ARTICLE 51: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Hermeneutics

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Must research be agony and pain to be good quality?

Can research be fun?

Most of you will probably agree that academic research can be interesting, but do you enjoy doing it?

Do you feel guilty when you enjoy collecting and analyzing data?

Why would you do research about a topic in which you have no interest and that is of no consequence to anybody?

Hermeneutics is the perfect paradigm for a topic that can take you on an emotional roller coaster ride.

I discuss hermeneutics in this post.

What is Hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics is the aspect of a study that involves interpreting the event or events being studied.

Originally, Hermeneutics referred to the study and interpretation of written biblical text.

Now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication,

Including verbal, artistic, geopolitical, physiological, sociological, etc.

It strives towards deeper understanding of the political, historical, sociocultural, and other real-world contexts within which they occur.

Language and history play an important role in the interpretation of events and phenomena.

Hermeneutics represents a specific perspective on data analysis.

In terms of communication, hermeneutics views inquiry as conversation and conversation as a source of data that can and should be used for research.

Hermeneutics is not based on theoretical knowledge only, but also includes the analysis of practical actions or omissions.

Hermeneutics is now applied in all the human sciences to clarify or interpret conditions that need to be understood for whatever reason.

Hermeneutics focuses on interaction and language.

It involves recapturing the meanings of interaction with other people.

Hermeneutics involves the analysis of meaning in a social context.

The intentions of other role-players are recovered and reconstructed to make sense of the current situation.

In hermeneutics theories are developed or borrowed and continually tested, looking for discrepant data and alternative ways of making sense of the data.

It is not the purpose of hermeneutics to offer explanations or to provide authoritative rules or conceptual analysis, but rather to seek and deepen understanding.

As a mode of analysis, it suggests a way of understanding or making meaning of textual data.

Objectivity is sought by analyzing our prejudices and perceptions.

Even so, ambiguity is not regarded as an obstacle to qualitative research and it is accepted that interpretation will sometimes be typical and perhaps even unique to a situation or context.

A hermeneutic approach is open to the ambiguous nature of textual analysis and resists the urge to offer authoritative readings and neat reconciliations.

Rather, it recognizes the uniquely situated nature of interpretation.

This means that events and phenomena can have different meanings in different contexts.

From this we can already see that generalized and authoritative theories will seldom result from research making use of hermeneutics as paradigm.

You, as the researcher, are free to accept or reject the interpretations of others, and you can add your own interpretation to the data that you use in your research.

You can also review historical text if you feel that it is necessary.

In the process you will also learn while contributing to the available knowledge in a particular field of study.

Understanding occurs when you recognize the significance of the data that you are interpreting and when you recognize the interrelatedness of the different elements of the phenomenon.

Many human, religious and philosophical scientists elaborated on and added to the nature of hermeneutics.

Two useful elaborations are, firstly the realization that rich data can be gained from expression and comprehension.

And secondly, that hermeneutical analysis is a circular process.

Let me explain this by means of the figure that you can now see on your screen.

The hermeneutic circle signifies a methodological process of understanding.

Understanding consist of two independent processes, namely understanding the meaning of the whole of a text or any other data and coming to understand the parts of the whole.

In this regard, ‘understanding the meaning of the whole’ means making sense of the parts.

Grasping the meaning of the parts depends on having some sense of the whole.

Each part is what it is by virtue of its location and function with respect to the whole.

The hermeneutic circle takes place when this meaning-making quest involves continual shifts from the parts to the whole and back again.

The hermeneutic data analysis process is aimed at deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning.

Therefore, in analyzing the data you are searching for and unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning of the text.

Consequently, in designing your research, you will deliberately plan to collect data that is textually rich.

You should analyze the textually rich data to make sense of the bigger picture or whole.

Understanding requires the interpretation of words, signs, events, body language, artefacts and any other objects or behavior from which a message can be deduced.

Hermeneutics provides the philosophical grounding for the interpretive paradigms, including interpretivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, constructivism and phenomenology.

It is also possible to associate and integrate hermeneutics with critical research paradigms.

Hermeneutics opposes rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism.

These are all predominantly technicist paradigms.

It is, therefore, clear that hermeneutics is more suited for qualitative research rather than quantitative research.

Some researchers question the circular nature of hermeneutic investigation because setting understanding as a prerequisite for the parts as well as the whole is a catch twenty-two situation.

You cannot understand the parts if you do not understand the whole and you cannot understand the whole if you do not understand the parts.

A second criticism against hermeneutics is that viewing conversation as inquiry can damage the validity of your research conclusions and findings.



  • Deals with interpretation.
  • Uses language and interaction as data.
  • Seeks to understand rather than to explain.
  • Deepens understanding.
  • Involves the analysis of meaning in a social context.
  • Acknowledges that interpretation can be different in different situations and contexts.
  • Recognizes the role of history in interpretation.
  • Views conversation as inquiry.
  • Is a circular process. AND
  • Is comfortable with ambiguity.

Rich data can be gathered from how things are said and understood.

Theories are developed or borrowed and continually tested.

Hermeneutics can be associated with all the interpretivist and some critical paradigms.

Hermeneutics is opposed to the technicist paradigms.

Criticism against hermeneutics are that the analysis of data is a circular process and that viewing conversation as data can damage the validity of conclusions and findings.

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