Action Research: Existential Phenomenology and Natural Science

This is the next installment of my action research project which examines how people’s lives are represented in bureaucratic paperwork and how the experiences people have can be understood…


You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Language, Text and the Construction of Meaning’ by clicking HERE.


This section examines the psychological and philosophical origins of what has been codified into the Outcomes Star bureaucracies which are used to present evidence of working by NGO’s to funding bodies.



As time goes on and I fill in more paperwork which I find confusing because it makes no sense outside of the bureaucracy itself. I have been asking people who have been charged with getting metrics whether they ever refer to the paperwork which they have played a part in administering.  Overwhelmingly I have not found anyone referring back to the metrics paperwork which they have produced.


I have asked various individuals whether, if they could put their hands on it, would they find it useful if they had access to it.  Overwhelmingly people have said no as the bureaucracies have cut all detailed information away which is important for operational matters.  It often ends up as countless warehoused middens of fractured information in the industrial complex which builds up around administration.


One of the persistent issues I argue is that abstract representations simplify complicated realities and that in this simplification process all the value of time and energy invested (legacy) in any given activity is lost in a correlated way.  As time goes on people are socialized to certain cultures of organizing things in ways which are ‘received as wisdom’ yet are not questioned in-and-of themselves as being as helpful as they purport.  How would metrics culture bear up to its own scrutiny processes ???


The idea of coordinating and organising large numbers of people appeals to some as simple.  In this appeal to the simplistic, the notion of managing distributed networks of activity becomes adorned with well worn comfort-images of technology and science, industry and efficiency trotted out by most nearly any IT or management wonk pitching systems to implement.


Whether it is a paperwork or a computer interface, significantly often people who have expertise in administration or computer coding are tasked with interpreting the task at hand and engineering an information aimed at serving a purpose.  As a new system is devised, the operational systems continue to get used by frontline staff who are working in a fractured temporary job market.  What community of practice which continues as resilient is often a hive of shifting information on how to get everyday tasks done with a series of work-arounds.


Due to use of proprietary technologies, limited budgets, overshot deadlines, cultural inertia, emergent design flaws, lack of professional training, and small politics accentuated by competitive tendering frontline staff, and service users ultimately end up having to work around all the structural failures codified into layers of paperwork and information systems.  Often several systems remain partially used and partially obsolete; decommissioning a system which people are still using and reliant on is as tricky as designing a singular system which accommodates all functions served by previous systems.


Around the watercooler the people employed to support people who struggle to deal with large, disparate and changing information systems tear their hair out because they have been given a series of conflicting information systems and opaque hierarchies which hobble their efforts.  Line managers who entered the care professions because they had a desire for ethical work which made some positive difference in the world worry about their ethics being mitigated by chaotic sector management.


Meantime, particularly in multiple needs work, I am told that up to a third of staff are off with stress related illness at any given time.  As time progresses managerial practice, distant and fragrant dreams of Frederick Taylor, filters out from titan outsourcing enterprises such as G4S and Capita ramping up pressure to be ‘more cost effective’ – euphemistically to cut costs whilst doing more than before and more than their neighbour.  Underbidding hangs uneasily on the silent end of conversations around tendering.


Operational managers silently hang their heads on the impending charitable events where they have to butter up their appearance with a knowing smile and get through the meet-and-greets which get the name of the service out and about.  They heave a sigh at yet more conference food or casual accounting of what they have been doing all year to people who remain distant from the work itself.


Their job on those evenings and meetings is to make sure that the best foot is put forward so that the fundraisers can assimilate what extrapolated overall statistics to press little lobbying concerns within the professionalised channels of funding allocation.  Boards of trustees change like shifting sandbars on LinkedIn as the tension of getting through the next meeting without interrupting the operation on the ground becomes increasingly more surreal; they are sinecure but legal accouterments – actively inactive.


At higher levels senior managers are pressed by funding advisors to enter into dialogues and compacts with a range of corporate and business concerns; they are dressed with friendly affable-ness and Janus faced they must talk and work with the people who have money in the coffers.  The notion of turning down money from the National Lottery or ASDA is anathema particularly as they remain aware that not only are service users relying on their decisions but staff with lives and families too.


A blind eye is cultured and discussions on ‘exit strategies’ with corporates become cooled enough to be a matter of course.  Corporates and businesses are interested in saving money on tax breaks and rather than it being cultural tything.  Under all this goes on the creation and collection of a vast amount of paperwork which is meant to account for what is going on in a sector…


Max Weber has greatly shaped understandings of bureaucracy. Here you can hear a good summary of some of the key aspects of functioning bureaucracies.  This is helpful in that it gives us some framework with which to look at the systems which are administrating our actions and analyse whether the bureaucracy is operating in a clarified way:


YouTube player


People and the work which they do can become corrupted or empowered by the systems they use. It is entirely possible to identify the difference between a useful way of organising and coordinating and what Professor Gerald Caiden describes as pathologies of bureaucracy.  Caiden is Emeritus Professor who focuses on public administration, administrative theory, administrative reform and clearly writes on the subject of ‘Public Maladministration and Bureaucratic Corruption’; he has also been a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts in Public Administration and Development since 1994.  Here is an excerpt from his paper:


“I have found in my empirical research into administrative corruption that often public administrators are victims of political corruption and valiantly try to preserve their personal integrity. I have also found that though bureaucratic corruption manifests itself in public maladministration, by no means can the whole gamut of public maladministration ‘from simple clerical errors to oppression’ including “injustice, failure to carry out legislative intent, unreasonable delay, administrative error, abuse of discretion, lack of courtesy, clerical error, oppression, oversight, negligence, inadequate investigation, unfair policy, partiality, failure to communicate, rudeness, maladministration, unfairness, unreasonableness, arbitrariness, arrogance, inefficiency, violation of law or regulation, abuse of authority, discrimination, errors, mistakes, carelessness, disagreement with discretionary decisions, improper motivation, irrelevant considerations, inadequate or obscure explanation, and all other acts that are frequently inflicted upon the governed by those who govern intentionally or unintentionally” be attributed to bureaucratic corruption. They are more the fault of thoughtlessness, accident, inefficiency, expediency, incompetence, stupidity, indifference, ignorance, self-deception, and self preservation.”


I suggest that all these things which he mentions are embodied in a system of administration, and those with the least agency in the systems representations pick up the greatest number of these costs.  There seems to be no recognition of these human propensities in policy writing.


William Acar from Kent State University and Kenneth Aupperle wrote a paper called ‘Bureaucracy as organizational pathology’. where they argue that “bureaucracy has become a systemic phenomenon with a potential for exporting pathological behavior beyond strict organizational boundaries”.  In case of the nuances and anomalies of the lives of people, imperative is the representation of those people within the system.


When the interests of a system start to shape the lives of the people subsumed within it then it is critical to identify which tails are wagging which dogs and which dogs are wagging which tails.


In the context of this study, which takes as a key example the Outcomes Star as a proprietary metrics bureaucracy, the complex social, psychological and physical needs are being engaged with through use of the instrument.  Using the literature which was used to formulate the bureaucratic system of the Outcomes Star I am analysing the actual practice of the paperwork; in this research a core reference questions the use of natural science if you ‘really want to understand human beings’…


Ho hum…..



Existential Phenomenology and Natural Science

The Outcomes Star Literature cites Existential Phenomenology as the other main influence in the make up of the bureaucracies. It was developed as a way of humanizing the practice of psychology in the face of the natural sciences and valuing the first hand accounts as a source of insight. In Existential Phenomenology, De Castro indicates that the process should be iterative involving sharing, listening, refining and sharing again to hone understandings.


When we talk about science, we generally associate it with objective truths and rigid laboratory methods. This is also the case in social sciences such as psychology which have borrowed the natural sciences method so as to apply it to the field of human experience [63].


As a consequence, instead of comprehending the meaning of human experience, the discipline of psychology, for example, has adjusted human experiences to the quantitative and abstract methods foregoing the human juncture with ‘the thing itself’ – it tacitly ascribes experience as untrustworthy.


The researcher has been divorced from the subject under study in the name of objectivity. The outcome of this is that the researcher is barred from approaching and understanding the meaning of the experience and consequently from being able to relate an encounter with a phenomenon to a transcendent scheme of things [63].


The psychologist therefore cannot approach and understand the meaning of the experience for the person who is living that experience. Von Eckartsberg reminds us Giorgi and Strasser have suggested that if psychology really wants to understand human beings, it should put aside the natural science model:


“…the effort to reject the notion that humans are merely biological objects whose every thought, feeling, and action can be said to be determined by a complex network of causes. This conception of human nature, borrowed from the natural sciences and ultimately from those philosophers who first extended the notion of causality to human beings, is the implicit assumption of much traditional psychology. These natural science psychologies have been unable to account for human freedom and the meaningfulness of human experience.


Instead, they resort to quantitative, mechanistic, and computer models of human nature that, at best, record various regularities of behaviour and make predictions and, at worst, do violence to our forms of self-understanding. Existential-phenomenological psychology attempts to account for the fullness of human life by reconceiving psychology on properly human grounds [55]”.


The researcher has been divorced from the subject under study in the name of objectivity. The outcome of this is that the researcher is barred from approaching and understanding the meaning of the experience and consequently from being able to relate an encounter with a phenomenon to a transcendent scheme of things. The psychologist therefore cannot approach and understand the meaning of the experience for the person who is living that experience. Von Eckartsberg reminds us Giorgi and Strasser have suggested that if psychology really wants to understand human beings, it should put aside the natural science model:


This is an important point in appraising the value and role of experience in the formulation of thought and whatever practice which follows from this. The idea of choosing between camps seems to ignore the option of a multivalent perspective that accepts subjective experience as a type of knowledge which is related to, and can be understood to be a part of the information which comes from objective natural science models.


What one approach can capture escapes the other [63]. Unless we conclude that these worlds of knowledge are parallel universes we must accept that these are routes to sense making and the development of language sets which we can use to understand the world which we operate within and are an inherent part of. Indeed, in the reality of lived application it only makes a difference in linguistic and communicative terms [63].


Bibliography and References

[55] Von Eckartsberg, R, 1998, Existential Phenomenological Research; Page 4, Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions, edited by Ron Valle, ISBN: 0306455439

[63] Introduction to Giorgi’s Existential Phenomenological Research Method; Alberto De Castro; Psicologia desde el Caribe Universidad del Norte; volume 11; Pages 45 – 56

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