Question Bukky Social Sciences

Interpretive and Critical theories of Sociology

What are the similarities between interpretive and critical theories of sociology.

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The interpretive sociological theory delineated by Weber (1991) relies not solely on hard data to explain the operation of society – an approach known as positivism – but rather uses the conceptualisations of various sociological actors to understand society.

The critical sociological theory posited by Horkheimer (1982) and others of the Frankfurt School seeks to identify and resolve lacunae that arise or are overlooked by interpretive theory. Critical sociological theory, however, does not dispute the conceptual foundations of interpretive theory, but rather seeks to build upon their strengths and resolve their flaws.

In the development of critical sociological theory, Horkheimer and Adorno (2016) drew upon the economics-located sociological conceptualisations of Marx. Marx, in his critique of capitalism, was essentially suspicious of purely sociologically determined conclusions, although he did not attempt to disprove but rather improve them by including critique from alternative viewpoints (Wheen, 2010). If interpretive sociology is focused on the achievement of understanding, critical sociology is focused on the raising of suspicion. The interpretive and critical theories of sociology may, however, be considered to be complementarily similar rather than acting in opposition, as critical sociology enhances the findings of its interpretive counterpart.

Interpretive and critical sociological theories, in addition to being conceptually complementary, must also be complementarily similar in the methodologies used in their execution. This is necessary in order to avoid the basic methodological error of ontological conflation (Easterby-Smith, 1997): in other words, sociological criticism must be founded on the same conceptual underpinnings as the sociological interpretivism it seeks to critique.


Easterby-Smith, M. (1997) “Disciplines of organisational learning: contributions and critiques” in Human Relations, 50 (9), pp. 1085-1113

Horkheimer, M. (1982) Critical Theory: Selected Essays, New York: Continuum

Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. (2016) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso

Weber, M. (1991) “The nature of social action” in Runciman, W. G. (ed.) Weber: Selections in Translation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wheen, F. (2010) Karl Marx, London: Fourth Estate