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Verstehenthe German word for ‘understanding’, which, when used in a sociological context in English-speaking sociology, usually refers to MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING, the procedure in which both social actors and sociologists ‘interpret’ and gain access to the meanings of others.
The German term is especially associated with the work of Max WEBER, who stated as ‘the specific task of the sciences of action,…the interpretation of action in terms of its subjective meaning’ (Weber, 1922), distinguishing the social sciences from the natural sciences by the presence of such an orientation.
A confusion exists in the literature -illustrating the problems that can arise in any understanding of meanings! – as to whether in Weber's use Verstehen refers only to a doubtful psychologistic and ‘introspective’, ‘empathic’ understanding, in which the sociologist merely ‘imagines’ herself or himself in the place of a person or group, or whether – something capable of far more ‘objective’ evaluation – actors’ 'subjective meanings’ can be ‘read off from the existence of an explicit ‘language’ of social meanings which can be objectively demonstrated.
In fact, Weber's usage would appear to have involved elements of both of these possibilities, but in the former case he endeavoured to found any ‘existential’ psychological assumptions involved in ‘empirical regularities of experience’. Nevertheless, there remain some critics who, wrongly, see Weber's, and any, use of Verstehen as only involving a doubtful introspective psychology (e.g. Abel, 1977). While others (e.g. WINCH, 1958, or Macintyre, 1962) argue that it would have been better if Weber had confined his use of Verstehen to meaningful understanding in the second sense, and not sought to merge meaningful understanding and ‘causal explanation’.
What Weber meant by ‘causal explanation’ in the context of actors’ meanings is another issue: either these could refer:
- to meanings in themselves functioning as ‘causes’ (a usage to which some philosophers object; compare WINCH); or
- Verstehen is a way of generating wider causal hypotheses based on ‘universals’ which, at least to some degree, must themselves in turn be ‘verified’ against experience. Again Weber does seem to have made reference to ‘causes’ in both of these senses. It is in this context that Weber's sociology may be seen as constituting a ‘half-way house’ between a purely positivistic sociology with no place for actors’ meanings, and a purely ‘interpretative sociology’with no place for causal analysis. In all of this Weber's view was that sociology should go as far as is appropriate in making sociology a science, and no further. Thus he insisted that actors’ meanings and choices could never be reduced to merely physical or mechanical causation. vertical division of labour see SEXUAL DIVISION OF LABOUR.