Chapter 6: Phenomenology

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the key terms, concepts and approaches used in phenomenology.
  • Explain the data collection methods and analysis for phenomenology.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of phenomenological research.

What is phenomenology?

The key concept in phenomenological studies is the individual.

Phenomenology is a method and a philosophical approach, influenced by different paradigms and disciplines.1

Phenomenology is the everyday world from the viewpoint of the person. In this viewpoint, the emphasis is on how the individual constructs their lifeworld and seeks to understand the ‘taken for granted-ness’ of life and experiences.2,3 Phenomenology is a practice that seeks to understand, describe and interpret human behaviour and the meaning individuals make of their experiences; it focuses on what was experienced and how it was experienced.4 Phenomenology deals with perceptions or meanings, attitudes and beliefs, as well as feelings and emotions. The emphasis is on the lived experience and the sense an individual makes of those experiences. Since the primary source of data is the experience of the individual being studied, in-depth interviews are the most common means of data collection (see Chapter 13). Depending on the aim and research questions of the study, the method of analysis is either thematic or interpretive phenomenological analysis (Section 4).

Types of phenomenology

Descriptive phenomenology (also known as ‘transcendental phenomenology’) was founded by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). It focuses on phenomena as perceived by the individual.4 When reflecting on the recent phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that there is a collective experience of the pandemic and an individual experience, in which each person’s experience is influenced by their life circumstances, such as their living situation, employment, education, prior experiences with infectious diseases and health status. In addition, an individual’s life circumstances, personality, coping skills, culture, family of origin, where they live in the world and the politics of their society also influence their experience of the pandemic. Hence, the objectiveness of the pandemic is intertwined with the subjectiveness of the individual living in the pandemic.

Husserl states that descriptive phenomenological inquiry should be free of assumption and theory, to enable phenomenological reduction (or phenomenological intuiting).1 Phenomenological reduction means putting aside all judgements or beliefs about the external world and taking nothing for granted in everyday reality.5 This concept gave rise to a practice called ‘bracketing’ — a method of acknowledging the researcher’s preconceptions, assumptions, experiences and ‘knowing’ of a phenomenon. Bracketing is an attempt by the researcher to encounter the phenomenon in as ‘free and as unprejudiced way as possible so that it can be precisely described and understood’.1(p132) While there is not much guidance on how to bracket, the advice provided to researchers is to record in detail the process undertaken, to provide transparency for others. Bracketing starts with reflection: a helpful practice is for the researcher to ask the following questions and write their answers as they occur, without overthinking their responses (see Box 1). This is a practice that ideally should be done multiple times during the research process: at the conception of the research idea and during design, data collection, analysis and reporting.

Box 6.1 Examples of bracketing prompts

How does my education, family background (culture), religion, politics and job relate to this topic or phenomenon?

What is my previous experience of this topic or phenomenon? Do I have negative and/or positive reactions to this topic or phenomenon? What has led to this reaction?

What have I read or understood about this topic or phenomenon?

What are my beliefs and attitudes about this topic or phenomenon? What assumptions am I making?

Interpretive or hermeneutic phenomenology was founded by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), a junior colleague of Husserl. It focuses on the nature of being and the relationship between an individual and their lifeworld. While Heidegger’s initial work and thinking aligned with Husserl’s, he later challenged several elements of descriptive phenomenology, leading to a philosophical separation in ideas. Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology takes an epistemological (knowledge) focus while Heidegger’s interest was in ontology4 (the nature of reality), with the key phrase ‘being-in-the-world’ referencing how humans exist, act or participate in the world.1 In descriptive phenomenology, the practice of bracketing is endorsed and experience is stripped from context to examine and understand it.

Interpretive or hermeneutic phenomenology embraces the intertwining of an individual’s subjective experience with their social, cultural and political contexts, regardless of whether they are conscious of this influence.4 Interpretive or hermeneutic phenomenology moves beyond description to the interpretation of the phenomenon and the study of meanings through the lifeworld of the individual. While the researcher’s knowledge, experience, assumptions and beliefs are valued, they do need to be acknowledged as part of the process of analysis.4

For example, Singh and colleagues wanted to understand the experiences of managers involved in the implementation of quality improvement projects in an assisted living facility, and thus they conducted a hermeneutic phenomenology study.6 The objective was to ‘understand how managers define the quality of patient care and administrative processes’, alongside an exploration of the participant’s perspectives of leadership and challenges to the implementation of quality improvement strategies.(p3) Semi-structured interviews (60–75 minutes in duration) were conducted with six managers and data was analysed using inductive thematic techniques.

New phenomenology, or American phenomenology, has initiated a transition in the focus of phenomenology from the nature and understanding of the phenomenon to the lived experience of individuals experiencing the phenomenon. This transition may seem subtle but fundamentally is related to a shift away from the philosophical approaches of Husserl and Heidegger to an applied approach to research.1 New phenomenology does not undergo the phenomenological reductionist approach outlined by Husserl to examine and understand the essence of the phenomenon. Dowling1 emphasises that this phenomenological reduction, which leads to an attempt to disengage the researcher from the participant, is not desired or practical in applied research such as in nursing studies. Hence, new phenomenology is aligned with interpretive phenomenology, embracing the intersubjectivity (shared subjective experiences between two or more people) of the research approach.1

Another feature of new phenomenology is the positioning of culture in the analysis of an individual’s experience. This is not the case for the traditional phenomenological approaches1;  hence, philosophical approaches by European philosophers Husserl and Heidegger can be used if the objective is to explore or understand the phenomenon itself or the object of the participant’s experience. The methods of new phenomenology, or American phenomenology, should be applied if the researcher seeks to understand a person’s experience(s) of the phenomenon.1

See Table 6.1. for two different examples of phenomenological research.

Advantages and disadvantages of phenomenological research

Phenomenology has many advantages, including that it can present authentic accounts of complex phenomena; it is a humanistic style of research that demonstrates respect for the whole individual; and the descriptions of experiences can tell an interesting story about the phenomenon and the individuals experiencing it.7 Criticisms of phenomenology tend to focus on the individuality of the results, which makes them non-generalisable, considered too subjective and therefore invalid. However, the reason a researcher may choose a phenomenological approach is to understand the individual, subjective experiences of an individual; thus, as with many qualitative research designs, the findings will not be generalisable to a larger population.7,8

Table 6.1. Examples of phenomenological studies


Investigating the lived experiences of abused mothers: a phenomenological study 9

A phenomenological study of nurses experience about their palliative care approach and their use of mobile palliative care teams in medical and surgical units in France10

author and year

Abbaspour, 2021

Engberink, 2020

CC Licence CC BY 4.0 CC BY 4.0


'To investigate the lived experiences of mothers abused by their adolescent children' [abstract] and to determine the ultimate structure of maternal abuse as the phenomenon under study.

To explore the way the abused mothers describe the experience of being abused by their children.' (p109)

'To understand the Palliative Approach (PA) of the nurses in the medical and surgical care units of 3 hospitals in the south of France and the circumstances and impact of the use of Mobile Palliative Care Teams' [abstract] (MPCTs), using a phenomenological approach focused on the lived experience.

Research questions or objectives

Not stated

Why do nurses encounter reluctance to the implementation of palliative care despite its effectiveness?

Are these difficulties psychological, organizational, and/or managerial? How can MPCTs help them?

Why a phenomenology study was implemented

Focuses on the lived experience of the participants, acknowledging the dynamic nature of their experiences. Does not require the researchers to analyse and extract the point of view of the participants and focuses on the perspectives of the participants. (p109)

Focus on the lived experience

Study setting

Khuzestan province, Iran

South of France – medical and surgical care units in 3 hospitals

Data collection, sampling and participants

Purposive sampling was employed, with counsellors reporting to researchers if they knew of mothers meeting inclusion criteria for the study (being abused by an adolescent child (12–18 years of age) and willing and cognitively able to participate in the study and share experiences with researchers). In-depth interviews with 12 mothers. Interviews lasted 50–90 minutes


Purposive sampling with data saturation was applied.

Interviews followed by focus groups

11 individual interviews lasting between 35-90 minutes.

Focus group with 7 registered nurses lasting 1 hour and 45 minutes


Descriptive phenomenological analysis

Semio-pragmatic phenomenology – a descriptive method for categorising lived experience; constant comparison approach

Key themes

11 elements of abuse were identified based on the participants’ experiences


The RN role as a witness to patient experiences served as a watchful eye for physicians, which in turn, helped in anticipating and clarifying the steps leading to a patient-centred palliative approach.

The physician’s position regarding the role of the RN influenced the implementation of a palliative approach and the behaviour of professional caregivers.

The palliative approach as a reflective process, which is ethical and anticipated, calls for ‘rethinking care within a team setting, in which time is set aside for this patient-centred approach.

The MPCT is seen as the intermediary that facilitates the physician–nurse ‘balance’ and helps nurses reclaim their professional and ethical values within the environment of shared care.


Phenomenology focuses on understanding a phenomenon from the perspective of individual experience (descriptive and interpretive phenomenology) or from the lived experience of the phenomenon by individuals (new phenomenology). This individualised focus lends itself to in-depth interviews and small scale research projects.


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  2. Creswell J, Hanson W, Clark Plano V, Morales A. Qualitative research designs: selection and implementation. Couns Psychol. 2007;35(2):236-264. doi:10.1177/0011000006287390
  3. Morse JM, Field PA. Qualitative Research Methods for Health Professionals. 2nd ed. SAGE; 1995.
  4. Neubauer BE, Witkop CT, Varpio L. How phenomenology can help us learn from the experiences of others. Perspect Med Educ. 2019;8(2):90-97. doi:10.1007/s40037-019-0509-2
  5. Merleau-Ponty M, Landes D, Carman T, Lefort C. Phenomenology of Perception. 1st ed. Routledge; 2011.
  6. Singh J, Wiese A, Sillerud B. Using phenomenological hermeneutics to understand the experiences of managers working with quality improvement strategies in an assisted living facility. Healthcare (Basel). 2019;7(3):87. doi:10.3390/healthcare7030087
  7. Liamputtong P, Ezzy D. Qualitative Research Methods: A Health Focus. Oxford University Press; 1999.
  8. Liamputtong P. Qualitative Research Methods. 5th ed. Oxford University Press; 2020.
  9. Abbaspour Z, Vasel G, Khojastehmehr R. Investigating the lived experiences of abused mothers: a phenomenological study. Journal of Qualitative Research in Health Sciences. 2021;10(2)2:108-114. doi:10.22062/JQR.2021.193653.0
  10. Engberink AO, Mailly M, Marco V, et al. A phenomenological study of nurses experience about their palliative approach and their use of mobile palliative care teams in medical and surgical care units in France. BMC Palliat Care. 2020;19:34. doi:10.1186/s12904-020-0536-0