Critical Realism Epistemology theory

Thoughts on: A short guide to ontology and epistemology: Why everyone should be a critical realist (Fryer, 2020)

Six years into my PhD, you might hope that I was broadly across the various worldviews and philosophies that underpin different approaches to research. And broadly speaking I think I am. I would say that I believe there is objective truth to be found outside our own perceptions, while acknowledging that these perceptions and ideas influence how we interpret and react to this reality. I also believe that there are things that should be improved in the world and that research should attempt to contribute to this. Additionally I would say that the tools or approaches that get us closest to do this are the ones that we should use, whatever they are. So there is a bit of pragmatism, a bit of criticality and I sit somewhere between a subjective and objective my view of the world.

That said, I wish I had come across this guide much earlier in my studies. Tom Fryer is a PhD researcher at the Manchester Institute of Education and in 2020 published this entertaining and informative overview guide to ontology, epistemology and some key philosophies in research. I add a caveat that he comes from a Critical Realism perspective and perhaps oversimplifies ‘rival’ ideas in Positivism and Constructivism to make the case for his preferred theory but he makes the case well and I think it’s probably mostly where I was sitting anyway – just more expanded. I really like the way that Fryer scaffolds the ideas and works hard to provide illustrative examples.

These are my notes from reading the 27 page guide (which includes some delightfully random cartoons).

Ontology – what the world is like
Epistemology – how we produce knowledge about the world

Ontology can be split into realism (things are real) and irrealism (not all things are real)
Epistemology can be split into objectivism (there are no major barriers to producing knowledge about the world) and subjectivism (our observations of the world are theory dependent)

This takes us to three key philosophical approaches:

Positivism (realist/objectivist) – more sciencey, looks for concrete tangible laws connecting things/events and sometimes doesn’t consider context enough

Constructivism (irrealist/subjectivist) – falls over particularly when knowledge construction is considered to be theory-determined (the theory shapes the knowledge). Our observations might be dependent on theory but theories can’t determine what reality is like.
(He does seem to spend a fair bit of time teasing constructivism for largely being focused on capturing people’s stories and thinking that is sufficient)

Critical realism (realist/subjectivist) – reaches conclusions through ‘retroductive reasoning’ – a kind of logic that looks for the best explanation.
In CR, research should look for causal tendencies and it must consider both agency and social structures.

CR theory argues that the world has three domains:

Domain of the Empirical: events that we experience
Domain of the Actual: events that occur whether we see them or not
Domain of the Real: causal mechanisms that make events happens (like gravity dropping an apple on Newton’s head)

I would wonder whether gravity might simultaneously also be an event as it is caused by something else but Fryer doesn’t dig that deep.

“Tendencies” appear to be like a weaker version of causation – there might be a link but not strong enough to make a definitive statement about. It’s more that there is a relationship.

I like that agency is foregrounded in research people – this is something that I felt was missing a little in what I’ve read of Kemmis on practice theory. Essentially this is just saying that people make choices outside strict models or Bourdeusian “habitus” (habituses?).

The second part of that though is that social structures also influence individual agents, whether it is their behaviour, identities, knowledge or actions. The latter of these have been something of a big focus in my own research, so it isn’t surprising that this speaks to me. I would take social structures to include common understandings and conventions, rules and mores (and maybe throw in some of the material things for good measure)

Fryer finally identifies a loop, where the individual might reproduce or transform these social structures through their actions and then have themselves shaped /transformed again by the social structures. (I may be over interpreting that part but it seems the logical flow on)

There are a number of other philosophical approaches that Fryer glosses over but for a refresher on key concepts, this is a great place to start.

Further reading:
Collier (1994) Critical Realism: an introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy
Gorski (2013) What is Critical Realism? And why should you care?