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

Instrumentalism is both a theory of the nature of knowledge aquisition and a thesis about the status of scientific theories in which propositions, theories and ideas are tools rather than being true of false.

explanatory context

Instrumentalism as a theory of knowledge

Instrumentalism as theory of the nature of thought and the acquisition of knowledge is rooted in pragmatism. The argument is that ideas, concepts and judgements are instruments that function in experienced situations and that determine future consequences.


Propositions, then, are tools in the process of enquiry. Propositions are either effective or ineffective rather than true or false.


Ideas serve to relate experiences, which makes prediction possible. These predictions are in turn tested by experience.


John Dewey is primarily responsible for developing this line of argument, drawing on the work of William James.




Instrumentalism as a philosophy of science

Instrumentalism is a term that has been applied to an anti-realist thesis about the status of scientific theories.


This view sees scientific theories as as merely instruments, tools, or calculating devices for deriving observation statements (predictions) from other observation statements (data). Thus such theories can not be either true or false.


Instrumentalism is thus opposed to most realist theories of science.

analytical review

Delanty and Strydom (2003, pp. 14) wrote :

Instrumentalism: an orientation towards the manipulation of the world rather than understanding it and, closely related, an instrumental view of theory as consisting of nothing but observations and being nothing more than a tool of prediction.

Mastin (2008) wrote:

Instrumentalism is the methodological view in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, advanced by the American philosopher John Dewey, that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, and their worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (Instrumentalism denies that theories are truth-evaluable), or whether they correctly depict reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. It maintains that the truth of an idea is determined by its success in the active solution of a problem, and that the value of an idea is determined by its function in human experience.

In Philosophy of Mind, Instrumentalism is the view that propositional attitudes such as beliefs are not actually concepts on which we can base scientific investigations of the mind and brain, but that acting as if other beings do have beliefs is often a successful strategy.

Instrumentalism is closely related to Pragmatism (which stresses practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth or value), and opposed to Scientific Realism (the view that the world described by science is the real world, independent of what we might take it to be).

Types of Instrumentalism
Moral Instrumentalism (or Instrumentalist Morality) defines moral rules only as tools for moral good. Thus, the moral code arising from a given population is simply a collection of rules that are useful to that population. This view resembles Utilitarianism and developed from the teachings of David Hume and John Stuart Mill.
Political Instrumentalism is the view, developed by John Dewey from his instrumentalist and Pragmatist views, and from the much earlier writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, which sees politics as simply means to an end.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Instrumentality: A term used by Parsons and Bales to refer to emphasis on tasks, focus on more distant goals, and a concern for the external relationship between one's family and other social institutions.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section


Delanty G. and Strydom, P., 2003, Philosophies of Social Science, London, McGraw-Hill.

Mastin, L., 2008, 'Instrumentalism', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, not available 7 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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