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

Realism involves a view that there is a concrete world of objects (including other humans) external to and independent of the individual human mind or consciousness, that is knowable through the senses and the processes of the brain, i.e. it can be known by consciousness.

explanatory context

Traditionally realism was contrasted with nominalism. Realism in this sense is the idea that universals have a real substantial existence independent of thought (Duns Scotus). Nominalism, on the other hand, is the view that universals have no existence outside thought and are simply names representing nothing that really exists (William of Ockham). (Abelard attempted to reconcile these two traditional positions)

In modern philosophy realism is contrasted with idealism. In this sense, realism is the view that physical objects exist independently of being perceived. Idealism, on the other hand, argues that the world is not independent of minds. If it were, how would we know it. This is the major problem that realism has to face. Essentially, it is the problem of the dualism of subject and object. How can perceptions yield knowledge of a mind-independent world? The standard realist reply (G. E. Moore) is that the act of perception is different from the perceived object.

In asserting an objective world, realism thus has similarities with materialism, however they are by no means identical.

Direct realism is the idea that we can apprehend reality directly and objectively. Thus direct realism reduces thought to matter. Locke's mechanical materialism is opposed to direct realism. So too was Marx who argued that science would be unnecessary if outward appearances coincided with the essence of things. Knowledge would be immediate, there would be no requirement for understanding. (See Marxist materialism).




Realism in art and literature

Realism in art and literature normally refers to art work which attempts to represent observable reality. As a movement it is usually contrasted with Romanticism.

However, realism in art and literature has a more radical meaning. Realist art refers (as in the case of, e.g., Socialist Realism) to art that attempts to get beneath the surface of social relations and represent the world as it 'really' is.

Cinematic realism

Classic realist text refers to a type of film which uses a narrative structure that posits a disruption that is resolved by the narrative. Classic realist text uses analogical representation as a way of telling the story, and thus adopts a realist approach.

analytical review

Sayers (1983) defines realism as:

There is a material world existing independently of our consciousness of it and which can be known by consciousness.

Miller (2010) explores the complex issue of realism:

The question of the nature and plausibility of realism arises with respect to a large number of subject matters, including ethics, aesthetics, causation, modality, science, mathematics, semantics, and the everyday world of macroscopic material objects and their properties. Although it would be possible to accept (or reject) realism across the board, it is more common for philosophers to be selectively realist or non-realist about various topics: thus it would be perfectly possible to be a realist about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties, but a non-realist about aesthetic and moral value. In addition, it is misleading to think that there is a straightforward and clear-cut choice between being a realist and a non-realist about a particular subject matter. It is rather the case that one can be more-or-less realist about a particular subject matter. Also, there are many different forms that realism and non-realism can take.

The question of the nature and plausibility of realism is so controversial that no brief account of it will satisfy all those with a stake in the debates between realists and non-realists....

There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table's being square, the rock's being made of granite, and the moon's being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter. Likewise, although there is a clear sense in which the table's being square is dependent on us (it was designed and constructed by human beings after all), this is not the type of dependence that the realist wishes to deny. The realist wishes to claim that apart from the mundane sort of empirical dependence of objects and their properties familiar to us from everyday life, there is no further sense in which everyday objects and their properties can be said to be dependent on anyone's linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, or whatever....

associated issues

Benton's critique of Bhasker's The Possibility of Naturalism

During the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an attempt to try an establish 'realism' as an underpinning appraoch on which to base sosial enquiry. Roy Bhasker was prominent at the time for advancing a version of realism in his books A Realist Theory of Science (Bhasker 1975) and The Possibility of Naturalism, an approach critiqued by Ted Benton (1981). The following notes explore Benton's rather convoluted critique in Radical Philosophy.

Bjasker's realism attempts to overcome the positivist-interpretive division (usually via a development of historical materialism). However, Bhasker's 'qualified naturalism', Benton contends, is ontologically the same anti-naturalism as that involved in the dualistic thesis (of natural and social worlds) of interpretive approaches such as hermeneutics and similar critiques.

What Benton is concerned with is the application of the 'transcendent realist model of science' to the social sciences.

Benton argues that in Realist Theory of Science 'transcendental arguments are adduced to demonstrate the general characteristics which must be possessed by the world if it is to be a possible object of scientific knowledge, and by society if knowledge, as a species of social practice, is to be sustained. These 'conditions of possibility' of science can be grouped as belonging to two 'dimensions', a 'transitive' and an intransitive dimension' (Benton, 1981, p. 14)

Human action is intrinsic to the transitive dimension. The transitive dimension is that which establishes knowledge as 'causal' in the sense of some antecedent knowledge generating new knowledge; people are active participants.

Human action is irrelevant in the intransitive dimension, which is structural. The object is the real structure or mechanism which acts independently of people. This structural acting is not possible in the social world.

Thus, argues Benton, a realist theory of science implies a radical dualism of the social and natural science worlds, with a concomitant epistemological dualism. (Benton, 1981, p. 15).

In order to construct a naturalist science of society it is necessary for Bhasker to revise his transitive/intransitive distinction (for it requires person-dependent mechanisms to be intransitive, which is ruled out by Bhasker's definition).

[Harvey, 1986 in preparing these notes commented that, under its gloss, the transitive-intransitive distinction is itself a rather naive dualism]

Benton argues that, in The Possibility of Naturalism, Bhasker attempts to reconstruct the dimensions (or at least the intransitive one) by drawing a distinction between existential and causal knowledge: intransitive objects in the social sciences, he claims, are existentially independent, if not causally, of the processes by which they are known. Benton argues that even accepting this distinction, the possibility of naturalism is not established.

According to Benton, in Chapter 2 of The Possibility of Naturalism, Bhasker argues that there are 'fundamental differences between natural and social objects of knowledge, which constitute 'limits' to naturalism in the social sciences, but that these differences are themselves conditions of the possibility of social scientific knowledge, in the same sense, but not achieved in the same way as natural scientific knowledge.' (Benton, 1981, p. 16)


A Realist Theory of Science identifies scientific practices and transcendentally deduces their conditions of possibility.

This cannot be applied to social sciences because there are no clearly defined/accepted social scientific practices.

What is the alternative approach in The Possibility of Naturalism? Benton argues that it is unclear but consists of three phases.

1. a priori deduction of certain general properties of societies (and persons)

2. comparison of these deductions with those general properties of natural objects in virtue of which they are possible objects of natural scientific knowledge; which results in a series of 'epistemologically significant ontological differences'.

3. attempt to demonstrate that scientific knowledge of social objects is possible (notwithstanding these differences).

1. necessitates a premise about the existence of intentional activity, which Bhasker links directly to an assumption about the pre-existence of social forms. Bhasker treats his characterisation of internal action as unproblematic. Benton argues that it is problematic. [Although he is not very clear about how it is problematic.] There are methodological difficulties involved in independently establishing the epistemologically significant properties of social objects.

2. The comparison is also problematic. Bhasker addresses this [curiously] by posing ontological limits to the possibility of naturalism in the social sciences. (Benton wants to argue that while there are problems with Bhasker's notion of naturalism as applied to the social world, they are not the ones Bhasker owns up to. Indeed, Bhasker's own reservations are not particularly serious obstacles. He goes on to show this as follows:)

First, unlike natural structures, social structures do not exist independently of the activities they govern. Benton argues that this self-evidently true assumption of Bhasker's is quite untenable: power structures exist without actively exercising power in the same way that organisms have power to reproduce, which they do not necessarily employ, etc. To establish the 'sui generis character of social structures, it is necessary to distinguish between those activities of agents which are exercises of their own intrinsic powers and those activities of agents which are really exercises of powers which reside in social structures, but operate through the activities of human agents.' (Benton, 1981, p. 17)

Such a distinction, Benton argues, is untenable and so, therefore, is the idea of (sui generis) real social structures possessing causal powers.

(Benton suggests, then, 'that Bhasker is, it seems, committed to a variant form of individualism in social science' (Benton, 1981, p. 17) although in an ambiguous footnote Benton appears to be sceptical of this apparent conclusion.)

The second ontological limit to naturalism (according to Benton's account of Bhasker) is that, unlike natural structures, social structures do not exist independently of agent's conceptions of what they are doing. Fine, says Benton, but, epistemologically speaking, so what? This merely re-presents the familiar distinction between science and commonsense and is equally applicable to natural as social science. [I must admit that whilst typing up these notes I must have lost the drift of the argument here again, as it looked at first impressions like a re-presentation of the intentionality thesis]. In general, questions about the causal relationships between social structures (of various types) and actual conceptions of them, are not a priori truths but are particular (empirically based) theories that are not inevitably generalisable/universal for all social structures.

The third ontological limit is the transitory nature of social structures. Benton argues, however, that where they do exist and while they exist, their tendencies and powers can be seen as universal. This historical/spatial limitation to universality, Benton argues, is as much a feature of natural as well as social science. I.e. Benton argues that natural mechanisms are themselves historical. But there is one distinction that does possibly have epistemological relevance and that is the speed of change of natural and social worlds. Universals in the natural world may be temporally specific but apply to a relatively unchanging natural world. The same cannot be said of the relation of social scientific universals to the social world. If cognitive understanding directly corresponds to social change then there is an epistemological difference between natural and social science; but as Bhasker and Benton assert the practice of science is relatively autonomous, so the difficulties are merely methodological. [Relative autonomy thesis can surely hardly be taken for granted.]

The fourth ontological limit depends on the open system in which social mechanisms operate. This, Benton argues, is residual positivism (which in other contexts Bhasker is aware of). The 'closed' system of natural scientific experimentation is only artificially closed (extrinsic factors, theory context of observation, instrumentation assumptions, etc.). It is, again, a methodological not epistemological problem.

The limit, the idea that the intransitive objects of knowledge in the social sciences being causal and existential, is no different from the (experimentation of the) natural sciences. This idea results from the 'partial identity' of subject and object of social knowledge and is rooted in a conception of the special status of self knowledge (a Cartesian notion) which, for example, is the 'metaphysical basis of Lukac's classic formulation of the nature/social science opposition' (Benton, 1981, p. 19).

Thus Benton suggests, Bhasker in The Possibility of Naturalism is conceding to the anti-naturalist lobby while still committed to the possibility of scientific social science. The problem, in terms of scientific practice, is finding an 'analogue of experimentation'. Social crisis possibly plays this role but the problem is the ideological one of which actor's conceptions are adequate raw materials for scientific transformation?

Benton concludes that Bhasker's project (as initially proposed via A Realist Theory of Science) has failed, i.e. he has not established an anti-positivistic naturalism through which it is possible to give an account of science under which the proper and more-or-less specific methods of both the natural and social sciences can fall. Yet Benton remains convinced of the possibility. Benton is convinced of the methodological but not epistemological difference between natural and social science; but this is not simply because he sees the natural sciences as 'correct' and social science moving towards it, i.e. he is not, so he says, a positivist.

[The article, indeed the whole recent debate about 'realism' seems to be about:

1. modifying historical/dialectical materialism [why?]

2. establishing a realist science for all realms

3. problems with Bhaskar's realism

For Harvey (1986), the problem with all forms of 'realism' that divorce themselves from historical materialism, or attempt to embrace it in general terms, is (a.) unresolved dualism of natural and social science (b.) epistemological dualism of grounding of knowledge.

related areas

See also




reflection theory



Benton, T., 1981, ‘Realism and Social Science: Some comments on Roy Bhasker's ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’’ Radical Philosophy, 27, pp. 13–21, Spring.

Bhasker, R.A, 1975, A Realist Theory of Science, London, Verso.

Bhaskar, R.A., 1979, The Possibility of Naturalism, London, Routledge.

Harvey, 1986, Notes on Benton's critique of Bhasker, 28 November 1986.

Miller, A., 2010, 'Realism' in Zalta, E.N., (Ed.) 2012, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), first published 8 July 2002, substantive revision 16 April 2010, available at, accessed 8 April 2013, substantive revision 2 October 2014, still available 25 December 2016 (no apparent change to quoted section).

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

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