In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Phenomenology in Educational Research

  • Introduction
  • Addressing the Double Focus
  • Reference Works and Classic Accounts
  • Journals
  • Childhood and the Experience of the Child or Student

Education Phenomenology in Educational Research
Tone Saevi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0042


Phenomenology and education both hold a variety of interpretations as well as cultural, political, and practical research perspectives. Thus, paradigmatic distinctions regarding ontological, epistemological, and methodical relevance must be made in order to orient this presentation. First, there is a distinction between phenomenology as a philosophical endeavor performed by philosophers or philosophers of education, and phenomenology as a methodological endeavor performed by professional educators within education, an orientation included in what is called phenomenology of practice. This article orients toward the latter. Second, there is a distinction between education understood as an applied field of study supported by the epistemologies of foundational disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy and education as a discipline with its own conceptions and theories, based on educational approaches to educational questions. This paper reflects the second understanding, the Continental as opposed to the Anglo-American orientation. Educational research includes formal teaching and schooling and informal teaching, which happens in homes, social institutions, and society. Therefore, educational research requires an anthropological ontoepistemological interest in the meaning of educational events, which orients more toward methodology than method. Methodology requires a reflective attitude that gives rise to methods and that gives research its direction. Educational research aims at maintaining or adding meaning to educational thinking and practice. Therefore, a central goal of the educational researcher is to understand the meaning held within a particular educational situation. Here, the phenomenological orientation toward the lived concrete, situated experience comes into play. A basic concern is how to keep the unspoken, or tacit, qualities of educational situations open to further questioning. This is different from other methods, in which the aim is to solve problems and provide definite answers. The phenomenological approach to educational research presented in this article includes an understanding of research exactly as a reflexive understanding beyond the research activity as such in order to maintain the phenomenological lived quality of the particular educational situation and to acknowledge a personal and cultural remembrance of what it means to be a child and young person. The relation between phenomenology and education requires a responsible remembering of the character of educational situations and an awareness of the logic of educational practices as being self-sustaining and therefore only partly researchable. This understanding of educational research is seen in a variety of phenomenological publications, mainly in the European traditions and approaches. This article will synthesize papers that reflect a multitude of global perspectives but that are united by a Continental understanding of education and phenomenology.

Addressing the Double Focus

Even though epistemological interdisciplinarity can make important contributions to educational research, psychology, philosophy, and other foundational disciplines often do not capture the educational dimensions of educational research, as emphasized in Langeveld 1969. The question as to how educational researchers construct the educational object can, according to Biesta 2011, be understood by looking at whether educational researchers allow the foundational disciplines to feed education theory or whether they start from a particular value-laden interest in the freedom and authority of the child and, as Mollenhauer 1983 addresses, personal morality, relationality, and asymmetry in child–adult relationships. Van Manen and Adams 2010 explains that research is a phenomenological and educational endeavor not separate from life but rather a way of regarding life. Educational theorizing as subjective reflection is aiming at ontoepistemological insight into pedagogical practice and, as Van Manen 1982 stresses, is considered the educational alternative to generalizable epistemological findings. In contemporary educational research this view is argued by politically oriented educationalists, as in Biesta 2011, as well as by hermeneutic phenomenologists, as in Saevi 2011. Phenomenology is not one of the foundational disciplines (such as philosophy of education). Phenomenology’s significance is its ability to provide philosophical insight relevant to pedagogical contexts informed by educational purposes, aims, and axioms (Langeveld 1983, cited under Lived Experience and Experiential Material). Phenomenology is not applied to education as a philosophical understanding but is subject to educational interests, purposes, and moral considerations, from which it cannot be separated. Phenomenological educational publication requires an entwined entity of phenomenology and education. Phenomenology and education are fundamentally connected, and an ontoepistemological understanding of both is required. This quality is recognizable in the publications in this section. Consequently, as Mollenhauer 1983 and Saevi 2011 show, methodology rather than method is at core of this type of research. Phenomenology, as human science, reflects a European sensibility in its orientation toward the personal, cultural, and professional, and as Lippitz 1993 and Van Manen and Adams 2010 suggest, despite the plurality of movements and methodologies, many phenomenological approaches are fundamentally interconnected. Education is understood as a common cultural human effort based on relational asymmetry between adult and child and embedded in cultural, historical, and political ontoepistemological matters that make upbringing and education paradoxical and aporetic, as discussed in Mollenhauer 1983 and Lippitz 1993. The approach to and language used to describe education vary, yet a basic insufficiency is characteristic of approaches to education that focus solely on qualification and socialization. Lippitz 1993 suggests that phenomenology intertwined in culture and education presupposes the interpretation of education as Bildung, the possibility of personal and cultural resistance to and transgression of educational purposes and aims. Education as moral purpose, aim, and content and the asymmetric relationship between adult and child as are the focus of Saevi 2011 as well as the inevitable interpretation of life and practice and the personal responsibility of the adult (Langeveld 1983, cited under Lived Experience and Experiential Material) as substantive of phenomenology in education. Van Manen 1982 demonstrates how theorizing in phenomenological educational research is entwined by necessity in structural experiential reflection and therefore differs from research in which abstract construction of theoretical concepts is an aim in itself. See also Langeveld 1983.

  • Biesta, Gert J. J. 2011. Disciplines and theory in the academic study of education: A comparative analysis of the Anglo-American and Continental construction of the field. Pedagogy, Culture & Society 19.2: 175–192.

    DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2011.582255

    This paper offers historical and contemporary analysis of two understandings and approaches to education, represented by the Anglo-American and Continental traditions in the field. Discussing educational implications of the two, the paper forms a basis for discerning crucial differences between the traditions for beginning and experienced researchers. See also Phenomenology in Education and Didaktik or Curriculum.

  • Langeveld, Martinus. 1969. Einfürung in die theoretische Pädagogik. Stuttgart: Klett Verlag.

    German translation of Beknopte theoretische pedagogiek, originally published in 1945 (Groningen, The Netherlands: Wolters). General introduction to European pedagogy classified as an empirical science belonging to the humanities and a normative discipline with its own theoretical and practical conceptual framework. Theorizing education is understood as a reflective thinking and acting, and phenomenology is taken up with a pedagogical rather than a philosophical purpose. Original work in Dutch (1945). Translated into Japanese. See also Phenomenology in Education and Lived Experience and Experiential Material.

  • Langeveld, Martinus. 1983. Reflections on phenomenology and pedagogy. Phenomenology + Pedagogy 1.1: 3–5.

    A seminal article asking how we speak of the self-evident, everyday situations between adult and child and how we respond to the child’s silent call to be educated. Portrays the complexity of education in the lived pedagogical encounter and the responsive responsibility of a human science research practice. A challenge to the hegemony of an orderly epistemological rationality. See also Didaktik or Curriculum.

  • Lippitz, Wilfried. 1993. Phänomenologische Studien in der Pädagogik. Weinheim, Germany: Deutscher Studien Verlag.

    A comprehensive tripartite work with useful references on phenomenological education, the lifeworld, and interrelationality. First, a systematic study of lifeworld and experience, as introduced by Edmund Husserl, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Herman Nohl. Second, a study of the anthropology of children. Third, a discussion on the limits of phenomenological thinking, based on Levinas’s radical ethics. No English translation, but Papers in English by the author on related themes.

  • Mollenhauer, Klaus. 1983. Vergessene Zusammenhänge: Über Kultur und Erziehung. Munich: Juventa.

    A small book on general education (Allgemeine Pädagogik), suitable for a historical and modern-day overview of education, as reflected and practiced in the European context. Six essays building on each other present descriptions of relational education that blur the boundaries between institutions and home/culture, discipline and practice, and historical and contemporary accounts. Translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Norwegian.

  • Saevi, Tone. 2011. Lived relationality as the fulcrum of pedagogical-ethical practice. Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.5: 455–461.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11217-011-9244-9

    This paper highlights the aporetic character of pedagogical practice and theory by suggesting that the pedagogical relation, at the core of educational reflection and research, might open up for ethical and existentially normative rather than developmentally normative questions. Shifts the core meaning of education from socioeconomic outcome to existential relation. Reprinted in G. Biesta, ed., 2012, Making Sense of Education: Fifteen Contemporary Theorists in Their Own Words (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer), pp. 27–34.

  • van Manen, Max. 1982. Phenomenological pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry 12.3: 283–299.

    DOI: 10.2307/1179525

    An early discussion of the significance of phenomenological reflection and theory related directly to the educational situation. The article provides a contrast to a positivist theorizing. Phenomenological pedagogy is put forth as a reflective theorizing on the grounds that offer the possibility for our pedagogical concerns with children rather than as a method demonstrating new epistemology. See also Phenomenology in Education, the Professional Teacher, and Phenomenological Methodology and Method.

  • van Manen, Max, and Catherine A. Adams. 2010. Phenomenological research. In Encyclopedia of curriculum studies. Edited by Craig Kridel, 641–645. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Phenomenological research is seen as a critical ontoepistemological alternative and an ethical corrective to contemporary technological and calculative research approaches. Focus on presentation of literature primarily centering on questions relevant to curriculum and pedagogy.

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