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Sociology As Interpretative Discipline

The positivistic approach to sociology tends to assume that society can shape the behavior of its members almost completely through socialization. However there is a section of sociologist who regards the above view as an over-socialized conception of man. They do not accept the belief that an individual is simply the society writ small. According to them each individual's personality carries an imprint to his unique experience along with the socially transmitted world view. Also they draw attention to the mercurial nature of man and they see in the positivistic approach an attempt to reduce man to a passive being. But these sociologists have not altogether rejected the positivist approach rather they find it inadequate and seek to supplement it with new approaches which look for new data and adopt new methods. These sociologists see their discipline as somewhat akin to literature than to natural sciences in the sense that they seek to reflect the pattern of meaning in a set of observation they have made. However there is no total consensus among these critics of positivist approach. One aspect they share in common is that they all emphasize on the importance of underlying meanings in order to understand social behavior otherwise these critics differ significantly among themselves.

One extreme there exists anti-positivist approach like that of ethnomethodologists and on the other hand there are moderate critics of positivism like Max Weber whose approach tries to build a bridge between positivist approach and extreme form of interactionism.According to Weber social reality is characterized by the presence of geist or consciousness. Due to the presence of consciousness people ascribe meanings to the situation around them which include other people too. These meanings influence the subsequent behaviour.Consequently any attempt to understand social reality must take into account these meanings and motives. These meanings ascribed by the people are partly determined by cultural norms and partly shaped by the personal experiences of the individual actors. Thus an attempt to understand social behavior should not stop simply at observation from without instead it should involve interpretation of the underlying meanings and motives. This requires the use of new method through which an empathetic liaison can be established between the observer and the actor. Empathetic liaison means that the observer tries to place himself imaginatively in the actor's position. The sociologist should try to figure out meanings and motives given by the actor. In terms of these meanings and motives he then tries to rationally explain the actor's behavior. This is the essence of Verstehen Approach advocated by Max Weber.

Other interpretative sociologists those identified as Symbolic Interactionist are content to operate with a relatively simple set of assumption about how we come to know about social phenomena. They accept the meaning that the actors attribute to social phenomena at the face value and proceed to erect their systematic interpretations on these foundations. The term symbolic interactionist used because it is through symbols that meanings, motives and attributes are conveyed. Thus an understanding of symbols can help in understanding the meanings conveyed by actors involved in the interacting situation. For example a cross x may symbolize a barbarian method of execution or a religious movement. V-sign signifies victory where Winston Churchill elevated the gesture to a symbol of national aspiration. The assumptions underlying symbolic interactionism are

  • The individual and society are regarded, as inseparable for the individual can become a human being only in a social context.
  • Human beings are viewed as acting on the basis of meaning that they give to the objects and events rather than simply reacting either to external stimuli such as social forces or internal stimuli such as drives.
  • Meanings arise from the process of interaction rather than being simply present at the outset. To some degree meanings are created, modified, developed and changed within interactive situation rather than being fixed and preformed.
  • Meanings are the result of interpretative procedures employed by actors within interactions context by taking the role of others; actors interpret the meanings and intentions of others. By means of mechanism of self-interaction, individuals modify or change definitions of their situation rehearse alternative course of interactions and consider their possible consequences. These meanings that guide actions arise in the context of interaction via a series of complex interpretative procedures.
  • The methodology of symbolic interactionism as advocated by Herbert Blumer demands that the sociologist must immerse himself in the area of life that he seek to investigate. Rather than attempting to fill data into predefined categories, he must attempt to grasp the actor's view of social reality. Since action is directed by actor meanings the sociologist must catch the process of interpretation through which the actors construct their action. This means, he must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he studies.

Another approach belonging to social anthropology that can also be categorized as an interpretive approach starts with a description of commonly accepted meanings that people attribute to social phenomena. Mere description of such meanings would simply amount to an ethnographic study of the people - an account of their culture. These sociologists are interested in understanding social phenomena in general terms. Accordingly they must move beyond to find meaning of the phenomena and try to discover patterns and regularities in these meanings that they can represent as cultural themes. Further patterns and regularities running through themes may in turn be represented as configuration of themes which taken together may be held to characterize the essential characteristics of a culture. In this way the social anthropologist Ruth Benedict characterizes the cultures of some American Indian People as Dionysian that is given to extreme and frenzied state of being and other as apollonian always seeking moderation in behavior and cultural expressions. She achieved this by tracing these features through wide range of their manifestation in the cultures of the people she examined. These interpretations of meanings at different levels of abstractions are all informed and guided by the ultimate motive establishing concepts that provide sociologist with a general way of understanding human activities and beliefs. There is yet another set of sociologists -those identified as Ethnomethodologists- who try to analyze the commonsense nature of social interactions.

The accumulated commonsense of generation results in pattern of behavioral topicalities. Social order is dependent upon people behaving in a commonsense way. Thus, social interaction must be interpreted in terms of these commonsense meanings, however for ethnomethodologist the basic problem of Sociology goes back even further than this. They begin with the assumption that society exists only in so far as members perceive its existence. So member's view of social reality must be understood. But sociologists must also be concerned with processes by which people come to establish meanings in social phenomena. They say that the aim of sociology should not be simply to identify and record the meanings that people have ascribed to situation but to understand the ways in which they generate those meanings in the first place. The idea that it is important to understand how the world looks to those who live in it is approved of by these sociologists, but they argue that the final emphasis should be on the ways in which the members of society come to see their world in the ways they do. Harold Garfinkel and Circourel are some of the important Ethnomethodologists.Since most meanings are transmitted through symbols, sociologists who want to study the interpreted procedures which members of the society use to attribute meaning typically focus their attention upon speech exchanges in which the participants are involve in making sense of each other talk.

The emphasis is upon the study of ways in which people in actual situation of interaction come to see what the other person is meaning. Circourel's study of Juvenile Delinquency is an example where he traces the way in which young people come to be categorized as juvenile delinquents by the police, probationary officers and courts so on.

The account of information which interpretative sociologists require to substantiate their analysis is quite different from the information needed by positivistic sociologists. Therefore new sources of information are made use of however quite often even those methods of data collection which are used by positivist sociologist are also made use of by interpretative sociologist. For example Weber relied on official statistical records and historical documents in his study of 'The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism' direct observation is also frequently used accompanied by extensive verbatim recording of conversational exchange among the actors involved. Sometimes laboratory techniques have also been used as in the well-known experiment by Garfinkel when students were asked to take part in an experiment with Psycho-therapeutic procedures. The other methods of data collection used by interpretative sociologists include the case-studies, use of life histories, personal diaries and correspondence and other biographical records to provide insights into the subjective dimension of the social behavior.

Impact Of Revolutions On Sociology

The beginning of tradition of social sciences has been one of the major developments of the 19th century. It is often said that social sciences are mostly understood as responses to the problem of order that was created in men's minds by the weakening of the old order under the blows of French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. The European society was hard hit by these revolutions. The old order that rested on kinship, land, social class, religion, local community and monarchy became very shaky. Thinkers were more concerned about finding ways and means of reconsolidating these elements of social order. Hence the history of 19th century politics, industry and trade is basically about the practical efforts of human beings to reconsolidate these elements. The history of 19th century meant new contents and meaning to the doctrine of sociology. A new wave of intellectual and philosophical thoughts was let loose in Europe. Intellectual currents in the form of socio-political ideologies were also witnessed. The ideologies of individualism, socialism, utilitarianism, and utopianism took birth. Thinkers and intellectuals floated new ideologies and spread novel ideas.