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Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

3. Interpretivism

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About this Lecture


In this lecture, we explore the theory of interpretivism, the view that the social realm cannot be studied with the scientific method of investigation utilised within the natural sciences, focusing in particular on: (i) the central thesis of interpretivism that how humans act and behave is fundamentally different from how (e.g.) subatomic particles interact, and therefore needs a different method; (ii) the emergence of interpretivism as an alternative view to positivism in the nineteenth century, and the defence of positivism in the early twentieth with the work of Émile Durkheim; (iii) the work of Max Weber, whose sociological work combines the strengths of positivism and interpretivism in that his conclusions are both empirically testable (positivist) and makes sense in psychological terms (interpretivist); and (iv) two social phenomena which combine positivist and interpretivist analysis: the Protestant work ethic, and Gresham's law.


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).

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APA style

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

MLA style

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

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