Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Phenomenology is a term used in social science to refer to the philosophical underpinnings of a variety of approaches that tend to concentrate on the essential nature of the social world.

explanatory context

Phenomenology is a term that is applied to a range of diverse approaches to social scientific enquiry, including the following:

1. Radical approaches that deny the relevence of (natural) scientific study to the social world

2. Approaches that argue for a pre-scientific grasp of society

3. Approaches that emphasise understanding or interpretation rather than explanation

4. Approaches that are concerned with actors' meanings.


In essence, there are two broad strands of phenomenology, transcendental and non-transcendental phenomenology.

NOTE: In some sub-divisions of philosophy there is some overlap between phenomenology and existentialism, in that some philosophers who are regarded as central to the developement of phenomenological ideas are also seen as key existentialists (e.g. Husserl and Heidegger).


Types of Phenomenology

Transcendental Phenomenology

This approach to phenomenology concentrates on the process of revealing the essences of phenomena.

Transcendental phenomenology effectively denies the subjective-objective distinction, and indeed, argues that (positivistic) 'science' deals with surface appearances and conceals the essential nature of the world.

Although transcendental phenomenology is usually seen as having first come to light in the work of Brentano, it is Husserl (a student of Brentano's) who is acknowledged as the major theorist of this perspective.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) set out to develop phenomenology into a pure non-empirical science. Husserl argued that the use of words should rest on insight and not generalisations from experience. In this sense he opposed the prevailing trends of naturalism and psychologism.

Transcendental phenomenology is concerned with the systematic investigation of consciousness and its objects. Consciousness is the fundamental undeniable existent. There is no distinction in transcendental phenomenology between the object of consciousness and the process of cognition. That is, no distinction is possible between what is perceived and the perception of it.


Non-Transcendental Phenomenology

Non-transcendental phenomenology (or mundane phenomenology as it is sometimes labelled) does not require the double époché of transcendental phenomenology. Whereas transcendental phenomenology plumbs essences, non-transcendental phenomenology seeks clarification of what is apparent.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines:

Phenomenology: A qualitative research approach concerned with understanding certain group behaviors from that group's point of view

Joseph (2010, p. 35) defines :

However. towards the end of Husseri's career he believed that the 'mundane' phenomenology [i.e. non-transscendental phenomenology] of the life-world is a necessary step towards understanding transcendental phenomenology. The mere analysis of 'mundane' phenomenology, however, does not provide us with a final meaning unless it is comborated by the performance of reduction that gives us proper access. An analysis of 'mundane' phenomenology is, therefore, necessary before the transcendental reduction can be performed. That is to say we must turn away from the world of culture and science to the life-world by means of"first reduction", then the transcendental reduction must lead us further back from the structures of the life-world to the hidden achievements of the functioning intentionalities of the transcendental subjectivity.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary has a very limited (and rather unhelpful) definition of 'phenomenology ' as:

A school of philosophy concerned with the study of the mind.

associated issues

Phenomenology and sociology

Bogdan and Taylor (1975, p. 13) claimed that symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology are theoretical perspectives which fall within the phenomenological tradition. 'The symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists are the most vigorous supporters of qualitative methodology'.

The phenomenologist views human behavior—what people say and do—as a product of how people interpret the world. The task of the phenomenologist, and for us the qualitative methodologist, is to capture this process of interpretation. To do this requires what Weber called Verstehen, empathetic understanding or an ability to reproduce in one's own mind the feelings, motives, and thoughts behind the actions of others. In order to grasp the meanings of a person's behavior, the phenomenologist attempts to see things from that person's point of view. (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, pp. 13–14).


A phenomonological method?

Most phenomenologists would argue that as an epistemological position, phenomenology cannot be reduced to a 'method'. However, Herbert Spiegelberg suggested a seven-stage phenomenological method (which is actually a prescription on observing while setting aside preconceptions).

1. Investigating particular phenomena, which involved (a) an intitive grasp of the phenomena, (b) their analytic examination, (c) their description. This requires the observer to have a heightened awareness of the subject and its surroundings and to have no preconceptions of how the subject will be described.

2. Investigating general essences, which goes beyond the specific to identify the phenomenon in general and what it is that enables the observer to see the item as an instance of a specific general form; what is the essence that is being uncovered? For example, rather than describing a relationship as a friendship, what is it that enable the observer to see the social relationship as a friendship? What is the essence of a friendship? This move beyond the particular instance to the general essence is what Husserl called eidetic intuition.

3. Apprehending essential relationships among essences, which for Spiegelberg takes two forms. First, the relationship between parts of a single thing. Second, the relationship between different things that are connected. What, for example, are the elements of a friendship? How does friendship relate to 'acquaintance' and 'mate'?

4. Watching modes of appearing, which is examining how the phenomenon appears to us (the observer). The notion (from Merleau-Ponty) is that we 'see' more than we see, in short, we see something biut we also have knowledge beyond what we directly perceive. The classic example usedby Husserl is that when we see a six-sided die with a 'one' spot on the front face we know, without seeing it, that the side we cannot see has a 'six' spot.
5. Watching the constitution of phenomena in consciousness, which is about unpacking the way that the phenomenon has been revealed tot he observer. This involves observing the way in which a phenomenon is constituted in consciousness; how it takes shape. Two people appear to be friends; how is that relationship manifest as a friendship? The observer describes the experience as it begins to take form. Spiegelberg's own example was how we come to make sense of a city the first time we visit it.
6. Suspending belief in the existence of phenomena. Hussetl regarded this phase as the primary and fundamental stage, what he called epoché [Bracketing]. Bracketing our preconceptions leaves usfree to explore all aspects of a phenomenon, including those that everyday experience or theoretical preconception would normally disallow. This stage, whether the contentious sixth stage ofSpiegelberg's approach or the primary and exssential part of Husserl's transcendental phenomenology, is the hardest to grasp as it requires a fundamental denial of all appearance and a grasp of essence and a reconstituted of a 'pure' reinterpetation. This is why, in many cases, this stage is skipped or only alluded to in passing. It is the key difference, in effect, between transcendental and non-transcendental phenomenology.
7. Interpreting the meaning of phenomena, which involves uncovering and interpeting concealed meanings. For Spiegelberg (1978, p. 695), the aim in this step is to uncover those meanings that are not 'manifest to our intuiting, analyzing and describing'. This is like uncovering the hidden meanings from 'clues' that have arisen in the forgoing process. The hidden interpretation eveolves intuitively as a result of a process of penetrating observation, using the sequence above.


related areas

See also




Researching the Real World Section 2.3 for a detailed account of the phenomenological perspective on social research.


Bogdan, R. and Taylor, S.J., 1975, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods: A phenomenological approach to the social sciences. New York, Wiley.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 13 March 2013, still available 1 June 2019.

Joseph, B.K., 2010, 'Chapter 1' available at acccessed 18 March 2013, still available 12 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013., page not available 24 December 2016 .

Spiegelberg, H., 1978, The Phenomenological Movement Vol. 2. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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