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Phenomenology

Mundane Phenomenology (everyday Life), Existential Phenomenology, Ethical Phenomenology, Social Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology And Family Discourse


Phenomenology began as a primarily twentieth-century philosophical movement that argued that the best way to come to know the world is to rigorously examine how we apprehend the world through conscious experience (Spiegelberg 1982). Evidence for the influence of phenomenology on the practice of social science can be found in the widespread use of the term phenomenology for the description of human experience (e.g., the phenomenology of mothering refers to the description of mothering experiences of real women). Nevertheless, phenomenology also entails a distinct theoretical approach to the study of human life. It is an especially useful approach to the study of families and a vital element of any attempt to achieve a cross-cultural understanding of families.

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena or the study of the world as experienced. Beginning with Edmund Husserl (1913–1931), phenomenologists have sought to understand how the things of the world are ordinarily experienced. They have therefore focused their attention on the study of the lifeworld, or everyday life of the human subject, and how it is experienced in the natural attitude. The natural attitude, the common mode of experience in everyday life, assumes and takes for granted the constitution of the social world. Through the natural attitude, individuals encounter the world as a naturally given external reality and engage the world in terms of practical, everyday life concerns. One of the aims of phenomenology is to achieve accurate descriptions of how individuals experience the world in the natural attitude.

Phenomenologists do not, however, attempt to present the experience of the subject solely from the perspective of and in the language of the subject. Since its early beginnings in continental philosophy, phenomenology has sought a more objective knowledge of the world. This knowledge can be achieved through the reduction of human experience to those elements without which the experience could not be. Reduction entails using the subject's perspective (i.e., the researcher's own experience or accounts of other's experiences) as a means to delineating the conditions of experience. To accomplish this reduction phenomenologists attempt to bracket or suspend belief in the taken-forgranted assumptions common to the natural attitude. Through bracketing, phenomenologists replace the natural attitude with a scientific attitude or an attitude of calling into question the familiar experience of the world. For early phenomenologists, reduction would lead to an explication of the necessary and universal elements of experience, while for contemporary phenomenologists, reduction leads to the formation of prototypical descriptions of experiences.

Phenomenological analysis of experience has contributed to the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy and social science. Early phenomenological studies demonstrated that human experience is fundamentally informed and constituted by and through language (Heidegger 1962). Therefore, for phenomenologists, any analysis of the essential elements of experience necessitates a thorough examination of how language enables human beings to experience the world in the ways that they do. Language both enables human beings to experience their world, and it constrains how they come to experience that world. Language discloses (some of) the features of experience (while simultaneously veiling others), and in so doing alters how we experience things (Aho 1998). By bringing to reflective awareness just how language both enables and constrains experience, phenomenologists aim to show how linguistic systems not only come to stand for things, but they also come to stand between things and us (Crotty 1998). An important aim of phenomenology is to bracket the already linguistically constituted ways of encountering things and thereby facilitate encountering those things directly through experience, perhaps even bringing forth new words through which previously hidden features of experience might be revealed. In this way, phenomenologists seek to examine and displace the givenness of the natural attitude and enable experiencing things anew or re-appropriating experiences in a new way. Whereas before the experiences were taken for granted, now they can be appreciated, esteemed, and valued, or resisted, overcome, and changed in significant ways.

Although phenomenology lacks clearly demarcated schools of thought, it is useful to indicate how phenomenological analysis of the family has taken different forms. These forms vary from those approaches that seek to merely describe individual experience (mundane phenomenology) to those that focus so extensively on language that individual experiences remain in the background (family discourse analysis).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families