Exploring phenomenology

Much qualitative research is based on fundamental assumptions of phenomenology, even though this may not be acknowledged by researchers. Unfortunately, novice researchers sometimes assume that this means that any research study that examines human experience is “phenomenology.” Not so. There are many forms of phenomenological inquiry inspired by different philosophical strands of thought. Melissa Freeman’s recent (2020) article dispels some common misperceptions about phenomenological inquiry.

Freeman begins by outlining what phenomenology is, commenting:

The basic premise of phenomenology is that we live in the world unaware of its effects on our thinking and doing, and that the development of awareness requires that we turn toward this relationality, not as a reflective viewer standing over lived life and venturing an interpretation, but as a becoming with phenomena as they are constituted as something manifest, graspable, or meaningful. Therefore, phenomenology is a philosophical way of attending to the way our experiencing bodies participate in the constitution of meaning, meaningfulness, subjectivity, objectivity, understanding, knowledge, truth, affect, and the like. (p. 1)

Freeman then goes on to outline five threats to the distinctiveness of phenomenology in the ways in which it has been practiced by researchers. Freeman argues that it is problematic when researchers think that a study represents phenomenology because it:

  1. Examines lived experience;
  2. Draws on first-person accounts of experience;
  3. Studies a “phenomenon;”
  4. Is interpretivist and orients toward meaning and understanding;
  5. Is reductionist and essentialist.

Calling on researchers to be critical in how they read philosophical texts and practice phenomenological inquiry, in this article, Freeman discusses why researchers come to these mistaken conclusions after reading introductory methods texts, and provides more nuanced understandings of what phenomenology can do as a mode of inquiry.

So how might novice researchers proceed? First, to gain a sense of the wide variety of approaches to phenomenology, readers might explore reviews provided in the secondary literature by Moran (2000) and van Manen (2014). Second, to gain an understanding of how scholars have taken up various forms of phenomenological philosophy to conduct research, one could explore the writing of Max van Manen, Clark Moustakas (1994), Mark Vagle (2018), Frederick Wertz (2011) and Helena Dahlberg and Karin Dahlberg (2020); Dahlberg (2006); Dahlberg et al. (2001). By examining how different scholars discuss how they come to topics, conduct research and analyze data, it will become clearer what philosophers they are drawing on, and one can begin to read writings from these scholars. To take one example, let’s look at how Canadian scholar Max van Manen described his approach to phenomenology. For actual examples of how van Manen’s approach has been applied, see studies by Erika Goble (2017) and Michael van Manen (2019).

Max van Manen’s “Phenomenology of practice”

Max van Manen (1990), who is an education scholar, takes a “hermeneutic phenomenological” approach to research. He proposes six research activities to engage in order to do phenomenological inquiry. These steps encompass the research process from conception to completion:

  1. Turning to the nature of a lived experience that we are genuinely interested in.
  2. Investigating experience as we live it, rather than conceptualize it.
  3. Reflecting on the essential themes that make up that experience (“hermeneutic phenomenological reflection”).
  4. Describing the experience through writing and re-writing.
  5. Maintaining a pedagogical orientation to the phenomenon.
  6. Balancing the research context by considering the relationships between the parts and the whole (the “hermeneutic circle”).

As you can see, van Manen’s approach is non-prescriptive and wide-ranging, although his 1990 book provides more detail and examples of what he means by each of these steps. In this process, the actions of “bracketing” presuppositions or conceptual knowledge about a phenomenon, reflecting on the phenomenon, and writing are central to doing the work of phenomenological analysis. To learn more, visit van Manen’s website Phenomenology Online, and see examples of phenomenological research. Van Manen (2014) has provided many examples of what phenomenological inquiry looks like and how writing might be approached. For example, he discusses various reflective methods for seeing meanings in texts (chapter 11). These include the following:

  1. In the wholistic reading approach we attend to the text as a whole and ask, “How can the eidetic, originary, or phenomenological meaning or main significance of the text as a whole be captured?” We then try to express that meaning by formulating such a phrase.
  2. In the selective reading approach we listen to or read a text several times and ask, “What statement(s) or phrase(s) seem particularly essential or revealing about the phenomenon or experience being described?” These statements we then circle, underline, or highlight. Next we may try to capture these phenomenological meanings in thematic expressions or through longer reflective descriptive-interpretive paragraphs.
  3. In the detailed reading approach we look at every single sentence or sentence cluster and ask, “What may this sentence or sentence cluster be seen to reveal about the phenomenon or experience being described?” Again we try to identify and capture thematic expressions, phrases, or narrative paragraphs that increasingly let the phenomenological meaning of the experience show or give itself in the text (Van Manen, 2014, p. 320).

As you can see from the various sources referred to in this post, “phenomenology” as an approach to inquiry is not any one thing. Scholars have taken the ideas originally outlined by scholars such as Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) among others, and developed these into different trajectories of thought. Happy exploring!

Kathy Roulston


Dahlberg, H., & Dahlberg, K. (2020). Phenomenology of science and the art of radical questioning. Qualitative Inquiry. Online first. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800419897702

Dahlberg, K. (2006). The essence of essences — The search for meaning structures in phenomenological analysis of lifeworld phenomena. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Health and Well-Being, 1(11-19).

Dahlberg, K., Drew, N., & Nystrom, M. (2001). Reflective lifeworld research. Studentlitteratur.

Freeman, M. (2020). Five threats to phenomenology’s distinctiveness. Qualitative Inquiry. Online first. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1077800420912799

Goble, E. (2017). Visual phenomenology: Encountering the sublime through images. Routledge.

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. Routledge.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Sage.

Vagle, M. D. (2018). Crafting phenomenological research (2nd ed.). Routledge.

van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. The Althouse Press.

Van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of practice. Left Coast Press.

van Manen, M. (2019). Phenomenology of the newborn: Life from womb to world. Routledge.

Wertz, F. J., Charmaz, K., McMullen, L. M., Josselson, R., Anderson, R., & McSpadden, E. (2011). Five ways of doing qualitative analysis: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry The Guilford Press.

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