Phenomenological Research Method

Categories: Qualitative

Phenomenology is different from all other research methods because its field of investigation is different from other methods. What then is this difference? To understand this difference first of all , phenomenology should be differentiated from natural sciences’ research methods. The first difference is , natural sciences study the world of nature , the physical nature that follows its own laws commonly known as the laws of nature. Physical nature exists in time and space and it follows the laws of time and space for example causality. Rather than having events in nature as its subject matter, phenomenology studies the purely mental phenomenon. It studies consciousness.

The subject matter of phenomenology is the structure of consciousness, while every thing pertaining to time and space , to the physical nature is eliminated from the consciousness. How phenomenology attains to this aim of eliminating every thing bound by time and space , every thing physical from its subject matter? It is done through a change in attitude of the researcher. Phenomenology asks a researcher to suspend all judgments about the physical world. This is called epoche’ in the language of phenomenology. Epoche’ means ‘to pocket’. A researcher , while excercising epoche’ holds back , or pockets or brackets all judgments about the physical nature. A researcher has to bracket or hold back even the most basic beliefs about the nature. The most fundamental belief is the belief in the existence. So , while doing a phenomenological investigation , one is not concerned about the existence of an object of consciousness. For example if some one is doing a research on the notion of human soul , one should not be concerned about the existence of human soul; rather one has to think about the way the respondents experience human soul in their consciousness. If a researcher is doing a research about the magical practices of a community , he or she should not be concerned about the truth or existence or veracity of such practices. All judgments are to be suspended and the only thing to be considered is how people are experiencing the phenomenon in their consciousness.


However, the belief that things exist accompanies our consciousness, so this belief should also be included in the phenomenological study. The belief in existence is an immanent part of our consciouness.


Phenomenology is also termed as the study of phenomenon. The word phenomenon actually stands for the phrase’ how things appear to one’s consciousness. In order to understand the meaning of phenomenon in the context of phenomenology one has to understand that things only give appearance in the consciousness and they are never fully given. So, when you see a horse , you only see a phenomenon of it , neither you see the particular horse you are looking at , fully and completely , in one act of perception , nor you can perceive the universal horse, that you mean when you say the word horse. You only see or are aware of or conscious of a single perspective of a horse , and the inference that what you are looking at is a complete horse is to transgress or transcend your immediate consciousness. So, if after looking at a perspective , a phenomenon of a thing , one infers the whole thing from it , one violates the limits of phenomenology. For , the inference that there is a horse standing in front of you is not immanent in your single perception of a thing. If I see a profile of a picture and infer from this profile the whole image , it means that I have transcended what is given to my consciousness and I have brought my judgment , my learning from my previous experiences to this perception. Where as phenomenology does not allow this inference.


The meaning of the word phenomenon is to be further elaborated. For this we have to understand a basic property of consciousness. Consciousness is always intentional . This has a specialized meaning; by saying that consciousness is always intentional , it means that consciousness is always of something and never of nothing. Thus, consciousness is always of something , it is always directed towards something , it always has an object. So while one is conscious of something one is aware of that thing, and that awareness can be attained through various modes of consciousness. You can be aware of a tree through perceiving the tree, through remembering the tree, through imagining the tree, through performing an act on the tree, through making a picture of the tree, through studying about the tree, through talking about the tree. These are different modes of awareness through which you become conscious of an object , the tree. However , in all modes of awareness, the object remains the same , the same tree is the object of your consciousness in all these modes. That common tree is called noema in phenomenology and different modes of getting awareness about this tree are called noesis. Thus , the object of consciousness that remains same in its different phenomenon is called the noema and the modes to access this noema are called noesis.

One can access this content of noema and noesis through reflection. So, if I am interested in knowing how people are aware of a ‘mobile phone ‘ I have to consider certain examples of this experience. These experiences cannot be called purely phenomenological, because a purely phenomenological experience is purely mental. However , this purely phenomenological is always embedded in the concrete space time time events , therefore search for the purely phenomenological starts from these experiences. Once we have studied some examples , we can imaginatively vary the experiences in our minds , to achieve a full range of all the possible experiences of the type under consideration. This step is called imaginative variation. If I look at a computer from four sides, I can think about the infinite possible perspectives from which I can possibly see a computer. But I cannot actually perform these infinite number of perceiving experiences. Thus , I have to rely on my imagination and perform such experiences in my imagination . During these imaginative experiences I try to change certain details and see what is that which remains self same in all the variations. I have to look for invariant attributes , things that are essential to my perceiving of a computer. This is called determination of essences , or eidetic reduction.


Eidetic reduction means to reduce an experience to ideas or essences. So , Initially I look at a house from say five perspectives, and then I repeat the experience of looking at the house from other possible perspectives in my imagination. And in each of these experiences, carried out imaginatively I will try to find out that which remained un changed , or whose absence from my awareness will not leave that particular house a house. These essential features will constitute the object , the noema in its fullest sense. This noema will be different from the actual objects because it will include in its description all possibilities of that object. Such an understanding of an object is also called horizonal understanding. 

By horizonal understanding I mean the total understanding of an object , along with all its possibilities; possibilities that are not given in a single perspective. For example , the fact that a certain physical object , follows the law of inertia , is not given in any of the single perceptions of that object. Rather , such an inference can only be achieved through imaginative variation , in which I imaginatively think about a physical object as a self moving object and the consider this property as something accidental to an object or in fact an impossibility .


In practical applications of phenomenology (Husserl’s) , one first has to identify a phenomenon to be investigated. Then one has to sample different exemplary examples of that phenomenon. These examples are to be studied in depth , and then one has to perform imaginative variation on these examples to find out the invariant element . During imaginative variation one has to consider almost all possible ways of looking at the phenomenon. Eidetic reduction , will then yild the essences.


In social research , one finds a phenomenon to study , say how children of grade 10 experience the learning of a certain mathematics topic. One then has to sample a certain number of exemplary examples. This usually is done through purposive sampling. One selects four or five respondents, or four or five carefully selected groups for group discussion. Then one conduct in-depth interviews or focus group discussions , and try to access the first hand experience of the respondents through using un-structured questions. Interviews usually are very lengthy, and last for an hour or two.


These interviews are recorded and transcribed , and then comes the phenomenological analysis. In this analysis one finds certain themes or underlying currents that are to be focussed. The data in each interview seems to cluster around these themes. This is called thematic analysis. Once themes are determined , one has to put together or rearrange the data from all interviews under the found themes , so that no bit of data is left out.

This organized data is then to be subjected to imaginative variation. Each time a noema-noetic stucture is analyzed to find out it invariant elements, and thus essences are found. This reduces the actual to the possible and ideal and a phenomenon is constructed through exposing the full horizon of its possiblities.


By Khalid Jamil Rawat