Of Methods and Methodology: 2. Interpretivism

A methodology is a framework for research that focuses on how it is possible to collect reliable and valid data about, in this instance, the social world. It’s shaped by two main considerations:

1. Our beliefs about the fundamental nature of the social world (ontological concerns).

2. How we believe is possible to construct knowledge about the world (epistemology).

In turn, these ideas shape our choice of research methods when we come to actually collect data.

Basic Principles

Unlike their positivist counterparts, for interpretivists the crucial difference between the objects of study for social and natural scientists is that people have consciousness.

This is significant because this awareness of both Self and our relationship to Others gives people the ability to act; to exercise what we might loosely call free will over the choices they make about how to behave in different situations, rather than simply react to external (structural) stimulation.

People, therefore, are “inherently unpredictable” in the sense they do not necessary react in the same way to the same stimuli. Unlike a natural world governed by linear progressions – A causes B causes C – the social world is a non-linear system that makes individual behaviour difficult to predict. The best we can do is suggest a range of probabilities about what will occur in terms of people’s behaviour in the context of different situations.

A further complication here is that behaviour is not simply a condition of the Self: that is, someone choosing to do – or not to do – something. Rather, it’s also a condition of the Other. How other people define and interpret someone’s behaviour is just as – if not – more important.

What this means, Interpretivists argue, is that non-linear human behaviour can’t be studied and explained in the way natural scientists study and explain the linear non-human world. Social behaviour is, in some ways, chaotic in the sense it has a tendency to display random features at unknown times and for unknown reasons.

Regularity through Routine…

While the social world frequently and necessarily displays consistent and regular patterns – think about how a typical week might be patterned for you around a set of routine activities – that are broadly predictable at the macro level, at an individual level it frequently “spirals out of control” in the sense individuals may choose to do things that don’t conform to the norm and which upset our expectations.

For Interpretivists, therefore, unpredictability is an essential feature of a social world constructed through the meanings people give to both their own actions and those of others. “Society”, in this respect, doesn’t exist in an objective form; rather, it is experienced subjectively because we give it meaning through our behaviour.

People, in other words, create and recreate a “sense of the system” on a daily basis – which is not to say that “society” does not somehow exist but rather that we should not see it as something “out there” that can be objectively observed and studied separately from the individuals who give it meaning and existence. Society, from this methodological perspective, is something “in here” to be experienced and understood.

Every time students and teachers “go to school or college”, for example, they recreate the structure of education through the regularity of their behaviour, just as every time someone says “mum” or “dad” they help to recreate a sense of family.

As we’ve just suggested, the construction and reconstruction of social reality is based on both the choices people make and the choices others make for them; if you steal something from a shop and are caught then others in the criminal justice system will make choices about your future behaviour. They may, for example, restrict your freedom of action by sending you to prison.

Choices are not, therefore, made in a cultural vacuum; they are conditioned by cultural contexts that shape their behaviour. How we interpret a situation, for example, restricts our range of possible behavioural choices. In addition, we act with regard to others by assessing how people are likely to react to our choices and modify our behaviour accordingly. If you don’t want to run the risk of arrest then you may decide not to steal something.

People are not, of course, always similarly positioned in terms of the choices – or lack of same – available to them and this further complicates our ability to study, understand and explain people’s behaviour. The cultural context for a rich, white, young, male in our society may offer up a much wider range of potential behavioural choices than those experienced by others who do not share these social attributes.

Although the idea of “chaotic (random) behaviour” is important in the context of sociological research, the fact of both consciousness and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions explains how and why societies are generally orderly and stable; we consciously limit our behavioural choices to make them broadly predictable and understandable to others. For this reason, facts about behaviour can be established, but these are always context dependent; they will not apply to all people, at all times, in all situations. As we’ve just suggested, people who display exactly the same behaviour – such as theft or burglary – may be seen in very different ways:

  • if an individual is found guilty of stealing, they will be labelled “a criminal”, with all the social consequences, such as imprisonment, and stigma this entails.
  • if they don’t get caught, however, they are, as far as anyone knows, just another law-abiding citizen and they suffer no adverse consequences.
  • This demonstrates, as Becker (1963) argues, it’s not what you do but how others react to what you do that’s important; two people can show exactly the same behaviour, such as stealing from a shop, while experiencing very different outcomes; one is arrested and criminalised, the other is seen as an upright. law-abiding, citizen.

    Reliability and Validity

    These ideas have consequences for how social behaviour can be reliably and validly studied – the argument being that the best we can do is observe, describe and in some ways explain behaviour from the viewpoint of those involved. This is generally known as an ethnographic approach to sociological research.

    Unlike with positivist forms of methodology there is no hierarchy of knowledge involved here – one account of behaviour is potentially just as reliable and valid as any other – and the objective of interpretive research is not to establish causality.

    Whereas positivism is based on the assumption the researcher has a privileged position in terms of what counts as “knowledge”, interpretivism suggests the reverse: the researcher’s role is to provide a platform from which those being studied can express their ideas, beliefs, feelings and meanings. The objective here is simply one of understanding: why do people think and behave the way they do in different situations? This difference of interpretation about the meaning of scientific research explains why interpretivist research leans towards methods, such as unstructured interviews and participant observation, that allow for the collection of qualitative data.

    The idea people actively create the social world means any attempt to establish causal relationships is misconceived, both in theory and in practice. If behaviour is conditioned by how people personally interpret their world (and no two interpretations can ever be exactly the same), it follows “simple” causal relationships cannot be empirically established – there are just too many possible variables involved.

    Where social contexts define the meaning of behaviour the best a researcher can do is describe reality from the viewpoint of those who define it: the people actively and consciously involved in particular types of social interaction, whether that behaviour occurs in asylums, school classrooms, families or whatever. If researching social behaviour involves understanding how people individually and collectively experience and interpret their situation, research methods must reflect this social construction of reality. The objective of Interpretivist research therefore, is what Laing (2007) calls “The recovery of subjective meaning”; the role of the researcher is to facilitate the ability of respondents “to tell their story” and, by so doing, understand and, in some respects, explain their behavioural choices.

    Interpretivist methodology and research doesn’t, therefore, conform to conventional ideas about “science” and the objectives of scientific research. There is, for example, little or no interest in testing hypotheses (as in Popper’s classic Hypothetico-Deductive Model of scientific research) and a lot more emphasis on research questions

    This doesn’t, however, mean Interpretivism should automatically be rejected as “unscientific”: it is perhaps only “unscientific” in terms of one – albeit significant and dominant – definition of science.


  • the primary research goal is to describe social behaviour in terms of the meanings and interpretations of those involved.
  • explanations for behaviour are “developed from within”, in terms of the perceptions of those involved, and the researcher has a role in “drawing-out” those explanations. Such explanations are not, therefore, “imposed from without”, in the sense of the researcher “weighing the evidence” and deciding which particular explanation is “true” and which “false”.
  • behavioural rules are invariably context-bound; they shift and change in subtle ways, depending on the particular situation. Uncovering and describing those rules involves delving deeply into people’s behaviour; it also involves the researcher gaining an intimate understanding of the context within such rules are created – hence participant observation is a method frequently associated with this methodology.
  • if participation, as Humphries (1970) argues, is desirable becausethe researcher gets a deeper insight into behaviour when they become the people they’re studying, the kind of “objective detachment” valued by positivists is explicitly rejected.
  • scientific social research involvesthe ability to capture and express the quality of people’s behaviour. While behaviour can be quantified on a relatively simple level, this is not the main research objective.
  • while data reliability is important, interpretivists place greater emphasis on data validity.
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