Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research
2.4.1 The development of critical social research
2.4.2 Elements of critical social research
2.4.3 Summary of critical social research

Activity 2.4.1
Activity 2.4.2

Critical social research is an approach that constructs alternative understandings of the social world. It encompasses research that attempts to go beneath surface appearance. It attempts to do this by questioning the views of the social world that are usually taken for granted (Harvey and MacDonald, 1993).

Critical social research encompasses a wide range of perspectives, including Marx and subsequent marixists (including structuralists, and critical theorists), critical hermeneutics, most feminists and many anti-racist and radical environmentalist approaches. These will be discussed in more detail below.

Critical social research is an alternative to positivistic and phenomenological approaches. Where positivism seeks causal explanation and phenomenology interprets subject's meanings, critical social research aims for a situated understanding of social phenomena.

The critical epistemological perspective argues that while it is important to see the social world as made up of reflective people it is also important to remember that they are situated in a specific historical and socio-economic context. To know the world we must look at how people are limited in what they do and think by the nature of the social world in which they live.

For the critical social researcher, positivistic approaches are inadequate. The search for explanatory causes reduces the problem to component parts and takes them out of context. The explanation is limited to the interrelationship between the elements that have been identified as having an effect. It does not take into account the bigger picture in which this interaction takes place.

An analogy would be to suggest that you can understand how a car engine works by simply taking it apart, or that you can drive a car by having passed all the component parts of a driving test. For critical social researchers, understanding does not come from breaking social events or structures down into causally-related component parts. On the contrary, understanding comes from seeing things as a whole and placing social events in their wider social and political setting.

Similarly, critical social research regards attempts by phenomenologists to interpret social interaction as also limited. Although interpretation provides some insights, it is often focused too narrowly on the process of interaction without taking the wider context into account. It would be like driving a car by focusing on each traffic hazard in turn without any map of where you are going.

The critical approach thus argues that to know the world we thus have to relate observable social phenomena to the wider social context. We can only know what something means if we understand how it has come about historically or how it relates to social structures. For example, to understand a strike, it is necessary to do more than look for the 'cause' of the strike or to explore the meanings of those on strike. It is necessary to relate the strike to the history of industrial relations, employment prospects, government policy, legal constraints, media campaigns and so on.

Marxists, for example, see the constraints on people as a result of class oppression that results from the capitalist process of production. The majority of people under capitalism are exploited as workers and the social structure, through the courts, school, media and so on, ensure that this system is maintained and seen as natural. The resulting capitalist knowledge is thus a distorted view of reality. To really know about the world we have to dig beneath the surface and reveal what is really going on. Real knowledge, for Marxists, is that which reveals how people are oppressed by the processes of class-based social production.

Feminists adopt a similar approach, arguing that positivist 'scientific' knowledge is essentially male knowledge and it is used to oppress women. Anti-racists similarly see 'scientific' knowledge as white knowledge that serves to oppress black people. Marxists, feminists and anti-racists, for example, are all critical of existing knowledge, arguing that it supports oppression of one sort or another.

To know the world it is necessary to break down taken-for-granted knowledge of the social world to see how it really works, then to build an alternative understanding. Although critical social research locates social phenomena in a wider context, critical epistemology also embodies a view that knowledge develops through critique of existing knowledge and preconceptions. We come to understand by deconstructing what we already think we know and reconstructing an alternative understanding. We might think that we know about a strike based on the information available from television coverage. A critical approach would ask why is the strike being portrayed in that way? What lies beneath the decision to show specific images of the strike or take a particular angle on explaining its causes and impact? Who's interests are being represented in a particular representation of the strike? In short, a critical approach would attempt to break down — deconstruct — the prevailing way knowledge about the strike and build up — reconstruct — an alternative understanding of the situation.

Critics claim that the critical approach is too 'political', that critical researchers are not detached and are guided by ideological commitment. The attempt to set events in their wider context, critics claim, is nothing more than making the social research into a political tool. Furthermore, the attempts to relate social phenomena to a wider context are 'subjective' and do not derive from the data. Science, they argue, has to be detached from political considerations. In one sense these criticisms are correct: critical social research is a dialectical process that involves conceptually moving between specific evidence and the wider context that makes sense of the data and that process cannot ignore the way evidence is constructed for political ends.

Critical social research is also 'ideological' in the sense that it critiques the prevailing ideology and tries to make sense of the evidence by examining it from a new perspective. The presumption by positivists that the scientific method is somehow non-ideological and that their data collection and theorising is not influenced by politics is, though, self-delusional (see Section Instead of pretending to be 'detached' and 'objective', critical social research takes politics and ideology head on.

In summary, critical approaches to the social world:

  • attempt to dig beneath the surface appearances;
  • locate social processes or phenomena in a wide social and historical context;
  • acknowledges that values and politics impact on social theorising.


Study Point
Sociological studies suggest that working-class children achieve fewer formal qualifications in school than middle-class and upper-class children. How do you think a critical social research approach would make sense of such research findings?


Next 2.4.1 The development of critical social research