Chapter 1 Phenomenology

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IPA is at least one qualitative approach which does derive from psychological traditions. Critics argue that in seeing the world through others that this approach lacks a focus on the wider social context and hence politics. But there is an argument that personal phenomenological account are in themselves political. Mohanty (1991) notes that ‘ the point is not just ‘to record’ one’s history of struggle, or consciousness, but how they are recorded; the way we read, received and disseminate such imaginative records is imeesnsley significant’ (1991, 34). So we may question whether personal narratives simply privilege the personal over the political, or whether they can displace the opposition between public and private by re-writing personal experience as part of a common struggle, whilst contributing to the collective memory that sustains political community.

In the current forever busy, but ailing capitalist climate of UK in the 21st century, driven by the need to achieve targets and meet satisfactory outcome measures, commonly called the ‘audit culture’, people’s lived experience is often overlooked or erased as unimportant, by policy makers and researchers alike. However, it is just this, our sense of being in the world, our subjectivity which is the core concern of phenomenology. Rather than personal experiences being silenced or ignored they are positioned, by phenomenologists as centre stage and accepted as rich veins of understanding that are ideally used to inform practice. Many psychologically based practices, traditionally informed solely by more superficial outside-in understandings such as those imposed by ‘experts’ and/or professionals, often fail users. If you are interested in this aspect do read Bentall’s (2010) text detailing the many failings of psychiatry, which conventionally ignores the voice of its patients/consumers. Bentall applauds the rise of an increasingly vocal consumer movement within psychiatric practice and highlights the Hearing Voices Network as one such organisation. He suggests that when consumers’ understandings are recognised as important, ‘Perhaps then we really would see services that people in distress would want to make use of’ (2010:287).
Phenomenology, with subjectivity as its core has the potential to be accepting of difference as difference and not as deficit or deviance, and thus connects with a social justice agenda. Shifting the power base as phenomenology does to the participant and their narrative of lived experience - allows individuals or groups to position themselves, and have their own story told, rather than to be positioned as pathological or deviant by the stories told of them by professionals or researchers through various structural or theoretical frameworks. The target driven audit culture frames this common practice, it is a necessary element of being professional and maintaining standards. We do not wish to demonise professionals whom we recognise are mostly concerned to respect their clients/patients/users and do the best for them. However, it is necessary to point out that the political and social structures within which we all work require that we as practitioners conform. See Bentall (2010) for an example of the structural power of drug companies to frame understandings of mental health in ways that support the drug companies and feed capitalism with vast financial profit, whilst often failing to actually meet the needs of the individuals in distress. Langdridge & Butt’s (2004) work provides another example of how those electing to be involved in sado-masochism have traditionally been pathologised, positioned as deviant, whereas, more recent phenomenologically based research has focused on - .’… the individual life stories of people engaging in these practices and the struggle ‘SMers’ may have to realise their identities’ ( Langdridge 2009:1).

New directions

Phenomenologists have in recent years responded to the critique that they tend to neglect how language and politics structure people’s subjective experience which in turn limits understandings and change to the individual rather than recognising that structural understandings and change can often be more useful. To counter this critique and in the spirit of progress reflecting current trends in social psychology, some authors (Langdridge 2007; Smith, Flowers & Larkin 2009) have been discussing combining phenomenological approaches with various forms of discourse analysis to add a critical aspect to phenomenological understandings. Smith et al explore in some detail how IPA and Foucauldian Discourse analysis (FDA) may usefully be combined to provide a deeper analysis, which potentially paves the way for social change; While IPA studies provide a detailed experiential account of the person’s involvement in the context, FDA offers a critical analysis of the structure of the context itself and thus touches on the resources available to the individual in making sense of their experience’ (2009:196). There are relatively few studies making use of IPA and FDA as yet, but one example of this combination is the previously mentioned study, Does my Bump Look Big in this?, by Johnson et al (2004). The combined analysis suggests that the women are positioned by others and themselves in complex and varied ways within the discursive possibilities of mothers-to-be within our culture, and that these positions influence their experiencing in ways more likely to be limiting than empowering as their pregnant state transgresses the idealised female body discourse. What is needed is structural change, specifically, the availability of other cultural representations of women which allow them to understand themselves differently and do not pathologise them, pregnant or otherwise.

Rather than combine approaches Langdridge (2007a) has developed a more radical phenomenological approach grounded in the phenomenological tradition of maintaining a focus on storytelling and respecting the narrative of lived experience yet also making explicit the role of the political. His critical narrative analysis (CNA) recognises that as narratives can be interrogated via hermeneutic empathy to reveal individual meanings, so too can they be critically interrogated in terms of how power impacts on and is revealed within the narratives. Langdridge (2008) is keen to point out that the purpose of taking the axes of power is not to overrule personal understandings, such as is the aim of the hermeneutics of suspicion, by uncovering buried truths or causal explanations, but rather the purpose is to open up possibilities for new ways of living. Langdridge suggests that such developments are necessary if social psychology is, ‘ ... to meet the needs of people, communities and societies ... in these fast changing late modern times’ (2008:1139).

Newer directions for phenomenology

Whilst phenomenology has long standing historical roots, it also is continually evolving. For example, Ahmed (2006) demonstrates how queer studies can put phenomenology to productive use. Focusing on the “orientation” aspect of “sexual orientation” and the “orient” in “orientalism,” Ahmed examines what it means for bodies to be situated in space and time. Bodies take shape as they move through the world directing themselves toward or away from objects and others. Being “orientated” means feeling at home, knowing where one stands, or having certain objects within reach. Orientations affect what is proximate to the body or what can be reached. A queer phenomenology, Ahmed contends, reveals how social relations are arranged spatially, how queerness disrupts and reorders these relations by not following the accepted paths, and how a politics of disorientation puts other objects within reach, those that might, at first glance, seem awry. Ahmed proposes that a queer phenomenology might investigate not only how the concept of orientation is informed by phenomenology but also the orientation of phenomenology itself.

Theorists have also turned race studies and Lee (2010) articulates how phenomenology sheds light on race. Phenomenology elucidates this difficult situation where race continues as a key social indicator by addressing an important but glaring chasm — a lived experiential understanding of race. Experience eludes analysis because the ephemeral structure of experience counters theory’s systematizing tendencies. Descriptions of experience range from the too specific to the too broadly sweeping to be useful for analysis. Despite such difficulties, a lived sense of race aims to portray this immediate, every day experience of race. This is precisely the aim of existential phenomenologists’ work on race.

Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre and scholars in this tradition, working on race, have illustrated the experience of living as racialized subjects in the aftermath of colonialism. An exploration of a lived understanding of race through phenomenology provides insights about the workings of racism.


Opening up the world of experience through phenomenological lens offers possibility for engagement and resonance. As Behar (1996, cited in Bochner, 2001,p.143) argued with reference to anthropology, research which ‘doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore’. The richess of phenomenological work and the diversity within should not dissuade. Wertz (2000, p.175) noted that ‘phenomenology is a low-hovering, in-dwelling, meditative philosophy that glories in the concreteness of person-world relations and accords lived experience, with all its indeterminancy and ambiguity, primacy over the known’. Not knowing or uncertainty may well be the future for much of science, representing a shift in scientists celebrating uncertainty (Jha, 2011). What phenomenology affords within qualitative research is primacy of lived experience even if the approach itself is less certain or knowing about how best to access and represent this. Being comfortable with uncertainty is undoubtedly worthy of further phenomenological inquiry.


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