Max Weber created a methodology in sociology that was based on the idea of “verstehen,” an interpretive understanding of people's actions. A reaction to the positivist belief that the social sciences should conduct research using the same methods as the physical sciences, Weber's verstehen connects individual action with broad historical processes and allows sociologists to take both people's subjective states and larger questions of causality into account. Verstehen is used to analyze meaningful social action, which Weber distinguished from mere reflex. Weber analytically connected this interpretive understanding of individual action with social structure through the use of ideal types—constructions that define an object in terms of its most essential qualities; these connections generated causal explanations of historical phenomena. Weber's interpretive methodology has been a major influence on sociology.
Keywords Empiricism; Ethnomethodology; Idealism; Ideal Type; Interpretive Sociology; Macro-level Analysis; Methodology; Micro-level Analysis; Positivism; Reification; Social Action; Subjective; Verstehen
Since sociology first emerged as a social science in the nineteenth century, there has been much discussion about how best to study social dynamics. Some sociologists, called positivists, argue that sociology should study society in the same way that physical scientists study their subject matter, through careful observation of the behavior of the subject, subjected to rigorous analysis. Other sociologists point out that unlike the subject matter of the hard sciences—chemicals, atoms and the like—humans attach meaning to their actions. These sociologists argue that to fully comprehend human action, it is necessary to develop an understanding of the subjective states of the human actors—that is, to understand action, it is necessary to understand the motives and meanings attached to it. This approach is called interpretive sociology.
Max Weber (1864–1920) is one of the most important figures in the history of sociology, and was one of the earliest and strongest advocates for an interpretive methodology. One of the building blocks of his methodology was the concept of verstehen, an approach that takes individual meaning into account when analyzing society. To understand how verstehen fits into his methodology and sociology in general, it is necessary to explore Weber's definition of social action, his concept of ideal types, and his use of verstehen to connect individual action to broader social processes.
What is Verstehen?
Verstehen, a German word usually translated as "understanding," was a key element in the sociology of Max Weber. Weber is considered one of the major founding figures of sociology, along with Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Karl Marx (1818–1883). Unlike Marx and Durkheim, Weber did not limit his sociological analysis to macro-level social phenomena; in fact, he did not make a strong distinction between macro-level analysis and micro-level analysis. Instead, he thought that sociology should be rooted in a systematic understanding of the subjective meanings that individuals place on their actions, and that these individual-level understandings could in turn help explain social structures and historical change.
Verstehen was the methodological tool Weber used to accomplish this mission. In Weberian sociology, verstehen is necessary to create concepts and meaningful explanations of society, and to link the individual with the structural. Through his emphasis on understanding at the individual level, Weber avoided the reification of social structure that is so often the downfall of social analysis. In other words, he never forgot that action is human action. As he put it, "Action in the sense of a subjectively understandable orientation of behavior exists only as the behavior of one or more individual human beings… for sociological purposes there is no such thing as a collective personality which 'acts'" (Weber, 1964, pp. 101–102). While other theorists of his time tried to explain the existence of social institutions by referring to other institutions—for example, claiming that religion is a response to the economy, or social disorder is a response to specialization—Weber said that institutions cannot act. All action is human action; humans are the proper subject matter of interpretive sociology.
This focus on understanding and interpretation was in contrast to sociology's trajectory before Weber. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who first coined the word "sociology," envisioned his invention as a positivistic science. Positivists value observation and measurement, believing that sociology should strive to emulate the research methods of hard sciences like chemistry or biology. They prioritize empiricism and quantification, and they believe that through careful application of the traditional scientific method, sociologists should be able to discover laws that govern human behavior.
The positivistic program invented by Comte was first effectively employed by Emile Durkheim, who analyzed group-level phenomena (what he called "social facts"), such as the suicide rate, to discover the predictable and regular nature of human action. Durkheim's work contrasts with Weber's because Durkheim had little interest in the subjective interpretation of events, being more interested in social forces that were external to any individual. In a sense, Weber began his research at the point where Durkheim's ended.
Weber thought that the methods used by the natural and physical sciences could not explain human action because they neglected the human ability to attach meaning to action or to exercise free will and act according to intelligible motives. Thus he rejected positivism. But to say he was anti-positivist does not mean he was anti-empirical. He did incorporate large-scale historical and statistical data into his analysis, but he did so as part of his questions; in his view, data needed interpretive explanation. His answers always were grounded in verstehen, explanatory understanding (Smelser & Warner, 1976). Weber believed that social patterns and social structures were inventions that people constructed and imposed on their world to create order and meaning. To arrive at a true understanding of social dynamics, it was necessary to begin with the subjective meaning attached to action. Even when discussing broad processes, Weber held steadfast to his interpretive framework and rejected the sort of functionalist analysis that treated structures or institutions as things with the ability to act.
Weber used the term "social action" to refer specifically to the meaningful acts of individuals, distinguishing these acts from mere reflex behavior. Social action is oriented toward other individuals and is given meaning by them. Weber distinguished social action from reflex action (for example, sneezing), involuntary action (like being accidently shoved in the line at the concession stand) or irrational acts (for example, the actions of a person with dementia). In his words, "Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course" (Weber, 1964, p. 88). Verstehen is used to analyze intentional and meaningful social action (Munch, 1991; Tucker, 1991).
Types of Verstehen
Weber distinguished between two kinds of verstehen: aktuelles Verstehen and erklarendes Verstehen. Aktuelles Verstehen is usually translated as "observational" (Weber, 1964, pp. 94–95) and refers to an understanding of motive and action that can be gleaned from simple observation. In his examples, observational understanding includes the processes found in the basic comprehension of a simple math equation or the ability to read a basic emotion like anger on the face of another. We understand that 1+1=2, or that John's facial expression indicates wrath. In contrast, erklarendes Verstehen, 'explanatory' understanding, refers to the understanding of the motive or meaning behind an act. For example, when seeking an explanatory understanding of a person writing a math equation, we have reached our goal if "we understand what makes him do this at precisely this moment and in these circumstances. Understanding in this sense is attained if we know that he is engaged in balancing a ledger or in making a scientific demonstration, or is engaged in some other task of which this particular act would be an appropriate part" (Weber, 1964, p. 95).
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