Hermeneutic Analysis in Qualitative Research

Hermeneutic phenomenological research is an essential component of qualitative inquiry in the social and human sciences. Given the subjectivity of the social world around us, hermeneutics contributes to scientific knowledge by contextualizing data collection and data analysis. Read more about hermeneutic inquiry in this article.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. What is hermeneutics in simple terms?
  3. Branches of hermeneutics
  4. What is the difference between hermeneutics and phenomenology?
  5. What is hermeneutics research?
  6. How do you conduct hermeneutic research?
  7. Considerations for conducting hermeneutic research


Qualitative methods and interpretive research often rely on hermeneutic analysis, which carries the assumption that phenomena within the social world can only be understood in the greater historical and cultural context surrounding them. The data analysis resulting from a full consideration of hermeneutics holds great potential in fields such as sociology, cultural and social anthropology, theoretical and philosophical psychology, and more applied fields such as nursing research and education. To unpack this idea more fully, this article looks at the general concept of hermeneutics, its role in informing qualitative methods, and the importance of a hermeneutic philosophy in the qualitative research process.

Hermeneutics is an approach to theory and practice for interpretive research.

What is hermeneutics in simple terms?

In its simplest form, hermeneutics emerged as a theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of texts and symbolic content. The hermeneutic tradition, with its roots in ancient philosophical traditions, has evolved to become a cornerstone in the humanities and social sciences. The historical development of hermeneutics traces back to its initial use in interpreting religious scriptures and legal texts. Over time, it expanded beyond these confines, morphing into a comprehensive framework for understanding not only written texts but also oral narratives, cultural phenomena, and even social practices. This evolution reflects the growing recognition of the complexity and multi-dimensionality of human understanding and communication.

Central to hermeneutics is the concept of the hermeneutic circle. This foundational idea posits that understanding a text or a symbolic expression involves a dynamic interplay between the interpretation of its individual components and the comprehension of the whole. For instance, when interpreting a novel, one's grasp of a single chapter is enhanced by the broader context of the entire narrative, and this overarching understanding, in turn, influences the interpretation of each chapter. This circular process underscores the iterative nature of understanding, where each step informs and is informed by the other. It challenges the notion of linear, straightforward interpretation, suggesting instead that our understanding is inherently subjective and influenced by our preconceptions and the specific context of the text.

The contributions of Hans-Georg Gadamer have been pivotal in shaping modern hermeneutics. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics extended the discipline beyond the realms of textual interpretation, positing it as a fundamental aspect of human existence. He argued that understanding is not a passive receipt of information but an active, dialogical process. This process is inherently influenced by the interpreter's historical context and prejudices. Gadamer's hermeneutics emphasizes the role of history and culture in shaping understanding and scientific knowledge of the social world, highlighting the subjective and situated nature of all interpretation. His work reminds us that our interpretations are always colored by our historical and cultural backgrounds, and thus, understanding is not just about deciphering texts or symbols but also about self-reflection and acknowledging our own biases.

In the broader scope of qualitative research, Gadamer's insights into hermeneutics offer profound implications. His perspective encourages researchers to engage deeply with their subject matter, recognizing that their interpretations are influenced by their own backgrounds as well as the historical and cultural contexts of the phenomena they study. This awareness enriches the research process, fostering a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the complex tapestry of human experience. Hermeneutics, thus, becomes more than a method of interpretation; it transforms into a lens through which researchers can explore and understand the rich, layered meanings that underpin human social and cultural practices. In fields ranging from sociology and anthropology to psychology and education, hermeneutics offers a pathway to delve into the depths of human experience, uncovering insights that are as profound as they are essential for a holistic understanding of our world.

Branches of hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, as a field, has branched out into various sub-disciplines, each focusing on specific aspects of interpretation and understanding. These branches reflect the diverse applications and theoretical foundations of hermeneutics in different areas of study. Each of these branches of hermeneutics contributes to the richness of the field, offering diverse perspectives on the complex process of interpretation. Together, they highlight the multifaceted nature of understanding, underscoring the importance of context, dialogue, and reflexivity in the interpretive process.

Philosophical hermeneutics

Philosophical hermeneutics, primarily influenced by thinkers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger, focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of interpretation. This branch considers interpretation as a fundamental aspect of human existence, emphasizing that understanding is not just about analyzing texts but engaging in a dialogical process with them. Philosophical hermeneutics argues that our historical and cultural contexts deeply influence our interpretations. It highlights the subjective nature of understanding and the importance of self-reflection in the interpretive process. This branch has significantly contributed to the development of hermeneutic phenomenology, a methodological approach that combines the interpretive insights of hermeneutics with the descriptive focus of phenomenology to explore human experiences more profoundly.

Biblical hermeneutics

Biblical hermeneutics specializes in the interpretation of religious texts, particularly the Bible. This branch has ancient origins and has evolved to incorporate various interpretive strategies, ranging from literal to allegorical and historical-critical methods. Biblical hermeneutics seeks to understand not only the textual content but also the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts of biblical writings. It grapples with the challenges of translating ancient texts and applying their teachings to contemporary contexts, striving to balance respect for historical authenticity with relevance to modern life.

Postmodern hermeneutics

Postmodern hermeneutics emerges from the postmodern philosophy, which questions universal truths and emphasizes the plurality of perspectives. This branch challenges traditional notions of objective interpretation, arguing that all understanding is situated within a specific cultural and historical context. Postmodern hermeneutics is characterized by its focus on the role of power, ideology, and language in shaping interpretation. It often involves deconstructing texts to uncover hidden meanings and power dynamics, offering a critical lens through which to examine narratives and discourses.

Objective hermeneutics

Objective hermeneutics, despite its name, is not about achieving an 'objective' interpretation but rather about following a rigorous methodological framework to uncover the underlying structures of meaning in texts. Developed in the context of social sciences, it involves a detailed, step-by-step analysis of texts, often used in qualitative research. This branch is particularly interested in how social and cultural norms are reflected and reproduced in texts, and it emphasizes the importance of systematic analysis in revealing these structures.

Applied hermeneutics

Applied hermeneutics refers to the practical application of hermeneutic principles in various fields, including law, medicine, and psychotherapy. In law, it involves interpreting statutes and legal texts, considering not just the literal meaning of the words but also the intent of the legislature and the broader legal principles. In medicine and psychotherapy, applied hermeneutics helps practitioners understand patients' narratives, considering not only the clinical symptoms but also the patients' personal experiences and contexts. This branch demonstrates the versatility of hermeneutics and its relevance in practical, real-world settings.

What is the difference between hermeneutics and phenomenology?

Hermeneutics and phenomenology are both influential schools of thought in the humanities and social sciences, yet they differ fundamentally in their focus and approach. Hermeneutics, as previously discussed, is primarily concerned with the art and science of interpretation, particularly of texts and symbolic expressions. It explores how we understand or derive meaning from various forms of communication, considering the influence of historical, cultural, and personal contexts on this interpretive process. The core of hermeneutics lies in the belief that understanding is not a passive act but a dynamic interaction between the interpreter and the text or phenomenon. This interaction is influenced by the interpreter's preconceptions and the historical context of both the interpreter and the text.

In contrast, phenomenology is a philosophical movement that focuses on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience. Founded by Edmund Husserl, phenomenology seeks to explore and describe phenomena as they are perceived by individuals, without recourse to theory, deduction, or interpretation. This approach is rooted in the belief that it is possible to capture the essence of experiences by setting aside biases, assumptions, and pre-existing knowledge, a process known as epoché or phenomenological reduction. Phenomenology emphasizes the first-person perspective, aiming to uncover the fundamental nature of experience and consciousness. It involves a descriptive, rather than interpretive, approach to understanding human experiences, focusing on how things appear to consciousness in their immediacy.

The distinction between hermeneutics and phenomenology becomes more nuanced when considering hermeneutic phenomenology, a term that reflects an integration of these two approaches. Hermeneutic phenomenology, as developed by philosophers like Martin Heidegger and later expanded by Hans-Georg Gadamer, seeks to bridge the gap between the descriptive focus of phenomenology and the interpretive nature of hermeneutics. This approach acknowledges that our experiences are always already interpreted and that understanding these experiences involves an interpretive act that is informed by our historical and cultural contexts. Hermeneutic phenomenology, therefore, combines the phenomenological emphasis on direct experience with the hermeneutic recognition of the role of interpretation, context, and history in shaping our understanding. It offers a more holistic approach to exploring human experience, recognizing that our perceptions and interpretations are inextricably linked and that understanding involves both describing experiences as they are perceived and interpreting them within their broader contexts.

While hermeneutics and phenomenology share some common ground, particularly in their focus on human experience and understanding, they are distinct in their methodologies and emphases. Hermeneutics is centered around the interpretive process, considering the influence of context and preconceptions, whereas phenomenology is concerned with the direct, descriptive study of experiences as they are perceived. The integration of these approaches in hermeneutic phenomenology offers a comprehensive framework for exploring human experiences, acknowledging the intertwined nature of perception, interpretation, and context.

What is hermeneutics research?

Hermeneutics research is a qualitative research method that emphasizes the interpretive analysis of texts, communications, and human interactions. Rooted in the tradition of hermeneutics, this approach is concerned with understanding the meanings embedded within texts, spoken words, social actions, and even cultural artifacts. It operates on the principle that these meanings are not self-evident but are constructed and interpreted within specific historical, cultural, and personal contexts. Hermeneutics research is particularly adept at exploring complex social phenomena, delving into subjects where the subjective experiences, beliefs, and cultural backgrounds of individuals play a crucial role. Unlike quantitative research, which seeks to quantify and measure phenomena, hermeneutics research is inherently interpretive and embraces subjectivity, aiming to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of experiences and social realities of research participants. This approach is common in disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and history, where the interpretation of human behavior and cultural phenomena is central.

In hermeneutics research, the researcher becomes an active participant in the interpretive process. This involvement is based on the understanding that interpretation is not a neutral or objective act but is influenced by the researcher's own historical and cultural background, as well as their theoretical frameworks. Therefore, reflexivity – the process of reflecting on and critically examining one's biases, assumptions, and impact on the research – becomes a crucial aspect of hermeneutics research. Researchers engage in a hermeneutic circle, moving back and forth between the parts and the whole of the text or phenomenon they are studying, allowing their understanding to evolve iteratively. This process acknowledges that our initial understanding of a text or situation is provisional and subject to change as we examine the context and make new connections. Hermeneutics research, therefore, is characterized by a dynamic and recursive process of understanding, where interpretations are continuously revised and refined.

A notable variant within hermeneutics research is hermeneutic interpretive phenomenology, which combines the principles of hermeneutics with the methods of phenomenology. This approach is particularly concerned with understanding human experiences from the perspective of those who live them, while simultaneously interpreting these experiences within their broader social and cultural contexts. Hermeneutical phenomenology involves a careful and detailed examination of participants' narratives, seeking to uncover the underlying meanings and significance of their experiences. This method is especially valuable in fields such as health research, education, and psychology, where understanding individuals' subjective experiences and perspectives is essential. It provides a framework for researchers to explore not just what is experienced, but also how it is experienced and interpreted, offering rich, in-depth insights into the complexities of human life and social interactions. Hermeneutics research, with its emphasis on interpretation, context, and reflexivity, represents a powerful research method in qualitative research, enabling a profound and comprehensive exploration of the human condition.

How do you conduct hermeneutic research?

Conducting hermeneutic research involves a nuanced and reflective approach, where understanding the social context, interpreting research data, and contributing to human knowledge are central concerns. Researchers must be acutely aware of their own biases and preconceptions, as these influence every aspect of the research, from question formulation to data interpretation.

The process begins with the formulation of a research question that is open to interpretive inquiry. This question typically revolves around understanding meanings, experiences, or social phenomena, and it guides the entire research process. The next step involves the collection of research data, which in hermeneutic research, often comprises textual material, such as literary works, historical documents, or transcripts of interviews and conversations. However, it can also include non-textual data like cultural artifacts, practices, or observed behaviors, as long as these can be interpreted to uncover underlying meanings.

In hermeneutic research, data analysis is not a linear process but follows the principles of the hermeneutic circle. This means that researchers constantly move between understanding the parts of their data (such as individual interview responses or specific historical events) and the whole (the broader context of the study, including cultural, social, and historical settings). This iterative process allows for a deeper comprehension of the data, as each cycle of analysis sheds new light on both the parts and the whole. The interpretation of data in hermeneutic research is not about finding a single, definitive meaning but about exploring the range of possible meanings and how they resonate with the broader context of the study. Researchers engage in a dialogical process with the data, asking questions, forming interpretations, and then re-examining these interpretations in light of new insights. This dialogical process is critical in hermeneutic research, as it acknowledges the complexity and multi-layered nature of human knowledge and experience.

An essential aspect of conducting hermeneutic research is the reflexivity of the researcher. This involves a continuous process of self-examination and critical reflection on one’s role and influence in the research process. Researchers must be aware of how their social, cultural, and historical positioning affects their interpretation of the data. This awareness is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the research, as it helps to mitigate the impact of personal biases and preconceptions. Additionally, hermeneutic research often involves a collaborative aspect, where researchers engage with the perspectives of others, such as colleagues or participants, to challenge and refine their interpretations. This collaborative engagement enriches the research process, bringing in diverse viewpoints and reducing the risk of a singular, subjective interpretation.

Finally, presenting the findings of hermeneutic research requires a narrative that is both coherent and reflective of the research journey. Researchers must articulate not only their interpretations and conclusions but also the process through which they arrived at these insights. This includes discussing the hermeneutic circle, the role of reflexivity, and the interplay between the parts and the whole in the interpretive process. The findings in hermeneutic research are often presented as a rich, detailed narrative that weaves together the data, its context, and the researcher’s interpretation. This narrative approach allows for a deeper engagement with the audience, inviting them to understand the complexities and subtleties of the research. By meticulously detailing the interpretive journey, hermeneutic research contributes to the broader field of human knowledge, offering profound insights into the complex tapestry of human experience and social context.

Considerations for conducting hermeneutic research

When conducting hermeneutic research, several critical considerations must be taken into account to navigate its inherent complexities. Firstly, researchers must be deeply conscious of their own biases and preconceptions, as these can significantly influence the interpretive process. The subjective nature of hermeneutic research demands a high level of reflexivity, where researchers continually examine and articulate their own positionality and its impact on the research.

Another key consideration is the dynamic and non-linear nature of the hermeneutic circle, which requires researchers to iteratively move between understanding parts of the data and the whole context. This process can be challenging, as it often reveals multiple, sometimes conflicting, interpretations of the same data.

Researchers must also be adept at engaging with the social context of their study, understanding that texts and phenomena are deeply embedded in specific historical, cultural, and social frameworks. This engagement demands a comprehensive approach to contextual analysis, often requiring interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration.

Additionally, ethical considerations are paramount, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects or vulnerable populations. Researchers must ensure that their methods and interpretations respect the dignity and autonomy of participants and meaningfully represent their experiences and perspectives.

Lastly, the presentation of findings in hermeneutic research should not only convey the outcomes but also transparently communicate the interpretive journey, including the challenges and ambiguities encountered along the way. By addressing these considerations, hermeneutic research can yield rich, nuanced insights while maintaining rigor and ethical integrity.