Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Verstehen, which means to understand in German, is closely associated with Weberian interpetive sociology and is concerned with identifying the meaning as well as cause of social phenomena.

explanatory context

Verstehen is distinct from explanation since it is concerned with the meaning or value contained in phenomena, which is different from 'merely representing a case of something general'. Although Verstehen translates as understanding it does not mean quite the same, in the social sciences, as the term 'understanding'. Verstehen is nearer, in practice, to 'interpretation', in that it seeks to explore actors' meanings. However, Weber's requirement that Verstehen sociology seek causal adequacy as well as meaning adequacy means that Verstehen encompases some positivist elements but also moves to wards a critical understanding in as much as meanings need to be situated in a wider context.

analytical review

von Mises (undated) wrote:

In German logic and philosophy the term "understanding" (Verstehen) has been adopted to signify the procedure of the sciences of human action, the essence of which lies in grasping the meaning of action.[3] To take this term in the sense accepted by the majority of those who have employed it, one must, above all, bear in mind that in Germany the development and refinement of a theoretical science having in view the attainment of universally valid principles of human action had either not been considered at all or else had been vehemently opposed. Historicism did not want to admit that, in addition to the disciplines that make use of the methods of history and philology, there is still another, a science that aims at universally valid cognition. The champions of historicism wanted to approve only of history (in the broadest sense) and challenged the very possibility and legitimacy of sociology in general and of economic theory in particular. They did not see that without recourse to propositions accepted as universally valid, even history cannot be understood and that the theory of human action is logically prior to history. It is to the merit of historicism that it rejected the endeavors of naturalism, which—no less mistakenly than historicism, though in another regard—for its part condemned all historical disciplines and wanted to replace history with a science of the laws of human development that was to be modeled on the prototype of Newtonian mechanics or on that of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The concept of understanding as the specific methodological tool of the sciences of human action was developed by historicism to serve it no less in the struggle against naturalism than in that against the nomothetic science of human action.

Today, when understanding is discussed in German scientific literature, it is, as a rule, made clear that what is meant by the term is the method of the "moral sciences," which comprehends meaning, in contrast to the method of cognition from without employed by the natural sciences. But since, as we have mentioned, this literature is almost completely lacking in any realization that a theoretical science of human action is also possible, it has generally sought to define understanding as the specific comprehension of the unique and the irrational, as the intuitive grasp of the historically nonrepeatable, in contrast to conception, which is attainable by rational methods of thought.[4] In and of itself, it would have been possible to include in the definition of understanding every procedure that is directed toward the comprehension of meaning. However, as things stand today, we must accommodate ourselves to the prevailing usage. Therefore, within the procedures employed by the sciences of human action for the comprehension of meaning we shall differentiate between conception and understanding. Conception seeks to grasp the meaning of action through discursive reasoning. Understanding seeks the meaning of action in empathic intuition of a whole.


Parsons (1964, p. 87 note 2) as editor of Weber's The Theory of Social and Economic Organization explains Weber's use of Verstehen:

...this is a technical term with a distinctly narrower meaning than either the German or the English in everyday usage. Its primary reference in this work is to the observation and theoretical interpretation of the subjective ‘states of mind’ of actors. But it also extends to the grasp of the meaning of logical and other systems of symbols, a meaning which is usually thought of as in some sense ‘intended’ by a mind or intelligent being of some sort.

Giddens and Turner (1987) defined Verstehen as:

empathic understanding of the outlook and feelings of others.

Luukkainen (2012) wrote:

English school scholars have traditionally emphasized the importance of Verstehen, or understanding achieved through judgment and intuition, in giving accounts about international events. Linklater and Suganami define Verstehen as explanation of what goes on in the social field, by penetrating the minds, and uncovering the assumptions and motives, of its relevant actors, and imparting the knowledge or understanding thereby gained to those who are seeking to make sense of the situation. (Linklater&Suganami 2006, p. 101)

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'verstehen' as:

A methodological technique involving an effort to understand the thought processes of the actor, the actor's meanings and motives, and how these factors led to the action (or interaction) under study.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Verstehen: The German word for "understanding" or "insight"; used by Max Weber to stress the need for sociologists to take into account people's emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

associated issues


related areas

See also





Giddens, A. and Turner, J., 1987, Social Theory Today, Polity Press.

Linklater, A. and Suganami, H., 2006, The English school of international relations: a contemporary reassessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luukkainen, M., 2012, ‘Managing the Arab Spring: reactions of the international community to the crises in Libya and Syria’, Master’s Thesis, Tampere, University of Tampere, available at, accessed 12 May 2013, page not available 29 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 29 December 2016.

Parsons, T. 1964, (Ed.), Max Weber's The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (A. M. Henderson & Talcott Parsons trans.), Free Press 1964. [1947].

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, 'not found' 1 June 2019.

von Mises , L., undated, 'Conception and Understanding' in Epistemological Problems of Economics, available at, accessed 11 May 2013, still available 15 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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