Every day, we are confronted by facts. These facts range from simple to complex. Simple fact? It’s raining right now as I’m writing this. Complex fact? Suspension of further oil leases on federal lands will impact the oil industry. Now depending on the collection of experiences and thoughts and knowledge and skill that makes up you, you may have had very different reactions to that second fact. This is because raw facts don’t interpret themselves; it takes a human for that.

As we go through life, we create meaning out of facts. We can use a model to examine how and why this happens. Gibson Burrel and Gareth Morgan wrote a book on their framework of the four paradigms of sociology back in 1979. this framework is most often used within the field to frame research questions and approaches, but independent of that it is an incredibly useful tool for thinking about why people see the world The way that they do. How do you create meaning from facts? Well unsurprisingly, it all comes down to values.

According to Burrel and Morgan, there are two general tensions that can frame how people see the world and the lenses they use. The figure below provides us a map of the model. On the left we see the subjective approach to the world. Before we can frame this properly, we need to define the word “truth”. Objective truths are true regardless of whether or not we believe in them, subjective truths are those we all agree to be true, and personal truths are something that can only be true to the individual that believes in them. Subjectivity deals with what the subject believes to be the nature of truth. Those on the left might think that truth is in the eye of the beholder. On the far right we see the opposite of this view; objectivity. This is where you will find people who believe the truth is objective. This view holds that it does not matter what we believe, the truth exists outside of our subjective mindset.

Burrel & Morgan’s model, with enhancements courtesy of H. Koerten.

The other axis running from bottom to top deals with regulation versus radical change, or how we approach the world with our level of subjectivity or objectivity. The belief that regulation is best is often associated with those who believe the world is fixed and immutable. If the world doesn’t change we should find out what to do, regulate our actions in accordance, and that will provide the best possible outcome. On the top of our spectrum is the sociology of radical change. Those who prescribe to this believe that the world is constantly changing and we must evolve our concepts of right to change with it. That’s not to say they don’t believe in rules or regulations, but they believe that those rules and regulations can and should change and evolve with the changing world.

From here we can see the four general types of world view, or paradigm, that Burrel and Morgan use to categorize their approach. The functionalist, the interpretivist, the radical functionalist, and the radical humanist. A close study of these four worldviews in paradigms will allow you to understand why people think the way that they think. For more, I highly recommend reading their book, and then broadening out to other approaches such as structural functionalism.

I have found these concepts to be especially useful both in my professional life as well as in writing. Professionally it’s important to be able to connect with people, and understanding the way in which they create meaning from facts often allows me to empathize with their point of view. This leads to more effective problem solving as we can find out where our interests overlap. But it doesn’t stop there; when writing I often put my characters into this matrix and figure out where on the spectrums they lie. This allows me to create people that are believable who act consistently. It also helps me think about how they might act or react in certain situations or when presented with certain sets of facts. Whether you choose to employ this in a leadership, personal, or writing role, understanding how people interpret facts is a critical tool.