Critical Realism and its potential application to educational research.

David Corson’s analysis and subsequent rejection of Popper and Dewey’s philosophy of education led to his conclusion that Bhaskar’s critical realism (CR) offered a more suitable philosophical perspective for the analysis of education. This assertion is furthered by Scott (2010) who believes CR posses a superior grasp of relationships within the social world and within education. Both present compelling arguments which would recommend the adoption of CR as a new philosophy of education. Corson (1991, p.195-196) highlights several key strengths of CR’s application within the field of education; it appropriates the strengths of other theories while avoiding their inherent weaknesses; accounts for the role of an evolutionary epistemology; it offers a plausible model of explanation within open systems; and it is not overly procedural as a model for research. Scott (2010) also draws our attention to CR’s value in identifying change mechanisms in the context of educational institutions, systems and pedagogies. Furthermore, I feel that CR’s concern with the role of human agency and its well-drawn claims about the ontology of the social gives Bhaskar’s realism sociological relevance within the field of education. Despite calls for its use, the application of CR within educational research is both complicated and problematic.

A Problematic Philosophy

CR does not offer the researcher a discrete methodology, method or any specific data collection tools. It positions itself as an under-laborer of the sciences, a philosophy of science which recommends ways to and not to undertake science. In this role tenets of first phase CR or “basic” critical realism can be applied to guide researchers in education towards an appropriate methodology-method, distinct from those associated with the natural sciences. Such tenets enable those constructing a CR guided methodology to avoid a number of errors within the design and application of their research and within the formulation of their conclusions.

Through these tenets, and associated recommendations, CR can be used to guide the educational researcher away from traditional positivist methodologies and methods that, incorrectly and impossibly, seek to replicate the laboratory and the controllable variables of a closed system in what needs to be recognised as an inelegant open system in flux. By attending to a number of dichotomies present within the social sciences, such as individualism-collectivism and structure-agency, CR positions itself as a philosophy of social science which can be used to form a methodology relevant to the study of social phenomena within education.

Applied Critical Realism

Despite the challenges associated with the application of Bhaskarian CR, it has incrementally, since the late 1970’s, gained stature and permeated into a broad range of disciplines. Its application has become most prominent over the last twenty years, particularly within the fields of sociology, economics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, politics, healthcare and history. However the application of CR within educational research is somewhat limited. Shipway (2011. p.2) suggests that CR has a tacit presence within this field drawing attention to a mere handful of researchers including Clegg, 2005; Maton, 2008; Moore, 2004; Nash, 2004. A search of the ERIC database for peer reviewed works using the search terms critical and realism and education testifies to this. Such a search (undertaken in 2013) yielded only 79 results, which through a closer assessment of relevance was reduced to only 24 articles related to CR application within the field of education, with most attending to theoretical application rather than actual empirical studies. Within the Critical Realism: Interventions series (Routledge) of the 11 works published since 1999 none attend to the field of educational research. Within the Journal of Critical Realism, the official journal of the International Association for Critical Realism, of 266 published articles, since 1997, only 5 explore CR’s role within the field of education. In a possible attempt to remedy this Routledge has, since 2010, published 6 books in a series edited by Bhaskar entitled New Studies in Critical Realism and Education. What can be summarised from this is that the potential of CR’s application as an ontological lens within educational research is either poorly represented, underdeveloped or is not possible.

A Limited Presence

Perhaps this limited presence is due to a lack of awareness of CR within the field of educational research or is due to some of the issues present when attempting to apply it. Issues such as the near impenetrable nature of critical realist language (critical-realese), the problematic nature of the use term critical realism (Shipway, 2011, p.6), or that much of CR is too philosophical a tool for finely grained social research such as that within the field of education. Pawson (1989) suggests that an issue with CR is that it is ‘entirely driven by theoretical assumptions about the underlying mechanism’ (p.143), devoid of the means in which to define what social researchers are measuring, how they measure it and how results are to be evaluated. Despite these issue of application I believe that all can be attended to, making CR’s application more than possible.

Adapting Critical Realism for Empirical Educational Research

My impression is that CR needs adapting, but not altering, to make it applicable to educational research. It offers a fascinating way of looking at education at all its levels but in its present philosophical and theoretical form cannot be easily understood or applied. Within my Doctoral work I argue for and seek to construct a methodology for educational research that synthesises CR with other approaches to the social sciences, which are well established and understood; in particular Cultural Historical Activity Theory, Activity Systems Analysis and Ethnography.

Such a synthesis seeks to achieve three objectives

To demystify critical realist philosophy to make it more accessible as an approach to educational research;
To identify and adapt other well established methodologies, which can be synthesised with critical realism; and
To construct a critical realist methodology for educational research.

The third objective serves not only a theoretical purpose, the desire to make CR workable in the field of educational research, but also a practical one. Once constructed the methodology will be used to design and implement an investigation into an emerging collaborative group learning culture, the nature of which has been discussed throughout this website.

To achieve this I will first narrow the broad scope of CR down, focusing upon primarily “basic” critical realism. I will then explore the origins of Bhaskarian critical realism and present the main tenets of “basic” CR in a manner which extracts elements which can be used to shape a methodology for educational research.


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