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«Abstract To date there is much disagreement about the meaning of phenomenology possibly because the term has been used so widely. For instance, ...»

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Revisiting Phenomenology:

Its potential for management research


To date there is much disagreement about the meaning of phenomenology possibly

because the term has been used so widely. For instance, phenomenology has been

conceptualised as a philosophy, a research method and an overarching perspective

from which all qualitative research is sourced. The aim of this paper is it endeavours

to make phenomenology more accessible and in turn a more attractive research methodology to use in management related research. The paper begins by exploring some of the well-known versions of phenomenological philosophy emanating from its founding father, Edmund Husserl. It then explores phenomenology as a research approach. Here two well-known applications of phenomenology are compared and contrasted to show some of the different assumptions underpinning these approaches.

The paper makes the claim that phenomenological research methodology, while relatively unused in management research, has much to offer.

Introduction In the literature, there continues to be much disagreement about the meaning of phenomenology possibly because the term has been used so widely. For instance, phenomenology has been conceptualised as a philosophy, a research method and an overarching perspective from which all qualitative research is sourced (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). The major aim of this paper, then, is to explore the meaning and origins of phenomenology as a philosophy and research methodology in order to provide a clearer picture of its underlying purpose and utility. Given that phenomenology tends not to be taken up to a great extent by researchers in a variety of disciplines such as education (Ehrich, 1997), psychology (Giorgi, 1983) and management related studies (Gibson & Hanes, 2003; Sanders, 1982), the paper’s other aim is to provide an argument that illustrates the accessibility and attractiveness of phenomenology as a potential methodology for research which is interested in exploring human experience.

The paper begins by reviewing some of the salient versions of the philosophy of phenomenology. In terms of important philosophers of phenomenology, Husserl (1913/1931, 1900/1970, 1927/1971), Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Heidegger (1962) are three well-known people in the field. Due to the complexity of their work, only some key aspects of their phenomenological writings are highlighted here. The next part of the paper considers the way phenomenology has been used as a research methodology. Two prominent schools of thought are compared and contrasted to illustrate how phenomenology can be applied to research studies. Finally, the study considers the contribution that phenomenology might make to the study of management studies.

Phenomenology as a philosophy In the late 19th century, phenomenology emerged as a reaction against the then dominant scientific (positivist) view of philosophy and psychology. Thus, phenomenology did not endorse Descartes’ dualism of mind and body or consciousness and matter (Hammond, Howarth & Keat, 1991). Like other scientific realists, Descartes maintained that real objects can exist independently of our consciousness. This perspective saw subjective experiences as “appearances” and thus privileged science over experience. For phenomenologists, this separation between appearances and reality or objects and the external world was untenable since experience is always of something (Hammond et al., 1991). Husserl (1927/1971), deemed to be the founding father of phenomenology, developed a philosophy and a psychology (that was closely related to the philosophy) that would not separate mind from matter; rather it pointed to experience as one is conscious of it as a central feature of life.

Husserl’s main aim for philosophical phenomenology was the achievement of transcendental subjectivity where the “absoluteness of conscious existence” (McCall 1983, p.56) could be established. In other words, he was interested in developing a means by which essential or universal knowledge would be yielded (Jennings, 1986).

In order to achieve this, he proposed a number of “reductions” which involved individuals “bracketing” or suspending the natural attitude (Sanders, 1982) so they could experience a phenomenon in a new and unconventional way. One of these reductions was called a “transcendental reduction” which meant suspending everything in the world including one’s own ego (McCall, 1983). Due to criticisms that were directed against him for the idealism inherent in his notion of “transcendental subjectivity” (Stewart & Mickunas, 1990) Husserl (1954/1970) revised his work and explicated the notion of the “lifeworld” or lebenswelt. Both hermeneutic and existential phenomenologists built upon Husserl’s “lifeworld” idea.

Both hermeneutic and existential phenomenologists rejected Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology since they maintained that self and consciousness are not separate (Barritt, Beekman, Bleeker & Mulderij, 1985). Merleau-Ponty (1962) for example, believed that “consciousness is in dialogue with the world” (in Spurling, 1977, p.10) or human beings are situated in the world. Heidegger claimed too the importance of being or sein since being in the world was more important than consciousness (McCall, 1983). In other words, people are not separate from the world but are experienced as “being-in-the-world” (Spinelli, 1989).

An important contribution that Merleau-Ponty (1962) made to phenomenology was he identified four key qualities that are said to be “celebrated themes” or characteristics common to different types of phenomenology. These qualities are description, reduction, essences, and intentionality and each is briefly reviewed here. The aim of phenomenology is description of phenomena. Phenomena include anything that appears or presents itself such as feelings, thoughts and objects. Reduction is a process that involves suspending or bracketing the phenomena so that the “things themselves” can be returned to (van Manen, 1982). An essence is the core meaning of an individual’s experience that makes it what it is. Finally, intentionality refers to consciousness and individuals are always conscious of something (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Intentionality is the total meaning of the object (e.g. idea) which is always more than what is given in the perception of a single perspective (Chamberlin, 1974).

An important point to make at this juncture is that the phenomenology of Husserl (1913/1931, 1927/1971), Merleau Ponty (1962) and Heidegger (1962) was written at a theoretical level and not intended for applied research. What we have witnessed over the last thirty years has been the emergence of research methodologies that have drawn their insights from phenomenological philosophy. It is to these we now turn.

Phenomenology – two research methods

Hein and Austin (2001) remind us that there is no one way to carry out phenomenological research since the “the specific method used depends … on the purposes of the researcher, his or her specific skills … and the nature of the research question and data collected” (p.2). For the purposes of simplicity, two prominent schools of thought within phenomenology are viewed here. (See Table 1 for a summary of the two approaches). These are perspectives which come from the Utrecht School (Netherlands) and the Duquesne School (operating out of Psychology Department within the Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in the United States). The work of Max van Manen (1990, 1982, 1991) is said to have been influenced by the Utrecht School, while Amadeo Giorgi is a proponent of phenomenological work that has come out of the Duquesne School. In contrast with van Manen’s work, Giorgi’s phenomenological research method has been categorised as “empirical phenomenological research in psychology” (Hein & Austin, 2001 p. 5). This point is taken up later in the discussion.

Table 1 A comparative summary of some features of two well-known phenomenological approaches

–  –  –

Important concepts include description, Important concepts include description, reduction, essences and intentionality reduction, essences and intentionality

–  –  –

Focus is on the phenomenon (i.e. studying Focus is on the phenomenon (i.e. studying in subjects the object of their experience) in subjects the object of their experience) Outcome is a piece of writing which Outcome is a general structural statement explicates the meaning of human which reflects the essential structures of the phenomena and understanding the lived experience being investigated structures of meaning May use “self” as a starting point; relies on May use “self” as a starting point; but others and other sources (i.e. fiction and relies mainly on others for data non-fiction, observations, etc) of data

–  –  –

Is not inductively empirically derived Is an empirical analytic science Uses a literary and poetic approach Uses a psychological approach

–  –  –

Hermeneutic Phenomenology – van Manen Martinus Langeveld is a key player whose work led to the establishment of the Utrecht School in Holland. To date, the Utrecht school has developed a research profile that has investigated the lifeworlds of children and adolescents (Meyer-Drawe 1997). Max van Manen, a well-known contemporary phenomenologist who has published widely in this area, was influenced by the Utrecht School and the German tradition of “human science pedagogy” (1990, p.ix) in addition to hermeneutic phenomenological philosophy. Hermeneutics is concerned with interpreting and understanding texts (Barritt et al. 1985). In hermeneutic phenomenology, researchers interpret human experience as though it were a text and the outcomes of these studies are viewed as texts that offer rich and deep accounts of phenomena (Hein & Austin, 2001).

Central to work carried out in the hermeneutic phenomenological tradition is a holistic and poetic approach (Meyer-Drawe, 1997). It is holistic because it reveals a depth and insight into the human condition and poetic because it is sensitive and reflective.

Citing the work of Kockelmans (1987b), Hein and Austin (2001) maintain that within the hermeneutic approach, poetic language is used because it is deemed to be “the only adequate way to present human meaning” (p.7) since it allows understanding a phenomenon more carefully. It aims to produce insights into human experience. van Manen’s work has also been described as having a moral dimension to it. For example, van Manen maintains that the outcome of any human science research should be knowing how to act tactfully and thoughtfully (van Manen, 1991). Given that so much of his work has focused on the phenomenology of pedagogy this is understandable.

The hermeneutic phenomenological approach does not have a step by step formula to follow for data collection and analysis. What van Manen (1990) does provide, however, is a set of guidelines for phenomenologists to follow. Regarding data sources, van Manen (1990) states that phenomenologists can utilise a variety of data sources including their own personal experience; gain insights into the phenomenon from tracing its etymology; obtain experiential descriptions from others via interview or observation; utilise experiential descriptions in literature (i.e. poetry, novels, plays, biographies, diaries) and art that will yield experiential data; and consult the phenomenological literature. All of these sources are said to be legitimate ways of helping phenomenologists understand the phenomenon in question. In regard to data analysis, van Manen (1990) outlines a number of considerations. For instance, a phenomenologist should conduct a thematic analysis which helps to unravel the themes or “experiential structures of experience” (p.79). van Manen (1990) maintains that themes can be isolated in three main ways. The holistic approach which asks what phrase captures the meaning of the text/data source; the selective approach which asks what is essential or revealed in the text/data source; and finally the detailed or line by line approach in which every sentence is examined to see what it reveals about the phenomenon.

The outcome of using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach is a piece of writing that explicates the meaning of human phenomena and helps to understand the lived structures of meaning. van Manen (1991) uses anecdotes throughout his written work since anecdotes are concrete examples of insights which help to capture experiences.

The next part of the discussion considers the work of Giorgi.

Giorgi – Phenomenological psychology

Phenomenological psychology is not a subfield of phenomenological philosophy, but rather a branch of psychology that has utilised insights from philosophy (Hein & Austin, 2001). Van Kaam (1966), Giorgi (1971), Colaizzi (1978) and other psychologists operating out of the Duquesne School drew upon the basic themes of philosophical phenomenology following Merleau Ponty (1962) and Husserl (1913/1931) and made them helpful and applicable to psychological research. For example, Giorgi (1985a, 1985b) explains fully the marrying of ideas from the two key fields into an orientation that can be used for research projects.

The aim of phenomenological psychology following Giorgi (1971) is to produce accurate descriptions of human experience. For this reason, phenomenologists operating within this tradition mainly utilise descriptions provided by others (obtained through interview or through written texts) although they can use their own experiences (Giorgi, 1985a). This is in contrast to hermeneutic phenomenology that tends to use a much greater range and variety of data collection material (for instance fiction, poetry, literature) (Hein & Austin, 2001).

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