Action Research: An Existential Phenomenology Method

This is the next part of my action research project which is an exploration of the use of metrics and administrative structures to plan complex areas of life…


You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Existential Phenomenology and Natural Science’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the research looks at processes for working together which are derived from existential phenomenology which are cited in the development of the Outcomes Star bureaucracy.


Does the reflexivity of the process of existential phenomenology carry over to the bureaucractic practice of the outcomes star or is it lost in translation ? Would it be better to have a research process rather than a metric considering the greater retention of detailed and contextualising information ?


These kinds of bureaucracy accrue in the lives of people – professional and lay – and there seems to be lacking any critical discussion of them outside of the informal spaces.


It is a culture which everyone, in every sector has accepted with the idea that it makes for more efficient, more effective ways of working.  This modern myth is up there with the notion that computers help us learn better or money is the sign of intelligence and ability or giving up fat is the way to lose weight… All I feel are anaemic formulations which create issues.



One of the most important exercises I was taught was, before I criticise, think about whether I am capable of doing better myself.  The casual critic is a boring mind (I feel).  This general rule was suggested to me in a conversation about when you get food in restaurants etc.  It impacted on me as thoughtful and it has caused me to extend my self to do things which previously had not – like try to cook.


Pretty soon it led to an appreciation that on the other side of all junctures exists a human being with a full and rich intellectual life who experiences emotion in complex ways (like everyone else).  In Principal-agent theory, when I go to eat, I act as the ‘principal’ in that I engage a person as an ‘agent’ to take actions and make decisions on behalf of me; I am asking for food and the hospitality staff are acting to deliver me sustenance.


Taking time to think about the problems in carrying out an agreement or contract is an important thing to do in a time where everyone might be feeling a little depersonalised because of the pace of technologised, urban forces.  Even in making a cup of tea there are such a huge range of variations that a single correct way to do this apparently simple thing is a myth… Tastes vary as do expectations.


Some of the immutably impossible remits which many people are tasked with doing should bring to mind special conditions of understanding if we are to be critical or complimentary.  For example, if we think about the role of the medic where people are employed to work, it demands that we become learners of what we dont know already – it necessitates we grow our awareness prior to our opinions.


The job of the doctor, nurse and medic are not mechanical ones and require a huge amount of learning to be done over many years to bring out the analytical faculties of the individual who will be asked again and again to improve someone’s health. It is not something which can be programmed into a robot (although there is a burgeoning tech industry which is spinning such dreams).


Medicine stems from an alchemic mixture of both art and science.  Day in, day out, people will walk into a doctors office presenting a limited set of information in a constrained space of time with the hope and request that whatever ails them will be treated quickly and successfully.


A doctor pointed out to me that it is not that a doctor has twelve minutes to deal with a patient, but many consultations which form a continuum; a relationship which is established over time and insights built over long periods.  The scrutiny that ‘GP appointments are currently about 12 minutes long on average’ is, like the mathematics in this, a simplistic representation of a complex four dimensional interaction.  The statistics which get wheeled out in the national press are unfair representations without the nuanced conversations which are important to deconstruct what is being said and construct what is missing.


People might go to a psychologist and/or psychiatrist and demand that another human being set right a series of insoluble problems which are collectively beyond our ken culturally.  When expectations are not met, frustration can corrode the understandings that are important for progress.  How might a psychiatrist know that an individual is involved with an abusive partner or that they are self medicating if the individual does not make them privy to this information ?  How might they disambiguate a lie from a genuine report ?


How can a support worker put right a series of insoluble problems, say around a broken and self referencial banking system, for someone who has need of a bank account but has no address to send paperwork to ?  Here is a person who is working with people who are in need in a job role usually defined in strict terms what they can and cannot do.  Many people are hired into jobs, told how to do those jobs and tacitly instructed not to question the way in which things are done.


There is little consideration for the professional outside of the profession itself, and under the worst circumstances there are organisational structures that then pit professional against professional.  The stress can be overwhelming as principals (people who are engaging people for help) start to project frustration, anger, helplessness, rage, confusion, and malaise onto the agents (people who are tasked with responding the need) who are not meeting their expectations and assumptions.  The transference is damaging and the acknowledgement of the damage is often lacking, as is approriate remuneration.


Individuals will often inherit the tools they are expected to use to deal with any given situation, and often the tools are not sufficient because they were created in a different time or context.  I have heard it said that civil servants are asked to fight tomorrows war with yesterdays weapons. In various sectors individuals are forced to work with arbitrary colleagues as long term contracts have been phased because short term contracts allow for more flexible budget management; this practice distrupts understandings and capacities which emerge in communities of practice.


How do you coordinate 30,000 people working together in an institution ?  The armchair enthusiast might be lulled into a false sense of simplicity in the initial plans they lay out for the day to day.  What happens when the unordinary happens in the day to day ?  I was told several years ago that ‘there is still no agreed upon strategy for fighting a fire over the sixth floor’…  What happens when the only way to deal with a situation is make a judgement call and what happens when the judgement call turns out to be wrong ?  What provision is there to turn mistake into legacy learning rather than the knee jerk blame culture response ?


The world becomes more complex with time as human culture develops.  Every year more and more medicines come onto the market; every year we are exposed to more novel chemicals in our diet and environment; how is it possible to manage understanding all the possible interactions ? Complexities layer and bind different sectors as one need spills into another sector in unintended ways.


As many big businesses hold countries to ransom with not paying taxes, the mantra of keeping them sweet because of the role they play in the economy obfuscates the fact that the very same businesses utilise the public infrastructure supported by tax revenues.  These are opportunistic and mercenary structures which run like memes.


The tax revenues dwindle and the public health service, the social support systems, policing, the law courts, education all are impacted/shaped by this kind of production of co-dependency of unaccountable businesses that externalise responsibility whilst internalising advantage.  Budgets wither and the public pay in increasingly diverse ways to have necessities met – time, money, peace of mind, health, happiness – the public as staff have no choice or status in the face of some structures.


So what thought goes to the civil servant who is given broken tools and limited remit to perform a task bound up in legislated human rights ?  What thought goes to the doctor who must be a detective, an eternal researcher, a relatable human and a brilliant analyst every time for every person sat in front of them ?  What consideration goes to the support worker who is emotionally distraught about the tragedies they witness day in day out because their means for doing the job are forged in empathy ?


How do we relate to the accountant and administrator who is told to make things work with 50% of last years budget or else 100% of activity stops ?  Who stops to think about the educator who is approached the day before a deadline by a student who has not been to tutorials threatened by ‘student satisfaction’ surveys ?


Informal transparency has a role to play here.  Ann Cahill talks about the philosophy of how people become derivatised and argues that this is a perspective which is an advance on objectification which can account for the co-opting of agency.  The problems we are dealing with are human problems and professionals often suffer from being depersonalised as merely an agent of a transaction.


Talking across junctures and perceived boundaries is helpful in identifying systems effects which are shaping the interactions.  I think this is part of the toolkit for solving systems problems which we are seeing – a means for analysing the system which involves humanising and mentalising which might keep us all more sane in the face of troubling problems.


YouTube player


An Existential Phenomenology Method

Von Eckartsberg describes four general required steps to Existential Phenomenological research attributing Van Kaam at Duquesne University as the founder and originator of the empirical existential phenomenological approach:


(1) Problem and Question Formulation: The Phenomenon; Devise a research situation by means of formulating a specific question to be answered in writing by a large number of subjects; a question which will elicit responses which can be studied for their meaning-organization.


(2) Data-Generating Situation: Collecting Descriptions; Collecting verbal descriptions of experiences in response to a fairly delineated and directed question. To obtain these descriptive narratives the ‘natural story telling ability’ of everyone to express one’s own experience in words in the form of a story has to be relied upon.


(3) Data Study Procedure: Explication; the next task is to work with these data to analyze them; to ‘study’ and ‘process’ them so as to lead to results, findings, and conclusions via listing, preliminary grouping, reduction, elimination, hypothetical identification, application and final identification.


(4) Presentation of Results: Formulation; each explication is to be tested to see if it contains a ‘moment of experience’ that is both a necessary and sufficient constituent of the experience of ‘really feeling understood’; and if it is the case, is it possible to abstract this ‘moment of experience’ and label it without violating the expression presented by the subject.


Giorgi is cited as one of the proponents of Existential Phenomenology used in the development of the Outcomes Star. The steps Giorgi uses in doing an analysis are:

  • Division into meaning units
  • Meaning unit analysis or transformations
  • Situated structure statement
  • General structure statement


Giorgi draws on the French Existential Phenomenological philosopher Merleau Ponty who suggests that phenomenology has four principal characteristics:

  • It is descriptive
  • It uses reduction
  • It searches for essences
  • It is focused on intentionality


The first characteristic is that the process is descriptive. It refers to the idea that the analysis and interpretation has to follow the concrete and naive description given by the co-researcher. This might be viewed as a process of affirmation where the detail is
absorbed as it occurs and without prescription of meaning.


The analysis of the experience is not accomplished through abstract thinking but by tracing the concrete expressions and language which the co-researcher is describing in a process where it is matched (or transliterated) into a more formal psychological language.


The aim here is to concord the experience with language; the vernacular expression with formal, ultimately documenting a lineage of thought.


The second characteristic is reduction and refers to the idea of taking the making of any experience exactly as it appears or is presented in consciousness. Giorgi phrases it as: “whatever presents itself to consciousness should be taken precisely with the meaning with which it presents itself, and one should refrain from affirming that it is what it presents itself to be”


The third characteristic is the search for ‘essences’, in which psychologists look for the invariant and unchangeable characteristics of the particular phenomenon under study. There is an interest in observing the meta elements and meaning structures that are situation specific across a type of situations. However that all things may be reduced to the expression of an essence should be questioned as a compulsion, and the ideas of Alfred Korzybski borne in mind where he discusses non-Aristotelian analysis [33].


The fourth characteristic is described as the notion of intentionality. It seems to refer to the intentionality of consciousness, in that “consciousness is always consciousness of something” and related to the world as objects. This might be read as the intention and focus of the individual gives definition to the social reality. An emphasis is put on the researcher reading and repeatedly recapitulating the research method in order to nurture a holistic sense of it.


The repeated aim is to understand the meaning of the experience in terms of the standpoint of the co-researcher and not in terms of the researcher’s theory. It is the iterated experience of the co-researcher which defines the process.


The process should follow the experience of the co-researcher closely taking their intentionality as the lens which brings the co-construction into focus. The use of interviews are used to clarify any confusion which may arise. Interviews are a tool for gaining sufficient data to flesh out the study as a mapping of a terrain.


The first reading is about familiarisation and represents an affirmative part of the process free from superimpositions on the other person’s experience. It should be empathic in nature. At this point a knowledge of the language set which is coherent with the co-researcher’s experience is built. Giorgi expresses it “The general sense grasped after reading of the text is not interrogated nor made explicit in any way. Primarily it serves as a ground for the next step” [71].


The next step in the process is for the researcher to divide the description captured into what Giorgi calls ‘Meaning Units’. The task is to bring distinction to the different units that express a self contained meaning [72].


It is important to hold in mind the overarching rationale of the method whilst doing this, which is to understand these units in terms of the complete meaning as context. The units are divided by identifying the different key terms, aspects, attitudes or values that the co-researcher uses as expressions. The researcher has to become aware of changes in topic and meaning in the description. This working of the description into meaning units facilitates the researcher being able to analyze each of them, whilst holding them in an overall relationship.


The idea is not to divide the different meaning units according to the researcher’s standpoint or to treat them as a separate whole as this would be to remove them from their frame of reference, and ultimately detract from or alter their inherent meaning. It can be argued that these meaning units do not really exist.


The determination of each meaning unit depends on how the researcher constructs them. As with all categories they are context specific and artificial; but never the less, useful for organising and arranging bodies of knowledge, so they may be navigated more easily for understanding building purposes.


Sokolowski emphasises we can see the importance of comprehending parts from the context in which those parts are based. The constant effort of the researcher to clarify the meaning units, is suggested in theory to lead the researcher to self correction.


The next step is the transformation of the meaning units into a more formal language of discipline. This transcription is to create a corroborating text which relates the co-researcher’s words to the researcher’s words and portrays the co-researcher’s context in which their experience has formed. Then the researcher interrogates each meaning unit in the light of the topic under study. Thus, the researcher relates each meaning unit to the topic under study and relates the content of each meaning unit to a more formal language i.e. psychological language.


The transformation is not achieved through abstracting the concrete. It is about relating the meaning of the co-researcher’s reality from informal language (‘naïve language’) to a more formal syntax in a concorded process. The transformation goes from the naïve description, which is first person singular language, to a psychological scientific language, which is in third person singular. Just as one might take a set of mathematical data and formulate an algorithm from it; the algorithm should account for each datum in the set and the codified formula should be concorded with the data set from which it has been devised; or else include in vivid descriptive detail the outlier phenomena.


The third step in the process begins to use a key concept of phenomenology which Husserl calls the “imaginative variation”. Giorgi comments “The intent of the method is to arrive at the general category by going through the concrete expressions and not by abstraction or formalization which are selective according to the criteria accepted” [73]. Imaginative variation seems to be an important explanation of what is happening to the language.


The researcher tries to reach the essential and unchanging meaning of the co-researcher’s experience at the same time as separating out those meanings which are not essential to the co-researcher in their situation. Polkinghorne explains “The use of these processes is to enable the researcher to produce meaning transformations, on which there is consistent intersubjective agreement” [74].


The next step is the synthesis and integration of the insights made by the researcher about the transformed meaning units in order to make a final consistent description of the phenomenon under study. Giorgi talks about the situated structure (specific description) and the general structure (the generic description). The situated structure is focused on the concreteness of the situation in which the phenomenon takes place.


Here the researcher synthesizes a descriptive statement of the particular and specific characteristics of each meaning unit. After completing the situated descriptions the researcher creates a general description of their structures in which they aim to show the ‘essences’ of the phenomenon under study. This is an attempt to get at the trans-situational characteristics which transcend the specific situations and which feature regularly within each of them. We are looking at a process which informs perspective through shifts in the explanatory power of the language which is being used.


Von Eckartsberg clarifies this: “Giorgi brings in another important distinction and order into the methodology by identifying the situated structure and the general structure. He works with individual experiences and protocols until he reaches the level of articulation of situated structure. Only then does he “universalise” or “essentialize”, that is transcend the existentially situated specificity in favour of an essential trans-situational understanding” [75].


Some researchers see the idea of separating the specific from the general as unclear, opting instead for a single synthesis of a coherent and consistent description. In this context I choose to see the step of distinguishing the specific from the general as an important part of an archival methodology which documents perspectives in their authentic expression and which goes on to generate renderings of those perspectives which can communicate the situation to a broader context. The importance of the methodology as an archival one stems from the loss of authentic detail through change which can happen in all processes of translation.


The Aristotelian view that all things have an essence which can be isolated is false and the archival process preserves in some way a path back to the respectively authentic details which can be called upon in a forensic way if needed. Important meaning can thus be accessed in the concordance which might otherwise be obliterated in non-conservative forms of textuality, as Dorothy Smith describes [47].


It is possible to equate this separation of the specific and general being to the steps which produce the different linguistic renderings of perspective we met with earlier – the first person singular and the third person singular. The difference in the language set which is used moves from the informal to the formal syntax which may be interpretable as a movement from the specific to the general.


One example might be where a client shares through a vernacular language set an experience with a support worker of being sent from office to office, time and again in a bureaucratic system; always being told that they do not have the right paperwork, or that they have come to the wrong place, or that they have not engaged a pre-requisite to be helped in that office.


The support worker can identify this and apply a more enfranchised formal language describing it as ‘Failure Demand’. Relating this becomes a mapping of language from the informal experience to the formal world, and back again; and the conversation is a concordance which facilitates discovery on both sides and relates cultural capital as it enables the dispossessed to take part in the dominant culture [101].


Here, the interpretation of language is one which takes the formal to be a codification which is designed to communicate specialized understandings of circumstance to a universal space. This is a counterperspective of a view where language is used to esoterize and limit people’s understandings. The aim of the linguistic synthesis is to communicate the mutually identifiable structure of the phenomenon or experience; and in doing so assist in revealing an understanding of how the phenomenon or experience takes place so that conversation can emerge around it.


Next the researcher is to make a final analysis in which they integrate the transformed meaning units from all the protocols to a summation of what all the descriptions have in common. The researchers try to make available the findings by refining to this point the inherent aspects of the studied phenomena. All the time this is done holding in mind the intentionality of the co-researchers experiences and a sense that these are intrinsically linked to each other as a part of a whole.


The last step is for the researcher to present their findings and results in public, including the descriptions and analyses. Giorgi does not like to use any quantification of data or include statistical expressions. This represents a step into the larger iterative setting of peer review and the seeking of communitive knowledge – i.e. knowledge grown through communing with ‘the thing itself’, and with different perspectives offered by other people.



[33] Robert P. Pula, ‘Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920 – 1950; An Appreciation And Review’, A Review of General Semantics Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 424-433 Published by: Institute of General Semantics

[47] Campbell, M and A Manicom (Eds), 1995, ‘Knowledge, experience and ruling relations’ Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ISBN-13: 978-0802007209, Page 10

[71] Giorgi, A. (1985), ‘Sketch of a psychological phenomenological method’: In A. Giorgi, (Ed.), Phenomenology and psychological research, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University press, ISBN-13: 978-0820701745, page 8

[72] Polkinghorne, 1989, ‘Phenomenological research methods’ In S. S Valle and S Halling (Eds) Existential Phenomenological Perspectives In Psychology. New York: Plenum Press, Page 53

[73] Giorgi, A, 1985 “Sketch of a Psychological Phenomenological Method” In A, Giorgi, (Ed.) Phenomenology and Psychological Research. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, Page 17

[74] Polkinghorne, D. E. (1989) “Phenomenological research methods” In R.S. Valle and S. Halling (Eds) Existential Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology. New York: Plenum Press, Page 55

[75] Von Eckartsberg, R, 1998 “Essential Phenomenological Research” In R. Valle (Ed) Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions. New York: Plenum Press, page 25

[101] Bourdieu, P., Nice, R., & Bennett, T. (2010). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge. ISBN: 0-415-04546-0