ARTICLE 53: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Interpretivism

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Do you think the personal opinions and intuitive beliefs of people can deliver valid and accurate research findings and new knowledge?

Interpretivists do.

That triggers a new question in my mind.

When is data truly valid and accurate?

Is it when it can be proven by means of statistical analysis and laboratory tests?

Or perhaps it is valid and accurate when the majority regards it so.

I discuss the way in which interpretivists perceive the truth in this post.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective philosophy than hermeneutics.

We can also see interpretivism as a group of paradigms, including hermeneutics and some other paradigms that I will mention nearer to the end of this post.

All interpretivist paradigms claim that there is a clear and significant difference between the natural and social sciences, with the technicist group of paradigms favouring natural research, while interpretivist paradigms favour social research.

As you know by now if you followed my posts, natural science mostly uses quantitative research while social sciences prefer qualitative research methods.

According to interpretivism, precise, systematic answers to complex human problems do not exist.

Every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analysis of the uniquely defined contexts in which they are embedded.

Social laws, if they exist, should be uncovered through qualitative analysis and interpretation.

Because of the specific social, political, economic and cultural experiences underpinning each study, the findings cannot be generalized.

They do, however, provide greater clarity on how people make meaning of phenomena in a specific context.

Therefore, the interpretivist philosophy facilitates greater understanding of the human condition.

Interpretivists are of the opinion that human life can only be understood from within because norms and values cannot be divorced from the individual.

Human activities cannot be observed as some external reality.

Social reality is viewed and interpreted by individuals according to the ideological positions that they hold.

Therefore, knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired or imposed from outside.

Reality is multi-layered and complex.

A single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

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.

Meaning is, thus, constructed and developed through interaction between people.

In interpretivism, social life is regarded as a distinctively human product.

Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed in terms of language, consciousness and shared meanings.

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.

It generally attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them.

Human behaviour is believed to be affected by knowledge of the social world.

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 theorizing.

Inevitably, as theory will be abstract, it gives a partial account of the multifaceted social world.

Such a theory allows researchers to link the abstract with the concrete and the theoretical with the empirical.

For interpretivists, the social world depends on human knowledge.

They believe that our own understanding of phenomena constantly influences us in terms of the types of questions we ask and in the way we conduct research.

Our knowledge and understanding are always limited to the things to which we have been exposed.

That is, our own unique experiences and the meanings we have shared with others.

As we proceed through the research process, our humanness and knowledge inform us and often also direct us.

Often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation.

Therefore, to conceive the world as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our research endeavours.

Interpretivism pays attention to and values what people say, do and feel and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched.

Interpretivism pays special attention to the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences.

Patterns, trends and themes should, therefore, emerge from the research process.

Your role should be to understand real-life situations from the point of view of the

target group for your research.  

The human mind is regarded as a purposive source of meaning.

Interpretive investigation searches for meaning in the activities of human beings.

There is a radical element in interpretivism in the sense that it investigates real-life events and phenomena.

A concept in qualitative research that shares some perspectives with the interpretivist paradigm, is the notion of praxis.

Some regard praxis as a separate paradigm while others regard it as a research method.

Praxis means acting upon the conditions that you face to change them.

It deals with the disciplines and activities predominant in the ethical and political lives of people.

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 such phenomena and their social context.

Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insight into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

You might have noticed that interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics.

Both paradigms study the theory and practice of interpretation.

In hermeneutics, the text is the expression of the thoughts of its author.

Interpreters attempt to put themselves within the perception or thinking pattern of the author to reconstruct the intended meaning of the text.

Interpretivism relates to the constructivist epistemology.

Constructivism holds that individuals, in their reasoning, do not have access to the real world.

This suggests that their knowledge of the perceived world is meaningful in its own terms and can be understood through careful use of interpretivist procedures.

The social context, conventions, norms and standards of the individual or community being researched are crucial elements in assessing and understanding human behaviour.

This applies to all interpretivist paradigms, namely hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, constructivism, relativism and, of course, interpretivism.

It also applies to radicalism although radicalism belongs to the critical group of paradigms.

All the interpretivist paradigms pay attention to human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives.

Even though both interpretivism and positivism support social science, interpretivism opposes positivism because of its stronger leaning towards physical science and quantitative methodology.

Some researchers criticize interpretivism for its acceptance of such a large variety of rather subjective and intuitive sources of knowledge and meaning.

Interpretivism is said to lack scientific consistency because conclusions and findings are often based on assumptions.

Summary of Interpretivism


  • Prefers qualitative research methods.
  • Uses analyses and interpretation of social events and phenomena.
  • Considers ethics and politics.
  • Explores the richness, depth and complexity of real-life events and phenomena.
  • Identifies the uniqueness of social events and phenomena.
  • Gains new knowledge by analysing intuition, values, beliefs, assumptions, and conversations.
  • Can change the status quo.
  • Enriches our theoretical and conceptual frame of reference.
  • Improves our understanding of social events and phenomena.
  • Is associated with all the interpretivist paradigms and with radicalism.
  • Opposes the technicist paradigms.
  • Is criticised for accepting subjective and intuitive sources of data. AND
  • For lack of scientific consistency.

Social reality:

  • Is interpreted according to the researcher’s ideological position.
  • Can have multiple interpretations.
  • Will differ in terms of context and time.
  • Cannot be interpreted precisely and systematically.
  • Is interpreted through interaction between people.
  • Is a distinctively human product.
  • Is affected by knowledge of the social world.

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