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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Social criticism

core definition

Social criticism is a term that has been used to describe radical approaches to sociology, in particular, the New Sociology that developed in the United States in the 1960s.

explanatory context

Social Criticism is a term that has been used to describe radical approaches to sociology. The term specifically relates to the work of C. Wright Mills and its development into the New Sociology that emerged in the United States in the 1960s. The term social criticism has, however, been widened to include revolutionaries such as Mao Tse Tung and (according to Fletcher, 1974) a social critic is usually a socialist, a humanist and an agnostic. Thus social criticism refers to a wide gamut of social scientists and revolutionaries who would normally be pigeon-holed into a variety of other camps. There is no 'school' of social criticism.


Social criticism is opposed to abstracted empiricism and grand theory.


The social critic should, according to Fletcher (1974), be concerned with:

1. the interpretation of the history of modern society

2. interpreting major modern crises

3. developing decisive value judgments leading, when possible, to effective action

4. systematic ordering of concepts, propositions and techniques in order to stimulate further enquiry.



Social criticism as school, method or style?

Mills reference to an intellectual tradition encompassing Marx, Weber, Mannheim, Durkheim and Veblen is such a diverse tradition that it belies the notion of 'Social Criticism' as a 'school' or even as a methodology. Certainly the 'Classical Approach' refers only to a general style that the 'Founding Fathers' of sociology tended to adopt. It consisted of an historical perspective and a general view of social structures. These thinkers were not concerned with obscure issues taken in isolation, rather they were concerned with substantive problems in their social and historical context. Such an approach to sociology could not avoid criticism of society.


It was no 'school' of thought, social critics worked alone. It had no centre as had critical theory in Frankfurt, nor ideology as had Marxism. It had no methodological 'Code of Practice' as was developed by the technical specialists of the abstracted empirical tendency. Social criticism was not contained in any pseudo-philosophy of social relationships such as functionalism, behaviourism, symbolic interactionism or any other 'ism'.


However, this is not to suggest that social criticism is merely journalistic. On the contrary, Mills regarded it essential to have a firm understanding of the social sciences (not just sociology) and of social philosophy. That every social critic should be a methodologist as well as theorist. Although lacking a procedural code, or any prescriptive general conception, such as functionalism, social criticism requires certain fundamentals.


Rex tries to subsume social criticism into a general theoretical model rather than see it as a style, a way of practicing sociology (however vague, methodologically).


Bottomore suggests that social criticism is not science but currently is influenced by social science. In the past it was grounded in religion and later philosophy.


The demands and concerns of social criticism

Social criticism makes three demands on the social scientist.


First, that issues be considered from a macroscopic viewpoint.


Second, that research has an historical perspective.


Third, that the social world be addressed critically.


As Mills says:

'The classic approach ... is to take up substantive problems on the historical level of reality; to state these problems in terms appropriate to them and then ... to state the solution in the macroscopic terms of the problem.' (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 142).


Stein has thus suggested the following concerns for the social critic:

a) interpretation of history of modern society

b) interpretation of modern crises

c) developing value judgements in conjunction with action where possible

d) systematic ordering of concepts, propositions and techniques to stimulate further enquiry. (Stein, 1963, p. 177–8)


Social criticism and value judgements

Stein (1963) comments on value judgements as follows. To criticise necessitates making value judgments. Value judgements should be made explicit. Mills' own position is clear enough; he was a democrat, opposed to privilege. He was a middle-class American who hated middle-class values and patriotism. [NB in the 1950 the majority of American were working class and the middle class were relatively well off, unlike the use of the term ‘middle class’ in the US in 2013, which refers to the majority of Americans other than the very rich]. Mills had a commitment to the 'well-being of mankind'. This well-being rested on democracy, liberty, peace and material well-being. Liberalistic phrases, but Mills was a radical not a 'Liberal'.


Social criticism and revolution

Social criticism, as a style, demands change on the basis of systematic analysis. In its most 'extreme', social criticism contains an undisguised revolutionary ideology. As such it is clearly Marxist, as Colin Fletcher has suggested in the case of Mao Tse Tung's call to distinguish the friends from the enemies of the revolution, by an analysis of the social stratification of Chinese society.


Whether Mills was a revolutionary is a matter for debate, intrinsically social criticism is transcendent and interlocked with Marxism.



In conclusion, social criticism is an individual endeavour. As Fletcher says, to ask whether there is a school of social criticism is an arid question. However, social criticism is a style of sociological work. It requires an historical approach to substantive problems viewed from a macroscopic point of view. It does not preclude digging around in the murky depths of empirical detail, but it does require that conclusions are framed in the brilliant light of the social world. To be a social critic is to be critical of ones predecessors, ones contemporaries and oneself, as well as the social system under investigation. To be critical one needs a set of values and these must be made explicit.


Furthermore, social critics do not content themselves with problems of theory, they are practical, thinkers as well as doers. Social critics do not necessarily have to be involved politically, nor do they need to be ideologically committed. Their motives may be diverse, the illusion of high ideals that is intrinsic to the style may simply be a justification for self-assuming polemics. If, as Mills suggests, the problem of power is regarded as fundamental by social critics then they cannot avoid being politically involved. If the 'manipulative model' is adopted as a necessary consequence of the concentration of power (and power is not a central problem if it is not concentrated), then the social critic must be a radical.


Fletcher, in a lecture on the 8th Jan 1976, identified the following as social critics: J-P Sartre - engagement and reflexivity; E. Laing - intricate method; F. Fannon - sheer force of expression; A. Gramsci - intellectual rigour; Che Guevera - total dedication. Social criticism is not separable from the critic. A common feature of critical sociology is its humanism that includes the 'enoblement of mankind'. The 'aim' or approach is to;

a. expose enemies of the enoblement

b. ally socialism with humanism

c. ally socialist humamism with its liberal antecedents, thus raising consciousness.

d. opposes false consciousness

e. realising working-class consciousness - deriving it from the working class. Reflexivity and self-criticism (similar to qualitative practitioners like Becker)

analytical review

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) refers to C Wright Mills' sociological imagination thus:

Sociological imagination: The ability of understanding the intersection of one's own biography and other biographies with history and the present social structure you find yourself and others in. In essence, it is understanding the private in public terms. See C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination.

associated issues


related areas

See also

C Wright Mills



Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research Section 2.2


Fletcher, C., 1974, , Beneath the Surface: An account of three styles of sociological research, London and Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mills, C.W., [1959] 1973, The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Stein, M.R., 1963, 'The poetic metaphors of sociology', in Stein, M.R. and Vidich, A., (Eds.) Sociology On Trial, Englewood Cliffs, Prenctice Hall.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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