Professor Marshall

LESSON 6: Phenomenology


By definition, using phenomenology requires us to ask the main question: What is the meaning of __________? Phenomenological theories want us to question what we take for granted in society and to question our views of what is real. This theory rests on the notion that THINGS MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Phenomenology suggests that taken-for-granted socially constructed ideas allow us to exist.
  2. How do we change? This theory states that we change when we become skeptical and challenge what we think is proper and propose new "realities."

Remember that this is a MICRO theory, which means the focus is on the the individual and how smaller group interactions change the structure of society.

Now, let's review some of the historical concepts which lay the foundation for phenomenological theory.

Historical Interpretations

Phenomenology is very closely tied to the field of philosophy, and gives us the main ideas and concepts of phenomenology:




Phenomenologists want to know how it is that we have similar perceptions to other people--how do we organize our thoughts and concepts about things so that what you think and what I think about something is similar? There are a couple of views about how this happens.

Schutz says that we all have a "common stock" of knowledge available to us. He thinks about this stockpile as "recipes" for behavior:


How is it that we know these "recipes?" Schutz says that we construct our own worlds by accepting categories which people and groups around us pass on to us. This is an easy concept to understand if we think about how children learn. When a toddler points to an item, someone usually says the name of the item and perhaps hands the item to the toddler (for example, a ball). The toddler internalizes that this item is a ball, and in future instances as the toddler grows, all items shaped similarly are balls, until the toddler is able to refine the concept of "ball" (a car wheel is not a ball, a soccer ball is a TYPE of ball). This is called TYPIFICATION, or the idea that the world is made up of TYPES of things.

Thinking about children and how they learn makes the concept of Schutz's recipes easy to understand. But what happens when we mature? The process remains the same, but it gets much more complex. So, now not only do we have a TYPOLOGY for things we can see, we also have one for things we can't see. For example, we might think a particular way about a group--we don't arrive at that thought independent of any sort of external input from society.

Giddens also draws on the work of Schutz and calls this same concept "mutual knowledge." He believes that we have large stores of mutual knowledge that we use to interpret facets of life. Further, he says that it is essential to have mutual knowledge in order for us to communicate in an understandable way. If you think about this idea, it makes a lot of sense. Everyday, we have conversations with others which ASSUME vast amounts of knowledge. If we had to explain ourselves at every turn, imagine how long and difficult just one small exchange might be. Routinization therefore is essential to everyday life because it minimizes anxiety that we might have if we didn't have a script going into events.


Giddens says that we must therefore rely on ROUTINIZATION, which he defines as using routine activities, to get through our days. When we follow these routines, small parts of the routine might be different, but we can process those bits and pieces as we follow our routines. As these routines get followed more and more, they become institutionalized. In short, routines allow us to maintain a sense of order about the social world, and therefore, we are willing to have exchanges with complete strangers. We take for granted how easy--and just how complex--exchanges with strangers are!

Garfinkel's work tackled one of Parsons' somewhat neglected concepts: the actor. What is it that makes a person motivated to act? Both theorists agreed that trust is the basis of human behavior, but Garfinkel was also interested in the factors which the processes by which people organize information. He called his method of investigation ETHNOMETHODOLOGY.

This type of sociology is opposite of Functional theories:

Social Facts


Harold Garfinkel

Ethnomethodology is the word that Garfinkel created to explain the method by which phenomenologists do their investigating. Garfinkel's Ethnomethodology can be defined as the ways in which people make sense of their world. Just as with Giddens, Garfinkel asserts that we do so many things without really having to think about them. Garfinkel wants us to think about these routinized events and activities--to uncover the taken-for-granted meanings of situations. He asks:

→ How is it that people present themselves in an "orderly" way to others?

→ How do you think of events and situations as orderly?

Ethnomethodologists do not seek to explain behavior. Rather, ethnomethodology is a form of explanation for how people make sense of everyday life. One of the ways we make sense is by ACCOUNTING:

Garfinkel goes on to further explain the interactions during a conversation with his "et cetera principle:"

How Ethnomethodologists Work

Some methods of inquiry which ethnomethodologists use are similar to those which other theorists and researchers use, while other methods are very clearly the domain of ethnomethodology.

There are many similarities in the ways in which ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists DO their work, but the foci of their research is quite different:

Symbolic Interaction and Ehtnomethodology

Contemporary Interpretations

Berger, Luckmann and the Social Construction of Reality

Berger and Luckmann are interested in one primary question:

→ How does knowledge become reality? In other words, how does the "subjective" become "objective?"

Thus, they concentrate on one concept: creation of reality. When reality is created, they argue, two things are present:

  1. Objective fact (socially accepted and common order)
  2. Subjective meaning (something that is personally meaningful)

Both theorists say that the world is created by us, and is given meaning and order by us. Both objective and subjective realities must function in order for society to exist. Things must be meaningful to us, and also must "fit in" to society in an orderly way. So, how do Berger and Luckmann say we turn subjective meanings into objective facts? They argue that three things must happen:

Berger and Luckmann Three Criteria

Berger and Luckmann say that we view the world as an orderly place, and that this place is not a part of us--it exists outside of our minds (OBJECTIVATION). To make sense of (or accept) this external reality, we INTERNALIZE what we see as proper, and therefore we make it legitimate. Once this happens, we begin to create (and modify or recreate) society. Therefore, society is society exists in relationship to other humans and our interactions with them, which in turn creates society. Recall Marx's concept of the dialectic, and you can see similarities to Berger and Luckmann's explanation of how society is created and changed.


Phenomenology is a qualitative research field, which is problematic for many "old school" social science researchers. This field is however growing in popularity as new, fresh ideas and theories about society develop. The main point of phenomenology is:

→ THE INDIVIDUAL IS ACTIVE IN THE RESEARCH PROCESS--people are not passive, non-acting objects for researchers to observe--PEOPLE CHANGE SOCIETY.  

It is important to remember also that phenomenology is concerned with how we understand each other and how a concept gets from our own brains (how we define and see something) to how society views it similarly. It is concerned with HOW we construct meanings out of things--meanings which get shared among the members of society and which help us to go through our day in a way that doesn't upset us psychologically. To do so, this theory says we have to rely on scripts, or recipes for social life.