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

Explanation attempts to reveal the causal relationship between an observed phenomenon (effect) and other phenomena (causes)

explanatory context


A logical explanation uses logical rules to deduce from a theory why a particular phenomenon has occurred.


A statistical explanation is one which tells us, given two sets of observations, to what degree one set may be predicted from the other. There need be no logical connection between the variables, and it is usually impossible to infer the direction of causation.



Explanatory or causal model

An explanatory model attempt to relate several concepts together in a meaningful way and to set out casual connections between the concepts. Such models may vary in complexity, in the precision with which they specify the causal connections, and in their amenability to scientific testing.



Explanatory survey

An explanatory survey is one aimed at elucidating cause and effect relationships between variables. It is to be distinguished from a descriptive survey although the two may be carried out together in the same inquiry.



The term explanation-by-understanding is used to refer to an explanation of a phenomenon that places particular emphasis upon the subject’s interpretation and understanding of what is going on in any social situation.


The explanation consists of a causal narrative that includes the meanings and perhaps some of the terms which the actors themselves use. It is sometimes known as Verstehen, as epitomised in the Weberian approach.


There are some views of social science that would argue that explanation-by-understanding is a contradiction in terms.

analytical review

Salmon (undatd, pp. 384–5) referred to JS Mill's take on explaation:

Mill recognizes that the complexity of human behavior impedes the development of causal explanations. Nevertheless, he believes that at least an inexact science of human behavior is possible. Whether a science is "exact" or "inexact" depends on how accurate the predictions of the science are. Mill doubts that the science of human behavior will ever become as exact as the physical science of astronomy, for example, because human actions are subject to so manyunknown, and possibly unknowable, circumstances…

Mill believes that fundamental causes of human behavior are probably mental rather than physical, but he does not think that this makes explanation of human behavior significantly different from explanation in the physical sciences. For Mill, subsumption under causal generalizations is at the heart of explanation. When we explain an event (either a physical occurrence or a human action) we must subsume it under an appropriate causal generalization; when we explain a generalization we must subsume it under a more general law or set of laws. Explanation thus is possible in inexact as well as exact sciences, though in the latter more precise predictions are possible.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2.2


Salmon, M.H., undated,' Explanation in the Social Sciences', available at, accessed 25 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016, not at this address 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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