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.

Basic philosophical ideas

Husserl’s essences are destined to bring back all the living relationships of experience, as the fisherman’s net draws up from the depths of the ocean quivering fish and seaweed.                                                                                                                                        (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. xv)

Phenomenology is an umbrella term encompassing a philosophical movement and a range of  approaches applied to both research and therapy. It is a way of seeing how things appear to us through experience. More than a method, phenomenology demands an open way of being—one that examines taken-for-granted human situations as they are experienced in everyday life, but which go typically unquestioned.

But there isn’t just one phenomenological philosophy. As a movement spanning more than a century, many different ideas and theories sit under the umbrella.  Writing early in the 20th Century in Germany, Edmund Husserl (1913/1962; 1936/1970) – often seen as the ‘father’ of the movement – spelt out the phenomenological method concerned with looking at the world with “fresh eyes”.  He advanced phenomenology as the reflective study of the essential structures of consciousness and highlighted how acts of consciousness (perceiving, willing, thinking, remembering) arise pre-reflectively out of our self-world relationship. He sought to capture the essences and meanings of such phenomenon.

What is in question is not the world as it actually is but the particular world which is valid for the person… The question is how they, as persons, comport themselves in action and passion – how they are motivated to their specifically personal acts of perception of remembering, of thinking, of valuing.                                                                                                     (Husserl, 1970, p.317)

Martin Heidegger (1927/1962), Husserl’s student, took phenomenology off into existential, ontological and interpretive (hermeneutic) realms to discover the nature and totality of Being-in-the-world’ (what he called Dasein).  He drew our attention to the way Being involves engaging in everyday activities and dwelling in a network of social relations that is embedded in an historical context.  Arguably his biggest contribution is his radical questioning of the traditional Cartesian dualism separating subject-object. He moved us to conceive our existence as a field of openness into which things and the world reveal themselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer went further into the hermeneutic realm while arguing for ‘dialogue’ to promote understanding instead of ‘method’. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) also built on Husserl’s work focusing on the nature of embodiment and emphasising principles of non-duality (e.g. the intertwining of mind/body, person/world). His French contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre (1943/1969)  and Simone de Beauvoir (1949/1984) further examined existential dimensions through both their artful fiction and non-fiction writing with de Beavoir adding a feminist view. Two Jewish survivors of the holocaust also made a contribution to examining the nature of ethical relationships: Martin Buber  (1923/1958) is best known for his work on the dialogic I-Thou relationship based on ‘presence’ and ‘inclusion’ while Emmanuel Levinas (1961/1969) highlights our responsibility to respect others by not reducing them to labels and categories and prioritises concern for them.

More recently, philosophers have made particular contributions psychotherapy practice, notably Eugene Gendlin (1962/1970), who highlights the wisdom of bodily felt sense and his use of Focusing. Paul Ricoeur (1976) foregrounds the importance of language/discourse, interpretation and narrative, contrasting hermeneutics of suspicion (see more in psychoanalytic interpretation) with hermeneutics of empathy (descriptive version of interpretation of phenomenological meanings).

What joins all these philosophers is their profound curiosity and desire to describe the nature of pre-reflective lived intersubjective experience in its fullest, most holistic sense, uncontaminated by pre-determining theories and explanations of behaviour. Their challenge is to view human being and living in ways which eschew dualisms and polarities such as individual-social, person-world, mind-body, self-other, inside-outside and so on. Since Descartes, we have been conditioned to split mind and body (at least in the Western world) and phenomenology stands here offering a radical challenge to say that mind, body, self, world are interpenetrated. As philosopher Merleau-Ponty argues with reference to the nature of being he calls ‘flesh’:

Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world since the world is flesh?…the world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world…A participation in and kinship with the visible…There is a reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other.                                                                                                                                                     (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p.138)

Applying the philosophy to research

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.

See the following handout on the hermeneutic phenomenological process plus the other handouts and resources listed below:  click here:   Reflections on the hermeneutic phenomenological approach to research

Other handouts:


Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou (R.G.Smith). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

De Beauvoir, S. (1984). The second sex (H.M.Parshley, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin. (Original work published in 1949)

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. Macquarrie &
E. Robinson, Trans.),  Oxford: Blackwell. (Original work published in 1927)

Husserl, E. (1962). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy. Book One: General introduction to pure phenomenology (W.R.B. Gibson, Trans.). The Hague: Nijhoff. (Original work published in 1913)

Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology,
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published in 1936)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1945)

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A.Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press. (Original work published in 1961)

Sartre, J-P. (1969). Being and nothingness (H.Barnes, Trans.), London: Routledge. (Original work published in 1943)


Links to useful Existential-Phenomenological Sites

Some relevant Journals