Introduction to Hermeneutic Phenomenology: A research methodology best learned by doing it
Erika Goble, PhD Candidate, University of Alberta & NorQuest College
Yin Yin, PhD Candidate, University of Alberta
Hermeneutic phenomenology is a qualitative research methodology that arose out of and remains closely tied to phenomenological philosophy, a strand of continental philosophy. Although phenomenology’s roots can be traced back centuries, it became a distinct philosophical project in the mid-1890s with the work of Edmund Husserl. Husserl argued that we are always already in the world and that our only certainty is our experience of our world, thus to understand the structure of consciousness can serve as the foundation for all knowledge (Husserl, 1970). Husserl’s project has been extended, contested, and modified by countless philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jean-Luc Marion, creating a vibrant and eclectic philosophical tradition. In the mid-1950s, however, the phenomenological “method” was also taken up by a group of non-philosophers in the Netherlands. They were not interested in phenomenology as a philosophy but as a unique way to understand human existence (van Manen, 2014). Retrospectively, this group, comprised of pedagogues, physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists, were called the “Utrecht School.” They were the first to adopt phenomenology as a distinct research methodology and greatly influenced contemporary articulations of the methodology including Max van Manen’s Phenomenology of Practice and Amadeo Giorgi’s descriptive phenomenological psychology.
The basic tenet of hermeneutic phenomenology is that our most fundamental and basic experience of the world is already full of meaning (Merleau-Ponty, 1962/ 2006; van Manen, 2014). We are enmeshed in our world and immediately experience our world as meaningful because our world—with its other people, its histories and cultures, and its events—precedes any attempt on our part to understand it or explain it. The purpose of hermeneutic phenomenological research is to bring to light and reflect upon the lived meaning of this basic experience. Researchers attempts to describe phenomena as they appear in everyday life before they have been theorized, interpreted, explained, and otherwise abstracted, while knowing that any attempt to do this is always tentative, contingent, and never complete. Phenomenology as a methodology is open to nearly any human experience, such as learning online (Adams, Yin, Vargas Madriz, & Mullen, 2014), trying to lose weight (Glenn, 2013), or of seeing ugliness (Goble, 2011).
While having a relatively simple objective, doing hermeneutic phenomenological research poses many challenges. First, the object of our interest is experience before it is put into language and yet that experience cannot be accessed other than through descriptive account. We are always “too late” (Adams, 2014), unable to directly access the object of our interest. Second, what do we do with the accounts once we have them? Unlike some other qualitative methodologies, hermeneutic phenomenology has not set method (van Manen, 1990/1997, 2014). While there are a range of activities that may be used, including as line-by-line reading, thematic analysis, and existential analysis (see: van Manen, 2014), none of these are guaranteed to result in a phenomenological reflection. The “how” must be found anew with each study (van Manen 2014), making phenomenological researchers “perpetual beginners” (Merleau-Ponty, 2006). This is not to say, however, that phenomenology is not a rigorous or specific approach. Instead, it acknowledges that no one approach is suitable to all phenomena. What is common to all phenomenological research, however, is its sensibility (Henriksson & Saevi, 2009) and a very specific kind of engagement with the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1962/2006; van Manen, 2014). For any study to be successful, researchers must develop a “phenomenological eye” through which they can see the uniqueness of the phenomenon in all of its complexity and strangeness, as well as a strong “phenomenological pen” through which they can re-evoke and illuminate the phenomenon in their text.
Learning phenomenology, then, becomes an issue not of “how” to do it but of developing a particular orientation to the world. The Chinese philosopher Confucius famously wrote: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” This is an apt adage for learning hermeneutic phenomenology. As much as we might read about and study texts, we cannot truly begin to understand hermeneutic phenomenology until we practically engage in its activities. This involves formulating phenomenological questions, identifying and collecting experiential material, and reflecting on concrete experiences. Through grappling with the challenges of doing phenomenology, we begin to develop a sense of what movements bring us closer to the phenomenon as it is lived through and which lead us astray into theory or explanation. For this reason, the most effective phenomenological workshop and courses are laden with activities that challenge its participants to move beyond thinking about the methodology and towards embodying it.
Adams, C. (2014). What’s in a name? The experience of the other in online classrooms. Phenomenology & Practice, 7(2), 51-67.
Adams, C., Yin, Y., Vargas Madriz, F. L., Mullen, C. S. (2014). A phenomenology of learning large: the tutorial sphere of xMOOC video lectures. Distance Education, 35(2). doi:10.1080/01587919.2014.917701
Glenn, N. (2013). Weight-ing: The Experience of Waiting on Weight Loss. Qualitative Health Research, 23 (2), 348-360.
Goble, E. (2011). Facing the Ugly Face. Phenomenology & Practice, 5(2), 6-19.
Henriksson, C., & Saevi, T. (2009). “An event in sound” Considerations on the ethical-aesthetic traits of the hermeneutic phenomenological text. Phenomenology & Practice, 3(1), 35-58.
Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of the European sciences and transcendental phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962, 2006). Phenomenology of perception. New York, NY: Routledge.
Van Manen, M. (1990, 2007). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London, ON: Althouse Press
Van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.