The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Josselson (2004) offers a reinterpretation of Ricoeur’s hermeneutic dichotomy and applies the main ideas of faith and suspicion to the practicality of research. Of particular interest to this strand of hermeneutic phenomenology is the narrative and the modes in which the researcher can ambivalently deconstruct and empathise with the text under analysis. The ‘faith’ hermeneutics is based on the sacred relationship between the reader and the text and stems from the permanent disunity of the celestial and the earthly. Paradoxically, the disjunction is what fuels an attempt to reconnect the two worlds through a permanent reinterpretation of the text, same as theology is in a perpetual interpretation of the Bible. Translated to the more pragmatic endeavour of Josselson, the researcher / the interpreter attempts a reconnection with the text that is produced in an ontologically distinct world. This process of reconnection is done through reinterpretation as a way of questing for the truth.

On the other hand, the hermeneutics of suspicion acknowledges the dissension between different realities and has a starting point the suspicion of the reality exposed by narratives, thus attempting deconstruction of the contexts in which a narrative is produced. Either by “performing a suspicious commentary” (Thiele, 1991:581) or by creating a Foucauldian “genealogy of difference” (Thiele, 1991: 581), suspicion research would use the vantage point of the researcher to identify gaps in meanings produced through text. In this short essay, I will briefly expose a few implications of importing this heideggerian hermeneutics into nowadays qualitative research.

Hermeneutics of Faith

The hermeneutics of faith can be conceived of as the dialectical process that brings the global and the local together (Josselson, 2004). Besides the Marxist conceptualisation of this type of hermeneutics, faith reminds of the poststructuralist, rhizomic, multi-layered space where global is not simply a layer of consciousness that is added on top of the locality of action, but rather the global is constructed within and simultaneously with the fabrication of the self. The way of knowing in this hermeneutic tradition is by attributing to yourself faith in “the meanings of [the] participants” (Josselson, 2004: 11) and by “locating [yourself] into one’s own text” (Behar, 1996: 13). Pragmatically, Josselson argues that immersion within the group under study establishes this faith of the reader in the ability of the narrator to reproduce the participants’ realities: “most readers of narrative research want to know whether the researcher is in some way a member of the group he or she is researching. Similarly, there are dilemmas about whether such membership should be disclosed to the participants before or during the interview. All of these questions bear on the hermeneutics of restoration” (Josselson, 2004: 12).

There is an ethical dilemma residing within this type of hermeneutics. However, the condition of faith hermeneutics is restoration through immersion. While the covert / overt nature of the research and the ethical implications of choosing any of them is not explicitly discussed within this philosophy, the underlying ‘purpose’ of applying this methodology to research is rendering a high fidelity account of the phenomenon under investigation. This account fidelity can be only reached by acknowledging that there might be an infinity of meanings arising from the act of interpretation. However, those interpretation are produced within the realm of faith that the external and internal worlds of the participants convey. Perhaps, the role of the researcher would be to reconcile the earthly and divine, thus the mundane and the vantage realm of knowledge.

Hermeneutics of Demystification (Suspicion)

The hermeneutics of demystification broadens the narrative inquiry contour. While faith in narrative is about outlaying the text produced as a piece of meaning that can be interminably reinterpreted, the demystifying hermeneutical endeavour would seek to deconstruct and reproach the deception that is inherent with text. Meanings are hidden, and while language under all its forms is a vehicle of subjectification, a mean of accentuating the self and the rapport of the self with other subjects, language also represents a false consciousness. Demystified hermeneutics would purport that experience is not inherently transparent, and perhaps it is not readily deciphered even to the one who is experiencing.

The hermeneutical process is one of decoding text (Bineham, 1994). Text is viewed as a sacred. While faith hermeneutics would resemble a rhizomic and heterotopic space, the suspicion hermeneutics would resonate with the Derridian approach to text as a recipient holding multiple sub-texts, thus multiple meanings. The suspicion stems from the fact that the conscious expression of meaning hides several deeper meanings that are contextually and institutionally constrained (Bar-On, 1996), therefore the most obvious meaning of the narrative, the one that is immediately perceptible might be an emanation of a multiplicity of contexts that are not readily available for interpretation.

The multiplicity of meanings raises two issues. The first would be the methodology of separating meanings within the same production of text. Second, the ethicality of re-authoring meaning that is not consciously produced, but that is deeply embedded onto current and past contexts of the producer of meaning. Unearthing meanings from a narrative wire assumes an imposition of knowledge from the one who unwires the narrative. As Rosenthal (1993) affirmed, the purpose of this re-authoring is to reconstruct the subject’s life by going beyond the ‘subject’s intentions’.

Discussion and conclusions

In this short essay I have presented the main arguments of the two types of hermeneutics borrowed from the conceptual repertoire of Ricoeur and Heidegger. Moreover, using Josselson pragmatic approach to those, I considered a few implications of this philosophy for the qualitative research.

First of all, hermeneutics applied as a methodology in qualitative research requires a particular ontological and epistemological position. The process of knowing is characterized by a multiplicity of understandings of worlds that are discursively and textually constructed. The researcher can navigate this multiplicity by immersing herself into the world of the researched. This methodology envisions the researcher as an active member of the world that is constructed. By analogy, the researcher needs ‘faith’ to operate within a realm that is external and unfamiliar.

Second of all, hermeneutics is fundamentally a method of interpreting texts. However, the interpretation has limitations if the researcher is not questioning whether the knowledge claims she makes are rendering a ‘faithful’ account of the reality being represented. Thus, permanent wariness should be intertwined with permanent reinterpretation of the text. Because the re-apprehension of the meanings is infinite, the researcher might find it difficult to stop this process.

What Josselson fails to tackle is this continuous journey that has no ending. The pragmatic project of translating hermeneutics into day to day research is hit by the problematic decision to stop the journey. But if the interpretative endeavour is curbed, then how can one know that what is accumulated so far is good enough to render ‘fidelity’?


Bar-On, D. (1999) ‘The indescribable and the undiscussable: Reconstructing human discourse

after trauma’, Budapest: Central European Universities Press.

Bineham, J.L. (1994) Displacing Descartes: Philosophical Hermeneutics and Rhetorical Studies, Philosophy & Rhetoric, 27(4): 300-312.

Josselson, R. (2004) ‘The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ Narrative Inquiry 14(1): 1-28.

Thiele, P.L. (1991) ‘Reading Nietzche and Foucault: A Hermeneutics of Suspicion?’ The American Political Science Review 85(2): 581-592.

Rosenthal, G. (1993) ‘Reconstruction of life stories: Principles of selection in generating stories for narrative biographical interviews’ in Josselson, R and Lieblich, A. (eds) The Narrative story of lives, vol. 1, Lond, UK: Sage.