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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Theory-laden observation

core definition

The theory-laden nature of observation proposition claims that no observation, or fact, is self-evident and that all observation requires a theory by which to make sense of the observation.

explanatory context


analytical review

White (undated) states:

Theory-ladenness of observation holds that everything one observes is interpreted through a prior understanding of other theories and concepts. Whenever we describe observations, we are constantly utilizing terms and measurements that our society has adopted. Therefore, it would be impossible for someone else to understand these observations if they are unfamiliar with, or disagree with, the theories that these terms come from.

An example of this could be given for determining an object's acceleration. If someone is to understand the measurement of 2 miles per second squared, he needs an understanding of the concepts of distance, time, and velocity. Our observation of how much something is increasing in speed depends on our previous knowledge of these theories. As a result, such an observation is said to be theory-laden.

Schindler (undated) states:

In the philosophy of science, observations are said to be “theory-laden” when they are affected by the theoretical presuppositions held by the investigator. The thesis of theory-ladenness is most strongly associated with the late 1950s and early 1960s work of N.R. Hanson, T.S. Kuhn, and P. Feyerabend, and was probably first put forth (at least implicitly) by P. Duhem about 50 years earlier. Although often run together, at least two forms of theory-ladenness should be kept separate: (i) the meaning of observational terms is partially determined by theoretical presuppositions; (ii) the theories held by the investigator, at a very basic cognitive level, impinge on the perceptions of the investigator. The former may be referred to as semantic and the latter as perceptual theory-ladenness. The thesis of theory-ladenness, if true, has troublesome consequences for theory-testing. If there are no theory-neutral observations, then this raises doubts about whether empirical tests can truly decide between competing theories. So, if theories partially determine the meaning of observation terms, two investigators holding incompatible theories will mean different things when they use the same observational vocabulary, and, if theories partially determine ‘what we see’, two investigators holding incompatible theories will see the objects relevant for discriminating between their theories differently.
A thesis that also goes under the heading of theory-ladenness may be (more appropriately) referred to theory-dependence of instruments, on which much discussion has focused on: the investigator’s confidence in the truthfulness of the results obtained with certain instruments depends on her having sound theories of how these instruments work. Such theories are also referred to as ‘background’ theories. The theory-dependence of instruments is particularly problematic when the background theories are the very theories that the investigator seeks to test, for in those scenarios the testing procedure is rendered circular.
Theory-ladenness should not be confused with certain other ideas. Theory-ladenness does not imply that our perceptions are fully determined by our theories; it does not imply that we see ‘whatever we want to see’. No philosopher of science of some standing has defended such an extreme position. We cannot see flying pigs even if we had theories that told us that there were such things. On the other hand theory-ladenness does not simply amount to perceptions being interpreted differently by different people. Nor is theory-ladenness the mere theoretical guidance of empirical inquiries, i.e., the decision to perform certain experiments rather than others or to investigate a certain aspect of the world. Both of these ideas are platitudes and philosophically not particularly interesting. A grey area is the phenomenon of negative theoretical bias, i.e. the idea that empirical results not amenable to certain theoretical presuppositions are (wilfully or subconsciously) ignored by the investigator. Clearly, also in cases of theoretical bias theoretical presuppositions impinge on the data in ways that are comparable to the thesis of theory-ladenness. Yet negative theoretical bias is normally taken to be easily revealed through various control mechanisms in scientific practice (e.g. peer-review). Since theoretical bias as a form of theory-ladenness has received rather little attention by philosophers of science, it will not be discussed here....

associated issues


related areas

See also






Researching the Real World Section 1.4.2


Schindler, S.,undated, 'Observation and Theory-ladenness' undated, available at, accessed 8 May 2013, page not available 29 December 2016.

White, A., undated, 'quine: terms in translation', available at, accessed 8 May 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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