Understanding Interpretive Sociology

An Overview of a Core Approach to the Discipline

A woman looking through a magnifying glass represents interpretive sociology, which focuses on studying people's lives from their own perspective.
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Interpretive sociology is an approach developed by Max Weber that centers the importance of meaning and action when studying social trends and problems. This approach diverges from positivistic sociology by recognizing that the subjective experiences, beliefs, and behavior of people are equally important to study as are observable, objective facts.

Max Weber's Interpretive Sociology

Interpretive sociology was developed and popularized by Prussian founding figure of the field Max Weber.

This theoretical approach and the research methods that go with it is rooted in the German word verstehen, which means "to understand," in particular to have a meaningful understanding of something. To practice interpretive sociology is to attempt to understand social phenomena from the standpoint of those involved in it. It is, so to speak, to attempt to walk in someone else's shoes and see the world as they see it. Interpretive sociology is, thus, focused on understanding the meaning that those studied give to their beliefs, values, actions, behaviors, and social relationships with people and institutions. Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Weber, is also recognized as a major developer of interpretive sociology.

This approach to producing theory and research encourages sociologists to view those studied as thinking and feeling subjects as opposed to objects of scientific research. Weber developed interpretive sociology because he saw a deficiency in the positivistic sociology pioneered by French founding figure Émile Durkheim.

Durkheim worked to make sociology be seen as a science by centering empirical, quantitative data as its practice. However, Weber and Simmel recognized that the positivistic approach is not able to capture all social phenomena, nor is it able to fully explain why all social phenomena occur or what is important to understand about them.

This approach focuses on objects (data) whereas interpretive sociologists focus on subjects (people).

Meaning and the Social Construction of Reality

Within interpretive sociology, rather than attempting to work as detached, seemingly objective observers and analyzers of social phenomena, researchers instead work to understand how the groups they study actively construct the reality of their everyday lives through the meaning they give to their actions.

To approach sociology this way is often necessarily to conduct participatory research that embeds the researcher within the daily lives of those they study. Further, interpretive sociologists work to understand how the groups they study construct meaning and reality through attempts to empathize with them, and as much as possible, to understand their experiences and actions from their own perspectives. This means that sociologists who take an interpretive approach work to collect qualitative data rather than quantitative data because taking this approach rather than a positivistic one means that a research approaches the subject matter with different kinds of assumptions, asks different kinds of questions about it, and requires different kinds of data and methods for responding to those questions.

The methods interpretive sociologists employ include in-depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic observation.

Example: How Interpretive Sociologists Study Race

One area in which positivistic and interpretive forms of sociology produce very different kinds of questions and research is the study of race and social issues connected to it. Positivistic approaches to this are of study tend to focus on counting and tracking trends over time. This kind of research can illustrate things like how education level, income, or voting patterns differ on the basis of race. Research like this can show us that there are clear correlations between race and these other variables. For example, within the U.S., Asian Americans are the most likely to earn a college degree, followed by whites, then Blacks, then Hispanics and Latinos.

The gap between Asian Americans and Latinos is vast: 60 percent of those aged 25-29 versus just 15 percent. But these quantitative data simply show us that a problem of educational disparity by race exists. They don't explain it, and they don't tell us anything about the experience of it.

In contract, sociologist Gilda Ochoa took an interpretive approach to studying this gap and conducted long-term ethnographic observation at a California high school to find out why this disparity exists. Her 2013 book, Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap​, based on interviews with students, faculty, staff and parents, as well as observations within the school, shows that it is unequal access to opportunities, racist and classist assumptions about students and their families, and differential treatment of students within the schooling experience that leads to the achievement gap between the two groups. Ochoa's findings run counter to common assumptions about the groups that frame Latinos as culturally and intellectually deficient and Asian Americans as model minorities, and serve as a fantastic demonstration of the importance of conducting interpretive sociological research.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.