Sunday, October 18, 2009

Phenomenology and Social Construction

As learners, ‘experts’ tell us what the truth is and we understand this explanation as our own. Yet as researchers, how do we really know what we know? We often call upon our knowledge, beliefs, and ethics to explore and interpret phenomena. This speaks to the world of research. For example, Schutz (1967) explains the process of how we grapple with our understanding of others:

On the one hand, what is understood is the sign itself, then again what the other person means by using this sign, and finally the significances of the fact that he is using the sign, here, now, and in this particular context (p.269).

In grappling with the meanings of others and their actions, we contribute to the accumulation of scientific inquiries.

Schutz’s work testifies to his support of Weber. He emphasizes Weber’s value of freedom in social scientific research, with science asserting itself through other areas of life. As opposed to its association with the natural sciences, Schutz frames social science as a science in its own right, with its own meaning-making strategies, (i.e., research methodologies). The main tenet of science is the same across disciplines: science offers an approach to discover and know reality through experience.

Schutz specifically describes knowledge-gathering through actions without communication, which draws parallels to the role of the complete observer in qualitative methodologies. Even if what we study is very abstract and difficult to explain, there is something in our lived reality that we can use in the interpretation. In raising awareness of others’ experiences, we create our own meaning-context. At the same time, others have arranged their own meaning-contexts. Yet there is a danger in completely adopting the point of view of another. By abandoning objectivity in favor of empathy, there is the risk of losing an understanding of the phenomenon from alternate frames of reference.

What are the labels that we use to give meaning to others? Labels for concepts are merely devices used to organize phenomena and communicate with others. This premise was first described by Berger and Luckmann (1966) as mental representations of other’s actions. These typifications eventually become a part of the social dialogue of meaning-making. As time moves forward, the developed meaning is embedded into the fabric and structure of society, thereby becoming a social construct. Quantitative research methodologies force us to choose constructs and fit people into those constructs. Individuals are viewed, labeled, and analyzed in regards to social constructs, such as gender, age, and socioeconomic status. Some may argue that the shared experience may be lost in quantitative methods, as the individual is often reduced to his constructs.

There is a great need for social researchers to treat the beliefs they study as worthy of respect rather than as objects of condemnation. This can be done by allowing participants to determine the meanings attributed to the phenomena being described in the study. A promising methodology is mixed methods research, which combines qualitative and quantitative approaches to provide a better understanding of research problems than using either single approach alone. In utilizing aspects of both methods, the researcher acknowledges alternate frames of reference for interpreting meaning in others’ lives.

Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Schutz, A. (1967). The phenomenology of the social world. In S. Appelrouth and L. Dasfor Eldes (Eds.), Social theory in the contemporary era: Text and readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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