About Critical Social Research (1990)



© Lee Harvey 1990, 2011, 2014, 2018, 2019

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 31 January, 2019, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.


A novel of twists and surpises


Critical Social Research

1. Basics

1.1 Introduction
This book is an illustrative guide to doing critical social research. It is not concerned with simply describing techniques of data collection that may be pertinent to a critical approach. Rather, through the exploration of a large number of case studies of critical social research it sets out and then explores the nature of critical social research methodology.

Methodology is viewed as the interface between methodic practice, substantive theory and epistemological underpinnings. Epistemology is used here to refer to the presuppositions about the nature of knowledge and of science that inform practical enquiry. Critical social research is underpinned by a critical-dialectical perspective that attempts to dig beneath the surface of historically specific, oppressive, social structures.

A critical approach is contrasted with positivistic concerns to discover the factors that cause observed phenomena or to build grand theoretical edifices, and with phenomenological attempts to interpret the meanings of social actors or attempt close analysis of symbolic processes.

Method refers to the way empirical data is collected and ranges from asking questions, through reading documents, to observation of both controlled and uncontrolled situations. While some methods lend themselves more readily to certain epistemological perspectives, no method of data collection is inherently positivist, phenomenological or critical.

Substantive theory refers to a set of propositions that offer a coherent account of aspects of the social world. These may be attempts to interpret, explain or understand phenomena, behaviour, events or practices. Again, such sets of propositions may suggest a preferred method or may imply an underlying epistemology but they do not prefigure it.

Methodology is thus the point at which method, theory and epistemology coalesce in an overt way in the process of directly investigating specific instances within the social world. Methodology, in grounding enquiry in empirical instances, thus makes explicit the presuppositions that inform the knowledge that is generated by the enquiry. This book is about the methodology appropriate to a critical-dialectical analysis of the social world.

There is no simple methodic recipe for doing critical social research. One must come to grips with the methodology. This is also true for phenomenological and positivistic approaches to social research although this is frequently ignored in the case of the latter where our 'common-sense' presuppositions about the nature of the 'scientific method' are substituted for an understanding of positivistic underpinnings. In such cases, methodology becomes transmuted into method. So familiar is this device that to actively disengage method from methodology seems both difficult and laborious. However, in order to understand a major tradition of social research, and ultimately to be able to carry it out, it is essential that the effort be made to disentangle the assumptions of substantive theory from methodic practices and from epistemological presuppositions. Only then is it possible to fully grasp the nature, implications and impact of critical social research. This book, through its analysis of copious case studies attempts to generate this understanding in relation to specific realms of social enquiry.

At the heart of critical social research is the idea that knowledge is structured by existing sets of social relations. The aim of a critical methodology is to provide knowledge that engages the prevailing social structures. These social structures are seen by critical researchers, in one way or another, as oppressive structures. This book is divided into three sections each addressing a different form of oppression, those based on class, gender and race.

The analysis of oppression in sociological literature has been dominated, until recently, by class oppression. There is a vast amount of material in general on the nature and functioning of class in societies of all kinds. More specifically, critical social research has a long history linked to class-based analyses of oppression. Many of the approaches to critical social research are grounded in class analyses and the balance of the book reflects this long tradition.

Approaches that consider gender as the central oppressive mechanism are much more recent. Despite notable precursors, gender-based analyses of oppression burgeoned with development of the women's movement of the sixties but only became an established form of sociological enquiry with the development of feminism in the 1970s. A similar picture emerges in the case of race oppression. Again there is a long, but relatively hidden history, and again the explosion in analyses of race oppression have taken place in the context of the development of racial equality, black rights, black power and anti-apartheid movements. As with feminist perspectives, black perspectives have been incorporated into sociology only very recently. In both areas, the development of critical social research leans heavily, although not exclusively, on adaptations of earlier class-based methodologies. However, critical social research grounded in both gender and race oppression offer unique perspectives on critical analyses.

Of course, oppression occurs in other forms. Linked to race oppression is imperialism and colonial oppression. Within nation states, national and religious oppression also occurs. While sociological analysis has tended to concentrate on class, race and gender, there is a significant body of work that addresses age, disability and sexuality as oppressive mechanisms. The latter has been a consistent concern of a number of sociologists since the 1970s who have attempted, despite considerable official disinterest and public hostility, to reveal and analyse the nature of heterosexual oppression.

Space considerations prohibit the specific exploration of oppressive mechanisms other than the general categories of race, class and gender. This book does not intend a comprehensive review of non-dominant perspectives. The aim of the book is to provide a text that indicates what is involved in doing critical social research and it draws upon published critical social research studies for illustration.



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© Lee Harvey 1990 and 2011, last updated 9 May, 2011

Next: 1.2 Criticism and knowledge