Meaning in Method: Critical Realism in Creative Industries Research?

by Simon Das

After meeting with the CIMRH team to discuss methodologies for our research, it left me thinking about two things: (i) how much we’d all delved into the ontological debates about social science in the last six months and (ii) given discussion about ‘reflexive’ approaches – can there be ground between positivism and interpretvism ? Having shown my colleagues a research plan around creativity in the magazine industry, one which aims to identify independent and dependent ‘variables’, I felt I may have looked like I’d nailed my colours to the mast. Was I now a positivist? ‘Variables?’ some may ask, ‘that’s the stuff of labs, and ignoring the complexity of our shifting world’. If so, that feels a bit uncomfortable. It’s a bit like not supporting the honest fight of the Sociological School of Samson against the Goliath of headstrong ‘pseudo-science’ in business and management studies.

The way answer to this question – whether my thinking is positivistic or not – is answered as a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by developing a pragmatic and practical philosophy to research. When a subject which has no overarching theory, such as creativity, with no agreed definition, there is a tendency to go around in circles in trying to research aspects of it. After all, if we can’t define it, we can’t observe it in a study. For example, where is the ontological ‘reality’ in creativity where the unit or level of analysis is in the mind or where it is in the wider sociological environment? Where variables help, is to hypothesise, create a focus, hold some things constant and work towards suggesting causality at the levels the researcher is interested in (creativity at publisher and magazine level in a company in my case). And though variables imply positivism “and worse numbers” (a quote from media studies professor I’ve been speaking to), a ‘hybrid’ route to doing this without being a positivistic bad-guy, is via post positivism – and perhaps in a methodological vehicle I have found in Critical Realism or CR.

One common area of all our CIMRH research, is to explore aspects of management, strategy, creativity and innovation. In my quest, the first step I am making is to identify the measure of creativity in ‘products’, given the causes that I’m looking at. While ontological questions about the reality of creativity needs to be grounded in what might be called a ‘positivist’ view (that reality is mind-independent), a pragmatic view about perceptions, people and their processes might also benefit from the an ‘interpretivist’ approach. A magazine, for example, can be defined by both its real, physical attributes – quantifiable qualities such as look, size and its circulation. It can also have a reality as a brand, a narrative that goes with the brand and a perception, which is not independent of people’s minds. Given this duality in the magazine ‘reality’, an approach to making meaning of what may lead to innovation must also accept this, seeing people, products and processes as not static.

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Roy Bhaskar’s influential A Realist Philosophy of Science (1975) lead to much interest in social science about Critical Realism, a work which aimed to unify approaches in natural and social sciences. Now gaining interest as a vehicle in fields such as entrepreneurial research, Blundell (2007), makes the claim: the case for qualitative research informed by CR is that it has the potential to produce ‘better stories’ that could form the basis for more sophisticated causal explanations’. Its focus on mechanisms dependent on contextual structure and contingent factors outside of a focal point (see diagram) and a 360 approach to methods, seems to be the pragmatic approach that I may need to ‘square the circle’ of interpretivism. Creativity and its management through variables – yes, but developed through reasoned, purposeful case studies and data generated by phenomenographic, biographical approaches as well as through published data in desk research.

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Blundel, R (2007). Critical realism: a suitable vehicle for entrepreneurship research? In: H. Neergaard and J. Ulhøi, ed., Handbook of qualitative research methods in entrepreneurship, 1st ed. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.49-74.

Sayer (2004) Why Critical Realism. In Fleetwood, S & Ackroyd, S (2004) Critical Realist Applications in Organisation and Management Studies. London: Routledge