Contemporary Issues in Realist Thought – September 6th @BritSoci Meeting Rooms

This seminar intends to take a broad overview of contemporary realist thought within a variety of disciplines and consider current theoretical and methodological issues with respect to realism. We would like to initiate a broad discussion within the following areas:

  • Realist dialogues across perspectives and disciplines. How can realism engage with other schools of thought and traditions of research?

  • Using realism in substantive inquiry. How do key concepts within realism such as emergence, retroduction, generative mechanisms and a stratified ontology enable us to put realism to work within empirical research?

  • What difference does a realist perspective make? What can we learn about the application of realism across different disciplines?

Our speakers and the areas they will be covering are as follows:

Graham Scambler
University College London

‘Taking interdisciplinarity seriously: realism and explanations of health inequalities’

Interdisciplinarity involves more than talking across disciplines and sharing variables. In this session I draw on Bhaskar’s and Archer’s ‘basic critical realism’ to conceptualise and illustrate a possible research programme for understanding and explaining health inequalities. It is a programme that acknowledges the simultaneous activity of generative mechanisms at biological, psychological and social levels.

Sue Clegg
Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Research, Leeds Metropolitan University

‘Realism as a theoretical resource’

In this presentation I will reflect on some of the ways I have drawn on realism in my own research and theoretical writing as a higher education researcher.  Critical realism has been an important resource in addressing a number of debates that are current in the field. I have drawn extensively on Margaret Archer’s work on agency, and the possibilities for corporate agency, in debating with colleagues writing in Gender and Education about the significance of agency for feminism and rejecting the more generally accepted post-structuralist accounts being offered. I have extended this line of thought more recently by elaborating what a critical realist account of intersectionality might look like compared to post-structuralist readings.   Similarly I have used a critical realist account of generative mechanisms  and a stratified ontology to offer a critique of the positivist assumptions that underpin many of the  arguments for evidence based policy and practice. In this writing the meta-theoretical tenants of critical realism are being drawn on as a way of exposing theoretical flaws in dominant theorisations. I have also drawn on critical realism in undertaking empirical work and in interpreting the forms of reflexivity on display. Many of the dominant pedagogical technologies prioritised in higher education and the dominant discourse of employability assume a form of autonomous reflexivity, however, across a number of empirical studies I have shown how many students do not appear to conform to these expectations. By extending Archer’s notion of the internal conversation to interview accounts of students own learning practices and their sense of imagined futures I have argued for the continued salience of forms of reflexivity which more closely approximate to communicative reflectivity and meta-reflexivity.  Drawing on critical realism in these studies represent a substantive effort to theorise the social rather than simply drawing on critical realism as a source of critique.

Mark Cresswell
Durham University

‘PEDAGOGY of the PRIVILEGED: Elite Universities and Dialectical Contradictions in the UK’

This paper considers the role and function of Left academics within ‘elite’ (i.e. Russell Group) universities within the UK. Deploying Marxist theory and critical realism, it analyses the ‘dialectical contradictions’ experienced in such a role and reflects upon productive strategies for resisting the hegemony of neo-liberalism within those milieus.

Dave Elder-Vass
University of Loughborough

Actor-network theory is increasingly influential in the social sciences. One of its apparently iconoclastic features is the surprising juxtaposition of the claim to be a realist perspective with denials that supposedly /natural/phenomena existed before scientists ‘made them up’. This paper explains and criticises such arguments in the work of Bruno Latour, examining their relation to his concept of assemblages. By combining referent and reference, Latour’s assemblages provide a superficially viable way to reconcile these apparently incompatible claims. This paper will argue, however, that ultimately Latour’s ontology is neither viable nor compatible with his wider agenda.

Bob Carter
University of Leicester

‘Realism and the Posthuman’

I will talk about the various new forms of realism that are emerging, particularly in association with those currents of contemporary thought described as  ‘posthuman’. I will present a survey of these and point to some of the preoccupations that they share with critical realism as well as identifying some key differences.

Seminar themes

Within these different areas our speakers will be considering:

  • key current debates/ controversies

  • what holds realism back/ current problems/ sticking points

  • current trends in realist thought.

We would like our discussions to inform a broad scoping exercise of the current issues of realist thought and which may help to inform future events that we will hold, developing an agenda for future sessions.

To book, please visit:

For further information please see the attached flyer, further details on speakers and abstracts to follow shortly.

For more information on the BSA realist study group please visit:

Hope to see you there
Tom Brock, Mark Carrigan and Michelle Farr
Study group website address:


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