THE EXPRESSION OF MEANING: HERMENEUTICS AND ARTIFACTS

DVORA YANOW

For hermeneutic scholars, by contrast, among them Dilthey and Gadamer, the focus of social scientific study was to be the cultural artifacts people created and vested with their values, beliefs, and/or sentiments—that is, the material manifestations or objectifications of mind, conscious- ness, and so on, rather than consciousness itself.

Hermeneutic thinkers focused on the fact that human meaning is not expressed directly. Rather, it is embedded in (or projected onto) artifacts by their creators, and it can be known through interpreting these artifacts. Initially, this meant interpreting the written word: Given its origins as a set of rules for interpreting biblical texts, hermeneutics’ initial concern in its application to the social world more broadly was with written artifacts (including, e.g., fiction, poetry, and nonfic- tion; here is where the linkage between interpretive methodologies and mid- to late-twentieth- century literary theories emerges).24

Hermeneutic modes of thought were extended first to text-like objects: other forms of creative expression that were or could be rendered in whole or in part on paper, in two dimensions—art (paintings, drawings, prints), design, drama; subsequently, this grew to include photography, film, and so on, as well as three-dimensional materials, such as sculptures and built spaces (e.g., agency buildings). By even later extension, acts also came to be treated as “text-analogues” (Taylor 1971) under the reasoning that in seeking to understand daily behavior, we treat human acts, too, as if they were texts (for example, the act of voting; see also Ricoeur 1971). This greatly expanded the realm of application of hermeneutic methods, to include such things as conversa- tions, speeches, legislative acts (and their transcriptions), and nonverbal communication.25 Eth- nographic, participant-observation, ethnomethodological, and semiotic analyses—indeed, any method that seeks to elicit meaning by rendering spoken words and/or acts as written texts and applying to them forms of textual analysis—are based on this conceptualization of speech, act, and meaning.26 In this volume, the chapters by Joe Soss and Frederic Schaffer on interviewing, Clare Ginger on environmental impact assessments, Cecelia Lynch and Jutta Weldes on gov- ernmental documents, Dean McHenry and Ronald Schmidt on words and categories framing political action, and my own on built space could be seen as examples of hermeneutic analysis. The chapters analyzing the meanings of historical documents—by Ido Oren, Robert Adcock, Mark Bevir, Patrick Jackson, and Pamela Brandwein—could also be seen as forms of herme- neutic analysis.

Kantian notions of a priori knowledge were manifested in hermeneutic thinking in the idea of the hermeneutic circle. The term has been understood as meaning both a process of reasoning and interpreting, and the community of “readers” (interpreters) engaged in that process and shar- ing the interpretation of the text under study.27 As a description of the process of meaning making, it departs from a linear model (such as the steps of the scientific method), instead depicting a circular, iterative sense making in which initial interpretation starts at whatever point is available or accessible, with whatever one’s understanding is at that point in time. One makes a provisional interpretation of the text (or other focus of analysis), with the reflexive awareness that one’s interpretation is likely to be incomplete and even possibly erroneous. One then engages the mate- rial in further study, at which point one revises one’s initial, provisional interpretation. Additional analysis yields further revised interpretation; and so on and so on.28

A slightly different explication of the hermeneutic circle emphasizes the contextual character of interpretive processes. Much

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as a word in a sentence needs to be (and is) understood in relation to the whole sentence (its grammatical structure, other words, the tone and context of utterance), a text can only be understood within its “context,” whether this is the author’s intent and personal back- ground, the history of the times, other associated or contrasting texts, or something else.29 The hermeneutic circularity resides in reading back and forth, iteratively, between text and context. This process description gave rise to the understanding that “intertextuality”—the way in which one text invokes another through the repetition of a unique or key phrase, thereby drawing the other text’s meaning into the understanding of the focal one—is operative among text analogues as well. An agency building might invoke a Greek temple through architectural details, for example, thereby bringing the meanings associated with antiquity or the classical period into the present context, affecting how the agency is perceived. This has been common, for instance, in certain periods with the architectural design of public buildings, such as libraries, courthouses, and museums.

And so it goes, on and on: Further layers of understanding are added as each new insight revises prior interpretations in an ever-circular process of making meaning. Interpretations are, therefore, always provisional, as one cannot know for certain that a new way of seeing does not lie around the corner (the “1491 problem” in respect of certain truth—the certain knowledge in 1491 that the world was flat). There is no more absolute and definitive an end point than there was a starting point. Certainty rests on other elements (see chapters 4 and 5); finality is only temporal. This understanding is recapitulated in a vision of scientific research as ongoing and recursive and why doctoral students (and others) are commonly directed to conclude their dissertations with “directions for subsequent research.” The hermeneutic circle, then, enacts the attitude of doubt or testability that is one of the hallmarks of scientific practice.

The idea of the hermeneutic circle could be seen as a conceptual shift from phenomenology’s emphasis on prior experience as shaping understanding to the conception of prior reading in that knowledge-shaping role—literally, when working with written texts; figuratively, in considering hermeneutic applications beyond the literal to text analogues. Gadamer’s hermeneutics brings it closer to phenomenology. One of Gadamer’s departures from Dilthey was his observation that the hermeneutic circle describes all sense making processes in general, not just text-based ones.30 For Gadamer, verstehen is the process through which researcher and researched come to under- stand each other’s frame of reference, with language playing the central mediating role in interpretation (Burrell and Morgan 1979, 238).

Combining the hermeneutic focus on texts as vehicles for conveying meaning with the phe- nomenological consciousness that researchers, too, act from an experientially informed stand- point has led to an awareness of the ways in which writing, itself, is a way of world making. Research designs, formulations of questions, choices of observational sites and persons interviewed, analytic frames, and writing all construct perceptions of the subject of study, rather than objectively reflecting it. Interpretive research reports increasingly include researchers’ reflections on this process, a practice that itself constitutes a significant departure from positivist-qualitative writing. It has become increasingly common in ethnographic writing to find in methods chapters not only extensive discussion of the physical setting of the research and the political, economic, and/ or sociocultural characteristics of the people studied but also reflective descriptions of the re- searcher and his background and how these might have affected observations, interactions, and what was learned and seen. Diane Singerman (1995), for example, and Samer Shehata (2004; see also chapter 13, this volume), in their respective studies of neighborhoods and organizations in Cairo and Alexandria, reflect on their own researcher-identities at the time as Americans, as female and male, as Jew and as Muslem, as unmarried people of marriageable age, as educated beyond the local norm, and so on. The point of such explicit reflexivity is to examine the ways in which their own “positionality” potentially shapes the ways researchers generate their data and analyses, as Shehata discusses at length in his chapter.

Acknowledging the ways in which writing practices—from what one chooses to reveal about oneself as a researcher to word choice to the construction of a logical argument—create the social reality one is writing about has led several authors to argue that writing, itself, is a method (e.g., Richardson 1994). Some have even argued for the role of their “informants” or study subjects themselves as coauthors or cocreators of the research; among these scholars, some reflect also on the dimensions of power that are inscribed through this process on the setting and/or participants in question (see Behar 1993 for one example). At the very least, such arguments enable us to under- stand that interpretation does not stop with the experience of an event or its narration. Rather, inter- pretive moments continue in the writing of research findings, too, a point I will return to below.

What phenomenology seeks to bracket, hermeneutics has made central; where phenomenol- ogy focuses on processes of perception, hermeneutics focuses on principles of interpretation. In methodological practices, the distinctions are subtle. Seen from outside the procedural steps of specific methods, from a perspective that seeks to understand the central shift from methodological universalism in search of generalizable principles to contextualized meaning making, the two approaches bear a family resemblance.

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