Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.3 Phenomenology

2.3.2 Elements of the Phenomenological Approach Reviewing existing theory and identifying gaps Probing meanings Recording data Analysis Conceptualising the interpretation

Activity 2.3.4

2.3.2 Elements of the Phenomenological Approach
Phenomenological social science is much more varied than positivist approaches to social research. Positivists do not deviate much from the core principles of operationalising concepts, systematically collecting data to test hypotheses, usually via a form of multivariate statistical analysis, with the aim of generalising from the results.

Phenomenological approaches have some core common characteristics but are far less formulaic. Reviewing existing theory and identifying gaps
As in all research, phenomenologists are concerned to engage with the findings of research in related areas. Therefore, the research process begins with a review of the existing literature and the identification of gaps in existing knowledge. For example, Cotterill (1994) chose to study the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law as this is a topic that the sociology of the family had neglected. Power relationships between women had also largely been neglected by feminist studies on 'the family'.

Nina Eliasoph (1998) also identified a gap in sociological research. She found that there had been no attempt to study the sociological nature of apathy. Despite the importance of democracy, ordinary American citizens avoid appearing to care about politics. Thus, Eliasoph attempted to explore how apathy was constructed as a public statement in the United States.

Top Probing meanings
Phenomenological research is particularly concerned to present the topic under study in the participants' terms. The meaning that a topic has for the participants is, therefore, far more important than the researcher's perspective.

Benjamin Bowling (1998), for example, found that, despite increased policing in the area of the city he was studying, black people's experiences revealed that they were still at risk from racist attacks.

Geoffrey Weeks et al. (1996), in a study of non-heterosexual relationships, probed the meaning of 'family' for the non-heterosexual participants in their research. They conducted in-depth interviews with 48 men and 48 women who identified as non-heterosexual. The findings of this study suggested that although the term 'family' is used to describe kinship groups with children, the non-heterosexual participants broadened the meaning to include significant friendships.

Top Recording data
Phenomenological research relies heavily on subjects' accounts, which may be derived from open responses to questionnaires, in-depth interviews, noted conversations, observations, and an array of different documents including letters, diaries and memoranda. As far as possible, phenomenologists attempt to record the statements and perceptions of the subjects accurately. This is frequently assisted by the use of technology such as audio and video recording. Transcribing data for analytic use raises problems of codification and storage. At one extreme, conversation analysts attempt to specify every hesitation, emphasis and nuance (see Section for brief overview and Section 6 for more detail).

The collection and recording of phenomenological accounts frequently leads to the generation of an enormous amount of detailed quotes, examples, anecdotes and so on. The production of a finished report requires a selection from this detail. The choice of material is guided by the theoretical framework (or angle) that has emerged during the study.

Top Analysis
A major problem that phenomenological researchers face is how to deal with the vast amount of material. The data needs to be sorted, coded, organised, and ultimately reported.

One widely used approach is 'horizontal and vertical' reading of the data (see Section 3.6 for details). Vertical' reading involves reading the data chronologically from start to finish in order to become familiar with the content. As a result of this process, major themes, that seem to recur throughout the data and have a bearing on the theoretical concerns, can be identified.

The data are then re-read 'horizontally' by theme and relationships between themes are identified. This process of horizontal and vertical reading suggests a number of organising concepts that help to make sense of the data. This is not a simple linear process, it is circular and usually on-going throughout the research.

The overall purpose is to arrive at the interpretation that the subjects have and to identify shared themes.

Top Conceptualising the interpretation
The analysis of phenomenological data takes a variety of forms (see for example, Ely et al., 1997, Chapter 4) but at root the aim is to try and 'reveal' the interpretive frameworks of the subjects. Sometimes this is facilitated by using pre-existing interpretive frameworks, for example, in his study of poor and stigmatised social groups, Simon Charlesworth, (1999) recorded in-depth interviews and conversations. He interpreted them using the social philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to reveal the social relations and experiences of a largely ignored social group.

Having grasped the subjects' interpretations these are then formulated into conceptual frameworks, which are proposed to the reader of the research as ways of making sense of the actions and thoughts of the research subjects. As such the phenomenological researcher translates the lives of others into an account that has meaning for the reader.

In phenomenological research, it is often left to those who read the research to accept or reject the interpretive concepts proposed by the researcher. The data is provided, the interpretation made but there is no attempt to 'prove' that the conclusion is true, as the scientistic notion of objective knowledge is rejected by phenomenologists.

There is also an issue as to who the audience is in the case of phenomenological research: the subjects of the research or the academic community? For example, William Foote Whyte's (1943) classic study Street Corner Society was considered to be an exemplary analysis of the life of street gangs of the 1940s but was regarded with rather less enthusiasm by the subjects, especially the gang leader, who felt somewhat betrayed by Whyte's interactionist account.

Activity 2.3.4
Group activity.
Group 1: list the assumptions made by phenomenologists about the nature of science. Discuss how these assumptions affect their choice of methods.
Group 2: List the assumptions made by phenomenologists about the nature of society. Discuss the extent to which you agree with these assumptions.
Each group to share the key outcomes with the other in a plenary session. Total time about 40 minutes.

The phenomenological research process will be explored in more detail in each of the method Sections (3–9)


Next 2.3.3 Summary of the phenomenological approach