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

Language, as a term in general usage, refers to the current stock of words that make up the vocabulary of a language, or to language as an expressive medium that includes its grammatical form, or to language as speech.

explanatory context

Often language is divided into two broad areas, language as a formal system of words or signs (langue) and language in use (parole).

Linguistics tends to separate the study of language into three areas: the study of the vocabulary is lexical analysis; syntactics is the study of grammar, while semantics is concerned with the meaning of language elements.

Semiology argues that language is a system of arbitrary signs which have meaning only relationally. Signs consist of a signifier and signified (the signifier is the word or sound and the signified is that which is referred to by the signifier).

Language has become an important concern for some social scientists who argue that language is not neutral and that understanding is mediated by language. This is a position developed in hermeneutic analysis.

The concern with language started to interest market researchers in the late 1980s.

analytical review

Richard Schaefer (2017):

Language: An abstract system of word meanings and symbols for all aspects of culture. It also includes gestures and other nonverbal communication.

associated issues

Language and sociology: an overview lecture by Peter Tetley 1985, amended, 30th December 1986

The nature of language

These notes examine the methodology used in sociology when we are concerned with interpretation and understanding. They focus on the problems of language, interpretation and understanding as represented in various writers including Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Habermas, Gadamer and Ricoeur together with a consideration of ordinary language philosophers such as Austin and Searle. The aim is to provide a reasonably compact introduction to the problems of sociological method when the concern is to provide some account of understanding, intention and interpretation.

Language and its relationship to the social life

In an ordinary matter-of-fact way language is the process we use to communicate with other human beings. We use words to communicate meaning. But do we also communicate intention, understanding, reflection to the other or others? Is meaning necessarily inclusive of intention, understanding, reflection? Is meaning separate from intention, understanding, reflection, interpretation? What is the methodological problem that sociology has to consider when it considers language? The following is an introduction to these issues and an evaluation of the importance these questions have within sociology and, particularly, sociological method. But the problem of language begins when we consider the questions language raises. What is it that I am doing when I speak? What is it that anyone does when they speak? What is it we do when we speak? What are words? What are letters? And how are they combined to form words? How are words combined to form sentences? We can begin by considering a simple example. If I say 'the cat sat on the mat' what have I done? I have combined several words together, which in turn are made up of several letters, the whole statement being a sentence. The first problem is what is it we do when we speak combinations of letters, called words and combinations of words called sentences? We can consider that question by reference to the work of people such as Wittgenstein, Russell, Searle and Austin.

The second problem however is this: what are we doing by speaking? Do we speak with intention? Do we speak to communicate meaning? How is meaning communicated? We can consider that question by reference to the work of people such as Chomsky and Quine.

The third question, however, is this: what is the significance of language, and language analysis, for sociology? We can answer that question by considering the work of a group of sociologists who called their activity analysis.

The nature of speech acts

There has been for very many years a basic distinction, with which we are all familiar, between sense and reference. At its most simple this is the distinction between pointing to something (reference) or defining some feeling (sense). We can point to a tree but we cannot point to the feeling of pain or anguish or being hurt. Pointing to a tree is ostensive definition; referring to the feelings we have is denotative definition. In the late 19th century Gottlob Frege took the view that the distinction between sense and reference was significant for our understanding of the nature of language. Frege pointed out that reference may be straightforward, or relatively straightforward, when we consider the way in which children acquire understanding of meaning. Thus I will say to a small boy or girl, 'that coat is red' or 'that ball is blue' or 'the sky is grey'. Each time I use a word I point to the object. Thus 'that coat' requires that I point to, or touch, the object that I have labelled 'coat' and persuade the child to accompany me by saying out loud 'that coat' and pointing to, or touching, the object. Second, I will say 'that coat is red' indicating that the coat has a colour. The relationship between the object 'coat' and the word 'coat' is established by pointing to, or touching, the coat. This is called ostensive definition. At least one of the assumptions concerning the acquisition of language is that the child achieves an understanding of the word 'coat' through the act of copying the pointing and saying. In other words there is an identity between the word and the object; an identity between word and concept. The problem however is that some concepts are not acquired so easily. Thus, the word that I used to describe a colour is not necessarily perceived by the child in so direct a fashion. Our understanding of colours, of directions, of abstract notions is achieved more as part of a process than as such a direct understanding as ostensive definition. It is achieved as part of what Frege called 'denotative definition'. Denotative definition consists, in Frege's view, of the expression, in words, of immanent meaning or sense. There is clearly a distinction between reference (which in my example refers to the coat) and sense. Coats come in many different forms or shapes (we acquire an understanding of the concept of coat partly by reference and partly by extension of reference) but we acquire an understanding of colour (red, blue, grey) both by sense and by reference. For example, the shades on a paint chart; the colours in an autumn catalogue and so on. At the extreme, however, denotative definition includes concepts such as 'good' and 'evil', which cannot be referred to only alluded to. However Frege's distinction between sense and reference (between ostensive and denotative definition) served to indicate to both Russell and Wittgenstein a possible approach to the question of language.

Russell's solution was to abolish Frege's distinction by introducing a process called analysis. Russell pointed out that neither definite descriptions (ostensive definition) nor proper names (denotative definition) refer to anything at all. Equally they do not have 'sense'. They have, that is to say, no meaning at all. Accordingly, Russell proposed analysis as a means of understanding language. Analysis reduces the sentence so analysed to members of a class of unanalysable simplicity; the class of logically proper names. This class is the class of the units of speech. Combinations of logically proper names stand for entities but without meaning. In effect, Russell reduces all problems of language to the theory of descriptions where he seeks to provide a description in terms of the combination of logically proper names that stands for the entity. Russell claims that if this procedure is adopted then there is no ontological problem such as the one that confronts Frege, namely what is the nature of sense? Russell argues that all understanding is a matter of description, the more precise the description the more detailed our understanding of what is being described. Analysis is the identification of the class members of the class of logically proper names in any given linguistic context.

Wittgenstein accepted this process in his first major book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He writes, for example, as follows:

‘3.203 The name means the object. The object is its meaning.

3.221 Objects can only be named. Signs are their representation: propositions can only say how things are, not what they are.

3.21 The configuration of objects in a situation corresponds to the configuration of simple signs in the propositional sign.

5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

5.61 What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.

5.621 The world and life are one.

6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Wittgenstein's concern is with establishing the nature of analysis. What we can speak are statements that satisfy certain criteria: those criteria are essentially criteria of reason, of thought. Statements that can be made are pictures of reality. But the procedure that Wittgenstein proposed is that of analysis, which is the device identified by Russell. However, Wittgenstein moved on to a further development when he wrote Philosophical Investigations. Here he proposed the idea of language games, which effectively introduces the idea of reflexive acquisition of language. He uses an example in the first chapter as follows:

"Let us imagine a language for which the description given by Augustine is right. The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building stones: there are blocks, beams and slabs. B has to pass the stones, and in the order A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words 'block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam'. A calls them out; B brings the stone. Conceive of this as a complete primitive language."

Wittgenstein goes on to consider an expansion of this language. He draws the conclusion that in effect the acquisition of language is the acquisition of the use of words in particular contexts. That is to say a language game is a use theory of language. The rules of the game are the ways in which words are used.

Further development of these ideas was carried out by Peter Winch (1976) in The Idea of a Social Science in which he applied Wittgenstein's notions to the question of what a social science is (essentially a form of language game) and by John Searle (1969) who developed a more detailed analysis in his book Speech Acts.

Language and meaning

Language however is generally regarded as communicating sense and meaning. For Wittgenstein, the development of use means the acquisition of shared meaning. Meaning emerges from the uses to which language is put. Wittgenstein, nevertheless, limits himself to the discussion of the technical problems involved in the analysis of language.

Chomsky and Sartre both refer to the social contexts in which language is used. And in this they are necessarily referring to the social context in which use and meaning, sense and reference are inextricably mixed up. Sartre, for example, expresses it in the following way:

'It is obvious that every person's worth word must depend on its reference to the total system of interiority and that it must be the object of an incommunicable comprehension. This incommunicability (discourse) can have meaning only in terms of a more fundamental communication, that is to say, when based on a mutual recognition and on a permanent project to communicate (dialogue).... Language as the practical relation of one man to another is praxis, and praxis is always language (dialogue) because it cannot take place without signifying itself.'

Chomsky's examination of this notion begins by distinguishing between implicit knowledge of a language (competence) and explicit utterance (performance). This distinction might be roughly, but usefully, held to be similar to the distinction between sense and reference as used by Frege. Chomsky argues as follows:

‘competence is innately determined by the constitution of human beings (we all have the genetic competence to speak (and hear)). Secondly, performance is established in the context of the social. That is to say the social contexts in which we live our lives influence our performance in speech but the competence to speak and to hear which supports our performance is innately determined. Human beings, that is, are the creatures who speak and hear and understand.’


Chomsky's third point is that the structure of language is as follows:

Depth structure…SEMANTICS,


The connection between depth and surface structure is achieved by transformational grammars, which are syntactic rules for representing meaning (semantic objects) in speech (phonetic representation). Chomsky argues that all languages embody this structure; all languages can be understood as transforming semantic universals into speech acts. An immediate consequence is that each language is translatable into another. Each language can establish rules of translation from and into other languages and can also establish rules of interpretation that enable meaning to be understood when words are used in certain ways.

Next we will begin to look at the social contexts in which language is used and the ways in which we can begin to understand them.

Analysis as a method of sociology

Sociological methods concerned with language are those methods that have, as their central concern, the ways in which the individual establishes a presence in the world and maintains this presence. Amongst these methods is analysis. According to its practitioners analysis 'depends upon that which enables it to be done in any case; not upon the contingent description which, as product, serves to obscure its origins'. This distinction between product and 'that which enables it [language speaking] to be done' is elaborated in their analytical distinction between being-as-achievement and Being-in-a-rational-way. The distinction is between that which enables language use (speaking or understanding) to be done, which is Being-in-a- rational-way, and language use itself, which is being-as-achievement. The distinction between upper case Being and lower case being derives from Heidegger, which we will return to. What the practitioners argue is that those activities that constitute being can be shown to have their basis (or ground) in Being: a distinction proposed by Heidegger. If we distinguish between language and speech then language is the basis for speech: speech is language in use but necessarily depends upon a prior basis; namely language.

This is similar to the distinction between Chomsky's competence (i.e. language) and performance (speech). It is of course the antithesis of a use theory of language. The group who have advocated analysis, criticise use theories of language on the following grounds. If we refer linguistic items to the rules we must have some account of the meaning. We must also have some criteria for establishing the meaning of the linguistic entities within the domain observed by the individual. The problem is that the use theorists argue that the two are self-related i.e. meaning is established by use whereas 'analysis' argues that there is a necessary separation between the two. The relationship between use and meaning is established reflexively not in the context. There is, therefore, for analysis, a necessary separation between use and meaning: criteria for meaning and rules of use are not identical. Essentially 'analysis' argues that meaning is established by a depth semantics that, conjoined with a depth grammar, makes language possible and therefore makes use possible. Use theorists can, in principle, deny the social whereas a depth semantics requires the social to transform the depth semantics into language in use. In other words the connection between language (Being-in-a-rational-way) and speech (being-as-achievement) is the social.

McHugh and his fellow authors (1974) argue that analysis as a method of enquiry creates the difference between the basis and the practice. The purpose of analysis is to develop the distinction between speech and language in order to demonstrate that these distinctions are founded in the distinction between being and Being. All activities that routinely include speech as part of the activity will enable the crucial distinction between being and Being to be made in the context of the activity of analysing speech. As McHugh et al. (1974), put it:

'We are indeed engaged in the analytic observation of our conception of a concrete practice according to some rule or grammar'; 'our interest [in ideals] is in their adequacy as canonical formulations of the rule guided practices we call the institution of science' '..we must accept that there are no adequate grounds for establishing criteria of truth except the grounds that are employed to ground or concede it— truth is conceivable only as a socially organised upshot of contingent causes of linguistic, conceptual and social causes of behaviour'; 'With regard to reality we must admit that there are as many realities as there are describable procedures. Because there are in principle many rules of construction, so can there be many realities, all with equivalent status as truths' 'One way to formulate our collaboration is through the standard terms of ego and alter. Ego, for us, is the speaker who, by speaking, necessarily forgets his reason for speech. Alter reminds ego why he speaks by formulating ego's auspices (grounds). We conceive ego then to make reference to 'auspices' in order that alter may formulate them. In this way alter makes it rational for ego to speak. Conceiving of both ego and alter together, which is to say conceiving of collaboration, is our method for being able to produce an analysis which is reflexive, addresses its own possibilities and yet is, at the same time, speakable, doable, a denial of nihilism' .

It is worth recalling here Nietzsche's definition of truth as a 'mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and metaphormisms', which clearly entails a relativist view of truth similar to the one proposed by McHugh and associates. In another paper, Roy Turner regards analysis 'as the practice of illustrating the grounds for determining the relationships between utterance and activity'. Turner illustrates his point by preparing an analysis of a conversational transcript, which he analyses as 'complaining'. McHugh, considering the same transcript, proposes to analyse it as 'snubbing'. Both analyses illustrate the problem for the analyst: how can the same piece of talk be interpreted as snubbing or complaining?

Turner concludes his paper by summarising his arguments. They are:

(i) all and any exchanges of utterances can be regarded as doing things with words;

(ii) there is no a priori reason to suppose a correspondence between activity and speech;

(iii) in constructing their talk, members provide for the recognition of what they are doing by invoking culturally provided resources.

(iv) Total speech situation are to be elucidated as features ascribed by members in doing and recognising activities;

(v) in undertaking such elucidation, sociologists must and do employ their own expectations in employing and recognising methodical procedures for accomplishing activities:

(vi) the task of the sociologist in analysing naturally occurring sciences is to explicate them;

(vii) such explication provides for a cumulative enterprise in that the uncovering of members procedures for doing activities permits us both to replicate our original data and to generate new instances that fellow members will find recognisable.

Turner adds, 'I would particularly like to emphasise this last claim that the sociological apparatus that emerges from the detailed study of interaction is a set of descriptions of methods and procedures (for accomplishing and locating activities)'.

Further developments: language and hermeneutics

'Language' said Levi-Strauss in his inaugural lecture, 'is human reason, which has its reasons…of which man knows nothing.' This statement, gnomic in its implications and its origins, stimulated considerable interest in the question of language and, inter alia, in the problem of understanding language and linguistic expression. How 'language' may be interpreted is, in effect a consideration of the nature of hermeneutics.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 5


McHugh, P., Raffel, S. et al., 1974, On the Beginning of Social Inquiry, London Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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 found' 1 June 2019.

Searle, J., 1969, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Winch, P., 1976, The Idea of a Social Science: And its relation to philosophy, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wittgenstein, L., 1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, translated by C.K. Ogden, with F. P. Ramsey, Original german edition, 1921, 'Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung' in Annalen der Naturphilosophische, XIV (3/4)

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