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A beginner’s guide to critical realism

A guest post by Tom Fryer.

A short guide to ontology and epistemology: why everyone should be a critical realist argues that positivism’s search for universal laws is like looking for a Ferrari at your local supermarket, and constructivism’s denial of reality seems pretty close to convincing yourself that you’re taking the dog-lead for a walk rather than the dog. We know critical realism gives the best alternative—but it can be really hard to explain this to new researchers, who might be quite intimidated by all this talk of ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’.

That’s why I wrote this short, accessible and open-access guide. And it’s completely free!

The guide is targeted at new PhD researchers and Master’s students, who might be starting to plan and design their projects. I aim to:   

  1. Give an accessible account of ontology and epistemology.
  2. Outline the importance of these concepts for research design.
  3. Share a simple framework to navigate this complex field.
  4. Make the case for why everyone should be a critical realist.

As a second year PhD student, I’ve just been through this process of getting to grips with my research and thinking through the importance of my philosophical position. I hope that this experience, alongside some great illustrations (all credit to Joanna Kozak), will help a new generation of researchers to engage with this super important part of their research design.

The guide adopts a very informal and accessible tone, taking readers through some of the most important concepts and ideas. For example, I give a way to remember the difference between ontology and epistemology as:

  • Ontology sounds like ‘on toe logy’, or the study of what you just dropped on your toe. Now, if you just dropped a hammer on your toe, I guarantee you’re going to be thinking about reality. You’re going to be thinking about real hammers and real pain, in the real world. There’s no way you’re going to be in the mind-frame to ask: “How do I produce knowledge about this hammer?” You’ll be pretty focused on its reality. That’s ontology.
  • Epistemology sounds a bit like ‘epic stem ology’, or the study of epic stems. Imagine your mate, who is a plant scientist, comes up to you and says: “Hey buddy, look at the epic stem on this plant, how cool”. I’m guessing your first reaction will be: Is that really an epic stem? How does Dave know that’s an epic stem? Why does Dave have some right weird opinions? You can see these are all questions about knowledge, ie epistemology. See the illustration below!

I hope that gives you a quick flavour of the guide, which was very kindly supported by the Bhaskar Memorial Fund.

I’d really love any help and support sharing this guide with new researchers that you might have access to, or anyone else you think would enjoy it. Also, I’m very open to any critiques/improvements – and if anyone is thinking about how to communicate critical realism, I’d love to hear from you.

Tom Fryer is a PhD researcher in higher education at University of Manchester. His research is focussed on developing an alternative approach to graduate outcomes, moving beyond a narrow focus on employment status and graduate salaries. His Twitter handle is @TomFryer4.