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Research Group: Southampton Critical Realist Group

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The Critical Realist group at the University of Southampton (UoS), established in 2016, is interested in critical realist philosophy and the use of realist methodologies in applied research. Such approaches are particularly well suited for interdisciplinary research.

Members of this group work in the fields of Applied Linguistics, Health Sciences, Psychology, Philosophy,  Political Economy, and Education. The group organizes regular meetings and hosts talks by external speakers that are attended by academics and PhD students from various departments of the UoS but also other universities in the South West of the UK and members of the general public.

We hosted the 22nd IACR (International Association of Critical Realism) conference at the University of Southampton in 2019

The following presenters have so far given talks at the Southampton Critical Realist group:

Professor Steve Fleetwood

Beyond Structure and Agency

All social sciences, including sociology, economics, and organisation and management studies, have wrestled with a central problem: how to explain the way agents are constrained, and enabled, by something that is `separate´, `independent´ of, `external´ to, or `autonomous´ from, them. This something is often referred to, via placeholders like `society´, `system´, `culture´, `social structure´ or `institution´. Sometimes these placeholders are unpacked and reference is made to particular entities like `norms´, `rules´, `regulations´, `conventions´, `rights´ and `obligations´. The explanation involves phrases, such as `individual and society´, `individualism and collectivism´, `individuals and wholes´, `voluntarism and determinism´, `micro and macro´, `action and structure´, `agency and institution´, and `agency and structure´. The phrase that best expresses all these ideas, and has become a label for an entire approach, is `structure and agency´. The terms `structure´, and `agency´ are, typically, used as placeholders and pretty useful ones at that. But what are they placeholders for? The aim of this presentation is to unpack the terms `structure´ and `agency´,and take a closer look at the `stuff´ that they are placeholders for.

Professor David Pilgrim

Can critical realism rescue psychology from the errors of positivism and postmodernism?

This presentation outlines the conclusions of the final chapter of my recent book Critical Realism for Psychologists (Routledge, 2019). At the turn of this century, the discipline of psychology has been left with a quandary about the conflicting legacy of positivism and postmodernism. It has taken sanctuary in ‘methodologism’ or ‘methodolatry’ but this is a bogus solution. It offers researchers and practitioners the false comfort of tribal belonging but leaves the underlying quandary unexplored and unresolved. Using critical realism, I offer a way forwards by jettisoning the errors of positivism and postmodernism.

Dr. Leigh Price

Overcoming Epistemological Obstacles to Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is urgently needed as the social and environmental problems we face are complex and thus go beyond the reach of individual disciplines. Interdisciplinary work, however, is often beset with practical difficulties and theoretical contradictions and compromises. In this presentation Dr. Price will explain why interdisciplinarity is difficult to achieve using mainstream—empiricist (naturalistic) and postmodern (anti-naturalistic)--epistemologies. Her main argument is that Critical Realism can offer a meta-theoretical grounding and justification for collaboration across disciplines because it allows, inter alia, an increased awareness of the presuppositions that underlie disciplinary practices and hence the potential for tensions. Moreover, it acknowledges the empirical, actual and real layers of reality, and thus allows to develop depth-explanations of phenomena.

Dr Kevin Harris

What is it about local area coordination that makes things change and how it can be improved? A realist evaluation

The increasing adoption of Local Area Coordination (LAC) as a strengths-based approach to reducing inequalities in health and social care across the UK has catalysed calls for further evidence to explicate its claimed outcomes. In a time of austerity where extreme pressure is on resources to prove short-term outputs, Pawson and Tilley’s (1997) realist evaluation methodology holds significant promise in asking critical questions of how and why programmes work. Realist evaluation is therefore distinct from conventional evaluations that only provide insight into measuring outputs and short-term impact of programmes. This paper draws upon the findings of a realist evaluation of LAC on the Isle of Wight (IOW) and establishes how and why the programme works for people and local communities. A blend of realist approaches; Q-method and realist interviews was adopted within this study. The study’s sample were end users of the LAC programme on the IOW. The findings of the evaluation established that the local area coordinators ability to facilitate a ‘golden triangle’ of listening, trust and time were factors which made LAC work. Such findings appear to align to a traditional social worker’s job role. However, it was also clear that LAC worked for different end users in different ways, this was demonstrated through the contextual differences between three subgroups who were categorised based on shared viewpoints of how LAC worked for them.

Dr Wendy Sims-Shouten

Critical Realist Discourse Analysis, Motherhood and Gender: A Systematic Method of Analysis

In this talk, Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten (University of Portsmouth) proposes a method for undertaking applied critical realist discourse analysis (CRDA) with a specific focus on talk around motherhood, female employment and daycare generated from interviews with Dutch and English mothers (N=40).  

This will be done through providing a framework, a method, for making sense of the participants’ narratives and accounts, looking at discursive and non-discursive factors through proposing three distinctive phases (a scaffolding phase, a data collection phase, and a synthesized discourse analysis phase) grounded in Bhaskar’s critical realist approach.  Focusing on abduction, retroduction and Bhaskar’s (2014) ‘laminated systems’ (irreducible mechanisms that influence a phenomenon at different levels/scales) Sims-Schouten aims to provide insight into causal variables and structures that scaffold the participants’ narratives.

Prof. Dave Pilgrim

The failure and survival of psychiatric diagnosis: Some insights from Critical Realism 

Most of us have either had a psychiatric diagnosis or know someone who has received one. As a consequence, this talk should be of interest to most people, whatever their background. Psychiatric knowledge was only included in the International Classification of Diseases in 1949, indicating its weak legitimacy within the global medical community. By the 1960s a range of critiques (mainly from psychiatrists note) began to cast fundamental doubt on its credibility, on both scientific and humanistic grounds. Despite these repeated attack on positivist psychiatric knowledge in the last 50 years, it still survives. Critical realism will be used as a philosophical resource to account for this paradox. From that philosophy, immanent, explanatory and omissive critiques will be drawn upon for the exercise and the epistemic and ontic fallacies in positivist thinking illuminated. If we abandon psychiatric diagnosis then what should take its place that is more scientifically plausible and biographically respectful? Alternative imagined futures (another emphasis in critical realism) will be explored in a post-diagnostic world.

Dr Ivaylo Vassilev

Ivaylo Vassilev is Associate Professor within Health Sciences at the University of Southampton. Ivo’s background is in sociology and his current research is focused on the political economy of chronic illness and using networks methodologies for the study of chronic illness management.

Ivo received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Lancaster, where he looked at trust and the development of market institutions in Bulgaria. After that he worked on three EU funded projects at the University of Northampton, the University of Aberdeen, and University of Manchester where he looked at global value chains in labour intensive industries, the role of informal networks in negotiating childcare and employment arrangements, and social networks and chronic illness management. Ivo joined University of Southampton in 2013. His current research is primarily focused on the political economy of chronic illness, health inequalities, and using networks methodologies for the study of chronic illness management. His broader research interests include the capabilities approach and critical realism as applied to health and healthcare.

Associated research themes

The Global Critical Realist Community

Solent University Realist Research Group (SURRG)

IACR Annual 2020 Conference

Get in touch

If you are interested in joining the group or would like more information please contact Dr Karin Zotzmann or Dr Ivaylo Vassilev

Members of the group will welcome receiving expressions of interest to supervise PhD students with an interest in critical realism and the application of realist methods.

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