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

Subjective is that which belongs to or is due to the consciousness or thinking of a perceiving subject.

explanatory context

Subjective is often used to imply a personal or idiosyncratic view that is not necessarily commensurate with the objective world. In this sense, subjective views are regarded as either untestable or as inferior to objective data.

The distinction between subjective and objective rests on the possibility of entirely objective observation. For those who subscribe to the theory laden nature of observation there is no possibility of entirely context free objective observation and so the distinction between objective and subjective is hard to maintain or is entirely spurious.

analytical review

Encyclopedia of Marxism (1999–2008) provides a more complex explanation:

Subjectivity means the coincidence of knowledge (or awareness, consciousness), agency (moral responsibility, efficacy) and identity (self-sconsciousness).

“Subjectivity” is used often nowadays to simply mean someone’s “state of mind,” accessible only to a person themselves, and inaccessible to anyone else. Although it is self-evident that you cannot experience someone else’s experience, Marxists do not use the word in this sense. In the first place there are always ways in which someone else’s state of mind can be perceptible to others and it [sic] privacy is purely relative; secondly, the supposed absolutely personal experience is inevitably tied up with a relation to cultural and material entities which are shared with others (language, images, material objects), and such “subjectivity” is inconceivable independently of active relations to such objects. (See Mikhailov’s Riddle of the Self on this)

Contrary to individualism and bourgeois psychology, subjectivity cannot be viewed as something existing solely within the internal and inaccessible recesses of individuals, but is rather an aspect of a social activity in which three relations – knowledge, agency and identity – coincide.

(1) Knowledge means a person or group of people’s ability to coordinate their activity effectively in relation to culturally and historically meaningful objects which are apprehended as ideals (See Ilyenkov’s Concept of the Ideal on this).

(2) Agency means a person or group’s understanding itself as the morally responsible actor in respect of an process or activity. This concept of agency known to structuralism is limited to the sense in which an organism is the agency for a disease it carries. Because subjectivity entails the coincidence of agency, knowledge (or consciousness) and identity, it means that the person or group, whether intentionally or not, is the morally responsible party in relation to some process, a relation unknown to structuralism.

(3) Identity means that a person or group knows itself as the knowing agent of some process or activity, including “corporate” personalities or entities with which people identify themselves. This aspect of subjectivity is often understood in terms of narratives, discourses, roles and “subject positions.” Identity includes the aspect of subjectivity by which the conscious agent has continuity through time. Subjectivity thus includes class consciousness, national identity and so on, where subjectivity inheres not just in individuals but in social formations such as classes and nations.

associated issues


related areas

See also



value freedom

Researching the Real World Section 1.7 for a detailed discussion of objectivity and subjectivity


Encyclopedia of Marxism, 1999–2008, 'Subjectivity', Glossary of Terms, available at, accessed 12 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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