Explaining education events and experiences: making the case for a fat versus flat (or critical realist) ontology
This keynote address makes a case for considering critical realism as a meta-theoretical social ontology in developing our explanations of education experiences. I suggest that there is much to be gained by this move. First, as a philosophy of the social, it does important ‘under-labouring’ work in enabling the education researcher to bring together different social theories and methodologies in turn making our explanations from different vantage points and standpoints more robust. Second, in arguing that social realities are stratified (a fat versus flat ontology), and that events and experiences are the outcomes of causal mechanisms activated under particular conditions, critical realists propose new methods for generating explanations of ‘why’ and ‘how’ things happen. In the lecture, and drawing upon my own research on governing education sectors and their actors at multiple scales, I explore the epistemic and moral gains to be had in working in this way.
I want to raise questions here about several assumptions that are prevalent in discussions of methodology today, not just in the field of research on learning but more generally. One concerns the value of newness, creativity, openness, and diversity. A second problem is the conflation of methodology with philosophy, as represented by ‘paradigms’ or approaches that are defined in epistemological, ontological, and/or political terms. Over the past fifty years, there has been a significant change in the character of methodological discussion: from being concerned with research techniques, their assumptions and limits, towards becoming (in effect) a bazaar in which diverse approaches are promoted. Paradigm pitches often appeal to the ideas of particular philosophers, extracted from the wider context of philosophical discussion. I will argue that this is not a healthy state of affairs, and that it reflects the weak boundaries around educational, psychological and social research today.