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Hermeneutics as described by Ricoeur (2004: 3-4), is an approach having its origins in:
exegesis, that is, within the framework of a discipline which proposes to understand a text – understand it beginning with its intention, on the basis of what it attempts to say. If exegesis raised a hermeneutic problem, that is, a problem of interpretation, it is because every reading of a text always takes place within a community, a tradition, or a living current of thought, all of which display presuppositions and exigencies – regardless of how closely a reading may be tied to the quid, to “that in view of which” the text was written.
In relation to the social sciences, hermeneutics seemed to offer Dilthy (1914) an appropriate approach . By focusing on the production of meaning by social agents rather than the observation of behaviour as in the natural sciences:
The human sciences are distinguished from the natural sciences in that the latter take as their object features which appear to consciousness as coming from outside, as phenomena, and as given in particulars; for the former, in contrast, the object appears as coming from within, as reality, and as a vivid original whole. It follows therefore that for the natural sciences an ordering of nature is achieved only through a succession of conclusions by means of linking of hypotheses. For the human sciences, on the contrary, it follows that the connectedness of psychic life is given as an original and general foundation. Nature we explain, the life of the soul we understand.
(source Howard 1982: 15-16; Dilthey 1914-, V: 143-144)
In asking what something means requires a focus upon the context within which it makes sense. If you take a text as a whole, then a particular word or phrase, or sentence or paragraph or chapter does not make sense without considering the whole of which it is a part. But then again, one cannot understand the whole without taking each of its parts into consideration.
Consider the following:
|General/typical case||instance of complicated case|
|Learning process||instances of learning|
|Decision process||instances of decision making|
This initial simplified analysis already maps out areas for further data collection in order to be able to describe how the parts relate to the postulated features, elements, dimensions of the whole. How do these parts and wholes relate to each other? How do these parts articulate the whole, and how does the whole make the parts possible? In the diagram below, the central axis may construct a downward sense of hierarchy, or a two-way flow of decision making as between the various roles. From each role perspective fans out to encompass the hospital, the ward or particular people like me. Each swirl of the spiral thus describes a 'level', an 'horizon' whose closure and completeness are more imagined than Real.
That tradition in qualitative methodology called hermeneutics is typically imagined as a spiral that moves between individual, say a consultant, and the greater whole of which he or she is a part, the hospital. Consultant, registrar, midwife and junior doctor form an intentional network that spirals through several contextual levels. Only by interviewing and observation can the complex intentional relations between each individual and each level be mapped through which their 'worlds', their experiences are constructed.
(Schostak 2002: extract from chapter 3)
Dilthey, W. (1914-) Gesammelte Schriften, 18 vols. Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner (vols 1-12); Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht (vols 13-18)
Howard, R. J. (1982) Three faces of hermeneutics : an introduction to current theories of understanding, Berkeley, London, University of California Press
Schostak, J.F. (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education. Framing the Project. Open University Press