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Phenomenology in the social sciences: a summary

1. What is phenomenology?

“Phenomenon” means what is shown, not only what appears or seems (BELLO, 2006) or in the words of Husserl: “everything that is experience, unit of experience of an self (…)” (HUSSERL, 1988, p. 176) and to the author necessary for utilization of a method that can be the understanding (cited BELLO , 2006). To Abbafnano (1993) the phenomenology was understood by Husserl as a theoretical science, intuitive, impersonal, non-objective, a science of the origins, the first principles and the subjectivity, or accordingly to Galeffi (2000) the critical method of universal knowledge of essences.

Abbagnano (1993, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011) states that Husserlian phenomenology is an intuitive science, as it tries to apprehend the essences that present themselves to reason in a way analogous to the way things are presented to sensitive perception, making it possible to understand the meaning of things at different levels of understanding, with some being captured immediately and others with greater difficulty (BELLO, 2006). The act of perceiving is called noesis (the cogitatio) and the perceived noema (the cogitatum), the first being the object of investigation in phenomenology (BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011). The search for the meaning of things, that is, their essence or eidos, what can be captured and intuited, is the objective of phenomenology, and its point of interest is not the facts as facts, but their meaning. In Husserl’s view, psychic facts are not equivalent to physical facts (SARDI, 2001, apud BOAVA, MACEDO & ICHIKAWA, 2010). The existence of facts is put in parentheses so that their essence can be understood.

According to Galeffi (2000, p. 16 ) there is an empirical or descriptive psychological phenomenology, related to the sphere of experiences, of the “I who live” and a transcendental phenomenology, which is disconnected from the empirical reference, intending to be a doctrine of the essence of knowledge (a priori ), gnosiological. The latter is a phenomenology of constituent consciousness, having no objective axiom. Its interest is not objectivity or establishing truths for objective being, or objective science, but consciousness as itself. It’s task is to bring light to the nexus between true being and the knowing, investigating in a general manner the correlations between act, meaning and object.

And despite the word “phenomenon” meaning “that which appears”, the phenomenological study is mainly aimed at appearing itself, the phenomenon of consciousness, where the subject of knowledge itself is investigated in its behavioral structure thanks to the interdependence between “consciousness that knows and the world or object appearing or shown as knowable “(Galeffi, 2000, p. 25, emphasis added by the author) being this search of the meaning of the experiences that come to consciousness something fundamental to phenomenology ( BOAVA, MACEDO & ICHIKAWA, 2010 ).

2. Awareness for phenomenology

Prior to perception, there is a path called by Husserl passive synthesis, a gathering of elements that we do without realizing it. Before we say that we have the perception of a glass that we see, there are some operations – such as the distinction between an object and another. Through perception we enter into acts of consciousness , terrain where we differentiate the various acts of different qualities. Consciousness is the state of being aware of the acts we are performing, “an inner light that accompanies all acts”, in the words of Edith Stein (BELLO, 2006).

When trying to report what is directly given in consciousness, phenomenology describes and analyzes the relevance and meaning of human experience (BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011). For Mora (1963 apud BOAVA & Macedo, 2011) the conscience for Husserl is intentional and acts as a beacon that sheds light on aspects, appearances or what presents itself to consciousness and also according Boava and Macedo (2011) Husserl saw consciousness as the essential condition of knowledge, which is always the awareness of something. But for Husserl (1990) knowledge is unable to reach the things themselves, because it is only human knowledge linked on human intellectual forms and consciousness being only human consciousness, therefore it is an phenomenal existence, a way of being-in-world .

For Bello (2006), consciousness is not a physical or specific place, it does not have a psychic or spiritual character, but it is like a point of convergence for our operations. According to her, we only know the psychic and spiritual corporeal dimension thanks to consciousness, which allows us to do or say what we want. For the author, the first level of awareness is at the level of perceptive acts, such as seeing and touching, with reflexive acts being on the second level, a kind of awareness of perceptive acts, where acts are registered, being in the field of recording of acts where everything that is experienced by us takes place and based on the analysis of the bodily sensations we register, we can affirm that we have a body.

Continuing with Bello’s (2006) thought, beyond the corporeal and psychic sphere, there is the sphere of the spirit, where we register the act of controlling our body and our psyche. The spirit is the human part that reflects, evaluates and decides and is linked to the acts of understanding, reflection and decision. Husserl saw our psychic dimension, or unconscious, as an important dimension, which in the Freudian view is who commands our unconscious. However, it is not the only dimension to command us, also having the spiritual dimension, which also does command us.

3. The phenomenological method

The phenomenology aims to highlight the “the very way of being of the objects that make up the human consciousness” (Galeffi, 2000, p. 24) through the phenomenal structure of consciousness, elucidating and tracking gradually all the data possibilities of consciousness, so to speak, it is a science of knowledge as manifestations of acts of consciousness and of the phenomena that exhibit and become aware of passively or actively (Husserl, 1990).

The purpose of the phenomenological method is to be descriptive, not empirical, deductive, or inductive. Its starting point is the understanding of living, focusing on the human experience (BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011). According to Andion (2003, p. 3), the phenomenological method seeks to deeply describe and interpret the lived experience and the meanings of human life.

Through the phenomenological method (or phenomenological reduction) there is a return to consciousness, a return to things themselves, making objects reveal themselves in their constitution, as correlates of consciousness. This radical return to pure consciousness creates suspicion of all data from empirical consciousness (psychological, existential, ontic), enabling the investigation of consciousness in its constitution, in the way that consciousness constitutes and is constituted by objects in a dialectical relationship indissoluble (GALEFFI, 2000).

There are variations of the phenomenological method, only one, notor the method. According to Spiegleberg (1982, p. 681 apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011) a step by step that is adopted by several phenomenologists is the following:

  1. Particular phenomena are investigated: such research is through the process of intuit, analyze and describe, where: intuit is to undertake an effort to focus on the object, “avoiding losing the critical view”; analysis is to define the structure and elements of the phenomenon apprehended by intuition, however, is not trying to separate them, but to distinguish the phenomenon and its constituents; and describing is the classification of phenomena (BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011, p. 474)
  2. The general essences are investigated: stage of the eidetic intuition. Particular cases are considered as a reference to discover the general essences. At this stage, imagination plays an important role, providing the noematic structure. Essential to perception is seen through identifying the guiding principle of intuition about what can and cannot be imagined as perceptions. At this stage, the object is not described, but what can be seen as an objective, using free imaginative variation to distinguish the original phenomenon from its essence (Boava and Macedo, 2011, p. 474).
  3. The main relationships between the essences are captured: through the relationship between separate things, but together, or between parts of a single thing.
  4. Modes of appearance of the objects in consciousness are observed.
  5. The constitution of phenomena in consciousness is explored: through an analysis of the sequence of essential steps of the phenomenon and to determine the path made by the phenomena to settle and take shape in consciousness, creating the possibility of determining the typical structure of its constitution in the conscience.
  6. The belief in the phenomenon is suspended: stage where the use of epoché is made, the placement between parentheses, where the faculty of evaluation is momentarily suspended, so that the phenomenon can be verified in a new perspective.
  7. Hidden meanings are interpreted: finally, we seek to discover the meanings that were not manifested in the intuition steps, analysis and description.

Consciousness itself is not called into question, but all empirical data that show consciousness phenomena and its own way of knowing consciousness, generating a “transcendental knowledge”, which doubts itself. For Galeffi (2000, p. 21) it is in the act of knowing that the objects of consciousness are constituted and, as consciousness is always aware of something, the return to consciousness is a return to the things themselves, being this return, in Husserl’s view, which makes it possible to build a science of the essence of knowledge.

In his investigations, Spiegelberg (1984) identified that among the most used steps by several phenomenologists are (apud BOAVA, MACEDO and ICHIKAWA, 2010):

  1. To intuit, analyze and describe. It is the investigation of particular phenomena.
  2. Consider the particulars as a reference, trying to investigate the general essences.
  3. Abandoning some components, replacing them with others, a process known as free imaginative variation, which is intended to capture the essential relationships between essences.
  4. Observe the modes of apparition, having three senses of appearance: 1) the aspect of the object from the whole; 2) perspective, deformation of the object’s appearance; 3) the clarity modes, their sharpness or degrees may differ from each other.
  5. Determine the path followed for the establishment and formation of the phenomenon in consciousness, aiming to explore the constitution of the phenomena, through the analysis of its steps.
  6. The faculty of evaluating is momentarily suspended, suspending the judgment about the existence or not of the phenomenon, assuming a neutral attitude, so that the phenomenon can be verified under a new perspective (phenomenological reduction).
  7. Hidden meanings are interpreted.

In general, the first three steps are adopted by practically all phenomenologists, while the last two steps are practiced by followers of the hermeneutic phenomenology (BOAVA, MACEDO and ICHIKAWA, 2010).

3 . 1. The eidetic reduction and the phenomenological reduction

According to Boava and Macedo (2011), the reduction serves to reduce subjectivism in studies based on the phenomenological method, with two types: the eidetic and the phenomenological (or transcendental).

In eidetic reduction, the objective is to reach eidos, the essence (BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011). The researcher must follow these steps: assume an objective attitude towards the data, trying to see only the data, the phenomenon; momentarily eliminate any theories, hypotheses, discoveries or other prior knowledge; suspension of human authority and the traditions of science, just observing the things that appear before the researcher’s eyes; revealing the neglected phenomena, seeing all the data and not just some aspects of the object; and describe the object, analyzing its parts (BOCHENSKI, 1971, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011).

The phenomenological reduction, on the other hand, seeks to disregard the real world, in a kind of suspension of judgment, placing it in parentheses in order to limit knowledge to the phenomenon of experience of consciousness. So it is broken both the belief in the exterior world as well as the belief that things are as they appear (BOAVA & Macedo, 2011).

4. Some trends in the phenomenological movement

Among the various forms of phenomenology are ( BOAVA, MACEDO & ICHIKAWA, 2010, p. 72; EMBREE et. al, 1997, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011 ):

  • The descriptive phenomenology: reflexive approach considered, evidential and descriptive encounters as well as the objects found;
  • the realist phenomenology: demand universal essences of various subjects, for example, human actions and their motives;
  • the constitutive phenomenology: conscious of the using of the philosophy of the natural sciences in phenomenology and application of the phenomenological reduction and the eidetic reduction;
  • the existential phenomenology: developed by Heidegger, discusses concepts such as action, conflict, desire, finitude, oppression and death. Heidegger’s phenomenology is based on the following assumptions (ESPITIA, 2000):
    • living in the world is the basic way of being-in-the-world of the human being. The human world is formed by a set of relationships, commitments and practices acquired within a culture, something made possible by language.
    • the practical activity is the fundamental way in which people live in the world. For Heidegger (1999) humans are involved in the world, being immersed fully in daily activity without noticing its existence, committing to things that have value and meaning according to their world.
    • In a non-theoretical way, human beings are capable of interpreting themselves, they are self-interpreting. What is worrisome and important to a person is illustrated by his interests and concerns. Through language, the person represents himself in the world, shaping his life.
    • a person not only has a body, but is corporeal.
    • the person is a being-in-time .
  • the hermeneutic phenomenology : believes that human existence is interpretive, including all of the above philosophical trends, however, it gives greater emphasis on hermeneutics, considering that it is only possible to understand the phenomenon in the context in which it appears. In this branch of phenomenological research there’s not a point of arrival, the whole process starts and returns to the lived experience (SILVA, REBELO & CUNHA, 2006).

5. Phenomenology in empirical research

A phenomenological research is centered on the question of how people experience the world, in order to know the world in which they live as human beings (VAN MANEN, 1990, apud SILVA, REBELO & CUNHA, 2006).

Bello (2006) states that the human sciences cannot be effectively constituted without an adequate apprehension of what the spiritual dimension is in its relationship with the psyche and corporeality. Unlike research in positivist molds, a phenomenological research cannot follow predefined models. In general, the researcher who starts a phenomenological research does not have a problem formulated in a clear and objective way, nor working hypotheses, means to define in advance the size of the sample,  hoorw to structure the data collection instruments and their procedures for analysis (GIL, 2010).

In the positivist perspective, social facts are treated as things, and it is up to the researcher to define the unexplored area of ​​knowledge and propose the carrying out of research, through the use of technical procedures already recognized by the scientific community. In phenomenological research, on the other hand, the explanation and analysis of facts are not privileged, giving way to description (GIL, 2010). The facts are not taken as things in themselves and there is the intention of making the research reader enter the researched phenomenon, reflecting on their own experience, based on the report made by the interviewee (ANDION, 2003).

For Giorgi (2008, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011) a phenomenological research must demonstrate that it has knowledge of the intentional nature of consciousness, using reduction and detailed descriptive practices, searching through free and imaginary variations, essences or structures specific to the discipline.

The author of an phenomenological research should bring the reader into the research question, leaving him marveled at the nature of the phenomenon, not simply writing the research question at the beginning of his work and answering it at the end (VAN MANEN, 1990, apud SILVA, REBELO & CUNHA, 2006). According to Andion (2003), a phenomenology research will never be the interpretation, but an interpretation.

5. 1. Stages of a phenomenological research

The first moment of a phenomenological research is the pre-reflective one, where the researcher intends to know something, however, something that is not well explained (BICUDO, 1994, apud GIL, 2010). The initial question proposed by the researcher serves as a north and should be drawn up so that the researcher have freedom (ESPOSITO, 1994 apud GIL, 2010). It cannot be definitively formulated, as it can be changed during the relationship with the subject. Unlike other research methods, in the phenomenological method, the researcher does not elaborate hypotheses to answer the problem, as he must try to set aside what he knows or supposes about the phenomenon.

To obtain data, asking participants to report in writing their experience is the most adequate procedure, however, as many people have limitations on expression through writing, interviews are usually the most used technique, especially not structured interviews (VAN MANEN, 1990, apud GIL, 2010).

The themes in phenomenological research are delimited based on the establishment of categories and are a way of finding meanings in the world experienced by the researched (SILVA & CUNHA, 2016).

Bicudo (1994) states that it is worth remembering that the phenomenological method has been implemented for the empirical sciences by Husserl’s followers, not by him (apud GIL, 2010). One of the first to adapt the phenomenological method of philosophy for empirical sciences was van Kaan (1956; 1966) with the most used adaptation of his method consisting in the following steps (apud BOAVA & Macedo, 2011, p 477.):

  • data is classified into categories;
  • the terms of speech used the research subject are defined;
  • the elements that are not inherent to the phenomenon eliminated;
  • the descriptive constituents of the experience are identified;
  • and the description of the previous stage is applied to certain randomly selected interviews.

After the previous steps are completed successfully, the description of the constituents of the phenomenon being investigated can be considered as valid and effective.

A variation of Van Kaam’s method is the one from Moustakas (1994, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011) where all expressions relevant to the experience are listed and grouped, the invariant components are determined, using as a criterion the possibility of the expression being abstractly and labeled if it contains “a moment of experience that is a necessary and sufficient component to understand it (…)” (BOAVA & Macedo, 2011, p. 477). The invariant components are then grouped and thematized, and must be explicitly expressed in the interview transcript, or, if not, must be compatible with them, eliminating those that are outside these two criteria. The validated invariant constituents and themes for each description of the experience are used for individual text description and from this description, the individual structural description is made, that is based in the description of each experience and in the free imaginative variation. Lastly, the structural textual description is made, a description of which must represent the group as a whole.

Van Manen (1990, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011) has another variation of the method, which seeks to assign meaning to some aspect of human experience, which is explored in all its modalities and aspects, reflecting on the essential themes that characterize the phenomenon and preventing the investigator’s preconceived conceptions, experiences, memories and opinions from interfering with the investigation. Finally, the research context must be balanced, considering the parts and the whole of the phenomenon.

Another method is the one developed by Colaizzi (1978, apud BOAVA & MACEDO, 2011). In it, the researcher should:

  • acquire a view of the whole by reading each report;
  • extract from this reports significant statements formulating meanings extracted from the subject speech;
  • describe the investigated phenomena in an exhaustive way, as well as their fundamental structure;
  • verify the results obtained with the research participants.

Finally, there is Giorgi’s (1985) method, which according to Boava and Macedo (2011) is the most used method in the human sciences, consisting of the following four steps:

  • a sense of the whole is obtained by simply reading the text;
  • the unit sense are broken, according to the interest of the research;
  • the language expressions of the researched subject are transformed into a language where the investigated phenomenon is researched, trying to reach a general category;
  • the result of the sense units are transformed in phrases, synthesizing, integrating and describing the findings of the most significant units.


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