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

A theory is an integrated set of relationships with an established level of validity or legitimation.

explanatory context

Unvalidated statements do not constitute a theory as they are merely sets of hypotheses. Validation or legitimation of a theory is itself a complex process. The naive view is that a theory is valid if it is true. However, this gets us no further as it is necessary to examine the basis of the ascription of truth or falsity.

A theory, from a positivistic point of view consists of a formal system to which is added operational definitions. The formal system does not contain operational or theoretical definitions, nor explanations pertaining to the stated relationships. The formal system has to be internally consistent (as judged by rules of formal logic and mathematics) although it does not need to be deductive.

Operationalisation is necessary for the testing of a theoretical system. Hence, ideally, theory is, (naive) positivists argue, determined through experiment by induction. In the social sciences this is not a feasible procedure and instead the formal system is represented by a model which is validated and hence theory is deduced.

analytical review

Encyclopedia of Marxism (1999–2008) states:

Theory is an ideal image of the material world corresponding to practice.

Marxism understands theory uniquely because while materialism supports the existence of a material world outside consciousness, it neglects the active role of the subject in forming the world into objects. It is because Marxism recognises the importance of the subject (i.e. the human being), that we intertwine theory with practice. As a result of basing theory on practice, we can see that any established theory is always usurped by events in the real world: practice is infinitely rich. The attempt to capture the richness of practice can be managed through a multiplicity of theories, reflecting the complexity of social life, but even still, any multiplicity of theories is but a shadow of the reality of diversity in human life.

By means of theory we mentally organise the material world into what we conceive of as objects. The objects we choose to label, and how we label them, varies tremendously from one era to the next, between classes, cultures, etc. A theory thus defines its own terminology and the relations between them, and tries to remain consistent in the process. But life and language as a whole is full of contradictions, ambiguities and so on, ... and it has to be, because it is based on the fullness and infinite diversity of practice! Only the most limited and formal theory can avoid internal contradictions. Since contradictions are a natural part of the real world, Marxists understand that planned contradictions in theory is a strength, while most philosophers see contradictions as the breaking of the system. As Hegel famously pointed out, the contradictions which inevitably arise within a given theory, both within wider bodies of theory and between theory and perception, have their origin in the practical world and constitute the driving force for the development of theory, successively resolving contradictions, and uncovering new ones.

Every human being has and uses theory. Whether or not a person ever reflects on it, the way they understand the world around them is structured by a theoretical framework reflecting their own times and activity in the world. The production of tools, for example, enables human capacities to take on an objective, material existence in the form of commodities, to which human activity may subsequently be oriented, and in general, the production of material means of production lays the foundation for the theory. Production methods and technique can be internalised in the form of theory, so that activity can be imagined independently of its material execution and theory becomes a means of organising and directing practice in specialised ways....


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

Summary statements of general principles which explain regularly observed events.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1.5


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, ©Frank Elwell, last updated January 1998, page not available 20 December 2016.

Encyclopedia of Marxism, 1999–2008, 'Theory', Glossary of Terms, available at, accessed 12 April 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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