Monday, 29 February 2016

Why I like Critical Realism

Critical realism (CR) is a duality, proposing that the world exists independently (objectively) of our “perceptions, language or imagination”, while simultaneously recognising that part of the world is made up of our subjective interpretations which affect how we see and experience it (Edwards et al, 2014, p. 2).

CR embraces both the objective (observations and ‘laws’) and the subjective (things we can’t observe are still real nonetheless). It attempts to separate the “widely accepted socially constructed version” of truth from the reality it represents, peeling back emergent layers of the entities being studied to find their essences (the elemental properties of a thing) and causal powers (think chemistry - the elements of one element interacting with another) (Edwards et al, 2014, p. 6).

Thus the approach of a critical realist allows the researcher to inhabit the real world, but interpret it in a rich way, seeking deeper answers than appear on the surface, using data but interpreting it in a layered approach that allows for the complexity of human behaviour. It also allows for different interpretations of the same data, but coming to a point, on balance to determine the most likely ‘best’ position at a particular time, for a particular level of understanding.

My Reasons for using CR

  1. Kiwis. I suspect that the national psyche of New Zealanders fits with this approach; look to the very essence of something, to its irreducible authentic components without fancying them up. Be a bit pragmatic and informal about it, like men and women at a social; put them together again and see how the bits relate to each other and watch what they do. Numbers alone don’t give you the richness of the picture about the whys and wherefores of the social interaction – or social inaction – that results. Yet in many ways I feel that Kiwis want to stop short of complete understanding, to allow some mystery and myth to exist.

  2. My world is this way. As a New Zealander at the bottom of the South Pacific, living in a partnership of Maori and ‘otherness’, the world contains a natural dichotomy of both global physical, and New Zealand social, systems. Both equally strong, both equally influential. The journey is a New Zealand essence – in fairly recent memory we have all travelled to this place. To see the New Zealand context, we often have to view it through the lens of ‘away’; our Kiwi OE allows other New Zealand essences to surface when we leave our environment.

  3. I think this way. I suspect I relate well to critical realism because in my family, meal-times were an opportunity for learning and idea-sharing with all at the table. Ideas or statements shared were rigorously explored, deconstructed, and tested against evidence, ethics, and known or observed human behaviour. The same approach was taken with any media including television, films, books and theatre. Both my parents were public servants; both grandfathers craftspeople. Most of my Father’s family has an artistic or creative bent; my Mother’s family a strong sense of community service. Both families include those who weren’t afraid to form their own opinions ahead of society around them. My siblings and I were taught to be critical thinkers, to share ideas, and to change our views when our personal models were found wanting. We were encouraged to look more deeply than just the superficial.

    Critical realism allows for other ‘best’ ways, for personal choice, and for us each to decide what is right for ourselves, in our own contexts. As a product of a New Zealand provincial upbringing with a great deal of rural influence – being exposed to volunteering, sports, hunting, fishing, the bush and car travel from infancy – we were taught that we didn’t have the corner on any “one best way”. That although a particular model worked for us, it was not the ONLY way that worked: we were encouraged to be respectful of others’ sacred cows, and attempt to understand their reasons for their view. Our family modelled respect and acceptance in many ways that I only came to appreciate much later in life: I had a friend as a child who was profoundly deaf (I still have no recollection of how we communicated, but we managed with enthusiasm) as well as Maori, Aboriginal, Japanese, English and Kiwi friends. I have married a German.

  4. I learn this way. My philosophical approach to my own learning has formed naturally as a spirally growing one: to quote Sinatra, “do be do be do” (Precht, 2011, p. 248). What I mean by this is that I take a recursive deductive (objective) and inductive (subjective) approach, whereby I learn the theory, test my world for fit with it, then recheck and readjust the theory for sense; based on my experience and my perception of the world – as I experience it. This is in part due to being a New Zealander, with our strong practical “give it a go” identity. I feel this derives from how I was taught to think as mentioned above: the more one acts, the more one is. It is an ever increasing spiral that leads me onwards. My drive for constant progression is probably something else that is a family pattern, as well as a chunk of that Protestant work ethic: standing still means that the world was leaving you behind.

  5. I teach this way. I do not have the reserve and uncompromising objectivity of a true positivist, nor do I have the only one of seven billion realities subjectivity of a confirmed relativist. While I feel that in teaching we have generalisable ‘best’ methods and techniques, and that refinement of these can be meaningfully applied across our teaching organisations to the benefit of all participants, these methods will not suit everyone to the same extent. I am a perpetual seeker of ‘better ways’; not necessarily fashionable ways, but more engaging, dialogue-producing and open-minded methods of creating transfers of leadership knowledge, context and meaning in the classroom. I try to create learning opportunities so everyone in the room has an opportunity to learn by some explanation, some reflection, some structured slides, some film clips, some readings, some discussion groups, some writing, some modelling and some application.

  6. I research this way. Critical realism takes account of the values of our human systems and of the researchers who research them; thus my worldview has determined the questions I am seeking to answer; that ‘I’ am mostly indivisible from ‘my research’ and my New Zealandness. Both myself and my participants will co-construct the research findings from “interactive dialogue and interpretation” (Ponterotto, 2005, p. 129).

Applied CR is exploratory, emergent, and focused on who we are as researchers. It is inductive, and fits well with grounded theory and action research.


  • Edwards, Paul K.; O'Mahoney, Joe & Vincent, Steve (2014). Studying Organizations using Critical Realism: a practical guide. UK: Oxford University Press
  • Ponterotto, Joseph G. (2005). Qualitative Research in Counseling Psychology: A Primer on Research Paradigms and Philosophy of Science. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2005, Volume 52, issue 2 (pp. 126-136)
  • Precht, Richard David (2011). Who Am I? And if So, How Many? A Journey Through Your Mind (English edition translated by Frisch, Shelley from the 2007 first edition). UK: Constable

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