The Social Phenomenology of Alfred Schutz

Turner, Bryan S., ed. The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. Second ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

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

In Chapter 3 of this text, Ira Cohen discusses theories of action and praxis and looks at various theorists including Alfred Schutz. To draw out a unique characteristic, he notes that rather than looking at social relations, Schutz is more concerned with the meaningful nature of action and interaction.

Indeed, for Schutz, all theoretical roads begin with questions regarding the social nature of human experience. However, unlike other phenomenologists before him, Schutz broadens the question of human experience to include more than just the individual mind “ (101).

To illustrate this point, Cohen cites the following examples of Schutz (101):

  • He extends Weber’s individualist conception of subjective meaning to take the intersubjectivity of experience and social action into account.
  • He begins with a phenomenological interpretation of face-to-face relations and spirals out to consider more indirect relations, looser interactions between anonymous contemporaries and, finally, even historical predecessors of actors living at the present time.
  • Through each of his conceptual moves, he never loses his concern for the individual’s experience of meaning.

In this way, Schutz was able to draw on existing social theories, being quite critical at times, and elaborate on them to apply them to his concept of the human experience. To this day, Schutz is highly regarded and his theories are still relevant.

[T]he transformation of social relations generated by electronic media, including person-to-person communication via telephones, voice-mail, e-mail, and chat groups on the World Wide Web, as well as mass communication via radio and television, audio and video recordings, and web sites, have impressed recent generations of social theorists with a sense that new forms of relationships are emerging with the dawn of the twenty-first century. I some respects, Schutz provides a conceptual warrant for these new developments. (101).

In Chapter 10 (the topic of my last blog post), Steven Vaitkus discusses together the work of Aron Gurwitsch and Alfred Schutz as they are considered the first social phenomenologists and both heavily relied on the analyses of Husserl. However, I am really only focusing on the latter for my own research and there fore will do the same here. He states, “[S]chutz, in developing a social phenomenology of action, would investigate the senseful construction of the social world precisely in terms of considering our ‘acts’ and ‘acting’ as a ‘living in the social world” (279). This is to say, he looked at how individuals make sense of the world in which they live through their actions and senses and through the intersubjective interactions with each other.

Schutz differentiated three levels of our intersubjective knowledge of the others:

  • Our knowledge of Dasein (a word made famous by Heidegger, which means ‘being’). This is a foundational knowledge for the other levels. “This remains a fundamentally social level which has to do with the founding interrelated spatial, temporal, and social structures in terms of which the ‘world’ attains its first organization” (282).
  • Our knowledge of the So-sein. This relates to how individuals perceive their role in a group through their experiences as members of it.
  • Our knowledge of “the Concrete Motives of the Other’s Action” (283). This relates to Schutz’ theory of the voluntary social actions we perform in order to achieve something or because of (in response to) something.

Schutz also focused greatly on symbolization and thought it represented the beginnings of a general theory of language. He considered symbolization “as ultimately a process of interpreting the taken-for-granted everyday life world by which a higher knowledge of this world is obtained” (284). While Schutz’s theories on social phenomenology is foundat5ional to my research, I will leave this discussion here and discuss Schutz and his theories further in future posts.

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