Verstehen -Types, Examples, Characteristics, Criticism

The article gives an insight into the concept of Verstehen and how it was developed by eminent sociologist Max Weber. Further, it elaborates on the importance of Verstehen in understanding society and various social actions. The article also mentions different types and methods of verstehen. It also highlights the characteristics and importance of verstehen in day-to-day life. The article also paves way for examples pertinent to the usage of verstehen in understanding individuals and social circumstances.

It’s common to hear the expression “put yourself in my shoes” or “if the shoe was on the other leg”, meaning one cannot truly comprehend another person’s actions unless they’re in their position. This attempt to understand human actions and behaviour from a sociological perspective, in one word, can be defined as Verstehen.

Verstehen which literally translates into “to understand” is a popular concept in German Philosophy and is also used in social sciences but was brought into the limelight by eminent German Sociologist Max Weber in the late 19th Century. Verstehen is a subjective and interpretative assessment of society and individuals to understand their point of view rather than opting for the generalisation of facts or perceiving the objective reality of society. It strengthens the concept of antipositivism put forth by Weber. It is antipositivism belief that any social phenomenon can only be understood by considering the role individuals or entities played in its occurrence.

Verstehen delves deeper into understanding and comprehending the meaning behind a specific action. It understands the doers or the actor’s reason behind indulging in an activity. A Verstehen approach involves empathising with the subject rather than simply observing it. It allows the researcher or observer to live the thoughts and feelings of the subjects.

It is one tool that can be used with other research methodologies to gain an interpretative understanding of the topic at hand. As a result, we can better understand the meaning behind social happenings associated with the actor or the subject.

Weber further proposed and developed his theory of social action that is associated with Verstehen. According to Weber, interpretive sociology views each individual and his actions as its basic unit and its primary carrier of meaning.

In conclusion, Weber states that sociology reduces these concepts to understandable action, namely the purpose or source of motivation of participants or subjects. He believed that the concept and method of verstehen help to understand the motivation and reason behind an individual’s action and behaviour.

Types of verstehen

Max Weber has implied that one of the purposes of sociology is to understand social action, the reason behind that action and its aim and purpose. He further emphasised two methods to understand social happenings and actions.

Direct observational understanding-

  • As the name suggests, direct observation helps to grasp the emotions of an individual with the help of body language, facial expression or voice tones.
  • Observing an action helps to gauge the meaning behind a particular action.
  • Observation helps to confirm a hypothesis.
  •  For instance, if we observe an individual at work, doing his/her routine tasks. We can directly derive from observation the mood of the individual. The behaviour can also help us understand whether the individual is happy at work or not. But observing alone is not enough. Body language or facial expressions might sometimes conceal an individual’s honest thoughts and intentions. This is where the second type of Verstehen comes to use.

Empathetic Understanding-

  • Empathetic understanding is a method that helps the researcher to get into the shoes of the subject. It helps to understand the emotions which are triggered or involved while a certain individual does an action.
  • Body language alone can’t determine the reasoning or the objective of any happening or action by the doer. The motives of the subject help to further understand a situation in depth and derive its multiple facets.
  • For instance, whether or not a person is happy at their job can be guessed with the help of direct observation. But if the person quits the job, the intention behind it can be comprehended via empathetic understanding. Whether it was the lack of work-life balance or growth, the reason behind quitting a job can be understood by learning and understanding the subject’s standpoint.

Importance of verstehen –

  • The concept of Verstehen has been considered to be valuable in devising a hypothesis, and in analysing a subject at a preparatory level.
  • Verstehen means to understand deeply. It is a method that gives a better understanding of social happenings, events and individual decisions.
  • Sociologists have often described Verstehen as a social-scientific method to unveil and analyse social facts.
  • Verstehen focuses on the importance of looking beyond quantitative data like numbers, statistics or diagrams to understand a concept. As a result, it offers an additional emotional perspective on the topic at hand and gives the study a qualitative perspective.
  • In addition to adding volume to the data collected through the direct observation approach, the empathetic understanding approach also strengthens the hypotheses that can be presented.

Characteristics –

  • A conceptual approach to sociology, known as verstehen, was founded on a critique of positivist and naturalistic approaches to sociology, long dominant in the 19th Century.
  • It enables the researcher to put themselves in the position of the subject and interpret the meaning of any activity done by the subject.
  • Any action can have varying meanings and interpretations in different cultures and societies, so the concept of verstehen is essential to any research project.
  • The meaning or definition attached to an act can vary from person to person. The Verstehen approach provides a more individualistic understanding of a specific action by enabling us to understand the differences.
  • Weber studied social actions and believed that there are different motives behind them. For instance, some are undertaken to fit into the social norms while some are done to achieve a goal or are taken instinctively in an emotional state. He further believed that Verstehen can figure out the real intentions behind any action.

Examples –

  • The verstehen approach is also often directly or indirectly utilised by Governments to fulfil the need of their citizens. Observing the needs and requirements of the citizens of a country and understanding their needs is a difficult job but sometimes is quite necessary to formulate policies and reforms. Walking in the shoes of a common man is an experiment undertaken for ages by many Kings. Disguising themselves as common individuals and living life as their subjects proved to understand the ground-level problems and ignited suitable actions.
  • Marriage is different around the globe and it differs across cultures and societies. In some cultures, women are made to marry at a young age. While in some polygamy is common. Some cultures or societies make it mandatory for the newlyweds to stay with their family or in-laws. In some divorced is unacceptable. This phenomenon can be understood by interacting with individuals belonging to a specific section of the world. Every society has a history of traditions, norms and values. That can be understood with the help of verstehen. Observing the structure of marriages across the world and empathising with individuals will help get a deeper understanding
  • Verstehen also helps to figure out the emotional state of an individual with the help of body language and gestures. We often see a communication or interpersonal skills guide during HR interviews. They are there to observe the posture, facial expression and gestures of the interviewee and analyse their state of mind. It helps to figure out the mindset of the candidate and whether he/she is fit for the company.
  • Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a method often used by police, detectives or criminologists to understand the mindset and next step of a criminal. They try to think and act like a criminal they are looking to understand the motives behind the crime and it eventually leads them to the whereabouts of the offender or criminal. Sometimes the motive and reason behind the crime are used to track the criminal. Here the concept of verstehen comes to play since that social action is triggered by an event or any emotion and understanding that gives the desired result.

Criticism –

  • While understanding another person’s perspective, Weber’s approach to verstehen was criticized for allowing different interpretations to emerge. It will lead to an ambiguous understanding.
  • Moreover, it has been criticized for assuming that researchers’ understanding is the genuine emotion, motive or explanation behind the act. Since the reason can also be poles apart from what the researcher has derived and it will negatively impact the understanding of social action.
  • The criticisms explore that the researcher’s or observer’s bias comes in between the understanding and interpretation of subjects. Personal beliefs, faith or having knowledge and understanding of a topic might impact the process.
  • It has also been criticised that a person belonging to one society, culture or religion will find it hard to understand another without judgements or biases.

Verstehen acts as a tool to aid and assist the qualitative research method. It strengthens the findings and validates the information. It is considered to be one of the most important methods used by sociologists to do their research. It helps to understand the structural changes in society. Weber tried to develop a scientific method to study the dimensions of society and social actions.

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Isha Rane is a sociology graduate with a keen interest in research and analysis, focusing on areas such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Resources, and Public Policy. She is an avid reader, particularly enjoying books about the history and political scenario of India. Isha also likes to write about pressing issues and topics that require a voice in the conversation. Her career aspirations lie in the development sector. Additionally, she has a passionate interest in mythology and calligraphy.