Examining Interpretivism in Social Science Research

This research explores the Interpretivism in Social Science Research, emphasizing the need for a deep understanding of individuals' beliefs in decoding data related to a phenomenon. Investigating hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism in sociology, the study advocates methodological diversity, utilizing both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Rejecting a singular "right path" to knowledge, interpretivists challenge universal methodologies, prioritizing qualitative data and contextual understanding. The research highlights interpretive divergence from positivist paradigms and contributes to ongoing discourse by providing a comprehensive overview of interpretivism, including approaches, influential figures, and methodological nuances, aiming to deepen appreciation for interpretive social science complexity.

Abstract

This article delves into interpretivism in social science research, asserting that decoding the meaning of data surrounding a phenomenon requires a profound understanding of individuals’ beliefs, motivations, and reasoning in a social context. The study examines three influential interpretive approaches in sociology—hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism. Emphasizing methodological diversity, interpretivists employ both qualitative and quantitative research methods, rejecting the notion of a singular “right path” to knowledge and challenging the idea of a universal methodology for uncovering the “truth” of a phenomenon. The research underscores the interpretive departure from positivist paradigms, prioritizing qualitative data and contextual understanding as essential elements in comprehending the intricacies of social phenomena. This article contributes to the ongoing discourse on interpretivism, offering a comprehensive overview of its approaches, influential figures, and methodological nuances, aiming to deepen appreciation for the complexity inherent in interpretive social science understanding.

The Interpretivist Paradigm

The interpretative paradigm, which has its roots in interpretivism, is a methodological and philosophical approach to research that places a strong emphasis on using qualitative methodologies to analyze social phenomena. Interpretivism’s central tenet is that reality is socially constituted. According to this theory, people understand and make sense of the world around them by drawing on their common meanings, experiences, and social context (Myers, 2008). The concept that reality is a result of human interaction and perception is further explored in the writings of sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their landmark book “The Social Construction of Reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

Interpretivism places a strong emphasis on exploring the subjective experiences of individuals. Researchers employing this paradigm seek to understand the depth of human beliefs, motivations, and reasoning in social interactions. The use of qualitative research methods, such as interviews, participant observations, and content analysis, allows researchers to delve into the rich context of individuals’ lives and uncover the meanings they ascribe to their experiences (Myers, 2008). The interpretive paradigm rejects the reductionist nature of quantitative data and instead focuses on the complexities and nuances inherent in human interpretation, acknowledging that reality is not a fixed entity but is shaped by the diverse perspectives of individuals within a society.

Within a certain social context, the concept of shared meanings and symbols is closely linked to the interpretative paradigm. Blumer 1969, highlights Symbolic interactionism, a sociological viewpoint that is in line with interpretivism, emphasizes the significance of language and symbols in influencing people’s interactions and perceptions. According to this viewpoint, individuals generate and convey meaning through symbols, and these meanings have an impact on how they behave in social contexts. Interpretivists examine the complex ways in which people negotiate their social environments, giving meaning to symbols and participating in shared symbolic interactions, by using a symbolic interactionist lens.

The interpretive paradigm, grounded in interpretivism, offers a unique lens through which researchers can understand social phenomena. The emphasis on qualitative research methods, the acknowledgement of reality as a socially constructed entity, and the exploration of subjective experiences contribute to a nuanced understanding of human interpretation and interaction. The works of scholars such as Peter L. Berger (2023), Thomas Luckmann (1973), and Herbert Blumer (1986) provide foundational concepts that guide researchers in adopting this paradigm and conducting in-depth investigations into the complexities of human social life. The interpretive paradigm stands in contrast to positivist approaches, highlighting the importance of subjective meaning-making in the study of social phenomena.

What is a Paradigm?

The concept of a paradigm is integral to understanding the underlying framework that guides research endeavours. It is a foundational structure comprising ideas and beliefs that shape the entire research process. Paradigms delineate existing knowledge, define the nature of the problems being investigated, prescribe appropriate methods for inquiry, and specify how data should be analyzed and interpreted (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Creswell, 2014). Essentially, a paradigm provides a set of principles and assumptions that researchers adhere to in the pursuit of knowledge.

The interpretivist paradigm, in particular, has its roots in a critical response to positivism, a dominant approach in the social sciences. Positivism emphasizes the use of quantitative methods and seeks to uncover universal laws governing human behaviour. The interpretivist paradigm, on the other hand, is grounded in idealistic philosophy and encompasses various philosophical perspectives, including social constructivism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). These approaches collectively challenge the positivist assumption that meaning exists independently of individuals’ consciousness and interpretation, asserting instead that meaning is socially constructed and context-dependent.

The interpretive paradigm places a strong emphasis on the subjective perspectives of individuals in the process of meaning construction. Acknowledging that meaning is not objective or fixed, interpretive approaches within the social sciences highlight the importance of researchers recognizing and understanding the variations among individuals. Social constructivism, for example, contends that reality is a product of shared interpretations within a social context (Gergen, 1985). Phenomenology focuses on understanding the essence of human experiences as perceived by individuals themselves. Hermeneutics, rooted in the interpretation of texts, emphasizes understanding and interpretation in the context of social interactions (Gadamer, 1975). These approaches collectively aim to elucidate how individual differences influence the attribution and derivation of meaning from personal experiences.

The interpretivist paradigm serves as a response and alternative to positivism in the social sciences, emphasizing the subjective nature of meaning construction. Rooted in various philosophical perspectives, interpretive approaches underscore the importance of recognizing individual variations and comprehending how these differences shape the way individuals attribute and derive meaning from their experiences. This paradigm offers researchers a framework that aligns with the complexities of human interpretation and interaction, guiding them in conducting studies that delve into the rich tapestry of subjective experiences within social contexts.

The Interpretivist Assumptions

The interpretivist paradigm posits that social reality is constructed through subjective meanings and interpretations rather than objective, measurable facts (Weber, 1949). This research approach emphasizes the significance of comprehending the unique perspectives and experiences of individuals within their social and cultural contexts (Blumer, 1969). According to Max Weber, a prominent advocate of interpretivism, social phenomena are best understood by delving into the meanings and intentions of the actors involved. Symbolic interactionism, a theoretical framework within interpretivism, underscores the importance of symbols and language in shaping social reality. The interpretivist assumptions challenge the positivist tradition by advocating for a more qualitative, context-dependent, and subjective understanding of social phenomena. This perspective has influenced various fields such as sociology, anthropology, and qualitative research methodologies.

The interpretive approach is based on the following assumptions:

Human life can only be understood from within

According to interpretivism, individuals have consciousness. This means that they are not merely coerced puppets that react to social forces in the way that positivists mean. This has the result that people in a society are intricate and complex. Different people in a society experience and understand the same “objective” reality in different ways, and have individual reasons for their actions (Alharahshel & Pius, 2020; Bhattacherjee, 2012). This more sense-based approach of interpretivism to research has roots in anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, and semiotics, and has been used since the early 19th century, long before the development of positivist sociology.

The social world does not “exist” independently of human knowledge

Interpretivists do not deny that there is an external reality. However, they do not accept that there is an independently knowable reality. Contrary to positivist approaches to sociology, interpretivists assert that all research is influenced and shaped by the pre-existing theories and worldviews of the researchers.

Terms, procedures, and data used in research have meaning because a group of academics have agreed that these things have meaning. This makes research a socially constructed activity, which means phenomena is created by society and not naturally occurring. It will vary from culture to culture. Consequently, the reality that research tells us is also socially constructed (Alharahshel & Pius, 2020).

Research should be based on qualitative methods

Interpretivists also use a broad range of qualitative methods. They also accept reflective discussions of how researchers do research, considering these to be prized sources of knowledge and understanding. This is in contrast to post-positivists, who generally consider their reflections and personal stories of researchers to be unacceptable as research because they are neither scientific nor objective (Fidel, 1993). The term interpretive research is often used synonymously with qualitative research, but the two concepts are different. Interpretive research is a research paradigm or set of common beliefs and agreements shared between scientists about how problems should be understood and addressed. Because interpretivists see social reality as embedded within and impossible to abstract from their social settings, they attempt to make “sense” of reality rather than test hypotheses.

Research should be based on a grounded theory

There can be causal explanations in sociology but there is no need for a hypothesis before starting research. By stating an hypothesis at the start of the study Glaser and Strauss argue that researchers run the risk of imposing their own views on the data rather than those of the actors being researched. Instead, there should be a grounded theory which means allowing ideas to emerge as the data is collected which can later be used to produce a testable hypothesis.

Research Design

Interpretivists believe that there is no particular correct path to knowledge and no special method that automatically leads to intellectual progress. This means that interpretivists are antifoundationalists. Interpretivists, however, accept that there are standards that guide research (Flick,2022). However, they believe that these standards cannot be universal. Instead, interpretivism believes that research standards are the products of a particular group or culture Interpretivists do not always abandon standards such as the rules of the scientific method; they simply accept that whatever standards are used are subjective, and potentially able to fail, rather than objective and universal.

Qualitative Methods

Qualitative data is virtually any type of information that can be observed and recorded that is not numerical and can be in the form of written or verbal communication. Interpretivists can collect qualitative data using a variety of techniques. The most frequent of these is interviews. These can manifest in many forms, such as face-to-face, over the telephone, or in focus groups. Another technique for interpretive data collection is observation. Observation can include direct observation, a technique common to case research where the researcher is a neutral and passive external observer and is not involved in the phenomena that they are studying.

Interpretivists can also use documentation as a data collecting technique, collecting external and internal documents, such as memos, emails, annual reports, financial statements, newspaper articles, websites, and so on, to cast further insight into a phenomenon of interest or to corroborate other forms of evidence (Goulding, 1998).

Case Study Research

Case study research is an intensive, longitudinal study of a phenomenon at least one research site that intends to derive detailed, contextualized inferences and understand the dynamics that underlie the phenomenon that is being studied. In this research design, the case researcher is a neutral observer, rather than an active participant. In the end, drawing meaningful inferences from case research largely depends on the observational skills and integrative abilities of the research (Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2013).

Action Research

Action research, meanwhile, is a qualitative albeit positivist research design aimed at testing, rather than building theories. Action research designs interaction, assuming that complex social phenomena are best understood by introducing changes, interventions, or “Actions” into the phenomena being studied and observing the outcomes of such actions on that phenomena.

Usually, the researcher in this method is a consultant or organizational member embedded into a social context who initiates an action in response to a social problem, examining how their action influences the phenomenon while learning and generating insights about the relationship between the action and the phenomenon (Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2013). Some examples of actions may include organizational changes, such as through introducing people or technology, initiated to improve an organization’s performance or profitability as a business. The researcher’s choice of actions may be based on theory which explains why and how certain actions could bring forth desired social changes.

Interpretivist Sociological Perspectives

There are three major interpretive approaches to sociology (Williams, 2000):

  1. Hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation and understanding. Often, Hermeneutics focuses on influential, ancient texts, such as scripture.
  2. Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology is a philosophical tradition that seeks to understand the world through directly experiencing the phenomena within it. Ethnomethodology, which has a phenomenological foundation, is the study of how people make sense of and navigate their everyday world through norms and rituals.
  3. Symbolic interaction, which accepts symbols as culturally derived social objects that have shared meanings. These symbols provide a means to construct reality.

Hermeneutics

Originally, the term hermeneutics referred exclusively to the study of sacred texts such as the Talmud or the Bible. Hermeneuticists originally used various methods to get at the meaning of these texts, such as by studying the meaning of terms and phrases from the document in other writings from the same era, the social and political context in which the passage was written, and the way the concepts discussed are used in other parts of the document (Williams, 2000).

Gradually, however, hermeneutics expanded beyond this original meaning to include understanding human action in context. There are many variations on hermeneutics; however, Schmidt (2016) concluded that they all share two characteristics in common:

  1. An emphasis on the importance of language in understanding, because language can both limit and make possible what people can say,
  2. An emphasis on the context, particularly the historical one, as a frame for understanding, because human behavior and ideas must be understood in context, rather than in isolation.

Hermeneutics has several different subcategories, including validation, critical, and philosophical. The first of these, validation, is based on post-positivism and assumes that hermeneutics can be a scientific way to find the truth. Critical hermeneutics is focused on critical theory and aims to highlight the historical conditions that lead to oppression. Finally, philosophical hermeneutics aims to develop understanding and rejects the idea that there is a certain research method that will uncover the truth without fail (Geanellos, 1998).

Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a type of social action theory that focuses on studying people’s perceptions of the world. Understanding different perspectives often calls for different methods of research and different ways of reporting results. Research methods that attempt to examine the subjective perceptions of the person being studied are often called phenomenological research methods. Interpretivists generally tend to use qualitative methods such as case studies and ethnography, writing reports that are rich in detail to depict the context needed for understanding.

Ethnography

Ethnography, a research method derived largely from anthropology, emphasizes studying a phenomenon within the context of its culture. In practice, ethnographic researchers must immerse themself into a social culture over an extended period and engage, observe, and record the daily life of the culture being studied and its social participants within their natural setting (Schwandt, 1994). In addition, ethnographic researchers must take extensive field notes and narrate their experience in descriptive detail so that readers can experience the same culture as the researcher. This gives the researcher two roles: relying on their unique knowledge and engagement to generate insights, and convincing the scientific community that this behaviour applies across different situations.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism starts with the assumption that humans inhabit a symbolic world, in which symbols, such as language, have a shared meaning. The social world is therefore constructed by the meaning that individuals attach to events and phenomena and these are transmitted across generations through language. A central concept of symbolic interactionism is the Self, which allows individuals to calculate the effects of their actions.

Interpretive Research Designs

Interpretivists can collect qualitative data using a variety of techniques. The most frequent of these are interviews. These can manifest in many forms, such as face-to-face, over the telephone, or in focus groups. Another technique for interpretive data collection is observation. Observation can include direct observation, a technique common to case research where the researcher is a neutral and passive external observer and is not involved in the phenomena that they are studying.

Thirdly, interpretivism can use documentation as a data collecting technique, collecting external and internal documents, such as memos, emails, annual reports, financial statements, newspaper articles, websites, and so on — to cast further insight into a phenomenon of interest or to corroborate other forms of evidence (Lambert & Loiselle, 2008)

Examples of Interpretive Research

Decision-Making in Businesses

Although interpretive research tends to rely heavily on qualitative data, quantitative data can add more precision and create a clearer understanding of the phenomenon being studied than qualitative data. For example, Eisenhardt (1989) conducted an interpretive study of decision-making in high-velocity firms. Eisenhardt collected numerical data on how long it took each firm to make certain strategic decisions (ranging from 1.5 months to 18 months), how many decision alternatives were considered for each decision, and surveyed her respondents to capture their perceptions of organizational conflict.

This numerical data helped Eisenhardt to clearly distinguish high-speed decision-making firms from low-speed decision-makers without relying on respondents” subjective perceptions. This differentiation then allowed Eisenhardt to examine the number of decision alternatives considered and the extent of conflict in high-speed and low-speed firms. Eisenhardt”s study is one example of how interpretivist researchers can use a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data to study their phenomena of interest.

Teaching and Technology

Waxman and Huang (1996) conducted an interpretive study on the relationship between computers and teaching strategies. While positivists and post-positivists may use the data from that study to make a general statement about the relationship between computers and teaching strategies, interpretivists would argue that the context of the study could alter this general conclusion entirely.

For example, Waxman and Huang (1996) mention in their paper that the school district where the data were collected had provided training for teachers that emphasized the use of “constructivist” approaches to teaching and learning. This training may mean that the study would have generated different results in a school district where teachers were provided extensive training on a different teaching method. Interpretivists are concerned about how data are situated, and how this context can affect the data.

Interpretivism vs. Positivism

Whereas positivism looks for universals based on data, interpretivism looks for an understanding of a particular context, because this context is critical to interpreting the data gathered. Generally, interpretivist research is prepared to sacrifice reliability and representativeness for greater validity while positivism requires research to be valid, reliable, and representative.

While a positivist may use largely quantitative research methods, official statistics, social surveys, questionnaires, and structured interviews to conduct research, interpretivists may rely on qualitative methods, such as personal documents, participant observation, and unstructured interviews (Alharahshel & Pius, 2020; Bhattacherjee, 2012).

Interprevists and positivists also differ in how they see the relationship between society and the individual. Positivists believe that society shapes the individual and that society consists of “social facts” that exercise coercive control over individuals. This means that people”s actions can generally be explained by the social norms that they have been exposed to through socialization, social class, gender, and ethnic background. Many positivist researchers view interpretive research as erroneous and biased, given the subjective nature of qualitative data collection and the process of interpretation used in such research.

However, the failure of many positivist techniques to generate insights has resulted in a resurgence of interest in interpretive research since the 1970s, now informed with exacting methods and criteria to ensure the reliability and validity of interpretive inferences (Bhattacherjee, 2012).

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