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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Theory-laden observation

core definition

The theory-laden nature of observation proposition claims that no observation, or fact, is self-evident and that all observation requires a theory by which to make sense of the observation.

explanatory context

The idea that science proceeds by the collection of data or 'facts' is naive. Data is collected to explore a hunch, guess, a hypotheses or a theory. Without something to guide the investigation it would be simply the collection of random observations: a bit like collecting car numbers and writing them down for no other purpose than to list the numbers seen.

analytical review

See Chalmers 1982 Chapter 3 available as pdf


White (undated) states:

Theory-ladenness of observation holds that everything one observes is interpreted through a prior understanding of other theories and concepts. Whenever we describe observations, we are constantly utilizing terms and measurements that our society has adopted. Therefore, it would be impossible for someone else to understand these observations if they are unfamiliar with, or disagree with, the theories that these terms come from.

An example of this could be given for determining an object's acceleration. If someone is to understand the measurement of 2 miles per second squared, he needs an understanding of the concepts of distance, time, and velocity. Our observation of how much something is increasing in speed depends on our previous knowledge of these theories. As a result, such an observation is said to be theory-laden.

Schindler (undated) states:

In the philosophy of science, observations are said to be “theory-laden” when they are affected by the theoretical presuppositions held by the investigator. The thesis of theory-ladenness is most strongly associated with the late 1950s and early 1960s work of N.R. Hanson, T.S. Kuhn, and P. Feyerabend, and was probably first put forth (at least implicitly) by P. Duhem about 50 years earlier. Although often run together, at least two forms of theory-ladenness should be kept separate: (i) the meaning of observational terms is partially determined by theoretical presuppositions; (ii) the theories held by the investigator, at a very basic cognitive level, impinge on the perceptions of the investigator. The former may be referred to as semantic and the latter as perceptual theory-ladenness. The thesis of theory-ladenness, if true, has troublesome consequences for theory-testing. If there are no theory-neutral observations, then this raises doubts about whether empirical tests can truly decide between competing theories. So, if theories partially determine the meaning of observation terms, two investigators holding incompatible theories will mean different things when they use the same observational vocabulary, and, if theories partially determine ‘what we see’, two investigators holding incompatible theories will see the objects relevant for discriminating between their theories differently.
A thesis that also goes under the heading of theory-ladenness may be (more appropriately) referred to theory-dependence of instruments, on which much discussion has focused on: the investigator’s confidence in the truthfulness of the results obtained with certain instruments depends on her having sound theories of how these instruments work. Such theories are also referred to as ‘background’ theories. The theory-dependence of instruments is particularly problematic when the background theories are the very theories that the investigator seeks to test, for in those scenarios the testing procedure is rendered circular.
Theory-ladenness should not be confused with certain other ideas. Theory-ladenness does not imply that our perceptions are fully determined by our theories; it does not imply that we see ‘whatever we want to see’. No philosopher of science of some standing has defended such an extreme position. We cannot see flying pigs even if we had theories that told us that there were such things. On the other hand theory-ladenness does not simply amount to perceptions being interpreted differently by different people. Nor is theory-ladenness the mere theoretical guidance of empirical inquiries, i.e., the decision to perform certain experiments rather than others or to investigate a certain aspect of the world. Both of these ideas are platitudes and philosophically not particularly interesting. A grey area is the phenomenon of negative theoretical bias, i.e. the idea that empirical results not amenable to certain theoretical presuppositions are (wilfully or subconsciously) ignored by the investigator. Clearly, also in cases of theoretical bias theoretical presuppositions impinge on the data in ways that are comparable to the thesis of theory-ladenness. Yet negative theoretical bias is normally taken to be easily revealed through various control mechanisms in scientific practice (e.g. peer-review). Since theoretical bias as a form of theory-ladenness has received rather little attention by philosophers of science, it will not be discussed here....

associated issues

The theory-laden nature of observation makes the objective-subjective dichotomy problematic, if not absurd. The subjectivity-objectivity debate has been complicated by its development in the context of a separate but overlapping discussion of the relationship between fact and value. The fact-value dichotomy, at the heart of moral philosophical discussions of subjectivist and objectivist ethics, has served to cloud the issue of objectivity. The fact-value dichotomy, articulated in social science by Max Weber, follows two lines of development.


First, that fact and value be kept separate and only the former be admitted to scientific analysis (methodological value judgements apart). Second, that moral judgements may be admissible as ‘facts’ and therefore admissible to social science. The subjectivist view is that moral judgements are individual choices. The objectivist view, in two parts, is that moral judgements are societal choices and thus ‘social facts’ or, alternatively, that they are self-evident and objectively graspable, e.g. cruelty is self evidently wrong and it is possible to empirically identify cases of cruelty.


While an extreme subjectivist view is naive as it ignores the impact of the social milieu, the objectivist views rely on theoretical frameworks for deciding cases of evident morality or constructing social prescriptions. Or, as Lessnoff (1974) has argued, how does one distinguish between accurate and defective moral sense? To distinguish which is which is problematic. ‘Thus, even if the subjectivist view of morality is mistaken, from the standpoint of social science it might just as well be right’ (Lessnoff, 1974, p. 138).


The subjective-objective distinction is of little use as a criteria for judging knowledge claims. One should not, however imply that all knowledge is subjective or personal. On the contrary, knowledge is a process, and, while an interpretive process is independent of a subject. In other words, knowledge is a reflection of an autonomous ‘reality’.


Chalmers (1978) has offered a scheme for assessing theories of knowledge that reflects the concerns of the historical-objective debate. He suggests three categories of (interpreted) knowledge. The subjectivist, the objectivist and the consensual. The subjectivist approach to scientific knowledge relates knowledge to individually held beliefs of scientists. The belief becomes part of science once the scientist is able to justify it. Justification is dependent upon epistemological criteria. Kant and Descartes for example, would regard introspection and reasoning as admissible justification, while an inductivist would want the justification to be grounded in direct sensory experience. (Logical empiricists are therefore subjectivists). The root of the subjectivist position is that scientific theories are, at base, the properties of individual minds.


This differs from the consensus view of knowledge that focuses on the scientific community. Scientific knowledge is composed of those theories that are accepted by the community. The community provides the criteria for deciding on the admissibility of knowledge. There are no absolute standards of science, they are relative to a community.


The objectivist approach rejects the view that science is a set of beliefs, held either individually or communally. Chalmers argued that an objectivist approach (which he endorsed) conceives scientific theories as autonomous, existing independently of individual or community opinion, notwithstanding the fact that the participation of scientists (as individuals or communities) is necessary for the development and generation of theories. In this sense, science is a process without a subject.


Chalmers view is that scientific theories are interrelated and bear a certain relationship to the available evidence, whether or not any scientist or community specifies it. Chalmers stated that:

Theories are coherent or incoherent, consistent or inconsistent, and so on, and they possess those properties independently of whether individual scientists or communities of scientists realize it or not. The state of development of scientific theories and the evidence bearing on them at some historical juncture will constitute an objectively existing problem situation. (Chalmers, 1973, p. 100.)

Science, then, poses problems. Some scientists, alone or in groups, will appreciate these problems and attempt to tackle them. Other problems will not be discovered. Objective criteria will be constructed to adjudicate between theories, and indeed, Chalmers suggested, objective criteria may exist such that individual scientists and groups can be shown to be mistaken in their assessment of the merits and properties of objectively existing theories.


Chalmers designation of objectivist, consensual and subjectivist, while providing a context for addressing the subjective-objective debate in terms of historicality, actually reintroduces a historicist position by reaffirming an autonomous nomothetic view of science. The ‘naiveté’ of this position is evident when compared with a naive historicist perspective. The positive side, however, emerges in the reconceptualising of the objectivist position in terms of problem orientation. Rather than assume that problems pre-exist, the non-historicist perspective on objectivism would assert that problems are constructed as a result of research-guided interests. This firmly grounds an objectivist position in a Weltanschauungen historicist frame. The problem of objectivity thus becomes one of the mode of perception.

Objectivism resides in Weltanschauung. History then becomes a world-view encompassed pragmatism. On the one hand this is valid only if the world-view, or horizon of knowledge is flexible and open to critical reappraisal as in the mediation of traditions (a position proposed by Gadamer, with its consequent dismissal of the subjective-objective dichotomy) or, on the other hand, if it is constrained by some form of historicism which roots objectivism in research interests. In which case, what is seen as history is dependent on what the historian sees as significant, and this is a function of research motivation, worldview, image of history and so on. The pragmatism, in this case, emerges in programmatic definitions of history.


Critical hermeneutics provides a (partial) resolution through synthesis.


related areas

See also






Researching the Real World Section 1.4.2

Researching the Real World Section 1.7.6


Chalmers, A.F., 1973, 'On learning from our mistakes', British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2, pp. 164–73. 

Chalmers, A.F., [1978] 1982, What Is This Thing Called Science. Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Lessnoff, M., 1974, The Structure of Social Science. A philosophical introduction. London, George Allen & Unwin.

Schindler, S.,undated, 'Observation and Theory-ladenness' undated, available at, accessed 8 May 2013, page not available 29 December 2016.

White, A., undated, 'quine: terms in translation', available at, accessed 8 May 2013, still available 15 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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