About Critical Social Research (1990)



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

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, 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

1.5 The critical tradition
Critical social research is part of a long tradition of criticism of contemporary social order encompassing Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Saint-Simon and Marx (Coser, 1988). It has subsequently been behind the endeavours of Marxists, neo-Marxists, pseudo-Marxists, social critics, structuralists, Marxist-structuralists, critical hermeneutists, feminists, black perspectives and radical social scientists of one sort or another ever since. It is all the more surprising, then, that, while it is simple enough to find accounts of the core processes of say positivistic or phenomenological approaches to sociological research, accounts of the essential nature of a critical approach are elusive. This book aims to fill this gap

Despite the long tradition, critical social research has waxed and waned in popularity over the last century and there have been numerous reassertions of the need for and principles of 'critical' social enquiry. In Europe, up to the 1960s, these have tended to be linked directly with reworkings of Marxism (see section 2.2 below). In the United States, the Marxist element has been less overt and the call for critical social research has tended to be more pragmatic, directed against bureaucratisation, institutionalised power and manipulation of mass society (Ross 1901; Thomas, 1917; Mannheim, 1940). This has been tied to the censuring of social science for failing to develop methodologies sufficiently imaginative to deal with these major substantive issues (Lynd, 1939, Mills, 1959).

The 1960s seemed to mark the full rehabilitation of critical social research with the debates revolving around Marxism leading up to and in the wake of the widespread student (and worker) revolts of 1968. A rehabilitation given new impetus by the development of Black movements and Women's movements with their calls for critical social analysis in which ethnic and gender oppression are brought into the foreground (see Parts 3 and 4 below).

However, the case for critical social research has continued to be made. Sometimes the plea is for a particular form of critical enquiry as in Zygmunt Bauman's (1976) Towards A Critical Sociology with its emphasis on an approach informed by Habermas' critical hermeneutics. At others it is a the re-expression of the responsibility of the social scientist to attempt to address substantive issues, as in Alfred McClung Lee's (1978) Knowledge For Whom? In all cases though, rather than assume the centrality of critical social research in the long tradition of social enquiry its place has to be reclaimed.

Bauman (1976), for example, criticises sociology for having far too long conceptualised society in 'nature-like' terms. From Comte, through Durkheim to Parsons and various other forms of functionalism society has been seen as 'second nature' and as organised organically. The emergence of existentialist- and phenomenologically-informed sociology, he argues, does nothing to challenge this preoccupation. On the contrary, by strengthening the key role of commonsense, such approaches deepen and strengthen the 'nature-like' perspective. They do this in particular by focusing on the way that common-sense is sustained and embedded in the routines and assumptions of everyday life. Herein 'resides the intrinsically conservative role of sociology as the science of unfreedom' (Bauman, 1976, p. 36).

The positivistic bent of sociological enquiry into 'things as they really are' must be engaged. Against the myth of uncommitted knowledge Bauman advocates a critical sociology aimed at human liberation. Critical sociology must challenge the 'very daily existence which renders commonsense so placidly, if not fatuously, assured of its righteousness'. Bauman proposes Habermas' thesis of emancipatory reason as a basis for critical sociology as it does not simply compete with other theories but 'recklessly denies the validity of information itself'. Information, it claims, is partial, historically specific, inconclusive and the 'reflection of a mutilated, maimed, truncated existence'. Emancipatory reason does not struggle with common-sense but with the social reality that underlies it. 'It is social reality itself which renders commonsensical awareness--even when resulting from faithful, correct [positivistic] reflection--false' (Bauman, 1976, p. 75).

Bauman's call for an overt reconsideration of the nature of critical social research reflects the European tradition of critical thought that is grounded in epistemological concerns. His is not just a call for critical social science but an attempt to locate it in a specific framework; in particular, it is a concern to disentangle critical-emancipatory social science from the phenomenological critique of positivism. The need to address this distinction is symptomatic of the variety of engagements of critical with non-critical epistemology to be found in European discourse. This has led to a number of different general perspectives on critical social research and thus to a number of overlapping meanings.

In its 'narrowest' sense critical social research is conflated with 'a Marxist approach' or, somewhat more vaguely, a 'dialectical' orientation. Gouldner (1970) linked critical social research with 'radical sociology', while Radnitzky (1973) construed it as a 'hermeneutic-dialectic' approach opposed to 'logical empiricism'. In his widely read book, Benton (1977) proposed a materialist or Marxist theory of knowledge distinct from both positivism and humanism and Johnson et al. (1984) contrast substantialism with empiricism, subjectivism and rationalism as a basis for a critical dialectical approach.

The approach in the United States has tended to be more pragmatic. In Sociology for Whom? Alfred McClung Lee (1978) takes up the critique of American sociology voiced by Robert Lynd and C. Wright Mills (discussed in detail in Part 2). He criticises sociology for failing to deal with the pressing issues of the day and sees sociology as impotent in the face of 'power brokers and manipulators', insidious 'invisible government' (Lippman, 1913) or 'plutocratic politics' controlled by wealth (Sumner, 1888).

Lee addresses the extent to which modern sociology is able to help people control themselves and their resources for human ends and proposes a sociology in the service of humanity. He examines the ideals, practices and teaching of sociology and accuses much contemporary sociology of neo-scholasticism; the packaging of research conclusions in complex theories and jargons that obscure the main point. There is also, Lee contends, a tendency to fall back on methodological discussion to disguise inadequate or embarrassing research findings, to the extent of claiming the research as a test of the methodology. For him, social scientists are more concerned with their career prospects than the substance of their research and thus serve the status quo through their acceptance of the pressures of academic administration, the business and political establishment, publishers, and the providers of research monies.

Lee encourages a questioning attitude about the practice of contemporary sociology and the discarding of a narrow insular perspective. He suggests co-operative rather than competitive work; critique of the privileges, power and exploitation within the discipline; jettisoning of privileged texts ('holy writs', as he refers to them); a wide-ranging search for facts and ideas; and a critical examination of new fads, of both their theoretical and epistemological content and their wider social implications. Further, sociology should address a wider range of social problems than those that 'irritate the inhabitants of white suburban ghettos'; frame analysis in the context of worldwide 'colonialist and neo-colonialist exploitation'; and address and publicise the 'manipulative strategies and propagandas to which so much of our mass media, politics, religious apologetics, and formal education are devoted' (Lee, 1978, p. 222-223).

In short, social scientists must serve 'all classes of people as citizens, as consumers, and as neighbors'. This must include studies of how people can 'protect themselves from undesirable manipulation by those in positions of power'. Humanist sociology must broaden its perspective and embrace other disciplines not retain strict lines of demarcation. Sociologists in the service of humanity 'act principally as critics, demystifiers, reporters, and clarifiers.' They critically review 'folk wisdom' and 'strip away some of the outworn clutter of fictions' that inform peoples' lives (Lee, 1978, p. 36).

A decade later, Lewis Coser (1988) felt it again necessary to impress upon the American Sociological Association the salience of the critical tradition and the need to resurrect it. He noted the perturbing influence on 'hopeful, critical undergraduates' in graduate school to relegate 'their critical impulses into half forgotten liminal layers of the mind'. Like Mills and Lee before him, he noted the tendency for sociological training in the United States to be directed at methodological refinement rather than critical thinking. 'The methodological tail wags the substantive dog' and in so doing they abandon the 'critical birthright' and 'fail to enhance the critical bite' of sociology. The resultant work is often dull and 'tedious as a laundry list'. In the United States, critical reflection on substantive issues is more likely to be found amongst natural than social scientists (Birnbaum, 1988) and the critical edge of sociology relies on imports: 'Habermas, Giddens, or Bourdieu serve as substitutes for missing native critical products' (Coser, 1988, pp. 4-5).

Coser reasserts the need for sociology to take up its responsibilities. Sociology that 'limits itself to taking account of what is', he argues, is inadequate. Critical sociological thought is needed 'in order to pinpoint and locate social problems and issues of which ordinary men and women are not yet aware'. Critical sociology needs to reveal the 'worm in the apple', the 'rot behind the glittering facade of the current scene'. For example, social disturbances, rather than being seen as aberrations, are addressed by critical sociologists as signs of 'deep-seated maladjustments in the social structure that can only be remedied through thorough reconstruction of basic societal premisses'. Without critical sociology, he argues, 'the body of our discipline, and also the entire social fabric, are likely to congeal into frozen conformity' (Coser, 1988, pp. 9-12).

Todd Gitlin (1988), also at the American Sociological Association, similarly voiced his disappointment with lack of criticism in sociology. He offers a tentative explanation for this lack citing a hostile economic climate and the academic career structure of sociology, which have coincided with an insular, inaccessible sociology, unable or unwilling to take on board social criticism. This is epitomised by the growth of post-structuralism, which promises everything but requires no engagement in the polity. For him, the decline of social criticism is rooted in a much larger problem, the decline of a public at large, and in this he reflects Mills' and Lee's long held views about public manipulation and mass media. Social critics, he argues, must at the very least address this issue.

Although the idea of critical social research is embedded in the tradition of social enquiry it frequently needs to be unearthed and reasserted. No more so than at the start of the 1990s in the wake of the right's claiming of the high ground of moral and philosophical discourse. The left, world wide, confounded by the persuasiveness of consumerism was forfeiting its own analytic concepts and adopting, uncritically, the reactionary re-workings of the three R's: radicalism, realism and revolution. Critical social research must, as part of its responsibility to reveal the anti-democratic oppressions of the contemporary social world, reclaim these constructs.

This is not to assert any direct political affiliation for critical social research. It is a methodology not a political creed. However, it is a methodology that is informed by a view that social structures are, in various ways, oppressive mechanisms. Critical social research, in this book, refers, then, only to work that involves a critique of oppressive social structures. It is not restricted to Marxism nor any other 'ism'. However, only work that reflects a methodology that in some way attempts to get beneath the surface of appearances, in order to reveal the nature of oppressive mechanisms, is included. The next section explores in outline the elements of such a methodology.



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

Next: 1.6 Elements of critical social research