CRITICAL SOCIAL RESEARCH



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© Lee Harvey 1990, 2011, 2014, 2018, 2019

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at qualityresearchinternational.com/csr, last updated 31 January, 2019, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.


 

A novel of twists and surpises



 

Critical Social Research

1. Basics

1.2 Criticism and knowledge
To distinguish critical social research from other forms of research practice may, at first sight, seem to be creating an artificial distinction. For what research process does not embody some notion of criticism? A critical facility is, at least in theory, as important as an analytic facility when undertaking research. This is undeniable. The difference between critical approaches and non-critical approaches is not the difference between the presence and absence of critique, rather it is the difference between approaches in which critique is an integral part of the process and those in which it is peripheral.

Critical social research involves an epistemological perspective in which knowledge and critique are intertwined. Indeed, it is arguable that for a critical methodologist, knowledge is critique. A critical research process involves more than merely appending critique to an accumulation of 'fact' or 'theory' gathered via some mechanical process, rather it denies the (literally) objective status of knowledge and concerns itself with the processural nature of knowledge. Knowledge is a dynamic process not a static entity. Knowledge is not a bucket into which grains of information are dropped in the hope that they somehow coalesce into some kind of explanation of the world. For critical methodologists, knowledge is a process of moving towards an understanding of the world and of the knowledge that structures our perceptions of that world. Critical social research thus aims at an analysis of social processes, delving beneath ostensive and dominant conceptual frames, in order to reveal the underlying practices, their historical specificity and structural manifestations.

Christine Delphy's (1978) analysis of housework provides an illustrative example of this process of moving towards an understanding of a social process that is concealed in a taken-for-granted category. Delphy argues that housework is rarely defined and its character is assumed usually in relation to the specific tasks undertaken in the home by the wife such as cooking, ironing and cleaning. Delphy argues that this empirical definition reflects the theoretical interpretations applied to housework. Her intention is to begin with those universally agreed elements of the concept of housework, that it is work and that it is unpaid, and to determine its structural nature. She chooses the complex example of the wife working on an agricultural smallholding, a considerable proportion of the product of which is for self-consumption. This example is taken because it highlights the problem of differentiating the so-called economic accountable production and non-accountable production aspects of a wife's work in such settings.

Delphy regards as fatuous the argument that housework is free because, not passing through the market, it is not regarded as productive. National product accounting includes self-consumed production that does not pass through the market, such as some of the work done on small-holdings. This accounting is reasonable as national accounting includes all work that increases wealth. However, only some of this work is included. Certain transformations that take place on farms are included others are not. Butchering a pig for self-consumption is included, cooking it is not. The latter is regarded as 'housework' and is excluded. It is also excluded from national accounting when done in all other households as well. So why is some 'unpaid' work included in national accounting and other 'unpaid' work excluded?

There are, Delphy argues, no conceptual definitions of 'occupational' work and 'housework'. They are empirical categories. Housework is what is left when occupational work is subtracted, or vice versa. In the case of French national accounting, when dealing with smallholdings, there is no definition of 'occupational work' nor of the 'holding', as it is neither a place distinguishable from the home nor a business producing exclusively for the market. Empirically, 'occupational' work on a farm is that which is distinct from what would be carried out in a non-agricultural household. Thus housework, empirically, is that which is work for self-consumption common to all households. So the definition of occupational work depends on housework being defined as a common package of tasks.

Delphy reminds us that payment and remuneration are not the same. Productive work done for oneself (housework or any other kind) should not be regarded as something that requires payment. It is its own payment. If the work was not done then payment would have to be made to some other person to perform if the product was required. So while the product of self-consumed work is legitimately added to the national account, as something of use value was produced even if it did not acquire an exchange value by entering the market, it is not legitimate to expect payment for this work. To do so would be to pay for the work twice. The consumption is the remuneration.

So not all 'unpaid' work is free work. Baking and consuming ones own bread, for example, may be uneconomic in terms of time spent on the labour but it is still remunerated work, in real terms, therefore not free work. The only free work, or really unpaid work, is that which is unremunerated. That is, work which receives neither payment in exchange nor payment in the form of self-consumption. This must be work done for someone else.

Unremunerated work takes two forms. That which is included in national accounting as 'productive' and that which is not accounted. Housework is excluded from accounting because it is done within the confines of the home (or household unit) rather than economic productive unit. This has nothing to do with the services that make up housework, they all appear on the market in other contexts. Nor is it a function of the people who do the housework as women who provide services for free in their own home get paid when they do it in someone else's. It is the nature of the contract that ties the houseworker (wife) to the household (of her husband).

As far as national accounting goes, the household is the accounting unit. It is the household that enters into economic relations. There is no concern with what goes on inside the unit. As far as national accounting goes there are no individuals, only household units where nothing is exchanged or extorted from anyone. This clearly obviates the whole nature of the processes of work and exchange or non-exchange that take place within the household. Thus, argues Delphy, the analysis of housework cannot begin until the notion of household unit is overturned.

The significance of this is that housework cannot be properly viewed as a number of tasks or even a complete set of tasks. Seeing housework as a totality of tasks misleads; for housework must be seen as a particular work relationship. Delphy, therefore, defines it as 'all the work done unpaid for others within the confines of the household or the family' (Delphy, [1978] 1984, p. 90). Thus, there is no difference between the 'housework' and the other work done by wives, or other unpaid family members, whether it be in the homes of small farmers, businessmen, artisans, or wage earners. That farmers' wives are unable to easily draw a distinction between the work they do for the 'household' and the work they do for the 'occupation' is not because of the similarity of the tasks but because they are performed within the same relations of production.

For Delphy, then, it is a contradiction to discuss the structural character of housework while defining it (implicitly) as a set of tasks. The empirical determination of the theoretical concept housework forecloses on the theoretical discourse and has, according to Delphy, severely limited the study of housework as a relation of production. Theoretical advances may be aided by thinking of it as domestic work, or better still, familial work, rather than housework, as the former better represent the relationship of production.

This example illustrates how critical social research takes an empty abstract concept (housework) and reconstructs it as a historically specific idea that has its relevance within a structure of social relations. The reconstructed concept thus goes beyond the particular and is the basis for a critical analysis that reveals the nature of the structural relationships (of patriarchal exploitation) hidden behind the empty abstract concept.

Critical social research does not take the apparent social structure, social processes or accepted history for granted. It tries to dig beneath the surface of appearances. It asks how social systems really work, how ideology or history conceals the processes that oppress and control people. Critical social research is intrinsically critical. It assumes that a critical process informs knowledge. In its engagement with oppressive structures it questions the nature of prevailing knowledge and directs attention at the processes and institutions that legitimate knowledge. Critique of oppressive structures involves a critique of the 'scientific' knowledge that sustain them and this is often a direct focus of attention for critical social research as, for example, in Marx's engagement with positivist political economy throughout Capital and Oakley's critique of the sexist nature of sociology in her Sociology of Housework.

This does not mean, however, that any research that deals with critical subjects or is critical of prevailing academic disciplines is necessarily critical social research. A straightforward ethnographic account of the formation and work of a feminist group, based on in-depth interviews with key participants, for example, would not of itself necessarily be critical. It is important that the account be located in a wider context that links the specific activities with a broader social structural and historical analysis of women's oppression.

Conversely, critical social research is an evolving process. As it engages dominant ideological constructs and presuppositions about the nature of knowledge it is necessarily dynamic in the evolution of its critique. So, what may be a radical critique at one moment may, in a later context, appear to be superficial. Critical social research has to be located in its social milieu. What Marx had to say about capitalism has to be put in its Victorian context. Oakley's analysis of housework has to be seen as part of the embryonic feminist perspective emerging out of the activism of the Women's Liberation Movement and Ladner's account of the socialisation of Black ghetto women contextualised as a Black Power engagement with Women's Liberation.[1] Whatever reservations one may have of this work it was all profoundly critical in its time, and even if critical social research in these fields became more 'sophisticated', these studies still offer a fundamental critique of oppressive social structures.

Essentially, critical social research asks substantive questions about existent social processes. For example, the substantive questions addressed in the empirical work examined below include: what is the mechanism by which capitalists accumulate and legitimate their wealth? Who runs America? Why do working class kids get working class jobs? What role does Islam play in restricting women in Pakistan? To what extent does the legal system structure the role of the police? What is the link between women's seclusion and the caste and class system in India? Such questions cannot avoid political issues as they address historically specific sets of social relations.

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Notes

[1] Joyce Ladner's book was a radical statement in the United States at the time, not least because of its positive assertion of a Black culture, its denial of the relevance of white middle-class norms for assessing Black culture and its claim that (working class) Black womanhood provided the model for the new liberated white middle-class women. return

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© Lee Harvey 1990 and 2011, last updated 9 May, 2011

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