Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Aesthetics refers to the theoretical analysis of the form, expression and symbolism in works of art.

explanatory context

Aesthetic as an adjective is commonly used to refer to visual appearance. For example, cultural products (including ‘works of art’) are judged to be aesthetically pleasing or not.


Aesthetics as a noun in its modern sense usually refers to a body of theory about art. It tends to focus on two elements. First, analysis of the nature of art theory, theories of art should relate to form, expression, or symbol. Second, theories about art works, including questions of intention, representation or illusion.


Thus, aesthetics is difficult to distinguish from the theory of art criticism.


Approaches to aesthetics

There are several different approaches to aesthetics.


An empiricist approach, popular in Britain and the USA, has developed the close focus on art work indicated above, and tended to concentrate on the logic of critical judgement and thus of aesthetic appreciation.


Aesthetics has long been associated with the notion of beauty. It has been referred to as the science of beauty, the philosophy of (good) taste, and even the theory of fine art. In such approaches, the concentration is upon the nature of beauty as idealised form. This has lead to a lot of debate that really hinges on attempts to draw up objective criteria of beauty.


A more subjective approach to such issues derives from the German tradition of philosophy, especially from Kant. He argued that aesthetic judgement (unlike cognitive or moral judgement) is entirely subjective. It is the basis for connecting the cognitive/theoretical and moral/practical aspects of our nature. This has lead to a German tradition (including Schiller and Hegel) to concentrate on the subjective conditions of aesthetic consciousness linking aesthetics to philosophy of mind.


This approach, which looks at the relation of art and imagination, has been further developed by existentialist and phenomenologists especially those, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, who have attempted to develop ideas about the psyche, imagination and art.


Marxist aesthetics has been concerned with the social value of art and its social genesis. It is concerned to show the wider social structural links and explore the social historical nature of art. In a sense this ties aesthetics more closely with a social art history. Some Marxists have attempted to introduce moral judgements about the suitability of subject and treatment into their analysis of art, this can be seen in the debates about socialist realism.


Specialist Aesthetics

Specialist Aesthetics sets out a new programme against culture. It attempts to undermine the taken-for-granted principles of cultural production. Specialist aesthetics not only claims that aesthetic is limited to a specific context but, often, that only ‘insiders’ can know or appreciate the specialist aesthetic.


Three levels of critique:

1. Generally recognised but specifically understood

Art form is said to possess qualities discernible to anyone: for example, Chineses brushwork art has an articulated aesthetic norms and is recognisable from its content and form. However, it is not understood by everyone even though recognised.


2. Incoherent exoticism

Based on an 'ecstatic' or 'irrational' involvement (shakers, ranters, maybe Rastafarians). It is a 'subjective', essentially non-communicative experience.


3. Ascriptive

Based on a biological or quasi-biological 'thesis'. It excludes non-members from understanding/experiencing. Some proponents suggest, for example, that males cannot appreciate a feminist aesthetic.


Insider and outsider

Merton talks of insider and outsider truths in any social/cultural whole. The insider and outsider versions tend to be incompatible. At its extreme this leads to ethnocentrism. It leads to a notion of ‘be one to understand one’.


Criticisms of the insider view:

it is too simple

it is too segmented

people would not have a single affiliation

it ignores achieved status and sticks with ascribed status

some insiders are also outsiders, insiders do not have homogeneous perspectives.


Transformation: how can an insider group hope to transform the assumptions of the general culture?

1. unmasking

2. new system of references

3. make the new idea total: imperialist tendency.

analytical review

Budd (1998) wrote:

Aesthetics owes its name to Alexander Baumgarten who derived it from the Greek aisthanomai, which means perception by means of the senses (see Baumgarten, A.G.). As the subject is now understood, it consists of two parts: the philosophy of art, and the philosophy of the aesthetic experience and character of objects or phenomena that are not art. Non-art items include both artefacts that possess aspects susceptible of aesthetic appreciation, and phenomena that lack any traces of human design in virtue of being products of nature, not humanity. How are the two sides of the subject related: is one part of aesthetics more fundamental than the other? There are two obvious possibilities. The first is that the philosophy of art is basic, since the aesthetic appreciation of anything that is not art is the appreciation of it as if it were art. The second is that there is a unitary notion of the aesthetic that applies to both art and non-art; this notion defines the idea of aesthetic appreciation as disinterested delight in the immediately perceptible properties of an object for their own sake; and artistic appreciation is just aesthetic appreciation of works of art. But neither of these possibilities is plausible.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1


Budd, M., 1998, 'Aesthetics' in Craig, E. (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London, Routledge.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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