The ingredients of realist research for a disputatious community of truth seekers.

ready steady cookRealist researchers are, to use Ray Pawson’s term, a disputatious community of truth seekers. For me, this means that we agree (most of the time) on some or all of the underlying methodological principles, or ingredients, of realist research, but we will never agree on rules for doing social research. Each research project requires that we work out the best approach to its investigation.

These disputations mean I cannot point you to the methods cookbook, ‘How to do realist research properly’. Cookbooks we use when we want to knock up a nice Spanish stew, not to design investigations.

But as I mentioned, there are a number of methodological ingredients. As researchers we are faced with a similar challenge to that faced by a professional cook on a tea time cookery programme, who is presented with difficult to deal with ingredients and told to produce an edible meal. As with the cooking, expertise, creativity, and experience are brought to bear on methodological ingredients to produce explanation. These methodological ingredients include:

  • A contention that there is a reality independent of our knowing it.

  • Neither empirical observation, nor theories about the world account for social reality, it is far richer and deeper than that.

  • We most often describe reality as stratified, the empirical, the actual and the real.

  • In explanations we want to account for real causal mechanisms. These are, according to Roy Bhaskar (2008), the powers of things, which unlike events persist or are at least relatively enduring.

  • All researchers construct accounts of social objects. But as Joe Maxwell (2012: pg.13) contends, ‘our concepts refer to real phenomena, rather than being abstractions from sense data or purely our own constructions’.

  • These weak constructions raise consciousness about that which we seek to interpret and explain.

  • Investigation zigzags between ideas and evidence.

  • Methods and samples are always chosen in the service of testing, refining, judging, elaborating, …, ideas.

  • Explanation is an effort to work out the relations between ideas and evidence.

  • These relations we present as models (or less grandly, ideas on the backs of envelopes—cf. Greenhalgh et al., 2009), which can be transferred from one complex system to another to be tested and refined.

  • Interpretations and explanations—the insiders’ perspectives and the outsiders’ understandings—cannot be separated and they are always provisional.

  • Explanations are implicated in theories of the middle range, which seek to explain what works for whom in what circumstances and why (Pawson and Tilley, 1997; Pawson, 2006; 2013).

  • For some realists the idea of C+M=O, that ‘ugly circumlocution’ (Pawson, 2013:21), is the best way of checking the explanation is complete. But all realist explanations will explain the entanglement of how generative mechanisms act on social regularities in specific contexts to produce particular outcomes.

(after Emmel, 2013)

Good luck mixing the ingredients!

This entry was posted in generative mechanisms, realism, refining theory, social reality, weak constructions. Bookmark the permalink.

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