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Understanding (or Verstehen)

  When used in sociology verstehen (German, ‘understanding’) normally means ‘meaningful understanding’, that is the procedure by which individuals in society and sociologists interpret and are able to appreciate the meanings of others.

The concept of verstehen formed part of a critique within sociology of those who asserted that human actions could be studied from the outside, using the same methods as those used in the natural sciences. It was introduced into sociology by Max Weber (1881 - 1961), who believed that the job of sociology was to gain access to and recognize the meanings that people gave to their actions. Verstehen refers to the procedure by which sociologists can have access to the meanings of a situation for the individuals they study. It involves placing oneself in the position of those one wishes to study in order to appreciate the meaning they give to their action, what their purposes are, and the ends they believe will be served by their action.

Weber wished to take verstehen further by combining interpretation of action with causal explanation. Within sociology, however, there is some debate as to what he actually meant by this. Some have suggested that Weber meant that the meanings in themselves could function as causes of behaviour, others have suggested that he intended verstehen to be a way of generating universal causal laws. Weber does in fact seem to make references to ‘causes’ in both these senses. This has led some to conclude that within sociology as a whole Weber\'s approach represents a half-way location between a purely ‘positivist’ position, which has no place for the meanings of individuals in explanations of social behaviour, and ‘interpretative’ sociology, which has no place for causal analysis. For Weber, sociology should go as far as it could in making sociology a science, but not so far that the meanings of the individuals studied becomes lost. DA

See also action perspective; ethnomethodology; functionalism; idiographic; individualism; naturalism; phenomenological sociology; positivism; social realism; structuralism; structure; suicide; symbolic interactionism; values.Further reading W. Outhwaite, Understanding Social Life.



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