A classic position in the history of ideas and theory of science, realism assumes that the world exists independently of human minds, and that it lends itself to intersubjective inquiry, even if humans – individually, collectively, and as a species – may be unable to understand reality in all its aspects (Nagel 1986). In recent theory of science, realism has regained influence in comparison with other major positions such as critical rationalism and constructivism. Pavitt (1999) suggested that realism is currently the dominant position in theory of science, and that it informs the practice of much current media and communication research. (In literary and other aesthetic theory, realism denotes fictional forms that represent reality in the categories of everyday experience.
The general tenets of realism can be laid out with reference to three components of Roy Bhaskar’s (1979) influential critical realism.
Ontological realism: rejecting skepticist and idealist premises – that no knowledge of the empirical world is possible, or that reality equals the sum of our conceptions of it – realism questions such “anthropocentrism”: “Copernicus argued that the universe does not revolve around man. And yet in philosophy we still represent things as if it did” (Bhaskar cited in Archer et al. 1998, 45).
Epistemological relativism: from a moderately constructivist position, realism assumes that human knowledge of both nature and other minds depends on an iterative sequence of perceptions, cognitions, and inferences, all of which are open to question, rejection, and revision in a community of researchers. In the process, reality serves as a limit condition or regulatory ideal, without which the range of natural and cultural phenomena that one encounters in science as well as in daily life would be inexplicable.
Judgmental rationality: science depend on the exercise of rationality, which, at some point, must end in (fallible) judgments about what to do next – as an individual scholar, a scientific field, or a society. The business of science is to continuously compare and contrast alternative accounts, considering the widest possible range of criteria and means for examining reality.
Critical realism further emphasizes the transfactuality or stratification of reality. Several kinds of facts are real, including aesthetic experience and its biological foundations, micro-social order as well as macro-social infrastructure. Such facts are not reducible to each other, but enter into relationships of emergence, and they call for complementary forms of inquiry (Jensen 2002). One methodological implication is that research must consider three domains or levels of reality (Table 1). The empirical domain is the source of concrete evidence – experience of the world. By experiencing and documenting, for example, how journalists collect information, and how readers respond to it as news, researchers procure a necessary though not sufficient condition of empirical studies. The actual status of this documentation is a matter of inference. It is by characterizing and conceptualizing empirical materials as evidence of events (e.g., reporter–source interactions or decodings) that one may infer their place in mediated communication. The domain of the real is the most inclusive. Research ultimately seeks to establish the mechanisms that may account for events (e.g., a system of political communication that operates according to economic prerogatives and professional routines, as well as ideals of citizenship).
In sum, experiences, events, and mechanisms are all real. Experiences are available to be selected and analyzed by researchers as evidence of events. However, the distinctive task of research is to interpret or explain the underlying mechanisms with reference to theoretical concepts and frameworks.
- Archer, M., Bhaskar, R., Collier, A., Lawson, T., & Norrie, A. (eds.) (1998). Critical realism: Essential readings. London: Routledge.
- Bhaskar, R. (1979). The possibility of naturalism. Brighton: Harvester Press.
- Jensen, K. B. (2002). The complementarity of qualitative and quantitative methodologies in media and communication research. In K. B. Jensen (ed.), A handbook of media and communication research: Qualitative and quantitative methodologies. London: Routledge, pp. 254– 272.
- Nagel, T. (1986). The view from nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Pavitt, C. (1999). The third way: Scientific realism and communication theory. Communication Theory, 9(2), 162–188.
Back to Communication Theory and Philosophy.