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The potential and challenges of critical realist ethnography

Barron, Ian (2012) The potential and challenges of critical realist ethnography. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 36 (2). pp. 117-130. ISSN 1743-7288


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This article revisits the critical realist ethnographic process that was adopted in my doctoral thesis, which was concerned with the experiences of ethnic identity of white British and Pakistani British children as they started kindergarten in the northwest of England. The article focuses on the ethnography that emerged from the visits that I carried out alongside staff to children's homes before they started kindergarten and on the way in which these were portrayed and analysed in the final thesis. I conclude that the process of observation, writing field notes and then producing a fuller ethnography produced a very partial representation of the empirical world. This was problematic in that, in critical realism, what is observed in the world of the ‘empirical’ and considered in the world of the ‘actual’ forms the basis for understanding the underlying causal tendencies which point to the underlying explanatory concepts in the world of the ‘real’. I argue, however, that more careful critical realist ethnography has the potential to be a powerful methodological framework which accepts the contested nature of reality but which, unlike postmodernism, provides a means of addressing possibilities and of moving beyond ‘undecidability’.

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