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

Formalism refers to various different approaches to knowledge production, all of them focusing on form rather than content, function or structure.

explanatory context


Formalism refers to a view that concerns itself with the form or appearance of an aspect of the world. This is sometimes viewed as an explanation, interpretation or understanding based on the superficial rather than substantive aspects. Conversely, formalism refers to the process of forming (cultural products) and is thus deterministic.


The term formalism is used in both the social sciences and the humanities, and involves several diverse variants.


Formalism in art

Formalism in art is the view that the values of visual arts reside in their formal qualities rather than the representational qualities or their content.


Formalism in linguistics

Formalism in linguistics is now usually taken to refer to the formal method and the formalist school which emerged in Russian literary studies after 1916.


Russian Formalism initially proposed that a text must be analysed for its intrinsic character prior to considering it as a social or ideological document. However, there has been a complex argument about the implications of this view ever since and formalism has exhibited many different tendencies.


From about 1920 to the 1950s the debate seems to have involved two versions of formalism opposed by an anti-formalism encapsualted in Marxism. Some formalists adopted the idea of a separate poetic language and denied the relevance of any social content or social meaning. Other formalists, accused of upholding a view of 'art for art's sake', demanded the analysis of the text as a literary object before any attempt to situate it. Marxist literary theorists argued that the formalist analysis obscured the social content and meaning. In this approach Marxists are concerned with the forming of content, i.e. take the notion of form as an intrinsic moulding principle rather then form as the superficial expression. The distinction is more complex still when it is proposed that the form is itself an essential element of the text and not just the superficial manifestation.


Formalism in sociology

Formalism in sociology is a rather nebulous concept. It usually refers, rather loosely, to approaches that argue for the study of 'social forms'.


On one level this refers to an analysis of the institutional and organisational aspects of a society, rather than of individuals. The institutions of interest to formalism are the directly accessible and supposedly dynamic structures such as families, friendship groups, clubs, churches etc., and not just the 'static' generalised economic, political and religious organisation.


At another level formalism concentrates on the interaction between individuals and examines these interactions independently of the individual's motives, etc. (Formalism, thus has affinities with, but is distinct from, interactionism).


Formalism in sociology is supposed to have orginated in Simmel's work, but this tends to give a misleading view of the breadth and impact of his work. Simmel's formalism was intended to derive the principles of social forms, that is, the detection and articulation of patterns of human sociation.

analytical review

Under the heading 'formalism' the Oxford Index(2011) states:

A branch of sociology that traces its origins to Georg Simmel. It aims to capture the underlying forms of social relations, and thus to provide a ‘geometry of social life’. Followers of Simmel in Germany included Leopold von Wiese and Alfred Vierkandt.

Simmel distinguished the ‘content’ of social life (wars, families, education, politics) from its ‘forms’ (such as, for example, conflict), which cut across all such areas, and through which social life is patterned. Conflict, as a social form, may be found in situations as diverse as those of family life and politics, and to it certain common features will accrue. Contents vary—but forms emerge as the central organizing features of social life. Among the forms central to Simmel's thinking were the significance of numbers for group alignments (isolated individuals, dyads, triads), patterns of superordination and subordination, group relationships (conflicts, competitions, coalitions), identities and roles (the stranger, the poor), disclosures (secrets, the secret society), and evaluations (prices, exchanges).

Most sociology concentrates upon content: there are sociologies of education, the family, the media, and so forth. Formalism shuns this approach to sociology, by cutting across such topics, and seeking to identify generic processes and patterns through which they are socially constituted: stigma, stratification, and secrecy, for instance, may be forms cutting through the substantive areas of education, family, and media. The best commentary on Simmel's formal sociology remains Nicholas Spykman 's The Social Theory of Georg Simmel (1925).

After Simmel and his immediate followers, the earliest development of such an approach was to be found in the work of the Chicago interactionists. Robert Park was a student of Simmel's, and brought to Chicago a concern both to study the richness of the empirical world as revealed in the city, and a concern to detect the patterns of city life. The most popular textbook of the day (Park and Burgess's An Introduction to Sociology) is largely organized according to ‘forms’.

Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss have attempted to develop formal sociology in their work on dying, moving from a rich substantive area of research (cancer wards and the dying process), to a more sustained theoretical analysis of common forms (such as status passages and awareness contexts). For example, moving from a detailed case-study of a dying patient, they were able to seek comparisons with other major status changes in order to develop a formal theory of status passage, which postulated many features in common with other status passages (see Status Passage, 1967). From a grounded substantive study came more comparative, abstract, and formal theory. More recently, Robert Prus (‘Generic Social Processes’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 1987) has outlined five key dimensions of group life that are needed for a processual generic sociology: acquiring perspectives, achieving identity, being involved, doing activity, and experiencing relationships.

There have been a number of other attempts to construct a formal theory of social life, including John Lofland 's Doing Social Life (1976) and Carl Couch 's Constructing Social Life (1975), as well as more specific case-studies, such as Lewis Coser 's The Functions of Social Conflict (1956). Erving Goffman 's Stigma (1961) is sometimes seen as owing a great deal to formal sociology.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section


Oxford Index, 2011, Overview; formalism, available at, accessed 19 January 2013, still available 3 June 2019, page now copyright 2019.

Anonymous, undated, GEORG SIMMEL, available at, accessed 19 January 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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