Author Archives: nickemmel

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 … Continue reading

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From love to telling a good story: thinking about impact, research, and research training in PhD research

  As is the case for most social science researchers, or indeed any researchers I imagine, I do the research I do because I think it is interesting. It’s the part of the title of my talk which I call … Continue reading

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The limits to theoretical saturation in realist explanation

source Janice Morse (2015) is quite clear what theoretical saturation is not in her recent editorial in Qualitative Health Research. It is not the accumulation of events to a point where we have heard everything there is to be … Continue reading

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I’m not dancing, I’m zigzagging

A second outing for a methodological investigation considering the metaphors we use to describe qualitative researching and the metaphors participants use to describe their experiences. My intention is to move from a metaphor of dance to a metaphor of zigzagging … Continue reading

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Positivism, realism, and the experiment

Imre Lakatos wrote somewhere, and I can’t remember where, that if we are to talk of positivism then we must define what we mean before we start. In thinking about the possibilities for experimentation and realism I start by defining … Continue reading

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

Realist 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 … Continue reading

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Ontology and methodology, Margaret Archer, and a far better non-abelist explanation

Last week we started the Ma module Research Strategy and Design in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds. Like any method course should, I think, we start with ontology, move on to epistemology, and by week 2 … Continue reading

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An introduction to realist methods (for quantitative researchers)

Attached here is a presentation An introduction to realist methodologies I gave to the Partnership of Junior Health Analysts in Leeds. This is a presentation specifically for researchers more used to quantitative methods, in particular those crunching large datasets, which … Continue reading

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The meaning of abduction

  Ingo Rohlfing wrote of my post responding to Howick et al: “The discretion and judgement emphasised here lead away from both deductive and inductive approaches. Mechanistic reasoning is the alternative, despite its accepted weaknesses.” I agree mechanistic reasoning does … Continue reading

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Five lessons from WEICK KE (2007)THE GENERATIVE PROPERTIES OF RICHNESS Academy of Management Journal 2007, Vol. 50, No. 1, 14–19.

1. locate the scene deep inside one’s own head, catch the significance of the scene, use that significance to reanimate analysis 2. a head full of theories … increases requisite variety 3. what events mean, what is significant in their … Continue reading

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Mechanisms, the problem and the solution: a response to Howick et al. (2013)

I cannot disagree with the conclusion of Howick and colleagues’ 2013 paper, ‘Problems with using mechanisms to solve the problem of extrapolation’. Uncertainty and scepticism will always be part of medicine, at least an account of medicine that does not … Continue reading

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‘Research relations in process’ and ‘subjects in process: lessons from qualitative longitudinal research for sampling

Last week I gave a talk as part of Bren Neal’s workshop on advanced methods in qualitative longitudinal (QL) research for the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre sampling in QL research. Through conducting QL research as part of Timescapes (, … Continue reading

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Step 8: Researchers always bring prejudices, prejudgements, frames of reference, and concepts to their choice of cases

  I am reading a paper by Rycroft-Malone and colleagues (2004) about what constitutes evidence in evidence-based nursing practice. This paper is interesting because it emphasises a plurality of evidence. The authors identify four sources of evidence—from research and scholarship, … Continue reading

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Step 7: Theory (or put less grandly, ideas) always precede the choosing of cases

The positivist twist in Barney Glaser and Anselm Struass’s (1967) formulation of grounded theory was to insist on the theoretically sensitive researcher with no preconceptions. This was the working out of the implications of the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s tabula … Continue reading

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Step 6: Theories about social objects refer to actual features of the real world

Joseph Maxwell (2012: 13) contends that: ‘our concepts refer to real phenomena, rather than being abstractions from sense data or purely our own constructions [… and more than this (on pg. 18), for realist researchers …] concepts, meanings and intentions … Continue reading

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Step 5: Society is neither a thing that exists independent of human action, nor is it ever entirely a product of our action

For realists, the goal of science is the identification of things and their causal powers. This goal can not be achieved, Roy Bhaskar (1998) asserts, through the faithful recording of the natural and social phenomena we sense, observe, and record. … Continue reading

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Step 4: Generative mechanisms are the powers that effect behaviour. They make a difference; they cause things to happen

In the previous step I made reference to William Outhwaite’s observation that social relations are as real as human actions. In this step I want to go further and bundle up social relations, human actions, and ideas under one term—generative … Continue reading

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Step 3: Realism is a model of stratified reality being composed generatively

This observation about realism builds on my previous step. The emphasis on generative composition I leave to William Outhwaite (1998: pg. 284) who in his discussion of realism and social science observes that ‘the more interesting human actions [which I … Continue reading

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The power of small samples in qualitative research: a seminar for students planning their dissertations in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds

Q- How big, or small should a sample be in qualitative research? A-    It is not the number of cases that matters, it is what we do with them that counts. Sample size is frequently used to determine the quality … Continue reading

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Step 2: Social reality is not simply captured by description or ideas, but is richer and deeper

‘Social reality is not simply captured by description or ideas, but is richer and deeper’ (Malcolm Williams in Letherby et al., 2013: 105). Reality is stratified and our theories about the social objects we investigate refer to actual features and … Continue reading

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A review by Prof Ray Pawson

The starting point of all social research, at least according to the methods ‘cookbooks’, is to consider who and where to study – a decision usually known as sampling or case selection according to the researcher’s preferred paradigm. The job … Continue reading

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Step 1. The terms sampling and sample are common across the methods of social research, choosing cases is better

Sampling and choosing cases in qualitative research: a realist approach starts with a bold assertion. The verb sampling does not adequately capture the work we do choosing cases in qualitative research. The noun sample is inadequate too. Our common understanding … Continue reading

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The role of context in case study selection (Poulis, Poulis, and Plakoyiannaki, 2013)

A lovely paper by Poulis and colleagues (2013) sent to me by one of the authors, Emmanuella Plakoyiannaki. Set in the research world of international business, it is a fine account of the application of casing and reflection on this … Continue reading

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This blog

This blog is about sampling, choosing cases in qualitative research, and realism. It accompanies my book, which zips these ideas together. My book is published by SAGE, ISBN: 9780857025104, and available from all good academic bookshops and Amazon, of course. … Continue reading

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