“Say one more word and I’ll scream!”

Over the last few weekends and days off, I have worked intensively to try and understand the philosophy of critical realism, and how to apply it to my master’s research project. I’ve also been watching My Fair Lady.

I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to learning things and don’t like to give up. I usually get there in the end, but I must say, I have never experienced anything so impenetrable, wrapped up in long words, and with many inconsistent uses of terms and differing view points across the subject. (And I thought grappling with immunology in the past was challenging!)

What use is it to anyone that an academic field evolves their research thinking and methods to be so thoroughly incoherent and impenetrable? My only conclusion that there are a lot of people in cloud cuckoo land. It isn’t helpful. I just don’t get it.

So what has my journey been?

opened glass window
Photo by Alessio Cesario on Pexels.com

Understanding research philosophy (why and how we might choose to do research) and understanding our values as researchers is important. The philosophy gives you a window through which to look out onto the world, and will help you to communicate why and what you have done to the next researcher.

On the research philosophy seesaw, one end has objective and scientific approaches of gathering knowledge, and the other has subjective and more social views. Critical realism is the pivot in the middle and combines both. But I think that is what gives it an enormous problem. Nobody bloody understands it, and how can you combine objective and subjective thinking at the same time? How can you like both Magpie and Blue Peter, Tiswas and Swap Shop?

Viv’s research seesaw

Roy Bhaskar was an amazing mind and philosopher who devised and described critical realism. In his book that I can probably grasp 1% of, he explained the problems with either end of the seesaw. He also coined key words – structures, mechanisms, events, and said the world of knowledge was constructed in three layers – empirical (our observations of what we see and can measure), actual (ok starts to get fuzzy, real things what we can see or may not observe) and real (the structures of society, values and cultures that shape us). 

Brad Anderson’s open textbook chapter has been an amazing help. The words real and actual confuse me as I view them as the same, but I vaguely get Brad’s iceberg idea that empirical is what we see above the water, actual is what ripples around the surface of the water, and real is what is underneath.

More recent thoughts are this framework is a distraction and is meaningless anyway. Tom Fryer and Cristián Navarrete suggest that this view of reality in three layers just confuses the issue as our frame of reference. Let’s just look at the experiences, events and mechanisms, not where we think they are placed on the iceberg.

However if we are going to take critical realist approaches, we still need something that connects Roy’s ideas with the current day, and then lord knows, how to actually design some research methods.

There is a connecting piece missing here in my mind which I’m still confused about. But we can leap on to Pawson and Tilley’s work of developing realist evaluation techniques. They say that reality comprises of outcomes, and these relate to the context of a situation and mechanisms that influence things. This makes sense but I don’t know how it relates to a critical realist stance.

So, that’s it then. We can focus on understanding 1. Context C, 2. Mechanisms M and 3. Outcomes O. But how do you wrap that into your research methods? I’m very grateful to have found Paul Cashian’s PhD dissertation from 2014 on student employability. The author took the literature and ripped into it intensively. He then created a model around M + C = O. Then by conducting interviews with a group of students, he explored the MC and O, and drew conclusions.

That’s another problem with critical realism. It is not a research method, therefore even in the course textbook I’m following, it more or less says anything goes. I’m unhappy that it leaves me wide open to using the wrong methods and analysing things the wrong way.

So what am I going to do?

Try and understand these words: Empirical, perceptions, experiences, actual, events, power, real, agency, causal relations, observable, retroduction, induction, abduction, deduction, entities, effects, structures.

Try and devise a research method that can deliver a critical realist approach.

Or just keep singing:

“Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard”.


Fabulous resources
Critical realism network – oh thank you for existing.