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Hermeneutics is a branch of sociology concerned with human understanding and interpretation. Originally applied solely to texts, sociologists have applied hermeneutics to social events by examining participants’ understandings of the events from the standpoint of their specific historical and cultural context. Hermeneutics is opposed to the view that social phenomena can be grasped adequately by reference to invariant laws of cause and effect or statistical regularities, as with positivist and behaviorist approaches and some elements of functionalist theory. Hermeneutics is one among a range of approaches to meaning, symbolization, and representation in social life that includes semiotics, structuralism, deconstruction, and discourse analysis.
Hermeneutics initially focused on interpreting the Bible in order to understand the word of God. Writing during the early nineteenth century, theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher favored broadening the focus of hermeneutics beyond religious texts. Schleiermacher proposed a radically different position from earlier traditions of hermeneutics that theorized a reader would understand intended meanings of a text until encountering incongruous or illogical passages. He, instead, argued that understanding is a process in which readers understand the text’s context, its particular genre, and its historical circumstances.
As subsequent theorists applied Schleiermacher’s work to other areas of study, hermeneutics flourished in German academia. Wilhelm Dilthey extended Schleiermacher’s theory of interpretation to the human sciences, claiming that whereas the natural sciences seek erklaren, the explanation of phenomena according to laws of regular correspondence between cause and effect, the goal of the human sciences is verstehen, the understanding of human action based on intention and context.
Conceived of as an attempt to understand the most appropriate way to study human life, hermeneutics became focused largely on method. In addition to influencing current sociological thought, the hermeneutic tradition’s attention to textuality and interpretation informs related scholarship in a range of academic disciplines, including philosophy and rhetoric.
- Bauman, Z. (1981) Hermeneutics and Social Science. Hutchinson, London.
- Harrington, A. (2001) Hermeneutic Dialogue and Social Science. Routledge, London.
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