Max Weber's Interpretivism

Epistemology is a philosophical branch that deals with the nature and extent of knowledge. It is also known as the theory of knowledge. Interpretive epistemology is a principle focused on reflection in action, whereas positivism focuses on technical rationality. Interpretivism is grounded on the understanding that human beings are purposeful and active players who construct their surroundings socially. It is viewed by positivists that people can only observe what they see and are able to measure.

Interpretivism, as presented by Weber, is a method of giving science a new definition to facilitate the development of the best ways of studying the social world. The social world is regarded as different from the natural world; therefore, the argument is that the two cannot be studied in the same way. For example, there is a crucial difference between the way human beings act and live from the way rocks are formed. A constructive position is taken by interpretivism, recognizing that human beings act with consciousness to build and rebuild the world, in which they live. The world around us is viewed subjectively. Society cannot be an objective institution and is made up of actions and perceptions of people living in it. Therefore, from the position of interpretivism, understanding of the behavior of human beings is closely related to these actions and perceptions. Sociology should aim at understanding why and how individuals give different interpretations of the social world. It should not seek to know the causal laws or relationships that are said to determine the behavior of people.


Max Weber was the main supporter of interpretivism, advocating the use of interpretive ways in studying social action. These ways are based on appreciating the reason and meaning attached to actions by persons themselves. Weber believed that sociology as a science tried to give the interpretive understanding of social action to get a causal explanation. According to Weber, to understand peoples actions clearly, one should uncover the reason why they do such things.

The sociologist understood that social actions were supposed to be the center of study in sociology. He stated that social action was an act done by a person, to which an individual placed a meaning. Therefore, an action that an individual does not think about cannot be a social action. For instance, an accidental clash of cars is not considered a social action since it is not a product of conscious thinking. However, a lady washing clothes has an intention behind that action, and it is classified as a social action.

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The argument of positivists that sociology should try to be very scientific is founded on the belief that truth can be provided only through science. This truth is discovered by scientists through complete objectivism, achieved from dealing with facts. However, in their research, sociologists should adopt methodology centered on the point of value-freedom and not take sides. Objects of study of social sciences are different from those of natural sciences. They must come up with their own specific means of studying these objects. Till now, sociologists have not universally accepted this notion of sociological research based on value-freedom. Questions asked in the research determine the facts that will be collected. Thus, this research is focused on values that are the products of culture. Knowledge is a cultural product based on this perspective. The societys definition of what knowledge is reflects the values of that society. These definitions vary from one society to another, and so do their cultures.

Max Weber was a central figure in sociology and strongly defended the value of neutrality. He insisted that availing a full account of a persons value formed part of the major task of a social scientist. However, he was of the view that social scientists had to separate their ethical judgment of the values of a person from their evaluation of the nature and consequences of those values logically. They should try to maintain detachment from the research participants by ensuring the distance between them. It is a significant step in enhancing emotional neutrality to make a distinction between feeling and reason as well as between personal experience and science. Researchers should seek objectivity and use rationality and logic in research. Nevertheless, Weber believed that the value of neutrality did not prevent social scientists from trying to find out how values might impact on social phenomena or human behavior. Therefore, science can enable people to understand better how to influence the social world and assist in achieving their goals, but it cannot direct someone toward the right goal. The purpose of social investigation is to improve knowledge about the social world that is meaningful. It should not be aimed at providing justifications for social occurrences based on universal laws.

Weber was of the view that social scientists could not come up with laws based on observing the behavioral patterns of individuals. By simply watching a persons outward behavior, it is not possible to get to know about his/her intentions and motivations. Machinations and ideas that people have about their society cannot be observed directly. Intentions, motives, and meanings behind the actions of individuals have to be used in the interpretation of what they do. Positivists argue that it is possible for human behavior to be measured objectively to find out the cause, effect, and relationships.

Weber recognized the existence of classes, parties, and status groups, but he challenged the concept that society existed autonomously from its members. In the social action theory, the dominant institutions in society are bureaucratic organizations. Webers belief is that these bureaucracies are made up of individuals conducting rational social actions intended to attain the objectives of bureaucracies. The entire development of contemporary societies was viewed by Weber in terms of progress towards a rational social action. Therefore, it means that modern societies are going through the process of rationalization.

According to Weber, all human actions are directed by meanings. Based on their meanings, there are various types of actions. The first one is an emotional or affective action that stems from a persons emotional state at a particular time. The second one is a traditional action that is based on accepted custom. In this type, people act in a certain way because of integrated habits. It means that they have always done things that way. Another type is a rational action that involves a clear awareness of a goal. Interpretive family studies seek to examine its role as one of the major groups, within which people share their experiences of the social world. However, interpretivism is concerned with individual positions within the family in contrast to the familys relationship to society in general. Interpretivists argue that in order to keep away from anomie, individuals ought to make sense of words and order them. Weber also thought that in an increasingly unfriendly world, the role of the family and the private marriage sphere was vital for self-realization. It is in making sense of ones social world. Weber sought to explain that social phenomena were inter-subjective, that is people were conscious of them in the same way. The reason is that if social interaction is built, it is the different subjective structures of individuals as common consciousness that creates this social interaction.

Weber came up with the theory of Verstehen, in which researchers placed themselves in the situation of other society members so as to understand why they behaved in certain ways. His perspective was built on Diltheys ideas concerning understanding, though Webers viewpoint was not purely interpretive. He tried to create relations between interpretivist and positivist paradigms. His argument was that the researcher had to endeavor to understand social actions within the context. Two forms of Verstehen were identified by Weber. One was drawn from direct observation, while the other consisted of explanatory understanding.

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Webers view refutes the existence of an apparent social structure that gives direction to human behavior. However, those who believe in a social structure observe it as being driven by individuals. Webers interpretivism uses qualitative research methods to collect a comprehensive assessment of human behavior and the motive behind such behavior. Such qualitative methods look into the how and why of decision making and not just what, when, and where. A wider social structure tends to be ignored by the social action theory. In this qualitative research, there are perceptions that the research is prejudicial because of the subjectivity of researchers. Therefore, the results are partially fictional accounts. Holloway was of the view that Weber had no involvement in qualitative research, although his ideas were extensively used in it.

In conclusion, there is more reliability and verifiability in the views of positivists as compared to interpretivists. The reason is that interpretivism focuses on perceived knowledge that varies from one individual to another. On the other hand, positivism employs mathematical and statistical techniques in research methods. Positivists also stick to specifically structured research techniques, making it easier to attain similar outcomes.

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