Qualitative Research: Implications of Hermeneutic Realism

Implications of Hermeneutic Realism

The purpose of this essay is to describe hermeneutic realism as an overarching philosophical commitment for qualitative research and to present its principal implications. Hermeneutic realism, based on the work Martin Heidegger and other hermeneutic philosophers, emphasizes an expressivist ontology and meaningful human participation, or what might be termed concernful involvement. 

Concern ful involvement allows for the disclosure of truth about aspects of the world; but truth, from this perspective, must be understood as unfolding, multifaceted, and inexhaustible. Hermeneutic realism, as a philosophical basis for qualitative research, offers four general implications concerning: (a) inquiry as a revelatory event, (b) disclosure as significant insight, (c) experience as concernful involvement, and (d) the centrality of temporal-narrative themes. These general implications are connected with specific research practices concerning qualitative researchers’ purposes, roles, framing assumptions, and data collection and analysis activities.


The implications of hermeneutic realism for social inquiry extend beyond procedural requirements or recommendations; and the shift it ushers in demands a more detailed exposition than what I can provide here. To offer a more accurate sense of what hermeneutic realism entails with regard to qualitative research, however, I set out four implications particularly relevant to inquiry focused on human agency as concernful involvement in the world.


Hermeneutic realism suggests that truth need not be theorized as either relative to whatever conceptual scheme or reality construction one entertains or representative of a single, underlying reality; rather, hermeneutic realism points to the open-ended nature of world and to the unfinishable character of inquiry—as every disclosure is, ipso facto, a concealing as well as an unconcealing, and the way a phenomenon expresses itself will depend on how researchers are involved in the situation and what they are able to discern, given their investigative practices. 

In conjunction with the theoretical commitments of participational agency, hermeneutic realism offers a philosophical backdrop with significant implications for social inquiry, namely, (a) inquiry as a revelatory event, (b) disclosure as significant insight, (c) experience as concernful involvement, and (d) the centrality of temporal-narrative themes. 

These implications do not channel researchers to specific methods, as in step-by-step models for conducting research, nor do they guide investigators to a particular orthodoxy regarding how to formulate questions, design studies, choose methods, and so forth. Hermeneutic realism merely provides a theoretical footing for inquiry into what is real or true without being tied to some form of substance ontology that undermines the project of inquiry into agency as something like concernful involvement. 

This backdrop, then, provides an opportunity for social inquiry to move in a variety directions guided by a variety of research approaches, but all with a deeper commitment to the open-ended study of meaningful human phenomena as meaningful human phenomena. 

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Bal, M. (2004). Narrative theory: Critical concepts in literary and cultural studies. London: Routledge. 

Boghossian, P. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. New York: Clarendon Press.

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