Key Ideas and Perspectives in Phenomenology
The phenomenological paradigm continues to hold weight in the canon of social science whether it is in its application to qualitative social research or in relation to its theorization of the subject-in-society. At the core of this paradigm lies the idea it is important to understand the view or perspective of the human subject. Put another way, phenomenology is an approach that attempts to see the world from the perspective of the people the social analyst is trying to study. More particularly, it is the study of the subject's consciousness, his or her flow of ideas.
Phenomenology is also concerned with how the subject's perceptions affect his actions – specifically the taken-for-granted activities performed in a semiconscious way, the activities of everyday life which are ritualistically enacted through practical consciousness. Most of our actions are habitual and second nature whether it is driving to work, cooking a meal or engaging in social gatherings. It is these actions that are of interest to the phenomenologist. They derive from the philosopher, Immanuel Kant's (1999), inquiry into human perception and his contention people only ever perceive phenomena as opposed to noumena. The former is the world apprehended through our sense perceptions and a priori mental cognitions while the latter is the true essence of things-in-themselves. Phenomenologists are interested in the first of Kant's categories.
Kant's epistemological bifurcation was adopted and developed by the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl (1962). He wanted to develop Kant's investigation into the phenomenal world by seeking to identify core constructs within perception. Moreover, he was specifically concerned with the subject's stream of consciousness. Kant's use of the metaphor of the 'stream' denoted the fact consciousness was always changing and without inherent substance much like what we have learnt from David Hume's investigations of the 'process' self and Buddhist psychology (Giles, 1993). In effect, Husserl was interested in the subject's 'lifeworld' and he was one of the first thinkers to coin the term. The phenomenological inquirer attempted to make sense of the subject's 'lifeworld' by bracketing (putting to one side) her own taken-for-granted ideas about it. This reductionist technique was necessary to arrive at the supposedly pure essence of consciousness – how this subject experienced particularities in her 'lifeworld', how she felt about them, and how they conditioned a set response.
Alfred Schütz (1967) took Husserl's individualistic approach and gave it a sociological twist. This was a very important development within phenomenology as it took it beyond the realm of the person into wider domains such as social interaction and institutional life. Schütz was concerned with how consciousness could give rise to shared meanings and inter-subjectivity while still retaining Husserl's emphasis on the particularities of social life. He, too, was fascinated by the 'lifeworld' of human subjects, their commonsense sense ways of being with each other which were often habitually and unreflectively enacted. Schütz referred to this as the natural attitude. This mental disposition continues unabated unless some event causes a rupture in our normal existence, requiring us to
think deliberately about how to proceed. An accident while driving to work is an example of a breach in the natural attitude. It is only then a subject examines his typifications or 'stocks of knowledge' (about things, events and people) seeking out, through further practical reasoning, how to negotiate the situation in order to accomplish social life successfully.
Schütz also made a helpful distinction between the subject's consciousness and the observer's perception of it. In this formulation there are two levels of meaning in phenomenological inquiry. The first level – the subject's consciousness – was termed first order thinking while the observer's cognitive response to it was referred to as second order thinking. Observers fall into a second order process when they attempt to depict, in their own terms, how the subject is making sense of her world, what typifications she is using, what common sense notions prevail and so on. This demands reflexivity on the part of the observer to constantly vet second order interpretations for bias or distorted premises. Reflexivity synergizes with bracketing: reflective insights assist the observer to distance himself from precipitous forms of interpretation that perhaps have no bearing on the subject's flow of consciousness. Observers, too, use their own typifications when attempting to appraise the subject's typifications. Hence, a double-hermeneutic is required in social analysis. The double hermeneutic instils a process of reflection on the observer's second order typifications of the subject's first order typifications.
Again, in a helpful vein, Schütz identifi some fundamental categories of people subjects interact with in daily life. Thus, consociates are close members of the subject's micro-system: family, peers and friends; contemporaries are part of the subject's 'lifeworld' yet do not play a close role in her affairs; predecessors are people who have passed away but were previously known to the subject; and successors are those individuals who will live in the future yet have some meaning for the subject. For Schütz, the subject creates a stock of typifi around her associations with each of these categories of people. In turn, this builds into an amphitheatre of collective meanings synonymous with the notion of the 'lifeworld'; it is a rich repository of meaning that gives existential substance to life and provides much needed ontological security. Relationships with all three categories of people builds social identity: the sense of who one is and where one belongs culturally.
Husserl's ideas were additionally influential in shaping existential phenomenology. Martin Heidegger (1962) became a lead proponent of this strand of thinking and was deeply indebted to his mentor, Husserl, for fuelling his path-breaking insight into a major shortfall in Western philosophy. Thus, Heidegger argued philosophy had erroneously focused on abstract ideas about the world and, in doing so, had missed the ontological 'elephant in the room', namely: the subject's being in her 'lifeworld'. The focus of philosophy should move beyond this obfuscating fog and centre on the most important area of inquiry: the subject's practical consciousness, and how it was reflected in her use of language in order to socially construct a particular worldview.
Understanding the subject in the context of her 'lifeworld'became an endeavour of hermeneutic interpretation but this could never be an objective inquiry. Importantly, subjects, for Heidegger, were 'thrown' into their 'lifeworlds' and would have different experiences according to spatial and temporal dimensions. Subjects were to be seen as historical creations shaped by antediluvian 'lifeworlds': the past entering the present and moving into the future. But more than this, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962), subjects were fully embodied actors whose experience was mediated and moulded by corporeality: the suffering or pleasure of the body. Mind and body were not to be analytically prised apart in some Cartesian act of sophistry. Body-subjects felt and lived their 'lifeworlds' much as an amoeba was imbricated in its aqueous environment. Because of the salience of embodied experience, consciousness was always situated within the realms of time, space and, critically, human culture.
Staying with the modality of the 'social', phenomenology has been adopted and adapted by other social theories, particularly in theories of agency and structure where the nature of consciousness is seen to exert some kind of determining role in human action. Let us briefly explore two such attempts to integrate phenomenological theory into a wider understanding of society given social workers are meant to locate themselves in the sphere of the 'social'. The first is Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's (1991) influential social construction of reality thesis. Echoing phenomenological insights, including some of those conceived by Heidegger, they endorsed the contention that, in order to understand social life, the social analyst must take cognisance of the nature of human consciousness as a first step. For them, what was of interest was the process of how consciousness was structured over time to produce patterned social activity within the 'lifeworld'. They referred to this as habitualization.
Actions and social interaction repeated over time, as a result of conscious intentions, become habitualized into social patterns, routines or regularities within the 'lifeworld'. Later on, they become objectified, institutionalized and subsequently internalized within the actor, forming into typifications in the Shutzian sense or instinctual stocks of knowledge about how to perform various tasks in social life. This has the effect of making daily living predictable thus enhancing a person's sense of ontological security. The typifications are like pre-conscious recipes for action that take away the burden of having to decide how to approach events. Behaviour, in Berger and Luckmann's thinking, is not a product of biological factors. Mostly, it can be explained with reference to these taken-for-granted typifications which were once initiated by human subjects but have now become habitualized, objectified, institutionalized and internalized shaping, in turn, one's daily stream of consciousness and significantly, use of language. Thus, subjects begin to think of human norms, ways of being and so on as real rather than as human artefacts in the first place.
All sorts of ways of social interacting with others, in families, workplaces and cultural fora, have been subjected to this social construction of reality through human consciousness initially which has later become socially (re)produced and sedimented into the fabric of social life taking on the 'feel' of being the natural way to do things as opposed to a human construction. So, paradoxically, society is
a human product but humans are a product of society. But importantly, Berger and Luckmann convey the sense that these objectified, institutionalized and rarefied processes become alienated from the person; they are external and persistent and sometimes experienced as coercive by the nature of their obduracy and apparent solidity. Typifications may feel as if they provide guidance on the natural way to accomplish social life but also may have a constraining effect. By the nature of their apparent facticity, they hold power over the actor.
Many of these ideas were taken up by the French social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu (1977). Like Berger and Luckmann, he drew on phenomenological ideas including the work of Schütz and Merleau-Ponty, in his attempt to construct a theory of agency and structure which overcame what he perceived as the false antimony between subjectivism and objectivism. In order to achieve this undertaking, he developed a conceptual arsenal of explanatory concepts involving the interplay between what he termed 'habitus', 'field' and 'capital'. Habitus referred to the thinking dispositions inhabiting a person's consciousness which shaped how he expressed himself in social life. The concept overlapped with Shutz's notion of internalized typifications guiding our way of thinking and reacting that are pre-conscious and taken as natural.
Fields, by way of contrast are sites or nodes of activity or the structured space of positions in which an individual is located. For example, they may be educational, cultural or economic. Each field has its own logic, constraints, rules and opportunities. The third concept, that of 'capital', is the resource people can access in order to make their way within fields of experience and includes material resources such as money but also symbolic forms such as educational achievements or titles. People vary is the amount and range of capital they can acquire or are endowed with according to the logic of the field they inhabit or the class from which they come. Bourdieu argues the way a person reacts in social life, is a result of an interplay of habitius, field and capital. However, it is his conception of habitus which most strongly reverberates with a phenomenological sociology of the person.