In search of the real: evaluating the application of the morphogenetic approach to a longutudinal case study of organisational change.
In: The 2007 annual conference of the International Association for Critical Realism, 17-19 August 2007, Philadelphia, USA.
In Realist social theory: the morphogenetic approach, Margaret Archer (1995:167), states that the morphogenetic approach provides the ‘methodological complement’ to critical realism. And yet, nearly a decade later, Carter and New (2004:18) concluded that despite some attempts to apply Archer’s approach ‘…at present, its potential for empirical research has yet to be realised.’ This situation remains largely unchanged today.
The reluctance of students and scholars of critical realism to engage with the morphogenetic approach has undoubtedly provided ammunition for those who are hostile to critical realism and maintain that while it may have value in management and organisational studies ‘…with respect to central questions of ontology and epistemology and to inform empirical studies with this awareness’ (Contu and Willmott 2005:1659) it offers little of value beyond this.
This paper seeks to begin to address this criticism, and respond to the conference theme, by reporting on and evaluating the application of the morphogenetic approach to a longitudinal case study of organisational change in English local government. This assessment confirms Archer’s claims for the approach’s value as an instrument for the production of non conflationary practical social theory. However, a range of issues are identified which demonstrate that, without modification, the complexity and resulting resource intensity of the approach may well work against its more widespread adoption for empirical research. Many of these issues relate to identifying what is “real” when undertaking empirical research, such as causal mechanisms and powers, and differentiating and/or maintaining the distinction between necessary and contingent relations between entities.
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