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Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

6. Hermeneutics

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About this Lecture


In this lecture, we explore the concept of hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, focusing in particular on: (i) the emergence of the theory and methodology of hermeneutics in the 1960s from the idea that understanding human society and culture is like understanding a written text; (ii) the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), the notion of the 'encounter', and the concept of 'fusion of horizons'; (iii) the work of Jürgen Habermas, and his engagement with the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the phenomenologists, Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), Peter Winch (1926-97) and Hans-Georg Gadamer; (iv) the importance of hermeneutics in anthropological studies (especially in relation to cultural relativism); (v) the concept of critical hermeneutics and the attempt to make some kind of link between interpretative understanding (what X thinks) and causal explanation (why X thinks that); and (vi) Habermas' concept of 'systematically distorted communication' and its relation to discourse in the public sphere and (ultimately) democratic politics.


In this course, Professor William Outhwaite (Newcastle University) explores the positivist and interpretivist approaches to social research. In the first lecture, we provide an introduction to positivism. In the second lecture, we turn to some of its criticisms. In the third lecture, we explore the emergence of interpretivism, thinking first about its combination with positivism in the work of Max Weber (1864-1920). Next, we look at the polarisation of positivism and interpretivism from about 1920 onwards. In the fifth lecture, we explore ethnomethodology. In the sixth lecture, we look at hermeneutics. In the seventh and final lecture, we consider how the social researcher should negotiate all these different approaches. To what extent are they compatible? Are some 'better' than others?


William Outhwaite is Emeritus Professor is the Department of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. His research focuses on social theory and the philosophy of social science, and some of his recent publications include Social Theory (2015), Europe Since 1989 (2016), Contemporary Europe (2017) and Transregional Europe (2020), an edited book on Brexit (2017) and (co-edited with Stephen P. Turner) The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology (2018).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Outhwaite, W. (2021, August 23). Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research - Hermeneutics [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Outhwaite, W. "Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research – Hermeneutics." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 23 Aug 2021,

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