Critical Realism

Brad C. Anderson

Learning Objectives

In this chapter, you will learn the following.

  • What critical realism is
  • The layers of social reality envisioned by critical realism, including:
    • The real domain
    • The actual domain
    • The empirical domain
  • How critical realism helps us understand organizations
  • The relation between critical realism and organizational wisdom


In the 1990s, the Australian New South Wales Police Service underwent significant reform in response to a report of corruption among the ranks of law enforcement officers. Despite many changes to leadership and operations, old patterns of behaviours persisted.

For example, whereas previously the service based promotions on officer seniority, they implemented systems to instead base promotions on merit. Yet, a decade after introducing this new system, senior officers continued receiving promotions over younger ones regardless of merit. The new system failed to change the organization’s behaviour.[1]

Implementing change is hard. Indeed, roughly seventy percent of major change programs fail to achieve their goals. Why is it so difficult to change how organizations operate?

This chapter considers that question by presenting a framework called critical realism. Critical realism is a model of how organizations (and society in general) operate. Many frameworks explain how systems of social activity work. Besides critical realism, two popular ones include positivism (which is the basis for science) and post-structuralism (which many socials scientists rely on). 

By ignoring positivism, poststructuralism, and all the other frameworks that exist, this textbook does not claim critical realism is right while everything else is wrong. Instead, it focuses on critical realism because this framework helps us understand the forces that control an organization. Since wisdom is action-oriented, critical realism helps us create organizational action.

Key Takeaways

  • Critical realism is a model of how social systems work.
  • Critical realism is one of the many models of social systems.
  • This text focuses on critical realism because it has utility in conceptualizing forces governing organizational action.

  1. Frank, A. W. (2012). The Feel for Power Games: Everyday Phronesis and Social Theory. In B. Flyvbjerg, T. Landman, & S. Schram (Eds.), Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis (pp. 48–65). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


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Critical Realism Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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