Critical Realism for Ethnography
- Grant BanfieldGrant BanfieldFlinders University
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.