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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”




Myron Orleans

Encyclopedia of Sociology

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 social life.

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 consciousness.

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 construction tools.

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 content development.

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 themselves.

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.

(SEE ALSO: Ethnomethodology; Qualitative Methods; Postmodernism; Poststructuralism)


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