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Subtle realism is a philosophical position within social science that, along with other forms of realism, stands opposed to naïve realism and various kinds of relativism and scepticism. The term was coined by Martyn Hammersley. Its central issue is the relationship between the investigator and the phenomena being studied: are those phenomena and their characteristics independent of the process of inquiry, or is the character of what is investigated determined, structured, or shaped by the research? Subtle realism insists that phenomena are independent, but that knowledge of them is always constructed by the investigator—rather than, for example, being logically derived from sense impressions. It also asserts that social inquiry cannot reproduce phenomena, or capture their essence, but can only produce answers to particular questions about them.
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There are many concepts of realism, such as metaphysical realism, epistemological realism, internal realism, and critical realism. As with these other examples, subtle realism involves a contrast with rejected alternatives, in this case not just with forms of anti-realism but also with naïve realism. The latter is the idea that knowledge must be a direct product of contact between an investigator and an independently existing reality, this contact taking place via the senses or by some other direct means. A corollary of naïve realism is that, without such immediate contact, no knowledge is possible.