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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–14, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author welcomes e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 23 December, 2016 , © Lee Harvey 2004–14


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An Outline Marx’s Methodology with reference to Capital

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To a great extent Marx’s methodology developed as a critique of both Hegelian idealism and the empirical realism of the classical political economists. Marx’s early writings were produced in an atmosphere saturated by Hegelian idealist philosophy. By 1858, however, Marx had moved on and had arrived at a position that distinguished between Hegel’s method and his system and that articulated the need to extract the ‘rational kernel within the mystical shell’. What Hegel had to offer was a vision of reality as structured organically and characterised by inherent tendencies to development. Marx accepts this vision but rejects its metaphysical underpinnings and, in effect ‘turned Hegel on his head’ by asserting the primacy of the material.

The goal of analysis in Capital, according to Marx (1887), is to give ‘analysis of capital in its basic structure’, to present ‘the inner organisation of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average..’ (Marx, 1894, pp. 267) Also ‘ is the aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society’. (Marx, 1887, p. xix) In Zeleny’s (1980) view, this represents a ‘structural genetic approach’, as there is no contradiction between structural and genetic analysis. To Marx, capitalism was a self developing, self generating and and self destroying system, and his conception the ongoing historical process of production occupies a central position for production is the ‘..first historical act’ (Marx, 1968, p. 39) and the precondition for all social life. The materialist approach to history then, is one that studies ‘the way in which men produce their means of subsistence’ (Marx, 1968, p. 31)—their mode of production. The mode of production is distinct from the abstract category of general production because it focuses on the essential specific of the historical setting in which production is carried out at a definite stage of social development.

Uniquely, Marx differentiated between human engagement with nature, in the process of transformation, and the social organisation of that enterprise. From the recognition of this dynamic interrelationshiip was crystalised Marx’s dialectical categories of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’ combined in a specific mode as the basis of social being. The form the relations of production within any given mode of production adopt is to be determined, not given a priori by theoretical speculation. For Marx (as a materialist) the idea is the material transposed into human consciousness. Investigation must, therefore, take account of observed objective reality. Marx is clear that such an undertaking is essentially empirical in nature ‘Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production.’ (Marx, 1968, p. 36)

The object of Marx’s analysis, therefore, is the investigation of the productive forms, and its method is empirical investigation. There is, however, a difficulty here for Marx was also centrally concerned with deep structure analysis ‘..all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.’ (Marx, 1894, p. 817). The distinction between essence and phenomenal form is usually associated with idealist philosophy, and appears to relegate empirical investigation to a secondary position. However, Marx is clear that
the premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination...these premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

To reconcile this apparent anomaly we need to grasp the particular way in which Marx understood the notions of ‘phenomena’ and ‘essence’ within the context of his method of analysis. To Marx phenomenal form consisted of the world as experienced but he did not consider experience as purely subjective. The world impresses itself on people in the process of the formation of consciousness which is itself the product of social being (Marx, 1963, p. 67) The implications of this are twofold: firstly perception of the world is not simply mistaken, for conceptions correspond to experience and it is at this level that inadequacies must lie; in the manner in which the world presents itself to experience and not the way those forms are perceived. Second, it follows that phenomenal forms bear a direct, if inadequate, relation to the world, otherwise the incongruence between experience of the world and the world in actuality would be self evident. Empirical forms, then, are important but only insofar as they are taken as indicators of inner structure mediated through consciousness and practice and manifest in human experience.

Comparison with Smith and Ricardo is helpful as Marx’s conception represents a development and expansion of the parameters of classical political economy. An analysis of Ricardo’s work reveals an implicit mode of explanation that distinguishes phenomenal form from essence. Empirical forms are considered as direct phenomenal expressions of taken-for-granted, fixed, ahistorical essences that correspond to the ‘natural forms’ of capitalism (for example, wages, profit and rent), which are, in turn, reflections of the ‘natural classes’ of the population (proprietors of land, owners of stock of capital, and labourers). Analysis then revolves around the changing quantitative relations, expressed in empirical form, between these fixed natural essences.

Marx did not dismiss classical political economy. He believed it to represent a scientific enterprise but, in his view, its ahistorical nature, revealed in its transhistorical essences, constituted it a deficient and defective representation. Whilst Ricardo’s analysis, for instance, is directed at demonstrating the principle that the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labour required for it production (the labour theory of value) Marx’s analysis, crucially, is predicated by the question, under what social conditions does labour turn into value; the sort of labour that creates exchange value? This represents the critical distinction between the rigid system based on fixed essence to the incomparably richer conception of the historical dialectic in which every form can only be understood through an analysis of the process of dialectical transformation. The relationship between essence and empirical form is reformulated so that not only are surface manifestations revealed as transitory reflections of deep structure, but also essences themselves are, following the Hegelian tradition, in a perpetual state of self-transformation, and it is here that Marx directs the central focus of his analysis. This is more than simply political economy plus history; it is the attempt to expand political economy and to free it from its myopic structural rigidity through its incorporation into a dynamic totality. For example if we take Ricardo’s conception of wages as the actualisation of the ‘natural price of labour’ subject only to quantitative fluctuation relative to geographical and historical conditions, it is clear that the historical dynamic is absent as his categories are universal constants applicable to all stages of development. Marx engages and supersedes this ‘category fixation’ through the conception of wages as ‘an economic form which represents in its particular quantitative attributes something temporary, dependent on historical conditions and on the alterability of the whole of which it is an aspect.’(Zeleny, 1980, p. 18–19) Central to Marx’s analysis is this conception rooted in the historical understanding of humans and the conditions of human life.

To Marx the relationship between the material conditions of existence and their corresponding social relations is a symbiotic one. Both elements are at the same time prerequisites for and products of a given mode of production. The relationship between phenomenal form and essence, in this sense, is the relationship between ‘conditions’ and ‘relations’ (Sayer, 1980, p. 78). People experience this given reality at a practical level (for example, ‘language is practical consciousness’ in Sayer, 1975, p. 84) But there is a discrepancy between given material conditions and social relations that makes a particular experience possible, and that experience itself. The project then, is not simply to grasp experience but to comprehend the coexisting reality that makes it possible. This form of analysis is ‘critique’, which in addressing itself to dynamic essences reveals both the grounds of reality and the categories of experience.

Further, phenomenal forms obscure their own inherent historicality because they present themselves to people as self-evident, natural forms of social life, which at the same time denies the possibility of transformation. ‘The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz. the production of commodities.’ (Marx, 1887, pp. 75–76). It is at this point that Marx’s conception of essence and phenomenal form are shown to be qualitatively different from and more sophisticated than the notions of ‘fixed essences’ and ‘natural forms’ employed by the classical political economists. ‘Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one which is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development.’(Marx, 1887, p. 69). To Marx, essences are dynamic and historical and structure and history are complementary aspects of a single totality.

It is this unified conception that allows us to understand more clearly Marx’s claim for the central significance of empirical investigation. The categories of experience, which represent phenomenal form are not to be subsumed into a grand theory. The aim of analysis is to uncover the conditions that make these categories possible. These conditions are revealed to be historical and, therefore, empirical. The task of science is to penetrate empirical observations, grasp them in concepts, and reproduce them in concrete thought.

To illustrate these ideas it will be useful to consider Marx’s critique of particular phenomenal categories in Capital. Here Marx presents the ‘law of value’ as the underlying condition that makes capitalist commodity production and exchange possible. If, however, the value of equally exchangeable commodities is determined by the amount of socially necessary time entailed in its production, how can profit, the essence of capitalism, arise? How can extra value be extracted in the exchange of equivalents? This contradiction between conditions (generalised exchange of equivalents) and phenomena (the fact of profit generated in the exchange process, is resolved through the commodification of labour power (as determined, like all commodities, by the labour necessary to produce it)) and the value transferred in the process of consumption by the capitalist in the production process. The first discrepancy between essence and phenomena is thus explained.

But underlying the first problem is a second, which Marx again proceeds to resolve through analysis designed to penetrate phenomenal form: under what conditions can the commodification of labour power take place? In answering this question it becomes clear that capitalism, whose phenomenal form appears as a mode of production characterised by commodity exchange, is itself presupposed by a class relation between labour (who are ‘free’ from the means of production and so sell the one commodity they own—labour power) and capital as a condition of its existence. This cannot be understood simply through the phenomenal forms ‘profit’ and ‘commodity’ but only through a critique of these categories in respect of their relation to the totality.

Marx transformed the category of the ‘totality’ from a speculative philosophical principle to a methodological instrument, which is comprehensive of the relation of the simple to the complex. The concept of the ‘totality’ is a complex one. On the one hand it defines society in a dynamic state of tension between the parts and the whole within the base/superstructure complex. On the other hand, however, the concept of the totality can be considered as a purely methodological precept that lies at the heart of dialectical analysis. The concept of the ‘totality’ informs method to the extent that analysis constantly shifts from the parts to the whole. Thus, in Capital, in his discussion of value, Marx claims that the commodity form contains the basic contradictions of capitalism in seed-like form. Nevertheless the commodity cannot be understood in isolation from the whole, not as an atomistic unit but as an integral internally related element both within and to the totality. Facts become meaningless as isolated atoms of empirical data divorced from the essential, integral structure of the whole

..a dress becomes a dress only by being worn, a house which is uninhabited is indeed not really a house; in other words a product as distinct from a simple natural object manifests itself as a product, becomes a product, only in consumption...which, by destroying the product , gives it the finishing touch, for the product is a product, not because it is materialised activity but only in so far as it is the object of an active subject. (Marx, 1971 p. 196)

In this, Marx rejects positivistic objectivism. For him ‘facts’ exist only within the complex totality of social relations and institutions. As facts are mediated through human consciousness and practice they are imbued with meaning. Scientific method must, therefore, encompass this crucial relationship between subject/object and part/whole.

This is not to deny the possibility of objectivity but to redefine it in a new sense in which the subjective and objective nature of the world is unified in an embracing method of analysis. As Marx tells us in the preface to
Capital. ‘The force of abstraction must replace...microscopes and chemical reagents in the analysis of economic forms.’ Factual observation is not the starting point because beginning with the ‘real and the concrete’ is, in truth, a superficial exercise because objects of observation are only apparently concrete but in actuality are abstractions. In Capital Marx takes the category of ‘population’ and, in contrast to Ricardo, argues that it is an abstraction if the classes of which it is composed, the factors upon which they depend, are ignored. ‘If one were to take the population as the point of departure, it would be a very vague notion of a complex whole and through closer definition one would arrive analytically at increasingly simple concepts; from imaginary concrete terms one would move to more and more thinner abstractions until one reached the most simple definitions. From here it would be necessary to make the journey again in the opposite direction until one arrived once more at the concept of population which is this time not a vague notion of a whole, but a totality comprising many determinations and relations.’ (Marx, 1971 pp. 205–206)

Marx’s method then, stands in contradistinction to that of classical political economy, which begins from the concrete(factual observation) and works towards the abstract. Population is a correct starting point for analysis, but it is a mistake to construe it as a concrete fact, as opposed to an abstract whole emptied of empirical content. The correct procedure, for Marx, is to move from the abstraction to the concrete because beginning from general categories facilitates the analysis of the ‘inner structures’ of objects. To move from the abstract to the concrete is the way in which the concrete is assimilated in thought and reproduced as a concrete mental category. At the centre of this ‘ideal expression’ lies Marx’s formulation of conceptual knowledge. As Zeleny (1980) points out the Marxian conception of the ‘concept’ expresses a logical form that is absent from English classical political economy, which is essential for the dialectical materialist conception of the reproduction of reality in ideas. To Marx the concept represented the intellectual expression of the inner structure of the object.

To comprehend the capitalist system one does not begin with the concrete historically grounded elements for that way lies confusion. The introduction of many capitals must not interfere with the investigation here. The relation of the many is better explained after we have studied that they have in common, the quality of being capital...Capital in general as distinct from particular capitals does indeed appear (1) only as an abstraction; not as an arbitrary abstraction, but one that grasps the specific differences that distinguish capital from other forms of wealth; (2) however, capital in general, as distinct from particular real capitals, is itself a real existence. (Marx, 1973, in Swinglewood, 1984, pp. 82–83).

The purpose of the general category, the abstraction, is to avoid the confusion of complicated phenomenal factors of historically specific phenomenal forms and to represent, in ideal type, the inner structures without which phenomenal form, or outward appearance, has no meaning. Once the generality is grasped in its totality the historically specific may be analysed to explore its points of congruence and incongruence with the ideal type revealing the secret of its structure and development.

The purpose of critique, however is not to establish causal elations through empirical investigation. This Marx saw as a separate endeavour

..our method indicates the points where historical investigation must enter in...In order to develop the laws of bourgeois economy... it is not necessary to write the real history of the relations of production. But the correct observation and deduction of these laws...always leads to primary equations...which point towards a past lying behind this system. These indications…then also offer the key to understanding of the past—a work in its own right. (Marx in Sayer, 1975, pp. 789–90)

The analysis is not, therefore, historical in the strictest sense but as Zeleny argues ‘structural genetic’ the purpose of which is to reveal internal relations. Critique specifies the parameters of historical analysis and makes causal explanation possible. For example there are not two levels of reality, one corresponding to ‘conditions’ and the other to relations’ mediated by a causal link. The only forms of reality’ are phenomenal forms, but there are different ways of conceptualising them, one of which is to focus on their conditions of existence and derives from critical analysis. Profit, rent wages, etc, are not consequences of a set of underlying ‘relations of production’, they are relations of production.

History is central to Marx’s analysis in Capital, which constantly oscillates between abstract dialectical development and concrete historical reality, but its relationship to theory is not simple. Historical events are primary but historical reality cannot be embraced through a process of parallel representation of real events in thought. Such a procedure is flawed by its analytical poverty, which takes phenomenal form as an unproblematic given. History must be reproduced intellectually as an ideal expression of reality. This ideal expression is a consequence of the interplay between the level of theoretical development and real historical events. Historical events are not uncritically presented, they are probed for meaning. Theoretical formulations depart from history to develop ideal representations that reveal the deep character and essence of capitalism, which underpins historical events. However, theory does not remain detached; it returns to history constantly, to confirm or deny ideal representations, but without becoming entangled in its sequences and superficialities. The reproduction of reality in ideas, therefore, is not simply a presentation of historical facts but an attempt to grasp historical truth in ideas. The relation between the ideal expression history and historical events is an analytic one.

Marx, then, presents us with a unique and comprehensive conception of the world in which the underlying significance of phenomenal form is obscured in experience. Understanding requires the penetration of outward appearances through the methodological process of abstraction from the general category to the concrete historical specific, which is then organically related to the whole. Comprehension of even the most apparently simple form requires a grasp of the structural-genetic determinants(made accessible through abstraction from the general category), and the historical determinants constantly referred to in a spiralling process of continuous engagement and disengagement within a comprehensive methodological framework that seeks to demonstrate, not final absolute truth, but always to present an approximate reflection of reality that is subject to continuous change.

Source: Harvey 1984 modification of an unpublished paper by Neil Staunton c. 1981.

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See also







Marx, K., 1887, Capital: Volume I First published: in German in 1867, Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels, Moscow, Progress Publishers, available at, accessed 4 Jume 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Marx, K., 1894, Capital: Volume III: The process of capitalist production as a whole, wriiten by Karl Marx, 1863–1883, edited by Friedrick Engels and completed by him 11 years after Marx's death, New York, International Publishers, available at, accessed 4 Jume 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Marx, K. 1963, Karl Marx,: selected writings, edited by Bottomore, T, & Rubel, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Marx, K. 1968, The German Ideology, Moscow, Progress.

Marx, K. 1971, A contribution to the critique of political economy, London, Lawrence and Wishart.

Sayer, D. 1975. ‘Method and dogma in historical materialism’,Sociological Review, 23(4) pp.779–810.

Sayer, D. 1980. Marx’s method: ideology and critique in Capital, Brighton, Harvester.

Swinglewood, . 1984, A Short History of Sociological Thought, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Zeleny, J. 1980, The Logic of Marx, Oxford, Blackwell.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–14

A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


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