University of Leeds
SCHOOL OF SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL POLICY
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| Sociology and Social Policy
| Central Problems in Sociology
| Provide an Overview and Critical Assessment of the Interpretive Sociological Tradition in Social Theory, Focusing upon the Work of Weber and Simmel. What Has Been the Influence of this Tradition upon Sociological Analysis?
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Provide an Overview and Critical Assessment
Interpretive Sociological Tradition
Focusing upon the Work of
Weber and Simmel.
What Has Been the
Influence of this Tradition
In sociological analysis we are concerned with society, its forms and contexts, the individuals and collectives, its social actors and social actions, to name but a few. The very foundations of these concepts of the discipline owe much to Max Weber and Georg Simmel, and the Interpretive Sociological tradition. This essay will explore, in part, the developments of sociological analysis by Weber and Simmel, looking at the development towards the importance of understanding the meanings actors give to their actions, and how these meanings are created. Understanding the context in which sociology moved away from the natural-science paradigm of cause and effect to the intersubjective socio-psychological perspective of individuals within society, we shall consider Weber’s distinction of explaining and interpretive understanding. Following onto Simmel’s focus of micro-scale social interaction, and how this has been of importance to later sociological theory. For us then to see the importance of interpretive sociology, we need consider the milieu of those who have come to be known as the founders of such a theoretical perspective. For such a task, we should briefly consider the epoch of sociology itself. Auguste Comte had developed a positivist position for the study of society, an undertaking that was subsequently adopted by fellow Frenchman Emile Durkheim (Freund, 1979: 167). The positivism that had been held so dearly by the philosophes of the Enlightenment period was to continue in the teachings of the following generations. However, positivism did not dominate in the academic circles of Germany where the generations before had been schooled in the teachings of Kant’s theories and in the idealist philosophy, the “...premise that the ultimate reality of the universe lay in “spirit” or “idea” rather than in the data of sense perception.” (Hughes, 1974: 183). This presumed cleavage between the realms of the phenomenal and spiritual worlds seemed natural to German academics, thus a clear distinction was made between Naturwissenshaft (the natural-sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (“cultural sciences”) (Hughes, 1974: 186). Positivists such as Comte and Durkheim had tried to develop their methodology prior to engaging with study (Comte never truly engaged in sociological field-work). Weber on the other hand was of the mind that “...a good method is one that proves fertile and efficient of the level of concrete work.” (Freund, 1979: 167). Max Weber and other German academics believed that such a method could not be employed from the natural-sciences, as was advocated by the positivists (Hughes, 1974: 186). That such a distinction between the social- and natural-sciences was “...an absolute one necessitated by the radical contrast between the realm of mind and spirit... and the realm of nature...” (Wrong, 1970: 9). Whilst quoting Tolstoi, in his lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’, Weber (1995 : 143) was to explain in blunt terms;...
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