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  • Phenomenology

    Research MethodsExperienceQualitative MethodsPhenomenologyPhilosophy
    Phenomenology is the contemplative study of human experience. It refers to a philosophical framework as well as a methodology that can inform educational practice and research. It seeks to reveal and understand how phenomena may be experienced as they are actually lived in the everyday world, or what some phenomenologists refer to as the lifeworld. Phenomenological philosophy suggests that everything in the lifeworld is inextricably connected in a social context, and so phenomenology aims to be more attentive to such meaningful connections—or intentional relations—within lived experiences and to illuminate them as a means to deeply understand the experience of the phenomenon under focus. Phenomenology can support all aspects of education by increasing sensitivity toward the many processes and practices it involves. When used as a naturalistic research methodology with qualitative methods of data collection and analysis, it can provide authentic insight for educators to use educational technologies in ethical and socially responsible ways.

    In light of increased advocacy for ethical, socially just, and empowering practices in education (see Selwyn et al., 2020), there has been a growing interest in understanding the experience of teaching and learning with technology. The ways that contemporary technologies are being used today, for learning and beyond, positions them as more than simply objects or tools (Ihde, 1993). Technology can radically alter how teaching and learning are experienced. Thus, there continues to be a need in the field of educational technology to understand the contextual nature of learning with technology as well as the relationships that are shaped and the connections that are made possible in unique learning contexts (Cilesiz, 2021). An in-depth exploration of these issues can be guided and informed by phenomenology, which involves the open and contemplative study of lived experience or direct human experience of a phenomenon of interest in the lifeworld.

    Phenomenology can be leveraged in the field of educational technology as a philosophical and theoretical orientation to inform practice or as an action-sensitive methodological approach to research (van Manen, 1990). Phenomenological philosophy is marked by openness, or an open and unbounded sense of wonder and curiosity, that is oriented toward what it is like to experience a particular phenomenon and how it feels affectively and somatically through embodiment and human consciousness (Benner, 1994; Merleau-Ponty, 2012). According to many philosophers, any phenomenological inquiry or practice requires the technique of phenomenological reduction, or the reflexive act of suspending preconceived judgments about the phenomenon in order to more openly understand it (Moran & Mooney, 2002).

    In addition to phenomenological reduction, another core tenet of phenomenological philosophy is the theory of intentionality, originally proposed by Edmund Husserl, who is purported to be the founder of phenomenology around the turn of the 20th century (Sokolowski, 2000). Intentionality, in a phenomenological sense, refers to directing attention toward relationships, or the meaningful connections, among all things that exist in the lifeworld (Vagle, 2014). That is, phenomenology assumes that everything in the world, and in our lived experiences in the world, is interconnected, interdependent, and inextricably linked. Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty offered the helpful metaphor of threads of intentionality that connect all things in the fabric of everyday life experiences (Merleau-Ponty, 2012). These threads hold significant meaning, but they are tightly woven, making them difficult to notice and recognize. Karin Dahlberg and colleagues assert that phenomenology assists in slackening these meaning threads, allowing for a more attentive, aware, and contemplative examination to tease out the intentional meanings within lived experiences (Dahlberg et al., 2008). 

    Practically speaking, these theoretical and philosophical tenets that ground phenomenology can help guide pedagogy and learning design in educational technology contexts. Educational technology practitioners enacting a phenomenological approach are particularly attentive to the experience of learning with technology, and they contemplate what is necessary to support learning and teaching by remaining highly reflexive about the educational experience. In the context of a digital learning environment, such practices of attentiveness and contemplation can, for example, increase educators’ sensitivity toward the particular needs of learners and challenges that may arise throughout their experience. This attunement and insight can also help guide the informed reasoning and decision-making that is uniquely required for supporting teaching and learning with technology. 

    From a research standpoint, phenomenological methodologies must be informed by and draw upon phenomenological philosophy to ensure rigor, quality, and integrity. For example, when using this form of scholarly inquiry, researchers are advised to integrate core phenomenological philosophical assumptions in the research design and then discuss how they also frame the study (Cilesiz, 2021, p. 151). Many historical and contemporary phenomenologists assert that an orientation toward Husserl’s theory of intentionality is what makes phenomenology phenomenology and not something else (Merleau-Ponty, 2012; Vagle, 2014; van Manen, 1990). While other qualitative research methodologies, like case study and ethnography, share some similar interpretive characteristics, phenomenology uniquely focuses on the experience of a particular phenomenon as the central unit of analysis. Intentionality is then used as a theoretical and analytical lens to explore and illuminate the meaningful connections associated with the phenomenon as it is lived or as it manifests in lived experience. Phenomenologists also ensure openness and unboundedness throughout their research design, in contrast with case study, which is bounded.

    Because of this central commitment to openness, phenomenological research resists a rigid structure as well as prescriptive strategies, steps, and methods (Ahmed, 2006; Giorgi, 1997; Vagle, 2014; van Manen, 1990). In line with openness, phenomenological methods of qualitative data collection and analysis are iterative, emergent, and reflexive. Data collection in phenomenological research has traditionally included interviews and written lived experience descriptions (van Manen, 1990). However, modern phenomenologists now recommend that any data, such as digital media and learning artifacts generated with educational technologies, can potentially serve as valuable sources of insight into the phenomenon under investigation when analyzed through the lens of intentionality (Dahlberg et al., 2008; Vagle, 2014; van Manen, 1990). This analysis leads to findings that provide a highly textured and nuanced depiction of lived experiences by illuminating meanings and meaningfulness (Benner, 1994; Dahlberg et al., 2008). Such findings are often written as an evocative phenomenological description that incites a sensed, felt understanding of the phenomenon using expressive language that aims to “connect to [readers] in a heartfelt way and be complex enough to awaken not just a logical understanding but the sense of it as it lives” (Todres & Galvin, 2008, p. 570).

    Phenomenological research has been pluralized in contemporary literature, with several different approaches emerging and being published today. To aid in understanding some notable distinctions, phenomenological approaches can be roughly organized into three main categories according to their purpose and aims. As shown in Table 1, these categories include transcendental or descriptive, hermeneutic or interpretive, and critical or postmodern. In each category, the terms are often used interchangeably in the literature, while some authors and theorists assert further distinctions for each.

    Table 1

    Three Main Categories of Phenomenological Approaches

    Phenomenological ApproachTranscendental or DescriptiveHermeneutic or InterpretiveCritical or Postmodern
    Hallmarks, Purpose, and AimsPursuing the essence (stable core features) of a phenomenon and identifying essential structures among participants' experiences

    Interpreting unique meanings of a phenomenon and exploring particularities or nuances within participants’ experiences to identify experiential themes or converging patterns of meaning

    Resists the idea of a singular, stable essence

    Critiquing power relationships in the lifeworld, exploring diverse orientations toward phenomena, resisting the stability of meanings and manifestations of experience

    Includes feminist phenomenology, queer phenomenology, and post-intentional phenomenology

    Examples of Historical and Contemporary Theorists or Practitioners

    Karin Dahlberg

    Amadeo Georgi

    Edmund Husserl

    Patricia Benner

    Martin Heidegger

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty

    Max van Manen

    Sara Ahmed

    Alia Al-Saji

    Mark Vagle


    Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822388074

    Benner, P. E. (1994). Interpretive phenomenology: Embodiment, caring, and ethics in health and illness. SAGE. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452204727

    Cilesiz, S. (2021). Making meaning through lived technological experiences. In E. Creely, J. Southcott, K. Carabott, & D. Lyons (Eds.), Phenomenological inquiry in education: Theories, practices, provocations and directions (pp.146-160). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429285646

    Dahlberg, K., Dahlberg, H., & Nyström, M. (2008). Reflective lifeworld research (2nd ed.). Studentlitteratur.

    Giorgi, A. (1997). The theory, practice, and evaluation of the phenomenological method as a qualitative research procedure. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 28(2), 235-260. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1163/156916297X00103

    Ihde, D. (1993). Postphenomenology: Essays in the postmodern context. Northwestern University Press.

    Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of perception (D. A. Landes, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published 1945). https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203720714

    Moran, D., & Mooney, T. (2002). The phenomenology reader. Routledge.

    Selwyn, N., Hillman, T., Eynon, R., Ferreira, G., Knox, J., MacGilchrist, F., & Sancho-Gil, J. M. (2020). What’s next for Ed-Tech? Critical hopes and concerns for the 2020s. Learning, Media and Technology, 45(1), 1–6.

    Sokolowski, R. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511809118

    Todres, L., & Galvin, K. T. (2008). Embodied interpretation: A novel way of evocatively representing meanings in phenomenological research. Qualitative Research, 8(5), 568–583.

    Vagle, M. D. (2014). Crafting phenomenological research. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315431451

    van Manen, M. (2016). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315421056

    Community Artifacts

    Al-Saji, A. (2017). Feminist phenomenology. In A. Garry, S. J. Khader, & A. Stone (Eds.), The Routledge companion to feminist philosophy (pp. 143-154). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315758152

    Cilesiz, S. (2010). A phenomenological approach to experiences with technology: Current state, promise, and future directions for research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59, 487-510. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-010-9173-2

    Dibley, L., Dickerson, S., Duffy, M., & Vandermause, R. (2020). Doing hermeneutic phenomenological research: A practical guide. SAGE.

    Frechette, J., Bitzas, V., Aubry, M., Kilpatrick, K., & Lavoie-Tremblay, M. (2020). Capturing lived experience: Methodological considerations for interpretive phenomenological inquiry. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1609406920907254

    Groenewald, T. (2004). A phenomenological research design illustrated. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 3, 42-55. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690400300104

    Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203196632

    Pazurek, A. (2021). Social media for connected learning and engagement in online education. In B. Hokanson, M. Exter, A. Grincewicz, M. Schmidt, & A. Tawfik (Eds.), Learning: Design, engagement and definition (pp. 137-145). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-85078-4_11

    The Open Commons of Phenomenology. (n.d.).

    Valentine, K. D. (2021). Interpretive and postmodern phenomenological research approaches: Opportunities for new lines of inquiry in the field of learning design and technology. In E. Romero-Hall (Ed.), Research methods in learning design and technology (pp. 11-25). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429260919

    van Manen, M. (2016). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315422657

    Angelica Pazurek

    University of Minnesota

    Dr. Angel Pazurek is a Senior Lecturer in Learning Technologies at the University of Minnesota. Her scholarship focuses on critical digital pedagogy and learning design in adult and higher education. Her educational practice and research is guided by interpretive methodologies, including phenomenology, and her work has explored gender equity in edtech fields, learner engagement in online environments, the use of social media for connected learning in online college courses, and international initiatives in open and distance learning.
    Suzan Koseoglu

    University of Greenwich

    Dr. Suzan Koseoglu is a Lecturer in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at the University of Greenwich (UK). Suzan's research and writing focuses on feminist pedagogy, critical pedagogy and open education. Her works include 30 Years of Gender Inequality and Implications on Curriculum Design in Open and Distance Learning (published by JIME), Access as Pedagogy: A Case for Embracing Feminist Pedagogy in Open and Distance Learning (published by AJDE), and My Story: A Found Poem Reflecting the Voice of Women Studying in Open Education Programs in Turkey (presented at OER19, UK).

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