The Empirical Science Paradigm and the Liberal Arts Paradigm in Translation Studies

Gyde Hansen, Copenhagen Business School

December 29, 2008


Traditionally, approaches in research are divided into two main paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks that provide researchers with ethical norms and rules that reflect what is regarded as “science” or even “good science”. Depending on the fields of research, in textbooks like e.g. Durst-Andersen (2004), the two paradigms are referred to with different terms, for example:

·        inductive/empirical research – deductive/rationalistic research;

·        data-oriented research – hermeneutic research;

·        empirically oriented research ‘empiricism’ – interpretive theoretical research.


In short, empirical research, the main paradigm of the natural sciences, is exploration of reality based on data and facts, and providing systematic evidence. Non-empirical research, mostly known from the humanities, is regarded as the philosophical and theoretical investigation of texts (but also manifestations of life) – using interpretation, argumentation and rationale.

      Scholars from the two camps tend to criticize each other, in social sciences, see for example, Alvesson/Sköldberg (2000), and in Translation Studies, Stolze (2003). What is held against empirical research is that it is a-theoretical and that whatever we observe, it is always influenced by language, selective perception and a degree of subjectivity, because nobody approaches reality as a tabula rasa. The non-empirical, philosophical and theoretical approaches are criticized for being speculative, intuitive and less solid than empirical research.

      The terms and the division into the two main paradigms are problematic – not only in Translation Studies, but also in other disciplines like, for example, business studies and sociology. What is, for example, the exact extension of the term Liberal Arts Paradigm? Liberal Arts comprise among others hermeneutics, structuralism, constructivism, critical theory, discourse analysis, etc. – all of them with their special research objects, rules and traditions, which by researchers from other paradigms may be regarded as more or less “scientific” and more or less solid.

      Having the large group of disciplines under the umbrella of the Liberal Arts Paradigm in mind – can it then be generalized that LAP is less rigorous than empirical scientific research? A look at some of the skills required in text books in relation to the two main paradigms shows that it is not totally different skills that are asked for in order to do empirical research or hermeneutic research (as an example from the LAP). However, what is most interesting and important in this connection is that Translation Studies of all disciplines absolutely cannot make do without both paradigms. As to the research skills I found, see below:


Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg. K. 2000. Reflexive Methodology. London: Sage.

Durst-Andersen, P. (ed.) 2004. Erhvervshumaniora.  Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur.

Gile, D. 2005. “The liberal arts paradigm and the empirical science paradigm.” Research issue January 2005.

Gile, D. 2008. “Where is the evidence? On one limitation of the Empirical Research Paradigms.” Research issue December 2008.

Frankfort-Nachmias, C. and Nachmias, D. 1996. Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: St. Martin's Press.

Stolze, R. 2003. Hermeneutik und Translation. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.



                                    Research skills



Empirical research                                  Hermeneutics

Ability to categorize                                   Ability to ask questions

Ability to listen and to explain                     Ability to check plausibility

Ability to see relevant data                         Ability to judge

Ability to see links                                      Comprehensiveness

Ability to spot new possibilities                   Creativity

Being realistic                                             Dialectic approach

Being well read                                           Empathy

Being careful                                               Honesty

Fresh look                                                  Humble activity

Empathy                                                      Intuition

Skeptical attitude                                         Logic argumentation

Open-mindedness                                       Openness as to different possibilties/positions

Patience                                                      Overview

Reflectivity                                                   Respect as to the interpreted issue

Rigor                                                           Seeing relations/patterns

Self-criticism                                                Skill to see alternatives

Sensibility                                                    Thoroughness

Social interaction                                         Understanding the parts – and the whole

Thoroughness                                              Understanding of meaning