What might critical realist research methods look like? At the 2015 Annual Meetings of the International Association of Critical Realism, I discussed some common problems I saw in syllabi and textbooks used to teach sociological methods. With the help of Cameron Yick, Yale Class of 2017, I read more than 40 syllabi from top-25 ranked departments of sociology, as well as some liberal arts colleges and business schools.

Here are the slides from my presentation and the audio file is below.

 

As I say in my presentation, here are some problems I saw in how sociological research methods are taught, such as in the well-used textbook by Earl Babbie, The Practice of Social Research, and on the American Sociological Association’s own brief overview of research methods, which I think a critical realist perspective on methods could address:

  • No ontology, just epistemology.
  • No people, just patterns.
  • The goal of science is prediction (but there are no social laws).
  • A strict adherence to fact-value distinction (but all social life is value-laden).
  • We must discard all personal experiences as flawed. (but experiences are an important part of science and truth-seeking).
  • Only inductive and deductive logic are presented; no discussion of abductive or transcendental reasoning.
  • Ethics are not part of science; they come at the end of a project, if at all (but all of human life and thus human sciences should be ethical).
  • There is no way to adjudicate b/t competing explanations, theories, methods or paradigms. (CR proposes judgmental rationality).
  • Adherence to positivist view of natural science as based on laws is not up to date on philosophy of science. (CR and other views of natural science should be presented).
  • Qualitative methods are described as using an inductive approach to finding social patterns and rules; the emphasis is on  how to turn qualitative observations into variables.
  • Limited understanding of causality as efficient causes. (CR has a more complex view of causality).

Here are a few things I think a research methods textbook should do:

  1. help students understand the limitations of all methods.
  2. help students see how various methods can talk to each other.
  3. remind students that our goal is to get closer to the real, and build a better society and better people.
  4. update students on philosophy of science and philosophy of social science (CR, other realisms).
  5. present case studies of actual research projects that have students to compare competing paradigms, methods and explanations.

Although I didn’t have time to discuss everything I learned during my presentation, I found some excellent syllabi on research methods which do not fall into all of the pitfalls above. Yet, very few of the syllabi I read mentioned critical realism, and when they did, they either did not fully understand it or explain it well. Much more work needs to be done to make critical realist perspectives part of sociological research methods.

How can we move towards this goal? One way would be to write short texts on various research methods from a critical realist perspective, similar to the series of short handbook on methods published by Sage. Then these textbooks could be introduced as part of 1, 2 or 3-week modules about critical realist research methods.

This project is still in its earlier stages, but if you have thoughts about how to teach critical realist research methods, I’d love to hear from you via email.