Research Article 16: Phenomenology 5


Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil

 Phenomenology is a philosophy that believes that individual behaviour is the product of a person’s experience through direct interaction with phenomena. An objective external reality is believed not to have any effect on behaviour.

Social reality is believed to have meaning; therefore it should be taken into consideration when developing knowledge. Social reality is important for the way in which people behave as well as the factors that determine behaviour. This implies that research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals.[1] Actual experience is the essence of data used in phenomenology. Opinions, point of view, beliefs, superstitions, etc. are not taken into consideration.

Phenomenology deals with how people make sense of the world around them and how this can be used to understand phenomena and human behaviour. Phenomenologists realise that they should take their own perceptions into consideration when investigating those of other people. Their perceptions, however, should be based on experiences.

The data, research approaches and methods used in the natural sciences differ markedly from the data, research approaches and methods used in the social sciences, notably phenomenology. Data is analysed by reflecting on how we experienced events and phenomena and gathering meaning from our reflections and consciousness.

Research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals because of the importance of social reality. The objective of phenomenology is to investigate and describe an event or phenomenon as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanations or objective reality. The description needs to describe as accurately as possible the phenomenon, without judging, in order to remain true to the facts. Phenomenological research, thus, studies people’s perceptions, perspectives and understanding of a particular situation, event or phenomenon to construct meaning.

Human beings interpret interaction with phenomena and attach meanings to different actions and/or ideas to construct new experiences. You, as the researcher, need to develop an empathic understanding of phenomena to know how individuals interpret what they observe or experience, to understand the feelings, motives and thoughts that determine the behaviour of others.

Research based on a phenomenological paradigm strongly focuses on capturing the uniqueness of events or phenomena. For example, as part of research in human behaviour you may immerse yourself in the lives of convicted criminals. In carrying out such an inquiry, you might observe convicts in a correctional facility, share their particular struggles, conflicts and fears in an attempt to derive a deeper understanding of what it has been like for them to serve time in the facility.

Phenomenological studies attend not only to the events being studied but also their political, historical, and sociocultural contexts. The studies strive to be as faithful as possible to the actual experiences, especially as it might be described in the participants’ own words. In the example of research in a correctional facility, you would, for example, ask convicts to describe situations where they felt that their lives were threatened.

In such inquiries, phenomenological studies resist any use of concepts, categories, taxonomies, or reflections about the experiences. This implies that generalisations should be avoided because they may distort the desired focus on the uniqueness of the events. You would also avoid any research methods having a tendency to construct a predetermined set of fixed procedures and techniques that would govern the research project.[2]

An alternative to seeking assertions of enduring value or considering all human experiences as unique can be to aim for a limited form of generalisability. Such a limited form recognises the uniqueness of local situations but accepts that, depending on the degree of similarity of the sending and receiving contexts, some transferability of findings is possible.

Phenomenological research embraces participants as stakeholders and participants in the research process. Even if limited, you and the participants can make some generalisations of what a phenomenon is like as an experience from the ‘insider’s’ perspective by analysing multiple perspectives of the same situation. This is yet another example of ‘emic’, the insider’s point of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ which would be the outsider’s point of view.

Phenomenologists are reluctant to follow a structured step-by-step research procedure. They argue that this would erode the integrity of the observed phenomenon. Research guidelines might be necessary just as long as it does not become a rigid procedure.        Almost any qualitative research method can be used, including interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The only precondition is that the data should be a full description of actual experiences.

The data collection method used will largely decide how the data will be analysed. Keep in mind that data can be gathered as and when an event takes place, which would mean that the data can change in unexpected ways and directions. You should focus on a deep understanding of the data through analysis. The data and its analysis should contribute to the achievement of the purpose of your research. Reflection is needed to extract meaning from data, and you will need to carefully analyse the data in order to achieve this.

Phenomenological studies emphasise hermeneutic or interpretive analysis of actual experiences. It is also associated with symbolic interactionism, which argues that the individual is continually interpreting and analysing the symbolic meaning of his or her environment, with symbolism often being the spoken or written word. Phenomenology tries to interpret and describe experiences in a way that others will also be able to understand.

Phenomenology is opposed to the positivist paradigm and most other technicist paradigms. The reason for this is that phenomenology requires collecting and reflecting on actual experiences which will seldom include quantitative analysis. Data gathered phenomenologically would mostly be subjective whereas the positivist paradigm requires objective data.

Researchers criticise phenomenology for many different reasons.[3] The paradigm is interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different researchers, with the result that the meaning of the philosophy has been eroded. Secondly, there is little, if any consistency in the examples given in many different fields of research, all claiming to be case studies of phenomenology. Thirdly, phenomenological observations are not always useful for research purposes because of the lack of cognitive thinking and reflection. Fourthly, the limited provision for the development of generalizable knowledge is contrary to the purpose of especially doctoral studies.

[1] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 15.

[2] R.K. Yin, 2016: 20.

[3]  https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-limitations-of-phenomenology. Accessed on 24/04/2018.

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.


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5 thoughts on “Research Article 16: Phenomenology

  • sylvia hammond

    Good day Hannes,
    Thank you so much for this new article. Reading through it, I found myself wondering about the differences and overlap of Phenomenology with Ethnographic approaches.
    Also what is the status of the researcher – e.g. not value-free?

    • Hannes Nel Post author

      Hello Sylvia, In my book on qualitative research I differentiate between Ethnomethodology and Ethnography.
      Ethnomethodology is a paradigm that deals with social issues, specifically things that we can observe in everyday life.
      Ethnography, in my opinion, is a research method. One can argue that ethnomethodology is the philosophy behind ethnic (actually “social” would be more accurate) research while ethnography is the method by which such research is conducted.
      I would appreciate your opinion on this. Also, could you please explain what you mean by the researcher being not “value-free”?
      Kind regards, Hannes

      • sylvia hammond

        Thanks Hannes,
        Yes, I agree with your explanation – I should have compared with Ethnomethodology.
        On “value free”, I am referring to the position of the researcher – whether the researcher is considered entirely independent, such as in a positivist paradigm or a recognition of the subjective nature of the researcher contribution. The values and position of the researcher influence the identification of evidence and the interpretation of that evidence. I recall this being also being a debate between Weber and Marx.

        • Hannes Nel Post author

          Ah, Sylvia, You should have stayed with Grounded Theory. As you know, all academic research needs to be objective, but no research method is more open-minded than grounded theory. In grounded theory the researcher must allow the data that she or he collects to dictate the direction in which the research develops. The researcher depends and trusts the data and his or her findings and conclusions from the data entirely. I used it and it is a wonderful experience. The positivist paradigm supports grounded theory very well, even though it is mostly used with quantitative research. I think my last article explains this in enough detail? In closing, I find the angle at which you approach research methodology interesting and rather challenging. Love it.

          • sylvia hammond

            Thanks Hannes – Yes I have Cathy Charmaz on my bookshelf – maybe for future.
            But I am currently persuaded that for the South African context we can benefit from the relevance of cultural-historical activity theory CHAT.
            Look forward to your next post. Thanks