Struggle with Phenomenology

It’s getting clear to me now why every research methods book talking about phenomenology suggest the method that should actually be called descriptive phenomenology. In this post I’ll attempt to explain it to you too.

The thing is that the guy who ‘invented’ phenomenology in the very beginning of the 20th century, Husserl, was concerned with shedding light on a phenomenon of human experience, but his interest was in discovering the essential and general structures of a phenomenon, and constructing a rich description. Husserl’s followers continued this work of descriptive phenomenology, calling it simply – phenomenology. Phenomenology as a philosophy has since then experienced several strong influences including existential turn (deeper interest in personal meanings of experience) and hermeneutic turn (arguing that all understanding requires interpretation). This contributed to a range of phenomenological approaches available today (interpretative phenomenological analysis, critical narrative analysis, template analysis just to name a few).

On one hand, I understand why qualitative research books continue suggesting descriptive phenomenology as ‘the one’. For those not so much familiar with qualitative approaches, it provides a more structured process of doing research and hence encourages the use of qualitative inquiry in general. On the other hand, I am a little annoyed that confusing language does not allow the reader to choose the most suitable method for a particular research question.

To put it simply, if you are ever going to use phenomenological approaches in your research, most likely the first qualitative research methods book you grab will suggest you descriptive phenomenology, calling it just phenomenology. Don’t get confused and remember that phenomenology as a philosophy (oriented to exploring human experience) informs a variety of methods that differ in the level of description, depth of interpretation and so on. It is up to you to choose the most suitable one for your study. Best of luck with researching lived experiences!




  1. Thank you for letting a quanti-oriented person have a glimpse of the quali world. .

    I have two questions. If we’re using descriptive phenomenology, are there data gathering techniques that we could use? What are the steps in the data analysis?

    1. The method used most widely in phenomenological studies is semi-structured interviewing as it allows to elicit rich, detailed, first-person accounts of experience. Written accounts of experience are also good. Focus group might also work depending on a question. Or whatever gives you rich descriptions of experience 🙂

      Steps to descriptive phenomenological analysis, based on Giorgi (2009), are roughly as follows:
      0. Assuming phenomenological attitude. Descriptive phenomenology requires ‘bracketing’ researchers previous knowledge and preconceptions about the phenomenon.
      1. Reading the data as a whole.
      2. Breaking down the data into meaning units literally by putting slashes in the text.
      3. Transforming the meaning units from original language to “psychologically sensitive” descriptions of them.
      4. Categorising and synthesising a general psychological structure of the phenomenon.

      End result is a description of the phenomenon that, although based on individual experiences, is general.

      Giorgi, Amedeo. (2009). The Descriptive Phenomenological Method in Psychology. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

  2. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    Good advice. There are many kinds of phenomenology. Even Husserl’s own descriptive phenomenology can be broken up into psychological (intentional), constitutive (eidetic), transcendental and generative phenomenologies. And then there are the diverse varieties of existential and hermeneutic phenomenologies. If you are going to be doing research with phenomenology, you must know how you are approaching the phenomenon and what methods best suit your target.

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