Verstehen in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Sept 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Verstehen is a sociological approach, first proposed by Weber and Dilthey, that presses sociologists to take the frame of an insider in their research, rather than that of an outside observer.

In other words, verstehen posits that, in order to truly understand individuals or groups, sociologists must "walk a mile in their shoes." The term originates from the German word for "understanding."

Max Weber (1936) used this term to refer to the attempts of social scientists to understand both the intent and context of human action. Max Weber argued that a sense of empathetic understanding, or "Verstehen," is crucial to understand human action and social change.

This approach follows three main beliefs:

  1. that sociology should consider not just behavior, but the motivation for that behavior;
  2. that reality is constructed through interactions (this is in a similar vein to the symbolic interactionist approach);
  3. that quantitative methods can be used to understand individual subjectivity.

Weber sought to understand a version of social reality driven by individual subjectivity, constructed collectively through the interactions between people. As such, it has been characterized as an “interpretive” or qualitative method of inquiry.

Summary

  • Verstehenn is a German term that means to understand, perceive, know, and comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon, or to grasp or comprehend the meaning intended or expressed by another.
  • Verstehen means to understand. To fully understand social groups you have to be able to ‘walk in their shoes’ in order to appreciate their particular experiences and perspectives.
  • It is perhaps best understood as empathy, the feeling that one person can have for another's subjective being and objective circumstances.
  • The essence of verstehen is that, in order to understand the cause of an action, someone has to understand the meaning attached to it by the individual (Weber, 1947).
  • Verstehen is the way in which sociologists can access the subjective world of the individual, and thus understand the intensions and meanings behind their behavior (Dilthey, 1977).

Types of Verstehen

Weber (1947) distinguished between two types of Verstehen: the verstehen that resulted from direct observation, and that sociologists can apply when trying to understand the motives that give rise to a particular action.

He called these Aktuelles and erklärendes verstehen, respectively. Someone who observes someone's emotional state from their body language or facial expression would be employing aktuelles verstehen, while someone using eklarendes, or empathetic understanding would examine why someone is doing an action in the first place.

Aktuelles Verstehen

Aktuelles Verstehen, or "contemporary understanding," is a variation of the verstehen approach that specifically looks at understanding the explicit actions that people are carrying out.

For example, a sociologist could observe someone's actions - such as building a house or cooking dinner - as well as their emotional state while doing so, based on body language and facial expression (Ray, 2007).

Erklärendes Verstehen

Nonetheless, Weber did not consider aktuelles verstehen alone to be sufficient in explaining verstehen.

Eklarendes Verstehen, or "explanatory understanding," is a variation of the verstehen approach that specifically looks at trying to understand the meaning of an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it.

This could involve understanding historical events, trends, or any other phenomenon that happened in the past. For instance, consider a person who is destroying a house.

Eklarendes Verstehen would ask whether the person destroying the house is motivated by practical reasons, like clearing land while farming or making way for a new house , or whether the person is motivated by more destructive reasons, like hatred or revenge (Ray, 2007).

Verstehen in Sociological Research

Max Weber and Georg Simmel introduced Verstehen as a systematic process in sociology.

This systematization of verstehen was later carried into the United States by Talcott Parsons (1937), who used structural functionalism to argue that the individual institutions of societies are functional.

There are a number of different ways in which the verstehen approach can be used in sociological research.

One way is through participant observation, where the researcher actually takes part in the lives of the people they are studying. This could involve living in the same community, working the same job, or taking part in the same activities as those being studied.

Another way to use verstehen is through interviews, where the researcher asks questions about people's experiences and feelings in order to better understand their actions and motivations.

This mode of qualitative data can be combined with traditional quantitative data approaches to create an approach that combines the perspectives of insiders and outsiders in a society (Ray, 2007).

Verstehen and Antipositivist Sociology

Verstehen is widely seen as a rejection of positivist sociology, which relies on empirical data and statistical analysis to understand social phenomena.

Positivist sociology sees individuals as being motivated by external factors such as economic incentives, whereas the verstehen approach argues that people's actions are largely determined by their internal mental states (Walker, 2011).

Many sociologists who subscribe to the verstehen approach have critiqued positivist sociology for its failure to take into account the complexities of human behavior.

They argue that the positivist approach is reductionist, and that it fails to capture the richness of human experience.

Additionally, proponents of verstehen argue that the approach is more ethical, as it allows researchers to gain a deep understanding of the people they are studying, rather than treating them as anonymous data points.

Positivist 19th-century anthropologists tended to believe that the lack of scientific progress and material wealth in non-european cultures pointed to their primitivity and inferiority.

In this view, the positivist 19th-century observers of non-western civilizations saw long-held cultural traditions as superstition. Anti Positive researchers, meanwhile, took a more sympathetic approach to these cultures, understanding social behaviors in context, rather than comparisons to their own societies (Lewis & Serva, 2022).

Also in contrast to the positive sociologists, anti positivists used qualitative data, like survey results and statistics.

Although they did not contend that qualitative data could completely replace empirical evidence, they felt that these methods could provide valuable insights into social behavior, and help remove culture. biases that they project onto their own research (Walker, 2011).

Verstehen in Action

One early instance of Weber using Verstehen is in his work, The Protestant Ethic. In the Protestant Ethic, Weber aimed to understand how Protestantantism had led to the emergence of Western capitalism in 15th and 16th century Europe.

He did this by looking at the religious beliefs of Protestants, and how these beliefs influenced their attitudes towards work.

Weber (1936) argued that understanding these deeply ingrained religious beliefs held by individuals were key to understanding the emergence of capitalism as a whole. In this way, His work was an early instance of the verstehen approach in action.

Weber also studied verstehen from the perspective of how societies can encourage certain types of action. He defined four types of social actions:

  1. Traditional social action refers to the actions of individuals within a society that are based on long-standing norms and customs. In other words, traditional social action is based on the idea that people will act in certain ways because that is what they have always done. One example of traditional social action is the way in which people dress. In many societies, there are specific norms and customs regarding how men and women should dress. These norms and customs are passed down from generation to generation, and as such, they often become quite deeply ingrained in the way people think and behave.

  2. Affective social action are determined by one's specific affections and emotional state.  An example of effective social action would be if someone were to get married because they were in love, as opposed to getting married for practical reasons.

  3. Value rational social action is determined by the belief that a certain action is inherently valuable. For instance, someone may practice their religion because they believe that doing so is inherently worthwhile.

  4. Instrumental-rational social action is determined by the belief that a certain action will help to achieve a specific goal. An example of instrumental social action would be if someone decided to study for an exam in order to get a good grade. The goal in this case is to do well on the exam, and the individual has decided that studying is the best way to achieve this.

In particular, Weber was interested in the theory that modern societies encouraged "instrumental action." He believed that people in modern societies are obsessed with efficiency, rather than evaluating whether actions are inherently worthwhile or right - a value-rational action.

This theory of social action both derives from and is encouraging of the verstehen approach, as it attempts to deconstruct why people are motivated to carry out certain behaviors.

Criticisms

It is never possible to truly put yourself into the shoes of another person, therefore we cannot really know or understand their motives.

The verstehen approach has been critiqued for a number of reasons. Some argue that it is impossible to completely understand another person's mental state, and that the approach therefore relies on too much speculation.

Bakhtin and MacCannell (1986), for instance, counter that it is arrogant and conceited to attempt to interpret the significance of one's culture's symbols and customs through the terms of another culture, especially when that culture sees themselves as superior.

Others argue that the approach is subjective, and that different researchers will interpret the same data in different ways. Additionally, some have argued that the verstehen approach actually reinforces stereotypes, as it relies on generalizations about groups.

Symbolic interactionists,  for example, contends that individuals have more freedom to shape their identities than is implied by verstehen ist theories, such as Max Weber's social action theory. In this view, understanding the motives of a greater society is necessary, but not sufficient, to understanding the motives of individuals.

Others have criticized Verstehen for assuming that one can necessarily understand a society in its entirety by understanding what a society's inhabitants understand about it. That is to say, an individual may be completely unaware of how their actions and experience tie-in to the greater beliefs and movements of society.

For instance, a person who is destroying a house may be motivated by practical reasons, but if that house is part of a neighborhood that is being gentrified, the act of destruction could also be seen as political resistance to gentrification.

The critics of eklarendes verstehen argue that some level of interpretive understanding is necessary in evaluating behavior on a broader level (Ray, 2007).

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, Sept 23). Verstehen in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/verstehen.html

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