Hermeneutics in Qualitative Research
Lisa Renning


All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematisation is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to thecountryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, pp. viii, ix)  

To define a concept such as hermeneutics within the parameters of a perspective built upon the foundation of multiple perspectives, intertextuality, contextuality, and situativty, seems to be a contradiction.   There is not one way of defining this term. Therefore, in the spirit of what I have found hermeneutics to mean, I have decided to look not only at several brands of hermeneutics in the field qualitative research, but to examine the historical development of the term.   For if to return to the “things themselves is to return to that world which preceeds knowledge…” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, pp. viii, ix), then to define the term “hermeneutics” without looking at the evolution of its meaning across history would be to devalue the very essence of this concept's being.

            Hermeneutics was “derived from the Greek verb, hermeneueuein, “to interpret” and from the noun, hermeneia, or “inerpretation” (Bryne, 1996).    Within the field of qualitative research this term still holds the connotation of   “interpretation”.    However, the depth and type of interpretation, and the object under interpretation has changed throughout history.   Originally, hermeneutics emerged as a response to the debate about interpretations of biblical scriptures (Byrne, 1996; Hunter, 2006).   Reformers of the Roman Catholic Church felt that the true meaning of the biblical texts could only be extrapolated through the lens of tradition. Without tradition a biblical text could not be interpreted.   To the contrary – and here we see the entry of a newer brand of hermeneutics – the Reformers believed that some version of the true meaning of these biblical texts could be derived from contemporary, ordinary readers, many of whom were not versed with the traditional viewpoints of Catholicism (Hunter 2006).   Shortly thereafter, Freidrich Ast offered a new view.   He believed that hermeneutics involved more than just the interpretation of biblical texts; rather, it involved interpreting text and uncovering the spirituality of both the person who reads the text and the author of that text.   For Ast, hermeneutics involved an attempt, through analysis of text, to re-create as much as possible, the original intention of the author without being limited by the lens of historical/religious tradition, nor the lens of contemporary culture (Hunter, 2006).

            Schleiemacher's view of hermeneutics still involved the interpretation of scriptures; however, his view was that the interlocutor needs to perform a rigorous psychological and historical analysis of these texts in order to arrive at an interpretation (Hunter, 2006; Byrne, 1996).   He believed in the “hermeneutic circle”, which is the belief that the object under inquiry cannot be fully understood without examining the object in its context. Also, the author's intentions could not be understood without looking at the texts within the perspective of their historical context.    Dilthey expanded Schleiemacher's vision of hermeneutics to include the interpretation of texts in the social sciences and in the fields of humanity. He believed that the texts humans produced were expressions of their world view.   He also felt that a particular world view could be shared by humans who shared the same context, and that persons were bound by intersubjectivity (Byrne, 1996; Hunter, 2006).

           Today, within the sphere of qualitative methods, the word hermeneutics seems to be interchangeable with the term phenomenology (Byrne; 1996). They are linked closely, but they in fact do have different implications to qualitative researchers.    Both phenomenology and hermeneutics are modes of analysis used by qualitative researchers to interpret data (Myers).   The two modes share the underlying assumption that interpretation of a text, or of an artifact, should be approached from a multi-perspective vantage point.   Edmund Husserl, a phenomenological philosopher believed the object under study and the subject studying that object could be separated (Byrne, 1996).    He believed that in order to understand what the subject knows about the object, that what is know can and should be bracketed.   This is more of a phenomenological point of view (Byrne, 1996).  

            However,   Martin Heidegger emphasized that the object and subject are not separable.   He believed that persons are “thrown” into the world and that the context of that world will shape their perspectives.   Heideggeran hermeneutics states that through the study of shared stated of being, articulated through dialogue (texts, and parts of texts), that common beliefs and practices can be revealed (Bryne; 1996).

              Hans-Georg Gadamer extended Heidegger's work on hermeneutics in much the same way Shleiemacher expanded upon Ast's work.   Gadamer stressed the importance of examining the historical and cultural consciousness embedded in artifacts (Bryne; 1996).   Gadamer criticized the emphasis on psychology and history of Dilthey's work (Godon, 2004).   He placed a great deal of emphasis on the idea of uncovering both the object and the subjects “prejudices”.   The relevance to current trends in qualitative research of this type of hermeneutics is that it implores the researcher to keep track of his her prejudices during the research. Rather than judging these prejudices, they become an integral part of the study. Peter Unger puts it like this, “As Gadamer (1965/1989b) commented, the social sciences must not suspend the subjectivity of the researcher—which would be impossible—but, rather, it must knowingly engage with his or her own prejudices in a continual meaning-bearing process. Challenging one's prejudices is done not to eliminate them eventually but to give them full play in their being challenged in dialogue” (Unger, 2005, p 5).   Gadamer offers a critical form of hermeneutics, whereby the analysis of conversations, whether that be through texts or other artifacts, the silent assumptions and prejudices embedded by a particular race, gender, or culture, are made visible.

            In conclusion, hermeneutics in the field of qualitative research seems to be a mode of analysis used to interpret artifacts.   I have described several ways this term has been conceived throughout history.   Although each of the perspectives on hermeneutics imply differences, I think that the application of any of these views rests on the same basic assumption; that is, one should consider many perspectives in order to provide the most accurate frame of understanding for the object under study.   The scope and type of perspective may bear differences; however, the core of hermeneutics rests on the premise of varied interpretations. Of course, this is all just my interpretation.

Back to concepts page.