interpretation, interpretive sociology
In one sense, any statement is an interpretation: if I call this thing in front of me a desk (rather than a dressing table) then I am interpreting a battery of sense impressions; if I say I feel happy (rather than, say, drunk) then I am interpreting certain physical sensations and a mental state. Not all sociologists recognize such a wide use of the word. Some, for example, use it more narrowly as in the sense of interpreting statistical data.
Interpretive sociology is a term usually confined to those sociological approaches which regard meaning and action as the prime objects of sociology. These differ in the extent to which they view interpretation as problematic. symbolic interactionism and much Weberian sociology, for example, generally interprets meaning on a commonsense level. Phenomenological sociology possesses a quite elaborate theory of interpretation, as do ethnomethodology , hermeneutics, and structuralism . Interpretive theories differ as well in the degree to which they go beyond the actor's own understanding of what he or she is doing.
For Max Weber (The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 1904-17), verstehen (or understanding) of people's actions is the method par excellence of sociology. Understanding and interpretation are closely related, and most sociologists would now recognize that some interpretation is involved in all acts of understanding, although some maintain a more naïve view that there are unproblematic meanings in social reality which can be directly understood. Weber distinguishes descriptive understanding (for example ‘John is walking across the room and opening a window’) and explanatory understanding (‘He is opening the window in order to ventilate this stuffy room’). In fact, both statements require an interpretation of what is happening, the second merely going rather further than the first. It is argued that the more complete our understanding or interpretation, the closer we are to a full explanation of an action. Alfred Schutz (in The Phenomenology of the Social World, 1932) develops a more elaborate conception by extending Weber's work and exploring the formation of goals from the stream of experience. This leads him to distinguish ‘because’ motives (which lie in past experience) from ‘in order to’ motives (which point to a future state of affairs that the actor wishes to bring about).
Most modern sociological conceptions of understanding recognize that it is also a process of interpretation. Some try to avoid this, by arguing that what we should be searching out are the rules by means of which we understand and interpret, since these remain the same whatever the content of interpretations. This lies behind Peter Winch's idea that all social action is rule-following; as well as the ethnomethodological focus on conversational rules; the concerns of structuralism with the rules which enable the production of meaning from an underlying structure; and, less obviously, the interest of post-structuralism in the constant and shifting play of meanings. Anthony Giddens (inThe Constitution of Society, 1984) argues that all explicitly formulated rules become sites for interpretation, and the rules that are most basic to human action and interaction are not formulated, but rather, as far as the actor is concerned, are pre-conscious. They are, therefore, like the rules that govern mathematical progressions, and tell us how to proceed in the same way. Thus, given the beginning of a sequence (say 2, 4, 6, 8), we know how it continues (10, 12, 14) without necessarily knowing the rule which governs this progression.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and maintains an interest in the content as well as the form of what is being interpreted. The term itself originated with the practice of interpreting sacred texts. It works on the principle that we can only understand the meaning of a statement in relation to a whole discourse or world-view of which it forms a part: for example, we can only understand (say) the statements of monetarist economics, in the context of all the other contemporary cultural phenomena to which they are related. We have to refer to the whole to understand the parts and the parts to understand the whole-the so-called hermeneutic circle. This in turn involves putting ourselves in the position of the author of the text and looking at the meaning of what is produced in relation to its context. Whereas biblical interpretation aimed at the correct meaning, it is now generally acknowledged that there is no such entity, although many philosophers hold that an approximation to the truth is possible. The German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, argues this is possible through a shared tradition (Truth and Method, 1960).
It should be evident by now that the systematic investigation of interpretation is largely the province of the philosophy of social science, and its influence on sociological investigation is variable. Perhaps its most important contribution has been to the problem of understanding other cultures, given the possibilities for cultural relativism . If we take Winch's position, for example, we must understand a culture in its own terms, through its own rules, and without imposing the framework of our own culture. In a classic paper on’Understanding a Primitive Society’ (in , Rationality, 1970) he argues that we cannot make any judgement about the truth or otherwise of Azande beliefs about witchcraft. In Azande society, there are witches and witchcraft, whereas in our society we have science and scientists. The two are just different and one is not superior to the other by any transcendent standard: for us, science is better, but for the Azande witchcraft is better. All we can do is understand, this being made possible by the fact that we share a common human condition, since each society has to find a way of regulating and dealing with the birth of new members, sexual relations, and death.
For those approaches that posit the existence of a social structure independent of people's conception of their social world, the problem of the nature of understanding is much less important.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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