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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Grand theory

core definition

Grand theory is a term coined by C. Wright Mills (1960) to describe the abstract generalised system building of structural functionalists, notably in the work of Talcott Parsons.

explanatory context

Mills' attack on grand theory was directed to his claim that it was so generalised as to be useless as it disengaged theoreticians from observation. It turned sociology into a syntactical exercise and was blind to semantics. Grand theory excluded many structural features fundamental to the understanding of human society from its realm of abstract concepts. These monolithic concepts are irrelevant to understanding historical realites. In short, grand theory, in constructing an abstract generalisation reifies the 'American Dream' and disregards historical reality.


The attack on grand theory and the associated attack on abstracted empiricism lead to a move towards the new sociology (social criticism) among some American sociologists.

analytical review

An unspecied author in The Sage Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry (2007) states:

In the social sciences, grand theory refers to those efforts devoted to abstract, analytical theory building. It stands in contrast to empiricist approaches that emphasize that knowledge of society is best acquired by accumulating empirical generalizations through improvements in methodology....

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'grand theory' as:

A vast, highly ambitious effort to tell the story of a great stretch of human history.

associated issues


related areas

See also

social criticism

Critical Social Research Section 2.4


Anonymous, 2007, 'Grand Theory' in Schwandt, T.A (Ed.) The Sage Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, Third Edition.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 15 May 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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