By jove, I think she’s got it

Sayer, A (2000) Realism and Social Science, London: SAGE, 67 – 80

I could have moved on from critical realism now… there is other reading material I need to get through by the end of the month (on post-positivism, humanism and academic discourse), but I felt like I was on the cusp of pulling a lot of stuff together in my mind, and I was determined to reach a better place of understanding with last month’s reading before moving on. David’s comments on my last two blog posts also served to reassure and motivate me, and now I’ve finally got through the ‘pomo flips’ chapter (yes, it looks like ‘porno’ in any font, there’s no escaping it) I’m really glad I persevered.

The satisfaction I’m feeling at the moment is in part down to feeling that I really do, now, understand the last three readings, but mostly down to feeling that I have found myself in them. I am a realist. I got a eureka moment when I read about ‘fallibilism’, and this makes total sense when I think of the affinity and interest that I’ve always had for the natural sciences. Was it my studies and early career as a Biology teacher that instilled this philosophical viewpoint in me? Or did my philosophical viewpoint influence my study and career choices? I suspect possibly the latter, and then my choices reinforced it.

A key strength for me of this chapter was that it took time to explain the paradoxes that were alluded to in the other two. There was a clear point to them here (other than to bamboozle and/or entertain, depending on your existing level of familiarity with them) – in fact, the paradoxes were the point.

Here’s my attempt to summarise some of the arguments in support of a Critical Realist philosophy (I’m intending these as being revisable!):

  1. If we reject the existence of ‘truth’, then we can’t get any closer to it. Rejection of truth is a paradox, because to state that truth does not exist is an attempt at stating an absolute truth. To quote Sayer – rejection of foundationalism is simply a different kind of foundationalism. This is what Pring was getting at on page 72 (the bit that really annoyed me – I get it now, he didn’t need to make it so difficult). Realism argues that, despite the social, linguistic nature of knowledge, it is still ‘capable of grasping something about the nature of the world’.
  2. Critical realists are fallibilists – they believe that humans can be wrong about their understandings of the world and yet be justified in having these misunderstandings or false beliefs, provided they are open to amending their understanding in light of new evidence. Our continued progress depends on identifying and revising causation; not in an absolute, final way, but well enough to meet our needs.
  3. Realists believe that there *is* a structure to reality – this is a belief based on logic rather than observation. Postmodernists tend to interpret the absence of observed regularity as an absence of structure.
  4. Relativists (despite being relativists) will argue that one theory cannot be truer than another because there isn’t a common agreed standard for judgement. This is nonsensical. Why should the lack of an agreed standard stop us from arguing about what is true or right? If there *was* a common, agreed standard for judgement, there wouldn’t be any need to argue about it.
  5. Idealists/relativists will argue that it is okay to believe whatever you like. While this perspective sounds inclusive and ‘fluffy’, it allows those in power (e.g. Michael Gove) to enforce their way on others even if it’s a bit, um, rubbish. Realists believe that attempting to get a ‘grand view’ is important and that tensions within that ‘grand view’ need to be acknowledged and negotiated. Different viewpoints can be entertained at the same time; in life we all have multiple identities anyway.

Another good thing about this article was that it brought in a number of other really interesting key ideas as asides (one reason why I ended up spending so long over it). I went off on a bit of a tangent exploring ‘gendered dualisms’. I know I have some masculine traits (I once did an online psychometric test that assumed I was a man), and I often find it easier to talk to and connect with men than women (not as a rule, it’s just a general trend I’ve observed), so this idea of ‘masculine instrumentalism’ versus ‘feminine expressiveness’ really interested me; not just on a personal level, it also showed me a more objective, less emotive (more ‘masculine’!) argument for feminist critical theory; one that explores the potential impact of androcentric language and thought, and different ways of thinking that aren’t necessarily dependent on one’s chromosomes.

The idea that foetuses have really good dreams, and deaf-mute people can still know a lot, blew my mind, just like it did in 1986 when my Year 7 teacher told us about Helen Keller. I distinctly remember wondering how on earth anyone could think without words… a question that my teacher couldn’t answer, and subsequently troubled me for years afterwards (it still does). Wasn’t it Vygotsky who did the experiments with the children and the candy on the high shelf (and the chair and the stick)? He found that the children who were made to stay silent – rather than being able to talk through the problem – found it harder to work out how to get the candy. Although Vygostsky emphasised the strong contingency between thought and language, he was very clear that words are merely symbols for things. Things still exist without words, and therefore epistemology shouldn’t just be restricted to the relationship between words and and things.

I work at a specialist Art & Design institution, where there is a lot of postmodernism bouncing around. I did wonder whether it was a shame that my first in-depth encounter with it has been a stinging critique of the risks inherent in the postmodernist approach, rather than something more positive, but, me being me, I think all that deconstruction – without reconstruction – would have got me down. I mentioned defeatism in the first paragraph of my response to Chapter 1 and it was reassuring to see my instincts explicitly echoed in this chapter. Both Paul and I have been vocal from the start of the course about our belief that educational research should have a practical purpose; that it should aim to get closer to the truth and to inform the choices we make, and I can see the resonance between this belief and the critical realist perspective.

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2 Responses to By jove, I think she’s got it

  1. David Aldridge says:

    Hi Lindsay,
    I’m really pleased that you stuck this out and are happy with where you ended up. I think this is a really useful summary and I hope the rest of the group read and react to it. What are the readings on ‘humanism’? I would certainly press on with those…

    • We’ve been given two readings on ‘beyond (post?) positivism’ to read in advance of Nicoleta Gaciu’s session with us on the 30th, including Buchanan, D. R. (1998) Beyond positivism: humanistic perspectives on theory and research in health education. Health Education Research. 13 (3), 439-450. I have Friday and Saturday evening set aside for working on the WrAP unit and then I’ll attack the rest of the RRW stuff next week 😉

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