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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

There has been significant growth in critical approaches to social psychology in recent years. Phenomenological, discursive and psychoanalytically informed perspectives, amongst others, have become increasingly popular alternatives to ‘mainstream’ cognitive social psychology. This paper describes the fundamental philosophy and methodology underpinning phenomenological psychology along with discussion of a number of key issues in qualitative research in social psychology. In particular, I discuss the role of interpretation, the turn to language and need for political engagement within critical social psychology. More recently, there has been a growth in phenomenologically informed narrative theories and methodologies and in this paper I introduce my own development of a critical narrative analysis. In the process I discuss some of the most pressing debates about research within the phenomenological tradition and provide rebuttals, solutions and possible future directions for phenomenological theory and research that may lead to yet greater recognition for this social psychological perspective.

Phenomenological psychology has its formal origins in the United States in the late 1960s. Alongside other developments in critical social psychology – such as discursive, feminist, Marxist and psychoanalytically informed social psychologies – there has been renewed interest in this perspective in recent years. There has not only been an increase in interest within psychology but also across a range of disciplines including, notably, education (see, for instance, van Manen, 1990), nursing (see, for instance, Cohn, Kahn, & Steeves, 2000; Geanellos, 1998a,b) and counselling/psychotherapy (see Cooper, 2003; Spinelli, 2005, 2007; van Deurzen-Smith, 1997). This interest has, at least in part, been fuelled by a desire to work with a methodology (and psychotherapeutic approach in counselling/psychotherapy) that takes its participants seriously (i.e., one that seeks to listen and understand rather than explain and force onto a Procrustean bed) and one that is both theoretically grounded and yet also widely applicable. More and more, social and applied psychologists are coming to recognise the potential of a phenomenological perspective to gain greater understanding of the pressing issues that people face in this late modern world. Although it is a necessary and welcome corrective to the tendency of psychologists to pronounce on and then explain away so much of human experience, not all of those who claim to understand or critique the phenomenological tradition have fully grasped both the subtle complexity of this approach or its potential.

In this paper, I provide an introduction to the philosophical and methodological foundations of phenomenological psychology as well as provide information about the empirical traditions that make up this particular perspective: past, present and future. Following this, an attempt will be made to consider longstanding debates about the need for interpretation, the turn to language and the role of the political within social psychological research. Finally, I discuss the narrative turn in phenomenological psychology and development of my own method of Critical Narrative Analysis. Understanding the philosophical basis of the phenomenological tradition is essential for effective application of this particular social psychological perspective. Without fully appreciating the philosophy underpinning this approach, any understanding (and application) of this family of methodologies will be seriously impoverished, and this is therefore where we must first begin.

Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

Phenomenological social psychology involves the translation and application of ideas from phenomenological philosophy to psychology. This is grounded in the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenological philosophy. Husserl (1900/1970) sought to radically change the nature of philosophy itself by focussing on the perception of the ‘things in their appearing’ (i.e., a focus on the way the world appears to people). This deceptively simple idea is more radical than it at first seems, for both philosophy and psychology. Prior to this intervention, philosophers had been caught up in the difficulties of dualistic thinking and, in particular, the egocentric predicament, trying to resolve seemingly intractable issues such as how a mind can communicate with the world (and therefore other minds). Husserl offered a radical alternative, arguing that the very questions themselves came about as a result of dualistic thinking and that instead we must sidestep such inappropriate questions (such as those around idealism and realism) and instead focus on that which we can know empirically.

Intentionality is the key feature of consciousness for Husserl (ibid). Here, intentionality is not being used in its usual sense of intending to do something like go to work. Instead, it refers to the fact that whenever we are conscious, we are always conscious of something. There is always an object of consciousness, whether that is another person or an idea. Why is this important to phenomenologists? Well, it strikes to the heart of a longstanding debate in philosophy about the notion of a mind being separate from a body. This debate, whilst not our primary concern as psychologists, impacts on what we can say about the subject of our enquiry. For phenomenologists, there is not a mind residing inside a body: the focus is instead on the way consciousness is turned out onto the world, as it intentionally relates to objects in the world. And it is this consciousness of the world, or more specifically the relationship between a person's consciousness and the world (the public realm of experience), that is the object of study for phenomenological psychologists (see Sokolowski, 2000, for a superb and eminently readable exposition of the fundamentals of phenomenological philosophy).

Many significant philosophers (such as Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) followed Husserl and in the process developed and sometimes radically re-worked his ideas. These philosophical influences have also influenced phenomenological psychology. They were still phenomenological in that they remained focussed on understanding ‘the things in their appearing’, employing phenomenological methods, but were more concerned with existence (and human nature) than Husserl (who was interested in radically re-defining philosophy itself rather than offering a philosophy of human nature). As a result of their interest in existence, there was a change of emphasis in phenomenological philosophy with greater recognition of the way that all experience must be understood in the context of the person having the experience and the way that they see the world (i.e., a concern with the lifeworld). The lifeworld is a term that originally came from the later work of Husserl (1936/1970), which became especially important for the existentialists as a way of describing the world as experienced – as lived – rather than a world separate from people experiencing it. Husserl's transcendental phenomenology was strongly criticised by Heidegger (1927/1962), Sartre (1943/2003) and Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962), with all of them arguing that experience must be seen in the context of the embodied and situated subject. The hermeneutic turn in phenomenology was heralded by Heidegger who stressed the need for methods of interpretation but was fully realised – epistemologically and methodologically speaking – in the work of Gadamer and Ricoeur. Ideas from these two philosophers have been particularly influential in some of the most recent developments in phenomenology, most notably the turn to phenomenologically informed narrative methodologies.

Phenomenological psychologists are primarily concerned with questions around the nature of our subjective experience. Attention is on the specific ways in which individuals consciously reflect on and experience their lifeworld. The person is viewed as a conscious actor who actively constructs meaning. That is not to say that everything is within conscious awareness and control, not at all, but rather that this aspect – communication of our lived experience – is all we can have access to when attempting to understand the way the world appears to people. Communication may be verbal and/or non-verbal. Aspects of experience may not necessarily be available to verbal expression but will still be experienced and possibly communicated non-verbally through an embodied notion of intersubjectivity (see, for instance, Finlay, 2006).

For the phenomenologist, participants’ experiences form the data. The aim is to describe these experiences in order to make them visible in the participants’ own terms. In other words, the aim is to try and get as close an understanding of the participants’ lived experiences, as is possible. This involves us in becoming aware of our own beliefs, biases and assumptions and setting them to one side in order that we can see the world through our participants’ eyes. This particular focus stems from the move away from a subject–object dualism towards a noetic (the how of experience)/noematic (the what of experience) correlation. What this means in practice is the collection of qualitative data primarily – though not exclusively – from interviews and written descriptions. The aim is to encourage participants to elucidate their experience, providing as much concrete detail about the experience as possible. It is crucial that participants are encouraged to recount every detail of the experience being described, however seemingly irrelevant, in order to generate the rich data needed for phenomenological analyses.

Epoché (bracketing)

This aspect of the phenomenological method has perhaps been the most controversial and also most misunderstood. Husserl argued that it was necessary to bracket off one's natural attitude (or everyday way of perceiving the world) in order to discern the essence of the ‘things in their appearing’. The process of bracketing (epoché) is of course an imperfect one, and this was recognised by the existential phenomenologists (Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in particular) who argued that Husserl was mistaken when he thought it possible to transcend (step-outside) the noetic–noematic correlation and take a ‘God's eye view’ on experience. They argued instead that all experience is grounded in our embodied being-in-the-world, and that although we may seek to bracket off some aspects of our way of seeing the world (for instance, the scientific natural attitude and belief in causal explanation), it is impossible to assume a ‘view from nowhere’ (Ricoeur, 1996). That is, we cannot really put all our experience and understanding of the world to one side and see the phenomenon as if for the first time. This is a valid aim but something that is always imperfect. This, therefore, suggests a need for a reflexive approach to the research process that we see in much phenomenology, where researchers attempt to put their own expectations and understandings of the topic being investigated to one side (to focus on the participants’ understanding) but recognise this is imperfect and so reflect on what it is that they bring to the analysis (in terms of background, knowledge and personal experience).

It is important to recognise however that the epoché is an ideal, and many – if not all – phenomenologists who work with the epoché recognise that it is always an imperfect process. That does not mean it need be abandoned. Most people have the ability to be critical of their own view of the world and, given this, it is surely a valid and worthwhile aim that researchers seeking to do more than simply re-produce their own way of understanding should attempt to bracket off their own pre-conceptions as much as is possible. Perhaps the problem here is the fact that most qualitative researchers recognise the need for reflexivity and see the epoché as a naïve vision of the disinterested and detached researcher, more akin to the lab coated individual of the natural sciences. This would be unfair and once again would represent an accession to the dominance of the natural sciences and misunderstanding of phenomenological theory and methodology.

The psychological phenomenological reduction

The psychological phenomenological reduction is the methodological procedure (following epoché) designed to facilitate a return to the ‘things in their appearing’. That is, it is the method that enables phenomenologists to grasp the essence of the phenomenon being studied. In brief, this requires that researchers (i) describe rather than seek to explain the phenomenon (so don't rush to causal explanations for the data or use external theoretical frameworks to make sense of the data), (ii) horizontalise experience (don't produce hierarchies of meanings and instead try to treat all features with equal importance, at least at first) and (iii) verify experience with the data as given to perception (i.e., constantly check the researcher's understanding of the data with the data itself so as not to move too far from it, imposing their own way of understanding the experience on to the participants’ way of understanding the experience). This procedure is most rigorously followed in phenomenological methodologies that draw strongly on Husserl (such as the work of Giorgi et al., see below), and although it is much less central to more recent interpretive methodologies, it may still play a role.

Empirical traditions

The earliest systematic application of phenomenological philosophy to psychology was in the United States at Duquesne University in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In a series of publications, Amedeo Giorgi and colleagues formulated a methodology that was systematic and grounded in phenomenological philosophy and, in particular, the work of Husserl (Giorgi, Fischer, & von Eckartsberg, 1971; Giorgi, 1985). Indeed, this method remains the most Husserlian of phenomenological psychological approaches. This results in a method that is unashamedly descriptive, focussing on providing rich and detailed description of experience. Through the application of epoché and the psychological phenomenological reduction, researchers – working predominantly on written accounts and/or interviews – seek to identify the essence of the experience. That is, descriptive phenomenological analyses following Giorgi seek to produce structural descriptions of the phenomenon being studied that highlight what is common to the experience. Other similar phenomenological methods, such as that of van Kaam (1969), Colaizzi (1978) and Moustakas (1994), have also led to considerable work in psychology, the social and health sciences (see Polkinghorne, 1989, for more on the methods of van Kaam, Colaizzi and Giorgi). Some researchers (e.g., Ashworth, 2003a) further interrogate their data using aspects of the lifeworld such as temporality, spatiality, intersubjectivity, embodiment, etc. By examining their findings for features thought to be common to all lived experience researchers aim to gain greater understanding of the issue being investigated. A considerable amount of empirical work has been conducted using these descriptive methods on a very wide range of topics from the experience of being criminally victimised (Wertz, 1985), thinking in chess (Aanstoos, 1983; 1985), feeling anxious (Fischer, 1974) to understanding life-boredom (Bargdill, 2000) and much more besides.

More interpretive approaches to phenomenological psychology have also been growing in popularity over the last ten years or so, especially in the United Kingdom, South Africa, North America and Northern Europe (Langdridge, 2007a). These phenomenological approaches tend to draw more heavily on the hermeneutic turn in phenomenological philosophy that was heralded by the work of Heidegger (1927/1962) and built on the work of the early hermeneuticists Friedrich Schleirmacher (1768–1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), who were primarily concerned with biblical and literary interpretation. However, it is important to note that there are no hard and fast boundaries here between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological psychologies. Indeed, such boundaries would be antithetical to the spirit of the phenomenological psychological tradition that prizes individuality and creativity and – following Gadamer (1975/1996) – remains somewhat sceptical of methodology, at least as used in the pursuit of truth.

Approaches, which are either more interpretive or blend the descriptive and interpretive methods, such as the Dutch Utrecht School (see Barritt, Beekman, Bleeker, & Mulderij, 1984; Cohen, Kahn, & Steeves, 2000) and van Manen's (1990) and Dahlberg, Drew and Nyström's (2001) hermeneutic phenomenology, have proved popular with a vast number of studies and publications adopting these particular approaches. In the United Kingdom, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA; note the spelling of interpretative), in particular, has grown in popularity a great deal since Jonathan Smith formulated it in the 1990s (see Smith & Osborn, 2003, for a good practical guide to the method and Larkin, Watts, & Clifton, 2006, for an excellent discussion of the philosophical underpinnings). Template analysis is another similar method, which is growing in popularity in applied psychology and health sciences research (King, 1998; King, Carroll, Newton, & Dornan, 2002).

The core of these more interpretive approaches is often a thematic analysis, as is common in much qualitative research more generally. The aim is for the researcher to work reflexively with the data looking to identify patterns and themes across the experience. There is a greater tendency to link to the mainstream extant literature and – in good work – often insightful analysis drawing on literary allusions, metaphor and much more. Although these more recent developments may seem rather different to the earlier work, the philosophical foundations remain the same, if only with a slightly different focus. The heart of all phenomenology is description of ‘the things in their appearing’ through a focus on experience ‘as lived’ and that remains true for all of the various methodologies that make up this particular qualitative family.

Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

Description versus interpretation

A common charge levelled against phenomenological methods is that they are ‘too descriptive’ and thus do not offer enough for psychology. It is important to be clear about a number of issues when addressing this criticism. First, we must distinguish between the different understandings of description and interpretation. Phenomenological psychology is and always will be descriptive, in the sense of description versus explanation. That is, there is an informed theoretical resistance to any notion of explanation and causes and instead a focus on description and reasons. The other use of description over which there is more disagreement within phenomenology is with regard to description versus interpretation. Here, there is recognition that although most work tends towards the descriptive end of the description–interpretation dimension, there is inevitably interpretation involved in understanding the lived experience of others. What is generally though not entirely resisted (see below) is the importation and indeed (arguably) imposition of external interpretive frameworks (such as psychoanalysis or Marxism) onto the ‘things in their appearing’.

Given the charge of ‘being too descriptive’ and the general desire to work ‘more analytically’ levelled against phenomenology, then perhaps one also needs to ask the critics what they wish to see as the rightful role of a critical social psychology. My assumption – based on the methods that are in the ascendancy and are most usually advocated by the critics – is that they wish to see social psychology as a modern incarnation of a rather old psychoanalytic tradition. But why would a radically different alternative grounded in psychoanalysis appeal so much more than a descriptive human science? The desire for a return to psychoanalytically informed analyses is, for me at least, rather worrying, but this tradition – with its focus on interpretation – forms the clearest opposition within critical social psychology to the descriptive enterprise of phenomenology. For whereas those adopting psychoanalysis within critical social psychology may draw on recent – often radical – revisions, the tendency to fall back on a theory of the subject that is prescriptive and normalising seems inescapable (see Flowers & Langdridge, 2007; Halperin, 2007, for more on this). The potential problems, setting aside any debate about the veracity of the theory in the first place, are many and relevant with regard to the role of phenomenology within contemporary social psychology.

It is worth noting that the theory and methods that are sometimes advocated in the name of psychoanalysis, notably by radical humanities scholars, are often far removed from the original product. Elizabeth Grosz (1995), herself once an advocate of psychoanalytic theory, argues convincingly for how contemporary – often feminist and/or queer – revisions of psychoanalysis are pushing the envelope so far that what remains may hardly be called psychoanalysis at all. Once the developmental theory that underpins this tradition has been radically revised and indeed in some cases obliterated, what remains that warrants the name of psychoanalysis? Perhaps more worrying though is the tendency to resort to prescriptive and/or normalising theory and methodology, sometimes deliberately, sometimes apparently not: quite possibly an inevitable function of a reductionist developmental theory. Halperin (2007), for instance, provides a superbly insightful analysis of the dangers of such psychoanalytically informed thinking with particular reference to gay men and the tendency that seems inherent in all such work in producing a pathological gay male subject. He argues, following Foucault, that such a psychological project is inherently flawed and indeed dangerous, not just for its arrogant and oppressive history but because such theories themselves necessarily serve to produce a subject that is perverse. In a similar vein, Paul Flowers and myself (Flowers & Langdridge, 2007) have also expressed grave reservations over the use of hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricoeur, 1970) grounded in psychoanalysis where the researcher's care of the subject – we believe – becomes secondary to attempts to engage in crudely reductionist explanatory analyses. These are complex and difficult issues and, of course, some researchers from the critical psychoanalytic tradition produce insightful and thoughtful work that is deeply respectful but the early warning signs are there of the dangers that might result from the conscious – or unconscious – misappropriation of this seductive perspective.

Of course, one need not tend towards psychoanalysis and still feel there is a need for more analytic purchase in phenomenological social psychology. A sense of dissatisfaction about embracing a solely descriptive psychology does not seem entirely unreasonable even if there is a vital role for such an enterprise. The tendency towards more interpretive methodologies within the tradition probably reflects the desire to do more with the data and phenomenologically informed narrative analyses similarly seek to provide greater critical purchase on the topic of study. And although I clearly find these perspectives personally appealing, I would not want us to lose sight of the power of description and the potential of descriptive phenomenology. Psychology has from the very start rushed too quickly to explain and has yet to fully establish the nature of the terrain it seeks to interrogate. A descriptive phase is a crucial foundation for a science and if psychologists wish to be the human scientists, then we forget this at our peril. If more of us embraced the desire to describe the things in their appearing, then we may actually contribute to the production of a mature human science.

The turn to language

The ‘crisis in social psychology’, as it has since been described, in the 1970s represented an important moment in the development of critical social psychology (see Armistead, 1974, for example). It was here that psychologists argued strongly for social psychology to take language more seriously and not simply see it as representative of our thoughts and feelings. This ‘turn to language’ resulted in the rise of discursive approaches to psychology, and these remain part of the rich array of methods available to social psychologists today. Phenomenological social psychology, however, seems – until very recently at least – to have continued its mission with scant regard for the issues raised by contemporary philosophers of language and – even more pertinently – the issues raised by discursive psychology.

The idea that discourses are simply reflective of lived experience has been deeply troubled by those working within the discursive psychological tradition (see, for instance, Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Wetherell, Taylor, & Yates, 2001a,b). Although, I think the case has been somewhat overstated (and I discuss this below), I think this is an issue that warrants attention in phenomenological psychology. Potter and Hepburn (2005a,b) have directly challenged those of us working in other traditions to justify our failure to attend to the ‘discoveries’ of discursive psychology and work with the known conversational dynamics of discourse first and foremost. As I have written elsewhere (see Langdridge, 2007), their argument, though having some merit, rather readily makes a category error concerning the question that underpins the research enterprise – the distinction between a focus on content (i.e., the focus of phenomenology) and function (i.e., the focus of discursive psychology) and furthermore overstates the importance of the micro-analytic aspects of conversation.

Most significantly, following Gadamer (1975/1996), it is important to recognise the ways in which people come to understand each other within the conversational context. That is, most of the time, we show a level of communicative competence that allows us to give voice to our experience such that the other can comprehend what we are trying to say. This is not to deny that we may also be seeking to persuade, justify and/or perform other speech acts but rather to recognise that although these features of communication are significant, they need not always take priority in an analysis. Discourse analysts clearly prioritise these action-oriented aspects of talk, whereas phenomenologists do not and instead prioritise content and meaning. This does not mean that such work is flawed any more than that of the discourse analysts – given the failure of some to take the content of talk seriously – but rather that the object of study is different. This difference needs to be respected and understood as the product of two very different philosophical traditions (Langdridge, 2007a).

There might still be value, however, in phenomenological social psychologists thinking through new possibilities for research, which takes talk itself more seriously. Heidegger (1947/1993) himself was concerned with discourse, and some phenomenological psychologists have included an analysis of discourse within their methodologies. This is an important move for it is one that offers the possibility of bringing in understandings of features of talk-in-interaction to the phenomenological project. I have also previously argued for the possibility of bringing together discursive psychology and phenomenology through Ricoeur's hermeneutic arc (see Langdridge, 2003). Although this dialectic may prove practically impossible to realise, it may offer a way of theoretically building a relationship between these seemingly opposed perspectives. The interest in phenomenologically informed narrative analyses (discussed further below) provides a further avenue for phenomenologists who wish to work with both content and form in the stories told of people's lived experience. It is clear that phenomenologists are taking the issue seriously, but much more needs to be done to both recognise difference and build bridges such that insights gained in another tradition can inform and – if appropriate – cross perspectival boundaries.

The role of the political?

Phenomenological philosophy and, therefore, necessarily phenomenological social psychology has been charged with adopting a somewhat naïve and indeed arguably conservative position with regard to politics. The central concern with describing the things in their appearing may seem to offer little potential for critique and the possibility of radically re-conceptualising the phenomenon being studied (Habermas, 1971). Although some may argue that this is not the concern of phenomenology, others – including myself – find it difficult to buy in wholesale to a philosophy and methodology that does not directly address the need for critique and social change. For me, along with most other critical social psychologists, that is one of the central aims of my work.

It is important not to overstate the case, however, as phenomenological psychologists can and do attend to power and politics as lived. That is, political expression may be understood through an understanding of the lived experience of the individual. Through the application of aspects of the lifeworld (such as intersubjectivity, embodiment, discourse, etc), it is possible to critically examine lived experience such that experiences imbued with power and politics may be identified. Although this goes some way to answering the critics, it is probably not enough for many who might rightfully argue that people may unknowingly re-produce oppressive discourses when reflecting on and recounting their own experiences. In my own therapeutic practice, I see this on a daily basis, with, for instance, gay and bisexual men struggling to find a way to narrate an identity that is free from heterosexist discourses still prevalent in these late modern times (see Langdridge, 2007b). Thus, it seems that phenomenological social psychologists may need to find a way to better attend to these issues, particularly when studying topics particularly inflected by discourses of oppression.

Ricoeur's intervention in the debate between Gadamer (1975/1996) and Habermas (1971; see Langdridge, 2004) is one way of understanding how phenomenological social psychology may be moved forward to realise the role of the political. Following Ricoeur, I argue for an analysis grounded both in tradition (cf. Gadamer) and critique (cf. Habermas). By bringing these together dialectically, it becomes possible to radicalise the phenomenological project such that it at last takes politics and social change seriously. My own critical narrative analysis seeks to do just this through the incorporation of hermeneutics of empathy (understanding tradition) and suspicion (engaging in critique) within the analytic process. Bringing together hermeneutics of empathy and suspicion is not uncontroversial in phenomenological psychology (see Ashworth, 2003b). However, given consideration for the priority of empathy and the use of appropriate hermeneutics of suspicion that open up possibilities for new narrative identities rather than hermeneutics of suspicion that involve an archaeological trawl for prior causes, I believe both may play an invaluable role in a more critical phenomenological social psychology. As Ricoeur (1996) points out, we can never escape ideology and so the politically inflected nature of all experience must be critically interrogated across axes of power. This is but one part of the process, for such critique must operate dialectically with respect for empathic understanding and tradition such that analytic understanding remains attuned to the lived experience of the subject/s of such investigations. Through this teleological – rather than archaeological – process, we may find ways of understanding that disrupt the status quo and open up new possibilities for living.

A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

Hermeneutically informed approaches have most recently resulted in a particular interest in narrative and the ways in which people may experience and recount their lived experience of the world through the stories they tell of their experience. Phenomenologically informed approaches to narrative have been growing in popularity in recent years – in large part due to the way in which they address the concerns about interpretation, language and, to a lesser extent, the political addressed above – and in my view represent a vital future for phenomenological social psychology (see Carr, 1986, and Polkinghorne, 1988, for important early statements on the phenomenological basis for the turn to narrative).

In the following section, I introduce some of the key ideas from Gadamer and Ricoeur – two of the most important and influential hermeneutic phenomenological philosophers – and discuss the implications of this work for phenomenological psychology, including my own development of a critical narrative analysis. This is an approach grounded in the phenomenological tradition building directly on the work of Paul Ricoeur, which recognises the need for psychological methods that regard the construction of meaning through language as a central concern for phenomenological social psychology. Both Gadamer and Ricoeur emphasise much more strongly the way in which experience is mediated through language (or more specifically discourse, but more on this below). Gadamer (1975/1996) argued that understanding is at the heart of existence and that it is through conversation that understanding may occur. In conversation, the world is revealed through mutual understanding or a fusion of horizons: horizons being the limits to our understanding. In contrast to some discursive perspectives, Gadamer (ibid) emphasised the way in which we tend to be able to grasp meaning readily and consistently through conversation. Crucially for phenomenological social psychologists though is the fact that both Gadamer and Ricoeur think that we can only come to gain knowledge through language. This is not to say that there is nothing outside language but rather that language (or more precisely discourse) is the means by which we can gain an understanding of ‘the things in their appearing’.

Ricoeur's work has been mostly concerned with constructing an elaborate theory of text and reading but this is not all, for through some radical moves, he has also suggested that we might use the methods he developed for understanding text to understand human action (see Ricoeur, 1981). Like Gadamer, Ricoeur recognises existence as embodied and pre-existing language but emphasises the need for hermeneutics such that we can reveal existence through language. Ricoeur (ibid) distinguishes between discourse and language with discourse defined as spoken speech (i.e., a creative construction), whereas language is the system of signs that make up discourse. Discourse may also be spoken or written though when fixed in writing it is termed text. The distinction is important for Ricoeur argued that with any form of inscription the text is no longer tied to a human agent with whom we can engage conversationally and through this process come to some shared understanding about the world. Text, more so than conversation, therefore, requires a method of interpretation (hermeneutics) in order to facilitate a fusion of horizons of reader and text or – if you will – simply facilitate understanding. It is important to understand that this is not an attempt to discern the intentions of the author – although this may be approximated – but rather an attempt to understanding the meaning of the text in its appearing.

The process by which we may come to understand a text is appropriation, and it is here that we witness the application of two distinct types of hermeneutics, empathetic and suspicious, in an attempt to overcome the distance that occurs (between author and reader) when discourse is inscribed. A hermeneutic of empathy is the familiar territory of much phenomenology and involves the application of our pre-understanding – our way of seeing the world – to the text, a reflexive attempt to ascertain meaning. Hermeneutics of suspicion by contrast involve the application of methods of interpretation that are outside the text. Freudian, Marxist and Nietzschean theories were the key hermeneutics of suspicion identified by Ricoeur.

My formulation of a critical narrative analysis (CNA; see Langdridge, 2007a, for more on this) builds directly on this hermeneutic phenomenological tradition in an attempt to provide a methodology that is phenomenological and truly critical. This methodology shares much in common with other phenomenologically grounded narrative methods (see, for instance, Bruner, 1986, 1990; McAdams, 1985, 1993; Polkinghorne, 1988; Sarbin, 1986) with a focus on story telling and recognition of content, function and form and with recent attempts in nursing to build on the work of Ricoeur (Geanellos, 2000; Wiklund, Lindholm, & Lindström, 2002). What distinguishes the method from other phenomenologically informed methods of narrative analysis is the incorporation of a moment of suspicion and the application of hermeneutics (by the researcher on him or herself and the narratives being produced). In CNA, the hermeneutics come not from psychoanalysis or Marxism but from social theory, and the aim is very definitely not about uncovering some buried truth hidden in the narratives but rather about opening up new possibilities. The project is, therefore, teleological rather than archaeological and thus one in which analyses may offer up new understandings that may complement or contradict – but definitely not supplant – those discerned through empathic understanding. This approach is admittedly complex but offers a methodology that is grounded in the phenomenological tradition whilst also engaged with contemporary developments in critical social theory, such that it is truly a form of critical social psychology.

I do not intend this to be a simple story of progress, however, in the grand enlightenment tradition, with CNA supplanting other phenomenological approaches, but rather one of opening up possibilities and this a teleological exposition. CNA is not superior to other forms of phenomenology, just different. It offers potential for work where there is a desire to engage more critically with the data, but it is not necessarily the best or most appropriate method in other situations, and so whereas an approach like this does seem to address many of the theoretical and methodological concerns raised about phenomenology, perhaps it also suggests that although we need to take these seriously, we might just lose the empirical focus on understanding lived experience if we spend too long engaged in battles that no one can ultimately win. The rich array of phenomenological methodologies is something we should savour and, although each has its limitations, this should not blind us to the valuable roles of different methodologies in the empirical phenomenological project.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

This paper has sought to provide both an introduction to the fundamentals of phenomenological social psychology as well as critical discussion of key debates such as the distinction between description and interpretation, the turn to language and role of politics in social psychological research. Phenomenological approaches offer a great deal for social psychological researchers who want a methodology that is philosophically informed and systematic whilst also focussed on understanding the world/s of the participant/s. This family of perspectives is a respectful one, with a long and enviable history. However, although the future looks promising, it is vital that phenomenological social psychologists continue to look forward, engage readily with other critical perspectives and seek to further develop their methods such that they meet the continuingly evolving needs of people, communities and societies – within and outside the academy – in these fast changing late modern times.

Short Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References

Darren Langdridge is a lecturer in social psychology at the Open University and a UK Council for Psychotherapy accredited existential psychotherapist. He has been co-editor of the journal Lesbian & Gay Psychology Review and a committee member of both the Lesbian & Gay Psychology and History and Philosophy Sections of the British Psychological Society. Darren is the author of Introduction to Research Methods and Data Analysis in Psychology (Pearson Education, 2004) and Phenomenological Psychology: Theory, Research and Methods (Pearson Education, 2007), co-editor of Critical Readings in Social Psychology (Open University Press) and Safe, Sane and Consensual: Critical Perspectives on Sadomasochism (Palgrave Macmillan), as well as numerous papers on phenomenology, the psychology of sexualities, families and psychotherapy. He holds a BSc and PhD in psychology from the University of Sheffield (UK) as well as an MA in existential psychotherapy from the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London, UK.

Endnote
  • * 

    Correspondence address: The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK7 6AA, UK. Email: d.langdridge@open.ac.uk

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  3. Theoretical Foundations and Empirical Traditions
  4. Interpretation and Critique in Social Psychology
  5. A New Direction: Narrative Phenomenology
  6. Conclusions
  7. Short Biography
  8. References
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