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

Naturalism has a range of meaning from that of decrying supernatural or ethical explanations, through the advocacy of an evolutionary development of life forms, to the depiction in art and literature of everyday subjects.

explanatory context

Naturalism is a particularly slippery concept because of a plethora of meanings in different spheres. The terms naturalistic and natural are not always as closely linked to the concept naturalism as they may at first appear. There are several different meanings to naturalism.


First, the general notion that the subject matter of the human and non-human sciences constitutes the sum total of knowledge and that there are no meaningful explanations that go beyond the physical universe. I.e. it denies the idea of supernatural explanations.


Second, in the natural sciences, a naturalist view is one that claims an evolutionary model. Higher forms of life evolve from lower forms and these in turn evolve from non-living matter.


Third, naturalism is seen to underpin the non-social sciences. Scientific knowledge is manifested in the natural (or physical) sciences. In this sense, naturalism implies a fundamental difference between natural and social objects of knowledge. This raises the whole question of the nature of social science?


Fourth, the philosophical notion that normative statements (about what ought to be) can be derived directly from statements about what is the case. This denies (a) any role for ethical judgments (b) the theory-laden nature of observation.


Fifth, in art and literature, naturalism refers to approaches to painting or writing that attempt to reflect the world in a natural way. This should not, however, be confused with realism in art and literature. Naturalism in art and literature tends to focus on on everyday, mundane, or 'low-life' subject matter. It is often quite 'unrealistic' in its presentation, being often stylised, melodramatic, etc. (e.g., Germinal by Emile Zola, or most of Dickens' novels).


Naturalism is sometimes confused with the term naturalistic.



analytical review

Papineau (2007) wrote:

The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed ‘naturalists’ from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the ‘human spirit’ (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

So understood, ‘naturalism’ is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject ‘supernatural’ entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the ‘human spirit’....


Tate Gallery (undated) refers to naturalism thus:

Naturalism was a broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them. Until the early nineteenth century both landscape and the human figure in art tended to be idealised or stylised according to conventions derived from the classical tradition. In the nineteenth century there was a trend towards representing things in a more realistic way. In Britain this was pioneered by John Constable who famously said 'there is room enough for a natural painture' (type of painting). Naturalism became one of the major trends of the century and, combined with realism of the subject, led to impressionism and modern art. Naturalism is often associated with plein air practice (painting landscapes and other scenes from life out-of-doors).


associated issues


related areas

See also



Kim, J., 2003, ‘The American origins of philosophical naturalism’, Journal of Philosophical Research, APA Centennial Volume, pp. 83–98.

Krikorian, Y. (Ed.), 1944, Naturalism and the Human Spirit, New York: Columbia University Press.

Papineau, D., 2007, 'Naturalism', in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 22 Februaty 2007, available at, accessed 8 February 2013, substantive revision 15 September 2015 (but no change to quote), still available 24 December 2016.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Naturalism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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