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These are definitions in my own words, pretty much, with some links to Wikipedia pages on the topic. I made this page after I was overwhelmed by -isms. The principal source for much of my understanding is Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199689453

A - F

an ontological stance that believes social entities and their meanings are constantly made by the social actors. It applies equally to the researcher's interpretation or presentation of events.
opposite of objectivism.
content analysis
an approach to analysing documents in a way that quantifies the content in terms of categories.
critical realism
recognises that our categories and descriptions of social structures can only be provisional. The causal mechanisms behind social phenomena may be invisible and only inferable at best.
critical theory
Process or research strategy that starts with theory and tests hypothesis against observed data, revising or confirming theory. This last step is inductive.
discourse analysis
What it sounds like. Analysis of discourse: not just the sentences, however, but also the social world that is constructed in the discourse.
empirical or naive realism
assumes that all reality can be understood through scientific methods.
the belief that only knowledge gained through experience is valid.
the theory of knowledge: what is considered to be legitimate knowledge in a given area.
the study of people or culture from the point of view of the subject of the study.

G - N

grand theory
a theory so abstracted from the real world as to be almost impossible to research.
grounded theory
a generally inductive and iterative approach that generates theory from data.
interpretation, originally of scripture, now applied to social phenomena.
process or research strategy that develops theory from observation.
contrasts with positivism. Believes that the social world is fundamentally different from the scientific world and therefore needs a different logic[1]. It seeks to understand human behaviour rather than explain it. It tries to understand social action from the subject's point of view.
mixed methods research
having characteristics often associated with both qualitative and quantitative research strategies.
naive empiricism
the belief that collecting facts alone (without explanation or understanding) is a valid thing to do.
means different (opposing) things. First, that natural science is the only science and that social phenomena are natural[2].
being true to the nature of the thing being observed
not interfering with the thing being oberved
what ought to be so.
normative statements
need no proof.

O - P

an ontological stance that social entities have an existence of their own and meaning independent of the social actors that make them.
the study of what something is. In social science, ontology is about what social entities are (and whether they can exist outside of the social actors that create them).
knowledge is only knowledge if it is confirmed by the senses.
how individuals make sense of their world.
phenomenology as a research method that considers qualitatively how different people experience (the same) things or think about them.
the faction or stance that says the natural scientific method should apply to social science. Entails phenomenalism, deduction, induction and implies that science is value-free.

Q - R

evaluated by something other than measurement of a number.
evaluated or measured numerically.
Difference between research strategies[3]
Orientation to theory Epistemology Ontology
qualitative Inductive (generates theory) Interpretivist Constructionist
quantitative Deductive (tests theory) Natural Science (Positivist) Objectivist
truth is always relative to some frame of reference (cultural or physical).
research that is repeatable is reliable. Compare replicability.
the belief that there is a reality external to our description of it. Positivist principles apply (i.e. prove it or shut up).
research so clearly described that other can replicate it.
research design
methodology or approach to research, such as case study of an organisation. The design sets out the framework but not the specific data capture method.
research method
a technique for collecting data, maybe using a specific instrument.

S - Z

scientific statements
are objective and and can be verified by observational data.
social science
an oxymoron[4].
structural functionalism
structuration theory
the (one) world exists and people interpret it in different ways.
symbolic interactionism
individuals interpret the symbolic meaning of their world and actions within it and act on the interpreted meaning.
theories of the middle range
between grand theories and mundane or empirical descriptions that don't generalise. This is the main playground of social research.
an explanation of something observed.
a framework within which social phenomena can be understood.
various forms of this include
measurement validity (does IQ measure intelligence?)
internal validity (does Y depend on X or some other variable?)
external validity (are these findings generalisable?)
ecological validity (does anybody care?)
Inferential validity means that the inferences are supported by the research.


  1. I laughed a long time when I read this. A different logic. Seriously. This is Anthropocentric nonsense.
  2. "Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people" - Edward Robert Harrison, Smithsonian Magazine, December, 1995.
  3. Adapted from Bryman (2016), p.32. These are the binary characteristics, for the purposes of banter or bar fights, like Rangers/Celtic. The reality is more complex than this and nobody really cares much what team you support.
  4. Michael Kinsley, The Cuba Embargo a Proven Failure, The Washington Post, Friday, April 17, 2009. Available at (Retrieved 15 November 2016)