Critical Realism

Critical Realism

We are using Critical Realism as our inquiry paradigm. We will use Critical Realism to get inside the 'black box' and investigate not just whether a whole-school mindfulness intervention works, but why, for whom, and under what circumstances.

Critical realist research is evolving, and there is no single approach. Critical realism is a philosophy of science that in itself explains nothing; it is a meta-theory of how it is possible to have scientific knowledge about the social world. What is necessary is to develop an explanatory programme. Our approach draws on Margaret Archer's practical morphogenic approach1 2, a methodology that complements  Critical Realism's social ontology3.

A training video introducing Critical Realism is available below. This video and more training resources are also available on our Open Access Training page, here.

Table: Critical Realist Termimology

As outlined in our publication 'A protocol for a systematic critical realist synthesis of school mindfulnes interventions designed to promote pupils' mental wellbeing', our definition of these terms is informed by Danermark et al. (2019)4 and Hartwig (2007)5.


The power of individuals to engage in meaningful actions. Agents have causal powers because they respond to the intervention and, within their context, can trigger mechanisms that change the context.


Reinterpreting events into a conceptual framework.


Outcomes result from the complex interaction of mechanisms. Therefore, change is non-linear and involves feedback loops.


The context sets limits to the efficacy of a programme intervention. Structures are material, physical, and human resources and associated practices. Culture is the realm of intersubjectivity, social values/ideas, and ideational influences. Contexts are dynamic and can change through agency triggered by the intervention.

Context Mechanisms

The resources and restrictions embedded in the social and organisational (relational) structure that can influence the outcomes and must be identified. They can be physical, social, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or conceptual and have causal powers. While they may not be observable, they can be retroduced from what is observed.


Intersubjectivity, ideas and ideational influences.


Partial event regularities indicate that an intervention in some contexts triggers mechanisms that result in the same outcome.

Depth Ontology

Reality is stratified into three domains.

  1. The Empirical: experiences of what actually happens;
  2. The Actual: things that happen independently of whether we observe them or not;
  3. The Real: constituted by mechanisms with generative power, events, and experiences.


The ability of mechanisms to combine to create something new that cannot be reduced to the mechanisms from which it emerged.


The intervention is designed to bring about change in a given context.

Intervention mechanisms

The mechanisms triggered by the experiences, interpretations, and responses to interventions by actors that can change the context mechanisms.

Judgemental Rationalism

The evaluation of competing explanations to identify the one that has the most credible explanation, the one that is most practically adequate.

Laminated System

The social world is understood as an open, complex, stratified (layered) system of objects that make things happen. There are seven layers, from the Global to the sub-individual level, each influencing the other.

Middle-Range Theory

Middle-range theories lie between untestable grand theory and concrete description. They are theories that can generate hypotheses that can be tested and refined through empirical research.

Morphogenic Approach

Based on the view that there are three primary causal powers in society, structure, culture and agency, and that structure and culture necessarily predate the actions that transform them.

Open System

A (social) system where multiple causal factors interact and influence each other, and it is impossible to isolate variables as in laboratory conditions. The multiplicity of mechanisms other than the ones triggered by the intervention means that what happens may not necessarily be what was envisaged.


Outcomes are the changes in the context that result from how people respond to the intervention and the contextual mechanisms.


Determining what mix of mechanisms interact reinforce, moderate, or counteract) to produce the outcomes.


Inferential thinking – what makes the observable phenomena possible, what must the real be like.


Material, physical, and human resources and their associated practices at the level of social and systems integration, that is, the relations between members of society and the relationship between institutions

Transitive and Intransitive Dimensions

The intransitive dimension is the physical and social world we inhabit; things are as they are and are not constituted by our understanding of them and are independent of how we describe them. The transitive is the theories and discourses we hold in order to understand our world.


Archer M. Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory [Internet]. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. Available from:

Archer M. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.

Archer M. The Morphogenetic Approach: Critical Realism’s explanatory framework approach. In: Róna P, Zsolnai L, editors. Agency and Causal Explanation in Economics. Cham: Springer; 2020.

4  Danermark B, Ekström M, Karlsson JC. Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London and New York, NY: Routledge; 2019.

5 Hartwig M. Dictionary of Critical Realism [Internet]. Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge; 2007. Available from: (Accessed 07th June 2023).

This work is licensed under CC BY 4.0