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Interpretation and Social Knowledge

On the Use of Theory in the Human Sciences

For the past fifty years anxiety over naturalism has driven debates in social theory. One side sees social science as another kind of natural science, while the other rejects the possibility of objective and explanatory knowledge. Interpretation and Social Knowledge suggests a different route, offering a way forward for an antinaturalist sociology that overcomes the opposition between interpretation and explanation and uses theory to build concrete, historically specific causal explanations of social phenomena.

216 pages | 12 line drawings | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2011

Sociology: General Sociology, Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


“Reed establishes himself as one of the discipline’s finest young minds…. He comes equipped with equal doses of intellectual equanimity and argumentative bravado. Both are needed, for Reed’s goal is nothing short of convincing the reader that the sociological circle can indeed be squared in a way that should satisfy (most of) the parties involved.”

American Journal of Sociology

“One of the considerable achievements of Reed’s book is…its explication of how sociological theory contributes to knowledge. Reed shows how theory provides richer understandings of social phenomena… Reed is correct that there is a need to reach a better understanding of the status of the knowledge generated through interpretation and the epistemological innovation that is signaled by the notion of forming causes is definitely worth developing… Interpretation and Social Knowledge deserves a wide readership.”

International Sociology

“[Reed] draws widely—and successfully—on a number of classical and contemporary theoretical and empirical sources to develop a cultural sociology that is designed to furnish a new approach to social knowledge across the social sciences… This is an excellent contribution to cultural sociology and social theory.”

Cultural Sociology

“Whoever thought that sociological theory has little to say today should read this book by Isaac Reed, which is full of life and interesting new ideas. The author surveys and comments on the core ideas in modern sociological theory in a very useful and knowledgeable manner. He also presents a promising new alternative, which he terms interpretivism and which brings together some of the most fruitful ideas in the sociological tradition. Read and enjoy!”

Richard Swedberg, Cornell University

“Isaac Reed has taken on a very large task in this taut and well argued book. Coming after several decades of debate about the forms and possibilities of knowledge in the human sciences, he seeks to separate strong and weak arguments for different epistemic modes that have developed in the social sciences, especially those where social meanings are thought to be part of the explanation of the objects of analysis. He gives arguments their just due, even when he is skeptical about some uses of their theoretical meta-assumptions. Although the book deals with what may seem to be very abstract matters, he beautifully uses the iconic works of a variety of major scholars, such as Geertz, Skocpol, Habermas, and Marx, to locate his argument in ongoing explanations of the social world.”

Mayer Zald, University of Michigan

“This pithy, deeply intellectual account—strongly based in classic sources and contemporary debates—demands the attention of the widest range of scholars in the social and historical disciplines because it offers all of us an understanding of how diverse practices contribute to our larger enterprise. Isaac Reed is a judicious and charitable reader of differing positions, and Interpretation and Social Knowledge offers an accessible mapping of the epistemological debates that have seized the attention of our most formidable scholars over the past fifty years, and more importantly, it provides a nuanced understanding of how social inquiry can and should proceed.”

John R. Hall, University of California, Davis

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Illustrations


Chapter One Knowledge
Chapter Two Reality
Chapter Three Utopia
Chapter Four Meaning
Chapter Five Explanation



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