The ‘Verstehen Approach’ in Sociological Research

Understanding the ‘Verstehen Approach’ in Sociology

The ‘Verstehen Approach’ is one of the methods of doing sociological researches.

Verstehen is a German word that means ‘understanding’ or ‘comprehension’ of sociological issues and problems.

A German sociologist Max Weber has developed this particular method or approach of sociological understanding and research.

Max Weber was of the view that Sociology must model itself on the natural sciences as far as possible. Since the subject matter of sociology is fundamentally different from the other sciences; it calls for an interpretative and subjective approach.

Hence, Max Weber called this subjective interpretation ‘Verstehen’ or ‘sympathetic understanding’.

But, this approach is in no sense a substitute for the scientific method of research. Wherever possible, the conclusions drawn from the subjective interpretation must be verified by the scientific method.

The Use of ‘Verstehen’ by Max Weber

Max Weber has used ‘Verstehen’ in his famous study of ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.

Weber believed that the Puritan Ethic (or the Protestant Ethic) was more favorable for the development of capitalism than the ethics of other religions such as Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.

According to Weber, it was because of the intrinsic support given by the Puritan Ethic that the Protestants accumulated and reinvested wealth instead of immediately spending it, as others were prone to do.

Such practice ultimately led to the creation of modern capitalism.

The above argument of Max Weber seems plausible, but there is no way to prove it scientifically.

Max Weber’s method was to put himself in the place of Puritan’s shoes in order to understand their real feelings and motives.

Thus, as Ian Robertson has pointed out,

“By combining his subjective interpretations of Puritan psychology with a rigorous analysis of the development of capitalism, Max Weber has enhanced the richness of his study”.

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