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
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