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

Totality refers to an approach to thinking that locates phenomena in wider social structural and historical context.

explanatory context

In this sense, totality is similar to holism but goes further as the wider milieu is more than a context but is directly related to and is effected by the observed phenomena. Totality presumes a dialectical interrelationship of part and whole.

A totalistic approach to enquiry requires that social phenomena should not be analysed in isolation. They should not be regarded as encapsulated by a narrowly defined realm that can be investigated in a way that suggests they are self-contained elements or organisms. A totalistic approach is concerned with the investigation of social phenomena in their socio-historically and structurally specific milieu

A totalistic perspective is not deterministic in any simple sense. The social context, be it a group, organisation or social structure does not determine social phenomena. The social context both informs and is informed by the social phenomenon. Social phenomena arise as a result of reflexive practices. The social context does not impose behaviour on social actors. Behaviour is constrained by social structures and historical precedents, but not determined.

A totalistic approach is both opposed to reductionism (both in the sense of the break up of a subject of enquiry into smaller and smaller units and of unidirectional causal chains) and objectivism. It affirms the theory context of observation. Facts have no meaning outside the theoretical framework to which they relate. A totalistic view thus regards 'facts' as meaningless, isolated atoms of empirical data divorced from the essential, integral structure of the whole. Facts exist only within the complex totality of social relations and institutions. Facts are imbued with meaning through the mediation of human consciousness and practice.

A totalistic approach encompasses this crucial relationship between subject and object as well as between part and whole.

A non-totalistic approach does not become totalistic by simply relating a specific investigation to a wider context by dragging in general constructs as control variables. To test to see whether a particular phenomenon is somehow related to the standard classificatory data (gender, age, race, socio-economic group, etc.) does not make a research holistic let alone totalistic.

analytical review

associated issues


related areas

See also

Critical Social Research Section 1.6.3



copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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