Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


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

Reductionism has two meaning: the more general one is that reductionism refers to any approach to explanation that attempts to reduce complexities of structure or behaviour to less complex units. Reductionism also has a particular meaning, which is the view that human behaviour can be reduced to physical laws related to the instinctive type of behaviour of other animals.

explanatory context

Reductionism works in two ways. First, a reductionist approach breaks down a social construct, say an organisation, into ever smaller sub-units until each of the sub-units are small enough that they can be readily analysed (usually based on the preconceptions the researcher has about the nature of the phenomenon).


Reducationism to small units is a popular approach in the realm of information technology where information systems analysts analyse the information transmission and processing within an organistion by subdividing the organisation into smaller and smaller units and constructing a computer-based system to reproduce or 'modernise' the information flow.


This kind of modularisation presupposes a certain view of information processing, tends to reproduce the existing system with a few superficial amendments, and ignores the impact the wider organisation (let alone the social milieu) has on the subsections. Each subsection is only effected by its interface with the adjacent sections and are effectively viewed as independent. This kind of reductionism can also be found in much social research.

Second, reductionism can be seen as causal reductionism. That is, the observed phenomenon can be seen as the effect of a set of particular causes that can themselves be seen as the effect of other causes, and so on. This inevitably raises the spectre of ultimate cause, and most practitioners take some form of the 'proximate' cause approach to escape the fruitless task of the search for the final cause of all observable phenomena. The proximate cause approach argues that the unique events that make up a phenomenon can be isolated and linked together into a causal chain. For example, the 'causes' of the riots in Brixton in 1981 were supposedly identified by piecing together a succession of events show how one event lead to another and 'escalated' into the damage, injury and disorder that became labelled a riot. When faced with 'why?' this occurred, the 'proximate' causal chain has to take a more abstract step into the dark and try to construct a framework on which to hang the sequence of events it has called the 'immediate cause'. It presupposes that the immediate cause was like some kind of detonator, which fires the 'underlying causes'. These underlying causes are still 'proximate' - such as poor housing, high youth unemployment, over-policing, etc. And it is these that are generalisable and the focus of attention for policy makers who can then adopt piecemeal reforms in order to reduce the possibility of further occurrences of the phenomenon.

The concern with generalisable proximate causes has been very popular with quantitative practitioners for many years and is exemplified in complex multivariate analysis and causal path processes developed, for example, by Lazarsfeld and Blalock. Great pains have been taken to develop procedures for identifying spurious relationships and specifying the interrelationship of proximate causes (high youth unemployment, ethnicity and over-policing are not independent).

The reductionist causal approach is restricted to proximate unless it wants to begin speculating on the nature of the universe. The extension of causal chains either leads to a conjecture that the social system is the cause of all phenomena or that they are grounded in some innate biological features. Whichever way the causal chain goes, one ends up with an ahistorical, astructural analysis.

analytical review

Ney (undated) wrote in the introduction to a discussion of reductionism:

Reductionists are those who take one theory or phenomenon to be reducible to some other theory or phenomenon. For example, a reductionist regarding mathematics might take any given mathematical theory to be reducible to logic or set theory. Or, a reductionist about biological entities like cells might take such entities to be reducible to collections of physico-chemical entities like atoms and molecules. The type of reductionism that is currently of most interest in metaphysics and philosophy of mind involves the claim that all sciences are reducible to physics. This is usually taken to entail that all phenomena (including mental phenomena like consciousness) are identical to physical phenomena. The bulk of this article will discuss this latter understanding of reductionism.

In the twentieth century, most philosophers considered the question of the reduction of theories to be prior to the question of the reduction of entities or phenomena. Reduction was primarily understood to be a way to unify the sciences. The first section below will discuss the three traditional ways in which philosophers have understood what it means for one theory to be reducible to another. The discussion will begin historically with the motivations for and understanding of reduction to be found in the logical positivists, particularly Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath, and continue through more recent models of inter-theoretic reduction. The second section will examine versions of reductionism, as well as the most general and currently influential argument against reductionism, the argument from multiple realization. Although many philosophers view this argument as compelling, there are several responses available to the reductionist that will be considered. The final section will discuss two ways of reducing phenomena rather than theories. With the decline of logical positivism and the rise of scientific realism, philosophers’ interest in reduction has shifted from the unity of theories to the unity of entities. Although sometimes reduction of one class of entities to another is understood as involving the identification of the reduced entities with the reducing entities, there are times when one is justified in understanding reduction instead as the elimination of the reduced entities in favor of the reducing entities. Indeed, it is a central question in the philosophy of mind whether the correct way to view psychophysical reductions is as an identification of mental entities with physical entities, or as an elimination of mental phenomena altogether.

associated issues


related areas

See also


multivariate analysis


Researching the Real World Section 2.2.2


Ney, A. undated, 'Reductionism', in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at , accessed 27 December 2016, still available 14 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home