About Critical Realism

What is critical realism?

Critical realism is a broad movement within philosophy and sociology. Critical realism (herein CR) is a movement which began in British philosophy and sociology following the founding work of Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer and others.

Specifically, CR emerged from the vision of realising an adequate realist philosophy of science, of social science, and of critique. Against empirical realism (positivism) and transcendental idealism (constructivism), CR argues for the necessity of ontology. The pursuit of ontology is the attempt to understand and say something about ‘the things themselves’ and not simply about our beliefs, experiences, or our current knowledge and understanding of those things.  Secondly, CR argues against the implicit ontology of the empiricists and idealists. The reduction of being to thought, language, belief, custom, or experience implicitly reproduces a certain ontology, a certain understanding of the world which sustains that reduction. Like it or not, we do ontology. So the thought is why not do it well? With this reflexivity CR argues that to understand the reality uncovered by science and social science we need a structured and differentiated account in which openness, difference, stratification and change is central. In short, we might say CR argues for ontology, and for a new ontology.

Because of this CR has been characterised as the attempt to steer between the Scylla of naive realism on the one hand, and the Charybdis of idealism and constructivism on the other. Some have even referred to this tension as a weak form constructivism. Others eager to avoid the connotations of constructivism have preferred to speak of construel. Yet this dynamism, it has become one of the major strands of scientific and social scientific theory rivalling positivism, empiricism,  post-structuralism, relativism, and interpretivism (hermeneuticism).

For a fuller discussion see

  1. Margaret Archer, Claire Decoteau. Philip Gorski. Daniel Little, Douglas Porpora, Timothy Rutzou, Christian Smith, George Steinmetz, and Frederic Vandenberghe “What is Critical Realism?”. Perspectives, 2016, (38, 2), pp. 4-9