The Interpretive Turn

web page by Professor John Lye 

The Background to the 'Interpretive Turn'

The 'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent.

Nietzsche, in the mid-19th century, proposed that there are no grounding truths, that history and experience are fragmented and happenstance, driven by the will to power -- thus the categories that Kant held to be stable and transcendent, Nietzsche theorized as being changable and driven by historical forces.

Marx and Freud theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only indirectly, if at all, but which we can recover if we understand the processes of transformation through which our experience passes.

The Turn

What is new in the interpretive turn as a movement of thought in this century, is that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced into a particular sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine moment in history, and that they have resulted in methodological disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and the humanities. Meaning has been re-located from 'reality out there' to 'reality as experienced by the perceiver.

There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn:

  • an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed
  • the receiver of a message is a component of the message
  • information is only information insofar as it is contextualized
  • individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual worlds are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of talking about and imagining the world
  • the world of individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is constructed by and through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols, through language in particular
  • all cultures are networks of signifying practices
  • therefore all interpretation is conditioned by cultural perspective and is mediated by symbols and practice
  • texts entail sub-texts, or the often disguised or submerged origins and structuring forces of the messages.

In Summation

Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a pre-existing truth or meaning that is objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by interpreters in the context of their conceptual world. Neither the 'message' nor the interpretation can be objectively 'right', as each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and personal forces.

In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a text, a set of discourses which structure the world of the culture and control the culture's practices and meaning. Because of the way discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through, among and under them, at the same time reading oneself reading -- interpretation must be reflexive, the interpreter must be aware of her location and stance.