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

Iconology is the attempt to determine the intrinsic meaning or content of a cultural object.

explanatory context

Iconology is one of three levels of analysing a cultural objects. The other two are the descriptive and the iconographical.


The iconological level of analysis of cultural products is concerned with the intrinsic meaning or content of the object. It attempts to contextual the object in the sense of trying to show the relationship of the object (such as a painting) to the social milieu in which it was created. The iconological meaning is grasped by getting at the underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion as it is assimilated by a single person and encapsulated into a single work. In short, iconology is concerned with Weltanschauung and/or ideology.


Going beyond, for example, the iconographical assessment of the 'Last Supper' involves trying to understand the painting as a document of Leonardo's personality, or of a peculiar religious attitude, or of High Rennaisance civilization. In this sense the work of art is a symptom of something else.


In short, iconology is a method of interpretation which arises from synthesis rather than analysis. Iconological analysis has much in common with hermeneutic analysis of texts. It has been developed by Hadjinicolau in his theory of visual ideology

analytical review

associated issues

Iconology and iconography

According to Taylor (2014)

The words "iconology" and "iconography" are often confused, and they have never been given definitions accepted by all iconographers and iconologists. Panofsky 1955...defined "iconography" as the study of subject matter in the visual arts and "iconology" as an attempt to analyze the significance of that subject matter within the culture that produced it. This definition was prescriptive rather than descriptive, and many art historians before Erwin Panofsky who would have called themselves "iconographers" were engaged in investigations that Panofsky would have termed "iconological." Another source of semantic disagreement has arisen from the perceived overinterpretations of Panofsky and his school, which have led some art historians to reject the word "iconology." It seems useful, nevertheless, to keep a distinction between iconography and iconology, since it draws attention to a fundamental distinction between the study of words and the study of images. While iconology corresponds to the historical criticism of texts in literary studies, iconography has no obvious counterpart outside histories of the visual. At the same time, in art historical practice iconography and iconology feed into each other, as the literature surveyed in this bibliography shows.

related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section 5.12.6



Panofsky, E., 1955, 'Iconography and iconology: an introduction to the study of Renaissance art', in Panofsky. E., in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on art history, pp. 26–54, Garden City, NY: Doubleday. A copy of this paper is at, accessed 5 June 2019.

Taylor, P., 2014, 'Iconology and Iconography', Oxford Bibiographies, 30 July 2014, available at, accessed 5 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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