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Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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3.5 Features of interpretivism

Here is a summary of ten things you might find helpful to know about interpretivism.

  1. Interpretivists argue that people – unlike non-human forms of life – interpret their environment and themselves in ways that are shaped by the particular cultures in which they live. These distinctive cultural orientations shape what they do, and when and how they do it. Thus, quite different ways of life and associated beliefs about the world can be located at different points in history and also coexist (peacefully or in conflict) at any one time.
  2. Interpretivists recognise that not only are there differences between societies but there is also significant cultural variation within the large, complex societies in which most of us now live.
  3. Interpretivists argue that we cannot understand why people do what they do, why particular institutions exist and operate in characteristic ways, without grasping how people interpret and make sense of their world – in other words, the distinctive nature of their beliefs and attitudes.
  4. This emphasis on the importance of perceptions, intentions and beliefs does not in itself mark off interpretivism from all forms of positivism. A great deal of positivist quantitative research has been concerned with documenting things that are not directly observable, such as levels of intelligence or types of attitude, albeit seeking to do this through observable indicators like responses to tests and questionnaires. Positivists have generally assumed that it is possible to document recurrent or standard patterns of relationship – first between people’s background experiences and their attitudes, and then between their attitudes and their behaviour. By contrast, interpretivists suggest that these relationships are much more contingent and diverse, in the same way that historians have emphasised the uncertain course of history. It is not simply the playing out of a set of universal laws.
  5. By rejecting ‘the assumption of the uniformity of nature’ and ‘linear causal models’ (Gage, 2007), interpretivists need to employ different ways of investigating people’s perceptions and attitudes, how these are shaped by cultural contexts, and how they inform people’s actions.
  6. In doing so, interpretivism has encouraged a shift towards qualitative methods. This shift in methods occurs because the questions asked within an interpretivist paradigm differ from those asked within a positivist paradigm and, therefore, require different data.
  7. Interpretivists should adopt an exploratory orientation, one that tries to learn what is going on in particular situations and to arrive at an understanding of the distinctive orientations of the people concerned.
  8. The data should be structured as little as possible by the researcher’s own prior assumptions but, conversely, acknowledge the subjectivity which the researcher brings to the questions asked in a study and the attention paid to data.
  9. Even more than positivism, interpretivism has stimulated a range of different kinds of research, for example narrative and biographical designs, as well as participatory approaches which involve the participants themselves taking a role in research design and conduct.
  10. As Gage indicates, during the second half of the twentieth century, educational research in many Western societies moved away from positivist ideas about methodology, towards what might be called post-positivist approaches.

Activity 11 Taking an interpretivist perspective

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

You are now going to return to the scenario of making a cup of tea that you encountered in Activity 5 and Activity 9, for the final time. This time you will use the information in Sections 3.4 and 3.5 to adopt an interpretivist perspective on it.

A cup of tea on a table next to a book.
Figure 9 A further look at the cup of tea, this time from an interpretivist’s perspective

Make notes in response to the following questions:

  1. What might an interpretivist assume about the cup of tea?
  2. What might they want to know?
  3. How might they go about finding out about it?


Interpretivists would not want to make assumptions about the cup of tea. Instead, they would probably want to explore different aspects of the background to the tea drinking before focusing on the act itself.

You might have thought about how they would want to know a lot about the person making the tea, whether this was the same person drinking the tea, and why they came to make the tea at this point in time and place. This would probably involve thinking about the relationship between all people involved, their previous experiences of tea drinking and how these have led to the tea-drinking scenario at this place and time. It might also involve thinking about the choice of tea, the mode of making the tea and how this might be linked to personal and/or wider cultural practices of those involved.

Interpretivists are very likely to want to talk to individuals and ask them questions linked to their interests. This may even involve going back to individuals more than once after speaking to others and eliciting different insights, which then prompts the need for further discussion.

You will have come to appreciate that taking a paradigmatic position will impact on all aspects of a researcher’s decision making. In the next section, you will see that researchers are not faced with a simple choice between adopting one of two alternative positions and that the debate about which paradigms should underpin research remain.