An introduction to phenomenology applied to research

Phenomenology is an umbrella term encompassing both a philosophical movement and a range of research approaches.  The phenomenological movement was initiated by Husserl (1936/1970) as a radically new way of doing philosophy. Later theorists, such as Heidegger (1927/1962), have recast the phenomenological project, moving away from a philosophical discipline which focuses on consciousness and essences of phenomena towards elaborating existential and hermeneutic (interpretive) dimensions of being.

Applied to research, phenomenology is the study of phenomena: their nature and meanings.  The focus is on the way things appear to us through experience or in our consciousness.  The phenomenological researcher aims to provide a rich textured description of lived experience. Phenomenology asks, “What is this kind of experience like?” “How does the lived world present itself to me?”  The challenge for phenomenological researchers is twofold: how to help participants express their world as directly as possible; and how to explicate these dimensions such that the lived world – the life world – is revealed.

pat and mountainsThe life world comprises the world of objects around us as we perceive them and our experience of our self, body and relationships.  This lived world is pre-reflective – it takes place before we think about it or put it into language. The idea of ‘life world’ (Lebenswelt) is that we exist in a day-to-day world that is filled with complex meanings which form the backdrop of our everyday actions and interactions.  The term life-world directs attention to the individual’s lived situation and social world rather than some inner world of introspection.  “There is no inner man [sic],”  Merleau-Ponty famously explains, “man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.” (1962, xi).

Phenomenological theorists posit there are certain essential features of the life world, namely identity, embodiment, sociality, temporality, spatiality and discourse.  The task of the researcher is to bring out these dimensions.   These interlinked ‘fractions’ (Ashworth, 2003) act as a lens through which to view the data.

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Links to useful Existential-Phenomenological Sites