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

Dialectic refers to the process of revealing contradictions.

explanatory context


Originally (in Greek philosophy), dialectics was the art of knowing truth by uncovering the contradictions in reasoning of one’s adversary. The general medieval use of the term was to refer to formal reasoning.


This idea of dialectic as rational and as engaging contradictions was at the heart of most usages of the term until the 19th century. With the development of German idealism in the 19th century dialectics, became extended to refer not just to contradictions in discussion but to contradictions in reality.


This idea was central to Hegel’s objective idealism and dialectics came to be transformed into a theory of evolution and universal relations.


Marx adopted and developed the term in his critique of Hegel and in his subsequent analyses of the State and of capitalism. Indeed, dialectical thinking is integral to Marxism in the development of a materialist critique.


Central to modern (since Hegel) dialectical thinking is the idea of the resolution of contradictions through synthesis.


Dialectics considers all phenomena as being in movement, in process of perpetual change.


Socratic dialectic

Socratic dialectic simply refers to the conversational method of argument, which Socrates embraced. In this sense it fits closely to the Greek root of the term, which means to discourse or to converse.


Platonic dialectic

lato, in effect, uses dialectic to conflate logic and metaphysics. For him, dialectic (dialektike) is the art of defining ‘Ideas’ and the method of determining their interrelationship in the light of a single principle.


Plato, in his writings, places different emphases on the term dialectic. In his early writing (Republic) the dialectic is the supreme knowledge that accounts for (explains) everything in relation to the ‘idea of the Good’.


In his later dialogues (The Sophist), dialectic is the name given to study of the interconnection of the Platonic Forms or Ideas and appears to refer to a method of definition by species or genus. [EXPLAIN]


Aristotelian dialectic

Aristotelian dialectic simply means reasoning from premises that are probable (that is, generally accepted).


Kantian dialectic

Kantian or transcendental dialectic referred to a branch of philosophy that exposes sophistries, such as arguments purporting to prove the existence of god.


Kant’s notion of dialectical criticism showed the mutually contradictory character of the principles of knowledge when extended to metaphysical realities. [EXPLAIN]


Hegelian dialectic

Dialectical analysis is a central feature of Hegel’s objective idealism and was linked, for Hegel, to the notion of the Absolute.


The dialectical process, for Hegel, was the unification of opposites (which exist in reality) in the complex relation of parts to the whole. Specifically, each formulation of the universe (a thesis) is countered, because of the contradictions in the world and thus in the thesis, by another formulation (an antithesis). Neither is satisfactory and they are combined into a synthesis (which Hegel called Aufhebung (or sublation)). The synthesis contains the partial truth of both of them, for Hegel this meant the synthesis preserved what is rational in the thesis and antithesis but discarded the irrational.


Hegel portrays the Absolute as continuously attempting to resolve the dialectic of thesis and antithesis via higher and higher syntheses until an all-encompassing synthesis is achieved. In this sense, the dialectic, as the working through of the Absolute, determines the course of history.


One should be careful in over-determining the Hegelian dialectic. It was Fichte who produced a mechanical version of the dialectic, which implied that any thesis was opposed by an antithesis and was mechanically resolved into a synthesis (as in the Engelian dialectic, in which he attempts to incorporate dialectical thinking into positivistic physical science).


Hegel’s approach was not a simple conflict of opposites but more the resolution of two incomplete accounts into a more general formulation.


The Hegelian development refers back to the Platonic dialectic, which attempts to determine the interrelationship of ideas in the light of a single principle.


Marx’s dialectic.

Marx’s dialectic is intrinsic to Marx’s methodology. Marx transformed dialectical thinking into a critical tool. His development of dialectics grew out of his critique of Hegelian dialectics.


Hegel proposed the dialectic as a general law of history. For him, history was determined by the dialectic irrespective of the actions of historical subjects. The dialectic is the inevitable and unstoppable mechanism of the working through of a process of self-realisation of a metaphysical entity. For Hegel, this manifested itself in the historical struggle of nations.


Marx disagreed with this interpretation of dialectic. He did not abandon the concept of dialectical thought, but radically transformed it.


(It is debateable as to whether Marx accepted Hegel’s notion of the dialectic, as some commentators have suggested, but his transformation was so radical as to make this a relatively unimportant point of debate. What Marx did retain was the notion that contradictions existed in reality).


Marx developed a materialist scientific (as opposed to positivist scientific) use of dialectic. Marx substituted the economic rather than metaphysical to explain the historical process which he conceived as a struggle between classes (rather than a struggle between nations). Furthermore, Marx saw history as the result of practical reflective action (praxis) on the part of social groups or classes. The dialectical process of historical change inheres in the conflict that arises between active classes. However, as historical materialism argues, while people make history they do not control it.


Marx’s dialectic, then, does not work mechanically. The dialectical process is the working out of a specific historical moment, which is effected by praxis. It is not an inevitable process, nor is it a linear progression. It is thus poorly characterised by a mechanistic (Fichtean) view of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Such a mechanistic notion implies an inherent contradiction in history, which owes nothing to concrete historical settings nor practical human action.


This mechanistic view tended to be developed after Marx’s death in the wake of the collapse of the Paris Commune of 1870. It is indicative of the approach developed by Marxist realist materialists.


It is generally accepted that Marx used dialectical thinking in his writings. However, the nature of Marx’s dialectic, and even the extent to which he referred to it as such, is a subject of debate.


The debate is interwoven with arguments about the extent to which Marx adopted or endorsed dialectical materialism. Marx, it is argued, never referred to dialectical materialism, or to 'dialectics'. However, his historical materialism, was clearly dialectical in its development.


Whether or not Marx developed, or laid the basis for, dialectical materialism it is unlikely that Marx accepted the idea of dialectical laws, which came to be developed in Marxist realist materialism.


Engelian (or materialist) dialectic

Engels, in his view of dialectical materialism, argues for a progressive unification through the contradiction of opposites. (This is sometimes referred to as the materialist dialectic). This reflects Hegel’s approach. However, Engels reverses the Heglian order of primary spirit and secondary world.


For Engels, dialectics became the general laws of motion of both the external world and of human thought. The development of nature itself is viewed as a result of the struggle between contradictions within nature.


In this formulation dialectics becomes a science of the universal laws governing the development of nature, human society and thought.


The formal principles in this process are the (Fichtean principles of) negation of the negation, the transformation of quantity into quality and the identity of opposites.


Essentially, Engels tends to a rather mechanistic view of dialectical analysis: of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, (which Marx did not adopt in a mechanistic way).


The extent to which this Engelian enterprise reflects Marx has been greatly debated. Marx did not, it has been argued, use the term dialectical materialism.

analytical review

O'Connor (2003) wrote:

Generally speaking, dialectic is a mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation. As such, dialectic is the medium that helps us comprehend a world that is racked by paradox. Indeed, dialectic facilitates the philosophic enterprise as described by Bertrand Russell, who wrote that "to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it" (Russell, 1945, xiv).

The word 'dialectic' is derived from the Greek and has three classical connotations. In Plato's writings, dialectic is a highly valued vehicle for truth; it is akin to dialogue and closely associated with the Socratic method. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that dialectic was an inferior form of reasoning, as it was based on a priori knowledge rather than empirical observation. Finally, Cicero associated dialectic with rhetoric. In modern times, dialectic has been vital within the German philosophical tradition beginning with Kant. His definition of dialectic, which is closely related to that of Aristotle, involves illusory knowledge that is reminiscent of sophistry. In other words, "[Kant's] dialectic no longer offers rules for executing convincing judgments, but teaches how to detect and uncover judgments which bear a semblance of truth but are in fact illusory" (Caygill, 1995, p. 157). Kant's dialectic could be considered a medium of false epistemology.

It is with Hegel, however, that the modern notion of dialectic crystallized. While his thinking was shaped by Kant's discussion of antimonies in The Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel considered dialectic a medium of truth rather than a means to uncover illusion. Above all, Hegel's dialectic was based on his emphatic belief in connectedness, or the interrelation of all aspects of the universe. In other words, "the apparent self-substinence of finite things appeared to him as illusion; nothing, he held, is ultimately and completely real except the whole" (Caygill, 1995, p. 157). Indeed, dialectic was the cornerstone of his philosophy, and he conceptualized systems as diverse as the history of the world and the journey of the human spirit as operating according to dialectical structures. Roughly speaking, Hegel's dialectic involves the reconciliation of ostensible paradoxes to arrive at absolute truth. The general formulation of Hegel's dialectic is a three-step process comprising the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. One begins with a static, clearly delineated concept (or thesis), then moves to its opposite (or antithesis), which represents any contradictions derived from a consideration of the rigidly defined thesis. The thesis and antithesis are yoked and resolved to form the embracing resolution, or synthesis. Succinctly put, the dialectic "actualizes itself by alienating itself, and restores its self-unity by recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation" (Bottomore, 1995, p. 122). This formula is infinitely renewable; Hegel contended it would only terminate upon the world's end. Each time synthesis is achieved it "generate[s] new internal contradictions, and then a further resolution" (Macey, 2000, p. 96). It is also teleological because "each later stage of dialectic contains all the earlier stages, as it were in solution; none of them is wholly superceded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the whole" (Russell 1945, p. 731). The infinite character of the dialectic reflects Hegel's notion of holistic truth and his optimistic belief in progress....Marx shared Hegel's interest in modeling subjectivity as a dialectical relationship. Dialectical materialism is the first important permutation of the Hegelian dialectic, and the ways in which it departs from Hegel can be summarized by a cursory glance at the fundamental difference between Idealism and Materialism. In short, Hegel's dialectic assumed that rationality was the driving force in the universe, whereas Marx focused on material forces as directing the world's course. In other words, "within the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism, the idea of the dialectic refers to the contradiction between classes, the forces and relations of production, and modes of production" (Macey, 2000, p. 96). .

Another view contrats dialectic with rhetoric:

Dialectic is the art of logical argumentation. It has been a sister discipline to rhetoric since before Aristotle. Like rhetoric, dialectic is concerned with persuasion and logical proof and takes into account opposing viewpoints on a given issue (see in utrumque partes).

However, unlike rhetoric, dialectic is restricted to issues of argumentation, proof, and the methods and fallacies of logical reasoning. Dialectic does not theorize the use of emotion (except as a fallacy), nor does it concern itself with audiences or with contexts (see kairos) as does rhetoric.

At times in the history of rhetoric dialectic has been conceived of as a counterpart (antistrophos) to rhetoric; at times, it has competed with rhetoric. Those who have emphasized the centrality or priority of dialectic over rhetoric (such as Plato or Peter Ramus in the Renaissance) have done so by reducing rhetoric to being concerned only with style, or with managing appearances and manipulating audiences. (Burton, undated).


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines dialectical as:

An interpretation of change emphasizing the clash of opposing interests and the resulting struggle as the engine of social transformation.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines:

dialectic: For Marx, this meant concrete contradictions in society that can only be resolved through social change. (Marx)

dialectical approach: A way of studying society that focuses on contradictions and reciprocal relations between actors and structures. (Marx)


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) identifies seven meanings of dialecticbased on a summary by Louis Schneider (1971):

1.A discrepancy between aim or intention and outcome 2.Goal shifts and displacements (heterogeny of ends or functional autonomy) 3.The idea that effective adaptations to a situation stand in the way of future progress, "success brings failure" 4.Development through conflict 5.Contradiction, opposition, or paradox 6.Contradictory emotions 7.Conflict dissolved in a coalescence of opposites


associated issues


related areas

See also







Critical Social Research Section 1.6


Bottomore, T., 1995, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Burton, G.O., undated, 'Dialectic', in Silva Rhetoricae, available at, accessed 3 March 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Caygill, H., 1995, A Kant Dictionary. Cambridge, Blackwell.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Macey , D., 2000, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin Books.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, page not available 17 December 2016accessed 14 May 2013.

O'Connor, K., 2003, 'Dialectic', University of Chicago, available at, accessed 3 March 2013, still available 3 June 2019.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Russell, B., 1945, The History of Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schneider, L., 1971, 'Dialectic in sociology', American Sociological Review, 36, pp. 667–78.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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