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Why critical realism fails to justify critical social research

By Martyn Hammersley


Many social scientists have argued that research should be designed to perform a ‘critical’ function, in the sense of challenging the socio-political status quo. However, very often, the relationship between the political value judgements underpinning this commitment and the values intrinsic to inquiry, as a distinct form of activity has been left obscure. Furthermore, the validity of those judgements has usually been treated either as obvious or as a matter of personal commitment. But there is an influential tradition of work that claims to derive evaluative and prescriptive conclusions about current society directly from factual investigation of its history and character. In the nineteenth century, Hegel and Marx were distinctive in treating the force of ethical and political ideals as stemming from the process of social development itself, rather than as coming from a separate realm, in the manner of Kant. Of course, the weaknesses of teleological meta-narratives of this kind soon came to be widely recognised, and ‘critical’ researchers rarely appeal to them explicitly today. It is therefore of some significance that, under the banner of critical realism, Bhaskar and others have put forward arguments that are designed to serve a similar function, while avoiding the problems associated with teleological justification. The claim is that it is possible to derive negative evaluations of actions and institutions, along with prescriptions for change, solely from the premise that these promote false ideas, or that they frustrate the meeting of needs. In this article I assess these arguments, but conclude that they fail to provide effective support for a 'critical' sociology

Year: 2009
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Provided by: Open Research Online

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