Interpretivism in Sociology: Definition & Origin

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  • 0:01 Interpretivism Defined
  • 1:10 Origin in Sociology
  • 3:16 Qualitative Research
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

For this lesson, we'll look at interpretivism and how it relates to the science of sociology. We'll cover the definitions of quantitative research, qualitative research, and interpretivism, and we'll see how the Chicago School influenced this methodology.

Interpretivism Defined

How do social scientists measure things like emotion and human behavior? Things that can be measured in numbers and amounts are measured with quantitative methods. However, social scientists such as anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists also rely upon another form of data collection and analysis, called qualitative research. Qualitative methods rely upon the measurements of things that cannot be numbered adequately, such as how a person feels when an event happens.

Interpretivism is one form of qualitative methodology. Interpretivism relies upon both the trained researcher and the human subject as the instruments to measure some phenomena, and typically involves both observation and interviews. For example, a sociologist may create a survey or interview questions (which involves the trained researcher), then collects responses (which involves the human subject), then again analyze those responses (which involves the trained researcher again). In sociology, interpretivism is largely a result of the theories developed by the Chicago School.

Origin in Sociology

The earliest research methods in sociology were adapted from the natural sciences and were empirical in nature. Empiricism is a dependence upon facts developed from observation. The frameworks early scientists used relied upon positivism and quantitative research. Positivist theories relied upon hard data, and human beings were conceived as the product of forces that could be quantified, predicted, and manipulated. However, it was found that human beings operate in a more complicated web of social, behavioral, and cultural variables. This led to some sociologists suggesting a different framework that was more useful in the study of people.

In the early 20th century, a group of sociologists situated in Chicago (including Albion Small, George Herbert Mead, and E. Franklin Frazier, to name a few) developed a different framework—one depending upon qualitative research—through their work. Members of this Chicago School insisted that a different type of research was important in the construction of theories about how humans live in their environments. They preferred to let the people they interviewed give subjective information about their own experiences. The scientists themselves arranged and organized the information, but the data was wholly from the people interviewed. This was the beginning of interpretivism. Like other qualitative methods, interpretivism is empirical in nature, but it uses a different approach than the traditional scientific method used by the physical sciences.

The work of the Chicago School led to improved methods in sociology in general and to the development of the use of ecology and symbolic interactionism in sociology, particularly in urban sociology. Ecology is the study of the interplay between the environment and organisms that live in the environment. Applying ecology and sociology, humans are partially shaped by their environments. Symbolic interactionism focuses upon human behavior as a result of both the environment and social pressures.

Qualitative Research

So, we've learned that quantitative methods rely upon positivist approaches, while qualitative methods rely upon interpretivist approaches.

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