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)


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.


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.


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.

Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods Webinar April 28th

On April 28, 2016, at 12 Noon EDT, I’ll be giving a free webinar on Critical Realism and Sociological Research Methods.

Every good researcher is to some extent a good theoretician. Yet, typical approaches to teaching and writing about sociological research methods emphasize data collection techniques, often to the detriment of exploring the ontological assumptions made in any research project. CriHello Crit Realism Name Tagtical realism consistently points to the epistemological implications of implicit ontological commitments in sociological research. Recently, critical realist scholars have paid greater attention to the methodological implications of critical realism for sociology.

In this webinar, I will illustrate how critical realism led me to reflect on the ontological assumptions and practical implications of my empirical work on vulnerability and resilience. Based on my review of classes on sociological research methods in more than 30 universities, I will also suggest concrete ways that courses on sociological research methods could incorporate modules on the philosophical foundations of research and the application of research findings to concrete cases. I will also discuss how my engagement with critical realism lCritical Realism & Youed me to write research articles that preserve the dramatic narrative of my cases while also analyzing causal factors interacting at multiple levels. I will argue that the best sociological research combines rigorous data collection techniques with metatheoretical and practical reflections. I have uploaded a suggested reading to the website – “Complex Causality and Mental Health” which is currently under review at the Journal of Critical Realism.

For the paper, go to: http://www.criticalrealismnetwork.org/webinars/

To read some blogs on CR and methods, see:



Seeking the Sacred?

How do people seek the sacred? For a recent project, I interviewed 26 young adults in 10 different states about hardships they had faced. I asked how those hardships influenced their close relationships and their beliefs in God. I was surprised by how many spiritual experiences I heard about that were outside of traditional religious practices. Even people who weren’t sure they believed in God, who had stopped going to church, or who had never attended church, talked about feeling a presence bigger than themselves. Many people said that they sometimes cried out to that presence, begging for help, even if they couldn’t name what that presence was. People who would not pray for themselves sometimes prayed for loved ones in distress. Others talked about experiences of transcendence–feeling part of something bigger than oneself–when walking in nature or creating art.

Is it possible (or helpful) to go beyond our regular survey categories asking people about attendance at church or belief in God, and ask them to think about seeking the sacred in a variety of ways? I think Emile Durkheim goes perhaps too far in defining the sacred as the group worshipping itself. Anything that creates group identity, according to Durkheim’s definition, can be sacred. Sports teams and fans may build  passionate group identities. But do they connect people to a transcendent reality? I think not.

Pargament_SpirituallyIntegratedPsychoTherapy_CoverRather than equating group identity and sacredness, psychologist Ken Pargament has a more compelling definition of how people seek the sacred. In my interviews, it was clear that people saw things as sacred because those things connected them to something bigger than themselves, something bigger than any collective group. Something truly “other.” Something capable of acting in this world, but not of this world.

Too often in the social sciences, we adopt a Durkheimian position that sacred practices have secular cognates. But Ken Pargament argues that spirituality can provide things secular psychology or psychotherapy do not. Spirituality can help us answer questions like how to come to terms with our limits as human beings. Spirituality can give a different meaning to concepts like forgiveness and love. Even if spirituality contributes to something like healing from addiction, Pargament cautions we should not try to explain away religion in terms of its human function. Spirituality is a different, and a higher, dimension of human potential.

 “Spirituality helps people come to terms with human limitations. It offers solutions to problems that are merely substitutes for secular solutions, including those that psychologists often advocate. In response to the unfathomable and uncontrollable, it speaks a language that is relatively unfamiliar to psychology. We hear words such as “forbearance,” “faith,” “suffering,” “compassion,” “transformation,” “transcendence,” “sacredness,” “hope,” “surrender,” “love,” and “forgiveness.” These words should not be dismissed as merely soft and sentimental, for they embody deep yearnings, powerful emotions, and more generally a different way of viewing the world. Through the spiritual lens, people can see their lives in a broad, transcendent perspective; they can discern deeper truths in ordinary and extraordinary experiences; and they can locate timeless values that offer grounding and direction in shifting times and circumstances. Through the spiritual lens, problems take on a different character and distinctive solutions appear; answers to seemingly unanswerable questions, support when other sources of support are unavailable, and new sources of value and significance when old dreams are no longer viable. Spirituality then, represents a distinctive resource for living, one particularly well suited to the struggle with human limitations and finitude. By bringing the spiritual dimension into the helping process, psychotherapists could tap more fully into this reservoir of hope and source of solutions to life’s most profound problems,” (Pargament, Spirituality Integrated Psychotherapy, P. 12).

Spirituality, whether one practices a traditional religion or not, can be understood as searching for the sacred. Understood this way, spirituality is a quest, not an outcome. The quest for the sacred is seeking to be in relationship to a reality outside of one’s self that is boundless and in some sense, ultimate. To the extent we see the objects of art and culture as an expression of a transcendent reality or a way for one to enter into relationship with that transcendent reality, creating and contemplating art and culture can be sacred.

OxfordHandbookofPsychandSpirituality_CoverPsychologist Lisa Miller further argues that seeing the sacred as a relationship with the transcendent requires shifting away from seeing the person as the center of reality. When we acknowledge that things outside of us “touch our lives, inform our decisions, heal us and guide our human activities…we are free from an egocentric prison of ontological centrality” (Lisa Miller, Introduction, Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, p. 2).

Contrary to the implicit assumption of much modern psychology, people are not the center of reality. People interact with a reality that exists independent of their consciousness of it. Miller challenges the Enlightenment tendency to think of a person dominating or controlling his or her environment; she sees people as interacting with their environment but never mastering it. I agree with Miller that psychology (and I’d say sociology) would be better if they moved past the exclusive focus on the empirical and mechanical. Rather, we should acknowledged that people experience themselves as beings living in a universe “propelled by ultimate intention.”  (Lisa Miller, Conclusion, Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, p. 612) People’s actions are therefore not just aimed at attaining goals or achieving excellence. Human action also needs to be understood in terms of aligning the intention in our actions with “the ultimate powerful intention throughout the universe” (Lisa Miller, Conclusion, Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, p. 613).

The people I interviewed had religious experiences that point to just this spirituality described by Pargament and Miller: connecting to something outside of oneself, something capable of impacting one’s life. It is something that connects one to oneself and oneself to others across space and time; and of course, it is something that connects one to that ultimate, boundless reality, whether that be God, spirits, or even art.

The lived religious tradition in sociology has long emphasized that spiritual practices often occur outside of traditional religious spaces. For example, Nancy Ammerman’s recent book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes is a beautiful written and ambitious project documenting how Ammerman_SacredStories_Cover
people find the sacred at work, at home, or nearly anywhere.

I find the work of Ammerman, Pargament and Miller to be compelling. But my question then becomes: What can we say is not a sacred practice? By including the love of art as sacred, am I going too far? I think as long as I maintain Pargament’s qualification that the sacred practice has to be understood as relating oneself to a transcendent other–not just to other humans–we can say that the love of art can be sacred. I share a passion for college basketball’s March Madness NCAA Tournament with millions of other Americans. But I do not see March Madness as a sacred practice because it does not link me to the transcendent.

Regardless of the terminology I end up using, it is clear to me that the people I interviewed do not see themselves as the creators of this world. They do not see themselves as alone in this world. They do not see this world as entirely mechanical and material. They see the world as having a mysterious origin–not mysterious because it the origin of the world absolutely unknowable, but mysterious because the origin of the world is greater than what our limited minds can fully grasp. Sacred practices represent that mystery that is also a reality we want to engage with.

Teaching Sociology at Princeton Theological Seminary

021TamaraLackeyI’ve received my dream job. I’ve enthusiastically accepted the calling to use my expertise in sociology to the serve the students and faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). I will start my new position as Associate Professor of Congregational Studies on July 1, 2016. See the press release from Princeton Theological Seminary here.

Growing up in a Cuban-American family in a small town in Maryland, I saw how important our church community was to education, family life and welcoming newcomers from other countries. After studying psychology at Yale University, I worked in Costa Rica for three years at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. While a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University, I regularly visited the PTS library to deepen my understanding of philosophy and theology.

My research and teaching in the past decade has greatly benefitted from integrating rigorous sociological methods with normative and practical considerations. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to conduct research projects in many regions of the United States, as well as in Latin America and Europe. Now as a faculty member in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, I plan to teach courses such as Congregational Studies, Religion and Social Theory, Philosophy of Social Science, and Religion and Resilience. I’ve always enjoyed mentoring my students in their vocational journeys. I look forward to sharing my own intellectual and spiritual journey with my new students and colleagues. I’m delighted to be part of a world-renowned institution that prepares its students intellectually and spiritually to serve the church, the nation and the world.

During my visit to PTS in February 2016, I talked about how my work aims to integrate social science with philosophy and theology. You see a video recording of my talk here:


My main claim is that the traditional tools of social science need to be brought into conversation with moral philosophy and theology in order to provide a framework for civic, social and church leaders to work together to promote communities of resilience that are attentive to both the social and spiritual realities of the human experience.

I explain why I think sociology cannot do its best work without considering moral, normative and practical questions. I also explain how I think people who work in theology, philosophy or pastoral leadership would do even better work if they understood how to apply some of the tools of sociology.

I’m thrilled to continue my research, teaching and community engagement with the support of colleagues and students from a prestigious institution like PTS.