Insights from critical realism

Critical Realism for Psychologists (Routledge; £34.99) by David Pilgrim, reviewed by Jason Nickels.

As psychologists there are many questions that beset our profession, and just a few that catch my attention as an individual. Whilst watching the poignant film ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ I pondered the dreadful horrors of genocide, prejudice and racism. It struck me again how as human beings we are both capable of those horrendous attitudes and behaviours, and of inspiring care and compassion. My next question arose: How as applied psychologists do we go about helping to prevent another Holocaust? With the Far Right on the rise again in Europe, this is a serious question with global implications. Thankfully, whilst ruminating this type of question I received a delightful gift... This fabulous book by David Pilgrim.

Critical realism can be rightly considered a philosophical meta-theory or an applied research toolkit. Through transcendental realism it points to the reality of ontological depth. Put differently, there is a real world that existed prior to my birth, that will continue (I hope!) to exist when I die, and is therefore external to me, and it interacts with me. The world also existed prior to my language, ideas and concepts about it. Furthermore, the real world entails causality between different elements or parts. Consider this example. There is a strong storm one evening and the next morning you see a freshly fallen oak tree. Do you wonder if the tree caused the storm the previous night? As psychologists I take it that if we met someone with such beliefs we might be concerned for them. This is because we understand from our concrete experience that the storm probably caused the tree to fall.

This is important because it also points to a second insight from critical realism. The second premise points to the ways by which our external (and indeed inner) world is mediated by language, ideas and concepts. Critical realism, unlike strong social constructivism, argues that we do not create the world from our language: we describe it. That is not to deny that those social and cognitive processes of shared cultural language are not also real. They are. This is because critical realism also recognises that reasons are causally efficacious. As are beliefs about that world (including beliefs about myself). Even false ones! In these ways, critical realism offers a suitable mid-point between ontology and epistemology. Consider this famous example offered by Isaiah Berlin about what happened in Germany under Nazi rule. Here are four statements: 

  1. The country was depopulated
  2. Millions of people died
  3. Millions of people were killed
  4. Millions of people were massacred 

All four statements are indeed true. Howevernot only is statement 4 the most evaluative, it is also the best (i.e. most precise and accurate) description of what really happened. In this sense critical realism seeks to provide valid insights to our being in the world; and these are linked to accurate explanations (including causality) about the world and our concrete experiences. The originator Roy Bhaskar saw critical realism as an essential and serious approach to applied research as a kind of under-labourer to ‘clear away the rubbish’ from both positivism and social constructivism. These are strong claims, I acknowledge! And I have found them worthy of exploration and serious consideration. 

Thankfully, David covers the introductory ground for critical realism in an engaging and thrilling way. He introduces critical realism in an explanatory manner that ‘lands well’ for psychologists. His practical examples, case studies, as well as the contextualised history are suitably tailored for psychologists. David’s book is a first-class example of the added value of critical realism for psychologists who are seeking to inquire into seriously important subjects. His chapter headings include for example: ‘Is child sexual abuse a moral panic?’ ‘How do we know if a person has been tortured?’ ‘Why do we protest (sometimes)?’ And, finally, ‘Is there the possibility of a critical realist human science?’ 

Returning back then, to my opening question concerning the horrors of The Holocaust, critical realism has helped me to more deeply understand that despite what personal stories we might create, and indeed what national grand-narratives resonate for us; there are some ‘real’ statements about it that are indeed factually better (and therefore worse) explanations than others. To conclude then, for me David’s book was a fabulous and welcome gift and I do hope that you will find something important for your psychological practice too!

Reviewed by Jason Nickels BSc(Hons), MSc (Cardiff), MBPsS, MCIPD.

See David Pilgrim's article 'Looking Back: In defence of inclusive realism in psychology'.

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