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date: 14 December 2019

Interpretivism: Definitions, Trends, and Emerging Paths

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. Please check back later for the full article.

Since the 1980s, scholars disputing the hegemony of positivist methodologies in the social sciences have promoted interpretive approaches, creating discussions about methodological pluralism, and enabling a slow and often resisted proliferation of theoretical diversity. Within this context, interpretivism acquired a specific definition, which encompassed meaning-centered research and problematized positivist ideas of truth correspondence, objectivity, generalization, and linear processes of research. By critiquing the methodological assumptions that were often used to make positivism appear as a superior form of social science, interpretive scholars were confronted with questions about their own knowledge production and its validity. If meanings could be separated from objects, if phenomena and identities could be constructed, and if observers could not step out of their situated participation within these constructions, how could scholars validate their knowledge?

Despite important agreements about the centrality, characteristics, and intelligibility of meaning, interpretivists still disagree about the different ways in which this question can be answered. Scholars often use diverse strategies of validation and objectivize their interpretations in different degrees. On one end of the spectrum some poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial scholars renounce methodological foundations of objectification and validation as much as possible. This opens the possibility of empirically researching epistemic assumptions, which scholars interpret either as components of dominant discourses or as alternatives that create possibilities to think about more multiplicity, difference, and diversity. On the other side a number of constructivist, feminist, and critical scholars attach meanings to social structures and view their interpretations as reflecting parts of intersubjectivities, lifeworlds, cultures, etc. Because they use their own strategy to objectify interpretations and solve the methodological question of validity, scholars on this end of the spectrum tend either to pursue empirical research that does not analyze epistemic dimensions or to generalize particular experiences of domination. This disagreement not only influences the kind of empirical research that scholars pursue, but also creates some differences in the definitions of key interpretive notions such as power relations, reflexivity, and the role of empirical evidence.

Within these agreements and disagreements, interpretivism created an overarching methodological space that allowed for the proliferation of theoretical approaches. Since the 1980s, poststructuralist, feminist, constructivist, neo-Marxist, postcolonial, green, critical, and queer theories have sought to expand the study of meanings, uncover aspects of domination, listen to previously marginalized voices, unveil hidden variations, and highlight alternatives. Some of the branches of these theories tend toward different sides of the methodological spectrum, but the opening of this interpretive space has allowed for scholars to deconstruct, reconstruct, and juxtapose meanings, contributing to the field from different perspectives and within particular empirical areas of research. Moreover, this diversifying process continues to unfold. Approaches such as the decolonial perspective that emerged in Latin American studies continue to infiltrate international studies, creating new transdisciplinary debates and promoting other possibilities for thinking about international and global politics.