Interpretation Theory

Interpretative Theories
The social world is a world made up of purposeful
actors who acquire, share, and interpret a set of
meanings, rules, and norms that make social
interaction possible.
In the school, children acquire a sense of society’s
way of life by learning its traditions, history, and its
norms of cooperation and public service.
Basic Assumptions Present in Both
Functionalist and Conflict Theory
Perspectives (Modernist Values)
• There is a universally true description of social
reality based on objective evidence
• There are standards that can be used for judging
whether an explanation is verifiable or not -- the
standard is to be found in substantiating theories,
laws, and hypotheses provided by the natural
• There is only one view which is scientific -- the other
views are ideological and politically motivated
Interpretation Theories: Characteristic
• Rejects the basic assumption – found in both
functionalist and conflict theories – that the natural
sciences (as commonly understood) provide an
appropriate model for understanding social life.
• No global political argument about the role of schools in
• Local rather than global orientation.
• Research focuses on interpretations, not on some
universal, political salient theory of explanation or single
true description of social reality.
• Qualitative-interpretivist-constructivist research
The Social Game
• Regularity: whether two events are the same depends not
only upon the events themselves but also upon the rules
that a particular community (be it social or scientific) uses
to identify sameness or difference (for example, saying
words, doing gestures, etc.)
• Universality: the primary task of social research is not to
uncover universal laws of regularities that can be applied to
any culture. It is rather to uncover the specific framework
that defines the rules and meanings of cultural life for a
specific social group.
• Society: Social behavior is role and rule following behavior
that requires human agency, interpretation, understanding,
and monitoring (it is not some kind of social engineering).
Socialization is learning how to be able to interpret and take
part in the “games” people and society “play.” The ability to
interpret what is going on is a key skill.
The act of interpreting
• The activity of interpretation occurs when there
is some kind of ambiguity or some event that
needs explication (e.g., a poem).
• People need to interpret what is going on in the
activities of social life so they can participate in
activities in ways meaningful to themselves and
to others:
– they need to know the point of an activity
– they need to know how to be a recognized participant
in the activity
– they need to know what constitutes engaging in the
Interpretive scholarship in education
Interpretation involves a reading of some kind of “human text.” It is like a
hypothesis, a sophisticated guess that things will turn out a certain way, if
tested against the facts of the social “text.” As more of the social “text” is
“read,” the interpretation becomes more, or less, “validated” (during this
reading one should remain within the social “text”).
Two forms of scholarship in education:
– looking at the intentions and reasons of individuals in classroom
– looking at the shared system of meanings found within a school
Ethnographic research in education: educational researchers should avoid
imposing their own theories on those who are the object of their studies –
we should try to understand the various meanings and rules of the game.
– classroom is a place where status and meaning are always negotiated –
success and failure are the results of the politics of everyday classroom;
– the proper unit of analysis for what people do together is what people do
together – social rules that structure individual behavior in a particular
group setting;
– a student may be competent in a whole range of activities except the
ones that the school defines as significant – we must explore the
meaning which a behavior has for the actor
Interpretive Theories
• Jackson: in order to appreciate the significance of trivial
classroom events consider the following three facts:
– frequency of occurrence of events (time spent in school)
– standardization of the school environment (odors, furniture,
rituals, etc.)
– mandatory attendance (compare with prisons, mental hospitals,
• Characteristics of school life (key words)
– CROWDS -----> playing the game of patience (see p. 18)
– PRAISE -----> playing the game of involvement in the school
tasks which includes the development psychological buffers that
help to cope with the wear and tear of classroom life (see p. 27)
– POWER -----> playing the game of power in a way that favors
the individual student (see pp. 32-33)
*See Chapter 1, Life in the Classrooms, by Philip Jackson (University of Chicago Press)
School and Society
• Socialization is not a passive process of imprinting and
habituation, like the acquisition of habits, attitudes,
beliefs of the older members.
• Well socialized members of a group need not share all
the attitudes and beliefs of other members of their group,
they may be behavioral variations
• The members of a group share a structure of intelligibility
that enables communication and inter-subjective
understanding to take place. This structure provides a
foundation for shared commitments to be expressed
• Schools develop in students a shared social structure of