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Critical realism and realist research in human geography: a method or a philosophy in search of a method?

Critical realism and realist research


in human geography: a method or a

philosophy in search of a method?


Henry Wai-chung Yeung

Department of Geography, National University of Singapore,

10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260



Progress in Human Geography 21,1 (1997) pp. 51- 74:

Abstract: 

  Recent philosophical debates in human geography tend to misappropriate critical realism as a method per se. Drawing upon an extensive review of the realist philosophy and method in social science, this article argues that critical realism is a philosophy in search of a method. It ®rst delves into recent debates about critical realism within the wider geographical discourse. It then suggests three useful guidelines in executing realist research in human geography: iterative abstraction, quali®ed grounded theory method and methodological triangulation. The article ends with a detailed empirical example for the readers to work through of the ways in which realist research can be practised in human geography.

I Introduction

   In recent years, critical realism has received serious attention in the geographic literature. There are various debates on the practice of human geography (Lawson and Staeheli, 1990; 1991, versus Chappell, 1991), ¯exible specialization (Lovering, 1990; 1991, versus Scott, 1988; 1991a; 1991b) and postmodernism (Lovering, 1989; 1993; Murdoch and Pratt, 1993; Sayer, 1992; 1993). There is also an increasing attention to alternative research methods in human geography (Schoenberger, 1991; McDowell, 1992; Healey and Rawlinson, 1993; Herod, 1993; Miles and Crush, 1993). These interesting and fruitful debates provide the discursive context for this article. It aims to clarify the nature of critical realism and to suggest several methodological avenues for realist research in human geography because the `practicalities of what it means to do realist research are still emerging and ought to be the subject of a wider debate' (Sarre, 1987: 10).

   The basic argument of this article is twofold: 1) critical realism is intrinsically a philosophy; and 2) to a certain extent, both realists and their opponents have not adequately resolved the issue of method in critical realist research. The latter issue becomes particularly important when the `methodological cart' often comes before the `philosophical horse' in geographic research. Previous debates in human geography tend to focus on critical realism as a method, neglecting its essentially philosophical nature. On the other hand, realist philosophers are almost exclusively concerned with further re®nement of their philosophical positions, at the expense of the actual ways in which realist philosophy can be practised (cf. Pratt, 1995). The tension between the misappropriation of critical realism in human geography and the lack of methodological development within the philosophical discourse of realism itself has prompted a critical reappraisal of both the philosophy and the method in this article.

  This article is structured into four parts. The ®rst section summarizes very brie¯y the canons of critical realism as a philosophy of (social) science. This is followed by a timely deconstruction of the debates on critical realism and the practice of human geography in the second section. The issue at hand is whether critical realism is appropriated as a method or a philosophy within the (human) geographical community. The third section presents some methodological guidelines, not rigid prescriptions, for realist research. The points raised in this article also have wider relevance to the social sciences at large. The penultimate section o€ers a detailed empirical example to illustrate how realist research can be practised.

VI Conclusion 

  Critical realism has begun to gain greater recognition within wider scienti®c discourses. But to achieve a truly realist conception of science, much work needs to be done to reconcile theoretical and empirical research. Critical realism is neither a philosophy without practice, nor an ideological practice without philosophical bases. The realization of critical realism in social science is certainly a contingent matter. But there is no real reason why such realization should not be possible. In today's human geography, critical realism has gained a stronger foothold than it had during the early 1980s. More research in human geography adopts an implicit or explicit realist ontology. Realist philosophy provides a valuable guide to research in human geography because `it holds out the hope of healing the division between theorists and empirical workers' (Sarre, 1987: 10).7 Such a di€usion of philosophy is healthy, but should not be overemphasized for critical realism is, in its essence, a philosophy for and of social science (including human geography). If human geography is to establish itself as a practically adequate discipline within the social sciences, it must take into serious consideration the philosophical and practical challenges posed by critical realism.

   Having said that, critical realism is still largely a philosophy in search of a method. Both philosophy and method are critical in realist research in human geography. It is one thing to get your philosophy (or whatever) `right'; it is yet another thing to use a combination of appropriate methods. Critical realism needs such an appropriate combination of methods to conduct concrete research. A philosophy is sound only if it guides the selection of methods in carrying out empirical research. This article has shed light on some methodological guidelines and discussed their surrounding issues. These methodological guidelines, in the names of iterative abstraction, the grounded theory method and triangulation, are not meant to be prescriptive; they are targeted towards a better appreciation of the complexity of ongoing research processes in social science. They are also evaluated, in the spirit of critical realism, by an immanent critique. The moment has come to execute some, if not all, of these guidelines in concrete research. What is missing badly in the existing realist practice in human geography is how such concrete research is actually conducted to examine generative mechanisms and contextual contingency (e.g., Sayer, 1986; Lovering, 1985; 1987; Sarre, 1987; Morgan and Sayer, 1988; Allen and McDowell, 1989; Henderson, 1989; Massey et al., 1992; Sayer and Walker, 1992; Watts and Bohle, 1993; Pratt, 1994; 1995). The future of a critical and emancipatory human geography is still more of a dream than a reality. Reclaiming such a geographical reality is the ultimate goal of this methodological essay.

   This article has taken a very long road to its eventual publication! During this long march, I have received a lot of comments, some highly critical and some very helpful. I would ®rst like to thank Andrew Sayer for his constructive comments on the ®rst draft (much shorter) of this article some time ago. The following realist geographers should also be credited for sharpening my ideas and arguments over time: Andrew Leyshon, John Lovering, Jamie Peck, Andy Pratt and Adam Tickell. Professor Peter Dicken has always been encouraging during the revision process. I would also like to thank several anonymous referees and Professor Ron Johnston for their helpful comments. None of them, however, should be held responsible for any misinterpretation of realism and methods in this article.


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