Chapter 1 Phenomenology

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Chapter 1 Phenomenology

Rebecca Lawthom and Carol Tindall
This chapter is situated in a section of text called Orientations and rather like guiders or orienteers we want to point you towards some markers and direction around phenomenology. We orient this work as interested practitioners and facilitators of qualitative research. One of us (CT) writes very much from a feminist phenomenological perspective and this articulation is clearly present both here and in the Repertory Grid Chapter (this volume). The other of us (RL) does not work from an explicit phenomenological perspective but works with interpretation and construction more broadly in qualitative work. In mapping and orienting, we will use examples throughout to situate and explain the terms. Of course experience belongs to us all, so use your experience to ground the terms for you.
Below, as an example of an account of experience, is Roxy Freeman’s (2009) wonderfully rich and evocative first person narrative of change and of the phenomena of living within the built environment, which appeared in the Guardian under the title - My Gypsy Childhood. This offers you a flavor of the type of data that phenomenologists are interested in.

My siblings and I were born into this lifestyle, but we weren't taught to carve clothes pegs and sell lucky heather. We were brought up with strict morals, values and guidelines. We don't look or act particularly different to anybody else. We just had a different path, and weren't brought up living in a house.

After completing my access course (thanks to a wonderful tutor, I got distinctions in all the units), I did a degree with the Open University, and that meant completely changing my way of life. Last November, at the age of 30, I moved to Brighton to study at Brighton Journalist Works. I live here with my boyfriend in a flat, which is bizarre and alien to me. My family are, admittedly, no longer truly nomadic, and my parents support my decision to transform my life, but I have never lived within bricks and mortar before, and I feel completely out of touch with nature now.

I can't see or feel the change from one season to the next, I crave greenery, and I constantly wrestle with the emotion of feeling trapped. I spend half my life opening doors and windows, trying to get rid of the airless, claustrophobic feeling that comes with being inside. I get woken up by bin lorries, the rush-hour traffic and my neighbours shouting, instead of birdsong and the wind in the trees. I can't sense when it's going to rain because I can no longer smell it in the air, and when it does rain I can't hear it landing on the roof.

I live near the sea because it gives me some sense of openness and freedom, but I don't think I will ever feel truly settled here – or anywhere else. My instinct is to travel, and when you have grown up waking to different scenery every day, it's easy to feel trapped. But to reach my dream, I have to put down roots.

Roxy Freeman

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian, Monday 7 September 2009


Phenomenology is all about lived experience, the richness and texture of experience which is understood through rich engagement with another person’s ‘lifeworld.’ You may be familiar with the term phenomenology or phenomenological inquiry and this is not surprising. It has been utilized widely within the social sciences and is often used to refer to a research perspective, which is distinct from and in opposition to positivist forms of inquiry (Bogdan and Taylor, 1979). Whilst we can locate phenomenology broadly within the interpretivist paradigm (Burrell and Morgan, 1979, Holstein and Gubruim, 1994) there is a sense of confusion between phenomenology as a paradigm and phenomenological inquiry as a stance or approach to conducting research (Patton, 1990). In this chapter, we articulate some clear aims around phenomenology which both position phenomenology more broadly and explore the approach as a way of doing research. Space precludes in depth coverage of analysis but we aim to paint a journey which captures the elements of the approach, signposting you on to further reading (if interested) In the previous two chapters, you have been introduced to two different axes within which to understand qualitative approaches (action and structure). In this chapter, we turn to phenomenology which embraces subjectivity and also engages with interpretation and structure. However, the key pivot or essence of this understanding is around the primacy of subjective experience – so here, how the individual interprets the world and structure around them. Phenomenology is an approach which explicitly focuses on sense making and subjectivity where a person’s world is therefore one of personal meanings.

Everybody comes to qualitative methods from somewhere – often students and ourselves included happen upon it after induction into more dominant ways of knowing, i.e. positivist forms of knowledge. In this sense, it is a relational concept – we are considering it, in relation to other more privileged ways of doing ‘science’. It seems useful to locate what we know about phenomenology both as a paradigm or philosophy and as a method. Understanding how phenomenology fits in to the discipline of psychology generally and how it fits into debates around methods can allow us to see knowledge as situated. This term, situated knowledge locates knowledge in time and place, within cultures and bodies, rather than as a free floating entity. In order to situate phenomenology it is useful to define it (whatever it is).

However, defining phenomenology is no easy task as the landscape of phenomenology is fissured and fragmented. Here, in this chapter, we offer an overview of the current scene, and include a wide range of examples rather than detailing the variety of phenomenologists’ positioning. Indeed, as Caelli (2000), points out, it is possible to identify 18 different forms of phenomenology. There are shared features between these different schools, but also some distinct differences. The dynamic tension between phenomenologists, evident initially when existentialists such as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty challenged Husserl’s (1859-1938) descriptive stance, is still apparent in phenomenology today - see for example, Giorgi (2010). Whilst divisions and tensions that began with Husserl and Heidegger are still evident today as Giorgi ‘s descriptive stance (2010) contrasts with a more methodologically driven Interpretative phenomenological stance advocated by Smith (2010). It is an evolving approach although knowing something of the historic and cultural grounding of perspectives, theories and methods enables us to have a better understanding of their purpose and value. Whilst Husserl is seens as the ‘founding father’ of the philosophy than others such as Heidegger developed it from being philosophically oriented to a methodological research approach. Phenomenology is a rich and complex philosophy which has been taken into psychology and other social sciences. From this, it has variously developed as an approach and research method resulting in different emphases and some confusion, which makes it a tricky area to map effectively.

That said there are commonalities, all privilege the experiential subjective world of the individual, what many phenomenologists call the ‘lifeworld’. That is, how things seem to the perceiver, how the phenomena (the appearance of things) are experienced and understood by the person having the experience, as it is through experiencing our world that we come to know it. This was a radical challenge to earlier dualist thinking where mind and body were thought of as separate entities. Later, in the 1960s, phenomenologists keen to resist the determinist and antihumanist tendencies of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, joined forces and together with humanists such as Rogers emphasized the need to understand how people experience themselves, others and the contexts within which they are embedded, from their own view point. So the primacy of experience, as filtered through the perceiver, is key to phenomenology’s alternative understandings of people. Roxy’s account (given above) captures her current lifeworld as not being able to smell or hear the rain, distinct from her childhood immersed in nature.
Some phenomenologists, when aiming to understand lived experience follow Husserl’s focus on description (Giorgi 2000; Ashworth 2003), while others follow the existentialists (Van Manen 1988; Packer and Addison 1989; King 2004) and favour a more interpretive approach. Girogi (1997) argues that the phenomenological method is richly descriptive and encompasses three interlocking steps 1) the phenomenological reduction 2) descriptioin and 3) search for essences. Alongside this framework a plethora of variations flourish which pay differential emphasis to the life world and ability to bracket off. In addition there are phenomenological methods such as Interpretative phenomenological analysis’ (IPA) (Smith, Larkin & Flowers 2009). You may well have heard of this, as it is probably the most popular method of phenomenological analysis, and is a particular branch of interpretive analysis. This approach, with its distinctive analytical frame, has gained much ground within psychological research within the UK. We see this as an analytical development of phenomenology which can be fruitfully explored elsewhere. All phenomenologists, whatever their differences aim to explore how the world is humanly experienced by gaining first person accounts of the quality and texture of individual experience (Spinelli 2003), with the goal of using the accounts to elucidate the nature of the phenomena. However, given that, ‘… psychologists … have turned their attention to particular areas of experience and have sought to draw out the human meanings of these areas using empirical material such as interviews and observation’ (King, Finlay, Ashworth, Smith, Langdridge and Butt (2008:81); it may be more accurate now in the Twenty First Century to talk about phenomenological based psychology.


The landscape of qualitative research is rich and complex and it is useful to map where phenomenology fits into the wider picture. Burrell and Morgan’s paradigmatic model (1979) proposed that particular lens or ways of viewing the social world are related to methods and knowledge.

Radical change


























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