Research Paradigms: Interpretivism

EDU 10 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Interpretivism.


Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, the study of the theory and practice of interpretation. In hermeneutics the text is the expression of the thoughts of its author, and interpreters must attempt to put themselves within the perception or thinking pattern of the author in order to reconstruct the intended meaning of the text.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way in which to interpret data. Interpretivism relates to the constructivist epistemology. This perspective holds that individuals, in their reasoning, do not have access to the real world, suggesting that their knowledge of the perceived world is meaningful in its own terms and can be understood through careful use of interpretivist procedures.


Interpretivism is marked by three schools of thought in the social science research. They are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. All three schools of thought emphasise human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approach to social research.

‘Phenomenology’ is a theoretical view point which believes that individual behaviour is determined by the experience gained out of one’s direct interaction with the phenomena. It rules out any kind of objective external reality. During interaction with various phenomena, human beings interpret them and attach meanings to different actions and or ideas and thereby construct new experiences. Therefore, the researcher has to develop empathic understanding to know the process of interpretation by individuals so that she or he can experience feelings, motives and thoughts that are behind the action of others.

‘Etnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre around the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction. This approach studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation and make it meaningful. They are mainly interested in the interpretation people use to make sense of social settings.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions that take place between human beings. The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Human interaction in the social world is mediated by the use of symbols like language, which helps human beings to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only concentrating attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only human beings change themselves through interaction, but also introduce change to societies.


The interpretive perspective is based on the following assumptions:

  • Interpretivism leans towards qualitative research. Precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems are not possible. They assert that every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analyses of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. Because of the specific social, political, economic and cultural experiences underpinning each study, the findings cannot be generalised; they do, however, provide greater clarity on how people make meaning of phenomena in a specific context, thus aiding greater understanding of the human condition.
  • Human life can only be understood from within. Human activities cannot be observed from some external reality. Interpretivism therefore focuses on people’s subjective experiences, on how people “construct” the social world by sharing meanings, and how they interact with or relate to each other. Social constructions such as language (including text and symbols), consciousness and shared meanings are used to gain access to and understanding of reality.

Interpretivism emphasises that social reality is viewed and interpreted by the individual according to the ideological positions that she or he holds. Therefore, knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired from or imposed from outside. The interpretivist paradigm believes that reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

In studying a phenomenon, research techniques are used that will help us understand how people interpret and interact within their social environment. The social context, conventions, norms and standards of the particular person or community are crucial elements in assessing and understanding human behaviour (the truth is relevant and subject to these subjective elements); therefore are parallels with hermeneutics and phenomenology.

  • Social life is a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed. The underlying assumption is that by placing people in their social contexts, there is a greater opportunity to understand the perceptions they have of their own activities. The uniqueness of a particular situation is important to understand and interpret the meanings constructed.

Interpretivism pays attention to and value what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism foregrounds the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should therefore emerge from the research process, and the role the researcher should be to understand real-life situations from the point of view of the insider (the members of the target group for the research).

  • The human mind is the purposive source of meaning. Interpretive research search for meaning in the activities of human beings. It is a form of qualitative research. In fact, all qualitative research should be interpretive in nature. Even so, interpretive research is distinguished from qualitative research in general by being distinctive in its approach to research design, concept formation, data analysis and standards of assessment. It can also be claimed to be radical in nature because it investigates real-life occurrences or phenomena.

By exploring the richness, depth and complexity of phenomena we can begin to develop a sense of understanding of the meanings given by people to phenomena and their social context. Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insights into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

  • Human behaviour is affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that there are multiple and not single realities of phenomena and that these realities can differ across time and place. As our knowledge of the social world and the realities being constructed increase, it enriches our theoretical and conceptual framework. There is thus a two-way relationship between theory and research. Social theory informs our understanding of issues which, in turn, assists us in making research decisions and making sense of the world. The experience of doing research and its findings also influence our theorising. Inevitably, as theory will be abstract, as it gives a partial account of the multifaceted social world. Such a theory allows researchers to link the abstract with the concrete, the theoretical and the empirical.
  • The social world does not “exist” independently of human knowledge. Our own understanding of phenomena constantly influence us in terms of the types of questions we ask and in the way we conduct our research. Our knowledge and understanding are always limited to the things to which we have been exposed, our own unique experiences and the meanings we have imparted. As we proceed through the research process, our humanness and knowledge inform us and often direct us, and often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. To conceive the world therefore as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.


In closing, the ultimate aim of intepretivist research is to offer a perspective of a situation and to analyse the situation under study to provide insight into the way in which a particular group of people make sense of their situation or the phenomena they encounter.


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