Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Empirical pertains to direct, sense experience of an objective (real) world.

explanatory context

Thus, empirical data is simply observable data (using any of the senses). This is often referred to in 'common sense' terms as ‘fact’ or ‘factual observation’

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines empirical research as follows:

"…the process of developing systematized knowledge gained from observations that are formulated to support insights and generalizations about the phenomena under study" (Lauer and Asher, 1988, p. 7)

Bérubé (2005, p. 104) in New Keywords writes:

Empirical and empiricism preserve an echo of what Raymond Williams, in Keywords, called ‘‘the old association between experience and experiment’’ (R. Williams, 1983: 116): the terms suggest a method grounded in sense impressions, material practice, and/ or tangible data gathered by blind trial, as opposed to methods that depend primarily on the citation of doctrine or the application of inherited practices and rules. In Western philosophy, empiricism has usually been identified with the belief that humans are ‘‘blank slates’’ who learn by practice and accumulated experience, and counterposed on those grounds to ‘‘rationalist’’ a priori theories of perception; more colloquially, empiricism is contrasted with theory and abstraction in general, as when people say that they are more interested in empirical evidence or empirical observation than in what any received authority – in political, intellectual, or religious matters – has to say about the world.
The terms emerged in the lC16 and C17 as a critical part of the post-Copernican secularization of knowledge in the West, particularly with regard to science and medicine. The celebrated experiments of Galileo, for instance, bear witness to a nascent willingness, among people curious about the natural world, to base beliefs about matter and motion on direct observation rather than whatever the church fathers (with regard to science) or ancient Greek authorities such as Galen (with regard to medicine) had instructed their followers to believe. Indeed, what is now commonly referred to as the ‘‘scientific method’’ is precisely this willingness to conduct observations by experiment, between empiricism and fraudulent incompetence may seem thoroughly archaic today, but it was pervasive as late as the mC19, which renders its current obsolescence all the more remarkable. What we now derisively call ‘‘patent medicines’’ and ‘‘snake-oil remedies’’ were called ‘‘empirical drugs’’ in the mC19 (George James, 1839), and empiricism had earned for itself an especially bad name in politics – as in Coleridge’s 1817 denunciation of ‘‘political empirics, mischievous in proportion to their effrontery, and ignorant in proportion to their presumption’’ or Frederick Robertson’s 1858 dismissal of ‘‘a mere empiric in political legislation.’’
As ‘‘empirical’’ and ‘‘empiricism’’ have shed their connotations with quackery, they have congealed into what we might call ‘‘technical’’ and ‘‘colloquial’’ usages. The technical usage is straightforward, although the matters with which it deals are exceptionally complex: in Western philosophy, it denotes the epistemological tradition which grounds knowledge-claims in ‘‘matters of fact and real existence’’ (David Hume, 1999 [1748]).
Empiricism in this sense is widely identified with the philosophy of Hume and (before him) John Locke, and opposed to (a) ‘‘rationalist’’ theories involving a priori ideas and categories, and (b) religious accounts of humans’ innate tendencies or divinely ordained characteristics. Although philosophical empiricism might seem to benefit from its connection with scientific method, it also gives rise to intractable questions about what kinds of knowledge can plausibly be grounded in direct experience: for example, it is one thing to show by experiment how children learn to be cautious around fire or how animals can be taught to associate mealtime with ringing bells, and empiricism has been crucial to the development of behavioral science and operant conditioning. But it is quite another thing to try to explain, by observation alone, the process by which humans become fluent in higher mathematics or in theories of social justice – matters in which there are no hard ‘‘sense data’’ to appeal to. Quite apart from the philosophical skeptic’s question of how we can gain reliable empirical knowledge about the ‘‘given’’ world, in other words, there may be some features of that ‘‘given’’ world (like mathematics or justice) that are not
amenable to being apprehended empirically.
In the C20, empiricism has been central to debates in the philosophy of science. The eC20 adherents of logical positivism, who insisted that knowledge- and truth-claims should be based on empirically verifiable phenomena, have been challenged first by Karl Popper (1986; original publication 1934), who substituted ‘‘falsifiability’’ for ‘‘verifiability’’ as a criterion for the value of such claims, and then more thoroughly by T. S. Kuhn (1970; original publication 1962), who argued that observation is guided deeply skeptical of all such claims about the ‘‘social construction’’ of knowledge, seeing in them various forms of social determinism that fail to account for how empirical evidence might lead us to change our ideas about the world.
In its everyday sense, the empirical is simply a synonym for the world of incontrovertible fact, as opposed to flights of fancy or utopian longings; and in political debate, as in Edmund Burke’s (1978 [1790]) invocation of ‘‘experience,’’ the appeal to hard facts is often, but not always, made on behalf of political conservatism. However, since the empiricist is committed in principle not only to the supposed sureties of experience but to the uncertainties of experiment by trial and error, it is hard to see how empiricism in human affairs can provide the solid ground its adherents sometimes claim for it: for a rigorous openness to the possibility of learning from new data may in fact reveal the necessity rather than the superfluity of theories about what empirical ‘‘data’’ are and how they might best be understood.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) defines empirical studies as:

Sociological work based on "concrete" experience, observation, or experimentation with actual sociological events. Unfortunately, empirical has become confused with "empiricism" (Mills' "abstract empiricism") for a great many sociologists, so that quantification has come to exclude the study of a great number of relevant qualitative sociological data.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section 1.4.5


Bérubé, M ., 2005, 'Empiricism' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (Eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture
and Society
, Oxford, Blackwell.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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