What is phenomenology?

“Experience by itself is not science” (Edmund Husserl)

Phenomenology, a word that strikes “fear” into the heart of every qualitative researcher. A lot of this fear is born out of a misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge and in many cases a lack of application. The direct link between phenomenology and experience however cannot be denied.

It is important at this stage to acknowledge that phenomenology is just one mechanism on the “long road” to completion, it may not be the best or the most appropriate viewpoint but as a qualitative researcher you may want to think about how it can be utilised to frame your view of the world.

The word phenomenology and the discipline in general stems from two heavyweight philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Heidegger (who was one of Husserl’s best known students.) They argue that the one who discusses or studies phenomenology is treading into the world of experience and perception, essentially we are asking ourselves what does each experience means to the person experiencing the event.

This view is backed up by multiple researchers for example Orbe (2000) mentions that phenomenology is the study of essences, which has a “focus on the conscious experience of how a person relates to the lived world that he or she inhibits”. The conundrum for the researcher is this, how do you capture essences? Well, in my view if you do employ phenomenology then you will need to focus on the capturing of rich and varied descriptions about different phenomena and the context in which they occur (Groenewald, 2004). The key thing here is context, this is because phenomenology is a viewpoint that advocates the study of the direct experience, and the behaviour is determined by the phenomena of experience rather than external reality (Cohen et al., 2013, p. 18).

This view is no small concept, and gets to the very heart of what it means to have consciousness, but also what is the structure of this consciousness. Each person may experience an event in a different way and hence the structure of their consciousness will influence this. So in its broadest sense we can assume that phenomenology refers to how individuals perceive the meaning of an event, the lived in experience as it were.

However, please do remember that developing a phenomenological enquiry is fraught with its own unique dangers. Crotty (1998) argues, and I am going to agree with him on this, the biggest challenge for the researcher is to observe the phenomenon as it should be experienced, without influencing the data. It is imperative that the researcher lay aside their belief systems (p. 82), this view is also supported by (Crabtree & Miller, 1999). This is an important process for researchers, as meanings and symbols that the researcher has grown up with are limiting and can act as a barrier between the researcher and the immediate experience of the object (Crotty, 1998). This process is called reflexivity and out of the realms of todays blog post, but something I may come back to later.

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Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2013). Research methods in education (7th Editio). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.dawsonera.com.librouter.hud.ac.uk/depp/reader/protected/external/AbstractView/S9780203029053

Crabtree, B. F., & Miller, W. L. (1999). Doing Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=MEd2AwAAQBAJ&pgis=1

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research. meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://library.hud.ac.uk/catlink/bib/314610

Groenewald, T. (2004). A phenomenological research design illustrated.

Orbe, M. P. (2000). Centralizing diverse racial/ethnic voices in scholarly research: the value of phenomenological inquiry. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 24(5), 603. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0147-1767(00)00019-5


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