Phenomenology is a movement in the early 20th century German philosophy that describes the structure of the objects of awareness and of consciousness itself. The phenomenological method has its early roots in Kant’s distinction between “noumena” and “phenomena,” things as they are in themselves, and things as they appear to us. The philosopher who started the movement was Edmund Husserl with his book “Logical Investigations,” published in 1900/1901. Phenomenology is a method that includes and uses the subjective consciousness in the description of phenomena, and it is careful in making any claims concerning the existence of what appears to us as classes of phenomena. Since the phenomenological method starts with subjective experience, it can also be used in social science research, and it has some advantages over more theoretically-driven inquiries.

Some recent definitions of the phenomenological method:

  • Rossman and Rallis (1998): “Phenomenology is a tradition in German philosophy with a focus on the essence of lived experience. Those engaged in phenomenological research focus in-depth on the meaning of a particular aspect of experience, assuming that through dialogue and reflection the quintessential meaning of the experience will be reviewed. Language is viewed as the primary symbol system through which meaning is both constructed and conveyed (Holstein & Gubrium, 1994). The purposes of phenomenological inquiry are description, interpretation, and critical self-reflection into the “world as world” (Van Manen, 1990) Central are the notions of intentionality and caring: the researcher inquires about the essence of lived experience.” (p. 72)
  • Patton (1990): “…a phenomenological study…is one that focused on descriptions of what people experience and how it is that they experience what they experience. One can employ a general phenomenological perspective to elucidate the importance of using methods that capture people’s experience of the world without conducting a phenomenological study that focuses on the essence of shared experience.” (p.71)
  • Creswell (1998): “Researchers search for essentials, invariant structure (or essence) or the central underlying meaning of the experience and emphasize the intentionality of consciousness where experiences contain both the outward appearance and inward consciousness based on memory, image and meaning.” (p.52)

The phenomenological inquiry is particularly appropriate to address meanings and perspectives of research participants. The major concern of phenomenological analysis is to understand “how the everyday, inter-subjective world is constituted” (Schwandt, 2000) from the participants’ perspective. The basic philosophical assumption underlying this inquiry has most often been illustrated by Husserl’s statements – “we can only know what we experience.” Phenomenologists don’t engage in ‘sciences of facts’ because they doubt that there are such absolute facts, independent from experience. We can formulate ‘knowledge of essences,’ which are the underlying invariants and meanings that are shared within the different lived experiences.

The researcher should first look into the individual point of view, for instance how the subjective consciousness realizes itself by perceiving objects. The major characteristic of a phenomenological psychological method is to understand human phenomena as lived and experienced. The major data source for this inner perspective is interviewing. Patton (1990) stated the purpose of interviewing specifically as “to find out what is in and on someone else’s mind”, and that is exactly what the target of the phenomenological study focuses on, i.e. the perception of lived experience.

There are two perspectives of phenomenological analysis in the formulation of lived experience: one is the description from the people who are living through the phenomenon, and the second is from the researcher who studies the phenomenon together with the people who experience it. In order to ‘return to the things themselves’ (Husserl, 1970), the researcher cannot impose the meaning of the experience, because the experiencing subject is itself the absolute source of it’s own experience of the object. However, it seems to be impossible to detach personal interpretations from the things that are personally interesting. Therefore, the researcher has to be aware of his or her own interpretation being infused into the interviewee’s perspective or into the analysis of data.

This leads again to the traditional dilemma that the regular scientific method tries to screen out by making scientific results researcher-independent.

The Procedures of Phenomenological Inquiry

Creswell, 1998, proposes the following process:

  • The researcher needs to understand the philosophical perspectives behind the approach, especially the concept of studying how people experience a phenomenon
  • The investigator writes research questions that explore the meaning of that experience for individuals and asks individuals to describe their everyday lived experience.
  • The investigator collects data from individuals who have experienced the phenomenon under investigation. Typically, this information is collected through long interviews.
  • The phenomenological data analysis: the protocols are divided into separate statements , these units are transformed into clusters of meaning, which can be condensed into a general description of the experience, which includes  what is experienced and its structural description, i.e how it is experienced.
  • The phenomenological report aims to formulate the essential, invariant structures of these classes of phenomena.

Data Analysis

Creswell (1998) states that phenomenological data analysis proceeds through the methodology of reduction, the analysis of specific statements and themes, and a search for all possible meanings. The researcher needs to set aside all prejudgments, bracketing his or her experiences. In doing this kind of research, one must stay balanced between subjectivity and objectivity. Establishing the truth of things begins with the researcher’s perception. The researcher should reflect, first, on the meaning of the experience for herself; then turn outward, to those being interviewed, and establish “inter-subjective validity,” which is the testing of this understanding with other people through a back-and-forth social interaction. But the investigator need not stop at this point.

The focus of a phenomenological study according to Patton (1990) lies in the “descriptions of what people experience and how it is that they experience.” The goal is to identify essence of the shared experience that underlies all the variations in this particular learning experience. Essence is viewed as commonalities in the human experiences. According to Patton (1990), the method includes:

  • Epoche: a phase in which the researcher eliminates or clarifies preconceptions. Researchers need to be aware of “prejudices, viewpoints or assumptions regarding the phenomenon under investigation” (Katz, 1987).
  • Phenomenological reduction: the researcher brackets out the world and presuppositions to identify the data in pure form, uncontaminated by extraneous intrusions. Bracketing involves a separation of the phenomena in question from the rest of the world.

The entire process aims to examine the lived experience from the point of view of the subject of experience, rather than to impose another person’s interpretation. The commonalities of the phenomenon should solely be derived from the perspectives of the participants in the phenomenon under study, and they should not result from the researcher’s own thinking, or other researchers’ writings, or the theoretical descriptions of the phenomenon under analysis.

Critical Questions

How does this research method resolve the dilemma between” subjectivity” and “objectivity”? Interpretations are always subjective. Phenomenological studies pursue “commonalities”, which could be constituted only through the process of analysis. Although the data seems to come first, the interpretation of the data can be a process that produces its own “truth,” beyond the data itself. Essences are abstract, but the phenomenon is not. What is closer to the truth? Ideas of the objects, or objects themselves?


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