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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core definition

Abstraction is usually construed as distillation of sensory perception of the world of objects into conceptual categories.

explanatory context

That is, we start from the (literally) objective world and select out the recurrent or apparently core or defining features until an abstract concept is formulated (at least in our minds if not in a directly communicable form). This process of distillation of some features from a set of observed objects is at the basis of most systems of classification. For example, we develop an abstract notion of ‘tree’ by examining a number of different forms of trees and distilling out those aspects that are intrinsic to the abstract concept 'tree'.


This process is adopted in phenomenalist (not phenomenological) approaches to knowledge, which involve an implicit assumption that science begins with factual observations and abstracts from them.


Another view is that abstraction is conceptualisation without reference to specific entities. In this sense, abstraction is the identification or conception of the essence of an idea or object.


A more pragmatic view of abstraction is to see it as inhering in practical application. That is, we abstract by making use of something. For example, we grasp the abstract structure of a musical score as we make use of it in learning to play a musical instrument.


Abstraction in critical social research

Critical social research, however, reverses the usual distillation process of abstractive thought. Factual observation is not the starting point as facts do not exist independently of their theoretical context. Facts, grounded as they are in sensory perception of some kind (observation, for short) have no meaning unless they are related to other facts, i.e., combined into a theoretical structure. Observation is theory laden. So the objects of observation are only apparently concrete but in actuality are abstractions based on theory.


Critical social research moves from the abstract to the concrete. It starts with the abstract generalisation. Such abstractions must not, however, be construed as concrete facts in themselves, on the contrary, they must be seen as notions with no empirical content. The abstract concept is engaged as a research topic in itself, rather than taken-for-granted. Rather than simply providing a basis for ordering appearances and ultimately reifying them, a critical approach to abstraction uses them to get beneath the surface of appearances.


For example, Marx’s process of abstraction in Capital involves a rejection of the taken-for-granted starting point of bourgeois economics, i.e., the money form of exchange. Marx examined the essential nature of capitalist relations. He did not, therefore, start with money values, but examined the basis of production and exchange to see what lies behind the obfuscation of money values. The commodity was the essence he revealed. He showed that capitalism was essentially about the production and exchange of commodities.


Harvey (undated) argued that critical abstraction is at the heart of science, which has been restricted by adherence to positivism.


Abstraction and classification

Abstraction in the sense of distillation of some features from a set of observed objects is at the basis of most systems of classification.


Rather more superficially, abstraction may be seen as simply ignoring irrelevant features (whatever their relation to the abstracted category) and simply concentrating on the classifying feature. This simplified view raises questions about the origin of the classification schema.


Abstract art

Abstraction in art refers both to the process of abstraction and to the Abstract art movement.


The general notion of abstraction is to the representation of objects in painting, sculpture, etc., by devices that literally re-present the object of attention. Arguably, all painting, being two dimensional, abstracts from the three-dimensional objects that it represents. (The very point that Abstract Art makes).


However, abstraction in art usually has a more specific focus and refers to either the process of abstraction from appearances or the construction of art objects which have an ‘abstract’ (i.e. non-representational) form. (Murray and Murray, 1968; Osborne, 1970)


The Abstract Art movement might be more accurately named non-representational art. It normally refers to the 20th century movement that reacted to traditional European naturalism.


However, the term ‘abstract art’ is confusing and contentious. Essentially, abstract art takes one of the following approaches:


First, essentialism, i.e. the depiction of the essential or generic forms of things, eliminating particulars or accidental aspects. Thus movements such as Impressionism simplify the world by generating an impression of its salient features. Precursors of Abstract Art (such as Cubism and Expressionism) are sometimes seen as abstracting a few simple elements from the world. This essentialist approach has sometimes inaccurately been referred to as stylisation or distortion.


Second, the creation of a construct of shapes and colours derived from a scene or object but which has no identifiable specific references to the original real world objects on which the painting was based (e.g., Bissiere, Brancusi, Hitchens).


Third, the creation of an independent construct of shapes, colours, lines that have no direct referent to things in the world, i.e. which are not abstracted from the world but are built up from non-representational shapes and patterns (sometimes referred to as ‘geometrical’ forms). This mode of painting is sometimes referred to as ‘pure abstract’ but does not in fact abstract from appearances.


This third type of abstraction takes an organic form (e.g., Kandinsky, Miro, Arp, Kline) a classical form, which tends to be more ‘geometrical’ (e.g. Mondrian, Ben Johnson, Malevich, Gabo and Maholy-Nagy) and an abstract expressionist form (e.g. Pollock, Rothko). There is no strict separation between these forms.

analytical review

Goodman (2009) described abstraction as:

Term used in an art context in several ways: in general for processes of imagemaking in which only some of the visual elements usually ascribed to ‘the natural world’ are extracted (i.e. ‘to abstract’), and also for the description of certain works that fall only partially, if at all, into what is commonly understood to be representational. Differing ideas and manifestations of abstraction appeared in artists’ works in the successive modern movements of the 20th century. As the notion of abstraction in the second sense is always dependent on what the parameters of representation are thought to be, the two terms can be contiguous in definition, raising interesting points for the general theory of reference. For instance, an abstract work is often defined as one that does not represent anything, but not every work that does not represent anything is necessarily abstract. A painting that has a fictitious subject, for example a painting of Don Quixote or Camelot, does not represent anything (for there is no such person or place) but is not therefore abstract.


Tate Gallery (undated) refers to abstract art:

Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks.

Strictly speaking, the word abstract means to separate or withdraw something from something else.

The term can be applied to art that is based an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised.

It is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality. Some artists of this 'pure' abstraction have preferred terms such as concrete art or non-objective art, but in practice the word abstract is used across the board and the distinction between the two is not always obvious.

Abstract art is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality.

Since the early 1900s, abstract art has formed a central stream of modern art.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Critical social research

Researching the Real World Section


Goodman, N., 2009, 'Abstraction', originally but no longer available at, accessed 28 January 2013.

Harvey, L., undated, The Nature and Growth of Science, mimeo.

Murray, P. & Murray, L., 1968, A Dictionary of Art and Artists, (second edition). Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Osborne, H. (Ed.), 1970, The Oxford Companion to Art. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Abstract art', available at, accessed 21 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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