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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Marx's Das Kapital

Marx's (1887) last great work, Das Kapital [Capital], the three-volume analysis of capitalism is a major example of critical social research. A brief review of the analysis in the first volume demonstrates the critical social research way of working.

Marx set out to understand the real nature of capitalism. He could see that capitalism, as the driving force of the industrial revolution, was leading to rapid and massive changes in the 'advanced' countries of the time (England, Germany, France, USA). These changes could be beneficial because of the introduction of many labour-saving machines. However, rather than benefit the workers, capitalism was leading to far worse conditions for workers, with long hours of often dangerous work with very little pay. The capitalists, those people who owned the capital and hired the labour, were the only ones who benefited. So Marx wanted to know why this was, how capitalism really operated. He wanted to get beneath the surface of the workings of capitalism.

He was scornful of religious justifications for inequality or the notion that people were born to different classes and had to put up with their lot.

Marx was equally scathing of the work of positivist economists of his day who tried to explain the status quo in terms of variants of supply and demand. For him, they began in the wrong place. Conventional economics tended to begin with money. He argued that such positivists start with observations and create abstractions to explain them. So, positivists see money as a reality and try and build theories explaining the circulation and accumulation of money. Marx, argued that money might appear to be 'real and concrete' but was in fact an abstraction that concealed relations of exchange. His approach was to find the reality beneath the surface of money relations. In this Marx was fundamentally opposed to positivist epistemology.

He asked, first of all, what was it that was fundamental to capitalism. His answer, after much thought and reflection on the workings of capitalism, was the commodity. In capitalism, everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. Money is not fundamental to capitalism, it is the medium through which commodities are traded. It is the commodity that is fundamental. A capitalist employs workers to use the capital equipment (machines) to make a commodity for the capitalist to sell. So how does the capitalist make money (or accumulate capital, as Marx called it)? A single capitalist could accumulate capital by selling the commodity for more than it was worth. However, every capitalist could not sell things for more than they are worth. If they did, then every capitalist would also be buying things for more than they were worth and so the system as a whole could not lead to capital accumulation through sharp selling practices. Capitalists must be accumulating their capital on the basis of something else.

The answer, for Marx, is the commodity. Not only are the products of capitalism (the things that are made) commodities, so too is people's labour. The capitalist buys labour from the labourer, who sells it in order to earn money to live. However, there is a major difference between the trade in commodities and the trade in labour. The capitalist buys the commodity of labour for less than it is worth. The capitalist pays an 'exchange value' for the labour based on the time the labourer spends working. This is different from the 'use value' of the labour, which is the amount of useful products, or commodities, the labourer produces. The capitalist, by paying for the time, has ownership of (or appropriates, as Marx put it) the product of the time spent labouring. In short, the capitalist pays a wage and owns the commodity produced by the labourer. Needless to say, there is a difference between the exchange value of labour and the exchange value of the commodities produced by that labour. The capitalist appropriates the difference (makes a profit out of the labour of others) and labour is exploited. xxxxxxx In effect, the positivist economists of the day argued that the supply of labour was greater than the demand by capitalists so that capitalists were justified in paying low wages. If that situation changed, then inevitably wages would rise. Marx argued that this was a naive, surface argument that simply justified exploitation. It failed to take into account the real historical context and the social structures that had grown up or adapted to support capitalism.

Factories existed in the real world and there was a whole 'ideological superstructure' that supported the capitalists, giving them power to exploit the workers. This ideological superstructure included the church, the courts, the police and military, the newspapers and even academic theorists. They were all, on one hand, creating the illusion that the fate of the workers was to be downtrodden and that they should accept their place in the social order. On the other hand, anyone attempting to do anything about it was subject to the full force of these agencies.

So, capitalism could not just be seen as operating in the factories; economics goes beyond the realms of economic theory. There is a much wider context that includes an array of power relations that have to be taken into account. In short, it is necessary to take into account the 'totality' of social forms.

Marx agreed that there was a class basis to the exploitation of labour but rather than accept that this class differential was inevitable he argued that class structures were not a 'fact of life' but could be torn down. What he advocated, was a system in which workers owned their own 'use value', and in that way owned capital in common. Unlike many social scientists to day (who think that they should only analyse social situations and avoid any suggestion of action or avoid being implicated in politics) Marx was not afraid that his analysis might lead to social or political action. On the contrary, for him, practical reflective action (or praxis, as he called it) was the inevitable outcome of social analysis. Indeed, praxis was what individuals did all the time. Social analysis might lead to a unified praxis, with people reflecting and acting together to a common end. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels ([1848], 1996) encouraged a whole social class, the workers, to reflect and act to overthrow the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production (that is, the capitalists).


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