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Critical realism: what you should know and how to apply it.

Lawani, Ama


Ama Lawani


The purpose of this paper is to discuss the critical realism (CR) philosophical viewpoint and how it can be applied in qualitative research. CR is a relatively new and viable philosophical paradigm proposed as an alternative to the more predominant paradigms of positivism, interpretivism and pragmatism. This paper reviews the concept, its benefits and limitation. It goes further to provide an example of how CR is used as a philosophical and methodological framework with the systems thinking theory to applied qualitative research. A study of project management challenges in a Nigerian government organisation is used to demonstrate a qualitative research approach, which includes a coding process and data analysis that is consistent with CR ontology and epistemology. CR focuses primarily on closed systems. However, a more accurate explanation of reality is obtained in addition to the identification of contextual causal mechanisms in the context of study when a general systems theory is applied. The knowledge about the nature of relationships obtained in the context of study may not necessarily be replicated in another context. However, this paper elucidates a CR process that is generalisable by demonstrating how a theory is applied in a different context. The paper demonstrates how systems theory is used to understand interactions in a CR paradigm. It engages with CR approach critically and illustrates a clear example of how CR can be applied in social research.


LAWANI, A. 2021. Critical realism: what you should know and how to apply it. Qualitative research journal [online], 21(3), pages 320-333. Available from:

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 25, 2020
Online Publication Date Dec 15, 2020
Publication Date Sep 30, 2021
Deposit Date Nov 13, 2020
Publicly Available Date Dec 15, 2020
Journal Qualitative research journal
Print ISSN 1443-9883
Electronic ISSN 1448-0980
Publisher RMIT Publishing
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 21
Issue 3
Pages 320-333
Keywords Critical realism; Systems thinking; Data analysis; Case study
Public URL


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