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What is Interpretive Research?

This page provides a very quick overview of my approach to interpretive research. Much more detail can be found in the pages that follow. 

Most simply, interpretive research is often described as ‘qualitative’ to distinguish it from the ‘quantitative’ character--the number-crunching--of traditional research. There is some truth to this, but it can be misleading, in two respects. First, there are ways of using numbers in interpretive research, just as there are ways within traditional research of using non-quantitative data. Second, and more importantly, the significant differences between interpretive and traditional research are not in the kind of data they work with, but in their underlying assumptions.

Interpretive research is an approach to research in the human sciences that recognizes the paradigmatic character of all research. Since Thomas Kuhn’s book, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,’ published in 1962, we have understood that any research method, any approach to the systematic investigation of phenomena, rests upon epistemological and ontological assumptions, assumptions about the nature of knowledge and about the kinds of entity that exist. These assumptions are literally embodied in the practices of a scientific community, and in what this community takes to be the exemplars of paradigmatic inquiry.These assumptions typically go unnoticed because they are taken for granted; this is what Kuhn terms ‘normal’ science. In periods of upheaval, however, the assumptions get called into question and become contested.
Interpretive research operates in a paradigm that differs from traditional research in the human or social sciences; it operates with different assumptions about knowledge and being. The traditional approach is sometimes called ‘positivist,’ but a better term is ‘empirical-analytic,’ because some of the assumptions of the turn-of-the-century logical positivists have been abandoned. But by no means all.Because interpretive research is not the norm, practitioners of interpretive researchers are continually being called to justify and explain their approach and its assumptions. It is in this sense that interpretive research is aware of its paradigmatic character, while practitioners of empirical-analytic methods can assume that their approach is ‘normal.’ 

Ontological and Epistemological assumptions

Interpretive research rests on assumptions (epistemological, ontological, and methodological) that will be presented in more detail later, but it draws on a ‘phenomenological ontology’ that has its sources in Hegel, Heidegger, Ricoeur and others. [see philosophical grounding] This is a non-dualistic ontology: one that seeks to avoid the dualism of mind and matter for which Descartes is famous. 

The empirical-analytic paradigm, in contrast, is the historical product of two apparently opposed conceptions of knowledge and investigation that turn out, on closer examination, to share a common, underlying ontology, an ontology of two separate realms: mind and matter. These two are rationalism and empiricism.


In this conception, knowledge is the product of reflection and reasoning, based in fundamental formal (and hence indubitable) principals or axioms, from which subsequent truths are logically derived. An early form of this can be found in Descartes' writing, where the cogito (‘I think, therefore I am’) provided an archimedian point from which to deduce the existence of god. ones own existence, the reality of the external world, etc.


In this conception, knowledge is the product of perception, observation, based in sense-data that are combined to form complex conceptions. These sense-data are interpretation-free facts that provide a foundation to knowledge, guaranteeing its validity. An early example is provided by John Locke, for whom the senses provided ‘simple ideas’ whose ‘association’ gives rise to ‘complex ideas.’


In both rationalism and empiricism it is believed that an objective epistemological foundation can be found that will justify claims to valid knowledge, without reference to authority (divine or otherwise), or to speculative metaphysics. For rationalism the foundation is provided by reason, rationality, logic. For empiricism it is provided by the brute data of sensation, of experience.

The empirical-analytic conception of inquiry appeals to both of these foundations. Inthis conception, knowledge comes from systematic testing of hypotheses, through experimentation (or quasi-experimentation). Measurement (including psychological testing) provides an objective, interpretation-free record of empirical regularities. Formal logic, especially the rules of statistical inference, allows both summary descriptive statements and testing of explanatory (causal) models. 

But these conceptions of inquiry founder on epistemological conundra that have their source in underlying--and often denied--ontological assumptions. A mental-material dualistic ontology introduces problems that cannot be overcome. Knowledge (mental) is about things in the world (material). Valid knowledge corresponds to the way things really are: but how can this correspondence ever be assessed? Neither observation nor reasoning can provide this guarantee--they are not the interpretation-free foundations they have been claimed to be. 

In short, empirical-analytic inquiry assumes, still, that there are epistemological foundations to inquiry. This assumption is abandoned as fruitless by interpretive research.


Interpretive research is hermeneutic in character. This too is something we shall examine in more detail later, for now it suffices to say that hermeneutics is the reading, the interpretation, of messages and texts. Hermes was messenger of the Greek gods; the term ‘hermeneutics’ was first applied self-consciously to biblical interpretation in the C17, and to interpretation of secular texts in the C19.

A few basic but important points: A text must be read to make sense: one must first know the language in which it is written. Second, any text is open to more than one reading: texts show plurivocity, plurivocality. Third, texts are read in context: the text/con-text relation is a crucial one that will be central to our investigations.

But interpretive research works with action as well as texts; human action can be fixed as a text-analog (with consequences that Paul Ricoeur has described). 

Descriptive or Explanatory?

It is sometimes said that interpretive research can only be descriptive, not explanatory. We shall see that this is not the case; at a certain point description rolls over into explanation. 

The ordinary, everyday character of understanding

I’ve said that interpretive research doesn’t seek an epistemological foundation. Instead, inquiry begins with the ordinary, everyday human understanding we have of one another. It doesn’t end there, but this is where it starts. 

We start, that is to say, with the everyday grasp of people, actions and events that comes from being a participant, a practitioner. No ‘transendental attitude’ here! Just a willingness to be reflective, self-critical, thorough, and to assume that what other people do is sensible, not ‘crazy.’
This is a kind of inquiry relevant to both researchers and practitioners (clinicians, educators).

One outcome is a sharpening of ones perception, an increase in insight, and sensitivity to what goes on in ordinary conversation and interaction; to the ongoing work of human relationship that we take for granted because it is ubiquitous.

Depth hermeneutics

A quick word on the difference between two kinds, or levels, of interpretive inquiry. A distinction is often made been a hermeneutics of everydayness and a depth hermeneutics, or a critical hermeneutics. The latter is often associated with the work of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, each of whom asserted that things are not what they seem, because of the operation of censorship, repression, ideology, oppression, systemic distortion, silencing, coercion.... (The two divisions of ‘Being and Time’ correspond each to one of these kinds of inquiry.)

A hermeneutics of everydayness seeks to illuminate and articulate what generally goes unnoticed because it is ubiquitous, common-place, and everyday. A depth hermeneutics seeks to uncover what has been hidden, covered over, and disguised.

A hermeneutics of everydayness is always needed first; this alone easily requires a semester to begin to master, and enables discovery of some very interesting and powerful phenomena.

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