Sociology Index


Interpretive theory is a general category of theory including symbolic interactionism, labeling, ethnomethodology, phenomenology and social constructionism. Interpretive theory is typically contrasted with structural theories which claim to remove the subjectivity of the actor and the researcher and assume that human behavior can best be understood as determined by the pushes and pulls of structural forces.

Interpretive theory is more accepting of free will and sees human behavior as the outcome of the subjective interpretation of the environment. Structural theory focuses on the situation in which people act while interpretive theory focuses on the actor's definition of the situation in which they act.

Interpretive theory seeks reciprocal inter-subjective understanding of subjects. Max Weber (1864-1920) consolidated and developed a rich mass of interpretive theory of religion in his volumes on Judaism, Christianity, the Protestant Ethic, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam.

Interpretive research is fundamentally concerned with meaning and it seeks to understand social members' definition of a situation - Schwandt. Interpretive theory involves building a second order theory or theory of members' theories - Alfred Schutz


The arrival of interpretivism in the scene, previously dominated by positivism and natural law theories about the nature of law, has stimulated a great deal of debate. - Stavropoulos, Nicos, "Interpretivist Theories of Law".

Early Modern Social Theory: Selected Interpretive Readings Book by Murray E G Smith - Collection of essays illuminates the course of development of modern social thought, from the Enlightenment to the 1920s. Essays focus on the most prominent social theroists, including Smith, Durkheim, Marx, Engels and Weber. Each essay describes the main contributions of the theorist as well as the political and economic context in which he worked.

Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory by Stanley E. Porter and Jason C. Robinson (Nov 15, 2011)

The Judiciary Is a They, Not an It: Two Fallacies of Interpretive Theory 
ADRIAN VERMEULE, Harvard University - Harvard Law School 
In the theory of constitutional and statutory interpretation, dynamic arguments point to the beneficial effects on legislative behavior that will result if "judges" or "courts" adopt a particular approach to interpretation. In this paper I claim that such arguments are conceptually confused, and thus do not count as valid arguments at all. Dynamic arguments commit the fundamental mistake of overlooking the collective character of judicial institutions - of overlooking that the judiciary, like Congress, is a "they," not an "it." That mistake produces the critical, and erroneous, assumption that coordinated judicial adoption of some particular approach to legal interpretation is both feasible and desirable. 
In the language of moral philosophy, dynamic theorists have overlooked essential questions of non-ideal theory, which asks what obligations people have when others will not or cannot comply with their (identical) obligations. In the language of economics and consequentialist political theory, the interpretive theorist has overlooked essential questions of the second-best, which arise when a general or collective equilibrium cannot be attained. It is an irony of interpretive theory that so much emphasis has been given to exploring the consequences of the legislature's collective character, while inadequate attention has been paid to the same problem in judicial institutions. - Abstract.

ROBERT GEPHART, University of Alberta
Interpretivist research is fundamentally concerned with meaning and it seeks to understand social members' definition of a situation (Schwandt, 1994: 118). Interpretive theory involves building a second order theory or theory of members' theories (Schutz, 1973) in contrast to positivism which is concerned with objective reality and meanings thought to be independent of people. Interpretivists assume that knowledge and meaning are acts of interpretation hence there is no objective knowledge which is independent of thinking, reasoning humans. Interpretivism often addresses essential features of shared meaning and understanding whereas constructivism extends this concern with knowledge as produced and interpreted to an anti-essentialist level. Constructionists argue that knowledge and truth are the result of perspective (Schwandt, 1994: 125) hence all truths are relative to some meaning context or perspective.
There are many interpretivist and constructionist genres but central to all of these has been a concern with subjective meanings, how individuals or members of society apprehend, understand and make sense of social events and settings and how this sensemaking produces features of the very settings to which sensemaking is responsive (the concern for reflexivity). Constructionists have also been particularly concerned with the interplay of subjective, objective and intersubjective knowledge. Intersubjectivity is the process of knowing others' minds and the question of intersubjectivity, how we know others minds, has been a longstanding challenge (scandal!) in philosophy (Schutz, 1973). Intersubjectivity occurs through language, social interaction, and written texts. A key form of interpretive research is social construction of reality which seeks to understand the social construction dialectic involving objective, intersubjective and subjective knowledge. This research investigates how the objective features of society (organizations, social classes, technology and scientific facts) emerge from, depend on, and are constituted by subjective meanings of individuals and intersubjective processes such as discourses or discussions in groups (c.f. Gephart, 1993, 1997). In a sense, interpretivist constructivism "brackets" objective reality and seeks to show how variations in human meanings and sensemaking generate and reflect differences in reified or objective realities.

Researching Your Professional Pratice: Doing Interpretive Research (Doing Qualitative Research in Educational Settings)  Book by Hilary A. Radnor.

* What is interpretive research?

* How do you approach doing interpretive research?

* How do you do interpretive research well?

This book is for the professional educator who wants to make use of good interpretive research practice to help them do their job better. A view on the nature of interpretation within the qualitative approach is presented which leads on to a model of doing qualitative research the interpretive way that is both credible and trustworthy. The book is designed to demystify the interpretive/qualitative research process for educators doing a further degree at masters or doctoral level. Examples in the book from doctoral students who are teachers, lecturers, advisers and education managers, cover the area of arts education, TEFL, home-school relations and teacher education and development. The book will be of particular interest to educators doing research who want to raise their awareness of the perceptions and needs of others with whom and for whom they are responsible and who want to improve their understanding of the process and the content of their work.

About the Author: As an educational researcher, Hilary Radnor has specialised in investigating the impact that centrally imposed policy initiatives in education have had on the professional working practices of teachers, concentrating on understanding the impact from the teachers' perspectives. Supervising many practising teachers doing advanced degrees, she developed a teaching module in interpretive research. This book is the outcome of ten years teaching the topic.

“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is… There are a number of ways of escaping this—turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as… ‘essentially contestable.’ Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of the consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.” - Clifford Geertz, “Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture,” The Interpretation of Culture, (NY: Basic Books, 1973)

Toward an Interpretive Theory of Legal Ethics
Rakesh K. Anand, Syracuse University College of Law, Rutgers Law Review, Vol. 58, p. 653, 2006
Abstract: This Article is organized around a simple question: Where's the law in legal ethics? The most powerful contemporary thinking about lawyer behavior tells us that there is nothing uniquely "legal" about a lawyer's professional responsibility and that his or her obligations are simply the common moral obligations of us all, and nothing more. In the abstract, this position may seem shocking enough. But, the real astonishment comes when one reflects on the prescriptions for lawyer conduct that follow from this line of thought. For example, imagine a plaintiff who has a clearly "just" claim but for which the statute of limitations has run. In this circumstance, the prominent voices in legal ethical theory tell us that it is professionally unethical for the defense lawyer to assert the affirmative defense on behalf of his or her client (because common morality requires an individual to act in a manner consistent with the production of justice).
This Article offers the definitive response to this extant view. Appealing to the insights of philosophical-anthropology, as well as more generally of the liberal arts, this Article explains that at least in America, law is a symbolic form of political life, i.e., a form of cultural activity that generates its own complete world of meaning, while also reminding the reader that political life and moral life are incommensurable spheres of human experience. Acknowledging these facts, it follows that a lawyer is, by definition, an individual whose behavior supports the symbolic form of law and, therefore, he or she must act in a manner consistent with this cultural activity and the set of beliefs upon which it is grounded, that the People rule. Because of this existential condition, a lawyer's professional responsibility will not always be consistent with the demands of common morality - for example, requiring him or her to assert the statute of limitations to frustrate a plaintiff's claim.