Zigzagging and proud of being the infidels of science

This is the text of my keynote introductory talk at the State of the Art of Realist Methodologies, (The Leeds Club, Leeds, UK 4th November 2015).

The slides associated with this talk may be found here: methods and metaphors nde


Our concern is to reflect backwards into the future of realist methodology. To consider the insights we can learn from bringing a realist ontology that accepts the real—causal, stratified, emergent, and independent of our knowing it; a relativist ontology—weakly constructed [theoretical] accounts of this stratified and emergent real that have enough power to direct us to identify methods to test these constructions and justify our choice of cases; a methodological strategy that abducts—a creative endeavour of meaning-making any pragmatist (following Charles S. Pierce) would recognise—and retroduction—the transfactual search for the essence of things—into play in a realist methodology intent of addressing real-world problems.

Ours is a practical endeavour in which methodological insights are born of empirical research practices. There is an invitation from another pragmatist, Robert Park, which guides one part of a realist research methodology:

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems where you can find musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for the aid of fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called ‘getting your hands dirty in real research’. Those who thus counsel you are wise and honourable: the reasons they offer are of great value. But one thing more is needful: first-hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit in the Orchestra Hall and the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short […] go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research (cited in Hammersley, 1989: 76)

Such practical, hand-dirtying, pant-dirtying engagements can surprise. But for realists, mechanisms generatively shape and exert their powers on that we can observe. These may or may not be observable as material practices, they may or may not be expressed in the semiotic utterances and frames of reference of research participants. These generative mechanism do bring about changes in material things. This does not make mechanisms ‘theoretical’ and realists of the middle range ‘idealist’ as has been suggested in a recent ‘immanent critique’ (Porter, 2015). This methodology recognises that mechanisms are real, independent of our knowing them, and causal. We will always have to relate concepts to social processes.

Claiming these properties for mechanisms is part of the methodological conundrum that takes us from explaining how we get from a feeble idea about a scientific problem to a fragile account of what works for whom in what circumstances, when, and why.

Inevitably we fall back on metaphor to describe these complex relational processes in our methodology—mine is zigzagging. Gill and Ana will draw on other metaphors—being nimble, avoiding whirlpools, levels, layers, and ladders of explanation.

In developing my account of a zigzag I am interested to understand how, through my research—investigating health and health needs in slums in Mumbai and with and on low-income populations in Leeds, explaining social exclusion and vulnerability—I wrestle with and arrive at an account that always includes in one way or another regularities leading to describable outcomes, twisted and shaped by generative mechanisms firing in particular contexts across space and time. And thinking about these practical problems of explanation plunges me into the disputation of methodology.

The challenge of the realist question—what works for whom, in what circumstances, when, and why?—is to produce in some way a context, mechanism, outcome configuration. Ray Pawson described the CMO configuration as an ‘ugly circumlocution’ (Pawson, 2013:21), which both sums up the trouble with the matter, and reminds us of another ugly circumlocution, the Circumlocution Office Charles Dickens describes in Little Dorrit. Much of Dickens’ account is about getting nothing done, the wastefulness of the civil service, which, of course is a way of doing policy realist know a great deal about. As an example, Harold Macmillan, UK Minister for Housing (and later Prime Minister) in responding to angry public demands that the government do something during the great London smog of December 1952, observed that:

We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be busy—and that is half the battle nowadays (in Ascherson, 2015).

It still is it would so often seem, and ‘doing nothing while appearing to do something’ may frequently be a generative mechanism and at least a part of a programme theory. These invisible (or disguised) generative mechanisms are a challenge for realist explanation. Understanding what these mechanisms are is a regular topic of conversation on RAMESES.

Stepping back a little, there is something else in Dickens’ account of the Circumlocution Office, and a theme he wrote of often, which, I suggest, helps us along in debates like these. Do we bend to the will of authority, or bridle against its frequently impenetrable arrogance and stupidity:

Such a nursery of statesmen had the Department become in virtue of a long career of this nature, that several solemn lords had attained the reputation of being quite unearthly prodigies of business, solely from having practised, How not to do it, as the head of the Circumlocution Office. As to the minor priests and acolytes of that temple, the result of all this was that they stood divided into two classes, and, down to the junior messenger, either believed in the Circumlocution Office as a heaven-born institution that had an absolute right to do whatever it liked; or took refuge in total infidelity, and considered it a flagrant nuisance.

Realists are, of course, infidels, our methodology a flagrant nuisance. The last thing we would ever dream of doing is imposing a method (a tool, a trope) because we felt it was absolutely right to answer all realist questions. We are encouraged to be disputatious, adopting Popper’s stance that knowledge is facilitated through criticism. Donald T Campbell’s (1988) ‘disputatious community of scholars’ whose intellectual debates help our research, evaluation, and methodology to flourish through listening to each others arguments and counter-arguments. An open system of criticism and support that brings multiple perspectives to bear both in getting at the real that remains independent of our knowing it, and also in this crucible of substantive research to continually develop the emergent and transitive nature of our methodological enquiry.

Which brings me to my metaphor of the zigzag. I can’t claim it to be original. I found it in Imre Lakatos’s account of the logic of mathematical discovery, which Ray Pawson suggested I read. Here the theoretical progression of maths is understood through a discussion between teacher and pupils tracing the proofs and refutations of Eulerian geometry. Through the interlocution of one of the students, Lakatos notes:

Discovery does not go up or down, but follows a zig-zag path, prodded by counterexamples, it moves from the naïve conjecture to the premises and then turns back again to delete the naïve conjecture and replace it by the theorem. Naïve conjecture and counter examples do not appear in the fully fledged [inferential] structure; the zig-zag of discovery cannot be discerned in the end-product (pg. 42)

This is precisely the way of realist methodology I contend. Constantly we zig-zag between theory and empirical investigation, abducting from idea to testing that idea, bringing to bear, like the pragmatists, through creative innovative research, choosing cases, comparing cases, the method in the service of the idea, the teacher-learner relationship (inverted from the co-production and constructivism of much of social science). But that is only the zig, the zag is retroductive, the working out of how empirical instances are accounted for in theories of the middle-range. (Here we part from the pragmatists) to make causal claims (however fragile) for what works for whom in what circumstance and why.

To recognise ideas are as important to research (and explaining the social world) as measurements is axiomatic to this methodology. Ideas—‘concepts, meaning, and intentions’ as Joe Maxwell (2012:18) reminds us, are:

as real as rocks; they are just not as accessible to direct observation and description as rocks. In this way they are like quarks, black holes, the meteor impact that supposedly killed the dinosaurs, or William Shakespeare: we have no way of directly observing them, and our claims about them are based on a variety of sorts of indirect evidence.

Which brings me to my conclusion, the answers to the question—‘So what!’. I have three of these.

My first ‘so what!’ is explanation—so much of social science and human science research produces decorative and descriptive assemblages—some fine stories about lived experience from both quantitative and qualitative research. Realists claim to explain causal powers in systems. Realism seeks explanation beyond events and experiences through bringing evidence into a relation with history and social process.

My second ‘so what!’ leads on from the first. Our methods wrestle with and address complexity, causality, and claim. We ask what works for whom in what circumstances and why. Now one way to take this question is into a fractured account of social phenomena. Realist methodology avoids disappearing down this relativist wormhole through comparison. We mobilises comparative cases that are linked together by theory, or put less grandly ideas. Realism is a methodology of casing, working out what is this a case of in an open-social system.

With an aim of producing such complex causal explanation there is no heaven-born, institutionally ratified and kite-marked toolbox to dip into for the right replicable method to tell us what works. And linked to this protocol bound science in interesting ways, the claimed for validity of co-produced description, however participatory, will never be enough. My third ‘so what!’ is to emphasise that we are and should be proud of being the infidels of science promoting our flagrant nuisance of a methodology at every turn.


This entry was posted in abduction, depth ontology, generative mechanisms, realism, refining theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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