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 2012–2020

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

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research

2.4.1 The Development of Critial Social research Marx and Marxists Structuralist Marxism Humanist Marxism

Activity 2.4.1 Marx and Marxists
Karl Marx is generally regarded as the first critical social researcher of the modern era. His work, throughout his life, critiqued the prevailing and dominant views of the world. He attacked taken-for-granted views about religion, social structure and, ultimately, capitalism. His work was not just an attack on the society of his day, rather it was an analysis of the way in which society operated to oppress the working class for the benefit of those with wealth and power (see Case Study Marx's Das Kapital for an example of his work. A more detailed account can be found in Critical Social Research, Section 2.3)

Activity 2.4.1
A British property developer buys land in Bulgaria for 20,000, designs a house and gets a Bulgarian building firm to build it. The cost of the building of the house including the design is 200,000. The property developed sells it for 320,000 to an English family as a holiday home. (a) Has the developer made a profit of 100,000? (b) Who, if anyone, has been exploited? (c) What might be the difference between the 'exchange value' and the 'use value' of the labour of the builders? (d) What wider social structural factors enable the property developer to justify making this profit? (e) What are the implications of this kind of activity in Bulgaria?

Marx, and his collaborator, Frederick Engels, were also concerned not just to analyse the world but to change it. Their analysis of capitalism, for example, was the basis for revolutionary political involvement and resulted in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels ([1848], 1996).

Most subsequent work that has explored the nature of class oppression has drawn on the work of Karl Marx. In addition, a considerable amount of work on gender and race oppression has also drawn on the work of Marx and subsequent Marxists. Marx wrote extensively and there have been many different interpretations of his work: different Marxists place more or less emphasis on aspects of Marx's writings.

Throughout this Guide we distinguish between the works of Marx, and the works of people who adopt aspects of Marx's thought. Any thing relating to Marx himself we refer to as Marxian, and we refer to those who adopt aspects of his work as Marxists and their approach as Marxism.

Marxism is varied and the debates that divide Marxists focus on the analysis of capitalist production, the nature and role of classes, the importance of race and gender, the role and function of the media, the nature of and operation of ideology, the fragmentation of community, the nature of 'post-industrialism' and the appropriate tactics for revolutionary transformation.

Two broad trends among Marxists have been identified: structuralist and humanist. As neat as this distinction is, it vastly oversimplifies Marx's work and the subsequent development of Marxism. Furthermore, when considering other branches of critical social research, notably those based on race and gender oppression, the distinction between humanist and structuralist approaches is not helpful. However, as many reviews of Marxism use this distinction we will briefly review it below but it is important to remember that both humanist and structuralist concerns are found throughout the whole of Marx's work.

Top Structuralist Marxism
Marxism was developed along pragmatic revolutionary lines by V.I. Lenin prior to the Russian Revolution of February 1917. He continued to develop Marxist Leninism through the successful October Revolution of that year when the Bolsheviks emerged as the leading party. Marxist Leninism continually evolved in the following years but after Lenin's death in 1924 gradually became an instrument of state control, especially under Stalin, and increasingly remote from revolutionary practice. Nonetheless, Lenin's contribution to Marxism was taken up and developed within sociology by structuralist Marxists, notably Louis Althusser.

Althusser (1969; Althusser and Balibar, 1970) argued that Marx's writing could be characterised by what he called an epistemological break. Marx's early work was characterised by a humanist approach while his later work was more based on structuralism.

A humanist approach places more emphasis on the activities of people and the role of ideology in determining what people do.

A structuralist approach places more emphasis on the structures of society and suggests that these play a considerable role in determining what people do.

Althusser strongly argued that a structuralist approach is necessary and that the 'economic relations of production' (the way capitalism is organised) is the base of society that determines all other aspects of society, such as education, the media, the family, religion and so on. These non-economic 'superstructure' elements operate to restate and reproduce the productive base: school, for example, educates children as workers on the one hand and as citizens who accept the way capitalism operates on the other.

See Section for more on further developments of Structuralism

Top Humanist Marxism
Marx has been criticised by Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci (1971), Georg Lukacs ([1923]1971) George Lefebvre (1984), Raymond Williams (1965) and E.P. Thompson (1963), for placing too much emphasis on
(a) the revolutionary mission of the working class
(b) class hierarchies and
(c) the structure of society.

Instead, more emphasis should be placed on the so-called 'superstructural' elements such as education, culture, religion, the media and ideology. In particular, Marx is criticised by Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse (1964) for understating the role of the individual in society.

The apparent lack of political mission of the working class and an emphasis, in the 1960s, on culture and ideology, led Marxists to focus on protest movements rather than the structure of class relations. Women's Liberation, Black movements and middle-class student protests of the 1960s and 1970s have been joined by environmental movements, animal rights, disability rights and gay rights as the focus for radical action. In each case, despite some success in getting their concerns onto the political agenda, none of these movements has been the fulcrum for any broad and pervasive political changes.

Nonetheless, the grass-roots activities of the late 1980s 'feed the world campaigns' (despite being hijacked by commercial exploitation) reawakened interest in the protest movements of the 1960s and Marxist approaches have tended to operate in a decentralised way. Western European Marxism, in the 1980s and early 1990s was affected by postmodernism, post-structuralism, feminism, anti-colonialism and black critiques of power and moved away from a single model of oppression based upon class.

See Critical Social Research 2.2 Addendum for more details on the development of Marxism after Marx.

Next Structuralism