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

Understanding is the process by which a person grasps the underlying nature, relevance and significance of a social phenomenon

explanatory context

Understanding is about comprehnding how a phenomenon relates empirically and theoretically to other phenomena; what underlies the phenomenon, essentially and ideologically.


Understanding is contrasted to explanation, which attempts to specify reductionist causes of a phenomenon, and to interpretation, which atempts to reveal actors' meanings.

Understanding should be contrasted to 'intersubjective understanding', which is closer to interpretation, see below.


In its application within critical social research, understanding takes as fundamental that social phenomena are historically, socially, economically and politically situated and that to understand requires taking into account these elements in trying to comprehend a phenomenon.



Intersubjective understanding

A concern with understanding social situations and social actions from the point of veiw of the actors concerned. The emphasis is upon the meanings that the actors attach to these situations and actions. Intersubjective understanding is one of the guiding principles of most forms of ethnographic research, but not limited to it. This is usually assumed to owe much to the verstehen approach of Max Weber, although the concept of understanding pre-dates Weber and has developed far beyond that found in Weber's work. Despite Weber's use of the term understanding in this conrext, intersubjective understanding is closer to the concept of interpretation.


Intersubjectve understanding is similar to empathetic unddrstanding. Psychology Today (2002–2013) describes empathy as follows 'Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.'

analytical review

Kvanvig (2003, p. 200) defined understanding as:

a body of information [held by a person] together with the grasping of explanatory connections concerning that information.

Hiebert and Carpenter (1992, p. 67) define understanding in the context of methematics as follows:

A mathematical idea or procedure or fact is understood if it is part of an internal network. More specifically, the mathematics is understood if its mental representation is part of a network of representations. The degree of understanding is determined by the number and the strength of the connections. A mathematical idea, procedure, or fact is understood thoroughly if it is linked to existing networks with stronger and more numerous connections.

Zhang Longxi (2010) discusses understanding in the context of hermeneutic analysis as follows:

Understanding is not something we choose to do or not to do, but is constitutive of our very existence and therefore ontologically significant. From recognizing an ordinary object or reading a simple gesture to comprehending complicated situations of a most urgent nature or making sense of conceptual or theoretical issues of the most difficult kind, we always need to understand in order to respond adequately to questions that arise in our lives and our environment. We may define understanding as a hermeneutic activity to grasp the meaning of something we encounter, be it a sign, a text, an event, a natural or social phenomenon, a real entity or an imaginary construct, and that definition already presumes a totality within which meaning occurs. That is indeed an important insight Friedrich Schleiermacher takes to be a fundamental principle in his formulation of general hermeneutics. "The sense of every word in a given location must be determined," says Schleiermacher, "according to its being- together with those that surround it."1 In the philological tradition, it has long been recognized that meaning is contextual, that is to say, meaning occurs in the context of a circular movement of the parts and the whole, because the context of the whole is not given before the parts, but is rather the accumulation of individual parts, while the meaning of each part is determined by the context of the whole.

Encyclopedia of Marxism (1999–2008) explains understanding as follows:

Defined by Hegel: “logic has three sides: (a) the abstract side, or that of Understanding; (b) the Dialectical, or that of negative reason; (c) the Speculative, or that of positive reason.”.

(a) “Thought, as Understanding, sticks to fixity of characters and their distinctness from one another: every such limited abstract it treats as having a subsistence and being of its own.”

(b) “In the Dialectical stage these finite characterisations or formulae supersede themselves, and pass into their opposites.” ...

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2.4


Encyclopedia of Marxism, 1999–2008, 'Understanding', Glossary of Terms, available at, accessed 12 April 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

Hiebert, J. & Carpenter, T. P., 1992, 'Learning and teaching with understanding' in Grouws, D. A. (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 65–97.

Kvanvig, J., 2003, The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Psychology Today, 2002–2013, 'Empathy' available at, accessed 10 May 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

Zhang Longxi, 2010, 'Contextualization and cross-cultural understanding' Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies, 7(1), pp. 41–54.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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