Phenomenology In Sociology Research Paper

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1. The Origins And Scope Of Phenomenological Sociology

Phenomenological sociology is the prescientific study of social life and the process by which humans interpret, experience, and understand their individual and collective realities. The work of the social philosopher and sociologist Alfred Schutz (1899–1959) provides the most important foundation for phenomenological sociology. Framed in the general atmosphere of the debate between scientific and antiscientific movements that arose in the late nineteenth century, phenomenology places the social sciences in the context of everyday life (Thomason 1982). Strongly influenced by Henri Bergson, Edmond Husserl and William James, Schutz argues that a prescientific understanding of everyday life provides the only means by which a science of society is possible. ‘The sciences that would interpret and explain human action must begin with a description of the foundational structures of what is prescientific, the reality which seems self-evident to men remaining within the natural attitude. This reality is the everyday life-world’ (Schutz and Luckmann 1973, p. 3).



Just as the natural scientist must first understand the composition and interactions of subatomic particles in order to understand the nature of chemical reactions, the sociologist, Schutz argues, must understand the common-sense world. Unlike the subatomic world, however, the world of everyday life is permeated with the understandings given by those who constitute it. The task of the phenomenological sociologist is to understand how people make sense of their own lives. According to the phenomenologist, these subjective sense-making activities in everyday life are based on taken-for-granted knowledge passed down from generation to generation. In order to understand scientifically these subjective social actions the scientist must replace common sense explanations with objective scientific constructs derived from social theory. The phenomenologist seeks to understand social action in its own subjective terms, yet to describe this world scientifically using the tools of an objective science of society. The foundation of all social science, according to the phenomenologist must be the life-world.

2. The Life-World

Schutz states that the life-world (Lebenswelt) can be understood as ‘that province of reality which the wide-awake and normal adult simply takes for granted as common sense’ (Schutz and Luckmann 1973, p. 3). The everyday life-world provides us with a sense of the ‘real.’ It is through our position in, and experience of the life-world that we are social beings engaged and affected by the social and natural worlds. The most important characteristic of the life-world, according to Schutz, is that it is taken-for-granted. By this he means that individuals apprehend their worlds and its problems as self-evidently real—‘that’s just the way it is.’ As a result, most individuals, most of the time, give little thought to the ‘true’ nature of the world around them. ‘It is the unquestioned givenness of the life-world for its denizens, including those whose business it is, in professional terms, to analyze problems of the social world, that phenomenology finds the ground of the social scientist’s activity’ (Natanson 1973, p. 40). Taken-for-grantedness arises out of the typification

of the phenomenal world. That is, our perceptions are categorized from a shared stock of knowledge as ‘this’ or ‘that’ type of thing. Our typifications, however, are only of an approximate nature. Such categories are held only until further notice. If contravened by future experiences, typifications must either be abandoned or reformulated. Taken-for-grantedness is further enabled through the use of time tested recipes for social action. Of the unlimited realm of potential social action open to individuals, most potential actions are circumscribed by a taken-for-granted sense of what is possible and not possible in such typical situations.

The universe of potential recipes for social action is also part of the social stock of knowledge from which typifications are drawn. An important point to be made is that the social stock of knowledge complete with its typifications and recipes for social action is pragmatic in nature. We simply tend to do what works and to avoid what does not work. Through typification and the use of recipes for social action the world becomes unproblematic and a matter of common sense.

3. Phenomenology And Science

A phenomenological study of the social world is one that addresses how humans experience the lifeworld. In contemporary sociology, phenomenological research has largely been identified with any research addressing the subjective perspectives of social actors. This, however, is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, phenomenology is prescientific, an attempt to ground the social sciences in human experience, a subjective appreciation of the human condition (Embree 1988, p. 270). Schutz (1962a) argues that if we are to understand social reality all social scientific constructs must not only be linked to what people experience, but how they experience it. Scientific understandings must be connected to the experiential process through which people in their everyday lives actually experience the world. He states, ‘correctly understood, the postulate of subjective interpretation as applied to economics as well as to all other social sciences means merely that we always can—and for certain purposes must—refer to the activities of the subjects within the social world and their interpretation by the actors in terms of systems of projects, available means, motives, relevances, and so on’ (Schutz 1962a, p. 35).

Phenomenological sociology has sometimes been inappropriately labeled as ‘anti-scientific.’ This misconception stems from the anti-scientific intellectual climate from which phenomenology arose (Thomason 1982). Sensitive to these movements, Schutz indeed understood the dehumanizing possibilities of science. His answer to this problem, however, was not to abandon science, but rather to ground the social science in the motives and realities of everyday life. Phenomenology does not necessarily attempt to replace or debunk science, but rather to provide a foundation for empirical investigations.

4. The Contribution Of Phenomenology In Sociology

The possibility of a phenomenological sociology has been partially realized in two current sociological traditions: social constructionism and ethnomethodology. While both approaches address the life-world and its subjective realities, neither has fully realized the potential Schutz saw for a truly phenomenological sociology. That is, both have addressed the subjective nature of the social world, but neither has been the foundation of an objective science of society.

4.1 Social Constructionism

Phenomenological interest in the mediated and negotiated nature of all knowledge gave rise to social constructionism in sociology. Social constructionism, simply stated, is the study of the way in which people agree upon and define what reality is. Perhaps the most important work in this field is The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Berger and Luckmann 1966) (for example, see Sociology, Epistemology of ).

At the heart of social constructionism can be found one of phenomenology’s most important concepts, the epoch. The epoch amounts to a radical skepticism not unlike Descartes’ method, where belief in the ‘realness’ of the world is suspended. Schutz (1962c, p. 102) however, claims that Descartes was ‘not radical enough,’ that Descartes conclusion ‘cogito, ergo sum’ [‘I think therefore I am’] failed to doubt and analyze the thought itself. By methodologically setting aside or ‘bracketing’ the everyday world and even the nature of thought itself, the phenomenologist seeks to ‘go beyond the natural attitude of man living within the world he accepts, be it reality or mere appearance’ (Schutz 1962c, p. 104). The purpose of the phenomenological reduction (epoch) is to strip through the world of belief to the realm of consciousness and to examine the resulting contents.

Thomason (1982) points out that social constructionism in sociology stemming from the epoch can best be described as a methodological constructionism. Unlike ontological constructionism, methodological constructionism does not question the existence of a real world, but rather suggests that what we know of the world is always mediated and indirect. Methodological constructionism most closely resembles Schutzian phenomenology. Schutz states ‘I am afraid I do not exactly know what reality is, and my only comfort in this unpleasant situation is that I share my ignorance with the greatest philosophers of all time’ (Schutz 1964, p. 88, Thomason 1982, p. 4). That is, the methodological constructionist examines the agreements people make about the world, but does not question that a real world exists. Social constructionism remains an important field of inquiry in the natural and social sciences, but is of particular importance in sociology.

4.2 Ethnomethodology

Ethnomethodology is the second intellectual tradition linked to phenomenology. Ethnomethodology is also connected to the epoch, but most importantly to Schutz’s commitment to the importance of the everyday life-world. However, unlike the prescientific and proscientific work of phenomenology, ethnomethodology as formulated by Garfinkel (1963) represents a radical break from the traditional models of social science with which Schutz had once tried to reconcile (Lynch 1988, p. 93). Ethnomethodology seeks to understand the method by which individuals construct, negotiate, and agree upon reality, but questions the possibility of an objective science of the subjective human condition. As a radically subjective pursuit, ethnomethodology falls short of the objective science of the life-world Schutz envisioned. Concerning such radically subjective endeavors Schutz (1962b, p. 52) maintains ‘a method which would require that the individual scientific observer identify himself with the social agent observed in order to understand the motives of the later, or a method which would refer the selection of the facts observed and their interpretation to the private and subjective image in the mind of this particular observer, would merely lead to an uncontrollable private and subjective image in the mind of this particular student of human affairs, but never to a scientific theory.’ While ethnomethodology remains an important influence in sociology, as currently formulated it falls short of the phenomenological sociology Schutz envisioned.

Without question, phenomenology has had a major impact upon modern sociology. Social constructionism and ethnomethodology each display a commitment to the epoch and the fundamental importance of the life-world, and therefore can directly be traced to phenomenological thinking. Both methods of analysis remain viable sociological traditions, and will no doubt continue to inform social research.


  1. Berger P L, Luckmann T 1966 The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Doubleday, Garden City, NY
  2. Embree L 1988 Schutz on science. In: Embree L (ed.) Worldly Phenomenology: The Continuing Influence of Alfred Schutz on North American Social Science. University Press of America, Washington, DC, pp. 251–74
  3. Garfinkel H 1963 Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  4. Lynch M 1988 Alfred Schutz and the sociology of science. In: Embree L (ed.) Worldly Phenomenology: The Continuing Influence of Alfred Schutz on North American Social Science. University Press of America, Washington, DC, pp. 71–100
  5. Natanson M 1973 Introduction. In: Natanson M (ed.) Phenomenology and the Social Sciences. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, Vol. 1, pp. 3–46
  6. Schutz A 1962a Common-sense and scientific interpretation of human action. In: Natanson M (ed.) The Problem of Social Reality: Collected Papers Volume One. Martinus Nijhoff, Boston, pp. 3–47
  7. Schutz A 1962b Concept and theory formation in the social sciences. In: Natanson M (ed.) The Problem of Social Reality: Collected Papers Volume One. Martinus Nijhoff, Boston, pp. 48–66
  8. Schutz A 1962c Some leading concepts of phenomenology. In: Natanson M (ed.) The Problem of Social Reality: Collected Papers Volume One. Martinus Nijhoff, Boston, pp. 99–117
  9. Schutz A 1964 The problem of rationality in the social world. In: Brodersen A (ed.) Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, The Netherlands, pp. 64–90
  10. Schutz A, Luckmann T 1973 The Structures of the Life-World, Vol. II. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL
  11. Thomason B C 1982 Making Sense of Reification: Alfred Schutz and Constructionist Theory. Humanities Press, London


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