Research Article 11: Hermeneutics


Written by Dr Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil  

 Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally, hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written biblical text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc. In terms of communication, hermeneutics views inquiry as conversation and conversation as a source of data that can and should be used for research. Hermeneutics is now applied in all the human sciences to clarify or interpret, conditions in which understanding takes place.[1]

With the above in mind, hermeneutics can be defined as the aspect of a study that involves interpreting the event or events being studied, to deepen the understanding of the political, historical, sociocultural, and other real-world contexts within which they occur. Language and history play an important role in the interpretation of events and phenomena.

Hermeneutics represents a specific perspective on data analysis. In hermeneutics theories are developed or borrowed and continually tested, looking for discrepant data and alternative ways of making sense of the data.[2] It is not the purpose of hermeneutics to offer explanations or to provide authoritative rules or conceptual analysis, but rather to seek and deepen understanding. As a mode of analysis, it suggests a way of understanding or making meaning of, textual data. Objectivity is sought by analysing our prejudices and perceptions. Even so, ambiguity is not regarded as an obstacle to qualitative research and it is accepted that interpretation will sometimes be typical and perhaps even unique to a particular situation and context.

A hermeneutic approach, thus, is open to the ambiguous nature of textual analysis and resists the urge to offer authoritative readings and neat reconciliations. Rather, it recognises the uniquely situated nature, historically and linguistically influenced, and the ambiguous nature of interpretation, and offers such for readers to engage with, or not, as they wish.[3]

In the process of interpretation you, as the researcher, will inevitably add your own interpretation to text and, perhaps, review historical text if you regard it as necessary for whatever reason. In the process, you will also learn while contributing to the available knowledge in a particular field of study. Understanding occurs when you recognise the significance of the data that you are interpreting and when you recognise the interrelatedness of the different elements of the phenomenon.

A rather impressive number of human, religious and philosophical scientists elaborated on and added to the nature of hermeneutics. Two useful elaborations are, firstly, that experience, expression and comprehension are elements of hermeneutics and, secondly that hermeneutical analysis is a circular process, popularly called the hermeneutic circle.

The hermeneutic circle signifies a methodological process or condition of understanding, namely that coming to understand the meaning of the whole of a text and coming to understand its parts are independent activities. In this regard, “understanding the meaning of the whole” means making sense of the parts, and grasping the meaning of the parts depends on having some sense of the whole. The parts, once integrated, define the whole. Each part is what it is by virtue of its location and function with respect to the whole. In a process of contextualisation, each of the parts is illuminated, which clarifies the whole.[4] The hermeneutic circle takes place when this meaning-making quest involves continual shifts from the parts to the whole and back again.[5]

Hermeneutics focuses on interaction and language. It seeks to understand situations through the eyes of the participants. It involves recapturing the meanings of interacting with others, recovering and reconstructing the intentions of the other role players in a situation. Such research involves the analysis of meaning in a social context.

The hermeneutic data analysis process is aimed at deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning and therefore, in analysing the data you are searching for and unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning of the text. As a consequence, in designing your research you will deliberately plan to collect data that is textually rich and analyse it to make sense of the bigger picture or whole.[6]

Hermeneutics provides the philosophical grounding for the interpretive paradigms, including interpretivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, constructivism and phenomenology. It is also possible to associate and integrate hermeneutics with the critical research paradigms.

Hermeneutics opposes rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism and, consequently, is more suited to a qualitative rather than a quantitative research approach.

The second criticism of hermeneutics is that viewing inquiry as conversation might damage the validity of your research conclusions and findings.

In summary, hermeneutics seeks understanding rather than to explain; acknowledges the situated location of interpretation; recognises the role of language and history in interpretation; views conversation as inquiry, and is comfortable with ambiguity.[7] Understanding requires the interpretation of words, signs, events, body language, artefacts and any other objects or behaviour from which a message can be deduced. It is, therefore, not a paradigm based on theoretical knowledge only, but also practical actions or omissions.

In closing, the circular nature of hermeneutic investigation is questioned by some researchers because setting understanding as a prerequisite for understanding the parts and understanding the parts as a prerequisite for understanding the whole, is a catch twenty-two situation.

[1] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[2] J.A. Maxwell, 2013: 53.

[3] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[4] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[5] R.K. Yin, 2016: 336.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Loc. cit.

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.

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