Phenomenology is a movement in philosophy that has been
adapted by certain sociologists to promote an understanding of
the relationship between states of individual consciousness
and social life. As an approach within sociology,
phenomenology seeks to reveal how human awareness is
implicated in the production of social action, social
situations and social worlds (Natanson 1970).
Phenomenology was initially developed by Edmund Husserl
(1859-1938), a German mathematician who felt that the
objectivism of science precluded an adequate apprehension of
the world (Husserl 1931, 1970). He presented various
philosophical conceptualizations and techniques designed to
locate the sources or essences of reality in the human
consciousness. It was not until Alfred Schutz (1899-1959) came
upon some problems in Max Weber's theory of action that
phenomenology entered the domain of sociology (Schutz 1967).
Schutz distilled from Husserl's rather dense writings a
sociologically relevant approach. Schutz set about describing
how subjective meanings give rise to an apparently objective
social world (Schutz, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1970. 1996; Schutz and
Luckmann 1973; Wagner 1983).
Schutz's migration to the United States prior to World War
II, along with that of other phenomenologically inclined
scholars, resulted in the transmission of this approach to
American academic circles and to its ultimate transformation
into interpretive sociology. Two expressions of this approach
have been called reality constructionism and ethnomethodology.
Reality constructionism synthesizes Schutz's distillation
of phenomenology and the corpus of classical sociological
thought to account for the possibility of social reality
(Berger 1963, 1967; Berger and Berger 1972; Berger and Kellner
1981; Berger and Luckmann 1966; Potter 1996). Ethnomethodology
integrates the Parsonian concern for social order into
phenomenology and examines the means by which actors make
ordinary life possible (Garfinkel 1967; Garfinkel and Sacks
1970). Reality constructionism and ethnomethodology are
recognized to be among the most fertile orientations in the
field of sociology (Ritzer 1996).
Phenomenology is used in two basic ways in sociology: (1)
to theorize about substantive sociological problems and (2) to
enhance the adequacy of sociological research methods. Since
phenomenology insists that society is a human construction,
sociology itself and its theories and methods are also
constructions (Cicourel 1964; 1973). Thus, phenomenology seeks
to offer a corrective to the field's emphasis on positivist
conceptualizations and research methods that may take for
granted the very issues that phenomenologists find of
interest. Phenomenology presents theoretical techniques and
qualitative methods that illuminate the human meanings of
Phenomenology has until recently been viewed as at most a
challenger of the more conventional styles of sociological
work and at the least an irritant. Increasingly, phenomenology
is coming to be viewed as an adjunctive or even integral part
of the discipline, contributing useful analytic tools to
balance objectivist approaches (Aho 1998; Levesque-Lopman
1988; Luckmann 1978; Psathas 1973; Rogers 1983).
Phenomenology operates rather differently from conventional
social science (Darroch and Silvers 1982). Phenomenology is a
theoretical orientation, but it does not generate deductions
from propositions that can be empirically tested. It operates
more on a metasociological level, demonstrating its premises
through descriptive analyses of the procedures of self-,
situational, and social constitution. Through its
demonstrations, audiences apprehend the means by which
phenomena, originating in human consciousness, come to be
experienced as features of the world.
Current phenomenological techniques in sociology include
the method of "bracketing" (Bentz 1995; Ihde 1977).
This approach lifts an item under investigation from its
meaning context in the common-sense world, with all judgments
suspended. For example, the item "alcoholism as a
disease" (Peele 1985; Truan 1993) is not evaluated within
phenomenological brackets as being either true or false.
Rather, a reduction is performed in which the item is
assessed in terms of how it operates in consciousness: What
does the disease notion do for those who define themselves
within its domain? A phenomenological reduction both plummets
to the essentials of the notion and ascertains its meanings
independent of all particular occasions of its use. The
reduction of a bracketed phenomenon is thus a technique to
gain theoretical insight into the meaning of elements of
Phenomenological tools include the use of introspective and
Verstehen methods to offer a detailed description of
how consciousness itself operates (Hitzler and Keller 1989).
Introspection requires the phenomenologist to use his or her
own subjective process as a resource for study, while Verstehen
requires an empathic effort to move into the mind of the
other (Helle 1991; Truzzi 1974). Not only are introspection
and Verstehen tools of phenomenological analysis, but
they are procedures used by ordinary individuals to carry out
their projects. Thus, the phenomenologist as analyst might
study himself or herself as an ordinary subject dissecting his
or her own self-consciousness and action schemes (Bleicher
1982). In this technique, an analytic attitude toward the role
of consciousness in designing everyday life is developed.
Since cognition is a crucial element of phenomenology, some
theorists focus on social knowledge as the cornerstone of
their technique (Berger and Luckmann 1966). They are concerned
with how common-sense knowledge is produced, disseminated, and
internalized. The technique relies on theoretical discourse
and historical excavation of the usually taken for granted
foundations of knowledge. Frequently, religious thought is
given primacy in the study of the sources and legitimations of
mundane knowledge (Berger 1967).
Phenomenological concerns are frequently researched using
qualitative methods (Bogdan and Taylor 1975; Denzin and
Lincoln 1994, 1998). Phenomenological researchers frequently
undertake analyses of small groups, social situations, and
organizations using face-to-face techniques of participant
observation (Bruyn 1966; Psathas and Ten Have1994; Turner
1974). Ethnographic research frequently utilizes
phenomenological tools (Fielding 1988). Intensive interviewing
to uncover the subject's orientations or his or her "life
world" is also widely practiced (Costelloe 1996; Grekova,
1996; Porter 1995). Qualitative tools are used in
phenomenological research either to yield insight into the
microdynamics of particular spheres of human life for its own
sake or to exhibit the constitutive activity of human
consciousness (Langsdorf 1995).
Techniques particular to the ethnomethodological branch of
phenomenology have been developed to unveil the practices used
by people to produce a sense of social order and thereby
accomplish everyday life (Cuff 1993; Leiter 1980; Mehan and
Wood 1975). At one time, "breaching demonstrations"
were conducted to reveal the essentiality of taken-for-granted
routines and the means by which threats to these routines were
handled. Since breaching these routines sometimes resulted in
serious disruptions of relationships, this technique has been
virtually abandoned. Social situations are video- and
audiotaped to permit the painstaking demonstration of the
means by which participants produce themselves, their
interpretations of the meanings of acts, and their sense of
the structure of the situation (Blum-Kulka 1994; Jordan and
Henderson 1995). Conversational analysis is a technique that
is frequently used to describe how people make sense of each
other through talk and how they make sense of their talk
through their common background knowledge (Psathas 1994;
Schegloff and Sacks 1974; Silverman, 1998). The interrelations
between mundane reasoning and abstract reasoning are also
examined in great depth as researchers expose, for example,
the socially constituted bases of scientific and mathematical
practice in common-sense thinking (Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay
1983; Livingston, 1995; Lynch, 1993).
The central task in social phenomenology is to demonstrate
the reciprocal interactions among the processes of human
action, situational structuring, and reality construction.
Rather than contending that any aspect is a causal factor,
phenomenology views all dimensions as constitutive of all
others. Phenomenologists use the term reflexivity to
characterize the way in which constituent dimensions serve as
both foundation and consequence of all human projects. The
task of phenomenology, then, is to make manifest the incessant
tangle or reflexivity of action, situation, and reality in the
various modes of being in the world.
Phenomenology commences with an analysis of the natural
attitude. This is understood as the way ordinary
individuals participate in the world, taking its existence for
granted, assuming its objectivity, and undertaking action
projects as if they were predetermined. Language, culture, and
common sense are experienced in the natural attitude as
objective features of an external world that are learned by
actors in the course of their lives.
Human beings are open to patterned social experience and
strive toward meaningful involvement in a knowable world. They
are characterized by a typifying mode of consciousness tending
to classify sense data. In phenomenological terms humans
experience the world in terms of typifications:
Children are exposed to the common sounds and sights of their
environments, including their own bodies, people, animals,
vehicles, and so on. They come to apprehend the categorical
identity and typified meanings of each in terms of
conventional linguistic forms. In a similar manner, children
learn the formulas for doing common activities. These
practical means of doing are called recipes for action. Typifications
and recipes, once internalized, tend to settle beneath the
level of full awareness, that is, become sedimented, as
do layers of rock. Thus, in the natural attitude, the
foundations of actors' knowledge of meaning and action are
obscured to the actors themselves.
Actors assume that knowledge is objective and all people
reason in a like manner. Each actor assumes that every other
actor knows what he or she knows of this world: All believe
that they share common sense. However, each person's biography
is unique, and each develops a relatively distinct stock of
typifications and recipes. Therefore, interpretations may
diverge. Everyday social interaction is replete with ways in
which actors create feelings that common sense is shared, that
mutual understanding is occurring, and that everything is all
right. Phenomenology emphasizes that humans live within an
intersubjective world, yet they at best approximate shared
realities. While a paramount reality is commonly
experienced in this manner, particular realities or finite
provinces of meaning are also constructed and experienced
by diverse cultural, social, or occupational groupings.
For phenomenology, all human consciousness is
practical---it is always of something. Actors intend projects
into the world; they act in order to implement goals based on
their typifications and recipes, their stock of knowledge
at hand. Consciousness as an intentional process is
composed of thinking, perceiving, feeling, remembering,
imagining, and anticipating directed toward the world. The
objects of consciousness, these intentional acts, are the
sources of all social realities that are, in turn, the
materials of common sense.
Thus, typifications derived from common sense are
internalized, becoming the tools that individual consciousness
uses to constitute a lifeworld, the unified arena of
human awareness and action. Common sense serves as an
ever-present resource to assure actors that the reality that
is projected from human subjectivity is an objective reality.
Since all actors are involved in this intentional work, they
sustain the collaborative effort to reify their projections
and thereby reinforce the very frameworks that provide the
Social interaction is viewed phenomenologically as a
process of reciprocal interpretive constructions of actors
applying their stock of knowledge at hand to the occasion.
Interactors orient themselves to others by taking into account
typified meanings of actors in typified situations known to
them through common sense. Action schemes are geared by each
to the presumed projects of others. The conduct resulting from
the intersection of intentional acts indicates to members of
the collectivity that communication or coordination or
something of the like is occurring among them. For these
members, conduct and utterances serve as indexical
expressions of the properties of the situation enabling each
to proceed with the interaction while interpreting others,
context, and self. Through the use of certain interpretive
practices, members order the situation for themselves in
sensical and coherent terms: In their talk they gloss over
apparent irrelevancies, fill in innumerable gaps, ignore
inconsistencies, and assume a continuity of meaning, thereby
formulating the occasion itself.
Ongoing social situations manifest patterned routine
conduct that appears to positivist investigators to be
normative or rule-guided. Phenomenologically, rules are
indexical expressions of the interpretive processes applied by
members in the course of their interactions. Rules are enacted
in and through their applications. In order to play by the
book, the interpreter endeavors to use the rule as an apparent
guide. However, he or she must use all sorts of background
expectancies to manage the fit somehow between the particular
and the general under the contexted conditions of the
interaction, and in so doing is acting creatively. Rules,
policies, hierarchy, and organization are accomplished through
the interpretive acts or negotiations of members in their
concerted efforts to formulate a sense of operating in accord
with a rational, accountable system. This work of doing
structure to the situation further sustains its common-sensical
foundations as well as its facticity.
Phenomenologists analyze the ordering of social reality and
how the usage of certain forms of knowledge contributes to
that ordering. It is posited that typified action and
interaction become habitualized. Through sedimentation
in layered consciousness, human authorship of habitualized
conduct is obscured and the product is externalized. As
meaning-striving beings, humans create theoretical
explanations and moral justifications in order to legitimate
the habitualized conduct. Located in higher contexts of
meaning, the conduct becomes objectivated. When internalized
by succeeding generations, the conduct is fully
institutionalized and exerts compelling constraints over
individual volition. Periodically, the institutions might be
repaired in response to threats, or individuals might be
realigned if they cognitively or affectively migrate.
The reality that ordinary people inhabit is constituted by
these legitimations of habitualized conduct. Ranging from
common sense typifications of ordinary language to theological
constructions to sophisticated philosophical, cosmological,
and scientific conceptualizations, these legitimations compose
the paramount reality of everyday life. Moreover, segmented
modern life, with its proliferation of meaning-generating
sectors, produces multiple realities, some in competition with
each other for adherents. In the current marketplace of
realities, consumers, to varying degrees, may select their
legitimations, as they select their occupation and,
increasingly, their religion (Berger, 1967).
Doing phenomenological sociology involves procedures that
are distinct from positivist research. Phenomenological
practice is increasingly evident in the discipline as more
subjectivist work is published. The phenomenological analysis
of mass media culture content, for example, applies the
elements of the approach to yield an understanding of the
reflexive interplay of audience lifeworlds and program
material (Wilson 1996). Thus, TV talk show discourses may be
described as social texts that are refracted by programmers
from common sense identity constructs. The visual realization
yields narrative images that audiences are seduced into
processing using their own experiences. The viewers’
lifeworlds and the TV representations are blended into reality
proxies that provide viewers with schema to configure their
personal orientations. Subsequently, programmers draw upon
these orientations as additional identity material for new
Phenomenological work with young children examines how both
family interactions and the practices of everyday life are
related to the construction of childhood (Davila and Pearson
1994). It is revealed how the children’s elemental
typifications of family life and common sense are actualized
through ordinary interaction. Penetrating the inner world of
children requires that the phenomenological practitioner view
the subjects in their own terms, from the level and viewpoints
of children (Waksler, 1991; Shehan, 1999). Such investigation
shuns adult authoritative and particularly scientific
perspectives and seeks to give voice to the children’s
experience of their own worlds. Infants’ and children’s
communicative and interactive competencies are respected and
are not diminished by the drive toward higher level
functioning (Sheets-Johnstone 1996).
At the other end of the lifecycle, phenomenologists
investigate how aging and its associated traumas are
constituted in the consciousness of members and helpers. The
struggle for meaning during aging accompanied by chronic pain
may be facilitated or impaired by the availability of
constructs that permit the smoother processing of the
experiences. Members of cultures that stock typifications and
recipes for managing aging and pain skillfully may well be
more likely than others to construct beneficial
interpretations in the face of these challenges (Encandela
1997). Phenomenological work encourages the helpers of the
elderly to gain empathic appreciation of their clients’
lifeworlds and enhanced affiliation with them through the use
of biographical narratives that highlight their individuality
and humanity (Heliker 1997).
The healing professions, particularly nursing, seem to be
deeply imbued with a phenomenological focus on the provision
of care based on a rigorous emphasis on the patient’s
subjective experience (Benner 1995). Substantial attention has
been devoted to the ethical implications of various disease
definitions, to how language shapes the response to illness,
and to how disease definitions and paradigmatic models impact
communication between health professionals and patients
(Rosenberg and Golden 1992). Significant work on the
phenomenology of disability has demonstrated how the lived
body is experienced in altered form and how taken for
granted routines are disrupted invoking new action recipes (Toombs
1995). Nonconventional healing practices have also been
examined revealing how embodiment and the actor’s subjective
orientation reflexively interrelate with cultural imagery and
discourse to transfigure the self (Csordas 1997). Further,
phenomenological work has suggested that emotions are best
analyzed as interpreted processes embedded within experiential
contexts (Blum 1996; Solomon 1997).
For phenomenology, society, social reality, social order,
institutions, organizations, situations, interactions, and
individual actions are constructions that appear as suprahuman
entities. What does this suggest regarding humanity and
sociology? Phenomenology advances the notion that humans are
creative agents in the construction of social worlds (Ainlay
1986). It is from their consciousness that all being emerges.
The alternative to their creative work is meaninglessness,
solipsism, and chaos: a world of dumb puppets, in which each
is disconnected from the other, and where life is formless
(Abercrombie 1980). This is the nightmare of phenomenology.
Its practitioners fear that positivist sociologists actually
theorize about such a world (Phillipson 1972).
Phenomenologists ask sociologists to note the misleading
substantiality of social products and to avoid the pitfalls of
reification. For the sociologist to view social phenomena
within the natural attitude as objects is to legitimate rather
than to analyze. Phenomenological sociologists investigate
social products as humanly meaningful acts, whether these
products are termed attitudes, behaviors, families, aging,
ethnic groups, classes, societies, or otherwise (Armstrong
1979; Gubrium and Holstein 1987; Herek 1986; Petersen 1987;
Starr 1982). The sociological production of these fictive
entities are understood within the context of their
accomplishment, that is, the interview setting, the
observational location, the data collection situation, the
field, the research instrument, and so forth (Schwartz and
Jacobs 1979). The meaning contexts applied by the analyst
correlates with those of the subjects under investigation and
explicates the points of view of the actors as well as express
their life world. Phenomenological sociology strives to reveal
how actors construe themselves, all the while recognizing that
they themselves are actors construing their subjects and
Phenomenologically understood, society is a fragile human
construction, thinly veneered by abstract ideas. Phenomenology
itself is evaluatively and politically neutral. Inherently, it
promotes neither transformative projects nor stabilization. In
the work of a conservatively inclined practitioner, the
legitimation process might be supported, while the liberative
practitioner might seek to puncture or debunk the
legitimations (Morris 1975). Phenomenology can be used to
reveal and endorse the great constructions of humankind or to
uncover the theoretical grounds of oppression and repression
(Smart 1976). Phenomenologists insist upon the human
requirements for meaning, subjective connectedess, and a sense
of order. These requirements may be fulfilled within existent
or emancipative realities (Murphy 1986).
The phenomenological influence upon contemporary sociology
can be seen in the increased humanization of theoretical
works, research methods, educational assessment procedures,
and instructional modes (Aho 1998; Darroch and Silvers 1982;
O'Neill 1985; Potter 1996). Phenomenological thought has
influenced the work of postmodernist, poststructuralist,
critical, and neo-functional theory (Ritzer 1996). Notions
such as constructionism, situationalism and reflexivity that
are at the core of phenomenology also provide the grounds for
these recent formulations. For example, the premise of
poststructuralism that language is socially constituted
denying the possibility of objective meaning is clearly rooted
in phenomenology. The procedure known as deconstruction essentially
reverses the reification process highlighted in
phenomenology (Dickens and Fontana 1994). The postmodernist
argument that knowledge and reality do not exist apart from
discourse is also clearly rooted in phenomenology.
Postmodernism’s emphasis on the representational world as
reality constructor further exemplifies the phenomenological
bent toward reflexivity (Bourdieu 1992). On the other hand,
phenomenology has been used to reverse nihilistic excesses of
postmodernism and poststructuralism (O’Neil 1994). The
emphases of the critical school on the constitution of the
liberative lifeworld by the autonomous, creative agent via the
transcendence of linguistic constraint echoes a theme of
phenomenological thought (Bowring 1996). Neo-functionalism, a
looser and more inclusive version of its predecessor, finds
room for a micro-social foundation focusing on the actor as a
constructive agent (Layder 1997).
Phenomenology, while remaining an identifiable movement
within the discipline of sociology, has influenced mainstream
research. Inclusion of qualitative research approaches in
conventional research generally expresses this accommodation (Bentz
and Shapiro 1998). The greater acceptance of intensive
interviewing, participant observation and focus groups reflect
the willingness of non-phenomenological sociologists to
integrate subjectivist approaches into their work. The study
of constructive consciousness as a method of research has
broadened and strengthened the standing of sociology in the
community of scholars (Aho 1998).
Phenomenology has made a particular mark in the area of
educational policy on a number of levels. The flaws of
objective testing have been addressed using phenomenological
tools. The issue of construct validity, the link between
observation and measurement, has been studied ethnographically
as a discursive activity to clarify the practices employed by
education researchers to establish validity (Cherryholmes
1988). Testing of children has increasingly respected the
subjectivity of the test taker (Gilliatt and Hayward 1996:
Hwang 1996). Educators are more alert to the need for
understanding the learner’s social and cognitive processes,
for taking into account the constraining parameters of
consciousness, and for encouraging self-conscious reflection.
Instructional practices that emphasize constructivist
approaches have gained great support among professionals and
have been broadly implemented to the benefit of learners (Marlowe
and Page 1997).
The future impact of phenomenology will depend on its
resonance with the needs and aspirations of the rising
generations of sociologists. The drive of some among this
emerging generation is to examine the obvious with the
infinite patience and endurance that is required to come up
with penetrating insight. The arena of discourse analysis
perhaps holds the greatest promise of this achievement and
will likely elicit substantial effort. The phenomenology of
emotions also appears to entice young scholars. The reflexive
analyses of popular and mediated culture in relation to
identity formation will likely draw further interest as will
the study of virtuality, cyberspace, and computer simulcra.
The study of children, the family and education will
increasingly be informed by an emphasis on constructive
consciousness. Due its lack of presumption and openness the
phenomenological movement in sociology has proven hardy during
the closing decades of the twentieth century and is well
situated to encounter the new millennium.
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