Application of critical realism in social work research: Methodological considerations




Critical realism, research methodology, ontological map, retroduction, intensive data


INTRODUCTION: Critical realism (CR) provides a unique and robust philosophical framework for social work researchers by attending to the role of individual agency and social structure; however, little practical guidance is available regarding how the ontology and epistemology of CR can be applied as a methodological framework for qualitative research.

APPROACH: In this article, we explain what CR is in relation to other ontological and epistemological positions and provide some practical suggestions for CR-informed research by drawing on relevant examples from a study that examined the causes of trust among Korean migrants in Aotearoa New Zealand.

CONCLUSIONS: We suggest that the three-layered ontological map of CR justifies the use of series of data-coding processes to identify preliminary tendencies at the surface layer of empirical reality, abductive reasoning to formulate ideas about how observed tendencies are connected at the middle layer of actual reality and retroductive inference to identify causal mechanisms or structures and key conditions embedded in the deeper layer of real reality to produce certain experiences under study.

Author Biographies

Lynne Soon-Chean Park, University of Auckland

Lynne S. Park is a Research Fellow in Korean Studies, School of Culture, Languages and Linguistics at the Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland. She received her PhD in Social Work at the University of Auckland in 2020. Her interdisciplinary research combines social work, migration and Korean Studies with a particular focus on ethnic minority groups in the context of New Zealand. Current areas of research include qualitative research methodology, the social dimension of identity and the impact of COVID-19 on Asian communities.

Shajimon Peter, Edith Cowan University, Australia

Shajimon Peter is a senior lecturer and social work course coordinator in the School of Arts and Humanities, Edith Cowan University, Australia. Shajimon has published on a range of topics, including migration, transnational social work and social research methodology. Current research interests include emancipatory research, lived experience of transnational social work practice and Critical Realism–informed social research. 


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

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

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

Bhaskar, R., & Danermark, B. (2006). Metatheory, interdisciplinarity and disability research: A critical realist perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8(4), 278–297.

Bunt, S. (2016). Critical realism and grounded theory: Analysing the adoption outcomes for disabled children using the retroduction framework. Qualitative Social Work, 17(2), 176–194. org/10.1177/1473325016664572

Choi, S.-C., & Han, G. (2008). Immanent trust in a close relationship. In I. Markova & A. Gillespie (Eds.), Trust and distrust: Sociocultural perspectives (pp. 79–104). IAP.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2013). Research methods in education (7th ed.). Routledge.

Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism: An introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy. Verso.

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.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Sage.

Danermark, B. (2002). Interdisciplinary research and critical realism: The example of disability research. Alethia, 5(1), 56–64.

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., Jakobsen, L., & Karlsson, J. C. (2002). Explaining society: Critical realism in the social sciences. Routledge.

Denscombe, M. (2002). Ground rules for good research: A 10 point guide for social researchers. Open University.

Fleetwood, S. (2015). Bhaskar and critical realism. In P. Adler, P. du Gay, G. Morgan, M. Reed, & S. Fleetwood (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of sociology, social theory, and organization studies (pp. 182–219). Oxford University Press.

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

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity (Vol. 457). Free Press.

Grix, J. (2004). The foundations of research: A student’s guide. Palgrave Macmillan.

Guba, E., & Lincoln, Y. (2013). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (p. 13). Sage. http:// reading/10-guba_lincoln_94.pdf

Helliwell, J. F., & Wang, S. (2011). Trust and wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1). le/84593e8f316d4a97b0c249b7b5e9a944

House, E. R. (1991). Realism in research. Educational Researcher, 20(6), 2–25. https://doi. org/10.3102/0013189X020006002

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

Houston, S. (2010). Prising open the black box critical realism, action research and social work. Qualitative Social Work, 9(1), 73–91.

Houston, S. (2022). Dialectical critical realism, transformative change and social work. Critical and Radical Social Work, 1–15. 1X16455451510551

International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). (2022). Global definition of social work. is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/

Iosifides, T. (2012). Migration research between positivistic scientism and relativism: A critical realist way out. In C. Vargas-Silva (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in Migration (pp. 26–49). Edward Elgar.

Kawachi, I., Subramanian, S. V, & Kim, D. (2008). Social capital and health. Springer.

Kerr, P. (2003). Keeping it real! Evolution in political science: A reply to Kay and Curry. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 5(1), 118–128. https://doi. org/10.1111/1467-856x.00099

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). Routledge.

Marsh, D., & Furlong, P. (2002). A skin not a sweater: Ontology and epistemology in political science. In D. Marsh, S. Ercan, & P. Furlong (Eds.), Theory and methods in political science (pp. 17–41).

Maxwell, J. A. (2012). A realist approach for qualitative research. Sage.

Neuman, W. L. (2011). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (7th ed). Allyn & Bacon.

Park, L. S. (2020). “Here in New Zealand, I feel more comfortable trusting people”: A critical realist exploration of the causes of trust among Koreans living in Auckland, New Zealand [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Auckland.

Peter, S., & Park, L. S. (2018). Changing research methodology: Two case studies of critical realism informing social work doctoral research. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(1), 65–70.

Rothstein, B., & Eek, D. (2003). Social capital, impartiality and the welfare state: An institutional approach. In M. Hooghe & D. Stolle (Eds.), Generating social capital: Civil society and institutions in comparative perspective (pp. 191–210). Palgrave.

Sayer, R. A. (1992). Method in social science: A realist approach (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Scott, D. (2005). Critical realism and empirical research methods in education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 39(4), 633–646.

Uslaner, E. M. (2002). The moral foundations of trust. Cambridge University.




How to Cite

Park, L. S.-C., & Peter, S. (2022). Application of critical realism in social work research: Methodological considerations. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 34(2), 55–66.



Original Articles