Sociology Index


Verstehen is associated with the writing of Max Weber. Verstehen is now seen as a concept and a method central to a rejection of positivistic social science or Positive School, though Weber appeared to think that the two could be united. Verstehen (ferchaen) is the use of empathy in the sociological or historical understanding of human action and behavior. Verstehen refers to understanding the meaning of action from the actor's point of view. Verstehen is entering into the shoes of the other. Verstehen requires treating the actor as a subject, rather than an object of your observations.

Verstehen also implies that unlike objects in the natural world human actors are not simply the product of the pulls and pushes of external forces. Individuals are seen to create the world by organizing their own understanding of it and giving it meaning. Verstehen literally means understanding or comprehension. Verstehende is comprehend employing Verstehen.

Ideal-Types and Verstehen

Weber’s interests ranged widely, but each cut to the core of sociology. Among these were his thoughts on methodology. Weber was also influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Unlike Kant and Dithey, Weber thought that abstract concepts could be used to explain social events. He argued for an interpretive theory in sociology that uses concepts to understand the meaning people attach to their actions. According to him, social scientists could use concepts called ideal-types, a sort of measuring stick that captures the most rational and most essential components of any social thing. Ideal-types can be based on historical events, like the spirit of capitalism. Ideal-types are rarely found in their pure form in real life. Ideal-types also allow for the use of verstehen, or the interpretive understanding of the subjective motivations individuals attach to their actions. In his essay, “Basic Sociological Terms,” Weber uses verstehen to understand different types of social action.

Max Weber, Interpretive Sociology, and the Sense of Historical Science: a Positivistic Conception of Verstehen 
Thomas Burger - The Sociological Quarterly - Volume 18 - March 1977
Weber's advocacy of understanding and an interpretive theory is shown to be a consequence of the anthropological premises of his theory of concept formation in history. Men are interested in understandable historical developments because of their practical involvement in society, and they rely on historical knowledge in their efforts to make sense out of the present. While acknowledging this indispensable function of history Weber insists, however, that historical knowledge can strictly justify neither the meaning given to the present nor man's conduct in practical affairs. This is why, in opposition to the mainstream of the Verstehen tradition, he argues against valuing historical sociology and social science.

Dilthey, Empathy and Verstehen A Contemporary Reappraisal 
Austin Harrington, UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS, UK 
Wilhelm Dilthey's late nineteenth-century doctrine of `re-experiencing' the thoughts and feelings of the actors whose lives the social scientist seeks to understand has been criticized by several commentators as entailing a naive empathy view of understanding in which social scientists are said to transport themselves into other cultural contexts in a wholly uncritical, unreflective manner.

The Operation Called VERSTEHEN - Tomasi, Timothy J. 
Descriptors: Cognitive Processes; Educational Objectives; Higher Education; Intellectual Development; Learning Processes; Teaching Methods.
Abstract: Verstehen, the understanding of human behavior, can be of value to teacher and student alike.