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:

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.

Christianophobia and Racism – The Similarities

In my last post, I discussed the differences between racism and Christianophobia. I am often asked if I think Christianophobia is the same as racism. I am always careful to note that there are critical differences between the two. I do not want to create the false impression that to be Christianophobic is the same as to be racist. I have seen this emotional, but overly simplistic, technique of conflating different types of bigotries used too much and so I have taken great care to make sure I do not employ it myself.
However, this is not to say that there are not similarities between those who are Christianophobic and those who are racist. Because those with Christianophobia (higher educated, politically progressive, wealthy) are quite different from those who tend to be racist (lower educated, more rural), it is reasonable to argue that similar qualities of Christianophobia and racism reflect similarities in all sorts of intolerances. There is no subculture free of bigotry and intolerance. As such the real question is not whether the group you hang out with is intolerant, but rather against whom are they intolerant. Once we know that, then the similarities in this blog suggest how that intolerance is likely to play itself out.
Unreasonable Hatred – The first similarity is that both racists and Christianophobes have an unreasonable level of hatred for those who they reject. This is pretty clear when discussing racists. Clearly, racists make unreasonable demands that people of color be denied their freedom to work where they want, to live where they want and even in extreme cases to live. While today we do not see a lot of racists making extreme statements, the undercurrent of racism is the treatment of people due to their skin color, or other superficial physical characteristics. It often plays out in unreasonable stereotypes and assertions about people of color. All reasonable people can see this as unjustified.
The dynamics of Christianophobia are a little different in that people are hated for what they believe instead of what they look like. But Christianophobia is also based on unreasonable hatred. My research indicates that people with Christianophobia do not believe that conservative Christians should be able to have a place in the public square. They do not deny this right to other groups, and it is not reasonable to deny it to conservative Christians. Of course there are other ways this unreasonable hatred can manifest itself such as joking about feeding Christians to lions, or refusing to hire them for academic positions, but that may be the most impactful way this hatred manifests itself.
Justification of Bigotry – Another similarity between racists and those with Christianophobia is their willingness to justify their bigotry. Indeed often they assert that what they are doing is for the good of the society and sometimes even for those they are discriminating against. Historically, racists justified enslaving blacks or placing Indians on reservations since these were people who needed the “guidance” of whites. Racists today do not tend to use such arguments but rather talk about the good of society. Thus, they may ban Middle Easterners from the United States because they believe that we need protection from those outsiders.
The tendency to justify bigotry is not limited to racists. Those with Christianophobia would argue that they must ban Christians from the public square for the good of the nation. My research indicated that one of the ways people with Christianophobia de-humanize Christians is by envisioning them as childlike and unable to think for themselves. Such stereotypes allow those with Christianophobia to justify treating Christians in ways they would not treat other groups. After all, I seriously doubt they would see a child’s onesie with a statement about too many Jews and not enough ovens as acceptable. Yet someone is buying this for their kid.
Let me be clear that I know that both the racist and the Christianophobe are sincere in their beliefs that their bigotry is justified. The racist truly believes that those of “inferior” races are dragging our society into the gutter and must be controlled. Likewise, the Christianophobe truly believes that those of “inferior” religious beliefs are taking our society backwards into a Dark Age whereby all who do not have the true faith will be harassed and punished. They contend that conservative Christians must be controlled or they will set up a theocracy that will end science and reason. The fact that both of these beliefs are nonsense does not mean that those who have these ideas are not sincere in their beliefs. I do not accept the rhetoric that people with bigotry only maintain that intolerance due to their own self-interest. Rather they really believe that they are doing the right thing. In the end, that may make it all the more difficult to deal with such bigotry.
Dehumanizing of the Other – I have already briefly talked about how those with Christianophobia sometimes dehumanize conservative Christians. In my research, I identified several patterns of their dehumanization. This type of dehumanization was based on seeing conservative Christians as more animalistic than human. But rather than go through all of those patterns, I can simply point out the way those with Christianophobia often use the imagery of animals when talking about Christians. They speak of Christians as sheep and lemmings as well as zombies (though that is technically not an animal, it is still pretty dehumanizing). These comments came up so often in my respondents’ answers to my question that it is hard for me not to believe that it is not commonplace to talk of Christians as if they were animals.
Unfortunately, animalistic descriptions are also quite common among racists as well. What differs is the type of animals used to describe those in the minority racial groups. Apes and beasts are terms that racists may use to describe people of color. Thus, the animals used to describe racial minorities denote a savagery, whereas the animals used to describe Christians denote a mindless passivity. Neither description is what we would call flattering. Both descriptions have the effect of making the targeted group seem less than human. We know that when minority racial groups have been seen as less than human, it then becomes easier to justify the removal of their human rights. Perhaps this animalistic tendency on the part of those with Christianophobia is also necessary for them to justify differential treatment due to religion such as attempting to remove Christians in the public square or being less willing to hire Christians in academia.
Deny that they have a problem – This is a similarity that is not quite accurate if we are talking about traditional racism from our past. Those racists had no problem admitting that they were racist. Indeed they sometimes were proud of being racist. But today there are few who will admit to being racist even if it is clear that they are. They will struggle to find a way to explain their actions and attitudes in ways that deny the potential racism motivating them. Race and ethnicity literature is full of efforts to denote this type of modern racism with concepts such as colorblind racism, aversive racism and symbolic racism. Ultimately, they describe a version of racism by someone who will deny that they are racist.
This same issue comes up when we look at Christianophobia. Those with Christianophobia are quick to deny that they have a problem. I have been amused at the sort of gymnastics some have employed when I have pointed out situations where it is clear that the behavior would not have taken place, or if it had it would have been seen as unacceptable, except that the person victimized was a conservative Christian. For example, when I point out my research that shows that academics are willing to discriminate against hiring someone because they are a fundamentalist or evangelical, the most common response is not to criticize how the research was done. Instead the person generally accepts the findings of the research but then justifies such occupational discrimination with anti-Christian stereotypes (i.e. Christians are not able to critically think). It is quite obvious that such discrimination would not be justified if used against Jews or Muslims based on Anti-Semitic or Islamophobic stereotypes. It is a classic case of denial when it is quite clear that there are Christianophobic tendencies on the part of a non-trivial number of academics.
These similarities suggest important lessons about the nature of intolerance. They indicate that intolerance and bigotry lead to unreasonable emotive and dehumanizing patterns, even among those who envision themselves as rational. It leads to a denial of the problem at a personal level and ironically attempts to justify mistreatment of the out-group. These are tendencies that I do not believe are relegated to only certain subcultures. Our ability to hate and mistreat out-groups seems to be part of the human condition. Only by recognizing this reality can we have the ability to engage in the level of introspection necessary to combat the intolerance residing in our hearts.