What is Phenomenology?

Author: Catherine Guilbeau
September 15, 2014

Phenomenology is a type of qualitative research in that its focus is in answering the 'what is it' question rather than questions of frequency or magnitude such as 'how much' and 'how many.' While quantitative research answers these questions of frequency and magnitude and therefore explains why the phenomenon of interest occurs, qualitative research, including phenomenology, works to describe the phenomenon (Giorgi, 2009). Phenomenology as a qualitative method therefore does not oppose the quantitative method but simply asks a different question in order to further explicate the meaning of the phenomenon.


Another important distinction before discussing phenomenology specifically is that of the natural science approach versus the human science approach. Phenomenology follows the human science approach in that it "respects the essential characteristics of humanness throughout the research process" (Giorgi, 2009). Giorgi (2009) outlines the criteria for both a human science approach and a natural science approach to illuminate the distinction between the two. He states that a human science approach uses research modes other than experimentation, studies quality and meaning, uses explication, intentional responses, and identity through variations, along with utilizing a participant observer. In contrast, a natural science approach uses experimentation, studies quantity and measurement, uses analysis-synthesis determined reactions, and identical repetition, along with utilizing an independent observer. Though the natural science approach as used in quantitative studies is useful in understanding one aspect of the particular phenomenon, phenomenology utilizes the human science approach to study the same phenomenon from a different perspective in order to more fully understand the topic of interest.


These distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research as well as a natural science approach and a human science approach are necessary in understanding where phenomenology positions itself within psychological research. However, the question of what phenomenology is has not specifically been addressed. Phenomenology, as it would seem, is the study of phenomena. Yet phenomena are defined as all things that can present themselves to consciousness and phenomenology studies its structures as they appear to consciousness (Giorgi, 2009). Phenomenology distinguishes itself from other qualitative research by its focus on experienced meaning rather than on descriptions of overt actions and behaviors (Polkinghorne,1989). The phenomenological approach aims to study a phenomenon as it is experienced and perceived by the participant and to reveal what the phenomenon is rather than what causes it or why it is being experienced at all.


Phenomenology uses the phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl as a foundation while making attitudinal changes in order to study phenomena psychologically rather than philosophically. Giorgi (2009) points to two necessary adjustments in order to make phenomenological philosophy a rigorous and scientific psychological method. Included in these changes are the alterations of operating at a scientific level of analysis rather than a philosophical level and the desire to analyze data so as to be psychologically sensitive rather than philosophically so. Though phenomenological psychology must differ from the philosophical ideas of Husserl in some ways to be a psychological approach, it does uphold the noetic-noematic relationship outlined by Husserl. As summarized by Giorgi (2009), this relationship identifies the idea that the "meaning of what is 'given' to consciousness is influenced by its manner of giveness." To visually illustrate the noetic-noematic relationship, if you were to draw a man and the world next to each other with an arrow going from the man to the world at the bottom and the world to the man at the top, creating a cyclical relationship, the noematic relationship (noema) is represented by the top arrow and the noetic relationship (noesis) is represented by the bottom arrow. The noema is the meaning of the thing as opposed to the thing itself (Garza & Landrum, 2012).


In other words, when one walks into a classroom as a student on the first day of school, the classroom, being the thing, will likely appear differently than it would if one were walking into the same classroom on the last day of class. In the first situation, perhaps it appears to one as an anxiety provoking situation in which the presence of uncertainties regarding the class or the professor are overwhelming. In contrast, in the second situation, one will likely not understand the classroom as a place of anxiety but rather one in which one grew closer to my classmates, learned about a particular subject, or formed a relationship with my professor. Though the thing, the classroom, is still the same classroom, the way in which one experiences it, the noema, is different. The meaning the particular person brings to the thing or situation so that it appears to one in the way that it does is the noesis. The noesis is an act of the consciousness and the participant's intentionality, or projections in the words of Heidegger (Garza & Landrum, 2012). In phenomenology, the data, given as descriptions of an experience, present the researcher with the noema, and the aim of the study is to explicate the noesis, that is the meanings or intentionality that were necessary in order for the participant to experience the situation as they did.


The noetic-noematic relationship also illustrates the argument that humans are "being-in-the-world" and therefore cannot encounter a thing transcendently (Garza & Landrum, 2012). The phrase, "being-in-the-world" is a Heideggerian idea that simply means we can never encounter the world without our consciousness. To encounter something transcendentally is often described as knowing what the thing 'really is,' meaning outside of our consciousness.  Husserl and Heidegger argue that this transcendental perspective is impossible to obtain and that consequently, the world always appears to us subjectively through the use of our consciousness. Therefore, the noetic-noematic relationship that is fundamental in phenomenology describes the inescapable cycle of the intentionality, projects, or horizons of our consciousness influencing the ways in which our personal world reveals its meaning to us.


In order to analyze the cyclical relationship between consciousness and the world, a rigorous method, outlined by Giorgi (2009), is used. The first step is simply to read and re-read the data in order to gain an understanding of it as a whole. In phenomenology, data is a participant's descriptive account of their experience of the phenomena and is often in written form. The second step requires the researcher to divide the data into 'meaning units,' in places where there are significant shifts in the meaning. Dividing the data gives the researcher a practical way to organize and analyze the data in the third step. The third step is to transform the meaning units. This step is the heart of the phenomenological method and involves illuminating the intentionality and horizons of consciousness necessary to reveal the world with particular meanings. The purpose of identifying the participant's intentionality, or noesis, and the ultimate purpose of partaking in phenomenological research, is to answer the research question, "What is this phenomena?"


In order to answer this question and transform the data, the researcher must first participate in the 'epoche' which involves 'bracketing' or putting into suspension the presumption of their transcendence. Participating in the epoche involves putting aside the questions of "Is that how it really happened?" or "Is the participant remembering the situation correctly?" and instead analyzing how the situation was experienced. The 'truth' of the description is irrelevant for phenomenological research because it does not conflict with the analysis of consciousness and what the phenomenon was for the particular person. Idhe (1986) outlines the general attitude the researcher must hold while transforming the data. He points to the necessity of attending to the experience as experienced, describing rather than explaining the data, and 'horizontalizing' rather than creating an importance hierarchy while analyzing. It is also important for the phenomenologist to empathically analyze the data while magnifying and amplifying the descriptions provided.


Free imaginative variation is used in addition to magnification and amplification to move from the particularly description data to a more universal essence of the phenomenon in order to answer the research question. In order to engage in free imaginative variation, the researcher mentally removes an identified characteristic of the phenomenon in order to see if it is in fact essential to the experience. If by removing the characteristic the experience is essentially altered, that particular aspect of the phenomenon can be identified as an essential part of what it means to experience the phenomenon (Giorgi 2009). After the data has been transformed, a situated structure is created in which the translated meaning units and their interactions are outlined to answer the guiding question of "What is this phenomenon?"


Phenomenology is a method of psychological research that sheds light on another dimension of phenomena that is not addressed using quantitative methods. Just as quantitative methods of research are limited in the questions they can ask and answer, qualitative methods and phenomenology is limited to researching human experiences as they are present consciously. Therefore, phenomenology is not a replacement or opposing perspective of quantitative methods, but rather works in conjunction with other methods of research to more fully illuminate psychological phenomena.


Works Cited

Garza, G. & Landrum, B (2012). Mending fences: Defining the domains of quantitative and qualitative research. Unpublished manuscript.

Giorgi, A. (2009). The descriptive phenomenological method in psychology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Ihde, D. (1986). Indians and the elephant: Phenomena and the phenomenological reductions. In Experimental phenomenology: An introduction (pp. 29-54). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1989). Phenomenological research methods. In R. S. Valle and S. Halling (Eds.), Existential-phenomenological perspectives in psychology (pp.41-60). New York: Plenum Press.


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