An outline of “Basic” Critical Realism for Educational Research

what is created is always a new synthesis of the new and old, of the manifest and un-manifest, of the ephemeral and the eternal. But what is created also transcends, surpasses, negates, (i.e. absents and transforms) what is already there…It becomes objective (is made), standing in its own right, and what has been created, shaped or formed, and made or objectifies in this way, then returns, reflecting back the intentionality of its maker, whose intentionality it either fulfils or not.

(Bhaskar, 2002, pp.105-106)

Bhaskarian critical realism presents scientists, researchers and philosophers alike with a scientifically cognisant address to the various ontological issues and dualisms inherent within the sciences. Critical realism has moved through three developmental forms and phases since its emergence in the mid 1970’s. The first form, coined as “basic” critical realism, is a philosophical thesis consisting of three interrelated theories that offer a re-evaluation of the sciences and through this a robust social theory applicable to educational research. Born out of the Western-Marxist reappraisal of the world at the end of the post-war boom of the 1960’s, Bhaskar’s “basic” critical realism shared the conclusion that ‘the oppressed could, with the aid of science, fallibly come to apprehend the real causes of their suffering and act to transform them’ (Hartwig, 2007, p.97). A world in flux resurrected Marx through the voices of the realists, social constructivists and radical educationalists such as Paulo Freire.

With the attack on the positivist orthodoxy pertaining to scientific knowledge creating room for a new ontology, Bhaskars transcendental realism emerged, and with it the beginnings of the philosophical movement of Bhaskar’s critical realism. Critical realism was neither a new term, first applied within German philosophy after Kant in the 18-19th centuries, or a wholly original philosophy. Bhaskar’s critical realism (CR) drew together the many threads of realism, in its radical, critical and scientific forms, with idealism, combining it with critical theory, to create a distinctive and evolving philosophy. The initial “basic” thesis was extended with the development of dialectical critical realism and then onto its present form, the philosophy of Meta-Reality, which seeks to create a truly emancipatory ontology.

As a complex philosophy with many facets, Bhaskar’s CR does not need to be applied in its entirety. Literature suggests that one can apply CR at the phase that best suits the purpose of an endeavour or the nature of a scientific study. In the case of this endeavour, to construct a critical realist methodology that can be applied to educational research, and the nature of this study, to investigate the causal powers acting upon an emerging collaborative group learning culture, it is “basic” critical realism, which provides the most appropriate guiding philosophical principles.

This “basic” CR comprises three main theories:

A philosophy of science termed transcendental realism (TR);

A philosophy of social science termed critical naturalism (CN); and

The theory of explanatory critique (EC).

These theories have been presented through three key texts, Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science (1975, 2008), The Possibility of Naturalism (1979), and Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (1986).

What follows is a brief elaboration of each of these components of CR with a focus upon how each could be applied to the field of educational research. While discussing each component I will seek to extract elements from CR that can be used to shape a methodology for educational research.

Transcendental Realism-Transitive and Intransitive Dimensions 

Transcendental realism, starting from the premise of the contingency of our own experience, sees nature as real; and science as our persistent effort to understand it.

(Bhaskar, 2008, p.229)

One of the first things CR does is to present an argument which differentiates between the objects of science, and argues for the separation of ontology from epistemology, which Bhaskar sees as necessary in understanding the concepts of science and reality. CR asserts that reality exists separate of our awareness of it, as such something more than epistemology alone is needed to understand the world in its two forms; natural and social.

Two dimensions are posited, the transitive and intransitive, which exist separately but in a relation of chronic interaction. It is within this formulation of TR that Bhaskar’s CR adapts and moves away from classical realism and transcendental idealism.

Classical realism, as represented by David Hume, radicalises Lockes’ principles of empiricism, with knowledge equal to the law-like effect of objects, which are wholly sensuously perceived (a red precious stone is entitled as ruby, as such all precious stones that are red are rubies and all rubies are red). Bhaskar argues that through sense-experience we can only construct the world through our existing knowledge of it, as such the ontological realm is ignored. Against such a classical empiricist ideology, is Bhaskar’s transcendental realism, which argues that we can only come to accurate scientific conclusions about the world when we consider the interplay between both the transcendental and intranscendental dimensions of ontology and epistemology rather than just attending to one and neglecting the other. This homology between world and sense-experience and that knowledge alone should be used to constitute our understanding of the world epitomizes the fatal reductionism of ontology to epistemology.

From this we can extract the need for an approach to educational research that acknowledges the existence of the ontological and epistemological and which does not seek to construct theory or conclusions from sense-experience alone.

A further issue presented by classical realism is that of induction, the ‘problem of what warrant we have for reasoning from particular instances to general statements’ (Bhaskar, 2008a, p.207). The application of inductive, eductive or deductive analysis results in speculation and generalisations about causal laws. Such induction only attends to one level of reality, the observed, and results in sweeping generalizations of cause derived from observed effect. Such an approach cannot create an accurate portrayal of either the natural or social world. Within the social sciences Bhaskar argued that we must look beyond, not using sense data alone, to dig deeper and engage in more fruitful analysis such as retroduction, to identify the possible causes (structures, mechanisms, tendencies) within the intransitive and not just transitive dimensions.

A CR approach to educational research would therefore require the application of analytical methods that seek answers within the intransitive dimension, reaching empirical conclusions, which are not generalizations.

Transcendental idealism, as derived from Immanuel Kant, sees human beings as being active in the production of knowledge. It offers an improvement upon classic empiricism by promoting the application of thought models and associated Gedankenexperiments, which allow for scientists to imagine the potential generative mechanisms that may cause the phenomena being studied. Such Kantian transcendental arguments may attend to the ontological, epistemological or axiological conditions in respect of these actions. However in application idealism remains overly focused on the epistemological, at the cost of the ontological, and with the belief that theory alone (derived from existing knowledge of the world) is enough to explain the world. CR argues that theories derived through such worthwhile thought models need to be drawn from and tested within the dimensions before statements of knowledge can be promulgated. Transcendental idealism sees generative mechanisms as merely imagination (imaginary and not imagined), within the transcendental dimension, and thus need to be sought as objects that might be real within the intransitive.

CR, through TR, rejects Humean classical empiricism and Kantian transcendental idealism, on the grounds that they are incapable of sustaining both transitive and intransitive objects of knowledge. Bhaskar concludes that the creation of the coexistence of ontological realism and epistemological relativism enables one to be a relativist about knowledge and a realist about the world (2013), the later being something the orthodox philosophies lacked. These two approaches are complimented by judgemental rationalism, extending Kant’s thought models, creating the holy trinity at the heart of TR (Bhaskar, 2013).

Thus for educational research one can engage in thought models constructed from the transitive about the intransitive, which are then tested to pursue the real generative object and not just the imaginary object.

A further aspect of TR concerning these dimensions is the rejection of the Foucault-inspired discourse theory. Such a theory places the epistemic before the ontologic, focusing on how we might come to know rather than upon what exists. Bhaskar reverses this traditional scientific order, placing ontology prior to epistemology, shifting the focus and our approach to science.

TR proposes two dimensions and two realms. A realm of knowledge in which ‘the object of knowledge is the material cause or antecedently established knowledge which is used to generate the new knowledge’ (Bhaskar, 2008a, p.17) and a realm of real objects in which ‘the object is the real structure or mechanism that exists and acts quite independently of men and the conditions which allow men access to it’ (Bhaskar, 2008a, p.17). This construct suggests that reality exists independently of our conceptualization of it, and as such science should be about asking ‘what the world must be like for science to be possible’ (Bhaskar, 2008a, p.36).

The question of seeking out what the world must be like to explain the world we experience requires the educational researcher to dig deeper, to look beyond the observed and to seek out what must be at work creating the social phenomena of our lived world. Taking this principle and using it to form a methodology for educational research seems fairly straightforward however ones ability to identify underlying factors is complicated by the nature of the social world as an open system.

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