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In the light of recent writings of Richard Pring, and in relation to the application of empirical research methods in education, this paper offers a corrective to a neo-realist viewpoint and develops a critical realist perspective. The argument is made that the deployment of empirical research methods needs to be underpinned by a meta-theory embracing epistemological and ontological elements; that this meta-theory does not commit one to the view that absolute knowledge of the social world is possible; and that critical realism is the most appropriate meta-theory to underpin the use of empirical research methods. Further to this, unhelpful dualisms between quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and between structure and agency, are discussed in relation to neo-realist and critical realist perspectives.