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

Deconstruction is a term with two rather distinct meanings. First, it refers to critical dialectical processes. Second, it is a specific approach to literary analysis developed in the work of Derrida and appropriated to some extent by art critics and by a fringe group of architects.

explanatory context


Deconstruction is part of the process of dialectical analysis. Dialectical analysis works on the basis of deconstructing a socio-historically specific entity, revealing its essential nature (as an oppressive process) and reconstructing an analytic account on the basis of this revealed essence. The critical process that enables deconstruction and reconstruction is the dialectical shuttling between part and whole, abstract and concrete, past and present.


Linguistic deconstruction emerged out of the work of Jaques Derrida and over the last twenty years has been an important element of post-structuralism. It has questioned the nature and possibility of meaning of philosophical and literary texts. It has thus been opposed to traditional literary criticism which is concerned with the meaning and aesthetics of a piece of literature.


Although originated in Europe, deconstruction has been fashionable in the United States and the major school has been the Yale School of Literary Criticism.


Deconstruction (according to Derrida) is not a method but a way of thinking about literary products. One of the central notions of linguistic deconstruction is that signification is not self-evident. The apparent bond between signifier and signified is not stable but is always in the process of disengaging. There is slippage between signifier and signified (referred to by the French word differance). This slippage leads to the view that language has within it an inherent basis for its own critique. Any text may appear to have a determinate meaning but if one questions the apparently fixed relation between signifier and signified then the text becomes open to multiple interpretations.


Deconstruction, while critically addressing the nature of language, does so in isolation from the social context. This has been a major point of criticism by Marxist literary critics and linguists, and from those on the ‘left’ generally who see the concentration on the text as evading social and political responsibilities.


In art, deconstruction is a term that has hovered on the edge of art criticism but has made no real headway as an analytic concept as it is too vague in respect of the extensive critique of the taken-for-granteds of perception that has pervaded art for a century.


Deconstruction became assimilated into architecture through the work of a fringe architects in the mid-1980s. The approach is both pragmatic and theoretical, with people like Frank Ghery adopting a rather untheoretical practical approach and others like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid and Bernard Tschumi adopting a more theoretical approach. The theoretical approach is predicated upon the Derridian idea that deconstruction can be used to challenge the hegemony of central architectural principles such as beauty and function.


Deconstruction is seen as the basis for a radical critique of architecture (Eisenman), as providing the basis for new ideas (Hadid) and as expressing the information revolution (Tschumi). In practice, this means buildings with functionless components like inverted staircases and non-supporting pillars, and with skewed and distorted planes and lines, including the illusion of instability or immanent collapse (see for example the Hysolar Institute Building, University of Stuttgart, from 1987, pictured). One concern of architects using deconstruction is to emphasise the lack of permanence of the contemporary era, this includes a particular attack on what is regarded as the obsolescence of cause and effect. Some architects (e.g. Tschumi) who advocate deconstruction argue that it is a truly post-modernist architecture. This is a point of great debate however. See also deconstructivism

analytical review

Tate Gallery (undated), although referring to art, is misleading as it ignores the deconstruction in dialectical analysis which predates Derrida by at least a century:

Deconstruction is a form of criticism first used by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1970s which asserts that there is not one single intrinsic meaning to be found in a work, but rather many, and often these can be conflicting.

A deconstructive approach to criticism involves discovering, recognising and understanding the underlying and unspoken and implicit assumptions, ideas and frameworks of cultural forms such as works of art.

In Derrida's book La Vérité en peinture (1978) he uses the example of Vincent van Gogh's painting Old Shoes with Laces, arguing that we can never be sure whose shoes are depicted in the work, making a concrete analysis of the painting difficult.

Since Derrida's assertions in the 1970s, the notion of deconstruction has been a dominating influence on many writers and conceptual artists.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Critical Social Research Section 1.6.9

Researching the Real World Section


Picture source:, accessed 15 January 2013, still available 3 June 2019.


Tate Gallery, nd, 'Deconstruction', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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