How to Learn Critical Realism

How to Learn Critical Realism


I wanted to share with you all Christian Smiths brilliant post of how to learn Critical Realism. With the post Christian has laid out a very comprehensive, and yet accessible way of not only understanding Critical Realism, but how the resources of Critical Realism can be applied.

How to Learn Critical Realism, Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame (January 2009)

Critical Realism is, in my view, the most promising approach to social science for best framing sociological research and theory. I believe that critical realism is the direction in which American sociology needs to move. Critical realism offers the best alternative to the problems and limits of positivist empiricism, on the one hand, and postmodern linguistic constructionism and even hermeneutical interpretivism, on the other. In an attempt to begin moving sociological research and theory in this direction, I have begun writing about how sociology can benefit from the introduction of critical realism into its research. The first book working on this project is What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (OUP 2011).

Critical realism is a significant movement and perspective in Britain, Scandinavia, and Europe. Yet few American sociologists appear to be aware of the substance and importance of the critical realist approach. Critical realism is a genuinely alternative approach to reality and social science that requires serious, focused study and mental re-tooling in order to learn well enough to not simply fall back into the old assumptions, frameworks, and paradigms. I suggest that scholars interested in learning critical realism read the following (linked) published chapters, books, and articles in the sequence specified, in order to grasp the full significance and capitalize upon the great promise of its approach to social science.

1. A First Overview: Begin by reading the “Introduction” (pp. 1-28) of Andrew Sayer, 2000, Realism and Social Science, New York: Sage Publications.

2. A Systematic Introduction: Next read this very good introductory survey of critical realism for social science: Berth Danermark et al., 2002, Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences, New York: Routledge.

3. Methodological Implications: Then read this book, which spells out some of the broad methodological implications of critical realism: Andrew Sayer, 1992, Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, New York: Routledge.

4. Focus on Causality and Mechanisms: A few shorter readings next help to sharpen thinking about causation and mechanisms in social science, core issues in critical realism:

Douglas Porpora, 2007, “Sociology’s Causal Confusion,” in Ruth Groff (ed.), Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Routledge.

Philip Gorski, 2009, “Social ‘Mechanisms’ and Comparative-Historical Sociology: A Critical Realist Proposal,” The Frontiers of Sociology, Björn Wittrock and Peter Hedström (eds.), Leiden: Brill. (forthcoming)

Andrew Bennett, 2008, “The Mother of All ‘isms’: Organizing Political Science around Causal Mechanisms,” in Ruth Groff (ed.),Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Routledge, pp. 205-219.

Douglas Porpora, 2008, “Recovering Causality: Realist Methods in Sociology,” in A. Maccarini, E. Morandi, R. Prandini (eds.), Realismo Sociologico, Genova-Milano: Marietti.

5. Deepen Theoretical Understanding: Read next a few more challenging theoretical works:

Margaret Archer, 1995, Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Andrew Collier, 1994, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, London: Verso OR Roy Bhaskar, 1997, A Realist Concept of Science, London: Verso.

6. Pursue Specific Interests: Then, dig deeper into specific areas of interest, including possibly the following, for example:

(a) Critical Realist Theory of Social Structure, Culture, and Agency:

Margaret Archer, 1996, Culture and Agency, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Douglas Porpora, 1987, The Concept of Social Structure, New York: Greenwood Press.

Douglas Porpora, 1989, “Four Concepts of Social Structure,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 19(2): 195-211.

Douglas Porpora, 2002, “Social Structure: The Future of a Concept,” in Sing Chew and J. David Knottnerus (eds.), Structure, Culture, and History: Recent Issues in Social Theory, Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 43-59

(b) Critical Realism and Empirical Methodology

Bob Carter and Caroline New, 2004, Making Realism Work: Realist Social Theory and Empirical Research, New York: Routledge.

Ray Pawson, 1989, A Measure for Measures: A Manifesto for Empirical Sociology, London: Routledge.

Sam Porter, 2002, “Critical Realist Ethnography,” in Tim May (ed.), Qualitative Research in Action, London: Sage.

(c) Critical Realism and Postmodernism:

Andrew Sayer, 2000, Realism and Social Science, New York: Sage Publications.

Jose Lopez and Garry Potter, 2005, After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism, Continuum International.

(d) Critical Realism and Historical-Comparative Sociology:

George Steinmetz, 1998, “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 40(1) (Jan): 170-186.

Philip Gorski, 2009, “Social ‘Mechanisms’ and Comparative-Historical Sociology: A Critical Realist Proposal,” The Frontiers of Sociology, Björn Wittrock and Peter Hedström (eds.), Leiden: Brill. (forthcoming)

(e) Critical Realism and Human Personhood

Margaret Archer, 2000, Being Human: The Problem of Agency, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Christian Smith, 2010, What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(f) Critical Realism and Philosophy of Social Science

Peter Manicas, 1989, A History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Peter Manicas, 2006, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William Outhwaite, 1987, New Philosophies of Social Science: Realism, Hermeneutics, and Critical Theory, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

7. Additional Resources: Efforts to continue learning about critical realism can benefit from the following resources:

Mervyn Hartwig, 2007, Dictionary of Critical Realism, New York: Routlege.

Other books in the series Routledge Studies in Critical Realism

JOURNAL: Journal of Critical Realism



Center for Critical Realism

International Association for Critical Realism

Dictionary of Critical Realism

Cambridge Realist Workshop

Lancaster Realist Workshop

London Realist Seminar

Margaret Archer et al. (eds.), 1998, Critical Realism: Essential Readings, New York: Routledge. 

Margaret Archer and Jonathan Tritter (eds.), 2001, Rational Choice Theory: Resisting Colonization. New York: Routledge.

Margaret Archer, Andrew Collier, and Douglas Porpora (eds.), 2004, Transcendence: Critical Realism and God, New York: Routledge.

Roy Bhaskar et al. (eds.), 1998, Critical Realism, New York: Routledge.

Bob Carter, 2001, Realism and Racism, New York: Routledge.

Andrew Collier, 2007, In Defense of Objectivity and Other Essays, New York: Routledge.

Andrew Collier, 1999, Being and Worth, New York: Routledge.

Sean Creaven, 2001, Marxism and Realism, New York: Routledge.

Justin Cruickshank, 2002, Realism and Sociology: Anti-Foundationalism, Ontology, and Social Research, New York: Routledge.

Mats Ekström, 1992, “Causal Explanation of Social Action: The Contribution of Max Weber and of Critical Realism to a Generative View of Causal Explanation in Social Science,”Acta Sociologica, 35: 107-122.

Steve Fleetwood, 2005, Critical Realism in Economics, New York: Routledge.

Ruth Groff (ed.), 2008, Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Routledge.

Ruth Groff, 2004, Critical Realism, Post-positivism, and the Possibility of Knowledge, New York: Routledge.

Branwen Gruffyd-Jones, 2006, Explaining Global Poverty: A Critical Realist Approach, New York: Routledge.

Cynthia Hamlin, 2002, Beyond Relativism: Raymond Boudon, Cognitive Rationality, and Critical Realism, New York: Routledge.

David Harvey, 2002, “Agency and Community: A Critical Realist Perspective,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 32(2): 163-194.

Jonathan Joseph, 2007, Hegemony: A Realist Analysis, New York: Routledge.

Stephen Kemp and John Holmwood, 2003, “Realism, Regularity, and Social Explanation,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 33(2): 165-187.

Douglas Porpora, 1993, “Cultural Rules and Material Relations,” Sociological Theory, 11(2): 212-229.

Robert Wilmott, 2008, Education Policy and Realist Social Theory, New York: Routledge.