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Phenomenology in Sociology

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73643

C. F. Graumann

Phenomenology in Sociology
1. The Origins and Scope of Phenomenological
Sociology
Phenomenological sociology is the prescientic study
of social life and the process by which humans interpret, experience, and understand their individual and
collective realities. The work of the social philosopher

and sociologist Alfred Schu$ tz (18991959) provides


the most important foundation for phenomenological
sociology. Framed in the general atmosphere of the
debate between scientic and antiscientic movements
that arose in the late nineteenth century, phenomenology places the social sciences in the context of
everyday life (Thomason 1982). Strongly inuenced
by Henri Bergson, Edmond Husserl and William
James, Schu$ tz argues that a prescientic understanding of everyday life provides the only means
by which a science of society is possible. The sciences
that would interpret and explain human action
must begin with a description of the foundational
structures of what is prescientic, the reality which
seems self-evident to men remaining within the natural attitude. This reality is the everyday life-world
(Schu$ tz and Luckmann 1973, p. 3).
Just as the natural scientist must rst understand the
composition and interactions of subatomic particles in
order to understand the nature of chemical reactions,
the sociologist, Schu$ tz argues, must understand the
common-sense world. Unlike the subatomic world,
however, the world of everyday life is permeated with
the understandings given by those who constitute it.
The task of the phenomenological sociologist is to
understand how people make sense of their own lives.
According to the phenomenologist, these subjective
sense-making activities in everyday life are based on
taken-for-granted knowledge passed down from generation to generation. In order to understand scientically these subjective social actions the scientist
must replace common sense explanations with objective scientic constructs derived from social theory
(see Theory: Sociological). The phenomenologist seeks
to understand social action in its own subjective terms,
yet to describe this world scientically using the tools
of an objective science of society. The foundation of all
social science, according to the phenomenologist must
be the life-world.

2. The Life-world
Schu$ tz states that the life-world (Lebenswelt) can be
understood as that province of reality which the wideawake and normal adult simply takes for granted as
common sense (Schu$ tz and Luckmann 1973, p. 3).
The everyday life-world provides us with a sense of the
real. It is through our position in, and experience of
the life-world that we are social beings engaged and
aected by the social and natural worlds. The most
important characteristic of the life-world, according to
Schu$ tz, is that it is taken-for-granted. By this he means
that individuals apprehend their worlds and its problems as self-evidently realthats just the way it is.
As a result, most individuals, most of the time, give
little thought to the true nature of the world around
them. It is the unquestioned givenness of the lifeworld for its denizens, including those whose business
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Phenomenology in Sociology
it is, in professional terms, to analyze problems of the
social world, that phenomenology nds the ground of
the social scientists activity (Natanson 1973, p. 40).
Taken-for-grantedness arises out of the typication
of the phenomenal world. That is, our perceptions are
categorized from a shared stock of knowledge as this
or that type of thing. Our typications, however, are
only of an approximate nature. Such categories are
held only until further notice. If contravened by future
experiences, typications must either be abandoned or
reformulated. Taken-for-grantedness is further enabled through the use of time tested recipes for social
action. Of the unlimited realm of potential social
action open to individuals, most potential actions are
circumscribed by a taken-for-granted sense of what is
possible and not possible in such typical situations.
The universe of potential recipes for social action is
also part of the social stock of knowledge from which
typications are drawn. An important point to be
made is that the social stock of knowledge complete
with its typications and recipes for social action is
pragmatic in nature. We simply tend to do what works
and to avoid what does not work. Through typication
and the use of recipes for social action the world
becomes unproblematic and a matter of common
sense.

3. Phenomenology and Science


A phenomenological study of the social world is one
that addresses how humans experience the lifeworld. In contemporary sociology, phenomenological
research has largely been identied with any research
addressing the subjective perspectives of social actors.
This, however, is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, phenomenology is prescientic, an attempt to
ground the social sciences in human experience, a
subjective appreciation of the human condition
(Embree 1988, p. 270). Schu$ tz (1962a) argues that if we
are to understand social reality all social scientic
constructs must not only be linked to what people
experience, but how they experience it. Scientic
understandings must be connected to the experiential
process through which people in their everyday lives
actually experience the world. He states, correctly
understood, the postulate of subjective interpretation
as applied to economics as well as to all other social
sciences means merely that we always canand for
certain purposes mustrefer to the activities of the
subjects within the social world and their interpretation by the actors in terms of systems of projects,
available means, motives, relevances, and so on
(Schu$ tz 1962a, p. 35).
Phenomenological sociology has sometimes been
inappropriately labeled as anti-scientic. This misconception stems from the anti-scientic intellectual
climate from which phenomenology arose (Thomason
1982). Sensitive to these movements, Schu$ tz indeed
11362

understood the dehumanizing possibilities of science.


His answer to this problem, however, was not to
abandon science, but rather to ground the social
science in the motives and realities of everyday life.
Phenomenology does not necessarily attempt to replace or debunk science, but rather to provide a
foundation for empirical investigations.

4. The Contribution of Phenomenology in


Sociology
The possibility of a phenomenological sociology has
been partially realized in two current sociological
traditions: social constructionism and ethnomethodology. While both approaches address the life-world
and its subjective realities, neither has fully realized the
potential Schu$ tz saw for a truly phenomenological
sociology. That is, both have addressed the subjective
nature of the social world, but neither has been the
foundation of an objective science of society.

4.1 Social Constructionism


Phenomenological interest in the mediated and
negotiated nature of all knowledge gave rise to social
constructionism in sociology. Social constructionism,
simply stated, is the study of the way in which people
agree upon and dene what reality is. Perhaps the
most important work in this eld is The Social
Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of
Knowledge (Berger and Luckmann 1966) (for example,
see Sociology, Epistemology of ).
At the heart of social constructionism can be found
one of phenomenologys most important concepts, the
epoch. The epoch amounts to a radical skepticism not
unlike Descartes method, where belief in the realness of the world is suspended. Schu$ tz (1962c, p. 102)
however, claims that Descartes was not radical
enough, that Descartes conclusion cogito, ergo sum
[I think therefore I am] failed to doubt and analyze
the thought itself. By methodologically setting aside or
bracketing the everyday world and even the nature of
thought itself, the phenomenologist seeks to go
beyond the natural attitude of man living within the
world he accepts, be it reality or mere appearance
(Schu$ tz 1962c, p. 104). The purpose of the phenomenological reduction (epoch) is to strip through the
world of belief to the realm of consciousness and to
examine the resulting contents.
Thomason (1982) points out that social constructionism in sociology stemming from the epoch can
best be described as a methodological constructionism. Unlike ontological constructionism, methodological constructionism does not question the existence
of a real world, but rather suggests that what we know
of the world is always mediated and indirect. Methodological constructionism most closely resembles

Phenomenology: Philosophical Aspects


Schu$ tzian phenomenology. Schu$ tz states I am afraid
I do not exactly know what reality is, and my only
comfort in this unpleasant situation is that I share my
ignorance with the greatest philosophers of all time
(Schu$ tz 1964, p. 88, Thomason 1982, p. 4). That is, the
methodological constructionist examines the agreements people make about the world, but does not
question that a real world exists. Social constructionism remains an important eld of inquiry in the
natural and social sciences, but is of particular
importance in sociology.

4.2 Ethnomethodology
Ethnomethodology is the second intellectual tradition
linked to phenomenology. Ethnomethodology is also
connected to the epoch, but most importantly to
Schu$ tzs commitment to the importance of the everyday life-world. However, unlike the prescientic and
proscientic work of phenomenology, ethnomethodology as formulated by Garnkel (1963) represents a
radical break from the traditional models of social
science with which Schu$ tz had once tried to reconcile
(Lynch 1988, p. 93). Ethnomethodology seeks to understand the method by which individuals construct,
negotiate, and agree upon reality, but questions the
possibility of an objective science of the subjective
human condition. As a radically subjective pursuit,
ethnomethodology falls short of the objective science
of the life-world Schu$ tz envisioned. Concerning such
radically subjective endeavors Schu$ tz (1962b, p. 52)
maintains a method which would require that the
individual scientic observer identify himself with
the social agent observed in order to understand the
motives of the later, or a method which would refer the
selection of the facts observed and their interpretation
to the private and subjective image in the mind of this
particular observer, would merely lead to an uncontrollable private and subjective image in the mind of
this particular student of human aairs, but never to a
scientic theory. While ethnomethodology remains
an important inuence in sociology, as currently
formulated it falls short of the phenomenological
sociology Schu$ tz envisioned.
Without question, phenomenology has had a major
impact upon modern sociology. Social constructionism and ethnomethodology each display a commitment to the epoch and the fundamental importance
of the life-world, and therefore can directly be traced
to phenomenological thinking. Both methods of
analysis remain viable sociological traditions, and will
no doubt continue to inform social research.
See also: Constructivism\Constructionism: Methodology; Ethnomethodology: General; Hermeneutics,
History of; Hermeneutics, Including Critical Theory;
Interactionism: Symbolic; MacrosociologyMicrosociology; Phenomenology: Philosophical Aspects;

Schu$ tz, Alfred (18991959); Social Constructivism;


Social Psychology: Sociological; Sociology, History
of; Sociology: Overview; Weber, Max (18641920)

Bibliography
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Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Doubleday,
Garden City, NY
Embree L 1988 Schutz on science. In: Embree L (ed.) Worldly
Phenomenology: The Continuing Inuence of Alfred Schutz on
North American Social Science. University Press of America,
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Garnkel H 1963 Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall,
Englewood Clis, NJ
Lynch M 1988 Alfred Schutz and the sociology of science. In:
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Press, Evanston, IL, Vol. 1, pp. 346
Schu$ tz A 1962a Common-sense and scientic interpretation of
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Schu$ tz A 1962b Concept and theory formation in the social
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J. Williams
Copyright # 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd.
All rights reserved.

Phenomenology: Philosophical Aspects


Phenomenology has been one of the most inuential
twentieth century philosophical traditions. It began
with the appearance of Husserls Logical Inestigations
in 190001 and of Pfa$ nders Phenomenology of Willing: A Psychological Analysis in 1900, and continued
with the work of philosophers such as Johannes
Daubert, Adolph Reinach, Moritz Geiger, Max
Scheler, Edith Stein, Gerda Walther, Roman
Ingarden, and Wilhelm Schapp. These phenomenologists were active in Munich and Go$ ttingen and the
movement to which they belonged is often called
realist phenomenology. Throughout the century
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International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences

ISBN: 0-08-043076-7