Phenomenology: what is it, and what are its possibilities for my Research?
Phenomenology has been defined as both a philosophical perspective and as a basis for various research programs and methodologies. My current understanding and interest of Phenomenology leads me to focussing on it as a philosophical movement as founded and discussed by the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl. Whilst I am sure that a phenomenological ontology can lead to a phenomenological research design it is not my intention to carry out a phenomenological study. Therefore, discussions of phenomenology as a research methodology are not relevant for this blog. At least, not at this time. My understanding of Phenomenology is continuous, therefore this blog post represents a snapshot of what phenomenology is.
What is Phenomenology?
There are many definitions of Phenomenology, but I shall focus this discussion on the definitions of it by its founder Edmund Husserl, who originally discussed phenomenology within the context of realism. It is the study of phenomena, the ways in which we experience phenomena, and what the structures of these experiences are, all from a first-person perspective. It can be suggested that phenomenology also includes the study of the relationship between phenomena, experience, and experiential structures in relation to that phenomena being experienced. Experiential structures is considered a main focus of Phenomenology, and various structures have been defined including intentionality, consciousness (of objects), perception, self-awareness, and consciousness of the self and others.
Phenomenology offers descriptive accounts of experiences with little or no concern with causes or explanations of these experiences. This is because, according some writer suggestions, causes and explanations are concepts situated exclusively within the natural sciences and not contexts appropriate to phenomenology, notably social sciences and qualitative contexts. However, this is a subject of much debate, with writers and researchers arguing for and against the adoption of causal and explanatory accounts within social sciences. On a personal note, I have the belief that causes and explanations can be play a role in understanding social reality and social phenomena from a qualitative perspective, particularly theoretical development projects that uses grounded theory as the methodology. Although my research does not use grounded theory to discover and explain causes, grounded theory is used to develop a theory that provides non-causal explanations and understandings of specific learning phenomena
Phenomenology suggests that experience always involves some sort of object of reality. We cannot experience something without having an object of experience, therefore we cannot have an experience ‘about’ something or an experience ‘with’ something. It has to be an experience ‘of’ something. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘of’ defines a point of orientation, and hence when we experience something there has to be an object of that experience that exists and that we can experience. Before experiencing an object however, we must be consciously aware of that object’s existence and therefore, I find it difficult to agree with the notion of separating and isolating fully an object’s existence and the experience that it provides. How can something be experienced if you have not considered the existence of that something? This, I am coming to know, is not an easy question to answer in the social world because in the social world, what comes to existence is a result of interactions between people. More specifically, certain types of interactions bring about the existence of certain social objects.
Going deeper there is a question (of many): if interactions bring about the existence of certain objects, is it the process of interaction itself that brings social objects into existence or is it that the participants of that interaction are consciously aware of its existence? This leads to another question: can we be consciously aware of the existence or, perhaps better to suggest, the possibility of existence of social objects before engaging with interactions? We could, based on our reflections of previous interactions, but here we are thinking abstractly or theoretically and therefore, we cannot call abstracts an experience. This is because we would be thinking ‘about’ something, not thinking ‘of’ or experiencing ‘of’ something, or be conscious ‘of’ something. We would simply be thinking or being conscious about the possibilities and not experiencing the actualities, as far as I can currently understand. To be conscious we must be conscious of something, and therefore when we say that we are consciously aware we are effectively stating that we are consciously aware of a particular object.
This is just a snapshot of my current and ever developing thinking of the idea of consciousness and its relationship with awareness, experience, objects and existence. It’s a huge subject!
The Possibility of Phenomenology in my Research
A typical phenomenological project involves exploring the way in which participants experience the phenomena, with relevant data of such experiences collected most commonly using interviews. This is not what I am thinking about though. What I am thinking about is using phenomenology as a mode of introspection, self-analysis and self-reflection, which is a part of being conscious of who we are as Ph.D. researchers and therefore is a fundamental part of the Ph.D. experience. The Ph.D. and each example of a Ph.D. experience such as writing a journal paper, writing the thesis, attending a conference, attending specific presentations, setting up a seminar, etc., could all be explored phenomenologically.
When I read through some of the transcripts that I have collected, I observe things. I observe happenings, events, actions and possibilities that the participants appear not to have been able to perceive or realise. I can view beyond what the transcripts are telling me. I can hypothesise and theorise about what is happening, and what might happen in the future within similar situations in other transcripts. Using Grounded Theory, I can test and evaluate these hypotheses and develop them as part of the theory if necessary. But why? Why am I able to perceive social objects resulting from certain interactions but the participants were not able to perceive them? Do social objects that I perceive or become consciously aware of exists in reality at the time of perceiving or being aware of their existence, or possible existence? If not, then how can I perceive what exists and is there a need to hypothesise their existence and test against similar conditions and situations using grounded theory? How does this compare to what is perceived by the participants? How can I claim to know that what I perceive is real? What is the nature of my own awareness as a researcher?
More questions: What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound? What if I am able to be aware of the existence or occurrence of a social object but the research participants did not become aware of such? Would that mean there is an issue with my own awareness or their awareness? These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?
So many questions! Essentially, I am interested in investigating and exploring my own consciousness and awareness, and the ways in which these affect the experiences that I have and what I can perceive that others do not, and perhaps try to reason out why. This is, obviously, an ongoing process!