Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Phenomenology is a term used in social science to refer to the philosophical underpinnings of a variety of approaches that tend to concentrate on the essential nature of the social world.

explanatory context

Phenomenology is a term that is applied to a range of diverse approaches to social scientific enquiry, including the following:

1. Radical approaches that deny the relevence of (natural) scientific study to the social world

2. Approaches that argue for a pre-scientific grasp of society

3. Approaches that emphasise understanding or interpretation rather than explanation

4. Approaches that are concerned with actors' meanings.


In essence, there are two broad strands of phenomenology, transcendental and non-transcendental phenomenology.

NOTE: In some sub-divisions of philosophy there is some overlap between phenomenology and existentialism, in that some philosophers who are regarded as central to the developement of phenomenological ideas are also seen as key existentialists (e.g. Husserl and Heidegger).


Types of Phenomenology

Transcendental Phenomenology

This approach to phenomenology concentrates on the process of revealing the essences of phenomena.

Transcendental phenomenology effectively denies the subjective-objective distinction, and indeed, argues that (positivistic) 'science' deals with surface appearances and conceals the essential nature of the world.

Although transcendental phenomenology is usually seen as having first come to light in the work of Brentano, it is Husserl (a student of Brentano's) who is acknowledged as the major theorist of this perspective.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) set out to develop phenomenology into a pure non-empirical science. Husserl argued that the use of words should rest on insight and not generalisations from experience. In this sense he opposed the prevailing trends of naturalism and psychologism.

Transcendental phenomenology is concerned with the systematic investigation of consciousness and its objects. Consciousness is the fundamental undeniable existent. There is no distinction in transcendental phenomenology between the object of consciousness and the process of cognition. That is, no distinction is possible between what is perceived and the perception of it.


Non-Transcendental Phenomenology

Non-transcendental phenomenology (or mundane phenomenology as it is sometimes labelled) does not require the double époché of transcendental phenomenology. Whereas transcendental phenomenology plumbs essences, non-transcendental phenomenology seeks clariicatuon of what is apparent.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines:

Phenomenology: A qualitative research approach concerned with understanding certain group behaviors from that group's point of view

Joseph (2010, p. 35) defines :

However. towards the end of Husseri's career he believed that the 'mundane' phenomenology [i.e. non-transscendental phenomenology] of the life-world is a necessary step towards understanding transcendental phenomenology. The mere analysis of 'mundane' phenomenology, however, does not provide us with a final meaning unless it is comborated by the performance of reduction that gives us proper access. An analysis of 'mundane' phenomenology is, therefore, necessary before the transcendental reduction can be performed. That is to say we must turn away from the world of culture and science to the life-world by means of"first reduction", then the transcendental reduction must lead us further back from the structures of the life-world to the hidden achievements of the functioning intentionalities of the transcendental subjectivity.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary has a very limited (and rather unhelpful) definition of 'phenomenology ' as:

A school of philosophy concerned with the study of the mind.

associated issues

Phenomenology and sociology

Bogdan and Taylor (1975, p. 13) claimed that symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology are theoretical perspectives which fall within the phenomenological tradition. 'The symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists are the most vigorous supporters of qualitative methodology'.

The phenomenologist views human behavior—what people say and do—as a product of how people interpret the world. The task of the phenomenologist, and for us the qualitative methodologist, is to capture this process of interpretation. To do this requires what Weber called verstehen, empathetic understanding or an ability to reproduce in one's own mind the feelings, motives, and thoughts behind the actions of others. In order to grasp the meanings of a person's behavior, the phenomenologist attempts to see things from that person's point of view. (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, pp. 13–14).

related areas

See also




Researching the Real World Section 2.3 for a detailed account of the phenomenological perspective on social research.


Bogdan, R. and Taylor, S.J., 1975, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods: A phenomenological approach to the social sciences. New York, Wiley.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 13 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

Joseph, B.K., 2010, 'Chapter 1' available at acccessed 18 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013., page not available 24 December 2016

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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