2.3 Phenomenology Phenomenology is another way of knowing and describing the social world.
Phenomenology has numerous philosophical variants (see, for example,van Manen, 2011; Smith, 2011) and this analysis fouses on those that impacted on the developmen of sociological enquiry.
Phenomenology differs from positivism in assuming that the study of the social world is fundamentally different to the study of the natural world. This is because the social world is made up of acting, thinking subjects whose actions require interpretation.
The epistemological perspective underlying phenomenological social science is that we know social processes if we can interpret what they mean. People are not things, they think and reflect on what they do. The social world has meaning for social actors. Thus, to know the social world, it is necessary to discover these meanings.
Phenomenological methodology is thus more concerned with interpreting the world than explaining it. Phenomenologists tend to reject the idea that external truths about the social world can be exposed by using the methods of the natural sciences. Social actors cannot be treated as though their actions are mere reflexes of external causes: people are conscious and make decisions about how they will act.
The phenomenological approach can be summed up as follows:
• individuals have ideas about the world in which they live;
• they attach meaning to social events, institutions and actions;
• they act on the basis of these ideas and meanings.
This approach requires that researchers should ask questions about the beliefs that people hold and the meanings that they attach to action. Researchers need to be concerned with the inner world of their subjects to be able to understand why people act in the ways that they do. The process of ascertaining the meanings that people give to their actions is called 'agency'.
For positivist (see Section 2.2), interpretation is not considered to be a concern of science, therefore, the emphasis on interpretation in phenomenological approaches can be identified as a major difference between positivism and phenomenology.
Some commentators refer to phenomenological approaches as interpretist, which reflects a major concern of the approach but, as discussed below, reflects only part of the phenomenological tradition.
Rather more confusingly, some people tend to equate 'qualitative' methods with 'interpretivism' and thus with phenomenology. However, this Guide draws a clear distinction between approaches and methods. Methods are techniques that can be used as part of any methodological or epistemological approach, as is demonstrated in the following Sections. A qualitative study could be positivist, phenomenological or critical depending on the purpose and approach to the research.