Critical or Subtle Realist Paradigm

Assumptions of the Critical or Subtle Realist Paradigm

Critical or Subtle Realist Paradigms have emerged recently and in the context of the debate about the validity of interpretive research methods and the need for appropriate criteria for evaluating qualitative research.  This position can be seen in the work of Hammersley, Silverman, Creswell, Kirk and Miller and others. 

  • realist ontology - assume that there are real world objects apart from the human knower.  In other words, there is an objective reality. 
    • Critical realists assumes that our ability to know this reality is imperfect, and claims about reality must be subject to wide critical examination to achieve the best understanding of reality possible. 
    • Subtle realists assume that we can only know reality from our own perspective of it.
  • Modified transactional or subjectivist epistemology - we cannot separate ourselves from what we know.  The investigator and the object of investigation are linked such that who we are and how we understand the world is a central part of how we understand ourselves, others and the world.  
    • 'Objectivity' remains as an ideal that researchers attempt to attain through careful sampling and specific research techniques. 
    • It is possible to evaluate the extent to which objectivity is attained.  This can be evaluated by the community of scholars as well as by the community of people who are studied.

By positing a reality that can be separate from our knowlege of it (separation of subject and object), the realist paradigm provides an objective reality against which researchers can compare their claims and the extent to which they ascertain truth.  This is sometime called credibility or trustworthiness of an account.

However, the realist paradigm also recognizes that researchers' values are inherent in all phases of the research process.  Truth is negotiated through dialogue.  Thus, this objective reality cannot be apprehended in a perfect way.  "Objectivity" is an ideal to strive for and can be achieved through the use of rigorous qualitative research methods.


  • Realist approaches tend to rely on a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. 
  • Research is conducted in more natural settings and more situational or contextual data is collected.
  • Incorporate methods to elicit participants ways of knowing and seeing (interview, observation, text).
  • Research designs provide opportunities for discovery (emergent knowledge) as opposed to operating by testing an a priori hypotheses.

View of Criteria for 'Good' Research

Realist perspectives are grounded in a theoretical belief that our knowledge of reality is imperfect and that we can only know reality from our perspective of it.

Attaining truth with a capital "T" or Objectivity is impossible, but is a goal that all research should strive to attain.  Attempting to attain this goal, it is believed, will lead to more rigorous research.

Realists have developed a variety of alternatives to the concept of validity that are seen as appropriate for qualitative research.  These include: confidency, credibility, plausibility and relevance.

Realists have identified a variety of methodological strategies for producing more credible or rigorous qualitative research.  These  strategies can be implemented in ways that allow the researcher to develop a richer and more complete understanding of the culture, social setting, event (reality) that they are investigating.

These strategies include:

Careful purposive or theoretical sampling

Prolonged Engagement

Standardization of fieldnotes, recording, transcribing



Peer review or debriefing

External Audits

Negative or deviant case analysis

Analysis of alternative explanations


Click on each strategies for a description, a discussion of the pros and cons of each approach, and resources for more detailed information.


Angen, MJ. (2000). Evaluating interpretive inquiry: Reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue. Qualitative Health Research. 10(3) pp. 378-395

Guba, EG and Lincoln, YS. (1994). "Competing paradigms in qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 105-117.

Hammersley, M. (1990). Reading Ethnographic Research. New York: Longman.

Silverman, D. (2001). Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analyzing Talk, Text, and Interaction. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 

For a nice discussion of validity in qualitative research see:

Maxwell, JA. (1992). Understanding validity in qualitative research. Harvard Educational Review. 62(3), pp. 279-300.

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