Changing research methodology: Two case studies of Critical Realism informing social work doctoral research

Shajimon Peter, Lynne Soon-Chean Park


INTRODUCTION: Critical Realism (CR) has much to offer to social work research because of its recognition of the existence of objective and subjective realities. Bhaskar (1978) classifies these levels of reality as the empirical, the actual and the real. Empirical realities emerge from our experience of the world and include our subjective constructions. The underlying real reality is seen as a productive force, causing the empirical to appear. Researchers using CR methodology can employ an analytic process called retroduction. This approach involves moving back and forth from the empirical to the real to identify causal mechanisms that drive the empirical to manifest.

APPROACH: This research brief is the outcome of a research methodology literature review undertaken by two doctoral students who employ CR perspectives. Their research proposals have been used as case studies to demonstrate the usefulness of CR in informing social work research. These findings were presented at the ANZSWWER international symposium held at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

FINDINGS: CR uncovers the epistemic fallacy of reducing ontology to the realm of epistemology. The totalising truth claims of both objectivism and subjectivism are replaced with an alternative conception of stratified forms of reality – the real, actual and empirical. Reality exists both objectively and subjectively. This enables researchers to bridge social constructionism and structural causation. It allows for study that explores the subjective considerations of respondents while examining the objective existence of causal mechanisms such as social structures, systems or processes. 

CONCLUSION: CR offers an alternative that social work researchers have long been searching for: to engage meaningfully in studies that examine perceived realities at the empirical level and the causal mechanisms that lie behind them.


Critical Realism; Research Methodology; Social Work Research

Full Text:



Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Hassocks, UK: Harvester Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1979). The possibility of naturalism: A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming reality: A critical introduction to contemporary philosophy. London, UK: Verso.

Bhaskar, R. (1998). Philosophy and scientific realism. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.), Critical realism: Essential readings (pp. 16–47) Routledge.

Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Craig, D., & Bigby, C. (2015). Critical realism in social work research: Examining participation of people with intellectual disability. Australian Social Work, 68(3), 309–323. doi:10.1080/0312407X.2015.102426

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., Jakobsen, L., & Karlsson, J. C. (2002). Explaining society: An introduction to critical realism in the social sciences. New York, NY: Routledge.

Dietz, G., Gillespie, N., & Chao, G. T. (2010). Unravelling the complexities of trust and culture. In M. N. K. Saunders, D. Skinner, G. Diets, N. Gillespie, & R. J. lewicki (Eds.), Organizational trust: A cultural perspective (pp. 3–41). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

Doney, P.M., Cannon, J.P., & Mullen, M.R. (1998). Understanding the influence of national culture on the development of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 601-620.

Fletcher, A. J. (2017). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: Methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 20(2), 181–194.

Helliwell, J. F., & Wang, S. (2010). Trust and well-being. (NBER working paper No. 15911). Cambridge, UK: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Houston, S. (2001). Beyond social constructionism: Critical realism and social work. British Journal of Social Work, 31(6), 845–861. doi:10.1093/bjsw/31.6.845

Houston, S. (2005). Philosophy, theory and method in social work: Challenging empiricism’s claim on evidence-based practice.Journal of Social Work, 5(1), 7–20.

Houston, S. (2010). Prising open the black box: Critical realism, action research and social work. Qualitative Social Work, 9(1), 73–91. doi:10.1177/1473325009355622

Hsieh, H., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative Health Research., 15(9), 1277–1288. doi:10.1177/1049732305276687

Johnson, P., & Duberley, J. (2000). Pragmatism and critical realism – Transcending Descarte’s either/or? In P. Johnson & J. Duberley (Eds.), Understanding management research: An introduction to epistemology.London, UK: Sage Publications Retrieved from

Laczko, F., & Appave, G. (2013). World migration report 2013: Migrant well-being and development. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Migration.

Lawson, T. (1998). Economic science without experimentation. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.), Critical realism: Essential readings (pp. 144–186). London, UK: Routledge.

Longhofer, J., & Floersch, J. (2012). The coming crisis in social work: Some thoughts on social work and science. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5), 499–519.

Maxwell, J. A. (2012). A realist approach for qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks,CA: Sage Publications.

Peter, S. (2017). Transmigration. [Review of the book Transmigration: Social work in a world of superdiversity by M. Schrooten, S. Withaeckx,D. Geldof, & M. Lavent, ]. International Journal of Social Welfare, 26, 417–418.

Peter, S., Bartley, A., & Beddoe, E. (2017). Transnational social workers’ transition into receiving countries: What lessons can be learnt from nursing and teaching. European Journal of Social Work doi:10.1080/13691457.2017.1366430.

Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wagner, B. F. (2014, May). Trust: The secret to happiness? Exploring social capital and subjective well-being among immigrants. Paper presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Boston, MA. Retrieved from



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.