The Interpretivist Paradigm

Assumptions and Beliefs of the Interpretivist Paradigm

Interpretivist views have different origins in different disciplines.  Schultz, Cicourel and Garfinkel (phenomenology/sociology), the "Chicago School of Sociology" (sociology), and Boas and Malinowski (anthropology) are often connected with the origin the interpretivist paradigm.  The interpretivist paradigm developed as a critique of positivism in the social sciences.  In general, interpretivists share the following beliefs about the nature of knowing and reality.

  • relativist ontology - assumes that reality as we know it is constructed intersubjectively through the meanings and understandings developed socially and experientially.
  • transactional or subjectivist epistemology - assumes that we cannot separate ourselves from what we know.  The investigator and the object of investigation are linked such that who we are and how we understand the world is a central part of how we understand ourselves, others and the world.

By positing a reality that cannot be separate from our knowlege of it (no separation of subject and object), the interpretivist paradigm posits that researchers' values are inherent in all phases of the research process.  Truth is negotiated through dialogue.

  • Findings or knowledge claims are created as an investigation proceeds.  That is, findings emerge through dialogue in which conflicting interpretions are negotiated among members of a community.
  • Pragmatic and moral concerns are important considerations when evaluting interpretive science.  Fostering a dialogue between researchers and respondents is critical.  It is through this dialectial process that a more informed and sophisticated understanding of the social world can be created.
  • All interpretations are based in a particular moment.  That is, they are located in a particular context or situation and time.  They are open to re-interpretation and negotiation through conversation.


  • Interpretive approaches rely heavily on naturalistic methods (interviewing and observation and analysis of existing texts).
  • These methods ensure an adequate dialog between the researchers and those with whom they interact in order to collaboratively construct a meanful reality.
  • Generally, meanings are emergent from the research process.
  • Typically, qualitative methods are used. 

View of Criteria for 'Good' Research

Interpretivist positions are founded on the theoretical belief that reality is socially constructed and fluid.  Thus, what we know is always negotiated within cultures, social settings, and relationship with other people.

From this perspective, validity or truth cannot be grounded in an objective reality.

What is taken to be valid or true is negotiated and there can be multiple, valid claims to knowledge. 

Angen (2000) offers some criteria for evaluting research from an interpretivist perspective:

  • Careful consideration and articulation of the research question
  • carrying out inquiry in a respectful manner
  • awareness and articulation of the choices and interpretations the researcher makes during the inquiry process and evidence of taking responsibility for those choices
  • a written account that develops persuasive arguments
  • evaluation of how widely results are disseminated
  • validity becomes a moral question for Angen and must be located in the 'discourse of the research community'
  • ethical validity - recognition that the choices we make through the research process have political and ethical consideration.
    •  Researchers need to ask if research is helpful to the target population
    • seek out alternative explanations than those the researcher constructs
    • ask if we've really learned something from our work
  • substantive validity - evaluting the substance or content of an interpretive work
    • need to see evidence of the interpretive choices the researcher made
    • an assessment of the biases inherent in the work over the lifespan of a research project
    • self-reflect to understand our own transformation in the research process


Angen, MJ. (2000). Evaluating interpretive inquiry: Reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue. Qualitative Health Research. 10(3) pp. 378-395.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Berger, PL & Luckmann, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company.

Blumer, M. (1984). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cicourel, AV. (1964). Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Enthnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Stragegies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine.

Guba, EG and Lincoln, YS. (1994). "Competing paradigms in qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 105-117.

Lyotard, J. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge. Theory and History of Literature. Volume 10. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Malinowski, B. (1967). A Diary in the Strict sense of the Term. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.      

Schutz, A. (1962). Collect Papers, Volume 1, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff. See in particular: "Commonsense and scientific interpretations of human action" pp. 3-47; "Concept and theory formation in the social sciences" pp. 48-66; "On multiple realities" pp. 207-259.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical Investigations (GEM Anscome transl). Third Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice-Hall.

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