of Management, 5(4), 289–301.
  2. Costello, N. (2000). Routines, Strategy and Change in High-technology Small Firms. In S. Ackroyd & S. Fleetwood (Eds.), Realist Perspectives on Management a (pp. 161–180). New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Rubery, J. (1994). The British Production Regime: A Societal-Specific System? Economy and Society, 23(3), 335–354.
  4. Ferguson, K. E. (1994). On Bringing More Theory, More Voices and More Politics to the Study of Organization. Organization, 1(1), 81–99.
  5. Porter, S. (1993). Critical Realist Ethnography: The Case of Racism and Professionalism in a Medical Setting. Sociology, 27(4), 591–609.
  6. Tsoukas, H. (1994). What is Management? An Outline of a Metatheory. British Journal of Management, 5(4), 289–301.
  7. Ackroyd, S., & Fleetwood, S. (2000). Realism in Contemporary Organisation and Management Studies. In S. Ackroyd & S. Fleetwood (Eds.), Realist Perspectives on Management and Organisations (pp. 3–25). New York, NY: Routledge.
  8. Pratten, S. (1993). Structure, Agency and Marx’s Analysis of the Labour Process. Review of Political Economy, 5(4), 403–426.


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The real domain Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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