Critical Realism

When I listened to Mona Chalabi’s podcast on the gendered outlook on (in)fertility, I felt the social scientist sense of mission in me come alive. YES! This is what social science is about! While there was a hard-science microbiologist speaking alongside her, it was social science deconstructing and peeling back the layers of cultural assumptions that the woman’s eggs are to blame for infertility. The feminist side of me rejoiced.

It also got me more excited about critical realism (CR)- the coherence of how it describes the nature of reality (ontology), and how humans as social beings understand the world (epistemology). When I read ‘Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences‘, I felt like the lights turned were turned on in my brain as I connected the dots of my own research inquiry to this philosophy.

Despite coming from a social science (social work) background, oftentimes when I scoured the literature to understand civil participation and its related ideas like empowerment and community development, I doubted the importance of social science. It seemed like many of journal papers were talking about what seemed to be ‘common sense’, at risk of seeming arrogant here. Perhaps I am not learnt enough in academia nor practice, because I sometimes find the ‘deluge’ of social science findings wearisome- like what is the practical use of this academic piece? As a practitioner and speaking to other people working on the ground as well, it seemed like many of the papers in academia had little relevance to them- especially if it were something more abstract like the construct of empowerment. Except if they need to write up some kind of formal report, that is. At the same time, there is a sense of sombre self-reflection too- what about my own research? Does it have both academic and practical importance? CR has served as a kind of mental self-evaluation in my research journey.

The CR meta-theory posits that there is an intransitive reality- the ‘real thing’ out there. If you are familiar with the Matrix series, that would be the world of the Machines. The Matrix, which is the neural virtual world experienced and lived in by humans, is merely what is ’empirical’- observable.

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The transitive dimension of reality on the other hand, represents the collective knowledge that humans have created- the theories about phenomenon and structures. This knowledge aims to describe the intransitive reality, but they are often provisional and can be refuted. A famous example would phrenology, the ‘study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character’, which was largely guided by the empirical observations of a doctor. He had formed a theory of the link between different parts of the brain and personality traits from these observations (Brittanica). Phrenology has now been widely refuted as more systematically generated observations (empirical evidence) in different areas of science have been generated.

While physical sciences have made great strides in generating knowledge that improved largely the physical and biological aspect of the human condition (but also new technologies of destruction), the social sciences play an invaluable role in our essence- from our personalities, to how we live together in a society amidst all our differences. In the latter respect especially, I believe that social scientists need to examine and go beyond the currently established social theories- especially in this changing world where our societal makeup is shifting rapidly. For this task, I commend the CR meta-theory where current knowledge is provisional- but also likely a good guess of the ‘real’ mechanisms that drive events and behaviours can be seen. Further, qualitative methodology is indispensable and deserves equal footing with quantitative methodology. If knowledge is provisional, there is a need at times to use qualitative means to build theory/knowledge rather than testing hypotheses from extant theories.

I hope this article has stirred your curiosity in reading more about critical realism 😁 Bhaskar’s works may be too abstract and difficult to link to the practical implications (as it was for me), but below are some resources:

Danermark, Ekström, Karlsson, Ekström, Mats, and Karlsson, Jan. Explaining Society : Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. Second ed. Routledge Studies in Critical Realism. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2019.

Fryer, T. (2020) A Beginner’s guide to critical realism, Critical Realism Network, [FREE!]

Hoddy, E.T. (2019) Critical realism in empirical research: employing
techniques from grounded theory methodology, International Journal of Social Research
Methodology, 22:1, 111-124, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2018.1503400

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