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

Materialism is a form of realism in which consciousness is not independent of matter and all reality is material.

explanatory context

History of materialism

Philosophically, materialism dates back to the Greek atomists who had a physical explanantion for the origins of nature and life and extended it to civilization, society and morality. English materialism dates from Hobbes where the fundamental premise was that of physical bodies in motion and where deduction was made from the laws of such bodies to individual human behaviour and to the nature of society - human beings acting in relation to each other. This was the basis of mechanical materialism (although not known by that name).

In C18 France, Holbach argued that all causal relations were simply the laws of the motions of bodies and that metaphysical causes were false.

Marx's critique of mechanical materialism was to argue that it had isolated objects and ignored subjects, especially human activity as subjective. He proposed historical materialism which would include human activity as a primary force. In some interpretations this led to an economic base-cultural superstructure division.

Mechanical materialism

Mechanical materialism was developed by Locke. He argued that the immediate objects of consciousness and knowledge are purely subjective, private, mental entities. Outside them is an independently existing objective world. Locke rejected the thesis of innate ideas and argued that all ideas derive from experience; i.e. an empiricist position

One view of mechanical materialism is to see it as an early form of materialism that sought to explain all natural phenomena by mechanical laws.

Bourgeois materialism

Bourgeois materialism is the simplest opposition to idealism, one that reifies science in place of religion as provider of knowledge. It adopts the view that the world is apprehended through sensations and demands that analysis of the objective world and explanations about it are couched in terms that are amenable to sensate validation. (This is sometime referred to as sensationalism).

Bourgeois materialism is literally materialist in proposing the primacy of 'matter' in knowledge production. It identifies objective reality with physical matter. In so doing it makes all aspects of reality, including the spiritual, a property of matter.

Borgeois materialism confounds the real world with physical concepts about it.

Laws of nature thus become convenient devices for apprehending the essential nature of the world.

Bourgeois materialism is developed in positivist theory, from the early pseudo metaphysical positivism of Comte to the later logical positivists.

Arguably, however, this form of materialism is idealist in the sense of substituting science for religion.


Feuerbachian materialism

Feuerbach denied Hegel's Absolutist or objective idealism by arguing that knowledge was grounded in material reality and not in Spirit. Feuerbach argued that 'For man, the root is man himself'.

This position was Marx's starting point in the development of historical materialism. Marx argued that Feuerbach did not go far enough, however, because he did not grasp the importance of practical revolutionary action.

Marxist materialism


Marxist materialism develops materialist philosophy on three fronts. First it situates philosophical analysis in an historical context. Second, it denies the logic of the dualism of subject and object. Third, it develops a process of critical dialectical analysis.

Historical materialism is the basis of the exposition of Marx's own transformation of materialism into a critical philosophy. It is arguable (although contentious) that in the course of his writings through his lifetime he developed a version of dialectical materialism. Later Marxists have developed dialectical materialsm to encompass the physical as well as the social world (something that Marx was not concerned to do). This post-Marx dialectical materialism is referred to as Marxist realist materialism.

Historical materialism

Marx's materialism denies that consciousness is independent of matter. Historical materialism argues that knowledge proceeds on the basis of the way objects and relationships are perceived. Such 'perception' is dependent upon social relationships (based on productive relationships).

The core of historical materialist of scientific knowledge relates knowledge production to class interests. This is summarisd by Marx's statement that all 'hitherto existing history is the history of class conflict'. For some commentators (such as Lukacs) historical materialism is synonomous the theory of the proletarian revolution.

A second important element of historical materialism is praxis (conscious practical action). One of Marx's basic tenets is that history is made by people but people have no control over the history they make. The result is that humanity is alienated from the history it creates. Ideology serves to legitimate the product of history; the social structures and the underlying relations of production.

See Marx's historical materialist methodology


Dialectical materialism


Dialectical materialism refers to a particular development of historical materiallsm that owes a lot to the work of Marx. However, it is an area of contention as to whether Marx can be regarded as a dialectical materialist.

It has been claimed that Marx never used the term dialectical materialism, nor did he espouse a dialectical materialist position nor did he adopt a dialectical materialst approach.

The assertion of Marx's role in developing dialectical materialism yet not being a dialectical materialist has lead to a confusion over the usage, referents and meaning of the term 'dialectical materialism'. This is resolved by outlining two versions of dialectical materialsm; Marx's dialectical materialism and, post-Marx, Marxist realist materialism.

Marx's dialectical materialism

Marx's historical materialism is clearly dialectical. This has lead to the view that Marx developed dialectical materialism. Certainly, Marx lays down the basis of a materialist epistemology and dialectical methodology that relates part to whole both synchronically and diachronically. It is arguable that Marx actually goes beyond historical materialism in his analysis of the interrelationship between superstructure and infrastructure. It is Marx's analysis of the mediating role of ideology as grounded in the relations of production and contingent upon praxis (rather than being false consciousness) that transforms his historical materialism into dialectical materialism.

However, this is not to say that Marx's dialectical materialism is the same as the mechanical version (Marxist realist materialism) which emerged after Marx's death and which Lenin was critical of in his development of Marxism (which became referred to as Marxist Leninism).

Marxist realist materialism

Marxist realist materialism is the general name for the large number of variants of dialectical materialism that have occurred since Marx. The particular features of each variant have been influenced by practical revolutionary and post-revolutionary situations.

The central features of post-Marx dialectical thinking reflect the usual materialist and Marxist concerns but go further than Marx in incorporating a dialectical thesis about the physical world.

The development of Marxist realist materialism (or Post-Marx dialectical materialism) owes a lot initially to Engels (and is also sometimes referred to as Engelian dialectical materialism).

Marxist realist materialism claims that the material world exists independently of consciousness, however, the converse is not true. The material world is knowable through consciousness because consciousness reflects material reality and the test of truth is practice.

Dialectical materialism does not accept the dualism of subject/object, however, it equally rejects immediate identification of thought and reality, that is, it rejects the reduction of matter to thought or vice versa.

The core of Marxist realist materialism is the recognition that thought and matter, subject and object are opposed and also united, i.e. opposites existing in unity and the process of knowledge is the process through which the unity of these opposites is realised.

Marxist realist materialism not only argues that matter is primary or fundamental, but proposes an Engelian dialectical analysis of the physical world of matter. Dialectical materialism suggests matter is subject to laws but that these are not mechanistic, but are dialectical. The dialectical process is often reduced to the Hegelian dialectic triad of 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis'. This, however, possibly makes the dialectical materialist approach overly mechanistic. The laws posited by dialectical materialists, however, draw heavily from Hegel. They are the law of the interpenetration of opposites (i.e. the denial of the principle of contradiction); the transformation of quality into quantity; and the law of the negation of the negation (which is the view that reality develops through the continuing process of contradiction, reonciliation, contradiction of the reconciliation, etc.)

This aspect of dialectical materialism most clearly distinguishes it from historical materiallsm or Marx's dialectical materialism.


analytical review

Sayers (1983) defines materialism as:

A form of realism in which consciousness is not independent of matter and all reality is material.

Bérubé (2005, p. 209) in New Keywords writes:

As a term in intellectual history and philosophy, materialism is most often understood as a name for the belief that the immediate physical world is the most important (or, at an extreme, the only) one that exists. A materialist, accordingly, is one who forswears any belief in a spiritual or otherworldly existence, and thus materialism is commonly opposed to various forms of spiritualism. It is also, though less often, opposed to philosophies that give mind priority over (or significant autonomy from) matter; in its insistence that mental states are explicable by physical means, materialism opposes all a priori theories of cognition and all suggestions that minds are something qualitatively different from matter. Materialist beliefs have a long and rich history in Western thought, dating back to the pre- Socratic thinkers of the C5 and C6 BCE and attaining, according to most commentators, mature expression in the Latin works of Epicurus and especially Lucretius, whose long poem De rerum natura (50 BCE) expounded the theory that the universe is made up of imperceptibly tiny bits of fundamental matter.

It is strange, then, given materialism’s position in Western intellectual history, that the most common colloquial use of the word suggests an aggressive indifference to spiritual and intellectual matters alike. From the mC19 onward, ‘‘materialist’’ has been used (usually with a sense of opprobrium) as a rough cognate of ‘‘greedy,’’ referring to persons and beliefs whose interests lie in financial gain to the exclusion of all else. And it may be stranger still that some of the best-known uses of the term in recent decades have been associated with rock stars, from George Harrison’s rejection of Living in the Material World (1973) to Madonna’s evocation, via the iconography of Marilyn Monroe in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), of the ‘‘material girl’’ whose justification for fortune-hunting is that ‘‘we are living in a material world’’ (1984). Contemporary readers might be forgiven, then, if they understand materialism as something having to do with an unhealthy obsession with money. Likewise, it is quite possible, after hearing appeals for money from ostensibly charitable religious organizations, to imagine that there must be some connection between denouncing and accruing material wealth.

The disciplines of the material sciences, however, retain a substantive sense of material as ‘‘that which pertains to matter,’’ and there is a strong sense in the law that, for example, a material witness or a material misrepresentation is a singularly important thing – a person or a statement that (so to speak) fundamentally gets to the heart of the matter. Similarly, theorists of material culture focus on the physical artifacts and built environments of human societies, as a corrective to scholarly disciplines whose understanding of alien or ancient cultures is based largely on the interpretation of texts. In law as in history as in physics, then, it is worth noting the association of the ‘‘material’’ with the ‘‘basic’’ and the ‘‘elemental.’’ In Western intellectual history since the mC19, the association of materialism with the basic is most pronounced in Marxism, where the relation between the ‘‘superstructure’’ (which includes, among myriad other things, intellectual histories) and the material base of society has provided six generations of thinkers with fertile ground for theorizing. Indeed, Marxism has often been considered synonymous with historical materialism and/or dialectical materialism, even though historical materialism, properly speaking, simply asserts that historical events have logical and traceable causes that are no less susceptible to analysis than are events in the physical world.

For Karl Marx, by contrast, materialism meant something far more specific, as in this famous passage from the preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1972 [1859]: 4): ‘‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual lifeprocesses in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.’’ The argument here is not merely that human history can be understood as a series of changes in the tangible infrastructure (from, say, triremes and aqueducts to steam engines and electric lights); more than this, it asserts that the conditions of material existence themselves are determinative of the very means by which we understand them and ourselves. Marx’s materialism is thus ‘‘dialectical’’ in its insistence that ‘‘reality is not an inert collection of material entities to be grasped by detached contemplation, but an interaction between a collective historical human subjectivity and the material world it generates through its material activity or labor’’ (Habib, 1996: 338). What remains in dispute in the Marxist tradition to date, however, is precisely how that ‘‘interaction’’ takes place, and to what extent it is determined (‘‘in the last instance’’) by the means of material production themselves.

It remains unclear to what extent a materialist approach to history – be it Marxist or non-Marxist – can claim an explanatory power on a par with the disciplines of the physical sciences. Among eC20 philosophical schools, logical positivism claimed the closest allegiance to a scientific sense of materialism, and held on that basis that meaningful statements are only those which can be verified against the world of empirical fact. The degree to which this proposition is accepted today is, appropriately enough, a function of the degree to which philosophy aspires to the condition of material science. For insofar as the physical sciences in the C20 revealed the fundamental particles of matter to be significantly more complex than had previously been thought, materialist philosophies such as positivism run the risk of espousing a simpler understanding of both ‘‘materialism’’ and ‘‘science’’ than is found in the actual material sciences.

It seems safe to say, nevertheless, that there is a strong correlation between materialism and secularism: between Lucretius’ arguments against the existence of the soul in C1 BCE and the works of Pierre Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes in the mC17, theocratic domination of Western thought effectively forestalled any consideration of materialism, whereas from the C17 onward, most advances in science – from evolutionary theory to atomic theory – that have challenged religious thought have also, and for the same reasons, fostered further debate about the materials of which we are made.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines historical materialism as:

Marx's interpretation that processes of social change are determined primarily (but not exclusively) by economic factors.

and defines materialism as:

The view that 'material conditions' (usually economic and technological factors) have the central role in determining social change.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'historical materialism' as:

The idea that the way in which people provide for their material needs determines or, in general, conditions the relations that people have with each other, their social institutions and prevalent ideas. Furthermore, that the material conditions change over time because of dynamics immanent within them, and that history is a record of the changes in the material conditions of a group's life and of the correlative changes in social relations, institutions and prevalent ideas. (Marx)

associated issues

Materialist critique of absolutism

From a materialist point of view absolutism (the thesis that there are absolute truths) is impossible (in the real world (see realism)).

Absolutism involves an assertion that there are truths, this may be done on three broad levels: a. a dictat without recourse to empirical reality (e.g. 'god is good'). b. an assertion of reality based on (empirical) experience: this is the way things (as I/we experience them) are. c. an assertion that is a logical outcome of a stated theoretical position (which may or may not have empirical referents).

On the first; such a position is disqualified from materialist knowledge as it precludes any necessity for any engagement with the real world.

On the second; such elements of material knowledge can only be 'relative', the mediation of experience is culturally and historically specific.

On the third; theoretical structures clearly effect the 'logic' of empirical validation (the theory-laden nature of observation) on the one hand, and the deductive 'logic' of an 'abstract' analysis is clearly a function of either the theoretical framework, or the assertion of the truth value of premises, or both, on the other. In both cases the cultural specificity of the theory makes the analysis relative.

It would thus appear that material knowledge is necessarily relative knowledge. Indeed, if the opposite of absolute is relative, then this is the case. But, there is nothing 'wrong' with this. The problem is the absurdity of absolutism. Absolutism is not knowledge but idealist belief. It is transcendental assertion (reifying dictat, specific empirical data or theory). It is product not process. It is a legitimating product. It is uncritical. (It is not the basis, therefore of knowledge). It does not engage the real world but imposes structures on it (or even ignores it). Absolutism is, therefore, an idealist fallacy. (This is not an absolutist notion nor an idealist assertion!) Materialist knowledge is not to be seen as a product, but rather engaged as a process. It is non-sensical to talk of it as relative, for the 'opposite' does not exist materially. What is relative knowledge relative to, other than the conditions of its arising ? It is, of course, culturally and historically specific (instrumental judgement of veracity (does it work ?) is equally culturally and historically specific). In short, materialist knowledge is knowledge, not belief. I.e. it is about, and develops as a process of engagement with, the real world. It is not the uncritical imposition of pre-given theses on the world. The opposite of absolutism is not relativism, it is knowledge.

related areas

See also

historical materiallsm

Marx's dialectical materialism


reflection theory

Researching the Real World Section 2.4


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

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Sayers, S., 1983, 'Materialism, realism and the reflection theory', Radical Philosophy 33, Spring.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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