Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Interpretation is the process of translating observations (in the widest sense including actions, conversations, texts, symbols and expressions) into meaning accessible to the observer (listener, reader).

explanatory context

Interpretation includes language interpretation but is much more, including the interpretation of social settings, cultural artefacts, symbols, and actions.

analytical review

Sociology Guide.Com (2011) discusses 'Sociology As Interpretative Discipline':

The positivistic approach to sociology tends to assume that society can shape the behavior of its members almost completely through socialization. However there is a section of sociologist who regards the above view as an over-socialized conception of man [sic]..... But these sociologists have not altogether rejected the positivist approach rather they find it inadequate and seek to supplement it with new approaches which look for new data and adopt new methods. These sociologists see their discipline as somewhat akin to literature than to natural sciences in the sense that they seek to reflect the pattern of meaning in a set of observation they have made. However there is no total consensus among these critics of positivist approach. One aspect they share in common is that they all emphasize on the importance of underlying meanings in order to understand social behavior otherwise these critics differ significantly among themselves.

One extreme there exists anti-positivist approach like that of ethnomethodologists and on the other hand there are moderate critics of positivism like Max Weber whose approach tries to build a bridge between positivist approach and extreme form of interactionism. According to Weber social reality is characterized by the presence of geist or consciousness. Due to the presence of consciousness people ascribe meanings to the situation around them which include other people too. These meanings influence the subsequent behaviour.Consequently any attempt to understand social reality must take into account these meanings and motives. These meanings ascribed by the people are partly determined by cultural norms and partly shaped by the personal experiences of the individual actors. Thus an attempt to understand social behavior should not stop simply at observation from without instead it should involve interpretation of the underlying meanings and motives. This requires the use of new method through which an empathetic liaison can be established between the observer and the actor. Empathetic liaison means that the observer tries to place himself imaginatively in the actor's position. The sociologist should try to figure out meanings and motives given by the actor. In terms of these meanings and motives he then tries to rationally explain the actor's behavior. This is the essence of Verstehen Approach advocated by Max Weber.

Other interpretative sociologists those identified as Symbolic Interactionist are content to operate with a relatively simple set of assumption about how we come to know about social phenomena. They accept the meaning that the actors attribute to social phenomena at the face value and proceed to erect their systematic interpretations on these foundations.....

Another approach belonging to social anthropology that can also be categorized as an interpretive approach starts with a description of commonly accepted meanings that people attribute to social phenomena. Mere description of such meanings would simply amount to an ethnographic study of the people—an account of their culture. These sociologists are interested in understanding social phenomena in general terms. Accordingly they must move beyond to find meaning of the phenomena and try to discover patterns and regularities in these meanings that they can represent as cultural themes. Further patterns and regularities running through themes may in turn be represented as configuration of themes which taken together may be held to characterize the essential characteristics of a culture. In this way the social anthropologist Ruth Benedict characterizes the cultures of some American Indian People as Dionysian that is given to extreme and frenzied state of being and other as apollonian always seeking moderation in behavior and cultural expressions. She achieved this by tracing these features through wide range of their manifestation in the cultures of the people she examined. These interpretations of meanings at different levels of abstractions are all informed and guided by the ultimate motive establishing concepts that provide sociologist with a general way of understanding human activities and beliefs. There is yet another set of sociologists—those identified as Ethnomethodologists—who try to analyze the commonsense nature of social interactions.....

The account of information which interpretative sociologists require to substantiate their analysis is quite different from the information needed by positivistic sociologists. Therefore new sources of information are made use of however quite often even those methods of data collection which are used by positivist sociologist are also made use of by interpretative sociologist. For example Weber relied on official statistical records and historical documents in his study of 'The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism' direct observation is also frequently used accompanied by extensive verbatim recording of conversational exchange among the actors involved. Sometimes laboratory techniques have also been used as in the well-known experiment by Garfinkel when students were asked to take part in an experiment with Psycho-therapeutic procedures. The other methods of data collection used by interpretative sociologists include the case-studies, use of life histories, personal diaries and correspondence and other biographical records to provide insights into the subjective dimension of the social behavior.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section


Sociology Guide.Com, 2011, 'Sociology as interpretative discipline' available at, accessed 24 January 2013, (still available although page dated 2016 when checked on 27 November 2016) .

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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