Why People Interpret Things Differently
Dan Pantelo

Hermeneutics is a branch of social science concerned with the theory and methodology of interpretation.

Initially, hermeneutics was exclusively concerned with how interpretation was used in biblical and holy texts, attempting to account for why different religious sects reached such widely varying interpretations of the same text. However, modern hermeneutics has expanded the scope of the discipline to include how interpretation functions in the consumption of all text, including digital texts. The hermeneutic method accepts that all human understanding is informed and guided by the interpreter’s inherent biases and prejudices shaped by their personal experiences and the prevailing cultural attitudes of their socioeconomic demographic.

A landmark study in modern hermeneutics by Allen Lee called Integrating Positivist and Interpretive Approaches to Organizational Research observed that human subjects do not understand themselves and their organizations in the ways that an objectively rational decision maker would, but in the ways that colluding politicians and clubhouse members would. Hermeneutics demonstrates that human behavior is much more influenced by the process of interpretation rather than rational or logical faculties (Lee). This is a critical revelation in the social sciences because it highlighted the flaws in modern economic theory, which assumes that people are rational decision makers — leading to the recent popularity of fields like behavioral economics.

In Electronic Mail as a Medium for Rich Communication: An Empirical Investigation Using Hermeneutic Interpretation, hermeneutic scholar Allen Lee examined actual e-mail exchanges among managers in a corporation in order to understand how users interpret information in managerial electronic communications. Lee conducts his study of interpretation according to five central hermeneutic concepts;

Hermeneutics Process
The Hermeneutical Process
1. Distanciation, which refers to the separation in both time and distance that occurs between a text (and its author) and the text’s originally intended audience.
2. Autonomization, which refers to the text’s taking on a life of its own, or when a reader’s interpretation of the text endows it with living qualities and emotions.
3. Appropriation, which refers to making one’s own what was initially alien or foreign.
4. Social Construction, which refers to the social context in which the text takes place.
5. Enactment, which is the point at which the reader internalizes their interpretation and reacts to it or projects it unto others.

Lee breaks down managerial emails into those five steps in the interpretation process and reaches several conclusions. Much to surprise of information systems professionals, Lee finds that e-mail systems always act as mediums of rich information as opposed to lean information. The ‘richness’ of information is determined by the extent of its ability to change understanding within a time interval. For instance, face-to-face is the ‘richest’ communication medium because it provides immediate feedback so that interpretation can be processed and checked in real time.

According to information richness theory, which is accepted by the information systems scholars responsible for designing corporate e-mail systems, documents (such as e-mail) are lean mediums,” because it lacks the capability for immediate feedback, uses only a single channel, filters out significant cues, tends to be impersonal, and incurs a reduction in language variety,” (Lee). By conducting a hermeneutic analysis of e-mail interpretation, Lee was able to successfully discredit a foundational component of information richness theory by proving that,” managers who receive e-mail are not passive recipients of data, but active producers of meaning. In interaction with the e-mail system, they transform the data into information they find meaningful,” (Lee).

According to Lee’s findings, and much to the dismay of the information system architects, e-mail is much better understood as a catalyst of decision-making rather than a medium for data communication.

An (Overwhelming) Email Inbox

As a result of Lee’s hermeneutic analysis into how managers interpret e-mails, the information systems experts who designed corporate e-mail programs had to redesign their e-mail systems from scratch. They had to reconceive their system as an information-support system designed around decision support capabilities rather than a lean medium of data communication. The subsequent overhaul of e-mail systems improved the productivity and value of corporate e-mail communications because it catered to the interpretational behaviors of managers.

Lee’s study demonstrates the profound value of hermeneutic analysis because it allows us to predict the irrational/illogical behaviors of human actors by accounting for how they interpret the media around them. Hermeneutics demonstrates that human behavior is much more influenced by interpretation rather than rational or logical faculties. Any academic discipline, corporate practice, or campaign that operates on the assumption that human subjects are rational actors ought to be checked by a hermeneutic analysis because it’s the best methodology for objectively understanding the behaviors that are subjective in nature. This is particularly relevant in the communications strategies of financial or direct-to-consumer entities who often assume their audience to be rational decision-makers.

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