Alfred Schutz Research Paper

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Alfred Schutz was born in Vienna on April 13, 1899. Here he studied law and social sciences from 1918 to 1921. After receiving his Doctorate of Law he continued his studies in the social sciences until 1923. His teachers included Hans Kelsen, an eminent lawyer, Ludwig von Mises, and Friederich von Wieser, prominent representatives of the Austrian school of economics. Equally important as his university studies was his participation in the informal academic life of Vienna, e.g., his participation in the private seminars of von Mises, where Schutz also cultivated his philosophical interests. In addition to his scholarly activities, Schutz held a full-time job as a bank attorney, a dual life which lasted until 1956. After the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, Schutz and his family escaped to New York. On his arrival, Schutz got in touch with Talcott Parsons whose Structure of Social Action he intended to review. But despite their intense correspondence (Schutz and Parsons 1978), the contact between Schutz and Parsons broke down. Instead, Schutz became affiliated with the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research in New York where he started teaching as Lecturer in 1943, advancing to a full Professor of Sociology in 1952 and also of Philosophy in 1956. He died on May 20, 1959 in New York.

1. Major Aims Of Schutz’s Theory

Alfred Schutz’s social theory focuses on the concept of the life world, which is understood as a social-cultural world as it is perceived and generated by the humans living in it. Schutz identifies everyday interaction and communication as being the main processes in which the constitution of the life world’s social reality takes place. In this sense, his approach pursues two major goals: the development of a theory of action which reveals the constitution of social reality with its meaning structure given in the commonly shared typical patterns of knowledge, and a description of the life world with its multiple strata of reality emerging from these constituting processes. These leitmotifs merge in a theory of life world constitution—a project which occupied Schutz during the final years of his life.

2. Main Intellectual Sources Of The Schutzian Approach

Schutz’s conception originated in the intellectual discourse in the social sciences and philosophy of the early decades of this century. Schutz developed his position from within a triangular interdisciplinary field marked by Max Weber’s historising interpretative sociology ( erstehende Soziologie), the Austrian economic approach represented by Ludwig von Mises, and the philosophical theories of the stream of consciousness formulated by H. Bergson and E. Husserl. From the very onset, he adopted Max Weber’s view of social reality as a meaningful social-cultural world, as well as his concept of social action as a meaning oriented behavior, and shared Weber’s search for an interpretative method in sociology. He also shared the methodological individualism advocated by Weber and by the Austrian economists who denoted individual action as the starting point of social research. At the same time, he accepted the need for a generalizing theory of action, as stressed by his teacher Ludwig von Mises, and criticized Weber for neglecting to develop the basic framework of such a theory and especially for not inquiring into the constitution of meaning attached to social action. But Schutz’s criticism also addressed the ‘general theory of action’ based on an ‘a priori’ postulate of rational choice put forth by Ludwig von Mises. Schutz rejected this conception since it imposed an abstract framework on actors’ orientation of action and ignored their actual stock of knowledge.

In order to analyze how the meaning attached to action is revealed, Schutz referred to the philosophical concepts of Henri Bergons and Edmund Husserl. Both offer insights into the stream of lived experience and into the acts of consciousness in which our world is meaningfully constituted. Schutz adopted the Bergsonian idea of the stream of consciousness in his first scholarly attempts in 1924–28 (Schutz 1982), only to later recognize the difficulties in Bergson’s intuitivism and to turn to Husserl’s phenomenology which ultimately gave the name to his approach. Husserl was concerned with the acts of consciousness which establish the meaningful taken-for-grantedness of the world in humans’ natural attitude. His term ‘life world,’ which Schutz later assumes, is aimed at the reality constituted in those acts. Based primarily on this philosophical approach, Schutz wrote his first monograph, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt, in 1932, in which he developed the basic concept of his theory (Schutz 1932). Starting with the criticism on Max Weber mentioned above, he devoted himself to the process in which humans create the social world as a reality that is meaningful and understandable to them.

3. Theory Of The Life World With Its Everyday Core

In order to grasp the constitution of the social world, Schutz (1932) had to transcend the realm of consciousness and perception analyzed by Husserl. He included both acts of consciousness as well as human action and interaction into the constitutive process under scrutiny. Departing from the transcendental philosophical approach, he developed his own mundane phenomenology which analyzes the constitution of the meaningful reality within social relationships in the everyday world.

He proceeded in three steps dealing with three problems constitutive for any theory of action which is searching for the construction of social reality.

(a) How does a meaningful orientation of human action emerge?

(b) How can we understand the Other?

(c) How is socially-shared, intersubjective valid knowledge generated?

Following the principle of methodological individualism, Schutz started with the analysis of single individual action. Relying on Bergson’s concept of the inner stream of lived experience and on Husserl’s investigations on intentionality and temporality of consciousness, Schutz first explored the constitution of meaning in subjects as a temporal process. The meaning attached to a lived experience emerges from successive acts of selective reflection aimed towards it and framing it into a context of other experiences. The schemes of experience on which the primary meaning of action, i.e., its project is based, arise from this basic temporal dynamics and plasticity of consciousness. The temporality of the meaning attached to an action manifests itself in two kinds of motivation attached to its different temporal dimensions: ‘in-order-to-motives’ which direct action toward the future, and ‘because- motives’ representing the roots of the action in the past. However, the meaning of the project of action changes during the time when the projected action is going on. The final meaning of an action can be found in the experience perceived by the subject when looking at the changes that have emerged in the meaning structure of the action when the action is completed. The meaning attached to an action and consequently the schemes of experience are thus not only affected by the acts of consciousness but also by the action itself.

In his second step, Schutz proceeded to show how the schemes of experience are shaped by interaction and communication. He perceived communication as a process in which two subjective streams of consciousness are coordinated within a social interaction (Wirkensbeziehung). Thus, communication signifies an interaction in which the meaning of ego’s action consists in the intention to evoke a reaction of the alter. Actions in this sense have the function of signs which are mutually indicated and interpreted. The ultimate meaning of my action is revealed in the reaction of the Other and vice versa, therefore communication generates a chain of motives where my inorder-to-motives become because-motives of the Other and provide a common stock of shared patterns of interpretation which allows for mutual understanding even if each of the actors are always referring to their own schemes of experience. In this concept of understanding, based on interaction, Schutz offers his own solution to the problem of intersubjectivity posed by Husserl.

The constitution and appropriation of shared knowledge primarily takes place in long-lasting face- to-face interaction (we-relations) where the mutual expectations are learned, verified, and sedimented to typical patterns that can be applied to more remote and anonymous strata of the social world. As a result, the meaning structure of the social world is characterized by typifications of actions, situations, and persons generated in interaction and communication.

In these three steps, Schutz laid down the main features of his theory of the life world. In his later work, Schutz (1962, 1964, 1966) determined this communicatively created social reality as the world of everyday life, in which typical patterns are taken for granted, and which represents the intersubjective common core of the reality we live in. Later on (Schutz 1962, 1970), he disclosed further structural characteristics of this everyday core of the life world. Since its typical structure greatly depends on action, it is also the pragmatic orientation selecting the areas where typification processes take place. Both typicality and this kind of selection, which Schutz designated as pragmatic relevance, represent two generative principles of order in the everyday world. They determine its formal structure and at the same time, when realized in action, they shape this structure into a concrete social–cultural world, which is thus characterized by social distribution and differentiation of knowledge. A third moment structuring the everyday world can be found in the rootedness of its constitution in individual action. Here actors and their bodies represent the central point of the everyday world and its temporal, spatial, and social dimensions that are arranged into spheres of past and future, of within-reach and distant and of intimacy and anonymity, respectively, to the ctors’ own position (Schutz and Luckmann 1973).

Everyday reality is nevertheless not identical with the life world on the whole. By suspending their pragmatic interests, actors are able to modify their everyday experiences and perceive them as objects of a game, fantasy, art, science, or, if the conscious attention is completely absent, as a dream. There are areas—even in the realm of everyday action directed by the principal of pragmatic relevance—which are beyond the sphere of actors everyday practice and therefore transcend it. All these modifications represent different provinces of meaning transcending the everyday world and constituting multiple realities (Schutz 1962) which make up the life world. Nevertheless, among the different provinces of the life world, the everyday core denotes a paramount reality since it is only here that actors, driven by the fundamental anxiety when facing the finality of their lives, have to master their living conditions and are engaged in communicative processes producing common knowledge which makes mutual understanding possible.

Schutz (1962) viewed communication as a substantial constitutive mechanism of social reality and stressed the role of language in this process. He considered language—including its syntax and semantics—as an objectivation of sedimented, social provided stock of knowledge that preserves relevances and typification inherent to cultures and social groups, and thus as crucial for the constitution of the life world (Schutz and Luckmann 1989). Schutz saw language as delineating an essential case of social objectified systems of appresentation which bridges the transcendence between different areas and meaning provinces of the life world. Another important integrative mechanism in the life world are symbolic structures, which are often based on language, and intermediate between the everyday world and noneveryday realities such as religion, arts, or politics (Schutz 1962).

Schutz did not restrict his study of the structure of the life world solely to theoretical research. He also applied his theory as a general interpretative scheme to several social fields and problems. He explored courses of intercultural communication and the social distribution of knowledge, the social conditions of equality in modern societies as well as the fields of music and literature (Schutz 1964).

4. Consequences Of The Theory Of Life World For The Methodology Of The Social Sciences

Schutz considered the construction of ideal types to be the general methodological device in the social sciences since sociology, economy, political science, etc., ex-plain social phenomena by modeling ideal actors and courses of action which they endorse with special features as explanatory variables. However, he did not see ideal types in the Weberian sense, i.e., as a scientific model which does not need to correspond to reality in all respects. For Schutz, the ideal-typical method is legitimized by his findings on the typicality of everyday world which is the object of social research. Social reality can be approached by type-construction on the scientific level because its immanent structure is typified itself. Thus, the Schutzian theory of the life world and its structures represents a methodological tool to bridge the gap between sociological theoretical reasoning and its object. The methodological rule which Schutz derived from his theoretical approach consists correspondingly in the postulate of adequacy (Schutz 1962, 1964) between everyday and scientific typifications. This postulate holds that ideal types featured by the social sciences have to be constructed in correspondence to the structure of the everyday typifications, so that everyday actors can take the model for granted when they act under the conditions stated in the ideal type. In this sense, social scientists as well as everyday actors have to follow the same frame of reference given by the structure of the life world but their cognitive attitude differ in several respects: scientists neither share the pragmatic interest of everyday actors nor do they share their everyday rationality restricted by their beliefs in the grantedness of typical knowledge. Opposing T. Parson’s functionalism and C. G. Hempel’s methodologic positivism, Schutz stressed that scientists must not impose their own theoretical concepts and rationality on their object of study—the life world. First, they must discover and then respect its immanent meaning structure.

5. The Significance Of The Schutzian Approach For The Social Sciences

Since the 1960s, Schutz’s theory has drawn sociologists’ attention to inquiries into everyday interaction, communication as well as to the insight that social reality has to be considered as a construction produced within these processes. Sociologists started to examine the practices of everyday action, communication and interpretation from which social reality emerges. H. Garfinkel’s (1967) Ethnomethology, which was aimed at finding the formal properties of everyday practices, led to a series of case studies covering a wide range of everyday life in society and its institutions. Continuing this line of research, examinations of everyday communication were provided by E. A. Shegloff and H. Sacks (1995), whose Con ersational Analysis became a widespread method in qualitative sociological research. A. Cicourel’s (1964) Cognitive Sociology revealed the constructed character of data in social institutions as well as in science and thus initiated a series of studies in the sociology of organization and in the sociology sciences. Milieus as formations of everyday interaction are the subject of the Social Phenomenology R. Grathoff (1986).

  1. L. Berger and Th. F. Luckmann’s (1966) idea of the Social Construction of Reality (as being a general process in which cultural worlds emerge) triggered new impulses in both the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of culture reconceived now in Schutzian terms. In this context, Schutz’s impact can also be seen in the sociology of language and the sociology of religion. Contemporary Marxian theory saw the way in which Schutz focused on the everyday practice as a possible mediation between social structure and individual consciousness. The term phenomenological sociology was coined in the 1970s (G. Psathas 1973) to address the spectrum of approaches oriented and inspired by Schutz’s theory. Under this label, Schutz’s approach became one of the general paradigms in the interpretative social science and theory of action. The diffusion and empirical application of the Schutzian approach enforced the search for qualitative research methods which would reveal data pertaining to the social construction of social reality in everyday life. Aside from ethnomethodology and conversational analysis mentioned above, this quest especially led to a refinement in the techniques of narrative interviews and in biographical research.

Once established in the 1970s, the Schutzian paradigm influenced the mainstream of sociological theory which became sensitive not only to the social construction of life world but also to the phenomenological background of the Schutzian theory. The ‘life world,’ in the sense of a basic social reality provided by humans in their ‘natural’ intercourse, became one of the central terms in social theory (J. Habermas 1981). The everyday construction of social reality was recognized as a crucial mechanism in which society emerges (P. Bourdieu 1972, A. Giddens 1976, Z. Baumann 1991). The phenomenological conception of meaning constitution reformulated as an autopoiesis (self-creation) of social and psychic systems influenced the development of the contemporary sociological system theory (N. Luhmann 1996).

Beyond of the scope of sociology, other humanities also gained innovative impulses from the Schutzian approach. In philosophy, Schutz’s theory led to a critical assessment of the Husserlian view of intersubjectivity and to the conceptions of a worldly phenomenology (L. Embree 1988) or of a philosophy of modern anonymity (M. Natanson 1986). In the literature, Schutz’s constructionism inspired the esthetics of reception which pointed out the beholder’s participation in co-creating the autonomous reality of literary works (H. R. Jauss 1982). Schutz’s concept of the structure of life world also affected theorizing in social geography (B. Werlen 1993), educational theory (K. Meyer-Drawe 1984), and political science (E. Voegelin 1966).


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