interpretative sociologyA variety of forms of sociology (including SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM, SOCIOLOGICAL PHENOMENOLOGY, and the approach of WEBER) united by an emphasis on the necessity for sociologists to grasp (i.e. to ‘understand’ or interpret) actors’ ‘meanings’ (see also INTERPRETATION, MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND EXPLANATION, VERSTEHEN, HERMENEUTICS, DOUBLE HERMENEUTIC). In this argument all social reality is ‘pre-interpreted’ in that it only has form as (and is constituted by) the outcome of SOCIAL ACTORS’ beliefs and interpretations. Thus it is, or ought to be, a truism that no form of sociology can proceed without at least a preliminary grasp of actors’ meanings. DURKHEIM's suggestion, in Rules, that we can proceed to the objective study of ‘social facts’ without any reference to actors’ purposes is wrong or misleading.
On a charitable reading, what Durkheim wanted to suggest was that sociology, if it genuinely wished to be a 'S cience’, could not rest content merely with the social accounts contained in actors’ meanings. Even here, however, most forms of sociology that refer to themselves as ‘interpretative’ part company with Durkheim, arguing that the pre-interpreted reality with which sociologists deal precludes a positivistic approach, especially given that the actions of social actors can change meanings and are not only the outcome of received meanings.
Among the various forms of sociology that adopt this stance, some (e.g. the proposals of WINCH) suggest that an understanding of actors’ meanings can alone suffice in providing descriptions and explanations of social action. More usually, however, the argument is that the ‘meaningful’ character of social reality and sociological explanation restricts, but does not eliminate, the possibility of accounts of social reality which move beyond actors’ meanings. For example, for Weber, IDEAL TYPES play an important role in the formulation and testing of historical hypotheses; in a not dissimilar way, within SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM, general SENSITIZING CONCEPTS play an important role in the analysis of particular cases; and in GOFFMAN's sociology the generation of general conceptual frameworks is central. In all such approaches (though there exist many disagreements), the aim is to achieve a ‘non-positivistic’ formulation of social science that does not violate the premises that actors’ meanings must always be ‘understood’ and that actors’ social competence and actors’ choice precludes deterministic ‘law-like accounts’ of social reality. Whether wider 'S tructural’, or even scientifically ‘causal’, forms of sociological analysis can also ultimately be constructed on an interpretative basis, raises a farther set of questions which have received a variety of answers (e.g. compare PARSONS’ functionalism or the STRUCTURATION THEORY of GIDDENS) (see also STRUCTURE AND AGENCY).