All entries for Friday 18 March 2016

March 18, 2016

Mixed Methods: Critical Realism Considered Most Suitable!

Critical realism deals with ontology! Yes!

Critical realism has been developed by the British Philosopher Ray Bhaskar as a result of combining separate philosophies: transcendental realism, which is a philosophy of science, and critical naturalism, which is a philosophy of the social sciences. It is not the aim of this blog post to explain either of them. Critical realism does not assume reality to be a single, observable, measurable, determinable layer whose actions and events are independent of the mind nor a single layer that is understandable through exploring experiences and perspectives. Critical realism assumes reality to have multiple layers containing structures and mechanisms that influence the observable and what can be experienced. It is the exploration of these structures and mechanism that provide the basis for exploration of reality using critical realism.

Unlike pragmatism, which is considered to be the most adopted philosophical perspective of mixed methods, critical realism contains ontological assumptions which are spread across three domains: the empirical, the actual, and the real. The empirical domain refers to aspects of reality that exists and can be observed or experienced directly or indirectly, the actual refers to aspects of reality that exists but might not be observed or experienced in some way, and the real refers to the structures and mechanisms that causes or influences what is observed or experienced. These structures and mechanisms are beyond the realm of human observation and experiences; they cannot be detected, known, or perceived, but can be, as defined by McVoy and Richards (2006), inferred through a research design consisting of both deductive (empirical investigation) and inductive (theory construction) processes. Where critical realism differs from all the other middle ground philosophies therefore, and what acts as the central reasoning for adoption in this mixed methods research, is that it places a focus on further understanding and explanations of these structures and mechanisms.

Relating Critical Realism To Research Context

Critical realism is a complicated middle ground philosophy probably the most complex of them all along with complexity theory, but it is a middle ground philosophy that makes the most sense for my research and for the aims of the research. The context of the Ph.D. research is not to explore research phenomena using only quantitative or qualitative methodologies; the problem area identified and developed does not assume that answers can be found in a single methodology or a single philosophical perspective such as absolutism or relativism. The problem area assumes that answers can be found through an integrated approach that involves both quantitative and qualitative approaches. So, with that, and with critical realism addressing the ontological level, it can be assumed that critical realism goes beyond the research question and places the research problem as central to the research project. It assumes, it can be proposed, that it is the identified problem area that can lead to the development of philosophical assumptions about reality, which then lead onto the development of research questions, which then lead onto the selection of the methodology and research approaches. A question here however is whether or not the philosophical perspective leads onto the development of the research question sequentially, or if the research questions and philosophical perspectives are identified and developed concurrently. That is something to be thought about and perhaps discussed another time.

Summary Of Thoughts Regarding Critical Realism

What has been discussed, briefly, is what makes critical realism distinctive and more suitable for my research than other middle ground philosophies. Post positivism focusses too much on the quantitative at the methodological level whilst pragmatism focusses too much on changes that are made at the practical level. Critical realism suggests that both quantitative and qualitative approaches are important to use in a single research project in order to fully explore and understand the structures and mechanisms of what can be observed and experienced.

There is much more to learn and understand about critical realism: its concepts, its use, its history, and the way in which critical realism can be fully integrated into a mixed methods research and the specific context of my research. Reading shall be continuous, but at the moment I am just pleased that I have been able to identify the most appropriate middle ground philosophy and start to fit the whole design around the principles of critical realism.

Fun stuff! The Upgrade Paper shall be used to introduce critical realism and the way in which its concepts have been applied throughout the research design whilst a full elaboration of critical realism including its application and possible solutions to problems of critical realism shall be provided in the thesis.


McEvoy, P., Richards, D (2009): A critical realist rationale for using a combination of quantitative and qualitative method, Journal Of Research In Nursing, 11 (1), 66 – 78

Mixed Methods: Pragmatism Is No Longer Considered

Pragmatism is inappropriate for my research and therefore various arguments are being developed against pragmatism as a philosophy of mixed methods within a particular context and also in general, and shall be mentioned in the Upgrade Paper and fully elaborated in the thesis. This blog post shall briefly mention each of the main arguments against pragmatism as a philosophy of mixed methods in the context of my own work.

First Reason: Divorced From Philosophical And Methodological Considerations

Pragmatism is divorced from philosophical and methodological considerations therefore places the research questions central to a research project, enabling a whatever works attitude to be employed and therefore whatever methods that best answer the question should be used and not be restricted by philosophical and methodological considerations. This is not to say however that pragmatists lack philosophical or methodological considerations, but that there is no need to express or to discuss such considerations in research papers. Obviously, this has led to a lot of criticisms from the academic community suggesting that it is a vague approach to research. However, despite the criticisms it the most popularly used philosophical approach to mixed methods but there is suggestion that this is because a lot of researchers do not particularly care for or are willing to explore philosophical considerations and just want to get on with the job that needs to be completed.

In my view, there is more to research than simply getting on with the job because in order to have an effective and useful project there must be a level of philosophical and methodological consideration. We as researchers and Ph.D. candidates come with certain perspectives of reality that influence the choices that are made within research designs. Our framework of preferences born from previous experiences and current knowledge and skills shape the way that we approach a research project and therefore researcher bias is likely to be introduced through the selection of methodology and methods. For example, those with lots of experience using quantitative methods and approaches are not likely to use qualitative methods, and therefore will try to view research problems from a quantitative perspective and develop quantitatively driven questions. Whether or not the selection of methods and methodology would be correct to address the research problem would not be considered as important as those which meets the preference framework of the researcher. Pragmatism does not appear to consider this as important.

Second Reason: Emphasis On The Research Question

Because pragmatism does not place emphasis on the philosophical and methodological considerations of a research project, research questions are elevated to central position of all considerations and there appears to be a suggestion that research questions are the basis of Philosophy. I do not agree with this because I have the belief that research questions drive the methodological selections, not philosophical perspectives, and also because the development of research questions are likely to be situated within our own philosophical perspective of reality.

If you study a research question and sub questions including the language used to construct a research question, it can be clearly observed that a particular question shall determine the particular methodology and not a particular philosophy. What should happen at the research question development level is that a research problem has already been identified and from that problem comes a certain assumed philosophical perspective. The research questions come from the research problem therefore it appears that within pragmatism, the research problem is largely ignored. But I believe that it is the research problem that should be the initial focus of any research project, not the research question, and this is where pragmatism crumbles from what I can currently understand.

Third Reason: Outcome Focused

Pragmatism is product, outcome focussed; it seeks not to increase understanding about a problem area or explore factors within that problem area, but to cause some sort of change at practice level for example in Education this would be some sort of change to teaching practice.

My Ph.D. project does not concern itself with changing something at the practical level, although the findings could be interpreted in the future as being able to create a change but this is not a direct aim of the Ph.D. My Ph.D. project is to explore certain learning processes in ways that have not been explored before in order to increase understanding of the identified research problem and present a solution to that problem, and through its application develop more substantial understanding of research phenomena. The research is due to contribute new discussions towards philosophical considerations and also present new discussions for the methodological level within Educational research. It also aims to develop understanding of the phenomena through deductive and inductive processes along with analysing and exploring the structures and mechanisms that influence or causes an effect to happen on changes to variables and experiences within natural settings and not experimental settings. Pragmatism therefore would not be appropriate.


Pragmatism is not a suitable philosophical perspective for my research due to the main reason that it is not used to explore research problems and increase our understanding of interested phenomena, but is used to cause a change at practice level. Additionally, I do not agree with discounting philosophical and methodological considerations and also I do not agree with the apparent assumption that research questions drive the selection of philosophy.

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