Phenomenology and Sociology

Vaitkus, S. (2000). Phenomenology and Sociology. In Bryan S. Turner (Ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. Second ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

In this chapter from the larger text on social theory, Vaitkus discusses phenomenology in general and specifically, the sociological approach. He details phenomenology as originating with Edmund Husserl and explains the difficulty in clearly defining it, since it is seen by different scholars as different things from a philosophy, a paradigm, a school, and even “a general orientation or style of methodological thinking in systematically analyzing the world” (270). Other key scholars of phenomenology include Merleau-Ponty (see Phenomenology of Perception), Sartre, and Heidegger.

Phenomenological Theory
Vaitkus goes on to discuss and elaborate on the four discernable Husserlian themes in the phenomenological approach. These are the same themes I addressed in the post on Creswell, since he also discusses them:
A return to the traditional tasks of philosophy
A central unique point to Husserl’s phenomenology is that it strives to return to a more traditional philosophical perspective closer to that of ancient Greece, one that works from “a specifically philosophical groundwork acquired through original self-activity” (Husserl, 1962a: 20, quoted in Vaitkus 272).

A philosophy without presuppositions
This original self-activity approach ignores any presuppositions about the phenomenon and instead looks at the thing itself, hence Husserl’s “Zu den Sachen selbst” (Back to the things themselves). This is an important point in the theory and practice of the phenomenological approach, because it means that the researcher goes into the study with little-to-no assumptions about what he or she will find but rather relies on the personal experience and intuition. “[T]hrough a direct intuition one is to return to the more primordial and certain immediate original data or presentations of our conscious experience” (273).

The intentionality of consciousness
The ultimate root of phenomenology, according to Vaitkus, is in the original self-activity that enables one to explain the given phenomena of consciousness through a direct awareness. “The focus is… on the essential relationships of phenomena appearing within and to consciousness, and it is precisely this which, in all its immediacy, the phenomenologist, through active intuition, must attempt to descriptively bring to theoretical expression in all its phenomenal manifestations” (273). So, it is the direct, individual experience that creates the subjective experience and by extension the reality for the individual. [Defining Husserl’s perspective] “[A]ll conscious acts have a fundamental directional character toward some object, whether real or ideal, such that all consciousness is always conscious of something” (276).

The refusal of the subject-object dichotomy
This relates to the intentionality of consciousness and the idea that the reality for the individual is formed only through his or her own experience.

The Phenomenological Scaffolding
Having laid a foundation that begins to explain what phenomenology is, Vaitkus lists four additional characteristics:

  • The phenomenologist never ceases to ask the question, ‘What is phenomenology?’ “It is an absolute, continual, and responsible higher reflection and self-scrutiny of one’s own and then the other’s theoretical activity” (274).
  • Phenomenology aims toward a “presuppositionlessness.” This is s appoint discussed above (and in the Creswell book/post). The researcher, attempts to enter the study at zero point, that is without any assumptions of the findings. Vaitkus notes that it is important to remember that phenomenology does not attempt to block out theories but rather attempts “to correctly describe phenomena as given within an unprejudiced view and, thus, without the use of unexamined assumptions. …Thus, ‘presuppositionlessness’ does not mean, then, freedom from all presuppositions but, rather, only from those which have not yet been suspended or thoroughly examined, so that no alleged self-evident assumptions may become involved as an unquestioned ground in one’s own analyses and results” (275-6).
  • “[P]henomenologists and those ‘who have aligned themselves’ with phenomenology are concerned with investigating phenomena, general essences, and he apprehension of essential relationships among essences” (276).
  • “[P]henomenology is always concerned, at the very least, horizontally with the life-world” (277).

Leave a Reply