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What is Critical Realism?

Critical Realism


Critical Realism (CR) is a branch of philosophy that distinguishes between the 'real' world and the 'observable' world. The 'real' can not be observed and exists independent from human perceptions, theories, and constructions. The world as we know and understand it is constructed from our perspectives and experiences, through what is 'observable'. Thus, according to critical realists, unobservable structures cause observable events and the social world can be understood only if people understand the structures that generate events.

Critical Realism and Science

We can use the analogy of a scientist to understand some core tenets of CR. When a scientist conducts an experiment, they establish the conditions to create the experiment and they observe the results (events). However, the results are caused by underlying theoretical mechanisms, structures and laws that they can not observe (unobservable structures).

The scientist's understanding is through epistemological constructivism and relativism. This is where the phrase Critical Realism originates from- the 'epistemic fallacy' that is reducing what we say is 'real' or exists (ontological statements) to what we can know or understand about the 'real' (epistemological statements). The real are the unobservable mechanisms that cause events. Epistemology and ontology are separate.

CR evolved from the writings of the philosopher Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science, 1975). In this text Bhaskar lays the foundations of CR with his thesis for transcendental realism. He states that in order for science as a body of knowledge and methodology to work or be intelligible, then epistemology and ontology need to be separated and we must distinguish between the transitive and intransitive bodies of knowledge or dimensions. Transitive knowledge relates to qualities of changeability or provisionality of our knowledge of the real, thus the transitive dimension comprises of our theories of the events and structures that we seek to understand in the intransitive dimension.

Q. Does Bhaskar's notion of a stratfiied reality acount for why theories can reach different conclusions?

Q. How does Bhaskar justify the definition 'critical'? Is this a persuasive definition?

Q. CR distinguishes between causes, events and what we can know about events. In order for a causal eplanation to be valid, the explanatory power must be upheld outside of observable knowledge of specific events. Where does this definition apply to the social world and where does it not work?


Archer, M. S. (1998). Critical realism : Essential readings. London ; New York: Routledge.

Bhaskar, R. (1975). A realist theory of science. York: Books.

Bhaskar, R. (2002). Reflections on meta-reality : Transcendence, emancipation, and everyday life. New Delhi ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Bhaskar, R., & Danermark, B. (2006). Metatheory, interdisciplinarity and disability research: A critical realist perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8(4), 278-297.

Brant, J., & Panjwani, F. (2015). School Economics and the Aims of Education: Critique and Possibilities. Journal of Critical Realism, 14(3), 306-324.

Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism: An introduction to roy bhaskar's philosophy. London ; New York: Verso.

Danermark, B. (2002). Interdisciplinary research and critical realism: The example of disability research. Journal of Critical Realism, 5(1), 56-64.

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., & Jakobsen, L. (2001). Explaining society: an introduction to critical realism in the social sciences. Routledge.

Danermark, B., & Gellerstedt, L. C. (2004). Social justice: Redistribution and recognition—a non-reductionist perspective on disability. Disability & Society, 19(4), 339-353.

Dean, K. (2006). Realism, philosophy and social science. Basingstoke England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Easton, G. (2010). Critical realism in case study research. Industrial Marketing Management, 39(1), 118-128. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.indmarman.2008.06.004

Gorski, P. S. (2013). What is critical realism? And why should you care?. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 42(5), 658-670.

Hartwig, M. (Ed.). (2015). Dictionary of critical realism. Routledge.

Scott, D. (2013). Education, epistemology and critical realism. Routledge.

Zachariadis, M., Scott, S. V., & Barrett, M. I. (2013). Methodological Implications of Critical Realism for Mixed-Methods Research. MIS quarterly, 37(3), 855-879.


1. A mind-map on key ideas in CR:



4. Links to a reading list on CR: