Phenomenology - A Crack at its essence :)

Phenomenology has its roots in philosophy.

Central question asked in phenomenology

What is the meaning, structure, and essence of the lived experience of this phenomenon for this person or group of people?

Understanding phenomenology from multiple perspectives

Phenomenology is a very popular term taken up in many ways in multiple fields of studies. So it becomes very confusing as a student of phenomenology to not get overwhelmed by how to think about this theoretical framework. Is it a philosophy, epistemology, theoretical framework, or a methodology or all of it? If all of these areas take up phenomenology, then how are we to understand phenomenology?

Van Manen (1990, p. 10) states that "phenomenology asks for the very nature of a phenomenon for that which makes a some-'thing' what it is.
Husserl (1967) discusses phenomenology as a philosophy
Denzin and Lincoln in their various Handbook publications (1990, 2000) take it up as an inquiry paradigm, an interpretive theory
Harper (2000) takes up phenomenology as a social science analytical perspective or orientation
Moustakas (1994) uses phenomenology as a research methods framework.
Polkinghorne (1989) states that phenomenology explores the structures of consciousness in human experiences.

Patton (2002) has a visual layout that often helps in getting my head around phenomenology.


Forms of Phenomenolgy

Well now that we have completely confused ourselves about how to think about phenomenology since it is taken up in so many different ways in so many different fields, it is only "natural" that we talk about different forms of phenomenology that emerge out of these diversified thinking. There are:

Transcendental phenomenology
focuses on the essential meanings of individual experiences or in other words what are the invariant structures of human experiences or of a phenomenon? What is the core that holds the phenomena, experiences together?
So a qualitative question asked under this form could be, "What is the essence of the experience of being a Katrina survivor at the Superdome in New Orleans?"

Existential phenomenology
the social construction of group reality - what is really the nature of the reality that holds a concept or phenomenon together? Therefore, ontology (the nature and perception of reality) allows us to form epistemologies (how we know what we know).
So a qualitative question asked under this form could be, "How do contestants on the show Survivor understand and perceive the nature of their realities?"

Hermeneutic phenomenology
Usually looks at the structure and interpretation of texts. Focuses on language and communication. Suggests a way of looking at textual data. However, in recent times hermeneutic phenomenology can be expanded to look at other forms of multimedia data.
So a qualitative question asked under this form could be, "What is the nature of people's interpretation of exploring and reading entries in myspace? or "What does it mean to interpret experience through creating and reading blogs?"
However, interpretation of texts is not about just grammar and structure but also about the content in the text and social/historical/cultural context in which the text is written and received.

Van Manen's (1990, p. 10) approach to phenomenological perspective
"From a phenomenological point of view, we are less interested in the factual status of particular instances: whether smething happened, how often it tends to happen, or how the occurrence of an experience is related to the prevalence of other conditions and events. For example, phenomenology does not ask, "How do these children learn this particular material?" but it asks, "What is the nature or essence of the experience of learning (so that I can now better understand what this learning experience is like for these children)?"

So What Does This Mean For Qualitative Research?

Well three things for sure. First you would want to know what meaning do people make of their reality in terms of the phenomenon that you are interested in studying. So what meanings did people make about their experiences of being Katrina survivors at the Superdome? So you want to capture the subject matter of the phenomenon. What was it really like. Well in order to really get that in-depth understanding you need to have a way to gain an in-depth exposure to peoples' experiences and interaction with the phenomenon of interest. This is where qualitative methods come in. In a phenomenological study, the interviewer starts with one question, "tell me about a time when you experienced X" and continues the participants responses to be the prompts to peel away like the layers of an onion to get to the essence of the experience. So the assumption is that there is always a core, a nature of things, a shared understanding amongst a group of people, an essence that holds a phenomenon or experiences together.

Data Analysis

While phenomenological studies can follow a general inductive data analysis format (coding, categorizing, thematizing), some qualitative researchers also use Moustaka's work for chunking and managing data.

However, more specifically, the researcher looks at every statement that is relevant to the questions asked in the study. Meaning units are then created. These meaning units are then clustered together for categories. Then looking across categories themes can be created. Moustaka came up with some very specific techniques for phenomenological data analysis.

Moustaka calls for more collaborative research participation than the researcher being the creator of knowledge. He suggests that the participants become co-researchers but the problem with that is that sometimes you might choose phenomenology as your framework but your participant might not want to invest the time, effort, or the energy in becoming your co-researcher.

Moustaka calls the first stage of the researcher looking at her/his subjectivities the epoche stage where the researcher documents her/his beliefs, assumptionsm and then deliberately set those aside as though you free your mind in the hopes of being a better receptacle of the experience of others. As you know I have issues with that because I do not believe that you can ever really do that. However, I think that the idea of looking at your subject positions and the assumptions that play into your research is always a very critical and valuable process and should be done often and frequently in multiple forms of expression such as interviews, writing, reflecting, conversations, drawing, etc.


The following definitions are taken from Creswell (1998, p. 235-237) and may be helpful in further explaining the Moustakas data collection and analysis techniques. The definitions are organized alphabetically rather than in the sequential order of the analysis process.

Clusters of meanings
As the third step in the phenomenological data analysis process, the researcher groups the statements into clusters of similar meaning units, or themes. Repetitive and overlapping statements are deleted.

Epoche or bracketing
This is the first step in the phenomenological reduction process. The researcher sets aside, or brackets, all preconceived notions about the phenomenon at hand to the greatest extent possible. This allows the researcher to more fully understand the experience from the participant's own point of view.

Essential, invariant structure (or essence)
The ultimate goal of the phenomenological researcher is to reduce the meanings of the experience to their essential structure. The researcher uses the textural description to reveal what happened and the structural meanings to reveal how the phenomenon was experienced. Aspects of the experience which are universal to all the participants are invariant structures and reveal the essence of the experience.

In the second step of the phenomenological data analysis process, the researcher lists every significant statement which is relevant to the topic. Each statement, or horizon of the experience, is given equal value. Imaginative variation or structural description. The researcher writes a "structural" description of the experience after the textural description is written. The structural description investigates how the phenomenon was experienced, looking at all possible alternate meanings and perspectives. The imaginative variation process is
employed here, varying frames of reference and reviewing divergent perspectives.

Moustakas (1994) emphasizes two broad aspects of the phenomenological method:
1) Bracketing and phenomenological reduction, and
2) an emphasis on intuition, imagination, and universal structures in analysis.
Therefore, data analysis for Moustaka involves horizonalization, reduction, and elimination to determine invariant themes

For more detailed breakdown of phenomenological data analysis, please consider:

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Chapters 6-7

Thompson, C. J., W. B. Locander, H. R. Pollio. (September, 1989). Putting consumer experience back into consumer research: The philosophy and method of existential-phenomenology. Journal of Consumer Research, 16, 133-146

Research that incorporates phenomenological methods

A dissertation using phenomenological methods by Marek

Peter Ashworth. "Bracketing" in phenomenology: renouncing assumptions in hearing about student cheating. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume 12, Number 6 (November, 1999 ), pp. 707-721, <>

Angrosino, Michael V. (Dec 2003)L'Arche: the phenomenology of Christian counterculturalism. In Qualitative Inquiry, 9, p934-954.

Other Resources in Phenomenology

Bottorff, J. (1991). The lived experience of being comforted by a nurse. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 9, 237-252bbb.

Dagenais, J. J. (1972). Models of man: A phenomenological critique of some paradigms in the human sciences. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

Giorgi, A. (1985). Phenomenology and psychological research. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Giorgi, A. (1970). Psychology as a human science: A phenomenology-based approach. New York: Harper & Row.

Heap, J. L. (1991). "Ethnomethodology, cultural phenomenology, and literacy activities." Curriculum Inquiry2(1): 109-117.

Holstein, J. A. and J. F. Gubrium (1998). Phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and interpretive practice. Strategies of qualitative inquiry. N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage: 137-157.

Kvale, S. (1983). The qualitative research interview: A phenomenological and a hermeneutical mode of understanding. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 14(2), 171-196.

Melrose, L. (1989). The creative personality and the creative process: A phenomenological perspective. Lanham, MD, University Press of America.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Oiler, C. (1982). "The phenomenological approach in nursing research." Nursing Research31: 178-181.

Pollio, H. R., Henley, T. B., & Thompson, C. J. (1997). The phenomenology of everyday life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, C. J., W. B. Locander, et al. (1989). "Putting consumer experience back into consumer research: The philosophy and method of existential phenomenology." Journal of Consumer Research16(2): 133-146.

van Manen, M. (1990). Research lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London, Ontario: State University of New York Press.