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.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Model refers to attempt to represent 'reality' in some form, usually to make the complexity of the real situation more easily graspable.

explanatory context


Model is a term with a variety of meanings depending on context. Basically, a model is an attempt to map 'reality' in some form. Models are not exhaustive, They are selective representations of some aspects of a real situation.


Models methodically abstract and conceptualise some parts of the observed phenomenon. Models are constructed for a purpose and adopt a form congruent with their intention. A model is the result of a conceptualisation that itself is dependent upon some rationale. The particular emphasis of the definitions determines the structure of the relationship (or mechanism) within a model.


The rationale is the basic idea and the point of view behind the formation and structure of the concepts of a model. The rationale is, in effect, the Weltanschauung guiding the construction of, and the mechanism within, the model. For example, a functionalist model of society rests on the rationale that the parts coalesce into a stable whole.


Validating models

Models are validated based on their equivalence with 'reality'; that is the extent to which the model corresponds to theory when empirical data is used to amplify the mechanism.


Models are not 'provable' but are devices for understanding phenomena.


Model and theory

Some commentators argue that model and theory have been confused in social science, the terms being used interchangeably. Others argue that model is any theoretical formulation other than a theory. Others argue that most theories are no more than models.


Structural functionalist, conflict, evolutionary theories are really models in that they describe phenomena that possibly could yield testable formal systems. Models are less clearly specified and wider ranging than formal systems. The mechanism of a model furnishes the relationships of a formal system.


Types of model

Variety of models

In practice a model may be as diverse as a general orientation, a theoretical template, an abstract representation of 'key' components in a structure, a small-scale replica, or an exemplary guide for practice.


Theoretical model

A theoretical model is, essentially, a selective conceptualisation of a group of interrelated phenomena, underpinned by an explicit rationale, which is usually an initial approximation to a theoretical exposition.


Theoretical models are able to generate limited scope formal systems. Theoretical models may be derivable from general models.


Model for a theory

An alternative view is that of model for a theory. In this view, the model is a model of the formal structure of the theory. The model thus maps out the nature and structure of the axioms and their interrelationships. The model is a kind of template of the theory.


Two theories (with entirely differemt subject matters) that have the same model template are said to be isomorphic. Thus one of a pair (or more) of isomorphic theories can be said to be a model for the other(s).


A simple example would be the use of water flow through pipes as a model of electrical flow through wires. Another example might be the use of a biological model to analyse social processes. Arguably, neither of these examples are truly isomorphic, (i.e. have a one to one correspondence) and may be more correctly regarded as analogies.


General model

General models are unlikely to generate formal systems. General models relate to more widespread phenomena than do theoretical models.


Formal science model

In formal sciences (mathematics and logic) model is a specific term that refers to extralinguistic entities such as natural numbers.


Isomorphism and analogy

The difference between isomorphic modelling and analogy is that the former keeps strictly to the former structural isomorphism and does not attempt to invoke other properties of the model in the substantive analyses. An analogy approach uses a convenient alternative framework to provide clues as to the processes under scrutiny, including non-formal elements.

analytical review

Referring to Imre Lakatos's methdodology of scientific research programmes, Forster (1998) stated:

A model is theoretical statement, (often in the form of an equation) usually deduced from a theory with the aid a auxiliary assumptions. That is, a model M is equal to a theory T combined with an auxiliary assumption A (which will be long list of assumptions in most cases). That is, M = T & A.

Example: In the LeVerrier-Adams example, there was first a Newtonian model of planetary motion that assumed that there are only 7 planets. There were discrepancies between the predictions of this model and the observed motions of Uranus. Therefore, the model was replaced by one that assumed the existence of 8 planets. Not only did that accommodate the anomalous motion of Uranus, but it predicted position of the eighth planet, whereupon Neptune was discovered.

associated issues


related areas

See also

general sociological orientation





Forster, M. R., 1998, 'Lakatos's Methodology of Scientific Research Programs', last updated 24 September 1998, available at, accessed 26 April 2013, still available 22 December 2016, not found 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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