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 realism

core definition

Social realism, refers to the work of artists, film makers and novelists who focus on everyday life, usually the working class, poor or destitute, and encompasses a critique of dominat social structures.

explanatory context

Social realism is an international art movement. The type of work that falls under the banner of social realism varies considerably but it all has an element of critique of the economic and class disparities in society.


Feminist social realism

Feminist social realism is an established medium of feminist literature (since the 1960s) in which conventional fictional forms are employed as a vehicle for feminist perspectives. It frequently borrows specifically from the language of traditional women's fiction. (Ann Oakley's The Men's Room is an example).

analytical review

Todd (2009) states:

Term used to refer to the work of painters, printmakers, photographers and film makers who draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who are critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions. In general it should not be confused with Socialist realism, the official art form of the USSR, which was institutionalized by Joseph Stalin in 1934, and later by allied Communist parties worldwide. Social realism, in contrast, represents a democratic tradition of independent socially motivated artists, usually of left-wing or liberal persuasion. Their preoccupation with the conditions of the lower classes was a result of the democratic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, so social realism in its fullest sense should be seen as an international phenomenon, despite the term’s frequent association with American painting. While the artistic style of social realism varies from nation to nation, it almost always utilizes a form of descriptive or critical realism (e.g. the work in 19th-century Russia of the Wanderers).
Social realism’s origins are traceable to European Realism, including the art of Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. In 19th-century England the Industrial Revolution aroused a concern in many artists for the urban poor. Throughout the 1870s the work of such British artists as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl (e.g. Seat in a Railway Station—Third Class, wood engraving, 1872) and William Small (e.g. Queue in Paris, wood engraving, 1871) were widely reproduced in The Graphic, influencing van Gogh’s early paintings. Similar concerns were addressed in 20th-century Britain by the Artists international association, Mass observation and the Kitchen sink school. In photography social realism also draws on the documentary traditions of the late 19th century, as in the work of Jacob A. Riis and Maksim Dmitriyev; it reached a culmination in the worker–photographer movements in Europe and the work by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and others for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project in the USA in 1935–43....

As a prelude to a history of British social realist cinema, dating back to the 1900s, Amstrong (2003–12) states:

Better than any other genre, social realism has shown us to ourselves, pushing the boundaries in the effort to put the experiences of real Britons on the screen, and shaping our ideas of what British cinema can be.... early British cinema picked up on the revelation of everyday social interaction to be found in Dickens and Thomas Hardy. In Rescued by Rover (1905), Cecil Hepworth caught Edwardian England at a particular moment. James Williamson's A Reservist before the War, and After the War (1902) offered a portrait of the Boer War serviceman returning to unemployment, and was one of the first films to emphasise realism's value as social protest....

Encyclopædia Britannica (2013) thinks social realism started in the United Sates:

Social Realism, trend in American art originating in about 1930 and referring in its narrow sense to paintings treating themes of social protest in a naturalistic or quasi-expressionist manner. In a broader sense, the term is sometimes taken to include the more general renderings of American life usually categorized as American Scene painting and Regionalism, which may or may not manifest socially critical comment.


Tate Gallery (undated) on social realism in art:

Refers to any realist painting that also carries a clearly discernible social or political comment.

In Britain examples of social realism can be found in the eighteenth century, for example in the work of William Hogarth, but it became particularly widespread in the nineteenth century. Important contributions to social realism were made by the Pre-Raphaelites, and by the more serious-minded genre painters such as Augustus Egg, William Powell Frith, Luke Fildes and Frank Holl.

Social realism should not be confused with socialist realism.

Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)

associated issues


related areas

See also


socialist realism


Amstrong, R., 2003–12, 'Social Realism', available at, accessed 1 May 2013, still available 14 June 2019.

Encyclopædia Britannica (2013, 'Social Realism', available at, accessed 1 May 2013, last updated 5 March 2015, still available 14 June 2019 (quoted material unchanged).

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

Todd, J.G, 2009, 'Social Realism' from Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, available at, accessed 1 May 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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