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

Utopianism refers to any social analysis that depends on, or projects towards, a social utopia.

explanatory context

A social utopia is an idealised social world.

analytical review

Sargent (2019) on Utopianism writes:

Utopianism is the general label for a number of different ways of dreaming or thinking about, describing or attempting to create a better society. Utopianism is derived from the word utopia, coined by Thomas More. In his book Utopia (1516) More described a society significantly better than England as it existed at the time, and the word utopia (good place) has come to mean a description of a fictional place, usually a society, that is better than the society in which the author lives and which functions as a criticism of the author's society. In some cases it is intended as a direction to be followed in social reform, or even, in a few instances, as a possible goal to be achieved.

The concept of utopianism clearly reflects its origins. In Utopia More presented a fictional debate over the nature of his creation. Was it fictional or real? Was the obvious satire aimed primarily at contemporary England or was it also aimed at the society described in the book? More important for later developments, was it naïvely unrealistic or did it present a social vision that, whether achievable or not, could serve as a goal to be aimed at? Most of what we now call utopianism derives from the last question. In the nineteenth century Robert Owen in England and Charles Fourier, Henri Saint-Simon and Étienne Cabet in France, collectively known as the utopian socialists, popularized the possibility of creating a better future through the establishment of small, experimental communities. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others argued that such an approach was incapable of solving the problems of industrial society and the label 'utopian' came to mean unrealistic and naïve. Later theorists, both opposed to and supportive of utopianism, debated the desirability of depicting a better society as a way of achieving significant social change. In particular, Christian religious thinkers have been deeply divided over utopianism. Is the act of envisaging a better life on earth heretical, or is it a normal part of Christian thinking?

Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a number of theorists have argued that utopianism has come to an end. It has not; utopias are still being written and intentional communities founded, hoping that a better life is possible.


University of Nottingham (undated) states:

Utopian and Dystopian Political Thought:

The research of Lucy Sargisson and Tony Burns is concerned with utopian and dystopian forms of political thought. Utopianism is an umbrella term that refers to the dreams and nightmares that drive much political action. Utopias are a manifestation of utopianism and they tend either to be positive (utopian) or negative (dystopian). Some utopias contain both eutopian and dystopian visions of the future. All utopias share certain features. For example, they stem from discontent with the present and identify key themes to be wrong with their author's world.

Often these themes form the cornerstones of their present social and political world, examples include the convention of privately owned property, gender relations and methods of governance. They are profoundly political, seeking thoroughly to analyse the present and to offer visions of better ways to organise human life. Utopias have a number of different political functions, including criticism of the present and the imagination of (often radical) alternatives, they can be didactic, catalytic, and heuristic. Imaginary utopias assume many forms, such as science fiction, social and political theory, architecture, music and medicine. And sometimes people try to realise utopian dreams of a better world, in the here and now. This includes intentional communities, co-housing and also social and political experiments within, for example, environmental politics and feminism.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Sargent, L.T., 'Utopianism', 2019, available at, accessed 15 June 2019 (full content not available without subscription).

University of Nottingham, nd, 'Research: Utopianism, Realism, and Ideal Theory', The Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory, available at, accessed 15 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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