Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


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.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Aesthetics refers to the theoretical analysis of the form, expression and symbolism in works of art.

explanatory context

Aesthetic as an adjective is commonly used to refer to visual appearance. For example, cultural products (including ‘works of art’) are judged to be aesthetically pleasing or not.


Aesthetics as a noun in its modern sense usually refers to a body of theory about art. It tends to focus on two elements. First, analysis of the nature of art theory, theories of art should relate to form, expression, or symbol. Second, theories about art works, including questions of intention, representation or illusion.


Thus, aesthetics is difficult to distinguish from the theory of art criticism.


Approaches to aesthetics

There are several different approaches to aesthetics.


An empiricist approach, popular in Britain and the USA, has developed the close focus on art work indicated above, and tended to concentrate on the logic of critical judgement and thus of aesthetic appreciation.


Aesthetics has long been associated with the notion of beauty. It has been referred to as the science of beauty, the philosophy of (good) taste, and even the theory of fine art. In such approaches, the concentration is upon the nature of beauty as idealised form. This has lead to a lot of debate that really hinges on attempts to draw up objective criteria of beauty.


A more subjective approach to such issues derives from the German tradition of philosophy, especially from Kant. He argued that aesthetic judgement (unlike cognitive or moral judgement) is entirely subjective. It is the basis for connecting the cognitive/theoretical and moral/practical aspects of our nature. This has lead to a German tradition (including Schiller and Hegel) to concentrate on the subjective conditions of aesthetic consciousness linking aesthetics to philosophy of mind.


This approach, which looks at the relation of art and imagination, has been further developed by existentialist and phenomenologists especially those, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, who have attempted to develop ideas about the psyche, imagination and art.


Marxist aesthetics has been concerned with the social value of art and its social genesis. It is concerned to show the wider social structural links and explore the social historical nature of art. In a sense this ties aesthetics more closely with a social art history. Some Marxists have attempted to introduce moral judgements about the suitability of subject and treatment into their analysis of art, this can be seen in the debates about socialist realism.


Specialist Aesthetics

Specialist Aesthetics sets out a new programme against culture. It attempts to undermine the taken-for-granted principles of cultural production. Specialist aesthetics not only claims that aesthetic is limited to a specific context but, often, that only ‘insiders’ can know or appreciate the specialist aesthetic.


Three levels of critique:

1. Generally recognised but specifically understood

Art form is said to possess qualities discernible to anyone: for example, Chineses brushwork art has an articulated aesthetic norms and is recognisable from its content and form. However, it is not understood by everyone even though recognised.


2. Incoherent exoticism

Based on an 'ecstatic' or 'irrational' involvement (shakers, ranters, maybe Rastafarians). It is a 'subjective', essentially non-communicative experience.


3. Ascriptive

Based on a biological or quasi-biological 'thesis'. It excludes non-members from understanding/experiencing. Some proponents suggest, for example, that males cannot appreciate a feminist aesthetic.


Insider and outsider

Merton talks of insider and outsider truths in any social/cultural whole. The insider and outsider versions tend to be incompatible. At its extreme this leads to ethnocentrism. It leads to a notion of ‘be one to understand one’.


Criticisms of the insider view:

it is too simple

it is too segmented

people would not have a single affiliation

it ignores achieved status and sticks with ascribed status

some insiders are also outsiders, insiders do not have homogeneous perspectives.


Transformation: how can an insider group hope to transform the assumptions of the general culture?

1. unmasking

2. new system of references

3. make the new idea total: imperialist tendency.


For example, Alan Shields addresses the possibility of a black aesthetic, see below

analytical review

Budd (1998) wrote:

Aesthetics owes its name to Alexander Baumgarten who derived it from the Greek aisthanomai, which means perception by means of the senses (see Baumgarten, A.G.). As the subject is now understood, it consists of two parts: the philosophy of art, and the philosophy of the aesthetic experience and character of objects or phenomena that are not art. Non-art items include both artefacts that possess aspects susceptible of aesthetic appreciation, and phenomena that lack any traces of human design in virtue of being products of nature, not humanity. How are the two sides of the subject related: is one part of aesthetics more fundamental than the other? There are two obvious possibilities. The first is that the philosophy of art is basic, since the aesthetic appreciation of anything that is not art is the appreciation of it as if it were art. The second is that there is a unitary notion of the aesthetic that applies to both art and non-art; this notion defines the idea of aesthetic appreciation as disinterested delight in the immediately perceptible properties of an object for their own sake; and artistic appreciation is just aesthetic appreciation of works of art. But neither of these possibilities is plausible.


Iowa State University (undated):

Aesthetics: Greek aisthesis = sensation. In Philosophy, the ideas about beauty in nature and in cultural products. Pre-modern and modern sensibility argue there are absolute standards for determining that which is beautiful, superb and excellent. Postmodernists hold that such definitions are a matter of power and convention. In some cultures, heavy women are considered beautiful; in other cultures, slim women are so considered.


Tate Gallery (undated):

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty and taste.

What constitutes beauty has been a much-debated topic in Western art. In Grecian times, the philosopher Aristotle thought beauty was about function and proportion, while in the early 1700s, the Earl of Shaftesbury argued that goodness and beauty are one and the same. In 1735 the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten posed the question 'What is beauty?' and it is from this moment that our modern reading of the word begins to evolve. He used the word 'aesthetics' to describe his process of understanding what makes something beautiful or ugly and how we make these judgements. The term 'aesthetcis' is derived from the Greek word 'aesthesis' meaning perception.

Later, the philosopher Immanuel Kant sought to clarify what aesthetics meant by writing Critique of Judgement, in which he tried to work out how to analyse beauty, as well as taste and the Sublime. He concluded that there is no scientific rule for determining what beauty is, as it is subjective, and in the eye of the beholder.


associated issues

Is there a black aesthetics?


The basic intention of Allen Shileds' (1973) essay is the clarification of the term black aesthetics.


'There is an obvious case to be made for the idea of black culture and all of its elements, a black style of art, song and rhythm production, indeed a kind of black passion'. (Shields, 1973, p. 319)


Shields is here referring to cultural manifestations as African art, jazz, blues, etc. Shields argues, however, that black aesthetic can only be distinguished at a trivial and inconsequential level. He argues that there is no theory of black aesthetics distinct from general aesthetic theory. By (aesthetic) theory Shields means:

the explicit articulation and integration of principles used to clarify and explicate issues arising from our experience of art and nature conceived aesthetically. (Shields, 1973, p. 319)

By general theory Shields means 'simply those issues of the most encompassing and inclusive kinds brought to an integrated formulation, a systematic statement' (Shields, 1973, p. 319).


Shields argues that, for example, while an examination of 'primitive art of various African black tribes' reveals some distinctive elements of subject matter, technique and form, these are not particularly distinct from art of other cultures (Aztec or Eskimo, for example) nor do the discernible differences consist in anything in respect of feelings, emotions or perceptual impact more than say Japanese, Chinese, British or Swedish art.


In this sense to talk about a unique experience as indicative of a specialist aesthetic is trivial because nothing whatever can be derived from the concept if it simply relies on unique experiences,


Knowing that a dance is 'black' does not allow one to infer anything else significantly about the work in advance of seeing the work performed. (Shields, 1973, p.320)


Shields argues that one needs to avoid confusions concerning the concept 'black' in respect of aesthetics.
1. Black aesthetics as embodied in works which are a reflection of skin colour. I.e. any work done by a black person is indicative of black aesthetics.
2. Black aesthetics being represented in a discernible black intellectual pursuit as in, e.g., black history, anthropology or literature. Where black history means history of black peoples then there is no problem (same with anthropology). But where black history
means history as peculiarly black form of history, then problems arise. This is notable in respect of literature and art.

3. Black in a political sense. E.g. black literature as a self-determined body of literature with a set of critical criteria over which black people have control.xxxxxxxxxxThe implications of these uses of 'black' are that black aesthetics can only be known and conveyed by black people. This is the ascriptive view.


As such black aesthetics are non-communicable but are known intuitively.


Shields argues against the ascriptive view. He says that to be a theory black aesthetics must be graspable and capable of application by anyone, irrespective of colour.


Indeed, the knowledgeable outsider is more likely to be able to articulate an account of the content and import of an art object than an ill-informed insider (who would take tend to take the object for granted).


Thus, Shields is assuming that aesthetic criteria are in some way objective in the sense of being identifiable and communicable.


He does point out that one must avoid assuming that the meaning of art expression is a direct function of the mentality of its creator.


Shields sums up what he sees as the nature of aesthetic theory.


Until the aesthetic exposure can be brought to articulation, can be given explicit statement in language capable of controlling and directing such experiences, until we can bring these experiences and their statement to the form of argument and analysis, to criticism and counter comparison, we cannot truly be said to have entered into the aesthetics of the art object at all. Direct, palpable and nascent perceptual responses are inchoate and unexpressed, devoid of theory entirely. (Shields, 1973, p. 322)


He goes on to say that aesthetics is not specific to culture, ethnicity or nation.


If this analysis I have made is correct, it will follow that there can be no defensible meaning to an aesthetics that is thought to be completely dependent upon a particular ethnic or cultural setting for its meaning and understanding. It is also strongly suggested that the tradition in some fields of art to categorize works according to points of national origin is a fundamental aesthetic mistake, defensible only in terms of the economy of order and organization of those works and not in terms of the aesthetic content of their criteria. (Shields, 1973, p. 322)


Thus, in conclusion, black aesthetics is not a defensible theoretical formulation.


Tate Gallery (undated) discusses 'The Black Aesthetic':

The black aesthetic is a cultural ideology that developed in America alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s and promoted black separatism in the arts. The theorist Larry Neal proclaimed in 1968, that the Black arts were the 'aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept', and argued that young writers and artists should confront the contradictions arising out of the African-American's experience of racism and marginalisation in the West.

The development of a Black Aesthetic was seen as crucial to the development of an African-American identity at this revolutionary moment in American politics. Artists were called upon to seek a new aesthetic in opposition to the white western one, and not to ignore their black communities. Early artworks took the form of murals, that confronted social issues and sought to galvanise local black communities. They were colourful and rich with symbolic imagery, and often depicted members of the black community, from Jazz musicians to politicians.

Artists associated with the Black Aesthetic include the visual arts workshop, Dana Chandler, Gary Rickson, William Walker, Jeff Donaldson, Eugene Wade, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams, many of who went on to form AFRI-COBRA.


Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)

related areas

See also


Art criticism

Black art

Black perspective


Budd, M., 1998, 'Aesthetics' in Craig, E. (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London, Routledge.

Iowa State University, undated, originally available at, no longer available 1 October 2017.

Shields. A., 1973, 'Is There a Black Aesthetics?', Leonardo, 6 , pp. 319-23.

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

Tate Gallery, nd, 'The Black Aesthetic', available at, accessed 21 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home