A case for critical realism in the pursuit of interdisciplinarity and impact

Gareth Wiltshire

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In recent years, much social scientific scholarship in sport, exercise and health (SEH) has repudiated (post) positivist research and has instead persuasively argued in favour of qualitative research from constructivist–interpretivist paradigmatic approaches. While this scholarship has enriched the field in numerous ways, this paper contends that constructivist–interpretivist assumptions elicit a modus operandi which is inimical to the accomplishment of two associated contemporary research agendas: interdisciplinarity and impact. In seeking an alternative philosophy of science, the purpose of this paper is to explore how critical realism–meta-theoretical position that has been somewhat absent to date in SEH research–might offer qualitative researchers a new conceptual framework with which greater interdisciplinarity and impact can be achieved. Two main critical realist claims are introduced: (1) the epistemic fallacy can be avoided by adopting a stratified ontology and judgemental rationality, and (2) social science would benefit from seeking causal explanations underpinned by a transformational model of social activity. By de-coupling interpretive epistemologies from constructivist ontologies, it is argued that critical realism permits greater methodological plurality and hence can help transcend persistent paradigmatic boundaries. Indeed, by adopting a realist social ontology and complex, emergent conception of causality, this paper suggests that critical realism permits and encourages impact by asking researchers to focus on explaining the enduring social relations that produce real-world problems. The paper concludes by pointing out the limitations of critical realism and highlighting other ways that interdisciplinarity and impact can similarly be achieved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)525-542
Number of pages18
JournalQualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health
Issue number5
Early online date8 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Qualitative
  • critical realism
  • impact
  • interdisciplinarity
  • methodology
  • ontology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Health(social science)
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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