Antinaturalism Definition

Antinaturalism is a term in sociological analysis that denotes opposition to the adoption of a natural-science model for studying human social action. This approach argues that applying principles, methods, and laws derived from the natural sciences to the social sciences is inappropriate due to the distinct nature of human societies and actions.

Key Concepts and Explanation:

  1. Distinction from Naturalism:

Naturalism in Sociology: Refers to two distinct ideas. The first is the application of natural-science models to sociology, aiming to discover universal laws of social behavior similar to those in physics or biology. The second refers to research methods focusing on studying social actions in their naturally occurring settings, emphasizing a descriptive and often qualitative approach.

Antinaturalism: Opposes the first sense of naturalism, arguing that human behavior is too complex, context-dependent, and influenced by meaning, culture, and consciousness to be fully understood through natural-science methods.

  1. Theoretical Foundations:

Human Subjectivity: Anti-naturalists emphasize the importance of understanding the subjective meanings and interpretations individuals attach to their actions and social interactions.

Social Construction: They argue that social realities are constructed through human interaction and are not governed by immutable natural laws.

Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: These philosophical traditions heavily influence antinaturalism, stressing the need to interpret and understand the meanings behind social actions.

  1. Critique of Natural-Science Model:

Reductionism: Anti-naturalists criticize naturalism for reducing complex social phenomena to simple cause-and-effect relationships, ignoring the nuanced and interpretive nature of human behavior.

Determinism: They argue against deterministic models that view human behavior as predictable and governed by fixed laws, advocating instead for a recognition of agency and free will.

  1. Methodological Implications:

Qualitative Research: Antinaturalism supports qualitative methods, such as ethnography, participant observation, and in-depth interviews, which allow for a deeper understanding of social contexts and meanings.

Interpretive Approaches: Emphasizes methods that prioritize the interpretation of social phenomena from the perspective of the individuals involved.

Examples and Applications:

  1. Ethnographic Studies:

Ethnographers studying a community might focus on understanding the cultural norms, values, and practices from the perspective of the community members, emphasizing the meanings they attach to their actions.

Example: An ethnographic study of a religious group would explore how members interpret their rituals and beliefs, rather than seeking to explain their behavior through general laws of human behavior.

  1. Phenomenological Research:

Researchers using a phenomenological approach might investigate how individuals experience and interpret significant life events, focusing on their subjective experiences and the meanings they ascribe to them.

Example: A phenomenological study on grief would examine how different individuals make sense of and cope with the loss of a loved one, highlighting the diverse meanings and emotional responses involved.

  1. Critical Sociology:

Critical sociologists might use antinaturalist principles to analyze power dynamics and social inequalities, focusing on how these are constructed and maintained through social interactions and institutions.

Example: A critical analysis of educational inequality might explore how social class, race, and gender influence educational opportunities and outcomes, emphasizing the role of societal structures and cultural norms.

Sociological Perspectives:

  1. Symbolic Interactionism:

Symbolic interactionists align with antinaturalism by focusing on the meanings individuals attach to their interactions and how these shape social reality.

Key Idea: Society is constructed through the meanings and definitions individuals create in their interactions.

Example: Studying how different social groups define and react to social deviance, emphasizing the subjective and negotiated nature of deviant behavior.

  1. Phenomenological Sociology:

This perspective emphasizes the need to understand the lived experiences and consciousness of individuals.

Key Idea: Social reality is constituted through the subjective experiences and interpretations of individuals.

Example: Research on the experience of illness would focus on how patients perceive and make sense of their condition, rather than just the biological aspects of the illness.

  1. Critical Theory:

Critical theorists critique the application of natural-science models to social issues, advocating for an approach that considers power, ideology, and social justice.

Key Idea: Social phenomena must be understood in the context of power relations and historical processes.

Example: Analyzing media representation of marginalized groups to uncover underlying power dynamics and ideological biases.

  1. Ethnomethodology:

Ethnomethodologists study the methods and practices individuals use to make sense of their everyday lives.

Key Idea: Social order is an ongoing accomplishment achieved through individuals’ everyday interactions.

Example: Investigating how people navigate and maintain social norms in public spaces, such as queuing behavior or conversational turn-taking.


Antinaturalism in sociology provides a critical counterpoint to naturalistic approaches, emphasizing the unique aspects of human social behavior that resist reduction to natural laws. By focusing on subjective meanings, social constructions, and interpretive methods, antinaturalism enriches our understanding of social phenomena, highlighting the complexity and richness of human social life. This perspective encourages sociologists to delve deeper into the lived experiences, cultural contexts, and power dynamics that shape human behavior, offering a more nuanced and holistic view of society. Through its emphasis on qualitative research and interpretive analysis, antinaturalism fosters a deeper appreciation of the diversity and complexity of human social action, challenging researchers to think beyond deterministic models and embrace the richness of human social life.

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