Critical realism, initiated by Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014), is a popular package of meta-theories and principles to help guide how we conduct research. It is often framed as an alternative to positivism and postmodernism. Margaret Archer and eight fellow critical realists (2016) composed a helpful summary of four key critical realist principles:
- Ontological realism
- Epistemic relativity
- Judgemental rationality
- Ethical naturalism
Here are some thoughts on what these may mean for the everyday work of conducting social research and evaluations.
1. Ontological realism
What is it? There is a social and material world existing independently of people’s speech acts. “Reality is real.” One way to think about this slogan in relation to social kinds like laws and identities is they have a causal impact on our lives (Dembroff, 2018). Saying that reality is real does not mean that reality is fixed. For example, we can eat chocolate (which changes it and us) and change laws.
What to do? Throw radical social constructionism in the bin. Start with a theory that applies to your particular topic and provides ideas for entities and activities to use and possibly challenge in your own theorising.
Those “entities” (what a cold word) may be people with desires, beliefs, and opportunities (or lack thereof) who do things in the world like going for walks, shopping, cleaning, working, and talking to each other (Hedström, 2005). The entities may be psychological “constructs” like kinds of memory and cognitive control and activities like updating and inhibiting prepotent responses. The entities might be laws and activities carried out by the criminal justice system and campaigners. However you decide to theorise reality, you need something.
2. Epistemic relativity
What is it? The underdetermination of theories means that two theorists can make a compelling case for two different accounts of the same evidence. Their (e.g., political, moral) standpoint and various biases will influence what they can theorise. Quantitative researchers are appealing to epistemic relativity when they cite George Box’s “All models are wrong” and note the variety of models that can be fit to a dataset.
What to do? Throw radical positivism in the bin – even if you are running RCTs. Ensure that you foreground your values whether through statements of conflicts of interest or more reflexive articulations of likely bias and prejudice. Preregistering study plans also seems relevant here.
3. Judgemental/judgmental rationality
What is it? Even though theories are underdetermined by evidence, there often are reasons to prefer one theory over another.
What to do? If predictive accuracy does not help choose a theory, you could also compare them in terms of how consistent they are with themselves and other relevant theories; how broad in scope they are; whether they actually bring some semblance of order to the phenomena being theorised; and whether they make novel predictions beyond current observations (Kuhn, 1977).
You might consider the aims of critical theory which proposes judging theories in terms of how well they help eliminate injustice in the world (Fraser, 1985). But you would have to take a political stance.
4. Ethical naturalism
What is it? Although is does not imply ought, prior ought plus is does imply posterior ought.
What to do? Back to articulating your values. In medical research the following argument form is common (if often implicit): We should prevent people from dying; a systematic review has shown that this treatment prevents people from dying; therefore we should roll out this treatment. We could say something similar for social research that is anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQI+, intersections thereof, and other research. But if your research makes a recommendation for political change, it must also foreground the prior values that enabled that recommendation to inferred.
The four key critical realist principles provide a handy but Big metaphysical and moral framework for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to do social research. Now we are presented with further challenges that depend on grappling with substantive theory and specific political and moral values. I wish you the best of luck on your endeavour!
Archer, M., Decoteau, C., Gorski, P. S., Little, D., Porpora, D., Rutzou, T., Smith, C., Steinmetz, G., & Vandenberghe, F. (2016). What is Critical Realism? Perspectives: Newsletter of the American Sociological Association Theory Section, 38(2), 4–9.
Dembroff, R. (2018). Real talk on the metaphysics of gender. Philosophical Topics, 46(2), 21–50.
Fraser, N. (1985). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.
Kuhn, T. S. (1977). Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice. In The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (pp. 320–339). The University of Chicago Press.
Hedström, P. (2005). Dissecting the social: on the principles of analytic sociology. Cambridge University Press.