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 2012–2018

Page updated 9 February, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, 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 Critial Social Research Social criticism
Although Marx's work has been developed by later Marxists, there have been other contributors on the edge of the tradition who have contributed to the development of critical social research. In the United States, for example, Marxism has been mostly ignored and it has been left to sociologists such as Robert Lynd (1939) and C. Wright Mills (1956) to develop a critical social research approach, known as social criticism, with a similar methodological framework but, for political reasons, apparently distanced from Marxist dialectical thinking.

Lynd (1939) argued that American social science was characterised by technicians on the one hand, who were obsessed with developing method, and scholars on the other who failed to connect theory with practice. The result was that sociology failed to ask substantial questions, and, instead, constantly looked in on itself. [A criticism that could just as easily have been made of sociology in the UK in the 1990s]

Having seen no significant change in the twenty years since Lynd wrote Knowledge for What?, C. Wright Mills ([1959] 1973) restated the principles of a social criticism in The Sociological Imagination, first published in 1959. Mills couched his reassertion of the need for critical social research in terms of the 'intellectual craftsmanship' of the classic sociological tradition of, among others, Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

Sociology, Wright Mills argued, was dominated by abstract theorising on the one hand and detailed but insubstantial method-driven empirical studies on the other. Social phenomena were examined out of context and substantive issues of consequence were no longer the focus of social scientific enquiry. Mills acted as a focal point for a brief revival of an American-style critical social research, variously called 'the new sociology' (Horowitz, 1964) and 'social criticism' (Brown, 1977).

In his own work, C. Wright Mills adopted the approach of situating his analysis historically and structurally. For example in his analysis of the development of pragmatic philosophy, Wright Mills (1966) did not just document the history of the evolution of ideas but analysed the personal influences on the key thinkers, the interrelationships between social groupings of philosophers, and the specific historical and socio-political context that impacted on the development of ideas.

See Critical Social Research section 2.4 for a more detailed account of social criticism using Mills' (1956) The Power Elite as an example.


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