Skip to main content Skip to navigation

what is phenomenology?

Like other concepts in social theory phenomenology is a broad term and covers a varied tradition. This tradition is often seen as rooted in the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl 1859 – 1938 though of course Husserl was himself influenced by earlier thinkers. The phenomenological tradition continued, albeit in very different directions, by writers such as Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida.

If there is one unifying idea behind the idea of phenomenology it is an intense concern about the way the world appears to the person experiencing the world (Moran, 2000). Phenomenologists seek to describe that experience, and this goal sets it apart from more causal / positivist approaches to social research, particularly behavioural psychology, and from explanatory general theory such as marxism and functionalism. A phenomenological approach is interested in the subjectivity of the observer but it need not be confined to the level of the individual. Phenomenologists are interested in the way we come to share similar understanding of the world and the way we construct a sphere of intersubjectivity, an implicit agreement about how the world looks, sometimes referred to as the life-world.

Phenomenology is further concerned with our distorted understanding of the world. For example in Husserl, in particular, there is a sense that we could reach genuine insight about the world if we could strip back our preconceptions. This idea is taken up in the idea of ‘bracketing’ as a research practice, i.e. putting aside the assumptions you would normally make about whatever it is you are researching. Husserl sees undistorted insight as intuitive – to be honest the word is used counter intuitively - to imply a level of objective understanding reached after a great deal of examination and reflection. This passion for stripping back prior conceptions later reaches a pessimistic, and intensely personal interpretation in Sartre’s novel Nausea.

Phenomenology offers a particularly interesting view of cognition for social researchers. It sees consciousness as developed through experience, not the work of a disembodied mind. It takes all consciousness as intentional – in other words when we try to make sense of something it is always with a purpose in mind. We have to supply the purpose and this leads to the existentialist view point which posits that there is no a priori meaning to existence, the world just is and we have to face up to this existential fact.

It is very difficult, as ever when it comes to social theory, to translate a detailed and quite dense examination of human consciousness such as phenomenology into a methodology for doing social research. However when social research is described as phenomenological this often implies that the researcher wants to uncover the meaning that people put on a phenomenon (typically an issue, event, practice). As Finlay puts it phenomenology aims for ‘fresh, complex, rich description of phenomena as concretely lived’ (Finlay, 2013). Phenomenologists look to describe rather than explain but there is much in phenomenology which problematises this distinction between description and explanation and, in any case, phenomenologists often do explain but in terms of ‘lived experience’ rather than causal events.

It is tempting to associate a phenomenological approach with an in-depth qualitative methodology, for example narrative, ethnographic and indeed auto ethnographic approaches. However mixed approaches might be undertaken by some phenomenologists and an interesting context to explore here is the discussion of deep and surface learning styles (e.g. Marton, Hounsell, & Entwistle, 1997) which used both quantitative and qualitative approaches. This means that reporting in the phenomenological research tradition is very varied, some accounts are quite literary, others are more ‘scientific’.

Two recent examples of phenomological approaches are Chen (2017) and Loder (2014). Chen offers a ‘phenomenological explication’ of guanxi in rural tourism management in the context of one Chinese village. Guanxi refers to ways of providing mutual assistance via broad and long term networks in Chinese society and, particularly in rural society. Chen is interested in how guanxi can be understood as a ‘form of being in the world’ and how it is experienced by rural Chinese. This paper gives a good background to phenomenology, and to some concepts developed in Heidegger.

Loder describes how workers perceive green roofs – these are the grassed or wild flowered roofs which are a feature in many modern cities. In this case the study looks at the cities of Chicago and Toronto. The authors find that workers see these roofs as expressing values of ‘care, attention and environmental restoration’ and they speculate on what experiences their respondents might have had which created this way of thinking. The study is quite a large scale phenomenological analysis of fifty-five semi-structured interviews, a larger sample than in Chen. It is a broader approach but nonetheless leads us to be curious about changes that are often taken for granted or noticed without comment.

The contribution of phenomenology in the above accounts is to unsettle positivist accounts of human behaviour in favour of an approach which problematises, and is intensely curious about, how we interpret the world. Critics of phenomenology in general see it as lacking attention to the wider social context in which we live and for some the idea of bracketing is fanciful (see grounded theory).

Chen, X. (2017). A phenomenological explication of guanxi in rural tourism management: A case study of a village in China. Tourism management, 63, 383-394. doi:

Finlay, L. (2013). Unfolding the phenomenological research process: Iterative stages of “seeing afresh”. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 53(2), 172-201.

Loder, A. (2014). ‘There's a meadow outside my workplace’: A phenomenological exploration of aesthetics and green roofs in Chicago and Toronto. Landscape and urban planning, 126, 94-106.

Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N. J. (1997). The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, Edinburgh Scottish Academic Press.