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 Critial Social Research

2.4.3 Summary of the Critical Social Research Approach

Activity 2.4.4

Critical social research is a term encompassing an approach to sociological enquiry 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.

Critical social research is informed by critical epistemology, a view that knowledge develops through critique and is constrained by history and structure.

Critical social research involves a process of deconstructing a dominant understanding and reconstructing an alternative understanding that reveals the underlying social and historical interrelationships.

The dialectical analysis of Karl Marx is the earliest example of critical social research.

Critical social research is also found in the work of subsequent Marxists, feminists, anti-racists, black sociologists, structuralists, cultural theorists and post-colonialists.

Some critical social researchers make use of semiology or semiotics, which is the theory of signs. Although rooted in linguistics, semiology has been developed by sociology, particularly in the analysis of the communications media, cultural studies, and film studies.

The role of semiology is to discover the conventions that make signs what they are. Sociological semiology seeks to study sign systems and meanings within society. The core of sociological semiology is to uncover the myths or ideology that underlies examples of sign systems.

Critical theory, another form of critical social research, was developed by a group of Marxist academics at the University of Frankfurt (who became known as the Frankfurt School). Critical theory has subsequently been developed in the work of Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas sees critical theory as the basis for rational change via the self-awareness of people. A self-awareness that comes from not only developing knowledge but by analysing the constitutive interests that impinge on the construction of knowledge.

It is important not to confuse critical social research, which is a broad approach to sociological thinking, with (Frankfurt School) 'critical theory'. Critical theory is a specific theoretical perspective within critical social research, much as structural functionalism is an approach within positivism.

A significant amount of feminist analysis, although by no means all, comes under the umbrella of critical social research. Feminism of the 1960s and 1970s grew out of the women's movement and tended to emphasise sisterhood and the personal aspects of social relations. It shifted from bemoaning the social disadvantage of women to analysing the oppression of women.

Class and gender have provided the major axes for feminist critical social research during the 1990s, the issue of race subsequently became more prominent. Critical approaches related to 'race' and racism include Black Marxism, Black sociology and anti-colonialism. In the same way that not all feminist analyses constitute critical social research the same can be said for analyses of 'race'.

Critical social research does not involve a recipe of processes or a set method of collecting data; official statistics, surveys, document analysis, media analysis, in-depth interviewing, participant and non-participant observation have all been used in CSR. Indeed, CSR ranges across the whole spectrum of sociology and uses a wide variety of different methods of collecting data.

Critical social research has seven interrelated conceptual elements, abstraction, essence, totality, structure, praxis, ideology and history. They all play a part in deconstructing appearances and building an alternative conceptualisation.

Activity 2.4.4
In small groups consider how you would research football violence, drug usage or dance culture using critical approaches. Defend your ideas in a plenary session.
This activity might last 75 minutes with each of three group discussing for 30 minutes, then presenting one at a time for 5 minutes with a further 10 minutes per group comment and questions from the plenary group.

See Critical Social Research for more detail and numerous case-study examples of critial social research studies.


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