[1200 Words; 10 Minute Read] In order to frame research within a particular philosophy a critical realist approach can be taken, especially to gain a greater understanding of causality. Ontological aspects of the philosophy that relate to the nature of being incorporate two key features, these are to (1) celebrate the existence of reality independent of human consciousness; and (2) ascribe causal powers to human reasons and social structures. For epistemological aspects that relate to the nature of knowledge, two key features are also recognised, these are to: (1) reject relativism in social and scientific discourses; and (2) re-orientate the social sciences towards its emancipatory goals. As per the second ontological aspect of the philosophy, ideas relating to causality are central to the critical realist approach of research. For instance, research can attempt to emphasise that phenomena such as deprivation (or affluence) can be caused by something such as the driver of education in a neighbourhood. It should be noted that the approach recognises underlying causality even if no causality can be proved or observed. For instance, it has been argued that causal powers may not be activated or that effects are overridden by the exercise of other causal powers. The use of a critical realist approach in research aims can also engage with spatial disciplines such as geography and planning. In doing so, research in part can contribute to a re-theorisation of space by providing spatially focussed findings enveloped within a critical realism philosophy.
The critical realist approach in research can be distinct from positivist, interpretivist, feminist and structuralist approaches, and ‘-post’ versions of these research philosophies. In doing so, research does not necessarily seek to reject but challenge these other philosophical approaches. A realist approach focussing on causality can be used to challenge both ‘positivist’ and ‘interpretivist’ approaches in the social world. Positivism is challenged by disengaging with closed systems that concentrate wholly on the search for observable empirical regularities derived through statistically significant correlations between variables. In challenging purely interpretive approaches, the philosophical approach used in the research accepts that meanings that people attach to social situations are relevant but cannot be entirely relied upon to understand social phenomena. With respect to feminist thought, the philosophy allows understanding of places and spaces beyond gendered constraints without fully rejecting gendered causality. In essence, using critical realism means that a less dogmatic and unrestricted research approach can be taken in researching phenomena.
In applying critical realism to research methods, three steps could be used in the search for a corroboration of models and causal mechanisms. Firstly, research could use a non-linear, iterative and ongoing process that enable a refining of the models and mechanisms as the research is carried out. Secondly, the ongoing nature of research means that research can be continually conceptualised and reconceptualised. Thirdly, research is carried out by using the appropriate use of techniques for understanding a particular reality via retroduction. This means that the appropriate method and technique for each research objective is more clearly realised as models and concepts are refined and developed. In using the correct technique to meet research aims and objectives, the use of both quantitative and qualitative techniques can be carried out. For example, qualitative use of semi-structured interviews can be endorsed under critical realism, as interviews can maximise the information flow by making use of communicative and social skills. Furthermore, techniques can be endorsed under critical realism as it can adapt to preconceived questions and ideas in the course of the interview. Interviewee sample frameworks and snowball method under critical realism are also possible as a building of knowledge is made using multiple, disparate and non-typical interviewee subjects. For example, they are selected one by one as the research proceeds and as an understanding of the membership of a causal group are built up. As a final point with regards to endorsing a mixed method approach and triangulation of results, critical realism can allow a more appropriate criterion for corroboration via the convergence of evidence.
As an example to illustrate, research undertaken from a critical realist philosophical perspective could look at the causes of deprivation in neighbourhoods depending on the wider structural circumstances. This subject matter could incorporate multi-disciplinary strands to focus on paradigms that are social, economic and environmental (built or natural). Further, research focus on specific neighbourhoods could be framed in the context of the broader processes of economic restructuring and their impact across and within cities. In terms of ontology, research in this subject matter could try to show that neighbourhood realities operate independently of what is known or researched. If there is such independent reality, research can try to uncover the ‘truth’ about what is causing such realities. One example of causality could be that low-value neighbourhoods are in part caused by low educational attainment. For these claims of causality, it is granted that determining the difference between cause and effect is a difficult philosophical conundrum but a worthwhile endeavour. To provide pragmatic research analysis and findings, the causes of recovery could be seen as drivers or determinants, such as the drivers and determinants of education in neighbourhoods. Research can also epistemology use mixed methods to understand neighbourhood drivers within time and space.
In summary, applying a critical realist philosophy provides a less dogmatic approach, allowing for both abstract and concrete empirical research elements to meet a given aim. In using this philosophical framework a dismissal (although not an absolute rejection) of other philosophical theory is considered such as positivist, interpretive and feminist approaches. Structuralist elements are touched on in using critical realism although structure and agency is considered in terms of ‘macro’ structural levels (e.g. industrial restructuring cities) whilst focussing on ‘micro’ structural elements (e.g. at the neighbourhood level). The key use of this philosophy is to engage with the identified ontological strands of reality independent of human consciousness and causality being ascribed to social phenomenon. Epistemologically, the use of this philosophy engages with a rejection of relativism to seek emancipatory goals with social and scientific discourses. In applying critical realism to research, flexibility should be provided by a non-linear, iterative and ongoing process that allows for conceptualisation and reconceptualisation. With respect to the aims and objectives in research, the critical realism philosophy allows understanding of the patterns, dynamics, and drivers (e.g. in the renewal of low demand neighbourhoods) through abstraction. In doing so, layered abstractions provide a clearer identification of connections between drivers (e.g. education) and place (e.g. neighbourhood).
Writers to further explore this topic include:
Archer, M., Bhaskar, R., Collier, A., Lawson, T., & Norrie, A. (Eds.). (2013). Critical realism: Essential readings. Routledge.
Archer, M. S., Collier, A., & Porpora, D. V. (2004). Transcendence: Critical realism and god. Psychology Press.
Bhaskar, R. (2016). Enlightened common sense: The philosophy of critical realism. Routledge.
Collier, A. (1994). Critical Realism: an introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy. London: Verso.
Easton, G. (2010). Critical realism in case study research. Industrial marketing management, 39(1), 118-128.
Fitzpatrick, S. (2005). ‘Explaining Homelessness: a Critical Realist Perspective’ in Housing, Theory and Society, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 1-9
Pratt, A. (1995) ‘Putting critical realism to work: the practical implications for geographical research’ in Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 19, No. 1
Sayer, A. (1992). Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London: Hutchinson.
Yeung, H. W. (1997) ‘Critical realism and realist research in human geography: a method or a philosophy in search of a method?’ in Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 21, No. 1.