Reflections from the CASS student challenge panel member, part 2

Pamela Irwin, this year’s CASS student challenge panel member, is looking back on her past year of research. This is part 2 of her reflections — did you miss part 1? Click here to catch up.

As my research is predicated on a realist ontology, I have been concerned that it is at odds with the constructivist perspective adopted by many studies investigating the use of language in society.

Very simplistically, realists believe in the existence of a reality that is external to a person, whereas for constructivists, reality is contingent on language and signification.

Different versions populate both ontologies. Realism is largely associated with the critical realists spearheaded by Bhaskar and Archer. Likewise, constructivism is noted for its variations, such as those associated with the sociocultural and critical constructivists.

As such, I am struggling with ‘if and how’ to reconcile these “incompatible meta-theories” (Chouliaraki, 2002, p. 83). Lichbach (2003) suggests that there are three ways to address this philosophical schism: ‘competitors’ exaggerate the differences between these perspectives, ‘lumpers’ try to synthesise them into one centre, and ‘pragmatists’ roll over and ignore discrepancies. Here, my view aligns with the competitor’s insistence on separate ontologies.

Interestingly, a lumper approach is deemed workable in an ontological/epistemological combination. For Chouliaraki (2002, pp. 97-98), this is “a discourse informed by realist elements”, where a constructivist ontology is combined with a realist epistemology to draw out conceptual, analytical and temporal effects. Conversely, Buroway (2003, p.655) “presumes an external ‘real world’ but it is one that we can only know through our constructed relation to it…realist and constructivist approaches provide each other’s corrective.” His sequence (a realist ontology and a constructivist epistemology) aligns with my conceptual position.

I am also intrigued by the potentiality of ‘critical’ as a hinge linking the critical realist and critical constructivist worldviews. (Incidentally, two recent papers address this realist/language divide: Elder-Vass (2013) with his seven classifications of linguistic realism and Lau and Morgan (2013) via discourse theory). When contextualised to my realist/constructivist framework and research data revealing inequalities in power relations and social structures in the rural community, a comparable option for me might be to underpin critical gerontology (ontology) with a critical discourse analysis (epistemology), mediated through corpus linguistics.


Buroway, M. (2003). Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography. American Sociological Review, 68(5), 645-679. Retrieved from:

Chouliaraki, L. (2002). ‘The contingency of universality’: Some thoughts on discourse and realism. Social Semiotics, 12(1), 83-114. doi; 10.1080/10350330220130386

Elder-Vass, D. (2013). Debate: Seven ways to be a realist about language. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. doi: 10.1111/jsb.12040

Lau, R.W.K., & Morgan, J. (2013). Integrating discourse, construction and objectivity: A contemporary realist approach. Sociology. doi: 10.1177/003803513491466

Lichbach, M.I. (2003). Is rational choice theory all of social science? Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Return soon to read Pamela’s next installment! Are you interested in becoming the next student challenge panel member? Apply to attend our free summer school to learn more.