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critical realism

Critical realism is difficult to describe as it captures a variety of stances, but its key ideas, and probably the reason for the interest it generates, is that it sits between positivism and interpretivism. As Archer et al (2016) put it, critical realism offers an alternative to:

scientistic forms of positivism concerned with regularities, regression-based variables models, and the quest for law-like forms; and also the strong interpretivist or postmodern turn which denied explanation in favor of interpretation, with a focus on hermeneutics and description at the cost of causation.

Like positivism, critical realists accept there are objective realities, and agreements about those realities, but they argue that we cannot rely on positivist reasoning to understand the world. As such critical realism is sometimes offered as an example of post positivist positioning or even post post-postivism.

Archer at al (2016) reads as a manifesto for critical realism. First, they make the point that critical realists want to bring ontology back into social theory as they feat that social scientists have forgotten to talk about it. This is a noteworthy failing as in practice social researchers have plenty of implicit ideas about the nature of the world but tend not to articulate what those ideas are. Critical realism in contrast is very interested in ontology and a typical critical realist position is to accept that much of reality exists and operates independently of our awareness or knowledge of it. It follows that it does indeed makes sense to address the traditional concerns of social science (e.g. ‘causation, agency, structure, and relations’). However, critical realism is critical and any of these traditional concerns need to be justified, nothing should be taken for granted.

Archer et al’s second point is that, notwithstanding a belief in an objective reality, we have to accept that our knowledge of the world is always relative to who we are and what we are doing to acquire understandings (an 'epistemic relativism'). Knowledge of the world is always 'historically, socially, and culturally situated’. This means that our accounts are fallible, and while realism entails a commitment to truth as an idea, our notions of truth and rationality are historically located too. This, as I read it, is not a cause of pessimism it simply is the way of the world.

Archer et al (2016) introduce a third principle underling critical realism: judgmental rationality. Even if the judgements we make in research are relative, Archer and colleagues believe that, following from their realist stance in respect to ontology, there are criteria for judging which accounts about the world are better - better in the sense of providing more plausible models for an inquiry - and we can put forward relatively objective reasons for our judgement. This offers the possibility that, over time, we are able to ‘improve knowledge about the real world’, even if we recognise the contingent nature of that knowledge.

​Finally, Archer and colleagues more tentatively suggest that social research might be able to reconcile values and objectivity. This they offer as a cautious 'ethical naturalism'. In particular while it is easily accepted that facts are seen through values (facts are subjectively perceived), it is less often noted that our values are shaped by facts. This means that, in practice social science can contribute to debates over how life should be lived as well as how it is lived.


In favour of critical realism:

  • it gives a name to a stance which in practice is held by a lot of social scientists, i.e. there is an objective reality, some accounts are ‘better’ than others; values can be integrated.
  • it highlights the importance of ontology and the consequences that flow from ontological positions. It helps us to see that debates over a third way (a space between interpretivism and positivism) should not be restricted to the level of method (mixed methods v quantitative / qualitative division) but ontology (critical realism v objectivism / constructionism).
  • it is an open flexible term that encourages creativity and flexibility in application and a rejection of methodological boxes.

Criticism of critical realism

  • critical realism could be attacked by both hard core interpretivists (as too realist) and positivists (not realist enough)
  • critical realist writers (though Archer et al (2016) is an exception) are often difficult to follow, Bhaskar below is particularly criticised on these grounds
  • critical realism is a meta theory and does not offer a procedure for the conduct of social research. As such it can mean many things in practice and some of the most interesting theoretical work which seeks to bridge structure and agency has taken place without the help of critical realist theory or under the looser banner of post positivism.


Archer et al. (2016) What Is Critical Realism? American Sociology Association, [online]

Brant, J. and Panjwani, F. (2015) School economics and the aims of education: Critique and possibilities, Journal of Critical Realism, 14, 3, 306–324. (An interesting attempt to apply critical realist principles in education).

Scott, D. (2005) Critical realism and empirical research methods in education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 39, 4, 633-646.

Roy Bhaskar was very much associated with the idea of critical realism. As you can see from the video clip below critical realism is concerned with ontology, the study of being. For Bhaskar critical realism was derived from two connected philosophical ideas: transcendental realism (an assumption at least that objects of investigation exist independently of human beings) and critical naturalism (a rejection of a positivist account of science). This chimes with the comments by Archer et al above.