Phenomenological psychology refers to an approach to psychology that draws on phenomenological, existential, and hermeneutic philosophy. The focus in all such work is on making sense of the meaning structures of the lived experience of a research participant or psychotherapeutic client. That is, in Husserl’s terms—the founder of phenomenological philosophy—we go “back to the things themselves” as they present themselves to consciousness in order to determine the “essence” (eidos) of the phenomenon. There is not one approach to phenomenological psychology, however, with the perspective better being understood as a family of methods and modes of practice. All psychological research and practice within this tradition will have its roots in the thought of Husserl and key concepts therein but will also likely be informed by other philosophical work, such as that of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre from the existential tradition, or Gadamer and Ricoeur from the hermeneutic tradition. Phenomenological psychology has its origins in European psychiatry with the work of Karl Jaspers in the early 1900s, along with figures including Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Viktor Frankl, Eugene Minkowski, and Jan Hendrick van den Berg. The primary aim of these thinkers was (a) the rejection of traditional notions of psychopathology, in favor of Husserl’s descriptive method of analyzing psychological experience; and (b) the application of ideas from existential philosophy to therapeutic practice. A variety of modes of psychotherapeutic practice have evolved from this early work including Daseinsanalysis, logotherapy, British School existential analysis, and existential-humanistic psychotherapy. The Utrecht School in The Netherlands has been identified as the location of the first attempt to apply phenomenological philosophy to psychological research. Influenced by the work of the psychologist Adrian van Kaam and the philosopher Henry Koren, Amedeo Giorgi (beginning in the early 1970s) developed a systematic phenomenological psychology methodology at Duquesne University in the United States. Other important early figures working to develop phenomenological psychology at Duquesne include Rolf von Eckartsberg, Constance F. Fischer, and Paul F. Collaizi, with the latter developing his own phenomenological method, which is more hermeneutic than the Giorgi method. Another relatively early major methodological development came about in Canada in the late 1970s with the work of the pedagogical researcher Max van Manen, who drew directly on the Utrecht School to develop a hermeneutic phenomenological methodology. Recent developments include methodologies that draw more extensively on hermeneutics or forms of critical social theory or both, including feminist theory. Some of these developments have proven controversial, with ongoing debates in the field about the boundaries and methods of phenomenological psychology.
Overviews of Phenomenological Psychology Methodology
Many people new to phenomenological research struggle to make sense of the range of available methods and the link between (often very complex) philosophical ideas and their application within psychology. A good introduction is therefore a very useful way into the discipline. Langdridge 2007 and Finlay 2011 both provide comprehensive coverage of a broad range of phenomenological methodologies while also being very accessible for people new to the field. Ashworth and Cheung Chung 2006 is an edited collection with contributions from some of the leading figures in the field. It is not always an easy read but is excellent for deepening understanding. Polkinghorne 1989 and Eckartsberg 1998 are excellent introductions to phenomenological methodology and the interested reader would also be advised to read the other chapters of these two important collections. Churchill and Wertz 2015 also provides a recent overview that is both scholarly and accessible to the beginner. The edited collection Giorgi 1985 represents some of the very best of phenomenological psychology from the Duquesne School. Kockelmans 1987 is focused firmly on the Dutch School (also known as the Utrecht School) and contains essays by some of the key early figures in phenomenological psychology including Buytendijk, Strasser, and van den Berg. This was a loosely affiliated group of psychologists, psychiatrists and others, united around their opposition to positivistic methodology, who came together just after the Second World War to explore the implications of the thought of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre among others for psychological research. Finally, it is worth noting Pollio, et al. 1997, written by an independent group that has been applying ideas from phenomenological philosophy to work on the psychology of everyday life.
Ashworth, P., and M. Cheung Chung, eds. 2006. Phenomenology and psychological science. New York: Springer.
A fascinating collection of work that includes chapters on the history and place of phenomenological psychology within the wider discipline, along with essays on methodology and also psychotherapy.
Churchill, S. D., and F. J. Wertz. 2015. An introduction to phenomenological research in psychology: Historical, conceptual, and methodological foundations. In The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice. 2d ed. Edited by K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson, and J. F. T. Bugental, 275–296. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
A wonderfully clear introduction to phenomenological research from two of the leading figures in the field.
Eckartsberg, R. Von, 1998. Introducing existential-phenomenological psychology. In Phenomenological inquiry in psychology: Existential and transpersonal dimensions. Edited by R. Valle, 3–20. New York: Plenum.
This chapter, along with the second chapter, provide an excellent introduction to phenomenological psychology. These chapters were originally published in Eckartsberg’s 1986 book Life-World Experience: Existential-Phenomenological Research Approaches in Psychology (Washington, DC: University Press of America) which is now very difficult to locate. The entire volume edited by Valle is also very worth reading.
Finlay, L. 2011. Phenomenology for therapists: Researching the lived world. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
One of the more accessible introductions to the field with a focus on introducing phenomenological methodology to counselors and psychotherapists.
Giorgi, A., ed. 1985. Phenomenology and psychological research. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne Univ. Press.
An excellent collection of essays on descriptive phenomenological psychology from leading figures that is still readily available. The more comprehensive four volume collection Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology (1971, 1975, 1979, 1985), edited by Giorgi and colleagues, represents the greatest body of work emerging out of Duquesne in descriptive phenomenological psychology, but is sadly very difficult to locate.
Kockelmans, J. J., ed. 1987. Phenomenological psychology: The Dutch School. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
A wonderful collection of essays from some of the most important early Dutch contributors to the development of phenomenological psychology.
Langdridge, D. 2007. Phenomenological psychology: Theory, research and method. Harlow, UK: Pearson.
An accessible overview of phenomenological psychology methodology covering descriptive, hermeneutic, and narrative approaches.
Polkinghorne, D. E., 1989. Phenomenological research methods. In Existential-phenomenological perspectives in psychology: Exploring the breadth of human experience. Edited by R. S. Valle and S. Halling. New York: Plenum.
An excellent introduction to the range of Descriptive Phenomenological Methods. The other chapters in this edited collection are also worth reading.
Pollio, H. R., T. Henley, and C. B. Thompson. 1997. The phenomenology of everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
This book represents the work of Howard Pollio and colleagues in which they have engaged with phenomenological philosophy and extant psychological methods to forge their own distinctive mode of phenomenological psychology. The book includes the application of this method to a range of topics from the experience of feeling alone to the meaning of death.
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