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My journey to critical realism (CR)

Guest post by Dr Li Li, Senior Lecturer, Bath Spa University

‘Making our Way through the World’ (borrowing Professor Margaret Archer’s (2007) words) conveys the trials and tribulations of our lives. My journey to the critical realist world has been one that is with endless struggles, doubts, frustrations, and indeed enjoyments, too. It began with my project on moral reasoning in 2014/2015.

Two reasons initiated this project: (1) as a lecturer in tourism management, I questioned if it was possible to fully realise ethical tourism given the consistent research finding about the attitude-behaviour gap among tourists and travellers, which is coupled with conflicting interests among tourism stakeholders that are widely recognized in the sustainable tourism development discourse; (2) I was teaching Professional Ethics, using primarily Fennell’s (2006a, 2006b) work, which is possibly the most large-scale introductory text on Eurocentric philosophical and ethical positions and their application to tourism, to a group of undergraduate Chinese tourism management students who have been brought up in contemporary Chinese society, in which Confucian heritage is embedded. My doubt was ‘would the Western thinking affect their moral reasoning in any way?’

The connection between these two reasons was not obvious to me at the initial stage of the project, but later as my ideas and understanding developed it gradually became clear that for ethical tourism to be possible, we would have to know what could have made social practices that pertain to ethical tourism possible i.e. the causations; and moral reasoning of individuals that had relevance to tourism matters was indeed one type of such causation. So, my overarching question was ‘why do people do what they do in the discourse of ethical tourism?’ whilst the project utilised data from tourism management students to explore it.

Having reviewed literature on sustainable tourism and ethical tourism (and its sub-theme hopeful tourism), I felt that I was unable to find many answers to my question. More problematically, I was unable to see a theoretical basis for my project based on the reviewed work. So, I was stuck, not knowing how to move forward.

At that time, I was also working on a project on management practice. Management studies have been influenced by Giddens’ structuration theory which led me to Archer’s work and the school of critical realist thinking. The exposure to this critical realist school has triggered my interest, followed by a deep learning curve which does not have a brake paddle. As I read Archer’s (1995) account about social theorizing, Bhaskar’s stratified ontology, and the realist conception of mechanism, I started to understand why I could not find a theoretical base for my project from the existing ethical tourism literature. Such a realization had to be attended to so that the theoretical ground for the moral reasoning project could be built. Being ‘diverted’ by this, I re-visited ethical tourism literature with a pair of ‘realist eyes’, which has led to a publication in Current Issues in Tourism (Li, 2022). This ‘diversion’ has turned out to be very helpful because the paper provides a foundational account, contributing to the formulation of the conceptual framework for the moral reasoning project.

Returning to my moral reasoning project, I came across Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1991, 2001) and some critiques of Kohlberg’s moral development theory (1969, 1981). I observed, very interestingly, that Bandura’s work was not discussed in Fennell’s (2006a) book, despite that Bandura has done extensive research on moral (dis)engagement. However, in the book, Kohlberg’s work was introduced while some examples of using Kohlberg’s theory in tourism research (Malloy & Fennell, 1998a, 1998b) were provided. I found myself agreeing with Bandura’s work more than I did with Kohlberg’s theory. Later on, based on the participants’ experiences, there does not seem to be a sequence of moral development and there is not a uniformity of judgement as assumed by Kohlberg, but there is clearly a relativity of moral principles as Bandura and others have argued for. Thus, to me, social cognitive theory is more plausible than Kohlberg’s moral development theory.

The task to join Archer’s (1995, 2012) and Bandura’s theories together was challenging. However, the bridge was found wherein Archer embraces structure, agent, and their interplay while Bandura speaks of social sanction and self-sanction which in essence embrace the social surroundings (structure), individual’s moral reasoning (agency), and ‘sanction’ (the structure-agent interaction). There was one inconsistency that I had to deal with, the notion of self-monitoring of conduct, which is in essence reflexive reasoning and which, Bandura argues, provides little basis for self-regulated reactions whereas reflexivity is imperative for Archer, which my primary data supports.

Making my way through the world of critical realist thinking has not been easy and I am still on this journey, but this journey has been fun not only because it feels like I constantly stretch my brain to three dimensions (X – the supply or input, Y – the demand or output, and Z – the real mechanism), but also because I am learning from other realist researchers from different disciplines, all over the world at the IACR annual conferences. Here, I’d like to express my gratitude for the support and guidance that I have received from the CR community, especially Professor Douglas Porpora, Professor Price Leigh, Professor Johnny Go, and Dr Catherine Hastings.

I suppose for many realist researchers, the most challenging task is to present an evidence-informed account that describes the Z dimension. It is particularly so when we speak to other colleagues who are less familiar with CR thinking. Am I regretting having embarked on this journey? The answer is ‘no’.

I was described as ‘good at statistics’ by my Master dissertation supervisor when we developed a model to predict online purchase of holidays (Li & Buhalis, 2006). I then moved onto qualitative research, looking at management learning in my PhD programme. My PhD examiner, Professor Mark Saunders, the author of best-selling title Research Methods for Business Students, asked me, basically, what my ontological and epistemological stances were. I explained, unsurely, ‘it depends on the nature of knowledge. If it is objective stuff, I will take the positivist position. If it is about people’s experiences, I will take the social constructivist position.’ He smiled gently and said kindly: ‘then you are probably a pragmatist.’ He was probably right. Or maybe I was already a realist but I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify myself as a realist. Having moved up and down the continuum of research philosophy positions, my personal lesson is that CR offers a robust and practical approach to scientific inquiry. It has given me the tools not only to unpack moral agency (Li, 2023) and civilized tourism (Li et al., 2023), but also to review research critically (Li, 2022).


Archer, M. S. (1995). Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making Our Way Through the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2012). The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bandura, A. (1991). “Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action.” In Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development: Volume 1. Theory, edited by William M. Kurtines & Jacob L. Gewirtz, 45-104. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (1): 1-26.

Fennell, D. A. (2006a). Tourism Ethics. Clevedon: Channel View Publications.

Fennell, D. A. (2006b). Evolution in tourism: The theory of reciprocal altruism and tourist-host interactions. Current Issues in Tourism, 9 (2): 105-124. DOI: 10.1080/13683500608668241

Kohlberg, L. (1969). “Stage and sequence: The Cognitive-developmental approach to Socialization.” In Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, edited by David Goslin, 347-480. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Li, L (2022). Critical realist approach: A solution to tourism’s most pressing matter. Current Issues in Tourism, 25 (10): 1541-1556. DOI: 10.1080/13683500.2021.1944994

Li, L. (2023). An interdisciplinary realist take on moral agency. Journal of Critical Realism, DOI: 10.1080/14767430.2023.2182488

Li, L. & Buhalis, D. (2008) Influential factors of internet users booking online in China’s domestic tourism = 使用互联网在线预订的影响因素—以中国国内旅游为例. Journal of China Tourism Research, 4 (2): 172-188. DOI: 10.1080/19388160802313761.

Li, L., Hazra, S., & Wang, J. (2023). A realist analysis of civilised tourism in China: A social structural and agential perspective. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 7 (1). e100411.

Malloy, D. C., & Fennell, D. A. (1998a). Ecotourism and ethics: Moral development and organizational cultures. Journal of Travel Research, 36: 47-56. DOI:10.1177/004728759803600406.

Malloy, D. C., & Fennell, D. A. (1998b). Codes of ethics and tourism: An exploratory content analysis. Tourism Management, 19 (5): 453-461. DOI:10.1016/S0261-5177(98)00042-9.