Sociology and Social Actors

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Three Forms of Interpretivism

Interpretivism has formed many of the above critiques of naturalism. Interpretivism rests upon idealism. Idealism holds the view that the world is the creation of mind; the world is interpreted through the mind; e.g., classificatory schemes (such as the classificatory scheme of species into mammals, insects, birds, etc., or of the human population into caucasians, negroids and mongoloids). Given this, we cannot know the ‘true’ nature of the object world, separate from our perception of it.

Weber believed that things that exist in space are merely appearances, and have no independent existence from our thoughts. The social world cannot be described without investigating how individuals use language and symbols to construct what social practices and experiences mean for them. For only when we come to understand the individual experience and its subjective interpretation that we begin to understand why social actors behave in particular ways. For example, Weber argued that the emergence of capitalism could partially be explained by the ‘doctrine of predestination’. Weber stated that only when we understood social actors’ meanings and their interpretations that we could explain why Protestant countries were first to develop capitalist relations and practices. It is irrelevant whether the Calvinists were correct in their beliefs about predestination, what is important is that their beliefs made them act in a particular manner. The social world becomes the creation of the purposeful actions of conscious agents. For Weber, no social explanation was complete unless it could adequately describe the role of meanings in human actions.

In the interpretivist’s methodology, the key is to understand (or verstehen), not to explain and predict as in the naturalist’ methodology. As a method, understanding must begin from the presupposition that there is at least some common ground between the researcher and the researched. Understanding begins from commonality; in particular, from shared experience that requires the researcher to empathise – something from its own lived experiences. Ideal types

Not all modes of understanding involve empathy. Weber insists that sociology as a science attempts to understand social practices in the pursuit of a causal explanation. Hence, understanding becomes the starting point whose aim is the production of propositions that give rise to explanations that are adequate at the level of cause and meaning. In this sense, Weber’s methodology attempts to bridge positivism and interpretivism: to consider both the individual intentionality and purpose of conduct, and the pursuit of objectivity in terms of cause and effect.

While Weber shared the idealists’ philosophical assumptions, he constructed a methodological framework to by-pass the problem of how to come to know about social reality. The best that social scientists can achieve is to describe the social world by employing ideal types. These are concepts that researchers construct purely for research purposes. Ideal types are not averages or summary descriptions. Rather, they are rational constructs; i.e., elements of the object of study (e.g., bureaucracy) that fit together in the most rational manner. The researcher does not construct the object of study (say, bureaucracy) in a descriptive and empirical manner (i.e., what it is, say, capitalistic, male-dominated, or racist organisation), or in a moral sense (i.e., what it ought to be, say, fair, transparent, and equitable organisation), but what it might be if it were entirely rational (say, of the bureaucracy, a hierarchy of commands, levels of communication channels, a system of rules and regulations, a separation of public and private, a set of defined tasks and lines of authority and responsibility, and a system of files and secrecy). Such a methodology is also employed in neo-classical economics: ideal types are used to analysis market behaviour...
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