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Introduction to Hermeneutic Phenomenology: A research methodology best learned by doing it

Written by:
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
phenomenologys 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). Husserls project has
been extended, contested, and modified by countless philosophers, including Martin Heidegger,
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Lvinas, 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 Manens Phenomenology of Practice and
Amadeo Giorgis 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 eventsprecedes 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). Whats 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).
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.