Phenomenology In Human Sciences Research Paper

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Conceiving of phenomenology as a methodology of the human sciences imposes two types of constraint on the treatment of phenomenology. Since both types have formal as well as thematic implications they deserve a few introductory words of clarification.

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1. The Asynchronism Of Phenomenology And The Human Sciences

Relating phenomenology with the social and behavioral sciences involves a many-sided problem of asynchrony. When phenomenology emerged as a philosophical enterprise at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century there were no social and behavioral sciences. At best there were currents at thought, hardly disciplines, that only very much later, after significant modifications and paradigmatic shifts, were categorized as social or behavioral sciences. There was, however, for instance psychology, known, criticized, adapted, or rejected by early phenomenologists, and those attitudes were reciprocated (Spiegelberg 1960). Above all, psychology was not (and never became) a unitary science, but a set of competing (and changing) schools of thought. A similar variety and changeability holds for early sociology. Also phenomenology changed and has kept changing, sometimes with one and the same author, Husserl himself being the most notorious example (Embree et al. 1997).

Hence it happened that the psychology to which the ‘early Husserl’ referred was quite different from the ones the ‘middle’ or even the ‘late’ Husserl was confronted with. This variety increases considerably if different phenomenologists are considered, such as Husserl, Pfander, Scheler, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Schutz. Excepting Husserl, their names indicate that these philosophers were not only, at least not always, phenomenologists. If one defines, as it is done within the scope of this research paper, phenomenology as a methodological attitude the latter can be adopted for a specific purpose, but does not necessarily make its user a phenomenologist for good. Historically seen, ‘doing phenomenology’ (Spiegelberg 1960) is—for philosophers as well as human scientists—a much more appropriate characteristic than ‘being a phenomenologist.’ After all phenomenology has, according to Spiegelberg (1960), been a movement rather than a school. Variety has always been greater than unity.

Also in the sciences with which phenomenology got related there has been considerable variance. The early psychology, for example, of associationism and elementism had so little in common with gestalt psychology which, in turn, was so different from behaviorism or from modern cognitivism that for each of them the relationship with phenomenology has care- fully to be redefined, in fact from both ends.

In sociology, whose relationship with phenomenology has been more intensive and durable, it is important to identify carefully the theoretical position with which phenomenology is related. More than is the case in other social sciences sociology provides approaches and specialties engendered or influenced by phenomenological thinking, such as ethno-methodology and conversation analysis and, above all, there is an academically established phenomenological sociology which, mainly thanks to the oeuvre of Schutz (1962/66), has been considered the prototype of phenomenology in the context of social sciences. ‘Phenomenological Psychology,’ however, as it was introduced by Husserl (1925/1977) will have to be disregarded in this research paper, as far as it is the name for a branch of transcendental philosophy. The prominent exception remains Gurwitsch’s (1964, 1966) creative synthesis of gestalt theoretical psychology and phenomenology.

At the end of the twentieth century we register many unilateral as well as mutual influences between phenomenology and the human sciences—the latter term, by the way, popularized by phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty, Strasser, and Ricoeur. Among these sciences there are many of very recent origin. The phenomenology with which they relate may be of any vintage (idealistic, realistic, existential, hermeneutic), sometimes treated in an eclectic manner. The responsibility, however, for the resulting phenomenological eclecticism rests with the human scientists.

To summarize the references to the first type of constraint: whoever is interested in the relationship between phenomenology and the human sciences must keep in mind its asynchronous historicity and multiplicity.

2. Phenomenology As Methodology

The second type of constraint is the limitation to methodology. On the one hand, this should be self-evident if one considers the number and variety of the sciences involved (Natanson 1973). An encyclopedia of phenomenology (Embree et al. 1997) lists phenomenological approaches and tendencies in about two dozen nonphilosophical disciplines, most of which belong to the human sciences. It is their inequality in terms of age, formalization, homogeneity, empiricism, and affinity with natural or cultural sciences that renders their comparability with phenomenology so complicated.

On the other hand, the limitation to methodology should not be too constraining; phenomenology itself is widely considered a specific methodological approach. Even if occasionally phenomenology is ontologically demarcated and referred to as the systematic study of human consciousness or experience, this is not much of a constraint if one accounts for intentionality with which phenomenologically (almost) all mental processes (perceiving, thinking, judging, remembering, feeling, desiring, willing) are endowed, namely, as meaning-something-as-something in being aware of it. Both this perspectival meaning-relatedness and the corresponding ‘horizon of all horizons,’ the lifeworld, in which ‘things appear in terms of their experiential qualities, values, and uses’ (Welton 1997), have become criteria of a phenomenological approach or orientation in the human sciences. The terms of ‘approach’ and ‘orientation’ are given preference to the totalizing (and hence overdrawn) designation of a phenomenological psychology, sociology, etc.

3. Performing The Epoche

Before these criteria can be exemplified a brief look into the central (Husserlian) method of epoche may be permitted although its proper field of application, transcendental phenomenology, is beyond the scope of this research paper. Yet the basic idea of epoche and of the related method of reduction provides the master-key to phenomenological methodology.

As agents in their everyday life human beings experience the world, including their own acting, perceiving, feeling selves, as really existing. Husserl (1977) considered this universal belief in the actuality (Wirklichkeit) of the world the general thesis of the natural attitude. For the purpose of a phenomenological analysis, this belief has to be suspended (as far as posssible). Suspension means neither negating nor doubting the existence of world and self. The belief, normally pervading all acts and states of consciousness, is merely ‘bracketed,’ that is, put out of operation. These metaphors are to signify the transition from the natural to the phenomenological attitude. By means of this transition world and self are transformed into, that is, reduced to, mere phenomena.

4. Criteria Of A Phenomenological Approach

While the transcendental-phenomenological purpose of performing the epoche is of little or no interest in the human sciences and even phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty (1962) have done their phenomenological analyses without performing epoche, the suspension of beliefs is an important methodological tool which is operative in what traditionally have been called the functions of a phenomenological approach in human science: (a) the critical, (b) the descriptive, and (c) the interpretive function. Although critique, description, and interpretation are distinct methods which for many purposes must be kept apart, under phenomenological premises they turn out to be interrelated.

4.1 The Critical Function

Given the fundamental postulate ‘to the things themselves,’ the primordial method is some kind of epoche. Critical is here the practice of disbelief with respect to all explicit and silent assumptions one has held so far about the matter to be studied, the theories, hypotheses, and methods, provided by the pertinent science, but also a self-critical avoidance of personal habits and predilections of thinking that may bias or distort the required ‘fresh look’ at the phenomenon in question. Equally critical the phenomenological observer has to be with respect to the language in which the unbiased observation has to be described. The theories that are to be suspended are often implied in the concepts that are intended to be descriptive, but actually are interpretive. A special difficulty arises here for the psychologist since the language for mental states and processes is predominantly metaphorical.

4.2 The Descriptive Function

As anticipated these critical caveats are also an introduction into the problem of phenomenological description in the human sciences. Although as old as phenomenological methodology one caution has to be reiterated, since its disregard has turned out to be one of the most obstinate prejudices, namely that a phenomenological (-psychological) approach amounts to a method of introspection. The opposite is closer to the truth: phenomenological or ‘intentional(ist)’ description focuses on persons, selves, or others, as they are encountered in everyday situations. To clarify what this means a synthesis will be presented of conceptual-methodological recommendations that can be gathered from the writings of Husserl, Gurwitsch, Lowith, Merleau-Ponty, and from the phenomenological approaches in human science, mainly in psychology, psychiatry, and sociology.

The methodological foundation of phenomenological description was laid by Husserl who, in his ‘principle of all principles,’ demanded to describe things as they are experienced, strictly within the limits, but also to the full extent in which they are experienced. A merely consequent, but historically influential specification of this postulate was given by Gurwitsch who, in his doctoral dissertation of 1929 (a study of relations between phenomenology and gestalt theory) had adopted the field concept (see Lewin, Kurt (1890–1947)) and applied it to Husserl’s concept of noema: a ‘theme’ in the center of what one is aware of is always experienced within a ‘thematic field’ and further ‘marginal’ objects of consciousness (Gurwitsch 1964). His study of the relationship between theme and thematic field explicates what Husserl since his ‘Ideas’ has developed as the horizonal structure of consciousness.

Closely connected was Gurwitsch’s thematization of perspecti ity (a ant la lettre): an object, perceived from different angles and distances, that is, from varying viewpoints, presents itself as identical in a system of noemata. Both conceptions, perspective, and horizon, have become essential guidelines for phenomenological descrption:

(a) Whatever is experienced (perceived, cognized, remembered, imagined, anticipated), is experienced from a given viewpoint (an epistemological insight going back to Leibniz) and as the same from varying (i.e., successive) viewpoints.

(b) Whatever is experienced from a given viewpoint is experienced in an horizonal structure that corresponds to and changes with the point of view or perspective. Horizon means, as the everyday usage suggests, both limitation and openness of experience. Moving one’s ‘standpoint’ leads to a shift of horizons, which holds for physical, bodily, as well as mental locomotion.

(The fact that human beings are inevitably en route to the horizon without ever reaching it, only the places where it was, has been made a topic of phenomenological anthropology by van Peursen 1954.)

Both perspective and horizon have become interrelated structural elements of the phenomenological conception of situation. Whatever or whomever a person experiences is encountered in a perspectivally structured situation. The essential situatedness of experience entails that in everyday experience, there is no ‘decontextualized’ object (thema): human beings coexist with nonhuman objects and, inversely, objects, as utensils, refer to their users, as Heidegger (1962) has shown.

Karl Lowith, a student of Heidegger, was one of the first who, in his study of The Individual in the Role of Fellow Human Being (1928), developed a phenomenological (i.e., nonbehavioristic) concept of human behavior or comportment (Verhalten). He distinguishes between three ways of relating in behavior: (a) with others (fellow human beings), (b) with nonhuman objects (e.g., utensils), and (c) with oneself. He demonstrates that and how each of these intentional directions involves the other two. For example, relating with a fellow being involves not only objects belonging to him or her or to oneself, but also a modification, although not necessarily conscious, of one’s self-concept.

Decades later, in a simplified version, the social psychologist T. M. Newcomb, who had developed a model of communicative acts, in which two persons communicate about something, argued that for social psychology there is no (purely) interpersonal relation in an environmental vacuum, nor any object-relation in a social vacuum.

Lowith’s conception of the interdependence of the world of fellow human beings (Mitwelt), the world of things (Umwelt), and self, was further elucidated and made relevant for phenomenological description in Gurwitsch’s study of the ‘encounter of fellow human beings within the horizon of the natural surrounding world,’ in which the world of utensils (Zeug-Umwelt) is a prototype of what Max Scheler—in critical opposition to Husserl’s ‘platonizing’ phenomenology—had introduced as ‘milieux’ (from which Gurwitsch derived his (German) title of the Milieuwelt). Not unintentionally, Scheler (1973) had made use of the term ‘milieu.’ After its misuse in deterministic theories of descendence, Scheler reinstated milieu as a relational term: milieu is what has effects on an organism. For humans, only those objects constitute the milieu which correspond to the values of human attitudes.

‘Milieu’ came to be replaced by Umwelt. This term was introduced into biology by von Uexkull (1909) to signify the subjective environment that corresponds to the structure and state of an organism’s ‘inner world.’ As sensory Merkwelt and as motor Wirkwelt Umwelt is species-specific. Uexkull himself generalized the concept to the meaningful ambient of persons. As the environment-as-experienced-and acted-upon by human (and animal) beings Umwelt is quasisynonymous with the phenomenologically conceived situation. Beyond phenomenology, it has been adopted for The Study of Relations in Public by Erving Goffman (1971) and, within the ‘dramaturgical model’ of social life, by Rom Harre (1979). In the context of gestalt theory K. Koffka (1935), for whom phenomenology meant ‘as naive and full a description of direct experience as possible,’ introduced a distinction between the ‘geographical’ and the ‘behavioral’ environment. The famous exemplification is the German legend of the man who during a snowstorm rode over the frozen Lake Constance but dropped dead when he learnt what he had just done. The ‘geographical’ environment was a lake, the ‘behavioral’ environment a snow-covered plain. In other words and phenomenologically, the horseman’s behavior was ‘a ridingover-a-plain, but not a riding-over-a-lake.’ Koffka’s example, although fictitious, once more illustrates the validity of the ‘postulate of all postulates’ and the full applicability of intentionality to behavior and environment.

Without regarding his own approach as phenomenological, Charles Taylor (1964) refers to Koffka (as well as to Merleau-Ponty), when he proposes the method of ‘intentional description’ for the analysis of ‘intentional environments.’

The globalization of the environment as it is experienced and acted upon is to be seen in one of the major meanings of lifeworld, the world as the ensemble of what is taken for granted. Its structures have been analysed by Schutz and Luckmann (1973 1989).

4.3 From Description To Interpretation

Since the taken-for-grantedness is a significant, but normally latent feature of everyday situations its analysis goes beyond mere description. In a phenomenologically oriented psychology and psychiatry the situated person, conceived as body-subject in meaningful and spatiotemporally articulated environments, has since Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the Utrecht School (Kockelmans 1987) been in the focus of interest (Herzog 1992, Herzog and Graumann 1991). The situated person’s intentional relatedness in its various manifestations of perceiving, acting, desiring, feeling, remembering, communicating, and sharing their situation with others, has become the topic and task of phenomenological studies in the human sciences. Phenomena, however, are, as Heidegger (1962, §7) argued, only partly and certainly not initially apparent, but hidden. Also what is taken for granted is hidden from attention. To uncover the implicit efficacy of the partly hidden, heuristic categories have been developed, some of which will be briefly indicated.

A subject in intentional relation to objects and/or other persons is the minimal constitutive structure of a situation. As has been argued before, the subject has a place from which the situation is perceived or acted upon which, in turn, implies that the subject is or has a body occupying that place (as viewpoint) at a given time and for a certain duration and at a distance from whatever or whomever the body-subject experiences.

Following the implications of these few situational features will reveal a host of possible conditions or determinants of the experiences to be studied. To name a few: the body-subject per se is of a given gender, age, state of health, mood, civil or social status, group or class or ethnic membership, plus any of a set of psychological, for example, personality characteristics, etc. Some of these features will be relevant for the experience or behavior to be studied, some will not. But none of them, however inconspicuous or hidden, must a priori be considered irrelevant or even ‘taken for granted.’

The same careful attention is to be paid to the other elements of the situation: its spatiotemporal articulation, its historicity, and last, but not least, its sociality and communicative structure. Since the latter term covers a wide range from spoken and written language to nonverbal communication and silence, the categories developed in philosophies and the techniques provided by the various sciences of language and signs may help to identify and to elucidate the variety and the intricacies of situated discourse and communication.

5. Concluding Comments

While it is true that many researchers, mainly those from an experimental tradition, shun the time, the effort, and the expense necessarily connected with phenomenological description and hermeneutic interpretation, it is equally evident that phenomenological methodology has been established firmly in social and behavioral sciences with a long-standing exchange with phenomenology (like psychiatry). But this methodology is also gaining a foothold in sciences without this tradition (like behavioral geography, ecology, political science, and even artificial intelligence). One may speculate whether the increasing interest in phenomenological methodology is a consequence of the generally growing realization that many of the traditional natural sciences, at least, to the extent that human beings are involved in natural and technical processes, are also human sciences.


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