My progress review was two weeks ago and I passed. I knew where I would be challenged, and I knew where I was strong. The challenges left me feeling a bit exposed (in methodology and analysis especially) and this is where I need to focus my attention. Even in the short time that’s passed though I’ve gone back to some readings and papers and feel more secure in my understanding of critical realism. In the last post I mentioned I needed to do more work on methodology. Post – review, I know I still need to explain methodology in clearer terms, and in particular to highlight the ways in which it relates to my research questions and how both of these inform the methods I choose. Therefore, a piece of more extended writing on methodology, a clearer articulation of my research questions and a set of methods which will elicit the answers to the questions I want to ask is now required, with a degree of urgency as I’m hoping to get started on the empirical work very soon.
Structure, culture and agency
In discussion with my supervisor today we talked in detail about the key concepts of critical realism of structure, culture and agency and how to define them. Culture in CR terms is an independent realm of ideas and knowledge (Archer 1995) which can sometimes conflict with each other, as in for example, a new set of cultural forms such as a new curriculum. This can offer a challenge to existing cultural forms and ideas ( i.e. existing ideas about curriculum) but can also result in complementarities and/or tensions. The new cultural forms might replace the old ones ( archetype A in Archer 1995) but a straightforward replacement is unlikely. Alternatively the new ideas could be entirely rejected, but this is also unlikely; what tends to happen is a hybridisation, mixing and matching of old and new, where existing cultures might change as a result of exposure to the new culture.
Structure is a bit more slippery. Social structure means systems of human relationships amongst social positions (Porpora 2000). The relationships within a system can be understood by the ways in which the connections operate i.e. the relationships can be strong or weak; symmetrical, where power, trust or respect passes back and forth between two individuals, or asymmetrical where power flows in one direction only. What passes between two individuals is an emergent property of their interaction. Structure exists independently of culture, but there is interaction between the two. The interactions will be key to my study.
Dave Elder Vass (2007) develops this conception of social relationships to include both the people in the relationship and the emergent powers of the interactions between them. He uses the term “people in community” to signify this more developed idea of social structure.
Archer’s model of analytical dualism offers a way of understanding structure and culture as autonomous systems whereby culture influences interaction through ideas; structure influence actions through power and individuals influence interactions through their own capacities, skills or knowledge. The interaction of these three separate but connected domains is central to this model. Interactions between the three domains is described in CR terms as morphogenesis/morphostasis. Interactions are key here as they provide a methodological point of entry (Scott, 2009), and for my study, this will be a major focus.
Morphogenesis describes what happens when the three domains act upon each other. In the social interaction whereby an individual meets cultural forms and social structures, each element acts upon the other, and in the process of interacting,
Ideas can therefore be held in place by power structures, but the power structures can also reinforce the ideas. Think of South Africa pre-1996, for example. Change happens in the interaction between all three domains. So a series of interactions of individuals with structures and cultural conditions might result in emergent properties or powers which may bring about change in each domain. This could be described in Archer’s terms as a morphogenetic loop or cycle which over time, might result in significant change.
Morphostasis would represent the same interactions resulting in reproduction, not change of existing norms, ideas (culture) and structure (relationships).
I need to develop a method that is systematic and congruent with CR for my study. My research questions need to reflect this more clearly. The task is underway!
PS: I knew my evidence of critical literature review was strong; they asked me if I’d be happy for a section of it to be made available to a final module in one of the professional learning programmes going on for teachers in the school. Of course I was: it’s here if anyone is interested:Excerpt from doctoral review report 2014 Please cite appropriately if you feel the urge 🙂