The Interpretivist Paradigm and Intellectual Identity
Arizona State University
As developing scholars, it is important for doctoral students to have a solid understanding of mainstream approaches to their respective disciplines. Not only does this mean that students should have functional and theoretical understandings of the tenants of their field but they should also be familiar with different perspectives through which one can approach study and research in that field.
Until recently, I did not have a complete understanding of what it meant to approach a discipline through a general collection of subjective practices. Of course I understood that different people can view and react to aspects of a discipline differently, yet I was ignorant to the degree of specificity with which the, “study of study” could be done. Perhaps my previous schooling ill prepared me for the more theoretical approaches to the field; or quite simply I could easily have just forgotten them.
Either way, the recently assigned readings and discussions on paradigmatic approaches to the field of public administration have served to clarify to me that in any given discipline, there may exist many structured approaches to the contribution of knowledge and research in the field. Each paradigm can be thought of as a different set of binoculars through with a practitioner views and works within the field. Each paradigm is grounded in a particular set of generally accepted approaches regarding ontology, epistemology, human nature, and methodology.
In learning about the six dominant paradigms of public administration I took particular affinity to interpretivism and radical humanism. As of yet, I am undecided as to which paradigm I feel most akin to but for the purposes of this essay, I have chosen to focus on interpretivism.
Foundations of the Interpretivist Paradigm
Interpretivism is characterized by seeing the social world from a highly subjective viewpoint. It places the emphasis of explanation in the subjective consciousness of the social participants instead of the objective observer (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). Under interpretivism, general rules and external structures of society do not exist and the aim of social research is to investigate the meanings and interpretations of social actors in specific situations. Because of the highly subjective nature of the interpretive research, studies tend to be small in scale and emphasis is placed on the validity and insight of the research, rather than simply the outcomes or results (Central).
The ontological aspect of interpretivism holds that social reality is the result of interactions between actors in real social contexts. The social world, according to interpretivism, cannot exist outside of the independent minds of social actors. Burrell and Morgan (1979) state that:
the social world is no more than the subjective construction of individual human beings who, through the development and use of common language and the interactions of everyday life, may create and sustain a social world of intersubjectively shared meaning. (p. 260)
Given this view of social ontology, the experiences of actors in any social context must then be nominalist; a process of subjective interpretation rather than a physical perception of the “real” material world.
Epistemologically, interpretivism is anti-positivist in nature. Given that the social ontology of interpretivism is highly subjective, the epistemology is likewise highly relativistic and exclusive to the actors directly involved in the social activities. Knowledge and understanding can only be obtained by having the same frame of reference as the actor; consequently, such knowledge is distinctly subjective to the actors reality (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).
Methodologically, the interpretivist takes an ideographic approach to the study of society. As opposed to a nomothetic approach to a methodology, interpretivism requires a more detailed and thorough analysis of the social situation. An ideographic approach requires first hand knowledge and a complete analysis of the subjective accounts of the actors or situation (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).
Interpretivist feel that human behavior is highly voluntaristic in that we each choose the paths we take and the decisions we make. This is centered around the belief in autonomy and free-will. Drawing on the interpretivist assumptions of a subjective social reality, it would follow that the individual is, within that self-constructed reality, free to act out their desires as they wish. There does not exist the possibility of a predetermined life path.
Future Work Within the Interpretivist Paradigm
By identifying interpretivism as the paradigm I most closely ally with, my research interests would be primarily subjective and qualitative in nature. My attraction to interpretivism is based in the possibility of conducting more intimate types of research. It will allow me to not only observe and learn about a given situation but it will also allow me to effectively become part of it in the sense that my knowledge will be closely aligned to that of the actors themselves. I feel this kind of connection leads to more impactful and meaningful research for both myself and my research subjects.
I believe that I would be most interested in conducting observational and personal interview types of research. These are typical of the interpretivist paradigm and allow for the greatest acquisition of situational understanding. While this type of research would be limited in breadth, it would be very deep in substance and meaning.
While I feel that quantitative and objective types of research are very important, I think that those means of explanation and “answers” only touch the totality of possible truth. For the study of objects and phenomena outside of human social realities, positivist methods work well: astronomy, physics, chemistry, and other hard sciences. However, when studying human social interactions, the unpredictability of human consciousness and by extension free will, creates too many variables for me to believe that nomothetic methods can provide all the answers (Central).
Take for example a law stating that any person who drives over 65 miles per hour is guilty of speeding and shall be issues a ticket. In this situation, the law acts as objective and nomothetic. Now imagine a person is pulled over for driving 70 miles per hour and given a ticket. The person drove over the speed limit and thus was ticketed; this is a fact. Now consider that the reason this person was speeding and received a ticket was because they were rushing an injured friend to the hospital; this is truth. Without knowing the truth, a very important piece of the reality of the situation goes unaccounted for.
The dichotomy between fact and truth is very important in my view of the world and is likely the primary motivating factor for my interest in interpretivism. Facts are irrefutable. They can be proven time and time again without fail. Facts are derived from positivist epistemologies. They are methodical and pure; absolute in their time. They are objective and cold, dry and inhumane. They give no regard to condition or circumstance. Facts are the codification of the physical universe.
Truths, on the other hand, are proven and disproved every day. Often based in fact, truths are the humanistic extension of facts. They are subjective and emotional, dynamic yet simple. Truths take a fact and combine the totality of the environment, situation, and unverifiable subjectivity of the individuals or things involved. I think of a truth as a fact encapsulated by life. That life is different for everyone thus the truth of a fact can be unique for each person. Facts can change over time while truths can change by the second.
There is no master of truth, only the filter of a mind attempting to see the truth. By subscribing to the interpretivist paradigm, I am permitted to see the truth in a situation and not simply focus on the facts. Having this subjectively grounded understanding in the difference between truth and fact allows me to construct future research questions with a precise understanding of my study goals and methodologies. I would imagine that depending on the subject of research, the distinction of finding facts versus finding truths would be very beneficial to both guiding and maintaining my research objectives.
Explorative Restrictions of the Interpretivist Paradigm
Despite the high level of detail and meaning provided for when conducting research within the interpretivist paradigm, there are a number of inherent restrictions that might inhibit its overall usefulness. The primary deficiency of interpretive based research seems to be the paradigms lack of widely applicable facts. As I discussed earlier, I believe that truths are basically socially context sensitive facts. Yet, because of the high level of subjectivity in interpretivist epistemologies, any results derived from its research might only be applicable to the highly specific social conditions of that research. In other words, we often may not be able to take the results and apply them to other situations because they are subjective truths and not objective facts.
For instance, say I were to conduct a qualitative study of a city’s information technology (IT) department in order to see how the adoption of open-source software has altered employee motivation. My study would be based primarily on observations and personal interviews. In this example, let us say that overall, I found the adoption of open-source software to have a positive impact on employee motivation. Unfortunately, while highly insightful as to the processes and reason of the conclusion, my research efforts would only be readily applicable to other IT departments who share similar subjective and environmental characteristics and not to the majority.
Now, if I were to conduct a quantitative survey based study of 100 city IT departments, I might come to the exact same conclusion as the qualitative study. However, because I sampled so many more departments, each with different subjective qualities, I could statistically (and hence objectively) say that open-source software adoption does cause increased employee motivation. This type of objective and quantifiable result might be more useful to a greater number of departments than a single case study might be.
Another area of research that is limited by the interpretivist paradigm is that of conflict studies. The nominalist ontological assumptions of the interpretivist paradigm do not see the study of conflict, domination, contradiction or change as being centrally important to their theoretical framework. Because interpretivist view the social world as a subjective construct, external conflicts and forms of control are simply ruled out as direct interests (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).
Personally, not being able to recognize and study conflict issues is the biggest quandary I have with interpretivism and is the reason why I am also entertaining radical humanism as an alternate paradigm. By subscribing to interpretivism, it seem that I might be unable to study topics like class struggles, abuse of power, and other issues as they relate to policies of control and domination.
Image of the Future for Interpretivism
I feel interpretivism has the potential to make a big difference in the understanding of a number of social issues plaguing many modern societies. While it may not cover all aspects of social study, it most certainly addresses a portion of the void left by the more objective approaches. I think that when used in concert with other paradigmatic approaches, interpretivism contributes the necessary humanist perspective which serves to complete a topic of study.
I can see an increased use of interpretivism as leading to a growing body of understanding which can be used to provide support and context to more objective and quantitative types of research. It seems that too often this subjective approach is neglected in favor of fact finding and the desire to find “closure” to certain social phenomena. However, I feel interpretivist research being necessary in order to provide truth through context.
As a very vivid example of the dichotomy between quantitative knowledge and qualitative understanding, consider the following: During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides, 11 million of which contained Dioxin; one of a mixture of chemicals that later became known as Agent Orange (Denselow; Affairs, 2008). According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
…4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to agent orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. (Yoir, 2008)
While this type of quantitative and objective information is impactful and allows for a broad understanding of the reach of the Dioxin toxin, it seriously neglects the social reality of the Vietnamese people living and suffering with Dioxin poisoning. Interpretivist studies would be able to get the perspective of the actors and show subjective realities of the same social situation. The purpose being not to replace quantitative study but to enhance it:
First sprayed [with Agent Orange] in 1968, Mr. Vinh was plagued by muscular and skeletal disorders. But after the war ended in 1975, his health deteriorated rapidly. By 1994, he was paralyzed and spent six months in hospital, being fed liquids through his nose. He recovered, but not enough to work on his rice farm. Today, his voice is hoarse, he can’t swallow solid food, his spine is numb and often he is too weak to walk or even to turn over in bed.
Dioxin interferes with reproduction, so Mr. Vinh’s nightmare swept up his children and grandchildren as well. One son is blind and mentally handicapped. Another is deaf. A third has spinal problems. One daughter is partly paralyzed, another mentally handicapped, the third chronically weak… (Yoir, 2008)
The difference in impact and personal connection with the qualitative approach is immediately obvious and serves to provide a bridge between both types of research.
From the perspective of governance, I would hope that an increase in the adoption of interpretivism would allow for more emotive thought to be put into public policy formulation. It seems that so many important governmental decisions are based predominantly on numbers; whether it be budgeting, pollution levels, crime statistics, etc. The understanding of personal issues as they relate to the real impact of public policy should be just as important to policy makers as quantitative information is.
This has been quite a difficult essay for me to write. Not only because of the complexity of the topics but primarily because it required me think about how I truly see the world; how I see society. While I have certainly thought about these topics before, never have I thought about them with the understanding of so many different philosophical backdrops.
Yet despite the complexity of each of the six paradigmatic approaches, I feel that my sociological perspectives relate closely with the interpretivist paradigm. While I have yet to decide if my inner revolutionist will eventually draw me to the radical humanist paradigm, I am confident that viewing the social world as a subjective creation between social actors is the correct approach for my doctoral research. This will mean that my research will be generally qualitative in nature and will allow me to draw a more complete understanding and subjective truth in my research topics.
Ideally, I would like to see more people adopt the interpretivist paradigm as a legitimate way of viewing the social world. Doing so would allow for more humanistic approaches to research which, in combination with the more broadly practiced positivist methods, might contribute the missing pieces to solving many social problems. I hope that as I progress in my graduate studies I will learn to contribute much scholarly qualitative research to the field.
Affairs, U. S. D. o. V. (2008). Agent Orange. Retrieved 9/25, 2008, from http://www1.va.gov/Agentorange/
Agent Orange. Retrieved 9/25, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange
Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life. Ashgate.
Central, S. Interpretivism. Retrieved 09/24, 2008, from http://www.sociology.org.uk/pathway1.htm?p1mc5n1d.htm
Denselow, R. Agent Orange blights Vietnam. Retrieved 9/25, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/227467.stm
Yoir, G., Mick, Hayley. (2008). ‘Last ghost’ of the Vietnam War. Retrieved 9/25, 2008, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080711.worange1107/BNStory/Front/home/?pageRequested=all