[There is a saying] I heard often in prison, “if you treat a man human, he’ll treat you human.” The staff and prisoners treated me human, and I tried to do the same. —Ann Chih Lin (2000, 189)
The methods of accessing or generating and analyzing data used today in meaning-focused re- search study both meaning and the artifacts that embody and convey it. Interpretive science’s appreciation for the multiplicities of possible meaning and attendant ambiguities has refocused attention on the perspectival, and even rhetorical, character of scientific writing (a concern of feminist theory and science studies also). This has led to an appreciation for the narrative or storied character of both scientific and everyday communication, something noted especially by Maynard-Moody and Musheno in their chapter. Attention to language’s persuasive elements brings in considerations of power and power relations, as well as privileged speech and silences in col- lective, public discourses.
Interpretive philosophies have not been without their critics from within the interpretive end of the epistemological spectrum. Specifically, Frankfurt School critical theorists have charged phenomenology on ontological grounds with an excessive preoccupation with the Self a kind of disengaged contemplation or philosophical navel-gazing—that ignores the impacts on indi- viduals of institutions and their power. In the critics’ view, phenomenologists (appeared to) believe that the self-understanding that can emerge from reflection could override power imbalances and, perforce, lead to change. As they saw it, phenomenological argumentation leads to inatten- tion to questions of power and even a dismissiveness toward the operative reality of institutional, and institutionalized, power an undervaluing of the seemingly objective reality of social institutions and the problematics of change (see, e.g., Fay 1975). Critical theorists argue that interpretation’s emphasis on understanding meanings is not enough, that understanding needs to be anchored to action (Beam and Simpson 1984).
Whereas this criticism may well pertain at the level of the philosophical writings, and espe- cially the more solipsistic and transcendental ones, it seems less founded when these philosophies are applied to actual practices in organizations, for example, or social practices or other empirical applications of interpretive methods. Once phenomenology, the particular target of such criti- cism, is brought into the realm of political and other social realities, theorists must, and do, contend with questions of power in its communal, social, organizational, political, and/or other institu- tional manifestations. To put the point somewhat differently, DNA science doesn’t tell genes what to do; but interpretive social science of necessity engages a social world that acts and re- sponds, to its own meaning making, at least, and potentially to the meaning making of the scien- tific community; and such action perforce involves interpretive science with issues of power, institutions, and other engaged concerns. As will be clear in the chapters in parts II and III of this book, one can find among interpretive researchers a continuum from the more critical to the less critical (in a critical theory sense; meaning, with greater and lesser explicit attention to and reflexivity about power issues and the social realities of institutions). The critique does not seem appli- cable to all interpretive research.
In addition, applied to neighborhoods, communities, organizations, states, public policies, governmental decision making, and other empirical settings, interpretive approaches are argu- ably more democratic in character than analyses informed by methodological positivism: they accord the status of expertise to local knowledge possessed by situational actors, not just to the technical expertise of researchers. Much of the work to date in interpretive policy analysis, for example (e.g., Colebatch and Degeling 1986; Feldman 1989; C. Fox 1990; Hofmann 1995; Jennings 1983, 1987; Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003; Maynard-Moody and Stull 1987; Yanow 1996, 2003b), appears to be motivated by a desire not only to explain agency performance, but to make it more just, more equitable, more effective. Several theorists (e.g., Dryzek 1990; Hawkesworth 1988; Jennings 1983; Schneider and Ingram 1993, 1997) argue, further, that interpretive analysis presupposes or requires an ethical commitment to a more democratic policy process and analysis.
Interpretation as a method, then, is conducted as “sustained empathic inquiry” (Atwood and Stolorow 1984, 121), in which empathy constitutes an intentional embracing of the other’s meaning. Studying the lifeworld of research site members and the political, organizational, and/or communal artifacts they embed with meaning, as hermeneutics would argue, entails a decentering of expertise on the part of the researcher. Accessing local knowledge of local conditions accords legitimacy to those for whom this is their primary experience, their lifeworld. It thereby shifts the researcher’s expert role from technical-rational subject-matter expertise to process expertise, in knowing how to locate and access local knowledge and make it the subject of reflection, publicly discussable. It is a radically democratic move within the presently dominant conceptualization of organizational, policy, and other expert-based analyses.
In sum, scientific practices that focus on meaning and meaning making in specific situational contexts and on processes of sense making more broadly are informed by interpretive philosophies and presuppositions. They are concerned with understanding the lifeworld of the actor in the situation(s) being studied, but they also reflect on the problematics of (re)presenting that lifeworld and those meanings, including the role of the researcher as an actor in doing so, and they engage the role of language and other artifacts in constructing and communicating meaning and social relationships in that lifeworld. Research begins from the presupposition that social reality is multifold, that its interpretation is shaped by one’s experience with that reality, and that experiences are lived in the context of intersubjective meaning making. The researcher engages these meanings through various methods that allow access to actors’ meanings. Interpretation operates at several levels: that of the situational actor and/or the researcher experiencing and interpreting an event or setting; of the researcher interpreting conversational interviews with situational actors and situation-relevant documents and extending those interpretations in preparing a report; and of the reader or audience interpreting the written or oral report. In this view, all knowledge is interpretive, and interpretation (of acts, language, and objects) is the only method appropriate to the human, social world when the research question concerns matters of human meaning.