Using Critical Realism to Teach the Fundamentals of Sociological Research for Practitioners

This is the fourth blog in a series of posts about Critical Realism and research methods. Please register for my upcoming webinar on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 at 12 noon EDT. You can access the first, second, & third blogs here.

As part of my interest in using critical realism to teach sociological research methods, I drafted the following syllabus ideas. Although I haven’t yet taught this class, I’m sharing it with others who may be looking for ways to adapt their own research methods classes. I am particularly interested in connecting methods of data collection with normative assumptions and practical applications of sociological research.

I would welcome comments and questions on this draft syllabus.

Course Title: Fundamentals of Sociological Research for Practitioners

Instructor: Professor Margarita Mooney

Course Objectives:

This course has the following goals:

1) To introduce students to major philosophical perspectives that guide any empirical research project.

2) To review the basic methods of social research, including interviews, focus groups, ethnography, collecting survey data, and basic statistical analysis.

3) To discuss the evaluation and application of research findings to organizations.

Upon completing this class, students should be able to be able to identify the normative assumptions that guide their research questions, have practiced at least two methods of data collection, and understanding how to apply research to an organization. Specifically, students who take this class will learn how to:

  • Identify the philosophical and normative assumptions inherent in any research project;
  • Evaluate the strengths and limitations of various philosophical paradigms, methods, and explanations;
  • Understand the basic elements of sociological research design and data collection;
  • Design a research project for an organization (such as a non-profit, a religious congregation or a business).

Required Books:

Specific chapters from these books, and additional readings, are listed under each module below.

Module 1: Philosophical Foundations of Research (3 weeks)

Every good researcher is to some extent a good theoretician. Yet, typical approaches to research methods emphasize data collection techniques, often to the detriment of exploring the philosophical and normative assumptions made in any research project. The goal of this first module is to introduce students to various philosophical perspectives on sociological research, including positivism, post-modernism and critical realism. Topics we will cover in this module include:

  • How is ontology distinct from epistemology?
  • What are paradigms and how do they change?
  • If social science is both an empirical and social endeavor, how do we know our findings are true?
  • How do different forms of logic, including deductive, inductive and retroductive, enter into our research?
  • How do our personal experiences influence our research questions and analysis?

At the end of this module, students will write a 5-8 page review of a published book on an organization. This paper should a) assess the normative assumptions in the book; b) summarize the methods of data collection; c) reflect on the argument of the book; d) raise methodological, empirical, or ontological questions unanswered in the book.

Readings:

Danermark et al., Chapters 1, 2 and 4.

Porpora, Chapters 1, 7 and 8.

Luker, Chapters 1-3.

Edwards, Chapters 1 and 2.

Module 2: Research Questions and Data Collection Methods (5 weeks)

Sociologists use numerous methods to collect data. This module will be a survey of the several research methods and will allow students to practice a few methods. In the first part of this module, we will address questions like:

  • Where do our research questions come from?
  • How do we write a literature review or theory section of a paper?

The second part of this module will provide students with an overview of sociological data collection techniques, such as:

  1. participant observation
  2. ethnography
  3. focus groups
  4. conducting and analyzing interviews
  5. action and engaged research
  6. internet research
  7. content analysis
  8. elementals of survey design
  9. analyzing survey data (primary or secondary data)

Students will be asked to pick two of the above methods and practice them, such as a) conducting an interview with a religious leader; b) engaging in an ethnographic observation of a congregation; c) analyzing secondary data from the Association of Religion Data Archives; d) designing and conducting an online survey (such as through Survey Monkey).

In the final part of this module, we will discuss: How do we analyze data and develop explanations? How much data is enough data? What do we do if our findings don’t support our expectations? How do we draw practical implications from our findings? Students will be asked to write a 5-8 page paper with the following parts:

  1. literature review and research questions;
  2. data collection;
  3. data analysis and explanation of major findings;
  4. normative assumptions and practical implications of findings.

Readings:

Luker, Chapters 4-11.

Porpora, Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Danermark, Chapters 5, 6 and 7.

Module 3: Practical Research for Organizations (3 weeks)

Although many approaches to sociological research stop at describing empirical findings, leaders of organizations often want to know:

  • How can empirical research help me define my organization’s objectives?
  • How do I involve my own community in designing, interpreting and applying research?
  • How do I lead people towards change using empirical findings?

In this final module of this course, we will discuss more in-depth engaged research, in which the community is involved in research design, data collection and interpretation of findings. We will also discuss action research, where the goal is to directly influence an organization’s members using empirical findings.

As part of this module, students will interview a leader of an organization about a research project they would be interested in being involved in. Students will write a 5-8 page engaged or action research proposal addressing the following questions: a) What are the research questions to be addressed? b) What types of data will be collected and analyzed? c) How will the community members and leaders be involved in the various stages of research? d) What types of change do the leaders and community members hope to see as a result of this research project? e) How is this research influenced by values and norms?

 

  • How realism can guide attempts at systematic review.
  • Why more data and meta-analyses alone can never guide policy.
  • How to do rigorous applied social research.

Readings:

Pawson, Chapters 1 and 2 and 4.

Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People, Introduction.

For other suggested readings for a course like this, be sure to see my past blogs:

 

Incorporating Critical Realism into Research Methods Classes

 

5 Great Articles Using Critical Realism in Social Science Research

 

Books on Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods

Incorporating Critical Realism into Research Methods Classes

TeachingCriticaRealismThis is the third of three blogs in which I list 23 readings we could use to teach about the methodological implications of CR. Don’t forget to register for my webinar in CR & Research Methods on May 3, 2016, at 12 noon EDT (you can see the recording even if you can’t be there live). And click here to see the first blog in this series. Click here to see the second blog in this series. And click here to see the fourth. 

In my upcoming webinar on critical realism and research methods, I plan to propose 2 ways to incorporate CR into research methods classes. Remember, CR is not another form of foundationalism (the idea that there is one right way to view knowledge).  It’s not like if we don’t use CR as our meta-theory then we can’t say anything true about the world. There are plenty of similarities between CR and other theories. It’s more like CR+  (i.e., CR brings to light new perspectives) or CR-integrate (i.e., CR helps us integrate insights gained from a variety of perspectives or methods).

I hope these articles, and my webinar, show that CR takes what is useful from all methods and all perspectives. But CR also sheds new light on what we do in sociology. CR goes further into abstraction, concept development, retroductive logic, and theory building. CR thus leads to better questions, more compelling explanations, all the while being humble and open to new perspectives and knowledge.

One option to teach the methodological implications of CR is to add readings on CR to already existing courses on research methods. CR does a particularly good job of talking about how ontology (or what exists in the world, seen or unseen) is different than epistemology (which is what we observe). CR also tells us why our ontology matters for things all sociologists care about: causation (the identification of causal powers) and explanation (which includes causation and interpretation).

It’s often said that CR under-labors in good social science. A second option to teach about the methodological impactions of CR is to use CR as a framework to understand the methods and theories of good published sociology books and articles (whether or not the author identifies CR as their meta-theroetical framework).  These book chapters or articles on CR & research methods can help show how the best sociology already sounds like CR. Students can also read other perspectives on social science, such as positivism, intepretivism, pragmatism, etc. and then ask: Which perspective best explains the theory, methods, and conclusions in the best books or articles in sociology? Why? CR itself is not a method, but as the articles and book chapters below show, CR offers a better way to understand what we are really doing when we do ethnography, grounded theory, interviews, historical research, small-N case studies, mixed-methods studies, quantitive studies, or evaluation research.

Below are my favorite articles or book chapters on CR and research methods by topic. I think these articles and book chapters could be used in either type of class. These articles and book chapters are likely also helpful for your own research. This list is not comprehensive, so feel free to share with me your favorite articles or book chapters on CR & research methods which are not listed here.

And don’t forget to register for my webinar on April 28, 2016, at 12 noon EDT to learn more. You should register to listen to the recording even if you can’t be there live.

Here you go!

Overviews of CR as a research method

Sayer, Andrew. 1992. Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London: Routledge. Introduction and Chapter 1.

Pawson, Ray. 2016. Evidence-Based Policy: A Realist Perspective. London: Sage Publications. Chapter 2.

Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press Chapter. 1 “CR as an Empirical Project.”

Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 2 “CR, Research Techniques and Research Designs.”

CR & Ethnography

Claire Laurier Decouteau (2016) “The AART of Ethnography: A Critical Realist Explanatory Research Model.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. March 2016.

Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press Chapter 7. Chris Rees and Mark Gatenby. (2014). “Critical Realism and Ethnography.”

CR & Grounded Theory

Danermark, B. Ekström, M. Jakobsen, L. Karlsson. J.C. (1997)  Explaining Society: An Introduction to Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge. Chapter 6 “Theory in the Methodology of Social Science”, pp. 130-137.

Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press Chapter 5. Steve Kempster and Ken Perry.  “Critical Realism and Grounded Theory.” 

CR & Interviews

Margarita Mooney (2016) “Moral Agency and Mental Illness.” Paper Currently Under Review. (available from the author upon request).

Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press  Chapter 6. Chris Rees and Tony Elger. “Critical Realism and Interviewing Subjects.” 

CR & Historical-Comparative Research

George Steinmetz. (2003) “Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study, and Small N’s in Sociology.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 22, number 3, pp. 371-400.

George Steinmetz. (2008).  “The Colonial State as a Social Field.” American Sociological Review 73(4): pp. 589–612.

George Steinmetz. (2014). “Comparative History and its Critics: A Genealogy and a Possible Solution.” In A Companion to Global Historical Thought, edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy and Andrew Sartori. Blackwell. Pp. 412-436.

George Steinmetz. (1998) “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology.” Comparative Studies in Society and History volume 40, number 1, pp. 170-186.

CR & Mixed Methods

Bhaskar, R. and Danermark, B. (2006). ‘Metatheory, Interdisciplinarity and Disability Research: A Critical Realist Perspective’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8: 4, pp 278 – 297.

Danermark, Berth, et al. 2001. Explaining Society: An Introduction to Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. Routledge. Chapter 6 “Critical Methodological Pluralism” esp. Pp. 161-176.

CR & Quantitative Methods

Sayer, A. 1992. Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London: Routledge. Chp. 6 “Quantitative Methods in Social Science.”

Lawson, Tony. (1997). Economics and Reality. New York: Routledge. Chapter 15. “Economic Science Without Experimentation.”

Porpora, Douglas. (2015).  Reconstructing Sociology: A Critical Realist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Chapter 2. “Do Realists Run Regressions?”

CR Views of Explanation, Especially as Compared to Deductive or Inductive Explanations

Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. New York: Routledge. Chapter 2. “Realism, Explanation and Science.”

Sayer, A. 1992. Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London: Routledge. Chapter 9. “Problems of Explanation and the Aims of Social Science.”

Danermark, Berth, et al. Explaining Society: An Introduction to Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. Routledge, 2001. Chapter 4 “Generalization, scientific inference and models for an explanatory social science” pp. 73-106-114, especially Table 4.

Realist Evaluation Research

Pawson, Ray. 2016. Evidence-Based Policy: A Realist Perspective. London: Sage Publications. Pawson, Chp. 4 “Realist Synthesis: New Protocols for Systematic Review”.


To learn more, don’t forget to register for my webinar in CR & Research Methods on April 28, 2016, at 12 noon EDT (you can see the recording even if you can’t be there live). You should also read my blog about my presentation on CR & Research Methods from IACR 2015.

5 Great Articles Using Critical Realism in Social Science Research

yale_logoIn preparation for my upcoming webinar on CR & Research Methods on May 3, 2016, at 12 noon EDT, I wrote a recent blog post about my five favorite books on showing why critical realism matters for social science research. This post is about my five favorite articles that explicitly use critical realism as a meta-theoretical framework. The third blog in this series is about incorporating critical realism into research methods classes. And the fourth is a syllabus that shows how these readings can be structured for a course. 

Three of the articles I summarize below (Danermark, Decoteau, and Mooney) use CR to answer a research question in disability studies, HIV-AIDs, and mental health (respectively). The other two articles (Steinmetz and Longhofer) use CR to address theoretical issues in a particular field (historical-comparative sociology and social work, respectively).

Each of these articles answer the all-too-common question: how does CR, which is a philosophy of social science, matter for empirical work?


 

  1. Decouteau. C. (2016) “The AART of Ethnography: A Critical Realist Explanatory Research Model.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. March 2016.

Abstract: Critical realism is a philosophy of science, which has made significant contributions to epistemic debates within sociology. And yet, its contributions to ethnographic explanation have yet to be fully elaborated. Drawing on ethnographic data on the health-seeking behavior of HIV-infected South Africans, the paper compares and contrasts critical realism with grounded theory, extended case method, and the pragmatist method of abduction. In so doing, it argues that critical realism makes a significant contribution to causal explanation in ethnographic research in three ways: 1) by linking structure to agency; 2) by accounting for the contingent, conjunctural nature of causality; and 3) by using surprising empirical findings to generate new  theory. The paper develops the AART (abduction, abstraction, retroduction, testing) research schema and illustrates its strengths by employing a Bourdieusian field analysis as a model for morphogenetic explanation.


2. Bhaskar, R. and Danermark, B. (2006). ‘Metatheory, Interdisciplinarity and Disability Research: A Critical Realist Perspective’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8: 4, pp 278 – 297.

ABSTRACT: Different methodological tendencies within the field of disability research are described, and the reductionism implicit in the historically dominant models is critiqued. The advantages of critical realism over rival metatheoretical positions, including empiricism, social constructionism, neo-Kantianism and hermeneutics, is shown, demonstrating in particular what is called the ‘‘double-inclusiveness’’ of critical realism. A non-reductionist schema for explanation in disability research is established, and the article argues that the phenomenon of disability has the character of a ‘‘necessarily laminated system.’’ The fruitfulness of this approach is then illustrated with an example drawn from the field, further developing the case for critical realism as an ex ante explicit metatheory and the methodology for disability research. The conclusion reconsiders the nature of metatheory and its role in research.


 

3. Mooney, M (2016) “Moral Agency and Mental Illness.” Paper Currently Under Review (available from the author upon request)

Abstract:

How might critical realism provide a better metatheoretical framework to understand the complex causality behind experiences of mental illness? How do we understand the agency of people suffering from mental illness? Prior work on critical realism and disability has argued that critical realism helps move past one or another form of reductionist explanations for illness, whether that be biological, environmental, or psychological. But using a critical realist framework to study mental illness also raises issues about the agency of people whose rational capacities are thought to be diminished. In this paper, I present the life history of one of 26 young adults I interviewed as part of a project on resilience. Because interviews reveal the complex causal forces in any person’s life, they remind us that scientific explanations should not be reductionistic. A critical realist framework further allows me to analyze people’s experiences of mental illness as expressing a form of moral agency, albeit one that is constrained by biological illness, structures of power in psychiatry, and cultural categories of mental illness diagnoses.


 

4. George Steinmetz, “Comparative History and its Critics: A Genealogy and a Possible Solution.” In A Companion to Global Historical Thought, edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy and Andrew Sartori. Blackwell, pp. 412-436.

Introduction:

Discussions of comparison in the human and social sciences are highly polarized between defenders and critics. Some critics reject comparisons altogether, while others foreground interconnections, crossings, transfers, and transnational entanglements. German historians Hartmut Kaelble, Jürgen Kocka, and others have argued that the comparative and entangled approaches to historiography are not mutually exclusive. Historian Michael Geyer argues that there is a new “consensus” among historians around the transnational approach. The rejection of comparativism is sharply phrased in the title of the book De la comparaison à l’histoire croisée (From Comparison to Crossed History), by Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann. The specific debate between comparative and entangled history has mainly involved German and French modern historians but similar epistemological concerns have emerged among world historians, historians of modern Eurasia, and in many other disciplines. In the field of comparative literature, classic comparativism has been opposed by “entangled” approaches and criticisms of comparison per se. The US sociology field is structured by an overall polarization between qualitative and quantitative researchers, and the qualitative moiety is further divided between those who advocate traditional comparativism and those who defend singular case studies. Comparativism is so hegemonic over qualitative researchers in political science in the United States that some have spoken of the discipline’s “comparative imperative.” The epistemological upsurge in political science that started around 2000 – the so-called Glasnost–Perestroika movement – was unable to challenge the pattern of corralling qualitative researchers into using the version of the comparative method that has been so decisively criticized. Of course, the willingness to question comparison varies across the social science disciplines. Cultural anthropologists, for example, rejected standard versions of comparison even earlier and more decisively than historians….the last two sections of the chapter develop a response to these criticisms. With respect to the incommensurabilist critique, I will argue (like Weber and other neo-historicists in the first decades of the twentieth century) that we can preserve the idea of unique or unprecedented events without relinquishing the ambition of explaining such events. Rather than relying on Rickert and Weber, however, I will base this argument in the present-day “critical realist” philosophy of science.


 

5. Longhofer, Jerry and Floresh, Jerry.  2012. “The Coming Crisis in Social Work: Some Thoughts on Social Work and Science.” Research on Social Work and Practice. 22 (5): 499-519.

Abstract

In this essay, the authors consider the challenge made by two keynote speakers at recent social work research conferences, one in the United States and the other in Europe. Both spoke of a knowledge crisis in social work. Both John Brekke (Society for Social Work and Research) and Peter Sommerfeld (First Annual European Conference for Social Work Research) proposed some version of realism as a solution to the crisis. The authors deepen the argument for realism, however, by discussing how a critical realist perspective allows us to rethink positivist and conventionalist assumptions about the fact/value relation. Using a critical realist philosophy of social science, the authors discuss how social work has taken up positivism and myriad forms of conventionalism and also identify how practical knowledge gradually loses its place and thus contribute to social work’s ongoing knowledge crisis. The authors then offer a way of thinking about practice. The authors will consider forms of practice knowledge and propose that social work has four kinds that unfold in essentially open systems: discursive, visual, embodied, and liquid systems, and that each of these have both tacit and explicit dimensions. These forms of practice, moreover, are inevitably situated in theory-to-practice gaps (the authors call them phenomenological practice gaps), which are the source of social work’s knowledge crisis. The authors conclude with a discussion of the role of reflexivity in a science of social work.


 

To learn more, don’t forget to register for my webinar in CR & Research Methods on April 28, 2016, at 12 noon EDT (you can see the recording even if you can’t be there live). You should also read my blog about my presentation on CR & Research Methods from IACR 2015.

Books on Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods

Critical Realism & YouAs part of an upcoming webinar on Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods that I’m leading on May 3, 2016 at 12 noon, this is the first of 3 blogs with some resources on how critical realism can influence social science research methods (click here for blog #2 on CR & Methodsclick here for blog #3 on CR & Methods, and click here for blog #4 on CR & Methods). Although I’m a sociologist, I’ve included books from other disciplines as well, such as economics, disability studies, and management. Even though I can’t say enough good things about each of these books, I’ve noted a few key points I think each work contributes to research methods. I’ve bought each of these books and read them cover to cover. I cite them in my own work to backup my own use of critical realism as a meta-theoertical approach.

First, here are my five favorite books (in chronological order) explaining why critical realism matters for social science research:

  1. Sayer, A. 1992. Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. London: Routledge.
    • Why conceptualization is important, and if so, why we need ontology, not just more data.
    • How sociological knowledge is related to other kinds of knowledge.
    • Why sociology is a multi-method discipline, and why ontology helps explain that.
    • How to assess competing, or even conflicting, findings.
  2. Danermark, B. Ekström, M. Jakobsen, L. Karlsson. J.C. (1997)  Explaining Society: An Introduction to Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.
    • The relationship between theory and data in the social sciences.
    • How to combine qualitative and quantitative data as well as how to synthesize intensive and extensive research designs.
    • The nature of generalizations from a CR perspective.
    • How to combine interpretation and causal explanation.
  3. Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. New York: Routledge.
    • Why the claim to be a science can’t be based on experimentation or quasi-experimentation. Social science combines data with various kinds of logic, including retroductive logic, which asks: what causal powers must exist for this demi-regularity or this unique event to occur? How can we understand causality as not as uncovering universal laws (empirical regularities) but rather as abstracting to mechanisms and powers that explain events and processes?
    • I especially like Chapter 3 (The Case for Transcendental Realism), 4, (The Legacy of Positivism),  14 (Broad Objectives and Possible Obstacles) and 15 (Economic Science Without Experimentation).
  4. Edwards, P., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. eds. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • How can critical realism help leaders of organizations approach practical problems?
    • Excellent overviews of the research process from a critical realist perspective.
    • Chapters targeted at CR and ethnography, CR and interviewing, CR and mixed-methods.
  5. Pawson, R. 2016. Evidence-Based Policy: A Realist Perspective. London: Sage Publications.
    • How realism can guide attempts at systematic review.
    • Why more data and meta-analyses alone can never guide policy.
    • How to do rigorous applied social research.

To learn more, don’t forget to register for my webinar in CR & Research Methods on April 28, 2016, at 12 noon EDT (you can see the recording even if you can’t be there live). You should also read my blog about my presentation on CR & Research Methods from IACR 2015.


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