Finding ‘a tribe’ – developing a critical realist ‘underlabouring muscle’

A guest post by Catherine Hastings, Angela Davenport and Karen Sheppard

Critical realism can feel overwhelming at the start. There is much richness in Roy Bhaskar’s work and the writing of other researchers and philosophers who have worked with his ideas to support social inquiry. From our personal experience—and we have heard this from plenty of other ‘early career critical realists’ engaging in empirical research—the learning curve of critical realism is steep, but the benefits plentiful.

Therefore, the purpose of this post is to motivate scholars who have recently become interested in critical realism and are seeking to ground their research in its philosophical theories. By describing our experience and theorising the mechanisms by which our confidence, knowledge and use of critical realism grew, we hope to inspire your continuing exploration of critical realism and its possible impact on your intellectual work. We highlight the importance of two factors that facilitated our development as critical realist scholars that you too may find helpful. The first is the importance of finding ‘a tribe’. In this case, a group of like-minded individuals with shared interests and goals prepared to support each other. We suggest locating other critical realists to interact with and be supported by is easier than going it alone. Second, invest in developing an ‘underlabouring muscle’, that is, your capacity to do research in which the thinking at every stage is informed by critical realist meta-theory. We found that participation in a writing group enabled both.

We are three recent doctoral graduates who came to critical realism during our theses’ development. Although drawn to the philosophy for different reasons, when we met at the International Association of Critical Realism Conference in Lillehammer in 2018, we were wrestling with developing our understanding of critical realist ideas and struggling with applying them in our study.

In different ways, we felt insecure about our knowledge and concerned by our limited ability to articulate what it meant to be a critical realist. Located in Australia and New Zealand, and with only one of us having any critical realist experience within our thesis advisory panels, we felt isolated geographically and intellectually. Having met at the conference and profiting from the supportive community, learning and motivation of the pre-conference workshop, seminars and informal interactions, we talked together about maintaining the momentum post-conference. We formed a virtual ‘Zoom’ writing group.

Two years later, in August 2020, we had all submitted, and were at various stages in the examination and conferral process. We judged that the writing group’s activities provided practical opportunities to improve our writing quality and thesis cohesion. It generated valued emotional support during the doctoral journey. However, most importantly, supporting each other through the structures offered by a regular writing group developed our knowledge and confidence as critical realists. To understand our good fortune, we decided to undertake a research project to clarify the group’s outcomes and understand the structures, mechanisms, and conditions from which these outcomes emerged. Our research project and findings are described more fully in a paper.

In short, we identified two main sets of outcomes. The first was generated from the structures and functions of a research writing or peer support group and reflect current thinking about using social learning in doctoral writing. These could reflect the outcomes of any successful writing group. Collective learning and engaging with a community of practice reduces the experience of stress and social isolation for doctoral students, provides structures of accountability, increases competence and confidence in writing skills, increases motivation to write and promotes wellbeing. We found our activities improved our writing and confidence, as well as provided emotional support.

The second set of outcomes relates directly to developing our individual and collective critical realism ‘underlabouring muscle’. Being part of a critical realist community of practice provided peer learning, support and motivation. Our writing and discussion sessions forced us to articulate what we had previously and only tentatively put to paper. This verbalising provided a safe and secure space to ‘practice’ critical realism and supported the iterative layering of abstract concepts into our work. Coming together in a multi-disciplinary writing group allowed us to pool our resources and share the materials we had found in our discipline or through personal experiences and interactions with other critical realists. This example of ‘gift exchange’ increased the breadth of material available to each of us—filling some (evident in retrospect) gaps in our knowledge—as well as contributed to our sense of belonging and confidence.

If we call the conference in Lillehammer the original boot camp, the writing group allowed us to strengthen, tone, and flex the ‘underlabouring muscle’ we began to develop there. Each of us reported feeling that our thinking about critical realism had grown more nuanced and developed greater breadth through participation in the group. In working through complex material and difficult ideas together, we supported each other as emerging critical realist scholars. We became more confident to talk about critical realism. We started to see evidence of how the structure and arguments of our writing were developing along critical realist lines. We became more confident in our outputs—our ability to write and speak as critical realists.

Our experience is that social learning is an effective way to ‘learn’ critical realism. We encourage other students and early career researchers interested in the philosophy to find ‘a tribe’ of similarly motivated, supportive and at the same time critical colleagues. People with a shared goal of developing their critical realist knowledge and analytical capacities. If you are able, go to the IACR conference and pre-conference workshop (follow this blog to see an announcement of 2022 edition), attend a Critical Realism Network workshop, or join a regional network and get involved. We encourage you to meet and form connections with other critical realists to inspire you and walk with you.

Angela Davenport works as a Rehabilitation Nurse Advisor at ABI Rehabilitation in Auckland. She is embarking on research concerning health coaching and the contribution of rehabilitation nurses.

Karen Sheppard is a senior learning designer at the University of Queensland. Her current research interests include student and staff experiences of learning (and teaching) in COVID-19 times and the affordances of learning analytics and data agency.

Catherine Hastings is a sociologist at Macquarie University, Sydney Australia. Her research is in social inequalities, homelessness and legal need. She also works as an applied social research and evaluation consultant.