Dipping into How to Think Like a Realist

Raw Pawson’s new book (Pawson, 2024) is an introduction to scientific practice, with social science as a corollary, drawing on the philosophy of science and Pawson’s experience conducting applied research. The book is on my reading stack. For now, I have taken a purposive sample of a few episodes (as Pawson calls the chapters) to get a sense of what’s in store. Here are some clues.

The main objective of the book (p. xvi)

“… is revealed in the structure of the text, which journeys across physical science and clinical science, before landing squarely in social science. The coverage here represents a commitment to the ‘unity of science’ (Oppenheim and Putnam, 1958). This heroic proposition claims that there are core explanatory principles which underpin science in all it guises, and the book makes tiny, tentative steps in tracing the common realist tenets. Perforce, I am also committed to the ‘unity of social science’.”

What about those context, mechanism, outcome triads that realist evaluators use? (p. 42)

“All scientific investigation utilises explanations relating mechanisms and contexts to empirical patterns.”

And (p. 48):

“With HarrΓ©, I have characterised generative causation in physical science as the analysis of mechanisms, contexts, and regularities (MCR). In clinical research the focus, quite properly, is on mechanisms, contexts, and outcomes (MCO). In social research, it might be wise to begin with the shorthand mechanisms, contexts, and change (MCC).”

(I wonder what the implications of the book are for realist evaluation as a distinct genre – will read those bits with interest.)

On social science and people who don’t follow science (p. xviii):

“Despite the habitual use of the appellation ‘social science’, many of my colleagues would reject any claim to follow science, dismiss any interest in causality, deny any need for objectivity, and scorn the possibility of generalisation. They are beyond hope. I don’t seek to convert them. But in following their chosen paths these various tribes – constructivists, post-modernists, emancipators, critics, essayists, relativists, and so on – have found time to say why causality, objectivity, and generality are false idols. So, in defending the science in social science, their criticisms also need to be overturned.”

More on what Pawson aims to do (pp. 251-252):

“What I’ve come up with here might well be entitled The Old Rules of Sociological Method. I have attempted to extract and justify some realist principles for conducting social research on the back of a generous portfolio of existing examples. Those illustrations reach across many research domains and a broad portfolio of practical methods. But they remain a pinprick; I could have called upon a thousand others. Accordingly, there is another way of perceiving my efforts. The book is no more and no less than an attempt to codify and formalise existing practices. I have tried to capture a tradition. So, just as Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose without knowing what it was, it may well be that you, dear reader, have been thinking like a realist without knowing it!”

I had to google Jourdain. He’s the main character in a comedy by MoliΓ¨re, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman). The play satirises “the pretensions of the social climber whose affectations are absurd to everyone but himself”, which is a curious reference, dear reader.

To be continued…


Pawson, R. (2024). How to Think Like a realist: A methodology for social science. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.