Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism

Publication HCDM Interventive Social Research

The explicit goal of empirical research is to involve its >objects< in the research as learning subjects who shape their own lives.





Frigga Haug,


April 2022

Related Files

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HCDM) is a comprehensive Marxist lexicon which, upon completion, will span 15 volumes and over 1,500 entries. Of the nine volumes published so far in the original German, two volumes have been published in Chinese since 2017. In 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung teamed up with the HCDM team to advance its "globalization" into English and Spanish, with the ultimate aim of recruiting a new generation of Marxist scholars from around the globe to the project and expanding its readership and reach. The below entry is one of a selection of these translations that are made available on our website.

For more information about the project and other translated entries, check out our HCDM dossier.

A: baḥṯ iǧtimā‛ī tadaḫḫulī. – F: recherche sociale intervenante. – G: eingreifende Sozialforschung. - R: rešajuščee social’noe issledovanie. – S: investigación social de intervención. – C: jieru de shehui diaocha 介入的社会调查

Social research is usually conceived of in such a way that the researchers ought not to change what they are researching through their intervention. For the “error” that can nevertheless occur due to the mere presence of “third parties” in the area of investigation, the term “bias” has been used by researchers; John Locke already used this term to designate interest-related distortions of knowledge (“men being biased by their interest”, An essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government, chapter IX, §124). The critical demand is that the change in the field at least be reflected upon. By contrast, for a number of investigations which are committed to social movements, the explicit goal of empirical research is to change the field under investigation itself, and to involve its “objects” in the research as learning subjects who shape their own lives. This social research can be called ISR – following Brecht's intervening thought [eingreifendes Denken].

In substance, Marx, with his Workers' Questionnaire (MECW 24/328-34 [19/230–37]) is the first to carry out ISR. Because in France, unlike in England, there were no factory inspectors and therefore also no reports on working conditions in the factories, he attempted to explore them by means of his own inquiry. In doing so he changed the existing empirical methods at three crucial points: a precise knowledge of working conditions was to be achieved, which included questions relating to the organisation of the workers as well as questions of resistance; the workers were to undertake the documentation, so that the survey was not conducted by “experts”, but rather the workers were qualifying themselves as experts by articulating their experiences and researching their conditions (such as lighting and air quality at the workplace); finally, the survey was designed in such a way that an awareness of one's own situation could emerge, through comprehensive and investigative self-documentation – thus the questionnaire project itself had an enlightening function. In the second half of the 20th century, the forms of survey already practised here were developed into socio-critical empirical social research. In this context several issues were addressed: questions concerning the subject and object of research; doubts about the role of experts; and the critique of the guiding concepts of objectivity and of freedom from values.

Antonio Gramsci did not undertake any ISR himself, but his Philosophy of Praxis provides guidelines for a critical empiricism of everyday life.

“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ʽknowing thyselfʼ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Such an inventory has to be prepared at the beginning.” (SPN, N. 11, §12, 324, transl. corr., KS) A common project is needed for this, one directed towards the shaping of living conditions, and without which individuals experience themselves as being thrown powerlessly into incomprehensible structures. The “organic intellectuals”, who prepare the way so that everyone can be an intellectual, have the task “of renovating and making ʽcriticalʼ an already existing activity.” (SPN, N. 11, §12, 331). Not only does Gramsci thus orient research towards its association with a project of liberation; at the same time, everyday people themselves enter the research process as agents, and the position of social scientists shifts to that of catalytically supporting (“organic”) intellectuals, who make their analytical tools available.

Henri Lefebvre comprehends the Marx-Engels project in the German Ideology as an instruction to explore everyday life, to uncover the forces that are dormant and inverted in it, and to use criticism as a revolutionary potency. “Thus the critique of everyday life involves a critique of political life, in that everyday life already contains and constitutes such a critique: in that it is this critique.” (1991, 92) Considered from the vantage point of human practices, conventional edifices of theory become decipherable as ideologies, speculations. Lefebvre orients towards a science that is useful for socialised humans, that makes politics possible in everyday life, and has it as a basis. He conducts ideology-critical media analysis, studies films and plays, examines changed technical conditions in households and in leisure behaviour, and much more. However, his analyses do not lead him to include everyday people themselves in the research framework. – Nor does this happen in the famous Marienthal study (Jahoda et al. 1933), although it too is conceived of in terms of liberation theory – potential revolutionary consciousness among the workers was the issue. – The same applies to C. Wright Mills (1959), who attempted to conduct empirical social research from the standpoint of the workers, and to orient it along class struggles. He, too, did not envisage a framework of research that turned those for whom research was done into its actors.

Some dimensions of ISR have however been taken up in action research. The term was coined by Kurt Lewin, who, in 1946, proposed “action-research” as a form in which researchers are involved in the field under study, and change social action. “It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action.” (1948, 202 et sq.) The impulse continued at the Michigan Research Center for Group Dynamics (see Cartwright/Zander 1960), and at the Tavistock Institute in London (see Rapoport 1970), where research was combined with social counselling. While this research wrestled with the problem of value neutrality in areas shaped by interests, in the Italy of the 1960s, participatory research was organised within the labour movement, as conricerca, by persons associated with the journal Quaderni Rossi. The journal's theorists sought to conduct empirical research and analysis as organic intellectuals within the movement, in order to make the workers more capable of acting on the basis of concrete experiences of labour conflict in the factory. There are implicit links here to Oskar Negt's concept of “exemplary learning”.

In the 1970s, the core issues of action research became the inclusion of the researched within the research process, and the linking of cognition to change in the interest of the oppressed and socially disadvantaged. The barely explained link between empirical research and liberation theory was discussed with an eye to the question of whether the politicisation of social research can be scientifically legitimised. It was in pedagogy, in particular, that action research was further developed and applied.

The Dig-Where-You-Stand movement, which emerged in Sweden in the late 1970s, is a form of ISR insofar as it encourages workers to explore their own history in interaction with social scientists, to experience themselves as the centre of society, and to conquer “economic democracy” (Lindqvist 1989, 282 et sqq.). The book of the same title contains suggestions for detailed research and surprising questions in 30 areas of working people's lives. About ten years after the book's publication, the movement initiated by the book involved 50,000 active participants; it had established 600 local museums of labour and produced about 500 books presenting research results (293). In another form such work was continued in the history workshops.

Memory work (Haug 1990) also understands itself as ISR. As experts on their own history, individuals collectively work out the paths they have pursued in the course of their socialisation, trace possibilities they have rejected, and try to elaborate themselves coherently in such a way that the changing of living conditions and self-change are rendered possible as a reciprocal process.

ISR is a liberation project in each of these cases; it allies itself with the oppressed and subaltern and tries to make science usable in such a way that it instigates the collective acquisition of competences.

Bibliography: R.Alquati, Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, Milan 1975; D.Cartwright, A.Zander (eds.), Group Dynamics. Research and Theory, New York 1960; A.Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (SPN), ed. and transl. by Q.Hoare and G.N.Smith, New York 1971; F.Haug, Erinnerungsarbeit, Berlin-Hamburg 1990; M.Jahoda et al., Marienthal. The Sociography of an Unemployed Community (1933), New Brunswick 2002; H.Lefebvre, Critique of Everday Life, Volume I. Introduction, transl. from the French by J.Moore, London-New York 1991; K.Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts. Selected Papers on Group Dynamics, ed. by G.W.Lewin, New York 1948; S.Lindqvist, Grabe wo du stehst. Handbuch zur Erforschung der eigenen Geschichte, Bonn 1989; K.Marx, F.Engels, The Collected Works (MECW), London 1975-2005; C.W.Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959), Oxford 2001; O.Negt, Soziologische Phantasie und exemplarisches Lernen. Zur Theorie der Arbeiterbildung, Frankfurt/M 1976; R.N.Rapoport, “Three Dilemmas in Action Research. With Special Reference to the Tavistock Experience”, Human Relations, vol. 26, 1970, no. 6, 499-513.

Frigga Haug

Translated by Kolja Swingle and Larry Swingle

→ critique, empirical research/theory, exemplary learning, experience, generalisation, ideology critique, intervening thought, knowledge, liberation, method, organic intellectuals, partisanship, philosophy of praxis, remembrance, researching of everyday life, standpoint/perspective, work/effort of remembering, workers' questionnaire/workers' poll

→ Alltagsforschung, Arbeiterumfrage, Befreiung, eingreifendes Denken, Empirie/Theorie, Erfahrung, Erinnerung, Erinnerungsarbeit, Erkenntnis, exemplarisches Lernen, Ideologiekritik, Kritik, Methode, organische Intellektuelle, Standpunkt und Perspektive, Parteilichkeit, Philosophie der Praxis, Verallgemeinerung

Originally published as eingreifende Sozialforschung in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 3: Ebene bis Extremismus, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 1997, col. 161-165. This translation is part of the project "Internationalisation of the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism" funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung with the support of the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) of the Federal Republic of Germany.