Verstehen: Study of Social Action



    • Verstehen is the procedure by which sociologists gain access to the meanings behind human actions.


    • Concept of Verstehen: 
      • It translates to ‘understanding’ in German. 
    • It became a critique of the positivist and naturalist approaches to sociology prevalent in the 19th century. 
    • It argues that human actions cannot be analysed by merely adopting the research methods followed in natural sciences with ‘absolute objectivity’. 
    • Way of Working:
      • Verstehen requires researchers to place themselves in the position of the individual.
        • Observe the person to see and comprehend the meanings behind their action and 
        • The meanings attached to the motivation, purpose or outcomes of their actions. 
      • This becomes important as actions can have different meanings in different cultures and societies. 
      • Without proper investigation, one is at risk of misinterpreting the data collected. 
      • To avoid the risk of misinterpretation that may lead to a misguided grouping of actions, one needs to understand the meaning attached to an action by an individual before ascertaining the cause of the action.
    • Example: 
      • Body gestures, which can be misleading if not contextually understood. 
      • Different meanings are attached to various body gestures like handshakes, hugs, waving, and clapping among others in different cultures. 

    Types of Versetehen

    • Weber distinguished between two types of understanding:
      • Aktuelles Verstehen: It is also known as direct observational understanding
        • Here, a researcher observes what an individual was doing. 
        • Observation of a person cooking or writing could be an example of this. One can confirm and determine the meaning of the action by simply observing it
        • However, observational understanding alone is not sufficient to explain human action. 
      • Eklarendes Verstehen: It is also known as empathetic understanding.
        • Here, a researcher attempts to understand the meanings attached to an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it
        • This requires them to find the reasoning behind an action.
        • To interpret such actions and the purpose behind them, Weber argued that one had to get into the shoes of the people doing the action.

    Max Weber

    • He was one of the founding fathers of sociology
    • The Concept of Verstehen was made popular by him.
    • He believed that the interpretation of human actions through recognition and empathy was crucial for a better understanding of social phenomena in society. 
    • According to him, changes were caused when society encouraged certain types of motives for actions by individuals which then led to changes in society, making human actions equally relevant in understanding social change. 
    • In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he explained that the emergence of Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism, promoted frugal living, saving money and business investments because success and profit-making were attributed to God’s satisfaction with the person’s actions
    • This religious idea eventually led to the emergence of capitalism in northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the most relevant structural changes in human history.
    • There are four ideal types of social actions: No social action is purely just one of the four types. These types are simply used as a tool to look at real actions and categorise them. 
      • Traditional social action: It refers to actions controlled by socio-cultural norms in the society. 
      • Affective social actions: They are determined by one’s emotional state wherein one might not think of the consequences of actions. 
      • Value rational social actions: They are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behaviour
      • Instrumental-rational social actions: They are carried out to achieve a certain goal. 

    Motives Behind Social Action

    • Social action determines structural transition in society. 
    • The causes and meanings attached to it are important in understanding what pushes social change
    • Modern society is obsessed with efficiency and utilitarianism, encouraging instrumental-rational social actions. But, it is important to look at other aspects that may influence human actions, like motivation to do the work, desired ‘end’ of the action.
    • Motivations behind a social action cannot be simply observed as one observes the outcome of a science experiment. 

    Criticisms of the Concept

    • The interpretations arrived at through Verstehen could not be easily validated as the researcher’s understanding.
    • Biases influence their interpretation of actions. 
    • The concept still largely focused on society’s role in encouraging certain actions which then led to social changes. This was critiqued by scholars after Weber through various theories.


    • Verstehen, through its ‘deep understanding’ of individual actions, aims to help social science researchers in comprehending social actions and structural changes in society.

    Source: TH