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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Critical social research

core definition

Critical social research (CSR) is a term encompassing an approach to social enquiry that attempts to go beneath surface appearance by critically engaging with prevailing conceptualisations of the social world

explanatory context

CSR has a long and sustained tradition in social science and is found in the work of Marx and subsequent Marxists, feminists, anti-racists, structuralists, film theorists, post-colonialists and so on. CSR is distinct from two other methodological ‘traditions’: positivism and phenomenology. Positivism is primarily concerned with causal explanation and phenomenology with interpreting the meaning of social processes and actions. CSR is informed by critical epistemology, a view that knowledge develops through critique and is constrained by history and structure. Sociological understanding is thus more than determining causes or interpreting meanings but requires locating events in a wider historical and social setting. For example, to understand a strike, it is necessary to do more than look for the causes of the strike or to explore the meanings of those on strike. It is necessary to relate the strike to the history of industrial relations, employment prospects, government policy, legal constraints, media campaigns, and so on.


Critical social research refers to research practices that are intrinsically critical. This means that knowledge is seen to be dynamic and developed through critique. More than that, however, critical social research does not take the apparent social structure, social processes or accepted history for granted. It tries to dig beneath the surface of appearances. It asks how social systems really work, how ideology or history conceals the processes that oppress and control people.


At the heart of critical social research is the idea that knowledge is structured by existing sets of social relations. The aim of a critical methodology is to provide knowledge that engages the prevailing social structures. These social structures are seen by critical researchers, in one way or another, as oppressive structures, usually oppression based on class, gender and race.


Critical social research asks substantive questions about social processes. It aims to analyse these processes by delving beneath ostensive and dominant conceptual frames, in order to reveal the underlying practices, their historical specificity and structural manifestations.


Thus, critical social research does not set out to establish causal or pseudo-causal relationships between operationalised concepts, nor to construct ‘grand theoretical’ edifices, nor does it attempt close analysis of symbolic processes. Critical social research is anti-positivist.


What is involved is a process of deconstructing a dominant understanding and reconstructing an alternative understanding that lays bear the social and historical interrelationships. The elements of critical social research methodology are not simple building blocks that can be built up into a solution, much less ingredients in a pre-defined recipe for action. They are interlinked elements that orientate critical enquiry and are drawn together through the process of deconstruction and reconstruction.


CSR is not a theoretical exercise, but involves a dialectical process grounded in empirical evidence. Critical social research is not a prescriptive practice, it is a way of approaching the empirical world that necessitates addressing the interrelationship between data, theory, epistemological presuppositions and socio-political context. To do critical social research requires developing a critical way of thinking. There are no rules of practice nor simple methods to follow.


There is no prescribed method of collecting data; official statistics, surveys, document analysis, media analysis, in-depth interviewing, participant and non-participant observation have all been used in critical studies such as: Karl Marx (1887) Das Kapital, Paul Willis (1977) Learning to Labour, Roger Grimshaw and Tony Jefferson (1987) Interpreting Policework, Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements, Will Wright (1975) Six Guns and Society, Sallie Westwood (1984) All Day Everyday, Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed (1987) Women of Pakistan, C. Wright Mills(1956) The Power Elite, Mark Duffield (1988) Black Radicalism and the Politics of De-industrialisation, Philip Schlesinger et al. (1993).


Critical Social research should not be confused with Critical Theory or other critical theorising such as Foucaultian genealogical analysis, Derridian deconstruction or Lyortadian postmodernism. Brian Fay’s (1987) Critical Social Science, for example, despite its title, is really an exposition of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Hammersley’s (1995) positivist critique of critical research also primarily engages with the epistemology of critical theory and fails to address critical social research methodology.

analytical review

OpenLearn (undated) provide the following on critical social research :

Harvey (1990) distinguishes critical social research as follows: "Critical social research is underpinned by a critical-dialectical perspective which attempts to dig beneath the surface of historcally specific oppressive social strructures. This Iis contrasted with positivstic concerns to discover the factors that cause observed phenomena or to build grand theoretical edifices and with phenomenological attempts to interpret the meanings of social actors or attempt close analysis of symbolic processes."
(Harvey, 1990, p 1)
This quotation reveals some of the dtfferences between crlttcal research and, on the one hand, positivism (which is often, but not exclusively, associated with quantitative research such as surveys, experimentation and content analysis) and, on the other hand, phenomenology which is roughly equivalent to what we have termed the Interpretative tradition (and often, but not exclusively,associated with ethnographic research). The differences which are highlighted are as follows first, posltlvism emphaizes explanations cast in causal terms whereas critical research does not, second, whllst both interpretative and critical perspectives are concerned with social meanings of, for example, contents of documents, the former places emphasis on how these are generated in small-scale interactions whereas the latter seeks to analyse them critically in terms of structural inequalities in soclety (e.g. class, race or gender inequalities)
Within the social sciences the critical tradition owes much to Marx or to reworkings of Marx by other writers Critical research whlch is influenced by this source
is concerned with social structural inequalties founded on class inequalities. The work of the American sociologist, C. Wright Mills, was influenced by the Marxist tradition but was less explicitly class based in directing its attention at bureaucratization in mass society and at the concentration of power in a power elite (see especially Mills, 1956). During the 1970s the critical tradition received impetus from the rise of black movements and from feminism This led to the examination of structures founded on race and gender inequalities.

Under the heading 'critical research', Muncie (2006) stated:

A generic term usually applied to any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative – that make claims of scientific objectivity. Rather, critical social research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledges reproduce structural relations of inequality and oppression. Critical social research, in the sense of offering critiques of social order, has a long history encompassing the likes of Aristotle, Socrates, Hobbes and Marx. It is currently evident in the work of a wide variety of social critics, including Marxists, feminists and poststructuralists and is often ‘hailed’ through attaching the adjective of ‘critical’ to any number of existing disciplines or methodologies, as in ‘critical sociology’, ‘critical discourse analysis’, ‘critical anthropology’, ‘critical psychiatry’, ‘critical criminology’, ‘critical ethnography’ and so on....

associated issues

Elements of CSR (Harvey, 1990; Harvey and MacDonald, 1993)

Abstraction: CSR reverses the taken-for-granted approach to abstraction. Rather than abstraction being a distillation of sensory perceptions of the world (as phenomalists do), CSR admits that ‘observations’ and ‘facts’ do not exist independently of their theoretical context. If ‘facts’ are not self-evident then concepts cannot be abstracted from them. CSR moves from the abstract to the concrete and back again. It takes abstract conceptions and investigates them by putting them in a broader context . For example, aggressive behaviour in the home in which a husband pushes, hits or throws things at his wife is encapsulated by the term ‘domestic violence’. CSR goes beyond the surface appearance of domestic violence as a set of aggressive acts and reconceptualises it as, for example, an outcome of a patriarchal control. Abstraction, for CSR, is more than specifying the concrete components, it requires identifying underlying structures, which have been assimilated uncritically into the concept, with the aim of developing a reconstructed concept.


Totality: Totality refers to the notion that social phenomena are interrelated and that phenomena should not be analysed in isolation. They are part of a coherent structure which has a history. Phenomena have meaning only in terms of the structure. The structure, in turn, depends on the component parts. A simple analogy is language. A single word is a meaningless utterance or symbol taken outside the context of the structure, grammar and vocabulary of the language. The meaning of a word comes from its relations to other words. It is a meaning that also evolves over time. Understanding of a single word requires setting the word in the structure of the language and specific context of its use at a period of time. In adopting a totalistic approach, CSR relates empirical detail to a structural and historical whole. Domestic violence, is not a set of isolated aggressive acts but the manifestation of an historical relationship in which wives were chattels ‘owned’ by their husband and where violence continues to be the ultimate expression of power within the family. The tolerance afforded domestic violence, because it occurs in the ‘privacy of the home’, is part of the wider structure of control of women by men that allows, for example, intimidation of women through the threat of rape and assault if they go out alone at night.


Essence: Essence refers to the fundamental element of an analytic process. Unlike positivists who regard any concern with ‘essences’ as metaphysical, and phenomenologists who seek the essential nature of social processes as an end in themselves, CSR uses essence as a pivotal concept. Essence is the analytic element that is the key to unlocking the deconstructive process. Marx used the ‘commodity form’ as a core element in his analysis and critique of capitalist relations of production. The essential nature of domestic violence is not the range of aggressive acts but its functioning within the exploitative relationship of the family unit and as part of the social control of women. Identifying the essence is not the goal but a step on the way to building an alternative understanding.


Praxis: Praxis means practical reflective activity, it is what changes the world. For CSR, knowledge is dynamic, not because it leads to the discovery of more bits of knowledge but because of a process of fundamental reconception that is only possible as a result of direct engagement with the processes and structures which generate knowledge. In engaging social structures CSR is necessarily political. Reconceptualising domestic violence as a structural manifestation of the control of women by men shifts the emphasis from the exploration, of say, the cause of a specific incidence of domestic violence to a political issue of power and control. In undertaking such an analysis, CSR fundamentally questions the legitimacy of the familial relationship and the sanctity of ‘privacy’. CSR is not afraid of impacting on ‘research subjects’ by raising consciousness and awareness—in short by empowering them. For CSR, knowledge is not just about finding out about the world but about changing it.


Ideology: Ideology is an important concept for CSR because it serves to obscure the nature of social relations and power structures. Ideology is an extensively debated and variously defined notion. However, the key aspects of ideology from the perspective of CSR are that ideology reflects a dominant (or hegemonic) world-view which serves to legitimate the interests of dominant groups. Ideology does not so much conceal or distort oppressive practices (it is not merely false consciousness) but reifies oppression as natural. Ideology is reaffirmed through everyday practice and so can only be changed through praxis. Transcending ideology is, thus, not just about consciousness raising but requires deconstructing social relations and reconstructing alternatives. Seeing domestic violence in terms of isolated acts of aggression, reflect a patriarchal ideology that obscures the structural oppression of women.


Structure: For CSR, structure refers to the holistic notion of a complex and interdependent set of interrelated elements. (It reflects the view of structure of Piaget (1971) and is distinct from structural functionalists’ notions of system). Structures are dynamic unlike reductionists systems that are congealed sets of interrelationships. A structure embodies a dialectical relationship of part and whole, where the meaning of the totality is, as we have seen, dependent on the parts which themselves only have meaning in relation to the whole.


History: History refers to both the past and the process of constructing the past. For CSR, history is not a set of facts but an interpretation (historicism), which is guided by current perceptions. To get beneath the surface of history requires a critique of the structural forms that guide current perceptions. So, the reconstruction of history takes place alongside a structural analysis. The critical approach to history locates events in their social and political contexts, addresses the economic constraints and engages taken-for-granted ideology. As we have suggested, a critical study of domestic violence would address the historical evolution of a husband’s perceived ‘rights’ over his wife and explore changes that external structural influences on family relations.


Deconstruction and reconstruction: CSR results in an alternative understanding of substantive social processes:

• it does it by deconstructing (not demolishing) current perceptions then reconstructing an alternative understanding;

• abstraction and essence provide clues as to what is really at the heart of the issue;

• totality and ideology provide a reminder of the inter-relatedness of social phenomena and their distortion in social discourse

• praxis reaffirms that knowledge is practical and changed by practical action—CSR is overtly political;

• structure and history provide the context within which understanding is built.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2,4

Critical Social Research


Duffield, M., 1988, Black Radicalism and the Politics of De-industrialisation. Aldershot, Avebury.

Fay, B., 1987, Critical Social Science: Liberation and its limits. Cambridge, Polity.

Grimshaw, R. and Jefferson, T., 1987, Interpreting Policework: Policy and practice in forms of beat policing. London, Allen and Unwin.

Hammersley, M., 1995, The Politics of Social Research. London, Sage.

Harvey, L., 1990, Critical Social Research. London, Unwin Hyman/Routledge

Harvey, L. and MacDonald, M., 1993, Doing Sociology: A Practical Introduction. London, Macmillan.

Marx, K., [1887] 1977, Capital . London, Lawrence and Wishart.

Mills, C.W., 1956, The Power Elite. New York, Oxford University Press.

Mumtaz, K. and Shaheed, F., 1987, Women of Pakistan: Two steps forward, one step back?. London, Zed Books

Muncie, J., 2006, 'Critical research' in Judd, V., (Ed.), 2006, The Sage Dictionary of Social Research Methods, London, Sage.

'Open Learn, undated, Unit 21 Critical Analysis of Text: 4 Critical Social Research' available at, accessed 4 February 2013, still available 2 June 2019, also available here.

Piaget, J., 1971, Structuralism. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Schlesinger, P., Murdock, G. and Elliott, P., 1993, Televising Terrorism: Political Violence in Popular Culture. London, Comedia.

Westwood, S., 1984, All Day Everyday: Factory and family in the making of women’s lives. London, Pluto.

Williamson, J., 1978, Decoding Advertisements. London, Boyars.

Willis, P., 1977, Learning to Labour. Westmead, Saxon House.

Wright, W., 1975, Six Guns and Society: A structural study of the Western. Berkeley, University of California Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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