The debate concerning the nature of education, and more particularly the debate as it is directed toward the discourse and logic of schooling, has customarily taken place within the social science tradition. As a result, educational research has been characterized by a modern positivist science which has tended to privilege knowledge relevant to a technocratic evaluation and control of educational relationships and achievements through a process of socialization. From the relationship between student and teacher to the relationship between school and society, the widespread acceptance of quantitative research findings and behavioristic theory reveals that the evaluation of educational issues has been tied to an understanding of reality as ideological as it is “scientific.” What should constitute a scientific inquiry that effectively counters positivist assumptions and what should characterize the inquirer’s relation to the real are still central questions within educational theory and practice in the philosophy of education. In responding to these questions, the positioning of education in the social science tradition has given rise to the politicization of education in an ideologically directed process of socialization which, in turn, has resulted in education, including schooling, being subjected to the idiosyncratic stranglehold and abuse of ideological and cultural considerations propagated in the name of a pseudo-scientific scientism. Furthermore, the problem concerning the nature of education is more authentically situated within the human science tradition than within the social sciences. This argument is grounded on a fundamental objection to positivism and the influence that this has had on the tradition of the social sciences.
While specific applications of critical realism to ethnography are few, theoretical developments are promising and await more widespread development. This is especially the case for progressive and critical forms of ethnography that strive to be, in critical realist terms, an “emancipatory science.” However, the history of ethnography reveals that both the field and its emancipatory potential are limited by methodological tendencies toward “naïve realism” and “relativism.” This is the antimony of ethnography. The conceptual and methodological origins of ethnography are grounded in the historical tensions between anti-naturalist Kantian idealism and hyper-naturalist Humean realism. The resolution of these tensions can be found in the conceptual resources of critical realism. Working from, and building upon, the work of British philosopher Roy Bhaskar, critical realism is a movement in the philosophy of science that transcends the limits of Kantian idealism and Humean realism via an emancipatory anti-positivist naturalism. Critical realism emerged as part of the post-positivist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From its Marxian origins, critical realism insists that all science, including the social sciences, must be emancipatory. At its essence, this requires taking ontology seriously. The call of critical realism to ethnographers, like all social scientists, is that while they must hold to epistemological caution this does not warrant ontological shyness. Furthermore, critical realism’s return to ontology implies that ethnographers must be ethically serious. Ethnography, if it is to hold to its progressive inclinations, must be about something. Critical realism for ethnography pushes the field to see itself as more than a sociological practice. Rather, it is to be understood as a social practice for something: the universalizing of human freedom.