Open Journal of Philosophy, 2014, 4, 432-438
Published Online August 2014 in SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp
How to cite this paper: Chowdhury, M. F. (2014). Interpretivism in Aiding Our Understanding of the Contemporary Social
World. Open Journal of Philosophy, 4, 432-438. http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2014.43047
Interpretivism in Aiding Our Understanding
of the Contemporary Social World
Muhammad Faisol Chowdhury
School of Business, North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Received 7 July 2014; revised 7 August 2014; accepted 15 August 2014
Copyright © 2014 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).
The purpose of this paper is to critically discuss the extent of interpretivism to understand the
contemporary social world. This paper firstly highlights the roots of interpretivism which can be
traced back in the ancient history of philosophy. It then discusses the concept of interpretivism
and gives a critical commentary on the Weber’s construction of ideal types to help explore the
contemporary social world. The paper then further discusses the concept of “verstehen” and ex-
plains how it can add to our understanding of the social world phenomena. Following this analysis
and tackling some philosophical debate, finally, this theoretical paper confirms that interpretiv-
ism has influenced the development of the social science and has helped our understanding of the
contemporary social world to a great extent.
Interpretivism, Philosophy, Social Science, Verstehen
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas & Thomas, 1928).
Recognition of the subjective component in human action has had a long history in understanding the social
world, and a far longer history before sociologists arrived on the historical scene (Merton, 1995). Historically,
this recognition could be traced back in the thoughts of the ancient Greek stoic philosopher and sociologist Ep-
ictetus who stated that, “it is not actions that alarms or disturbs man, but it is their opinions and fancies about ac-
tions” (Merton, 1995). This notion has been in continuation since then by the philosophers and sociologists in
understanding and interpreting the social world. For instance, in the early eighteenth century, Schopenhauer ob-
served that people became happy or unhappy because of the way they look at things, or for what things were for
them; not because of what things objectively and actually were (Payne, 1974). In the early 19th century, through
M. F. Chowdhury
the establishment of Thomas Theorem quoted above, William Isaac Thomas further validated Schopenhauer’s
thought. Similarly, Mead (1936) agreed to Thomas Theorem and claimed that if a thing was not recognized as
true, then it did not function as true in the community. Thus, this tapestry of studying the social world through a
subjective thought and ideas confirms the significance of interpretivism which is to see the world through the
eyes of the people being studied, allowing them multiple perspectives of reality, rather than the “one reality” of
positivism (Greener, 2008).
2. Understanding Interpretivism
Interpretivism refers to the approaches which emphasise the meaningful nature of people’s character and partic-
ipation in both social and cultural life (Elster, 2007; Walsham, 1995). It denotes that the methods of the research
which adopt the position that people’s knowledge of reality is a social construction by human actors, and so it
distinctively rules out the methods of natural science (Eliaeson, 2002; McIntosh, 1997). It has its roots in the
philosophical traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology, and the German sociologist Max Weber is gener-
ally credited with being the central influence. Interpretivists look for meanings and motives behind people’s ac-
tions like: behaviour and interactions with others in the society and culture (Whitley, 1984). Similarly, cultures
can be comprehended by studying people’s ideas, thinking, and the meanings that are important to them (Boas,
1995). This school of thought of cultural study through human actions was founded by Franz Boas in his modern
anthropological conception. Boas viewed culture as an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that
should be studied as a working system, an organic whole where he observed people’s mental content as being
judgement minded in relation to individuals (Kuper, 1999; Stocking, 1968). Boas’s thought is reflected in anti-
positivism or interpretivism and understanding verstehen sociology in the social science study advocated by
Max Weber and Georg Simmel. In the view of interpretivism, it is argued that value free data cannot be obtained,
since the enquirers use their own preconceptions in order to guide the process of enquiry, and furthermore, the
researcher interacts with the human subjects of the enquiry, changing the perceptions of both parties (Walsham,
1995). However, Lin (1998) explained that interpretivist researchers not only look for the presence or absence of
a causal relationship, but also the specific ways in which it is manifested and the context in which it occurs.
Thus, these researchers are able to go beyond from what has occurred to see how it has occurred (Kelliher, 2005;
3. Sociology and Science
Interestingly, a profound contradiction can be observed among the historians and philosophers in acknowledging
or rejecting sociology as a science similar to natural science. Many thinkers remained committed to this view of
the unity of these two sciences, since the purpose of any science is to offer causal explanations of social, beha-
vioural, and physical phenomena (Travers, 2008; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Durkheim’s (1970) phenomenal
study of suicide can be mentioned in support of this viewpoint. Although not an absolute positivist, but Émily
Durkheim, the French sociologist shares some important features in common with other concurrent sociologists
of his time. In his classic work on suicide, he proved how sociology must become a science similar to the natural
science and employ quantitative methods in making causal connections between variables in the same way as
the natural science. In contrast, considerable level of philosophers and sociologists fiercely argued that there are
fundamental differences in nature and purpose of social and natural sciences, and the former should never emu-
late the later (Travers, 2008; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). During the early 19th century, the famous study of Prot-
estant ethics and capitalism by Weber (2002, 2003) illustrated the dominance of interpretive approaches in re-
searching the social world. He believed that sociology is a science which must address the meaningful character
of social actions through verstehen or understanding, rather than the quantitative techniques used by natural
scientists (Weber, 2003).
However, until the present time, the issue of whether there is a critical distinction to be drawn between the so-
cial and natural sciences on the basis of verstehen [understanding] and “erklären” [explanation] remains unset-
tled (Tully, 1994; Hiley, Bohman, & Shusterman, 1991). Heath and Devine (1999) explained the distinction
between these two aims and said that, positivist ideology aligns itself with a particular view of the mechanisms
and assumptions of the natural sciences, underpinned by a belief of only that which is grounded in the observa-
ble can count as valid knowledge. The 18th century French philosopher Auguste Comte is generally recognised
as the inventor of both positivism and sociology. Comte was concerned about the fact that, accounts of human
M. F. Chowdhury
mental and social life were languishing in the pre-scientific, metaphysical stage, when astronomy, physics, che-
mistry, and biology, all, he argued, arrived at the scientific stage. So, he thought the social sciences should also
concentrate on scientific laws rather than contemplation, and for that he wanted to build a methodology based on
facts rather than assumption (Benton & Craib, 2001). In contrast, interpretivist tradition stresses the dynamic,
constructed and evolving nature of social reality and rejects the positivist notion of knowledge being grounded
in the objective and tangible, instead, it seeks to understand social reality through the eyes of those being studied
(Heath & Devine, 1999).
As a result, many interpretivists by following Max Weber, adopt a non-competitive, explicatory stance in
studying the contemporary social world. On the other side, affirming Durkheim, critical theorists believe their
epistemological assumptions are superior and more scientific to understand the social world (Travers, 2008). In-
terestingly, Whitley (1984) explained that, the inherent meaningfulness of social reality renders actors’ descrip-
tions and accounts ontologically and epistemologically prior to those of researchers and the internally related
nature of social meanings renders futile any attempts at explaining social events by external causes. Thus, Whit-
ley rejected the arguments that support the possibility of a social science, which is comparable with the natural
Accordingly, this discussion leads to another point of access and accommodating “meaning” in the philoso-
phy of the social science. In contemporary time, social research is considered as an important source of know-
ledge, and in most nations official sources of information are collected on most aspects of the peoples’ social
and economic life. Social scientists are assigned to analyse and interpret these vast amounts of information as
well as to give advice on policy implications. Winch (1958) suggested that, the social science is simply a branch
of that part of the philosophy, which is concerned with conceptual clarification. This is because it studies the
circumstances which are social actions and these actions are described through the meaning that agents assign to
them (Wilson, 1970). Different meanings imply different actions and the use of meanings is guided by rules
which are mutually internally related and tied to particular “forms of life” (Whitley, 1984). The description and
meaning of an act is the correct application of rules governing the use of concepts; to understand an act is to in-
terpret correctly its meaning in a certain form of life (Whitley, 1984). Therefore, Clegg (1975) commented that,
explanation through external causal relations is therefore impossible in the social sciences, and so, laws and
theories similar to natural science cannot be formulated in a meaningful way in the social sciences.
4. Interpretivism and Research Methodology
Interpretivism, by its nature promotes the value of qualitative data in pursuit of knowledge (Kaplan & Maxwell,
1994). In essence, this philosophical and research paradigm is concerned with the uniqueness of a particular sit-
uation, contributing to the underlying pursuit of contextual depth (Myers, 1997). However, while interpretive
research is recognised for its value in providing contextual depth, results are often criticised in terms of validity,
reliability and generalisability (Perry, 1998; Eisenhardt, 1989). So, to avoid this philosophically driven criticism,
a different proposition to combine quantitative and qualitative methods, sometimes termed as “triangulation”, in
researching the social world is suggested by a handful of researchers (Silverman, 2004; Hammersley, 2003). For
example, Denzin (1970) stated that multiple and independent methods should, if reaching the same conclusions,
have greater reliability than a single methodological approach to a problem. In contrast, Bryman (2006, 2007)
examined the rationales given for employing an integration of the two research methods and argued that, the
synthesis and triangulation of qualitative and quantitative methods do not always correspond and researchers
need to be cautious in doing such researches. However, Layder (1994) argued that the humanistic approach,
common to interpretivism epistemology, gives primacy to action over structure and therefore it becomes the
goal of the qualitative researchers to try and see things from the perspective of the human actors. So, using an
inductive strategy, qualitative research purposes to examine the whole scenario in a natural setting, to get the
ideas and feelings of those being interviewed or observed (Layder, 1994). Furthermore, in the realm of Weber’s
interpretive sociology as the science that combines “verstehen” and causal analysis, the history of interpretivist
approach in understanding the social world has attracted more and more interest, and Weber’s position was of
great interest because of his integration of both qualitative and quantitative methods (Kuckartz, 1991). This in-
tegration is shown in his theoretical concept of interpretive sociology as the science that combines verstehen and
M. F. Chowdhury
5. Understanding “Verstehen”
To understand the contemporary social world from an interpretivist point of view, it is important to explain how
verstehen distinguishes human/social action from the movement of physical objects. It is similarly necessary to
know how can people access and accommodate “meaning”? Verstehen is a German term that means to under-
stand, perceive, know, and comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon (Elwell, 1996). Interpre-
tivists use this to comprehend the meaning intended or expressed by people. Weber used the term to refer to the
social scientist’s attempt to understand both the intention and the context of human action. According to
Schwandt (2005), to understand a particular social action the inquirer must grasp the meanings that constitute
that action, that is to say, what an action means can be grasped only in terms of the system of meanings to which
it belongs (Fay, 1996; Outhwaite, 1975). Dilthey (1991) argued that, to understand the meaning of human action
requires grasping the subjective consciousness of the actor from the inside. Accordingly, to say that one under-
stands what a particular action means or to find the meaning in an action requires that one interpret in a particu-
lar way what the actors are doing (Schwandt, 2005). This process of understanding or interpreting is considered
as achieving verstehen, which thus entails a kind of empathic identification with the actor. Similarly, Winch
(1958) based on Wittgenstein’s “language game” (cited in Biletzki & Matar, 2014) added that, human action is
meaningful by virtue of the system of meanings of the “language game” to which it belongs. So, understanding
those systems of meanings is the goal of verstehen (Giddens, 1993).
From this discussion, it can be summarised that, verstehen, firstly, represents a complex process by which
people interpret the meaning of their actions in their everyday life, and those of others with whom they interact
(Bernstein, 1976); and secondly, it is a process by which the social scientists seek to understand the primary
process, that is, the aim of interpretivists to reconstruct the self-understandings of actors engaged in particular
actions (Schutz, 1967). And in doing so, they assume that the inquirer cannot claim that the ways actor make
sense to their experiences are irrelevant to social scientific understanding, because actors’ ways of making sense
of their actions are constitutive of that action (Giddens, 1993; Outhwaite, 1975).
6. The “Ideal Type”
The advocates of positivism could not justify their definition of real world based on observation. They ignored
the fact that, if there are (and there must be) hidden patters, underlying rule formations, which govern the ob-
served parts of reality, and whose exploration can contribute to explaining these observed parts, then this should
also be a legitimate area of social research. It is because of these limitations of positivist approaches to social
research, another approach becomes more reasonable. In order to see aspects of the contemporary social world
in a clearer and more systematic way, an abstract model was created by Weber to be used as a standard of com-
parison (Weber, 1949). An “ideal type” is analytical construct that serves as a measuring scale for social observ-
ers to determine the extent to which concrete social institutions are similar and how they differ from some de-
fined measure (Coser, 1977; Aron, 1970). Weber aimed to employ ideal-type descriptions in order to investigate
social difference. For example, in the early nineteenth century, he explored different types of religion by con-
trasting the ideal description of the followers of those religions (Weber, 1967, 2007). There can be an ideal reli-
gious sect, ideal type dictatorship, and so on, however, none of which may be ideal in the colloquial sense of the
term (Gerth & Mills, 1946). This ideal type provides the basic method for historical comparative study. It is not
meant to refer to the best or to some moral ideal, but rather to typical or “logically consistent” features of social
institution or behaviours (Elwell, 1996). As highlighted by Gerth and Mills (1946: p. 60) “As general concepts,
ideal types are tools with which Weber prepares the descriptive materials of world history for comparative anal-
Nevertheless, there exist a considerable confusion within the social sciences regarding the nature and purpose
of ideal-type constructions and their relationship to the real word. Weber’s ideal type has been widely criticised
as incapable of inadequately capturing empirical reality, internally inconsistent and inappropriate juxtaposed to
explore the social world (Muzelēs, 2009; Lamond, 1990). Colombo (2006) highlighted that, while an ideal type
is created from observations made in the real world, nothing in reality precisely fits that ideal-type construction.
For example, Durkheim’s (1970) study found an apparent correlation between a particular religion and a high
suicide rate, where he counted the sets of observable social facts to produce statistical data in his study of the
suicide rate and membership of different religions. Similarly, many sociologists noted a correlation between so-
cial and parenting factors affecting criminal offence rates (Stroud, 2008; Turner, 2007). Here, even though these
M. F. Chowdhury
research evidences may be used to generate an ideal-type description of the causes of crime, this framework on-
ly exists as an abstract, exaggerated “typical” model to help us explain the behaviour of criminals; it is unlikely
that individuals found in violation of the criminal law will actually conform to all of these attributes (Colombo,
Bendelow, Fulford, & Williams, 2003). Similarly, Colombo et al. (2003) pointed that, an ideal type is an analyt-
ical tool and not an ethical ideal. This means, there are no value judgements attached to the elements used to de-
scribe a particular phenomenon, Freund (1969), Rogers (1969), and Winch (1958) further highlighted that any
ideal-type formations must be subjectively adequate and objectively possible in the sense that even though the
formations are not be found to exactly replicate reality, they are at the very least required to approximate what is
going on. Accordingly, the elements defined as being ideal must be understandable in terms of the subjective
views of the individual (Colombo et al., 2003). However, it is important to note that, some sociologists argued
that employing ideal types in this way, that is, to generate a “meaningful understanding” of specific issues, is
inappropriate and that they should only be used in the development of general concepts and theories (Winch,
In contrast, several researchers successfully demonstrated that the construction of ideal types help to explore
the social world. Kuckartz (1991) commented that, majority researchers who opposed Weber’s ideal types, ac-
tually mislead this model with his sociological methodology, and by doing so they failed to ignore the excep-
tional aspects of his approach. Lamond (1990) agreed to this and claimed that much of these criticisms can be
disregarded as irrelevant insofar, as it has been largely based on a misinterpretation of Weber’s conceptions.
Weber was a historical sociologist, concerned with the distinctive features of society, who utilised the compara-
tive method as an aid to the explanation and who developed the ideal type to assist in achieving that end (Al-
brow 1990; Lomond, 1990). It is, therefore, irrational for organisation theorists to use his means to their ends.
So, from the above discussion, it can be claimed that, interpretivism assumes an epistemological interpretation
of “understanding” or verstehen. That is, it considers understanding to be an intellectual process whereby a sub-
ject―the knower as the inquirer―gains knowledge about the issues of the contemporary social world which
constitute the meaning of human actions―an object. Thus, Schwandt (2005) commented that, in interpretivism,
the interpreter objectifies that which is to be interpreted, and, in that sense, the interpreter remains unaffected by
and external to the interpretive process.
“To understand is always to understand differently” (Gadamer, 1970: p. 87).
Gadamer (1970) claimed that, understanding was not an isolated activity of human beings but a basic struc-
ture of people’s experience of life. This means, interpretivist researchers understand and interpret the social
world in light of their anticipatory prejudgement and prejudices, which are themselves changing in the course of
history (Gadamer, 1970). But, this does not mean that the interpretations are arbitrary and distortive. Bernstein
(1983) commented that, interpretivist researchers always aimed at a correct understanding of what the objects of
their interpretation said. However, what “things themselves” say will be different in light of the changing re-
search horizons and the different questions researchers learn to ask. So, if it is believed that a text possesses
some meaning in itself that can be isolated from human prejudgements, only then the verstehen and interpreta-
tion of “meaning” can be construed as distortive (Bernstein, 1983).
This paper discusses how interpretivism aids our understanding of the contemporary social world. The paper
firstly discusses the concept of interpretivism and then critically analyses interpretivism in light of different phi-
losophical standpoints of social sciences and natural sciences. In order to explore the issues of the contemporary
social world, the essay then highlights Weber’s construction of ideal types, and explains verstehen, and “mean-
ing”. In conclusion, the paper confirms that, interpretivism is a dominant philosophical approach that helps our
understanding of the social world by meaningful interpretations of the world inhabit by people, which they have
already interpreted by the meanings they produce and reproduce as a necessary part of their everyday activities
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