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The goal of interpretivist research is to understand the meaning which cultural and institutional practices have for those taking part. Interpretivism is therefore contrasted with positivism which sees the world, and the conceptual categories we use to describe the world, as ‘real’.

There is no single source for defining interpretivism nor a single ‘take’ on its meaning but there are different sources of inspiration and reference:

  • Many sociologists draw on Weber (2005) and take as a point of reference his work first published in German at the start of the last century on the Protestant ethic and ‘the spirit of capitalism’. Weber was interested in why, historically, protestant regions of western Europe seemed to be advancing more rapidly economically than catholic ones. Finding the existing set of explanations inadequate he noted that within Protestantism (and particular sub branches of Protestantism) moral value was attached to work and material success, while idleness was condemned. Hence Protestantism provided just the right cultural attributes (acceptance of material rewards and delayed gratification for rewards) for capitalist endeavour to be sustained. This turned Marx on his head: cultural norms were not a consequence of capitalist organisation but capitalism was a consequence of particular cultural norms. Weber went on throughout his work to emphasise the importance of understanding (in his native language this was put as ‘verstehen’) social activity, rather than seeking external explanations of behaviour. 
  • Interpretivists of a more philosophical disposition draw on phenomenologists such as Husserl and Merleau Ponty who argued that consciousness was always directed towards something; put simply we never see the world as it really is, we mediate our experience of the world through our concepts, thoughts, ideas. Inside this fairly straightforward idea lies a raft of diverging opinion and considered argument but at its heart is the belief that consciousness is ‘intentional’, the world does not appear to us as it is, rather we appropriate the world for ourselves. The implication is again here that we need to understand the intentions of those carrying out social activity, there is no objective description.
  • A point of reference for many interpretivists has been the later work of Wittgenstein (1953). This has been a subject of diverging interpretations but one key element in Wittgenstein was the rejection of ‘essentialist’ definitions of the language used to describe the world, instead concepts can only cover ‘family resemblance’. There is, for example, no concept of game that would cover all the different types of games that are played as each follows different rules but there are ‘family resemblances’ which make the concept of a game meaningful. For many social researchers this implies that we should be careful of generalisation and look for the meanings of activity, and the language used to describe activity, within the particular contexts being studied (see MacIntyre, 1972, for example). In a much cited contribution Winch (1953) draws on Wittgenstein to argue that social activity, for example such symbolic acts as making a sacrifice, showing respect, carrying out baptism into a religion, only make sense by understanding the rules and social practices which underlie them. To do this we must somehow come to share the viewpoints, attitudes, and feelings of the actors. The reference to Wittgenstein is taken up in later work by Geertz (see case studies) who makes a distinction between thin description (acts) and thick description which explains the meaning of the acts and the rules which lie behind them.
  • A further point of reference for many interpretivists is the idea of constructivism and social constructivism. Indeed the concept of interpretivism is so closely associated with that of constructivism that one is often seen as a sub set of the other, but there is not a single view as to which way round this relationship should be described. Constructivism and interpretivism share a view that as human beings we are meaning makers: the world is one in which we are required to seek out meaning rather than enter a world in which meanings are fixed.

The implications of an interpretivist position for social research cannot be reduced to the take up of a single method, methodology or theoretical perspective, but we can expect interpretivists to consider the subjective nature of the world, to treat meaning as socially constructed and to have a special concern with the unique character of human activity and of the agency which creates social action. Thus interpretivism may ask questions such as: What are the consequences of excessive optimism for stock markets? Why do people choose careers in public services? What kind of social capital is created within disadvantaged neighbourhoods? rather than What are the factors for excessive optimism for stock markets? What factors lead people to take up careers in public services? What kind of social capital can be indentified within disadvantaged neighbourhoods?

In methodology interpretivists are more likely to undertake smaller scale casing, adopt an exploratory approach to literature review, use in depth interview techniques and so on. The language used by interpretivists will often reject the certainties of the scientific discourse: it might explore concepts, unsettle ideas, engage with social actors, seek to negotiate understanding, rather than provide proof or demonstrate. Interpretivism informs a range of theoretical perspectives including symbolic interactionism (see separate entry) which, in the much cited position of Blumer (1992), argues that humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things and that these meanings are derived from the social interaction that one has with others.

Interpretivism underpins all research taking a broadly social constructivist approach and the legacy of interpretivism can be seen in theoretical perspective such as community of practice and actor network theory. However, researchers working within an interpretivist tradition may take strikingly different positions on the limits of agency and the possibility of rational interpretation of intentions (see post modernism). At an ontological level they may have different perspective on the existence or otherwise of an objective reality. Some take the standard pragmatic position that there is an objective material reality out there and do not rule out the possibility of an objective account of social reality (though in practice this could never be done). A more radical interpretivism would question would question at least the second of these assumptions and maybe the first.


Blumer, H. (1992) Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method , Ca, USA: University of California Press.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of cultures, USA: Basic Books.

MacIntyre, A. (1972) Is a science of comparative politics possible? in P. Laslett, W.G. Runciman, and Q. Skinner (eds.) Philosophy, Politics, and Society (4th series), Oxford: Blackwell.

Weber, M. (2005) The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, London: Routledge.

Winch, P. (1958) The idea of a social science, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical investigations The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.