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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.3 Phenomenology

2.3.1 The Development of Phenomenological Social Science Interpretive approach Verstehen: Weber Ideal types Social action: Schutz

Activity 2.3.1 Interpretive approach
Interpretive sociologists challenge the idea that we should treat the subjects of our studies as objects. Instead they focus upon the ways in which their subjects interpret or make sense of the world. Thus, in this approach, it is not for the researcher to decide in advance what the important issues are.

Weber has been regarded as particularly important to the development of the interpretive approach although, as we shall see, he did not totally reject the concerns of positivism.

Top Verstehen: Weber
Weber objected to the positivist notion of objective, determining laws. He believed that such laws ignored the role of human action. Instead, Weber defined sociology as: 'a science concerning itself with interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences' (Weber, 1978, p. 4). In this way, Weber attempted to link cause with meaning. He referred to his approach as Verstehen (which, in German, means 'to understand', although his approach is more interpretation than understanding). Others have referred to this as an 'action approach' (or action thoery) due to the emphasis on accounting for human action.

Weber argued that there are two elements to the process of Verstehen. The first element relates to direct observational understanding (aktuelles Verstehen). For example, if you see someone typing at a keyboard you know what that person is doing but you do not necessarily know why. Sociologists must, according to Weber, also try to explain why something is happening (erklarendes Verstehen), that is, they should try to identify motives. This is where interpretation comes in.

However, Weber was not just interested in individual motives he was also concerned with social processes. Weber's method of doing this was to find a way of linking causes of action to the meanings people gave to their actions. Thus he distinguished between what he called 'meaning adequacy' and 'causal adequacy'.

Meaning adequacy relates to a plausible interpretation of action, given the context in which the action takes place.

Causal adequacy, on the other hand, is when 'the relationships between the elements of a course of conduct can be shown to occur frequently, or preferably, invariably' (Waters, 1993).

For example, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber (1930) tried to show that ideas and beliefs influenced people's actions and that these actions influenced the development of capitalism.

Top Ideal types
Weber challenged positivism in so far as he acknowledged the complexity of social life, which, in turn, led to his rejection of direct observation as the key route to knowledge. Instead, Weber constructed ideal types of action to illustrate the different purposes behind actions.

He identified four different 'ideal types' of action:
1. instrumental or goal-oriented action: action that has a clear aim;
2. value-rational action: action that is influenced by a strong belief that something is right or important;
3. affective action: action that is influenced by feelings such as love or hate;
4. traditional action: action that has become a habit and is largely unquestioned.

Ideal types are not 'ideal' in the sense of perfect, or desirable, they are constructs that provide some insights into the process of gaining understanding (See CASE STUDY, Weber's Ideal Types). In effect, Weber was simply revealing the assumptions that he was making about types of action.

The emphasis Weber placed on the ideal type of goal-oriented action, tended to reduce the importance he placed on 'action' (as opposed to 'system').

It is almost as if Weber forgets that goal-oriented action is an ideal type or construct. He seems to end up assuming that goal-oriented action alone characterises modern capitalist societies. As Jones (1993, p. 73) said so forcefully:

for Weber, Capitalism is the child of a particular way of thinking and acting, not a mode of production spawned by economic forces. But also for Weber this child should have been strangled at birth because it has grown into a monster.

Although Weber was concerned to show the values that influenced people's actions, he also thought it possible, and indeed, desirable, to separate facts from values (see Chapter 1). However, Williams and May (1996) argued that the act of understanding must surely require us to make decisions between values.

So, although Weber wanted to reveal the values that had led to the development of capitalism, he did not wish to make any comment on those values, only to describe them. This has led Weber's work to be described by some as 'value free'.

Activity 2.3.1
Think about your own experiences of life. Do you think that people always act instrumentally in modern society? Provide reasons for your answer.

Top Social action: Schutz
Later 'action' theorists attempted to resolve the problem of individual action and social structure thrown up by Weber's work. Alfred Schutz (1972), for example, took the route of focusing more explicitly on social action. He argued that sociology should be about the ways in which people construct meanings. Schutz was of the view that any attempt to provide scientific explanations of people's behaviour would result in the researcher's views being imposed on the individuals who were being studied.

Schutz further developed Weber's notion of Verstehen and more closely linked it to phenomenological philosophy, drawing in part on Husserl, although shifting away from Husserl's transcendental approach to one that attempted to understand human action as about achieving a predetermined 'project'.

Sometimes, Schutz's work is referred to as 'phenomenological sociology' because of this close link to phenomenological philosophy. Schutz's work is fairly complex but in essence he shifts Weber's notions a little further away from positivism and places more emphasis on the conscious activity of the individual.

Weber argues that instrumental action was the easiest form of action to interpret because it was rational. Schutz disagreed with what he regarded as Weber's assumption that the meaning of rational actions and motives for rational actions are essentially the same thing. Equally, Schutz did not take the view that actions linked to emotions are irrational or without meaning. Instead, he argued that the individual is able to think and operate according to a desired plan or strategy or project.

However, the individual is located in society and is thus a 'social actor'. Being a social actor means that the individual is constrained by social rules, norms or values. So when a social actor has a project in mind, Schutz argues that the project also takes into account the constraints that come from living in a society.

This, though, does not mean that the individual is constrained by external forces in the sense of causal laws proposed by positivists. On the contrary, Schutzian phenomenology proposes that people are seen as active agents who create and react to society; who make sense of their social and physical world, and of how they and others relate to it.

Schutz argues that individuals making choices on the basis of their unique biographies and the specific features of the situations in which they operate and that this uniqueness has to be taken into account.

Schutz's primary concern with the ways in which individuals construct meaning is emphasised in ethnomethodology literally meaning 'people's methods' (see Section


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