Interpretivism

People act differently depending on which society they grew up in, what their family values were, and what their personal experiences were like. That is the standpoint of interpretivism. How does it differ from other philosophical positions of sociology?

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Table of contents
    • We will discuss interpretivism.
    • We will first look at where it came from and what it means.
    • Then we will compare it to positivism.
    • We will mention examples of interpretivist studies within sociology.
    • Finally, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of interpretivism.

    Interpretivism in sociology

    Interpretivism is a philosophical position in sociology. What does this mean?

    Philosophical positions are broad, overarching ideas about how humans are and how they should be studied. Philosophical positions ask fundamental questions, such as:

    • What causes human behaviour? People's personal motivations or social structures?

    • How should humans be studied?

    • Can we make generalizations about humans and society?

    There are two main, opposing philosophical positions in sociological theory: positivism and interpretivism.

    Positivism was the original method of sociological research. Positivist researchers believed in universal scientific laws that shaped all human interactions across all cultures. Because these scientific laws were demonstrated by all individuals, they could be studied through quantitative, empirical methods. This was the way to study sociology objectively, as a science.

    Empiricism established the methods of scientific research that were based on controlled tests and experiments, which provided numerical, objective data on the studied issues.

    Interpretivism, girl and boy in classroom with equipments to do experiments, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Experiments are a crucial part of scientific research.

    Interpretivism, on the other hand, introduced a new approach to sociological research. Interpretivist scholars wanted to go beyond empirical data collection. They were interested in not only objective facts within society but in the subjective views, emotions, opinions and values of the people they studied.

    Positivism vs. interpretivism

    Positivism

    Interpretivism

    Relationship between Society and the Individual
    Society shapes the individual: Individuals act in their lives as a reaction to external influences, social norms that they learnt through socializationIndividuals are complex beings who experience 'objective reality' very differently and thus act consciously in their lives.
    Focus of Social Research
    The aim is to identify general laws that apply to all human behaviour, like the laws of physics apply to the natural world.The aim is to understand the lives and experiences of individuals and empathetically identify reasons for why they act the way they do.
    Research Methods
    Quantitative research: social surveys, official statisticsQualitative research: participant observation, unstructured interviews, diaries

    Table 1 - The implications of choosing Positivism vs. Interpretivism.

    Meaning of interpretivism

    Interpretivism is a philosophical position and research method that analyses events in society based on the specific value-system of the society or culture they occur in. It is a qualitative research method.

    Data from qualitative research is expressed through words rather than numerically. Quantitative research, on the other hand, is based on numerical data. The former is usually used in the humanities and social sciences while the latter is the core research method of the natural sciences. That said, all disciplines increasingly use both qualitative and quantitative data together to provide accurate findings.

    History of interpretivism

    Interpretivism comes from 'social action theory', which stated that in order to understand human actions, we must search for the individual motives behind those actions. Max Weber introduced the term 'Verstehen' (to understand) and argued that observing subjects is not enough, sociologists must gain an empathetic understanding of the motives and backgrounds of the people they study in order to make valuable conclusions.

    Following Weber, the Chicago School of Sociology also emphasized the importance of understanding cultural norms and values of different societies in order to interpret human actions accurately within that society. Thus, the interpretivist approach was developed in opposition to the traditional positivist approach to social research.

    Interpretivists focused on individuals, doing micro-sociology.

    Interpretivism later spread to other fields of research, too. Several scholars of anthropology, psychology and history adopted the approach.

    Interpretivist approach

    According to interpretivism there is no 'objective reality'. Reality is determined by the personal perspectives of humans and by the cultural norms and beliefs of the society they exist in.

    Sociologists of interpretivism tend to be rather sceptical towards 'scientific sociology' and its research methods. They argue that official statistics and surveys are useless in understanding individuals' behaviour and social structures because they are socially constructed themselves in the first place.

    They prefer to use qualitative methods.

    Some of the most typical research methods chosen by interpretivists include:

    • participant observations

    • unstructured interviews

    • ethnographic studies (immersing yourself into the researched environment)

    • focus groups

    A secondary research method preferred by interpretivists would be personal documents, such as diaries or letters.

    Interpretivism, Girl writing a diary, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Personal diaries are useful sources of interpretivist sociologists.

    The main aim is to build a rapport with the participants and find a way to extract detailed information from them.

    Examples of interpretivism

    We will look at two studies, that adopted the interpretivist approach.

    Paul Willis: Learning to Labour (1977)

    Paul Willis used participant observation and unstructured interviews to find out why working-class pupils rebel against school and end up failing more often than middle-class pupils.

    The interpretivist method was crucial in his research. The boys would not necessarily have been as truthful and open in a survey as they were in a group interview.

    Willis, in the end, found that it is the middle-class culture of schools that working-class students feel alienated from, which results in them adopting anti-school behaviour and without qualifications start working in working-class jobs.

    Howard Becker: Labelling Theory (1963)

    Howard Becker observed and interacted with marijuana users in Chicago's jazz bars, where he played the piano. As he was involved with his research subjects in an informal way and started looking at crime and deviance from the individual's perspective rather than from above, he noticed that crime is something that people label as such, depending on the circumstances.

    Based on these findings, he established his influential labelling theory, which was later used in the sociology of education as well.

    Advantages and disadvantages of interpretivism

    Below, we will look at some advantages and disadvantages of interpretivism in sociology and sociological research.

    Advantages of Interpretivism

    Disadvantages of Interpretivism

    • It understands the uniqueness of humans and human behaviour despite social structures. It sees humans as active rather than passive.
    • It can produce data high in validity, as interpretivism focuses on personal meanings and motivations.
    • It produces complex research (such as cross-cultural studies) that can be studied in a lot of detail.
    • It creates an environment where there could be a lot of fieldwork (collecting qualitative data in a natural setting).
    • It considers social contexts and interpersonal dynamics.
    • It can provide immeasurable accounts of emotions, beliefs, and personality characteristics (no need to operationalize).
    • It allows the researcher to complete reflective work as an insider.
    • It allows change to the focus of the study to enrich it with new perspectives.
    • It is argued to underestimate the impact of social structures and socialization; behaviour is very often influenced by society and how we were brought up.
    • It can only be done with small samples because working with large samples is impractical and sometimes even impossible; findings cannot be generalized to the wider population.
    • It is low in reliability, as the research cannot be replicated by other researchers. This is due to the unique situation of each type of research.
    • It may lead to unanticipated results, which can completely distort the research.
    • It may cause ethical dilemmas with certain research methods, such as covert observations.
    • It requires a lot of time; data collection and handling can be time-consuming and inefficient (for example, every interview has to be transcribed and codified).
    • It has a higher risk of researchers introducing researcher bias, as any qualitative data will have to be interpreted.

    Table 2 - Advantages and Disadvantages of Interpretivism.

    Interpretivism - Key takeaways

    • Interpretivism comes from 'social action theory', which stated that in order to understand human actions, we must search for the individual motives behind those actions.

    • Interpretivism is a philosophical position and research method that analyses events in society based on the specific value-system of the society or culture they occur in. It is a qualitative research method.

    • Some of the most typical research methods chosen by interpretivists include: participant observations, unstructured interviews, ethnographic studies, focus groups.

    • Interpretivism later spread to other fields of research, too. Several scholars of anthropology, psychology and history adopted the approach.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Interpretivism

    What is interpretivism in research?

    Interpretivism in sociological research is a philosophical position that focuses on the meanings, motives and reasons for human behaviour.

    Is qualitative research positivism or interpretivism?

    Qualitative research is part of interpretivism. 

    What is an example of interpretivism? 

    An example of interpretivism in sociology is to conduct interviews with deviant schoolchildren to find out their reasons for misbehaving. This is interpretivist because it seeks to find out personal motivations of the participants.

    What is interpretivism?

    Interpretivism is a philosophical position and research method that analyses events in society based on the specific value-system of the society or culture they occur in. It is a qualitative research method.

    What is interpretivism in qualitative research?

    Qualitative research allows a more in-depth understanding of the subjects and their circumstances. This is the core interest of interpretivism.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Interpretivist research produces data high in _____.

    Empiricism established the methods of scientific research that were based on controlled tests and experiments, which provided numerical, objective data on the studied issues. True or false?

    Which of these methodologies does interpretivism prefer?

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