Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Abstracted empiricism

core definition

Abstracted empiricism refers to a style of quantitative sociology that attempts to explain the interrelationship between sociological variables using multivariate analysis.

explanatory context

Variables are closely defined (or operationalised). Usually it involves a social survey using a randomly selected sample.


Abstracted empiricism is another term for the approach to quantitative social research exemplified by the Columbia School of Sociology, including the work of Paul Lazarsfeld.


The term ‘abstracted empiricism’ was probably coined by C. Wright Mills (1960) to distinguish an approach to sociology that he regarded as obsessed with method and detrimental to the sociological imagination.


Critique of abstracted empiricism

Mills opposition to abstracted empiricism was based on its preoccupation with method and its consequent lack of substantive propositions and theories. Abstracted empiricists, according to Mills, project themselves as scientists, and their approach as akin to the scientific procedures of natural science. This lead to the fetishism of method, an obsession with ‘reliability’, and more concern with the philosophy of science than with the social research study itself.


Abstracted empiricists adopted one philsophy of science, derived pragmatically from one perspective on natural science, which they presupposed to be the scientific method. The end result is a methodological inhibition; problems are selected that fit the method. Sociological work hinges on a methodic specialisation detached from content or problem or area of enquiry. Theory is not adequately interrelated with data. The end result is a series of non-cumulative, independent, ahistorical, non-comparative, psychologistic, small-scale pieces of research that ignore historical social structure.


The attack on abstracted empiricism and the associated attack on grand theory lead to a move towards the ‘new sociology’ among some American sociologists.

analytical review

Crossman (2016) stated:

Abstracted empiricism is the practice of gathering sociological data for one’s own sake without developing a theoretical framework that would give that data meaning and value. This is a term coined by C. Wright Mills, who was concerned that sociology would become saturated in information but lacking ideas, especially with the dawn of high-speed computers.


Kunitz (undated, p. 7) wrote:

Abstracted Empiricism was the label Mills applied to survey research on public opinion, in which individuals were sampled, their responses coded onto Hollerith cards (the predecessor of more sophisticated electronic cod- ing) “which were then used to make statistical runs by means of which relations are sought. Undoubtedly this fact, and the consequent ease with which the procedure is learned by any fairly intelligent person, accounts for much of its appeal.” (Mills, 1959, p. 50)
According to Mills, because of its focus on individuals, studies of voting behavior, for example, did not consider “party machinery for ‘getting out the vote’”, nor did studies of social stratification give any consideration to class consciousness or false consciousness but relied instead on “spongy indices of socio-economic status.” (Mills, 1959, p. 54) This reflected a pervasive “psychologism,” which Mills defined broadly as “the attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of facts and theories about the make- up of individuals.”
Historically, as a doctrine, it rests upon an explicit metaphysical denial of the reality of social structure. At other times, its adherents may set forth a conception of struc- ture which reduces it, so far as explanations are concerned, to a set of milieux. In a still more general way...pyschologism rests upon the idea that if we study a series of individuals and their milieux, the results of our studies in some way can be added up to knowledge of social structure. (Mills, 1959, p. 67, fn12

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section


Crossman, A., 2016, Sociology: Abstracted empiricism, available at, accessed 12 December 2016. This link now (29 May 2019) goes to a different page:, which is Crossman's brief review of C. Wright Mills' Sociological Imagination.

Kunitz, S.J., (undated) 'Abstracted Empiricism in Social Epidemiology' available at, accessed 21 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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