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
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research

2.4.2 Elements of Critial Social Research Getting beneath the surface Abstraction Essence Praxis Ideology History Totality and structure Deconstruction and reconstruction

Activity 2.4.3

2.4.2 Elements of Critial Social Research
Critical approaches involve a common approach to thinking sociologically, although they have no common 'methods': there is no simple recipe for doing critical social research.

Marx, for example, used documented material, official statistics, newspaper reports, he undertook historical analysis and criticised the work of other academics and commentators. Delphy used her personal experiences, official statistics and economic analyses as well as critiquing other analyses. Schlesinger, in his study of the news media (Section 3.3.3) undertook direct observation and in-depth interviews as well as analysing news output and other documents.

Critical social research does not have preferred methods for data collection; official statistics, surveys, document analysis, discourse analysis, media analysis, in-depth interviewing, participant and non-participant observation have all been used in critical social research.

Examples include:

  • Paul Willis's (1977) study of schooling, Learning to Labour, which used observation and depth interviewing;
  • Roger Grimshaw and Tony Jefferson's (1987) Interpreting Policework, which involved shadowing policemen on duty;
  • Judith Williamson's (1978) Decoding Advertisements, which involved analysis of advertisements in magazines and newspapers;
  • Will Wright's (1975) Six Guns and Society, which involved a systematic analysis of all major Western films;
  • Sallie Westwood's (1984) participant observation study of female factory workers entitled All Day Everyday;
  • Theodore Adorno and colleagues' (1982) study of prejudice entitled The Authoritarian Personality, which used surveys to explore the roots of fascism.

Most of these examples are explored in detail in Critical Social Research Parts 2 and 3. Getting beneath the surface
So what does critical social research involve? As suggested above, there are many different versions of critical social research. However, there is a common aim, which is to get beneath the surface of what appears to be going on.

In getting beneath the surface the intention is to uncover alternative ways of thinking about social phenomena. Critical social research involves a process of breaking down taken-for-granted conceptualisations of the social world (deconstruction) and building alternatives ways of understanding what is going on (reconstruction).

How does critical social research do this? By using whatever tool is appropriate and by reflecting on whatever evidence is available (primary or secondary data).

The key is that critical social research involves an intellectual process of reconceptualisation aided by an array of evidence that provides alternative ways of thinking. Taking things apart is not the same as destroying them. It's like having a Lego house, taking it apart and rebuilding it as a castle. If you want to use the Lego parts to rebuild the castle you have to take the house apart carefully, not simply smash it up with a hammer! Critical social research requires that you carefully take apart existing explanations or interpretations and rebuild an alternative.

What the different approaches to critical social research have in common, then, is an approach to sociological thinking (Harvey, 1990). This approach has the following conceptual elements:

This may, initially, seem very complicated. Some of these are unfamiliar concepts and it may not be obvious what they mean. In practice, they are not as complex as they sound and are concepts that bring together theory and method. However, it is important to remember that these elements are not prescriptive tools for collecting evidence, they are the conceptual processes that need to be undertaken by the critical social researcher.

The elements are explained in more detail in Critical Social Research Section 1.6. Abstraction
The first element of critical thinking is to turn abstract concepts into concrete processes. For Marx, an analysis of capitalism only works when 'money' is not seen as an end in itself but as part of a process of capital accumulation and exploitation.

Christine Delphy turns the abstract notion of 'housework' defined as a 'set of tasks' into a relation of production, where the wife (usually) does free work for other members of the family.

Schlesinger (1978) revealed that the abstract notion of 'neutrality', applied to the BBC News, deflected attention from the process by which The News was produced. Only certain types of stories get to be in The News and, in the case of the coverage of Ireland (in the 1970s), the conflict, which has a long history, is turned into a succession of random and isolated acts of violence.

Jane Hill (1999), in a study of inter-agency co-operation in relation to child abuse, argued that the focus on inter-agency co-operation deflected attention away from the unequal relations in society within which abuses to children take place.

Critical social research differs, for example, from positivism in the way that abstraction is viewed. Positivists tend to see abstraction as a process of 'distillation', the abstract concept somehow emerges from repeated observation of the world. For example, the concept of 'domestic violence' emerges from lots of observations of females being physically abused by their male partners.

Critical social research reverses this taken-for-granted approach to abstraction. Critical social research argues that 'observations' and 'facts' do not exist independently of their theoretical context (Chalmers, 1994) (see Section 1.4). If 'facts' require a theoretical context in order to have any meaning then concepts cannot be abstracted from them. Unlike positivism, critical social research moves from the abstract to the concrete and back again. It takes abstract conceptions and investigates them by putting them in a broader context.

For example, aggressive behaviour in the home in which a husband pushes, hits or throws things at his wife is encapsulated by the term 'domestic violence'. CSR goes beyond the surface appearance of domestic violence as a set of aggressive acts and reconceptualises it as, for example, an outcome of a patriarchal control. Viewing domestic violence as a set of acts uncritically assimilates the notion of patriarchal control into the concept, that is, hides it from view. Instead of domestic violence being seen as part of a process of male control of women, seeing it as random acts of violence emphasises individual violence and hides the systematic oppression.

Abstraction, for critical social research, is more than specifying the concrete components, it requires identifying and revealing underlying structures, which have been assimilated uncritically into the concept, with the aim of developing a new, reconstructed concept.

For more on abstraction see Critical Social Research section 1.6.2 Essence
A second element is essence. Essence refers to the fundamental element of an analytic process. Unlike positivists who regard any concern with 'essences' as 'non-scientific', and phenomenologists who seek the essential nature of social processes as an end in themselves, critical social research uses essence as a pivotal concept.

Essence is the analytic element that acts as the key to unlocking the deconstructive process. Marx (1887) used the 'commodity form' as a core element in his analysis and critique of capitalist relations of production (See CASE STUDY Marx's Das Kapital). Labour is then seen as a commodity and capitalist accumulation (or profit) results from the labour time being bought for less than it is worth based on how much is produced by the labourer during the time he is being paid.

For Schlesinger (1978), the essence of understanding News production was to focus on the 'organisation' of the News. This meant shifting attention away from the myth of the freedom of news reporters to report what they liked (see Section

The essential nature of domestic violence is not the range of aggressive acts as such but the way domestic violence functions within the exploitative relationship of the family unit and as part of the social control of women.

Identifying the essence is not the goal but a step on the way to building an alternative understanding. Marx did not stop when he identified the commodity form as the essential element of capitalism. Instead he used it to show how labourers are exploited. Schlesinger did not stop when he discovered that news reporters were allocated stories, instead he explored the allocation process and examined how allocated stories were interpreted by reporters and editors to fit the acceptable way of presentation that reproduced the idea that the BBC News is impartial.

For more on essence see Critical Social Research section 1.6.4 Praxis
A third element is praxis, which means 'practical reflective activity'. Praxis is what changes the world. Some critical social research is overt in wanting to change the world. Marx, having analysed capitalism as a process of exploitation, exhorted the workers of the world to take over the means of production and hold capital in common so that they could no longer be exploited.

Some critical social research does not make such direct appeals to action. However, critical social research, by its very nature is political. It engages with preconceptions and social structures and shows how an understanding of the underlying processes requires a challenge to prevailing preconceptions and structures.

Reconceptualising domestic violence as really being about the control of women by men shifts the emphasis from the exploration, of say, the cause of a specific incidence of domestic violence to a political issue of power and control. In undertaking such an analysis, critical social research fundamentally questions the legitimacy of the familial relationship and the sanctity of 'privacy'.

Critical social research is not afraid of impacting on 'research subjects' by raising consciousness and awareness: in short, by empowering them. For critical social research, knowledge is not just about finding out about the world but about changing it.

For more on praxis see Critical Social Research section 1.6.5 Ideology
Ideology is another important element for critical social research. Ideology obscures the nature of social relations and power structures.

Ideology is an extensively debated and variously defined notion. However, the key aspects of ideology from the perspective of critical social research are that ideology reflects a dominant (or hegemonic) world-view that serves to legitimate the interests of dominant or powerful groups or classes.

Marx (1887) argued that the exploitation of labour could not be seen in isolation from the social structure. Apart from the army and police, who could forcibly keep workers under control if necessary, there is a dominant ideology to which the churches, the newspapers and the courts contribute. This ideology reinforces the view that there are some people who, by right, are wealthy and others who have to accept that they are not. Similarly, the ideology that supports the exploitation of women as housewives is summed up in phrases like 'a woman's place is in the home' and 'a woman's work is never done'.

Ideology, essentially, serves to make oppression appear to be natural. Ideology is not merely false consciousness that can be changed by changing people's attitudes. Ideology is constantly reaffirmed on a daily basis and can only be changed through practical reflective activity (praxis) on a mass scale. Transcending ideology involves more than just raising consciousness. For example, seeing domestic violence as isolated acts of aggression, reflects a patriarchal ideology that obscures the structural oppression of women. Domestic violence will continue unless it is seen as, at root, about men oppressing women. Unless it is openly vilified and condemned as completely unacceptable by the mass media, religious groups, the courts, the police and so on, domestic violence will continue to flourish as a 'private' sanctioned activity albeit theoretically illegal. The case in 2012 of the woman gang raped and murdered on a bus in India sparked a public outcry about the abuse of women and led to changed legal procedures. Although social values do not change overnight, this case at last questioned the prevailing masculinist ideology.

The above outline of ideology is somewhat simplified and there is an extensive debate about whether ideology is fundamentally about false consciousness or whether, at the other extreme, ideology is structurally grounded. A false consciousness approach suggests that dominant ideology could be changed by a mass change in the way people conceptualise the world. The structuralist view is that ideology will change if economic (and social or political) conditions change. A dialectical view might suggest that both perspectives and structural factors change and impact on each other thus dominant ideology changes.

For more on ideology see Critical Social Research section 1.6.6

Study Point
Why do you think that critical social researchers attach importance to the role of ideology? History
History is also an important element in critical sociological thinking. Critical social research does not take place in a vacuum. The subject of critical social research enquiry has a history and this has to be taken into account. History refers to both 'the past' and the process of constructing the past. For critical social research, history does not already exist as a set of facts. History is an interpretation, which draws selectively on evidence and which is guided by current perceptions.

So critical social research does not involve simply 'picking up' existing history. Rather it involves digging beneath the taken-for-granted nature of any existing history and to put any apparent 'historical facts' into their social and political contexts, taking account of dominant ideology. A critical study of domestic violence would address the historical evolution of a husband's perceived 'rights' over his wife and explore social and economic changes in the nature of family relations.

For more on history see Critical Social Research section 1.6.8 Totality and structure
Finally, critical social researchers have also to take into account the interlinked notions of totality and structure. Totality refers to the notion that social phenomena are interrelated and that phenomena should not be analysed in isolation. They are part of a coherent structure that has a history. For critical social research, structure refers to the notion of a complex and interdependent set of interrelated components.

Marx (1887) argued that you could not see the low wages paid to workers as the result of the supply and demand of labour as positivists do. Instead there is a whole interrelated structure of laws, courts, police, churches, social classes, mass media and so on that is organised to ensure that workers are kept under control and accept their position. Similarly, Schlesinger showed that if one considers wider social factors, such as government policy then the impartiality of the BBC is thrown into question.

Structures are dynamic and should not be confused with fixed 'systems'. A structure embodies a dialectical relationship of part and whole, where the meaning of the totality is dependent on the parts that themselves only have meaning in relation to the whole (the totality). For Marx, capitalism is an evolving structure. Understanding the capitalist process of exploitation requires seeing how the different parts of capitalism relate to each other, how the police, army and courts link to organised religion and mass media and how that relates to the process of capitalist accumulation and oppression of workers.

On a smaller scale, Schlesinger looks at the complex structure that results in the production of News. How government policy, the image of the impartiality of the BBC, the apparent freedom of reporters, the editorial control of news production all come together in the broadcast News.

In adopting a totalistic, structural approach, critical social research relates empirical detail to a structural and historical whole.

Domestic violence, for example, is not a set of isolated aggressive acts but the manifestation of an historical relationship in which wives were chattels 'owned' by their husband and where violence continues to be the ultimate expression of power within the family. The tolerance afforded domestic violence, because it occurs in the 'privacy of the home', is part of the wider structure of control of women by men that allows, for example, intimidation of women through the threat of rape and assault if they go out alone at night.

Bunie Sexwale (1994) reported a study of violence committed against female domestic workers in South Africa in the period leading up to the end of apartheid. She drew on the words of the domestic workers. However, she did not just report the harrowing stories as evidence in themselves but sets the experience in the wider context of South Africa's history of colonisation, its apartheid past and the imminent collapse of institutionalised racism. She showed how gender relations involve emotional, sexual and physical violence that goes beyond the personal and is legitimated by structural processes. For example, domestic workers are openly abused and have little or no recourse to legal protection as the police and courts collude with the servant's white employers.

For more on totality and structure see Critical Social Research sections 1.6.3 and 1.6.7.

Activity 2.4.3
List the elements of critical social research and write a definition for each of them in your own words. Compare your definition with that of other students in your group. Deconstruction and reconstruction
It is important to reinforce that these elements of critical social research do not constitute a 'method'. Nor are they simple building blocks that can be constructed into a solution, much less ingredients in a pre-defined recipe for action. They are interlinked conceptual elements that help us understand the mental process that goes on when doing critical social research. They are drawn together through the process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Furthermore, these elements of critical social research do not favour any specific method of data collection. On the contrary, critical social research is characterised by the use of a wide variety of methods of evidence gathering. The key to approaching 'methods' in critical social research is to see them as ways of collecting evidence. It is not the evidence as such that is important (as it is sometimes assumed to be in positivist research, for example, where only 'representative' data is allowed) it is what is done with the evidence and how an array of evidence from a wide variety of sources enables a process of breaking down apparent explanations or interpretations and permits the building of an alternative understanding.

Remember, at heart, critical social research involves a process of deconstruction (breaking things down) and reconstruction (building alternatives:

  • it does it by deconstructing (not demolishing) current perceptions then reconstructing an alternative understanding;
  • abstraction and essence provide clues as to what is really at the heart of the issue;
  • ideology reminds us of the dominant ways of explaining and accounting for social phenomena;
  • praxis reaffirms that knowledge is practical and changed by practical action: critical social research is overtly political;
  • structure, totality and history provide a reminder of the inter-relatedness of social phenomena and the context within which understanding is built.

The critical research research process will be explored in more detail in each of the method Sections (3–9)


Next 2.4.3 Summary of the critical social research approach