A review of Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics and its application to interpretive accounting research

Muhammad Bilal Farooq (Department of Accounting, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Publication date: 10 September 2018

Abstract

Purpose

The study seeks to address the research question: “How can Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics be operationalized in an interpretive accounting research project”? The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to review the key hermeneutic concepts of philosophers Gadamer and Ricoeur; and second, to share insights from the researcher’s experience of applying Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics to an interpretive accounting research project.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper draws on the extant literature and the researcher’s own experience using hermeneutics theory in an interpretive accounting research project involving in-depth interviews with organisational managers.

Findings

The process of interpretation is described using the core concept of the hermeneutic circle where the reader and the text engage in dialogue. The readers’ pre-understandings play a key role in this dialogue and assist in drawing meaning from the text. However, it is necessary for the reader to adopt a critically reflexive approach remaining alert for both unproductive pre-understandings and hidden power structures and ideologies in the text being interpreted. Each reading of a text involves the completion of one cycle of the hermeneutic circle in which the reader transitions from pre-configuration to configuration and ultimately re-configuration concluding with the reader acquiring new horizons of understanding. The researcher’s experience of applying hermeneutic theory to an interpretive accounting research project are reflected on and nine lessons are offered.

Originality/value

These insights will prove valuable to interpretive researchers within the social sciences, including accounting and management studies, as well as those working in the natural sciences.

Keywords

Citation

Farooq, M. (2018), "A review of Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics and its application to interpretive accounting research", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 261-283. https://doi.org/10.1108/QROM-07-2017-1550

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Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


1. Introduction

Interpretive accounting research developed in response to demands for greater academic effort in examining accounting practices within organisational settings (Chua, 1986; Hopwood, 1983). This paradigm offers an alternative perspective to that of mainstream positivist accounting research (Parker, 2014), in which the investigator seeks “[…] to provide essentially rational explanations to social phenomena, based on objectivism” (Lukka, 2010, p. 112). In comparison, an interpretive paradigm has a strong subjectivist underpinning (Lukka and Modell, 2010) and is guided by a nominalist ontology (a view of reality as created by the social actors who experience it) and an anti-positivist epistemology (a view that knowledge is acquired directly through experience or indirectly through those who have experience). Interpretive researchers view the world as socially constructed; i.e., produced and reproduced through the actions and interactions of the social actors that inhabit or exist within that social reality[1] (Lukka, 2010). “Social reality is emergent, subjectively created, and objectified through human interaction” (Chua, 1986, p. 615). The aim of interpretive accounting research is to explore organisational “processes, practices and behaviours from the inside (opening the so-called black box of organisations) rather than simply observing them second hand and from afar” (Parker, 2014, p. 25). Interpretive accounting researchers capture and interpret the views and perspectives of social actors who have experienced the phenomena through direct engagement with these social actors (Elharidy et al., 2008; Parker, 2014). The researcher attempts to reconstruct the day-to-day actions and experiences of social actors who engage directly with the phenomena in question as part of their daily lived experiences (Chua, 1986).

However, interpretive research represents a broad paradigm open to a range of theoretical perspectives such as phenomenology, phenomenological sociology and hermeneutics amongst others (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Tesch, 1990). The focus of this paper is hermeneutics. The term hermeneutics comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein (to interpret), and the noun hermeneia (interpretation) (Byrne, 2001). Hermeneutics was originally developed for the interpretation of classical texts, religious documents and legal manuscripts (Rennie, 2012). Later, through the efforts of Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Dilthey (1833–1911) the scope of hermeneutics was extended to support the interpretation of all kinds of texts. Subsequently, through the works of philosophers such as Heidegger (1889–1976), Gadamer (1900–2002), and Ricoeur (1913–2005) the use of hermeneutics for textual interpretation was further developed, giving rise to contemporary hermeneutics[2].

Hermeneutics is often described as a theory of both understanding and interpretation (Robinson and Kerr, 2015) as it offers researchers both a “philosophy of understanding” and a “science of textual interpretation” (Geanellos, 1998, p. 155; Walshaw and Duncan, 2015)[3]. As a philosophy of understanding, hermeneutic theory argues that humans experience the world through language and that language serves as a medium through which understanding and knowledge is communicated (Byrne, 2001). When individuals experience phenomena they make sense of that experience through language. This experience can then be written down in text form (e.g. interview transcripts or organisational documents) and is open to readers to explore; i.e., read, interpret and ultimately draw meaning from. Hermeneutic theory also offers detailed tools and techniques with which to interpret texts (Robinson and Kerr, 2015).

While hermeneutics has received academic focus, certain gaps remain within the literature. For example, some studies provide a comparative analysis of hermeneutics with other research methodologies (Klein and Myers, 1999; Byrne, 2001). Others, such as those of Arcodia (2005), Debesay et al. (2008) and Prasad (2002), discuss key hermeneutic concepts without actually exploring how these concepts influence the research design. Gonzalez (2006) and Jahnke (2012) compare the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur, but a discussion of the application of hermeneutics in research is missing. Geanellos (1998) critically reviews nursing research that uses Heideggerian or Gadamerian hermeneutics, while Charalambous et al. (2008)[4] and Leonardo (2003) explore concepts in Ricoeurian hermeneutics. However, these studies do not examine how a combination of the core concepts of Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics can be combined or how these concepts affect the specific research method adopted by researchers.

Those studies that do examine the influence of hermeneutics on the research method restrict their discussion to certain stages of the research process. For example, Robinson and Kerr (2015) and Geanellos (2000) explore the influence of hermeneutics on the analysis of interview transcripts/text. Singsuriya (2015) provides a comparative analysis of the different ways in which Ricoeurian hermeneutics has been applied to nursing research, focussing specifically on the different orders in which theory can be applied to the analysis of text. Rennie (2012) provides experiences from two qualitative research projects and from those makes four propositions on hermeneutic theory. However, the discussion focusses primarily on the data analysis stage, thereby ignoring the data collection and write-up. Walshaw and Duncan (2015) examine how to use Gadamerian hermeneutics in education research, focussing on empathy in online teaching. They discuss how a combination of one-to-one and group interviews can be used to improve credibility. However, the focus is primarily on data collection.

Boland (1989) discusses the need to reject the objectivist-subjectivist dichotomy in interpretivist research. The study highlights how such a dichotomy has already been rejected in hermeneutic theory. The study provides a discussion of Morgan (1986) images of organisation, which highlights the need for readers to consider their own prejudices in the interpretation process. Llewellyn (1993) focusses on Ricoeurian hermeneutics and its application to interpretive management accounting research encouraging the use of a critical perspective. The study provides a critique of two management accounting papers selected by the author, and discusses shortcomings in the data analysis and how this could have be avoided had the authors adopted hermeneutic theory. However, a complete discussion of how a hermeneutic methodology influences data collection, analysis and subsequent write-up (including dealing with issues relating to credibility) is not provided.

This study seeks to fill this gap in the literature and addresses the research question:

RQ1.

How can Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics be operationalized in an interpretive accounting research project?

The aims are to: (1) review the key hermeneutic concepts of philosophers Gadamer and Ricoeur, and (2) to share insights from the researcher’s experience of applying Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics to an interpretive accounting research project. The research question is addressed through a review of the literature on hermeneutics including the original works of Gadamer and Ricoeur as well as academic articles published in social science journals (including accounting and management) and natural science journals. The Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutic principles, identified from the literature review, were then synthesised in what can be best described as the researcher’s personal understanding or interpretation of hermeneutics. The synthesis was then applied by the researcher in an accounting research project involving semi-structured interviews with organisational managers. The impact of these principles on the various stages of the research process, from data collection (specifically transcribing interviews, i.e. preparing the text), analysis (interpreting the text in light of the extant literature, theoretical framework and personal experiences) and write-up (the reader/researcher communicating his/her understandings in writing) stages of a research project[5] involving semi-structured interviews are discussed and a set of nine lessons identified which may be useful to other interpretive accounting researchers.

Gadamer (1989) describes the process of interpretation using the hermeneutic circle in which the reader/interpreter enters into a dialogue with the fusion of the horizons of the text and the reader giving rise to new horizons of understanding. However, this dialogue rests on the reader using his/her pre-understandings (drawn from the reader’s knowledge and experience of the world) in order to understand the meaning of the text. Ricoeur (1981) argues that critical reflexivity is necessary in order to filter out the reader’s unproductive pre-understandings (which lead to bias and misinterpretation) from productive pre-understandings. Furthermore, without critical reflexivity[6] the reader is vulnerable to being misled by power imbalances and ideological structures embedded within the language of the text and which lead to interpretations that support popular beliefs and established institutions. Thus, there is a need for both the hermeneutics of faith (i.e. trusting the stories narrated to us by others) and the hermeneutics of doubt (i.e. critical reflexivity). These insights are applied to an interpretive accounting research project involving in-depth interviews with organisational managers (data comprised of interview transcripts, i.e. the text being interpreted). Applying these principles, the researcher transitioned through Ricoeur’s (1981) three stages of surface interpretation, structural analysis and finally depth interpretation. The experienced yielded nine lessons for interpretive researchers: verbatim transcription is preferred and ideally should be done by the researcher himself/herself; review the literature and draw on your own experiences of the world before entering into a dialogue with the text; adopt a critically reflexive approach when reading the extant literature (which shapes your pre-understandings) as well as when reading the text itself; undertake a structural analysis of the text using a suitable data analysis technique such as thematic analysis; exercise caution when using data analysis software; use critical reflexivity in checking codes against pre-understandings; pull yourself out of the world of the text by assessing the plausibility of the interpretation, and begin writing; use critical reflexivity during the write-up, comparing the interpretation with pre-understandings, the codes and the text; and finally use the guidance provided on addressing issues relating to trustworthiness.

This study contributes to the literature on hermeneutic theory focussing particularly on providing an example of applying hermeneutic theory to an accounting research project. However, there is a scarcity of literature in this area to guide researchers on how to apply hermeneutic theory to the specifics of a research investigation. The experience of this researcher in operationalising hermeneutic theory in an interpretive accounting research project and the lessons learnt from this experience addresses a clear gap in the literature. The findings from this study offer useful guidance to interpretive researchers in the social sciences, including accounting and management studies and those in working in the natural sciences.

The paper is structured according to the research aims discussed above. Thus, following the introduction in Section 1, Section 2 provides a review and synthesis of the literature on Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics. Section 3 then discusses the researcher’s experience of applying the synthesis to an interpretive accounting research project. Section 4 offers a discussion and a set of nine lessons learnt from the experience. Finally, Section 5 provides a conclusion to the paper.

2. The hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur

Hermeneutic theory can be divided into three main branches: romantic hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics (section 2.1) and critical hermeneutics (section 2.2)[7]. Romantic (also referred to as psychological or classical) hermeneutics is traced to the efforts of philosophers Schleiermacher and Dilthey. The defining feature of romantic hermeneutics is the desire to understand the original intention or intended meaning of the author of a text (Leonardo, 2003). Romantic hermeneuticists adopt an objectivist approach to the interpretation of text, whereby the meaning in a text is claimed to possess an objective reality, which the reader attempts to reach through the hermeneutic process (Prasad, 2002). Schleiermacher (1985) describes hermeneutics as the art of interpretation, in which the aim is to correctly understand a text by essentially the experience/s of the original author. This requires a dual strategy of grammatical interpretation (objective) and psychological interpretation (subjective) aimed at understanding the author’s original meaning. Grammatical interpretation involves paying close attention to the words and grammar of the text (Rennie, 2012) with regard to the historic context of the author (Schmidt, 2013). Psychological interpretation requires understanding the life and personality of the author of the text and the historic context of the text (i.e. the society to which the author belonged). An interpreter must rely on empathy or empathetic understanding; i.e., placing themselves in the shoes of the original author (Leonardo, 2003). This acts as a check against the positivist tendencies of forcing or imposing one’s own interpretation on the experiences of another individual.

Philosophical hermeneutics is attributed to the efforts of philosophers Heidegger and Gadamer. Heidegger (1962), in his book “Being and Time”, developed the ontological element of hermeneutics, arguing that interpretation or understanding[8] is concerned with the issue of human existence. To this Gadamer (1989) adds that humans produce their reality through a process of interpretation or understanding. Philosophical hermeneutics adopts a subjective and relativistic approach to interpretation (Schmidt, 2013). Gadamer (1989) argues that the goal of interpretation is not and cannot be to understand the original author’s intended meaning. Nor is the aim to relive the experiences of others. Instead, the aim is to appropriate the experiences of others by understanding the meaning others attribute to their experience as contained within a text (Leonardo, 2003). Doing so requires the reader/interpreter to enter into a dialogue or conversation with the text (i.e. the text as a subject as opposed to an object). This dialogue occurs through what is referred to as the hermeneutic circle (discussed in section 2.2). Philosophical hermeneutics rests on the belief that people tell us stories and that these stories contain their experiences of the phenomena under investigation (Koch, 1999). Thus, interpretation requires faith; i.e., believing the stories of the participants (in the form of written text) and accepting these stories as reality.

Philosophers following the approach of critical hermeneutics include Habermas and Ricoeur (Byrne, 2001). Habermas (1990) believed that it was necessary for interpreters to adopt a critical perspective (a critique of ideology) when interpreting a text; a perspective which Ricoeur (1991) argues was missing from Gadamerian hermeneutics. Thus, Habermas attempted to “[…] transform Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics into critical hermeneutics” (Prasad, 2002, p. 22). For Habermas the aim of hermeneutic interpretation was to achieve an understanding that goes beyond what was explicitly stated in the text (Koch, 1999). Building on earlier works, Ricoeur (1981) proposed that it was necessary to adopt the principles underlying both branches of hermeneutics. In philosophical hermeneutics, it is necessary to identify and remove unproductive pre-understandings from productive pre-understandings.

This exercise inherently rested on critical reflexivity. Thus there was a need for both the hermeneutics of faith[9] (i.e. trust in the stories narrated by others) and the hermeneutics of doubt (i.e. critical reflexivity). In his efforts to reconcile the two branches of hermeneutics Ricoeur (1981) builds on the work of Gadamer (1989) but also introduces certain changes or modifications of his own[10]. Having briefly introduced and compared the three major branches of hermeneutic theory the discussion now turns to Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics, which are the focus of this paper.

2.1 Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle

The hermeneutic circle (Figure 1) is a core concept used to explain the process of interpretation (Geanellos, 1998). However, it has been greatly modified by Gadamer (1989). The concept is based on the premise that a text (as a whole or singular entity) consists of a number of parts (paragraphs/themes and sentences). To understand the text as a whole, the interpreter must understand the parts. However, to understand the parts, the interpreter must understand the whole. Thus, understanding occurs in a circular interpretive process, which involves the reader moving to and fro between the whole and the individual parts of the text (Debesay et al., 2008). This apparent contradiction also means that there is no correct starting point in hermeneutic interpretation (Gadamer, 2008).

2.1.1 Interpreters pre-understandings

Gadamer (1989) argues that an interpreter never engages with the world free from his/her pre-understandings. Similarly, when a reader approaches a text he/she does so while carrying certain pre-understandings, which come from personal experiences and knowledge of the world (Charalambous et al., 2008). Consequently, there is no concept of a value-free interpretation (Gadamer, 1989). These pre-understandings form a central part of the interpretation process. Every textual interpretation begins with the reader reflecting on his/her existing pre-understandings, which assist in understanding the meaning of the text. These views are based on the ontological philosophies of Heidegger, who states that in order to understand the world one must be in or engaging with the world (Jahnke, 2012). This is referred to as “thrownness” or “Dasein” in the German language[11]. When human beings experience the world or immerse themselves in the world they begin to interpret and understand it or make sense of it. This engagement is a necessary condition to securing truth/meaning.

To this, Gadamer (2008) adds that an interpreter’s pre-understandings have both a positive element (i.e. are productive and assist in understanding) and a negative element (i.e. create bias leading to misinterpretation and misunderstandings). For example, by simply relying on the dominant or popular beliefs relating to an issue, an interpreter has not adopted a scientific approach. Consequently, researchers need to address their pre-understandings and filter out unproductive pre-understandings (Plager, 1994).

In order to filter out these unproductive pre-understandings Gadamer (1989) refers to the temporal distance between the text and the interpreter. This temporal gap arises because the text was created in a different time and carries with it its own socio-historic context, which the reader may or may not share. The bridging of this gap has been a key challenge for philosophers of hermeneutics. Philosophers of romantic hermeneutics attempted to close this temporal gap by trying to place themselves in the shoes of the author of the text. However, philosophical hermeneutics argued that the existence of a temporal gap is a necessary condition for achieving understanding. This temporal gap acts as a filter allowing the interpreter to distinguish unproductive prejudices from productive ones (discussed below).

Gadamer (1989) argued that the aim of hermeneutic theory is not to ascertain the intended meaning of the author of a text. Instead the text stands disconnected and separate from its original author and so the author’s intended meaning has no value. The text is open to interpretation by anyone and for any given number of readers (Shklar, 2004). The text, disconnected from its original author, is located in a specific socio-historic context, which the reader must consider when attempting to understand the meaning contained in the text. The text as the other or foreign entity was created by an author living and experiencing a certain time. The reader may not hold or have the same traditions (i.e. the reader’s pre-understandings may differ). Thus there is a gap, which may give rise to misunderstandings. However, this gap also functions to question the reader’s pre-understandings and in doing so, helps to remove unproductive pre-understandings.

2.1.2 Fusion of horizons and opening up new horizons

Gadamer (1989) uses the analogy of sport to explain how a reader may achieve the meaning hidden within the text. In a game, a player immersed in the game loses himself/herself in the game. In the same manner a reader must immerse and lose himself/herself in the reading of a text (or the world of the text) in order to reach the meaning hidden within it. In comparison, an emphasis on method designed to achieve an unobtainable objectivity will fail to achieve the condition of immersing oneself and will ultimately fail to uncover any real understanding.

A reader can never understand what was in the mind of the original author or fully understand the past; nor can the reader escape his/her own pre-understandings derived from his/her experiences (Gadamer, 2008). However, the reader does have some things in common with the text, such as language, tradition and the world. Bringing these concepts together, Gadamer (1989) describes the interpretation process as involving a dialogue between the text and the reader/interpreter. This dialogue culminates in the fusion of the horizons of the text (based on the context of the text) and the horizons of the interpreter (based on the interpreter’s pre-understandings) which leads to an understanding of the meaning of the text (Debesay et al., 2008).

The term horizon is defined as the range of visions available from a particular vantage point (Gadamer, 1989). The researcher’s horizon is influenced by his/her pre-understandings. Through interpretation and understanding we may develop or open up new understandings that are different from our pre-understandings. By immersing himself/herself in the world of the text and filtering out unproductive pre-understandings, the interpreter attempts to draw meaning (i.e. new or fresh perspectives and understandings) and new horizons of understanding. However, for this fusion to occur neither the interpreter’s nor the text’s view should be more dominant in the dialogue. This is explained as the interpretation of the text (epistemology, the process of understanding a text) and the interpretation of the self (ontology, the process of understanding oneself). This dialogue continues, with each successive interpretation yielding new insights and new horizons of understanding. The hermeneutic circle highlights the iterative nature of the interpretation process (Robinson and Kerr, 2015). Figure 2 provides a graphical depiction of how the above concepts come together in the hermeneutic circle summarising the insights from Gadamerian hermeneutics.

2.2 Ricoeur’s critical hermeneutics

Ricoeur (1981) builds on the work of Gadamer and Habermas and in doing so introduces certain new concepts and modifications of his own. These concepts and their influence on hermeneutics are discussed in this section.

2.2.1 Explaining vs understanding

Dilthey associates the concept of explaining with the efforts of positivists and natural science, and the concept of understanding with anti-positivists and social sciences (Dilthey, 1991). This is because in social sciences we are concerned not with an object but rather with human beings; we seek to understand them. Maintaining an objective distance is considered necessary in order to achieve the goal of explaining in natural sciences, while removing this distance in an attempt to bring oneself closer to the other is necessary in understanding human beings. However, Ricoeur (1981) disagreed arguing that such a dichotomous approach is useless. The concept of explanation and understanding are not two methods; instead explanation is a method while understanding refers to comprehension. However, comprehension can never occur without explanation and objective analysis (Ricoeur, 1991). A reading should not focus purely on comprehension, devoid of any reasoning or explanation. Instead it is necessary to take the long detour of explanation to reach the ultimate destination of understanding. Explanation involves conducting a structural analysis of the text in order to identify its component parts and their relationship to one another.

Similarly, Ricoeur (1981) disagrees with Heidegger, who, he argues, fails to provide a solution for how an interpreter can distinguish between the truth and “popular opinions and surmises” (Gonzalez, 2006, p. 316). Consequently, there is a need for critical reflexivity in which the interpreter remains alert to ideologies and power structures supported by the language of the text[12]. However, Heidegger, according to Ricoeur (1981), is focussed on achieving understanding but without method (or the rigour of method) and thus appears to be more interested in the philosophy of sciences and not the methods of sciences. Heidegger’s philosophy of a continuous ascent towards the ontology of understanding being/existence without a corresponding descent towards the epistemology of method was seen as radical and troublesome. Rather, there is a need for a dialectic check involving ontology and epistemology. “The ascent of understanding must always be complemented by the descent of explanation” (Gonzalez, 2006, p. 317). In short, Ricoeur (1981) proposes a fusion in hermeneutics between Habermas’s emphasis on explaining and Gadamer’s focus on the need to understand.

2.2.2 Distanciation vs appropriation

Similar to the dialectic tension between explaining and understanding, there is a dialectic tension between distanciation (i.e. foreignness or alien-ness) and appropriation (i.e. belonging or making one’s own) (Ricoeur, 1981). We as human being are alone in our attempts to understand the reason for our existence. This is an individual effort and is one in which we distance ourselves from others (i.e. distanciation). At the same time, we exist in this world with other human beings and thus we must attempt to interpret or understand others (i.e. appropriation). We understand others as we share understanding of tradition, history, language, culture (Gadamer, 2008). By participating in the tradition we gain familiarity with something that was initially alien or foreign and in doing so we attempt to bring ourselves closer to the other (i.e. appropriation).

Applying this to Ricoeur’s (1981) concept of distanciation results in the distancing of the text from its original author; its original audience; and its context. In order to understand this one must understand that the interpretation that takes place during the reading of a text is different from interpretation of speech, in which two individuals are engaged in a dialogue that takes place in a common context (Ricoeur, 1971). In speech there is the opportunity for the listener to seek explanations of what is said by the speaker. This helps the listener in understanding the meaning of what is said. However, no such opportunity exists when a reader is attempting to interpret a text. The reader cannot usually consult the author of the text to secure the author’s intended meaning. Speech, when transformed by writing into text, becomes fixed and does not move or change as it does in a conversation.

For Ricoeur (1991) writing is superior to discourse as it overcomes the limitations of face-to-face dialogue. Writing involves decontextualising discourse; i.e., the text is emancipated from the context of its creation and can then be read in different social, political and historical contexts. This also opens up the text to multiple interpretations by any number of readers. Unlike speech, the interpretation of text involves no original and pre-identified addressee (Ricoeur, 1971). As readers do not need to concern themselves with authorial intent, the aim then becomes appropriation of the text’s meaning as opposed to the intended meaning of research participants (Palmer, 1969). Thus reading involves interpretation, an act which involves re-contextualising (also referred to as re-configuring) the text in a different way (Ricoeur, 1981). This leads to belonging; i.e., making that which was alien or foreign one’s own. In this way a dialectic is achieved and the two extremes of distanciation and appropriation are avoided.

2.2.3 Pre-configuration, configuration and re-configuration

While it is not possible to transfer the lived experience of the original author it is possible to transfer (via appropriation) the meaning of the experience (Charalambous et al., 2008). Ricoeur (1981) describes appropriation/understanding as a three-phase process involving pre-configuration, configuration and re-configuration. At the pre-configuration stage the reader approaches the text with a set of pre-understandings, which support the reader in understanding the text. During the configuration stage the reader does not project his/her pre-understandings onto the text but rather allows the text to open up its hidden world and inhabits this world, leading to a better understanding of oneself (Leonardo, 2003). “To understand oneself in front of a text is quite the contrary of projecting oneself and one’s own beliefs and prejudices; it is to let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding which I have of myself […]” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 178). This requires removing unproductive pre-understandings through critical reflexivity, allowing the interpreter to receive (appropriate), as opposed to distancing himself/herself from the text (Ricoeur, 1981). Additionally, the reader must use critical reflexivity to remain alert for language in the text that supports certain power structures and dominant ideologies.

Finally, at the re-configuration stage meaning is acquired through re-configuration of the text, resulting in the interpreter acquiring new horizons of understanding. This not only manifests itself in the form of the reader gaining an understanding of the phenomena described within a text (i.e. epistemology) but also gaining a self-understanding. This is referred to as understanding the other through understanding the self (i.e. ontology). Figure 3 provides a graphical depiction of the hermeneutic circle modified to include Ricoeur’s concepts of distanciation and appropriation.

The completion of each cycle/reading results in the reader acquiring a new horizon of understanding. However, academic researchers will need to engage in multiple readings/cycles in order to achieve more than just a superficial understanding of the text/phenomena (Singsuriya, 2015). While it is not possible to say exactly how many readings will be required, it is possible to break up the analysis of a text into three key stages as per Ricoeur’s (1981) theory of interpretation. These stages include:

  1. Surface/naïve interpretation: the initial reading provides a superficial or naïve understanding of the meaning of the text. The first reading is at best a guess at what the text means. Thus multiple readings are required in order to move beyond a mere surface interpretation of the text to a deeper understanding of the phenomena and the self. The reader needs to delve deeper into the text identifying its parts in an attempt to deepen his/her understanding.

  2. Structural analysis: analysing and identifying the units (e.g. sentences and words) that constitute the text. Ricoeur (1981) refers to this as the long detour of explanation, which must be taken to reach the destination of understanding.

  3. Depth interpretation: inhabiting the world opened up by the text and using critical reflexivity to remove unproductive pre-understandings and identify language that supports existing power structures and dominant ideologies.

Interpretation in hermeneutics can become a never-ending process, with each successive interpretation leading to new and additional insights. In order to break this cycle the reader must find a plausible end to the research (Debesay et al., 2008). This requires judgement in assessing, against some yardstick, whether one interpretation is more plausible than another. This yardstick in Gadamerian hermeneutics is tradition, which is handed down to us and which we use to make sense of our reality. Tradition is not based on irrational grounds, is generally accepted by others and thus can act as an acceptable yardstick. However, tradition is created by society/humans and thus society/humans can change these traditions. Thus traditions themselves are not in a state of stasis and over time they change. The application of this philosophical concept is that the yardstick against which an interpretive researcher exercises judgement is the existing body of literature, a theoretical lens[13] (if any) used, and the researcher’s background and personal experiences.

2.2.4 Issues relating to trustworthiness in hermeneutics

It is important for interpretive researchers to strike a “[…] balance between the creative, and perhaps even aesthetic, aspects of research and the need to establish (or to provide the means for establishing) a sufficient level of trust and confidence in research findings” (Modell and Humphrey, 2008). Thus interpretive researchers need to ensure that their work is trustworthy and authentic (Creswell, 2014; Maxwell, 1992). However, it must be noted that in hermeneutic philosophy one cannot claim that an interpretation is complete, final or fully realised (Geanellos, 1998). There is no concept of a best or most optimal interpretation of a text or the existence of one meaning with which all can agree. Texts are characterised by multiplicity (layers of meaning) and plurality (multiple meanings, leading each interpreter with their own uniquely different pre-understandings) to draw different yet equally valid meanings from the same text (Taylor, 1971). For example, Schleiermacher (1985) points out that a word has synonyms, which while similar in meaning also contain within themselves multiple other meanings. In this way the interpretation by different individuals of a single text can never be the same. Furthermore, understanding is only required when there is an absence of understanding (Gadamer, 1989).

However, for Gadamer (1989, p. 179) “[t]he effort to understand is needed wherever there is no immediate understanding – i.e., whenever the possibility of misunderstanding has to be reckoned with”. In comparison, Schleiermacher defines hermeneutics as “the art of avoiding misunderstandings” (Gadamer (1989, p. 185). When undertaking interpretation for the purpose of seeking understanding, one must be willing to expose oneself to the possibility of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is a natural part of the interpretation process. “A reading that does not risk misunderstanding is not a hermeneutical reading at all” (Leonardo, 2003, p. 333). The only way to avoid the risk of misunderstanding is not to read the text. It is also argued that the trustworthiness of an interpretive study can be evaluated by establishing credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). Transferability can be achieved using what is referred to as “thick descriptions” (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). The term thick or rich description was first coined by Ryle (1949) and later used by Geertz (1973). This refers to describing the phenomena in detail to allow the reader the opportunity to assess for themselves whether the findings of the study can be transferred to their particular circumstances (Ahrens and Dent, 1998; Bryman, 2012; Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Lukka and Modell, 2010). This can be done by providing a detailed description of the phenomena being investigated. One way in which this is achieved is using extracts from the text (e.g. interview transcripts) in order to enrich the findings and assist the reader in understanding the phenomena being investigated.

However, while providing sufficient excerpts from the text allows the reader to evaluate the researcher’s interpretations, disagreements on interpretation between the reader and the researcher does not mean that the researcher has drawn an incorrect interpretation. This is because each individual interpreter is unique and influenced by their pre-understandings, which yield different interpretations. Differences in interpretation are allowed and there is no need for interpretive agreement. Thus different understandings of a phenomenon are acceptable in hermeneutic research (Shklar, 2004). Interpretive diversity is encouraged as this promotes better understanding of the phenomenon, while interpretive agreement in a quest for uniformity can stifle improvements in understanding. This philosophical view is in line with Gadamer (1989), who believes that interpretation is an ongoing process that never comes to a conclusion. These views are also consistent with those of interpretive researchers who argue that social reality is a projection of human understanding; i.e., humans construct their reality, so there can be no question of convergence in interpretations (Lukka and Modell, 2010).

Finally, confirmability, which involves ensuring that the findings of the research are not affected by the researcher’s bias, i.e., the researcher has acted in good faith, can be achieved by adopting a critically reflexive approach at each stage of the research (Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Lukka and Modell, 2016). The use of critical reflexivity is characteristic of Ricoeurian hermeneutics and rests on the researcher critically reflecting on both his/her pre-understandings and the text itself during all three stages of surface interpretation, structural analysis, and depth interpretation.

The following section reviews the researcher’s experience of applying the insights from Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics (Figure 3) to an interpretive accounting research project.

3. Application of hermeneutic principles to interpretive research

The research project involved in-depth interviews with organisational managers responsible for preparing sustainability reports and practitioners responsible for providing assurance over such information. Consequently, the primary source of data for this research project was interview transcripts. These transcripts constituted the text that the researcher engaged in dialogue with in order to understand the phenomena (sustainability reporting and sustainability assurance) being investigated.

3.1 Transcribing the text

The interpretive act in a study using in-depth interviews as the primary source of data begins when the audio recording is being transcribed. In converting audio data into text form the researcher must consider how the transcription will be undertaken; i.e., what to transcribe and what to leave out (Braun and Clarke, 2013), making transcription an interpretive process (Kvale, 1996). For example, one approach is to transcribe the complete interview verbatim. Another approach is to transcribe only relevant extracts from the interview, providing a summary of important/relevant sections. Additionally, the researcher must consider whether pauses and expressions of emotion will also be included in the transcription. The approach adopted depends on the research question, objectives and methodology as well as the resources available to the researcher (Braun and Clarke, 2013).

In this study, interviews were transcribed verbatim (Miles et al., 2014). Verbatim transcription allowed the researcher to go back and read the transcript in order to understand the context in which the statement was made, which is a key feature of hermeneutic theory. Understanding the part requires understanding the whole and understanding the whole requires understanding the part (Figure 1). Thus researchers adopting hermeneutic theory are encouraged to undertake verbatim transcription of interviews. However, pauses and expressions of emotion were excluded. This information was considered less important as the research aims were not about examining issues of a personally sensitive nature, in which pauses and expressions of emotion would be considered useful data. Furthermore, and in line with hermeneutic theory, the objective was not to place oneself in the shoes of the original author of the text, which once created stands liberated from its original author, context and addressee (i.e. distanciation). Finally, the job of transcribing the interviews was undertaken by the researcher himself (Bryman, 2012). Although this was an intensive and time-consuming effort, it played a key role in bringing the researcher closer to, and familiarising him with, the data (a point of focus in hermeneutic theory).

3.2 Surface interpretation stage

The researcher’s pre-understandings were based on his readings of the existing literature on sustainability reporting and sustainability assurance, the various theories used to understand these new organisational practices (e.g. stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory and institutional work) and his own personal experiences as an accountant (i.e. pre-configuration – Figure 3). The reading of the extant literature is a necessary part of assessing where the research stands (i.e. what we already know) and to identify future avenues of research. Additionally, from the perspective of hermeneutics, these pre-understandings play a key role in overcoming the temporal gap/distance between the researcher and the text (interview transcripts). One understands the world by experiencing the world, and what else does the text speak of but that which is from this world (Ricoeur, 1981). These pre-understandings were critical in overcoming the temporal gap/distance between the researcher and the interview transcripts and thus greatly assisted in the interpretation of the text.

At the same time the researcher had to be alert for his unproductive pre-understandings, which were based on popular beliefs expressed in the literature and which can lead to misinterpretation. Adopting a critically reflexive approach can assist here and is implemented by reviewing the extant literature (pre-understandings) with a suspicious mind. A critically reflexive approach should also be used when reading the transcripts remaining alert for hidden power structures and ideologies. The researcher’s aim was to strike a balance in which the text could challenge his pre-understandings and simultaneously his pre-understandings could challenge the text (i.e. neither one should dominate the other). The use of critical reflexivity also had the potential to allow the researcher to question the existing knowledge, assumptions and beliefs in the literature and in this way provide new avenues for research (Alvesson and Sandberg, 2011). This approach to gap-spotting contrasts with the traditional approach, in which researchers attempt to identify unexplored areas in the literature and design new research questions. The experience of the researcher was that the initial reading of the literature is also simply a surface interpretation of what we know and what we do not know. The researcher’s understandings of the literature were at this stage not mature enough to challenge taken-for-granted beliefs, assumptions and the existing body of knowledge. However, during the structural analysis, depth interpretation and finally at the write-up stage, the researcher began to identify points of convergence and divergence with the extant literature. Thus researchers are recommended to read the extant literature while keeping an open mind to new possibilities and perspectives that may challenge existing understandings. However, it is likely that they will only identify these new horizons of understandings at the depth interpretation stage of their research. While it may not be possible at this stage to substantially alter the scope of the existing research investigation, it does allow the researcher to identify uniquely different perspectives via which the existing data set may be analysed.

The researcher’s initial reading of a text provides only a superficial or naïve understanding of the phenomena (Ricoeur, 1981). The first reading is at best a guess about what the text means. Thus multiple readings are required in order to move beyond a mere surface interpretation of the text to a deeper understanding of the phenomena. The researcher attempted to engage in dialogue with the text and immerse himself in the world of the text. However, each interview transcript is unique, representing the views and opinions of practitioners working in different organisations, facing different circumstances, and approaching their work in different ways. Thus it was necessary to read and understand each text as a different and unique understanding of the phenomena. Furthermore, with each reading the researcher’s pre-understandings continued to evolve as new horizons of understanding were accessed (i.e. re-configuration). At this surface interpretation stage, the understanding was superficial although the researcher only recognised this in hindsight, having transitioned through the structural analysis and in-depth interpretation stage (discussed in section 3.3).

3.3 Structural analysis stage

Following the transcription and subsequent readings of the interview transcripts, the researcher progressed to the structural analysis phase (Ricoeur, 1981). Here, hermeneutics is flexible and does not stress the need to use any one particular method for data analysis (Prasad, 2002). A range of data analysis techniques are available including content analysis, thematic analysis and grounded theory (Miles et al., 2014). This study adopted thematic analysis, the principles of which are compatible with hermeneutic theory (Koch, 1999; Rennie, 2012: Singsuriya, 2015) and which is widely used in interpretive research (Bryman, 2012). The aim of thematic analysis is to identify patterns of meanings within data (Braun and Clarke, 2006; Miles et al., 2014). The technique involves coding the text by assigning names/labels, often in the form of a word or short sentence that captures the essence of the piece of data that it represents (Creswell, 2014; Strauss and Corbin, 1998).

Coding data is an interpretive act and the approach adopted depends on the judgement of the researcher (Miles et al., 2014). There are generally two types of coding strategies (Creswell, 2014). The first involves developing codes based on the literature; i.e., a deductive coding strategy. The researcher uses a pre-determined set/list of codes when analysing the interview transcripts. These codes may be supplemented with new codes that are identified from the transcripts and that have not been anticipated at the start of the study. An alternative, more traditional approach is to allow codes to emerge from the data (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). This approach was adopted by the researcher. The approach is more inductive than the first and involves the researcher reading and reflecting and assigning codes to sentences and paragraphs (i.e. parts) within the transcripts (i.e. the whole). In this way, the researcher attempted to open up and inhabit the world of the text as opposed to forcing onto the text a set of pre-conceived codes derived from the extant literature (i.e. pre-understandings).

During the coding stage the researcher made use of the data analysis software “Atlas.ti 7” to facilitate the coding process (Miles et al., 2014). However, some features of the software were avoided. For example, Atlas.ti offers users a feature in which codes are generated by the software automatically, using the first few words in a passage (sentence/s or paragraph/s) highlighted by the researcher for coding purposes. While this may reduce the time taken to create codes, the names allocated are often meaningless. Importantly, delegating this task to the software results in the researcher distancing himself/herself from the analysis process (Hardy and Bryman, 2009). Consequently, the coding was undertaken manually as this is more in line with the principles of hermeneutic theory.

During the coding process the researcher could experience himself gradually becoming immersed in the world of the texts (interview transcripts) as he moved from the part (codes and themes) to the whole (interview transcript) and back again. The numerous issues and dynamics at play and the connections between them gradually came to the fore. Progressing from the coding of one transcript to the next, the researcher gained new perspectives (horizons of understandings) on the phenomena being investigated. However, this requires a critical reflexivity, as was evident when the new transcripts encouraged the researcher to revisit and revise earlier codes. In this way the researcher gained a deeper understanding of the phenomena of interest, which was not possible by simply reading the text.

3.4 Depth interpretation stage

Through the structural analysis of the text (the “long detour of explanation”) the research transitions into the depth interpretation stage of Ricoeur’s (1981) hermeneutic theory. The researcher appropriates meaning from the text by making his/her own what was once alien or foreign. However, the hermeneutic circle can become a never-ending cycle in which each new reading reveals new insights and demands a fresh examination of pre-understandings. Thus it is necessary to bring the research to a plausible end point. This can be done by the researcher using his/her judgement to assess the plausibility of the interpretation, by reference to the researcher’s pre-understandings (Gadamer, 1989). In the researcher’s experience such an assessment can only be done when writing up the research findings. Thus in the researcher’s experience it is necessary for the reader to pull himself/herself out of the world of the text (i.e. the opposite of immersing or losing oneself in the world of the text) and start communicating in writing his/her understanding of the phenomena investigated (re-configuration – see Figure 3).

The write-up of the research findings involves communicating this meaning (drawn from the surface interpretation and structural analysis) in text form for others who will subsequently read and attempt to draw meaning from the research findings. At this stage the researcher found himself experimenting with a number of different approaches on how best to write-up the research findings. This required revisiting the literature including the theoretical lens (e.g. stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory or the institutional work perspective) which in turn would motivate a return to the codes and themes created at the structural analysis stage. Each reading or hermeneutic cycle opens up new horizons for the researcher, challenging and forcing a review of the researcher’s authors pre-understandings. Thus the process of data collection and analysis (undertaken during the structural analysis stage) and the subsequent write-up (at the end of the depth interpretation stage) often occur side-by-side as the researcher goes back and forth from the data to writing as he/she struggles to extract meaning and then simultaneously communicate this meaning to others.

3.5 Trustworthiness in hermeneutic interpretation

As discussed in Section 2.2.4 above, a research investigation undertaken using hermeneutic theory does not claim to have achieved a complete or perfect interpretation of the text. The text is open to multiple interpretations by any number of readers, who will draw different and equally valid interpretations from the text. Second, the use of quotes from the interview transcripts also helps to enrich the findings and achieve the goal of promoting trustworthiness. However, here again, hermeneutic theory points out that it is possible and reasonable for these quotes to be interpreted in different ways by subsequent readers. Finally, the use of a critically reflective approach at all stages of the research endeavour is recommended (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). This requirement can be fulfilled as it is a key characteristic of Ricoeur’s (1981) hermeneutic theory of interpretation and rests on the researcher critically reflecting on not only the text, but also his/her pre-understandings during the stages of surface interpretation, structural analysis and depth interpretation.

4. Discussion

The study aimed to address the research question:

RQ1.

How can Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics be operationalized in an interpretive accounting research project?

The aims of this research were to review the key hermeneutic concepts of philosophers Gadamer and Ricoeur; and to share insights from the researcher’s experience of applying Gadamerian and Ricoeurian hermeneutics to an interpretive accounting research project involving semi-structured interviews with organisational managers. Gadamer (1989) argues that the goal of interpretation is not and cannot be to understand the original author’s intended meaning. Instead hermeneutic researchers must attempt to appropriate the experiences of others by understanding the meaning others attribute to their experience as contained within a text. Doing so requires the reader/interpreter to enter into a dialogue or conversation with the text (i.e. the text as a subject as opposed to an object). This dialogue occurs through what is referred to as the hermeneutic circle (Figure 2). During this dialogue the reader will rely on his/her pre-understandings as a critical part of the interpretation process, as they assist the reader in understanding the meaning contained within a text (Gadamer, 1989).

Philosophers of critical hermeneutics add that it is necessary for interpreters to adopt a critical perspective when interpreting texts. Researchers need to be suspicious of language used to support power structures and dominant ideologies in society. Additionally, it is only through critical reflexivity that a researcher is able to distinguish his/her productive/legitimate pre-understandings from unproductive prejudices. Ricoeur (1981) uses the terms pre-configuration, configuration and re-configuration to highlight the dynamic nature of the interpretation process. Each reading of a text involves the completion of one cycle of the hermeneutic circle (i.e. pre-configuration, configuration and re-configuration) resulting in the reader acquiring a new horizon of understanding.

Ricoeur’s (1981) hermeneutic theory involves three key stages of surface/naïve interpretation (the initial reading/s of a text), structural analysis (analysing the components/parts of the text using say thematic analysis) and depth interpretation (inhabiting the world of the text). Through multiple readings the researcher progresses gradually through each phase to ultimately gain a depth interpretation of the text. Each reading of the text represents or involves one completion of the hermeneutic circle and each phase (i.e. naïve, structural and depth interpretation) may involve multiple runs of the hermeneutic circle.

The application of hermeneutic theory to an interpretive accounting research project involving in-depth interviews with organisational managers is discussed. Thus, the main source of data consisted of interview transcripts/text, which the researcher engaged in dialogue with. The lessons learnt from this endeavour are summarised in Table I.

The interpretation of the interview transcripts used Ricoeur’s (1981) three stages of surface interpretation, structural interpretation and depth interpretation. However, before this could be done it was first necessary to create the text by transcribing the audio recordings (Kvale, 1996). A verbatim transcription is encouraged as this allows the researcher to interpret the part (a sentence or paragraph) by reference to the whole (the entire text) and vice versa (Figure 1). Additionally, the transcription process, while an intensive and time-consuming task, does assist in bringing the researcher closer to the data. Once created, the transcripts/texts were analysed using the principles of hermeneutic theory.

The researcher approached the text with a set of pre-understandings (pre-configuration stage – Figure 3), which were based on a review of the existing literature, the theoretical framework and his own personal experiences working as an accountant and auditor. A review of the literature assists in evaluating the ground covered as well as identifying future avenues of research. Additionally, a literature review, from the perspective of hermeneutics, gave the researcher a set of pre-understandings that were critical in overcoming the temporal gap/distance between the researcher and the text (i.e. interview transcripts). These are referred to as productive pre-understandings. As Ricoeur (1981) states, how can one understand the meaning in a text without having any knowledge or experience of the world to which the text relates or speaks of.

However, pre-understandings can also be negative and play a counter-productive role in the interpretation process. Thus, a researcher must adopt a critically reflexive approach when reading the extant literature (which inform the researchers pre-understandings) remaining alert for popular beliefs and entrenched ideologies, which will lead to bias and misinterpretation. Additionally, researchers should adopt a critical perspective when reading interview transcripts (the text being interpreted), which may also contain beliefs, hidden power structures and ideologies that can lead to misinterpretation. The researcher must strike a balance by allowing the text to challenge his/her pre-understandings and simultaneously allowing his/her pre-understandings to challenge the text (i.e. one should not dominate the other).

Critical reflexivity also assists researchers in questioning the existing knowledge, assumptions and beliefs in the literature (gap-spotting) (Alvesson and Sandberg, 2011). However, from the researcher’s experience, the initial reading of the extant literature is also simply a surface interpretation and it is not possible to identify these gaps. During the subsequent structural analysis, depth interpretation and finally at the write-up stage of the research, the researcher can go back to the extant literature, comparing his/her findings with the findings of others and in doing so can begin to identify areas where he/she could challenge taken-for-granted beliefs, assumptions and the existing body of knowledge. Thus researchers in their first reading of the literature (before data collection and analysis) are encouraged to keep an open mind to new perspectives and horizons of understandings, which may appear only later on during the research project to challenge existing understandings. Although at this stage it will be difficult to introduce major changes within the scope of the research project, it will be possible for the researcher to approach the existing data set from uniquely different perspectives.

Following the transcription and subsequent readings of the interview transcripts, the researcher entered the structural analysis phase (Ricoeur, 1981). This stage focussed on analysing the individual parts of the text. A range of techniques (as opposed to research philosophies) are available to facilitate data analysis including content analysis, thematic analysis and grounded theory (Miles et al., 2014). Hermeneutic theory is flexible and allows these techniques to be used (Koch, 1999; Prasad, 2002; Rennie, 2012; Singsuriya, 2015). The study in question adopted thematic analysis. An inductive approach to coding the text was preferred. The approach involves the researcher reading and reflecting and assigning codes to sentences and paragraphs (parts) within the transcripts (the whole). In this way, the researcher attempted to open up and inhabit the world of the text as opposed to projecting onto the text a set of pre-conceived codes derived from the literature review (i.e. pre-understandings).

During this stage, qualitative data analysis software such as Atlas.ti can be very useful. However, some features of such software can end up distancing the researcher from the text. One example is the automatic assignment of codes to sentences and paragraphs using the inbuilt features of the software. In a hermeneutic study, the coding of the text should be undertaken manually as opposed to delegating the task to a software programme that generates a set of codes, which are assigned meaningless names based on the first few words of the sentence coded. During the coding stage each new transcript opens up new horizons of understanding, which often encourage the researcher to critically reflect on earlier created codes. Once the coding process was complete, the researcher took a step back to read and think about what was going on and how it should be written up. Again, the researcher relied on critical reflexivity and went back to his pre-understandings in order to test his pre-understandings and the text as now analysed.

The conclusion of the structural analysis stage results in a depth interpretation of the text, in which the researcher attempts to project himself onto the world opened up by the text. While interpretation in hermeneutics is never perceived as being final or complete, because of restrictions relating to time and resources, researchers cannot afford to continue endlessly refining their understanding and must find some end point to their research (Debesay et al., 2008). In the researcher’s experience this involves pulling oneself out of the world of the text (i.e. the opposite of immersing or losing oneself in the world of the text) and beginning the process of communicating in writing one’s understanding of the phenomena investigated. In order to do so, hermeneutic theory recommends evaluating the plausibility of an interpretation by comparing it to our pre-understandings (Gadamer, 1989). In the researcher’s experience such an assessment can only be made during the writing up of research findings.

The write-up stage of the research involves re-configuring (Figure 3) the meaning of the text and in doing so going beyond the intended meaning of the original author. This involves the researcher experimenting with a number of different approaches before honing in on the most appropriate. At this stage, the researcher may find it necessary to revisit the pre-understandings, the codes and the text.

Finally, interpretive researchers must strive to promote trust and confidence in their research (Modell and Humphrey, 2008). Interpretive research must demonstrate that researchers’ work is trustworthy, authentic and credible (Creswell, 2014; Maxwell, 1992). However, in hermeneutics one cannot claim that an interpretation is complete, final or fully realised. Texts are characterised by multiplicity (layers of meaning) and plurality (containing multiple meanings) leading each interpreter (with their own uniquely different pre-understandings) to draw different yet equally valid meanings from the same text. While the use of quotes from the interview transcripts helps to enrich the findings and promote trustworthiness, hermeneutic theory points out that it is reasonable for these quotes to be interpreted in different ways by subsequent readers. Third, adopting a critically reflective approach at all stages of the research endeavour is recommended in interpretive research (Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Lukka and Modell, 2016). This requirement can be fulfilled as it is a key characteristic of Ricoeur’s (1981) hermeneutic theory of interpretation and rests on the researcher critically reflecting on both the text and his/her pre-understandings during the surface interpretation, structural analysis and depth interpretation of the investigation.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, hermeneutic theory offers interpretive researchers both a research methodology (a research philosophy for the interpretation of texts) and a research method (the detailed tools needed to analyse and understand text), which can assist them in their research. However, there is a scarcity of literature providing researchers with detailed guidance on how to apply hermeneutic theory to the specifics of an interpretive research project. The experience of this researcher in operationalising hermeneutic theory in an interpretive accounting research project, and the lessons learnt from the process, address a clear gap in the literature. This study offers useful guidance to interpretive researchers within the social sciences, including accounting and management studies, as well as those working in the natural sciences.

Figures

Hermeneutic circle as applied in this paper

Figure 1

Hermeneutic circle as applied in this paper

The hermeneutic circle: pre-understandings, author’s intent and context of a text, dialogic interaction and fusion of horizons

Figure 2

The hermeneutic circle: pre-understandings, author’s intent and context of a text, dialogic interaction and fusion of horizons

Hermeneutic circle modified to include Ricoeur’s concepts

Figure 3

Hermeneutic circle modified to include Ricoeur’s concepts

Lessons learnt from application of hermeneutic theory

S. No. Lesson Explanation
1 Verbatim transcription is preferred and ideally should be done by the researcher himself/herself Verbatim transcription allows for the application of the hermeneutic circle in which the reader understands the sentence (the part) in relation to the whole (the entire text) and the whole in relation to its component parts (i.e. sentences and paragraphs)
2 Review the literature and draw on your own experiences of the world before entering into a dialogue with the text (these are your pre-understandings) You can only understand the text (and the world that it opens up) through your pre-understandings (knowledge and experience of the world)
3 Adopt a critically reflexive approach in reading in the extant literature (i.e. pre-understandings) and the text Allow the text to challenge your pre-understandings and your pre-understandings to challenge the text (i.e. one should not dominate the other in the dialogue between the reader and the text)
Critical reflexivity also assists in gap-spotting. However, the gaps within the extant literature only become clear during the structural analysis, depth interpretation and finally write-up stage of the research
4 Undertake a structural analysis of the text using a suitable data analysis technique, e.g., thematic analysis Analysing the text helps understanding the phenomena better
Preference is given to an inductive approach to data coding as opposed to forcing onto the text a set of pre-developed list of codes extracted from the literature
5 Exercise caution when using data analysis software Avoid using features of software programs that involve automatic code generation as delegating this task to the software takes the researcher away from the text. Also, code names generated by the software are often meaningless (e.g. based on the first few words of a sentence)
6 Use critical reflexivity in checking codes against pre-understandings During coding, each new transcript encourages the researcher to rethink earlier assigned codes
Once coding is complete check codes by revisiting pre-understandings
7 Interpretation is never complete and the researcher must pull himself/herself out of the world of the text (the hermeneutic circle can become a never-ending circle of interpretation) The researcher must pull himself/herself out of the world of the text (i.e. the opposite of immersing or losing oneself in the world of the text) and force himself/herself to communicate in writing his/her understanding
This requires evaluating the plausibility of an interpretation and can be done by comparison to pre-understandings. However, this is possible only during the write-up stage
8 Critical reflexivity during write-up Experiment with different approaches to writing.
Revisit pre-understandings, codes and the text, which may lead to revisions of the codes as well as the write-up
9 Promote trustworthiness in investigations undertaken using hermeneutic theory In hermeneutics one cannot claim that an interpretation is complete, final or fully realised. Texts are characterised by multiplicity (i.e. layers of meaning) and plurality (i.e. contain multiple meanings) thus leading each interpreter (with his/her own uniquely different pre-understandings) to draw different yet equally valid meanings from the same text
Use of quotes from the interview transcripts helps to enrich the findings and promote trustworthiness. However, here again, hermeneutic theory points out that these quotes can be interpreted in different ways by subsequent readers
Finally, adopting a critically reflective approach at all stages of the research endeavour is recommended. This requirement can be fulfilled as it is a key aspect of hermeneutic theory and rests on the researcher critically reflecting on both the text and his/her pre-understandings during the surface interpretation, structural analysis and depth interpretation of the investigation

Notes

1.

However, some interpretive accounting researchers also recognise the existence of a pre-existing social reality or some dimension of a pre-existing social realty (see for example, Llewellyn, 2007 for a detailed discussion on the existence of multiple differentiated realities in case study research).

2.

It is important to note that these philosophers extended the field of hermeneutics to cover not only textual interpretation but interpretation generally (Gadamer, 2008). However, for the purpose of this study the use of hermeneutics in the interpretation of text is discussed. Such an approach is consistent with that of other researchers who have used Hermeneutics within their investigations (see for example, Prasad and Mir, 2002). It is also worth noting that “[…] text may be found not only in writings but in any form that involves meaningful order […] in pieces of music, paintings, sculptures, dance” (George, 2009, p. xv).

3.

Llewellyn (1993) describes hermeneutic theory as both a research methodology (i.e. a research philosophy for the interpretation of texts) and a research method (i.e. the detailed tools need to analyse the text) that can assist in their investigations.

4.

The study by Charalambous et al. (2008) provides an overview of Ricoeurian hermeneutics before focussing on hermeneutic phenomonelogy.

5.

It is important to note that the concepts of hermeneutic theory are also equally applicable to earlier stages in the research process such as the stage of planning the research and developing the research question. However, these earlier stages are beyond the scope of this study which examines the application of hermeneutic concepts from the stage of data collection (i.e. specifically transcription of the interview transcripts (i.e. the text) onwards.

6.

The concept of reflexivity has been the subject of much academic discussion and debate (see for example, Tomkins and Eatough, 2010). Hibbert et al. (2010, p. 48) define reflexivity as “[…] a process of exposing or questioning our ways of doing”. Researchers may develop a bias in favour of particular theories and this “[…] can cause researchers to take particular theoretical explanations too much for granted – this needs to be counterbalanced by a healthy dose of critical reflexivity” (Lukka and Modell, 2017, p. 47).

7.

Prasad (2002, p. 14) describes these three branches as “three streams of hermeneutics”.

8.

Furthermore, while early research in hermeneutics treated the concepts of interpretation and understanding as distinct, with the advent of philosophical hermeneutics this distinction is no longer made and the two terms are used interchangeably (Prasad, 2002).

9.

Hermeneutics inherently involves trust, since pre-understandings can never be done away with; also the reader must have faith in the stories narrated by others and contained within a text as a representation of reality (Gadamer, 1989).

10.

However, Prasad (2002) argues that the philosophical arguments of Habermas and Gadamer have more in common as they are based on an interpretive epistemology and ontology.

11.

See George (2012) for a detailed discussion on the philosophies of Heidegger.

12.

Similarly, Habermas points out the need to remove distortion in communication, which may come be aimed at supporting “power, status, prestige, ideology, manipulation, the rule of experts, fear, insecurity, misunderstanding or any other form of mischief” (Alvesson and Deetz, 2006, p. 263).

13.

The term theoretical lens in this context refers to say legitimacy theory or stakeholder theory as opposed to hermeneutic theory.

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Further reading

Counelis, J.S. (1987), Images of Organisations, by Gareth Morgan, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, CA, p. 421.

Flick, U., von Kardorff, E. and Steinke, I. (2004), A Companion to Qualitative Research, Sage Publications, London.

George, T. (2010), “Translator’s introduction”, in Figal, G. (Ed.), Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy, SUNY, New York, NY, pp. xi-xxii.

Gubrium, J.F. and Holstein, J.A. (2003), Handbook of Interview Research: Context & Method, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Parker, L.D. (2008), “Interpreting interpretive accounting research”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, Vol. 19 No. 6, pp. 909-914.

Ricoeur, P. (1976), Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Texas Christian University Press, Fort Worth, TX.

Ricoeur, P. and Ihde, D. (1974), The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, (Edited by D. Ihde), Northwestern University Press.

Schleiermacher, F., Wojcik, J. and Haas, R. (1978), “The hermeneutics: outline of the 1819 lectures”, New Literary History, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 1-16.

Silverman, D. (2013), Doing Qualitative Research, Sage Publications, London.

Corresponding author

Muhammad Bilal Farooq can be contacted at: muhammad.farooq@aut.ac.nz