Critical Realism for Educational Research

Critical Realism (CR) has become an influential approach within educational research in recent years, offering a sophisticated framework through which to approach complex questions at the interface between educational theory and educational practice. It emerged in the UK in the 1970s out of a rich dialogue at the interface between philosophy, social science and Marxist political economy, with the philosopher Roy Bhaskar founding the movement with the publication of A Realist Theory of Science in 1975. This was followed by important contributions by thinkers across disciplines such as Sociology (Margaret Archer), Economics (Tony Lawson), Geography (Andrew Sayer) and Philosophy (Andrew Collier) which helped establish Critical Realism as as a thriving intellectual project operating with a genuinely interdisciplinary perspective.

However while there are a number of texts which can serve as an introduction to CR, such as Andrew Sayer’s Realism & Social Science or Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, it remains a difficult body of work for newcomers to engage with. This isn’t helped by the tendency of CR authors towards abstraction and the increasingly esoteric character of Roy Bhaskar’s subsequent work on ‘dialectical critical realism’ and ‘meta-reality’. While not wishing to impugn the intellectual worth of these turns, I nonetheless feel they can hinder the uptake of critical realism by educational researchers. This theoretical body of work was after all intended to ‘under labour’ for social research. This is another way of saying that it was designed to lay the groundwork for and provide practical tools for social scientists. As Margaret Archer has put it,

Bhaskar’s Critical Realist social ontology, which I endorse, does not explain why, in Weber’s words, social matters are ‘so, rather than otherwise’. In fact, no social ontology explains anything and does not attempt to do so; its task is to define and justify the terms and form in which explanations can properly be cast and to criticise the reverse

To frame educational research in this way implies that we should not be content with simply describing how the world is, we want to explain why it is this way rather than some other way. In this sense CR is fundamentally hostile to empiricism, the idea we can satisfactorily account for the world by collecting data about it, even while it stresses the importance of empirical research. For example if we produce accounts of lessons through qualitative methods, the value of this lies in what we can discern through this data about the mechanisms which lead these lessons to unfold in the way that they do. This is what CR conveys with the distinction between the Real, the Actual and the Empirical.

It is one of a number of tools for thinking which CR provides for researchers, which can be easily be picked up and applied by educational researchers without a great deal of prior work being necessary. This doesn’t mean these ideas can be mixed and matched at will. There are tensions and incompatibles between ideas about ontology and epistemology which it is important to understand. But I want to stress the fundamentally practical nature of CR, as much as that might seem implausible by those who have been put off by its philosophical complexity.

This is how Roy Bhaskar explained how these distinctions fit together into an overarching philosophy: