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
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.3 Phenomenology

2.3.3 Summary of the phenomenological approach
Phenomenology is a way of knowing and describing the social world that has many variants. Phenomnological approaches see the study of the social world as different from the study of the natural world because the social world consists of reflective beings whose actions require interpretation.

Phenomenological approaches focus on the inner subject world of the social actor rather than on society as an external entity. This means that phenomenologists have different ontological assumptions to those of positivists.

First, according to phenomenologists, subjects actively create social reality in different times and places. Therefore, there is no reality that is beyond our consciousness of it.

Second, there is no point, therefore, in assuming that one can treat the social world in the same way that natural scientists treat the objects of their studies. After all, people are not objects; they can think and feel and can make decisions on the basis of these thoughts and feelings.

Third, this approach also emphasises the researcher as a subjective being because, to achieve an empathetic understanding, the researcher has to be able to identify with the worldview of the group or person being researched. For example, in research on heroin users an ardent anti-drug campaigner would have problems identifying or understanding the meanings and intentions behind the drug taking. In Ingrisch's (1995, p. 43) study of ageing, for example, ' attempt is made both to give women a voice and to use the researcher's own experiences to interpret their meaning'.

The epistemological and ontological assumptions of phenomenological sociology have implications for the methods of producing data. Phenomenologists prefer to talk to people, observe their interactions, or analyse the conversations they have and the language they use.

The methods used by phenomenological sociologists usually produce 'rich', 'qualitative' data, which does not, on the whole, lend itself to enumeration, tabulation or statistical analysis.

Phenomenologists assume that the focus on generalisation in positivistic studies results in a failure to grasp the rich details of people's lives through which it is possible to discern commonalities between different groups of people.

Weber, Mead and Simmel are all important in the development of phenomenology, which includes a variety of perspectives including social action, interactionism, symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology.

Weber was concerned with understanding the motives behind people's actions (Section He called this process Verstehen. Weber's emphasis on Verstehen represented a shift from the epistemological concern with causal relationships in positivism to a concern with interpretation.

In general terms, action theorists begin from the experiences of individuals rather than from the social structures within which people live. This approach assumes that individuals actively create the societies in which they live.

The concern with interpreting action is different from the concerns of positivist sociologists who, as we have seen, do not think that interpretation is a concern of science.

However, Weber did not break totally with the concerns of positivism because, in addition to his attempt to attach meaning to people's actions, he also attempted to find a causal explanation for their actions.

Schutz focused on social action and the ways in which people construct meanings (Section He linked Weber's notion of Verstehen more closely to Husserl's phenomenological philosophy (Section 2.3.1) and thus placed more emphasis on the conscious activity of the individual. Schutz did not take the view that actions linked to emotions are meaningless, rather he proposed that individuals operate according to a pre-formed project. This individualised decision-making needs to be taken into account when rsearching the social world. Schutzian phenomenology thus proposes that people are seen as active agents who create and react to society; who make sense of their social and physical world, and of how they and others relate to it.

Schutz's concern with the ways in which individuals construct meaning is emphasised in ethnomethodology (Section and conversational analysis (Section , which drew also on the interactionist approach, and subsequently and informed the development of aspects of postmodernism.

Interactionism is another major phenomenological approach. The approach, which focuses on social interaction, especially face-to-face interaction, draws on the work of Simmel (Section and Mead (Section This was developed by Blumer into symbolic interactionism (Section and by others into reflexive sociology.

Another approach to interactionism, drawing from Dewey's pragmatic philosophy, was the work of the Chicago School (especially in its early days) and is found in the work of Thomas, Park, Burgess and their doctoral students (Section

A different, European tradition, derived from hermeneutic analysis (Section, also informed approache to phenomenology, not least postmodernism (Section and conversational analysis.

Just as positivistic approaches to sociology have been criticised for reducing human behaviour to the effects of social systems, so phenomenological approaches have been criticised for reducing social processes to states of human consciousness. (Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to see how phenomenological approaches differ from social psychology).

As noted in Section 1.12, the tendency of theorists to polarise action and structure presents an oversimplified picture of social life. If you think about your own everyday experiences, you will realise that although there are many things that constrain our daily lives there are also many ways in which we are able to overcome those constraints. For example, you will be constrained by the times at which your school or college delivers your sociology course, but you can, to a certain extent, choose which institution to attend. You can also choose to work hard to get a good grade, or you can choose to do less work in order to spend more time on your leisure activities. Your decision will depend upon a variety of factors, such as what are your career aspirations. If you wish to go to university you are constrained by the fact that you will have to achieve specific grades but this does not mean that you are, in robot fashion, simply doing what 'the system' requires. Once at university, you may be constrained by financial pressures that result in the need to take time off from your studies to earn enough money to pay your bills and have a social life. If your parents are wealthy and willing to supplement your loan you will have an easier time than if your parents are not so wealthy and you have to work. These material differences are beyond any one individual's control.

Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration attempts to overcome some of the difficulties that arise as a result of the polarisation of structure and action. Giddens accepts that individuals are purposive actors, however, he agrees with critics who suggest that phenomenological approaches have a tendency to neglect the material conditions in which people live their lives. There is also a tendency to neglect relationships of power, although the methods that are generally utilised by phenomenologists are likely to reveal the power imbalances in the experiences of different groups.

Much feminist theorising (see Section 2.4) has attempted to utilise the insights of phenomenology whilst still retaining an interest in the material conditions within which women carry out their lives.

Giddens has set out his approach to sociology in a variety of texts. It is clearest in New Rules of Sociological Method (1976) and The Constitution of Society (1984). Giddens' approach can be summed up as follows.

  • Society should not be treated as an external reality because society is created by the actions of its members.
  • However, people cannot simply choose how to create society because they are born into a specific historical period, which is not of their own choosing (here the influence of Marx is discernible (Section 2.4)).
  • Structure can be said to have a dual capacity to constrain and enable human action. Giddens call this structuration.
  • Power is both constraining and enabling, since power can be used to challenge existing structures as well as to maintain the status quo.
  • However, actions often have consequences that are unintended. It is these unintended consequences that produce structures because '...these may feed back to become the unacknowledged conditions of future acts' (Waters, 1993, p. 49).
  • Similar to Garfinkel and Goffman, Giddens also retains a focus on the way in which people make sense of the different situations in which they find themselves.


Next 2.4 Critical social research