INTERPRETIVE APPROACH IN SOCIOLOGY

 

 

Practice Question  – Elaborate the main tenets of interpretative perspective in sociology. (UPSC 2017) 

Approach – Introduction, Explain interpretivist perspective and its characteristics, Write views of thinkers, Criticism, Conclusion.

 

INTRODUCTION

Interpretive sociology was developed by Max Weber. Georg Simmel acquaintance of Max Weber was an important developer of interpretive sociology.   It focuses on the meaningful understanding of human behavior which has interrelations and regularities. It studies how human groups actively formulate the reality of their everyday lives through the meaning they give to their actions. Interpretive sociology takes at heart the principle that social life is subjective, and those who systematically study social life should attend to how people make sense
and interpret their social world, actions, and identities. Inspired by Max Weber, it has influenced the emergence of symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology, among
other hermeneutically focused sociological paradigms. Interpretive sociologists often employ ethnography, participant observation and interviewing in order to empirically situate analyses with the lived experiences of social actors in their social world. 

 

THE NEED FOR INTERPRETIVE SOCIOLOGY

Interpretive sociology was developed and popularized by Prussian founding figure of the field Max Weber. This theoretical approach and the research methods that go with it is rooted in the German word verstehen, which means “to understand,” in particular to have a meaningful understanding of something. To practice interpretive sociology is to attempt to understand social phenomena from the standpoint of those involved in it. It is, so to speak, to attempt to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world as they see it. Interpretive sociology is, thus, focused on understanding the meaning that those studied give to their beliefs, values, actions, behaviors, and social relationships with people and institutions. Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Weber, is also recognized as a major developer of interpretive sociology.

This approach to producing theory and research encourages sociologists to view those studied as thinking and feeling subjects as opposed to objects of scientific research. Weber developed interpretive sociology because he saw a deficiency in the positivistic sociology pioneered by French founding figure Émile Durkheim. Durkheim worked to make sociology be seen as a science by centering empirical, quantitative data as its practice. However, Weber and Simmel recognized that the positivistic approach is not able to capture all social phenomena, nor is it able to fully explain why all social phenomena occur or what is important to understand about them. This approach focuses on objects (data) whereas interpretive sociologists focus on subjects (people).

 

WEBER’S INTERPRETIVE SOCIOLOGY

Weber was one of the first sociologists to recognize the role ‘human understanding’ and interpretation plays in social action and the fashioning of social order without losing sight of what he terms ‘causal adequacy’. He argued that sociology is a science that “attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects”. Although Weber avoided universal causal laws, he did suggest that we seek to uncover specific singular causal relationships. It was Max Weber’s use of ideal types, as a conceptual apparatus, that allowed him to establish various forms of causal understanding and interpretation within his diverse substantive areas of study. Ideal types act as heuristic tools that encourage researchers to draw out the defining traits of a historical event, social institution or belief system. These key characteristics, in their abstract form, are then isolated and compared with actual historical or contemporary empirical features of social reality. This exercise accentuates differences and promotes analytical comparisons, providing greater
understanding into possible causal relationships and overall social change.

Max Weber’s most popular application of his Verstehen style of sociology can be found in his book entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber acknowledged that economic factors could influence how people define themselves and their world. However, he presented an alternative subjective causal example by demonstrating that a group’s interpretive schema could also affect material reality. Weber, in contrast to Karl Marx’s historical materialism, believed that people’s interpretation and implementation of societal ideas and values, could have a dramatic impact on economic and social change. The “Protestant work ethic” is perhaps Weber’s most famous ideal type as it best exemplifies his commitment to a methodology that is sensitive to the integration of causal analysis with human subjective meaning.

 

SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM

Herbert Blumer proposed that sociologists should focus on the subjective and interpretive aspects of peoples’ shared meanings. He argued that social structures are ongoing accomplishments of ‘joint action’, and emphasized human agency to shape social contexts that are never completely external to the individual nor obdurate in their influence and impact. It is not roles and values that guide action, but our perceptions and interpretations of these that matter. Blumer’s focus on shared meanings emphasized the examination of language and interaction, leading to his endorsement of the direct examination of the empirical world through ethnography, participant observation, as well as life history (i.e. the examination of diaries and letters), and interviews.

 

ETHNOMETHODOLOGY

Developed during the mid-1950s but gaining prominence during the 1960s, Harold Garfinkel sought to formulate a more interpretive sociology than his thesis supervisor
Talcott Parsons, which centered on the method that people engage in to uphold their every day sense of identity, action and continuity between individual and society. Garfinkel asked how, within our daily actions, is society perpetuated; how are transactions of equilibrium enacted? Similar to symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology seeks to capture the real lived experiences of members within society, favoring the direct observation of people, especially focusing on micro-interactions. Both perspectives emphasize negotiation and interpretation, and suggest that only through direct participation can researchers explicate the life world of members. It also emphasizes the importance of language and the typifications which socially construct the experienced world. Ethnomethodology criticizes the use of natural science methodology, concepts and theories to build normative or positivistic models of social life. It favors methods such as conversation and situational analysis, often through direct participant observation. Ethnomethodologists argue that sociologists have become too distanced from the people they seek to study, and that theoretical categories developed by sociologists should be replaced by empirically-situated observations of the methods people use to act in every day life; i.e. that ‘theory’ is as people do, not as objectivist sociologists conjecture.

 

CONCLUSION

To approach sociology Interpretive  way is often necessary to conduct participatory research that embeds the researcher in the daily lives of those they study. Further, interpretive sociologists work to understand how the groups they study construct meaning and reality through attempts to empathize with them, and as much as possible, to understand their experiences and actions from their own perspectives. This means that sociologists who take an interpretive approach work to collect qualitative data rather than quantitative data because taking this approach rather than a positivistic one means that a research approaches the subject matter with different kinds of assumptions, asks different kinds of questions about it, and requires different kinds of data and methods for responding to those questions. The methods interpretive sociologists employ include in-depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic observation.

Interpretive sociology continues to yield a prominent impact on phenomenological, postmodern and feminist sociology, as well as social constructionism. Weber’s core notion remains highly influential: that sociologists must attend to how social life is interpreted, and follow through by examining empirical outcomes through methods favoring direct examination of behaviour and interaction. Such a sociology leads to the insight that social arrangements need not be as they are.

 

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