UNDERSTANDING VERSTEHEN: INTERPRETIVE GROUNDING

DVORA YANOW

Phenomenology and hermeneutics took as points of departure first the fact that the researcher’s perspective shaped the generation of knowledge, and second that the way to study human actors was through verstehen—understanding—as that concept was developed initially by Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber.

In addressing the question of how things might be known, early interpretive thinkers (e.g., Johan Gustav Droysen, Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert) turned to Kant’s central idea that knowing depends on a priori knowledge.10 The individual was under- stood to bring prior knowledge to his or her experiences, thereby giving shape to the myriad sensate stimuli (such as light and sound) vying for attention. That is, humans do not perceive the

world “bare”—as it is—without some preestablished “conceptual boxes” (Kuhn 1970) or catego- ries of thought structuring that perception and “filtering” various physical sensations.11 Roberson’s research on colors provides an example. It addresses one of the central questions in linguistics concerning whether language structures perception and thought.12 Roberson and her colleagues (Roberson 2005; Roberson, Davies, and Davidoff 2000) have found, among the groups they have studied, that the respective presence and absence of color terms enables or prohibits the percep- tion of those colors. Furthermore, development of additional terms enables an enhanced aware- ness of the colors those terms refer to. In other words, the thought categories exist independently of the sensory stimuli. In a conceptual sense, evidence is not manifest in the observational world— it is not “self-evident”; categories of mind are prerequisite to making sense of the phenomenal (empirical) world. If the point holds for elements whose objective reality we take so for granted as part of the physical world, such as colors, how much more is it the case for social scientific constructs such as “democracy” or “community”?13

“New” knowledge, then, is understood as being produced not through disembodied reason but through the situated context of the “knower” producing it. Admitting prior knowledge into the realm of scientific inquiry implies a basis for knowledge claims other than the direct physical experience of sensory stimuli. This is not an argument that dismisses the role of the senses in perception—the senses are central to “making” sense. It is, however, an argument that sense making is an historically and socially contextualized process and that the subject of study is itself historically and socially situated. Understanding is not possible from a position entirely outside of the focus of analysis: Prior knowledge is a mediating factor in sense making. This, in turn, is itself implicitly an argument against the understanding of objectivity posited by quantitative methods informed by methodological positivism (see chapter 4). Other interpretive philosophers, such as Rickert, argued further that human values (themselves not sense-based), and not just “sense data,” were the appropriate focus of a meaning-oriented social science.

It was in such conversations about the purpose of science and its natural-physical versus hu- man subject matter that the distinction between explanation (or prediction) and understanding emerged. Explanation (erklaren in German) was posited to be the method of the natural and physical sciences, understood to entail a description of concepts or objects or processes in terms of their antecedent causes, thereby leading to the discovery of universal, predictive laws. Ex- planatory processes aim to explain human experiences in terms of natural or physical events external to them—that is, through attending to “objective” events rather than to “subjective” (internal) ones. By contrast, understanding (verstehen), posited as the method of the human sci- ences, was seen as entailing making clear people’s interpretations of their own and others’ experi- ences, leading to the discovery of context-specific meaning. Verstehen, then, concerns human subjectivity and intersubjectivity as both subjects of and explanations for human action. First devel- oped as a distinction in the mid-1800s by Johan Gustav Droysen, the concepts were elaborated on by Dilthey and Weber writing in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and later by Alfred Schütz (see Beam and Simpson 1984; Burrell and Morgan 1979; Fay 1975; Filmer et al. 1972; Polkinghorne 1988).14 In Dilthey’s framing of it, the method of verstehen was to understand material, cultural expressions as the external manifestations of human mind: These could only be understood “in relation to the minds which created them and the inner experience which they re- flected” (Burrell and Morgan 1979, 229). Initially comprehended as requiring the reliving or reen- acting of the other’s experience, verstehen was developed by Weber to mean the more detached understanding of the research subject’s experience—that is, his or her subjective sense making.

In this approach, the individual is seen as holding membership in a community of meaning, such that his subjective perception and understanding themselves draw on the repertoire of collectively created and sanctioned meanings particular to that community and shared within it by its mem- bers. The community’s traditions, practices, language, and other cultural elements provide the material out of which individuals craft their meaning making of everyday events. Understandings of “race” and “ethnicity,” for example, are specific to political communities and sanctioned and maintained through institutionalized state practices. “Race-ethnic” categories in Australia, for example, are based on language of birthplace, whereas U.S. categories reflect continent of (an- cestral) origin (Yanow 2003b). These collective understandings provide the backdrop for indi- viduals’ constructions of their own meanings; individual subjectivity, in other words—the contents of individual consciousness (or mind)—is embedded within social practices and collective pre- suppositions. Verstehen denotes the intentional ferreting out by another person of that mental framework—the framework that “stands under” the individual’s actions. “Far from being ex- otic,” as Hawkesworth notes (personal communication, May 22, 2004), “verstehen underlies our most basic comprehension of others’ meanings and actions, such as the ‘road rage’ that is so comprehensible to commuters.” It generates explanation that is context specific, rather than a set of generalized predictive laws.

A central implication of Kant’s thinking is that if a knower comes to a study with a priori knowledge, and that shapes or filters what she apprehends, then knowing cannot be said to pro- ceed through direct, unmediated observation alone. Something intercedes or filters between sen- sory perceptions and sense making. Verstehen developed against the notion that the meaning of sense-based “facts,” seen by positivists as external to human actors, was readily apparent and could simply be grasped (Begreifen, in Weber’s terminology) by an external observer. In the reasoning of Weber, Schütz, and others, to the extent that human acts and other artifacts are the projections or embodiments of human meaning, they are not, then, completely external to the world of their cre- ators and of others engaging them (including researchers), and so their meaning must be understood (or interpreted). Verstehen is in this sense not “understanding” simply put, but a proactive, inten- tional, willed effort to understand from within—in some instances, not only addressed to the other’s meaning, but also to one’s own (“the Self,” as the German-language writings put it).15

With these positions as shared points of departure, phenomenology and hermeneutics empha- size different focuses for study, differing on what each sees as the central locus for the expression of human meaning.

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