Hermeneutics: Interpretation, Understanding and Sense-making

Tomkins, Leah and Eatough, Virginia (2018). Hermeneutics: Interpretation, Understanding and Sense-making. In: Cassell, Catherine; Cunliffe, Ann L. and Grandy, Gina eds. SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods. Sage, pp. 185–200.


Gadamer (1989: xxxiii) describes hermeneutics as ‘a theory of the real experience that thinking is’. In this chapter, we explore two main aspects of this experience of thinking - interpretation and understanding. We draw on the work of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) to review the origins of modern hermeneutics as an activity of interpretation, and on Heidegger (1889-1976) and Gadamer (1900-2002) for hermeneutics as a philosophy of understanding. We consider the ways in which Ricoeur (1913-2005) and Habermas (1929-) move hermeneutics towards critical theory, challenging the trustworthiness of text and the possibility of understanding, and urging reflection on their ideological construction and motivation. We use the most famous idea in the hermeneutic canon, the hermeneutic circle, as a leit-motif for the chapter. This illuminates a range of mutually constitutive relationships between context and text, whole and parts, general and particular, anticipation and encounter, familiarity and strangeness, presence and absence, and sense and non-sense. We discuss how hermeneutics has influenced contemporary organization and management research, inspiring an array of interpretive methods and inviting critical reflection on personal and organizational sense-making.

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