Interpretivism Paradigm & Research Philosophy

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 05, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • Interpretivism is an approach to social science that asserts that understanding the beliefs, motivations, and reasoning of individuals in a social situation is essential to decoding the meaning of the data that can be collected around a phenomenon.
  • There are numerous interpretivist approaches to sociology, three of the most influential of which are hermeneutics, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism.
  • Sociologists who have adopted an interpretivists approach include Weber, Garfinkle, Bulmer, Goffman, Cooley, Mead, and Husser.
  • Interpretivists use both qualitative and quantitative research methods. However, they believe that there is no one "right path" to knowledge, thus rejecting the idea that there is one methodology that will consistently get at the "truth" of a phenomenon.
  • Interpretivist approaches to research differ from positivist ones in their emphasis on qualitative data and focus on context.

The Interpretivist Paradigm

Interpretivism uses qualitative research methods that focus on individuals' beliefs, motivations, and reasoning over quantitative data to gain understanding of social interactions. Interpretivists assume that access to reality happens through social constructions such as language, consciousness, shared meanings, and instruments (Myers, 2008).

What is a Paradigm?

A paradigm is a set of ideas and beliefs which provide a framework or model which research can follow. A paradigm defines existing knowledge, the nature of the problem(s) to be investigated, appropriate methods of investigation, and the way data should be analyzed and interpreted. The interpretivist paradigm developed as a critique of positivism in the social sciences

Interpretivism has its roots in idealistic philosophy. The umbrella term has also been used to group together schools of thought ranging from social constructivism to phenomenology and hermeneutics: approaches that reject the view that meaning exists in the world independently of people's consciousness and interpretation.

Because meaning exists through the lens of people, interpretivist approaches to social science consider it important for researchers to appreciate the differences between people, and seek to understand how these differences inform how people find meaning.

The Interpretivist Assumptions

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 (Smith, 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 (Kuhn, 1970).

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 testing hypotheses.

Research should be based on a grounded theory

There can be causal explanation 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 right or correct path to knowledge, and no special method that automatically leads to intellectual progress (Smith, 1993). This means that interpretivists are antifoundationalists.

Interpretivists, however, accept that there are standards that guide research. However, they believe that these standards cannot be universal. Instead, interpretivists believe 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 (Smith, 1993).

Qualitative Methods

Qualitative data is virtually any type of information that can be observed and recorded that is not numerical in nature 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 interpretivist 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 (Smith, 1993). 

Case Research

Case 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, and examines how their action influences the phenomenon while also learning and generating insights about the relationship between the action and the phenomenon.

Some examples of actions may include organizational changes, such as through introducing people or technology, initiated with the goal of improving 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 (Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2013). 

Interpretivist Sociological Perspectives

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

  1. Hermeneutics, which refers to the philosophy of interpretation and understanding. Often, Hermeneutics focuses on influential, ancient texts, such as scripture. 

  2. Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology, which 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 through 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, Smith (1991) 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 (Smith, 1991). 

Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a type of social action theory that focuses on studying people's perceptions of the world. 

Understanding different perspectives often call 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 in order 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, an ethnographic researcher must immerse themself into a social culture over an extended period of time and engage, observe, and record the daily life of the culture being studied and its social participants within their natural setting.

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 behavior applies across different situations (Schwandt, 1994).

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism starts which the assumptions 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 individual 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.

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 interpretivist 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, interpretivists 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 (Smith, 1993).

Case Research

Case 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, and examines how their action influences the phenomenon while also learning and generating insights about the relationship between the action and the phenomenon.

Some examples of actions may include organizational changes, such as through introducing people or technology, initiated with the goal of improving 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 (Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2013).

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 by 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 interpretivist 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 the 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). 

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 05). Interpretivism Paradigm & Research Philosophy. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/interpretivism-paradigm.html

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