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

Essentialism is the view that entities have some immutable core or characteristic that defines the entity but tht is not always apparent.

explanatory context

There are various forms of essentialism.


Platonic essentialism

Platonic essentialism is the view held by Plato that there existed abstract entities (forms) of which physical objects were merely imperfect copies.


Aritotelian essentialism

Aristotelian essentialism is the broad view that objects ‘contain’ essences without which they would be as they are.


Essentialism and phenomenology

Phenomenological analysis, especially transcendental phenomenology, is concerned with revealing essences. This process is achieved through the epoché, which is the bracketing away of the superfluous descriptions and theories of the object of contemplation so that it can be reduced to its essential elements. Essentialism and


Marxism/Critical analysis

Marxist/Critical methodology reflects some phenomenological enquiry in its concern to get beneath the surface of phenomenal appearances. However, the aim is not a mere reduction to essences. Rather the aim is to utilise the examination of the essential nature of phenomenal appearances as a base for a fundamental critique of the social process. The unveiling of surface appearance is but an initial step. The ultimate aim is to reveal the workings of the social processes. For Mills (1959) this was a ‘laying bear of the wires’ while, for Marx, it provided the basis for practical revolutionary activity.


Critical analyses oppose positivistic explanation because such an explanation is dependent upon characteristics dictated by the prevailing (bourgeois) conditions of production. Thus, the positive view of science does not allow it to discover differences between the given and the essences of any shape or form. It does not even begin to search for such differences. It believes science is a classification of facts that add nothing to their content.


Marx, in Capital, for example, attempted to get to the meaning behind the categories used by the political economists of the time. He constantly sought the ‘hidden substratum’, the ‘inner connections’, the ‘intrinsic movements’, or the ‘inner structure’ connecting the phenomena under investigation. Such terms, while central to Marx, are anathama to positivists. Marx wanted more than the organisation of ‘facts’, he wanted to reveal the essential nature of the social world that lay beneath the world of appearances. Further, Marx argued, phenomenal forms obscure their own inherent historicality because they present themselves to people as self-evident, natural forms of social life which at the same time denies the possibility of transformation.


Thus, for the critical methodologist, essences are dynamic and historical, and structure and history are complementary aspects of a single totality.

analytical review

Twine (undated) wrote:

What is Essentialism?
Essentialism, in its most stripped down meaning refers to the belief that people and/or phenomenon have an underlying and unchanging 'essence'. I like to work with a definition that refers to any statement that seeks to close off the possibility of changeable human behaviour. The term essentialism is commonly used in three main ways.

Firstly it refers to the use of biological, physiological and, increasingly, genetic, causes as explanations for human social behaviour. In this case little, if any, explanatory weight is given to psychological, sociological or cultural explanations. An example would be to argue that men are more aggressive than women and that this is inevitable due to hormonal differences. So the intention here is to use biology to argue that a particular social difference and/or behaviour is unchangeable.

A second use of the term essentialism is when generalised statements are asserted that make no reference to cross-cultural differences or previous historical variation. This is also sometimes called universalism. An example would be to state that men are more visual then women, in all cultures and at all times. Against this a sociologist or anthropologist may argue that the way we use our senses, and which ones we prioritise, is very definately something that varies between cultures and throughout history.

Thirdly, the term essentialism refers to when in everyday conversation or also in academic writing we make use of unified concepts. This means when we talk of the experiences, for example, of white disabled women. Now at first glance this is better than simply making a generalisation about 'women' or the 'disabled' per se. However even when we introduce a few levels of specification we still talk in a highly problematic way. In other words, to use the above example, the experiences of white, disabled, women is not unified but highly mixed or variable (or 'heterogeneous' to use a longer word) and is also likely to change over time due to differing economic and cultural conditions. This third sort of essentialism is tolerated more (certainly in acdemic writing) than the first two, but still remains problematic.

It is worth bearing in mind that within academic writing the charge of essentialism is used in a very adversarial way, as an allegation of the worst crime. Sometimes an essentialist statement may be used as a political strategy and it is fair to say that critiques of essentialism do not always delve into the reasons why a particular essentialist assertion is made. Moreover, the first type of essentialism should not merely be restricted to biological overdeterminism (the over use of biological explanation for social behaviour) but also to sociological overdeterminism (when one tries to explain something solely by recourse to social, as opposed to biological or psychological explanations). Sociological overdeterminism is also sometimes referred to as discursive essentialism.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2


Twine, T. , undated, 'What is Essentialism?' available at , accessed 25 February 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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