Phenomenological Methods

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Phenomenological methods aim at the study of subjective experience from the first-person point of view, making use of a range of specific assumptions most notably a specific 'phenomenal attitude' in the experiencing subjects. Much like other methods, they target what experience is like for the experiencing person. The information displayed below at present is based on a talk of Ema Demsar at ASSC 25. Many thanks for this talk to Emma. Everyone is invited to improve upon this short overview.

Phenomenological Attitude

The phenomenological attitude is opposed to the natural attitude in which consciousness is experienced. It requires work and special methods to attain it, requiring systematiciity and guidance in self-observation, which is often dialogical in nature. This methods that make use of this dialogical nature are also called second-person methods.

Contemporary Phenomenological Methods

The following list is not complete.

  • Experience sampling: A simple methodology that consists, for example, of questions posed to the subject durirng experiments, such as "How aware were you when peceiving a probe?".
  • Systematic introspection
  • Descriptive experience sampling method (DES): Cf. below.
  • Micro-phenomenology: Cf. below.

Methods can be compared along various dimensions, e.g. thick vs. thin methodologies or according to the specificity of subjective experiences.


An interview method consisting of three main steps:

1. Identifying a singular, specific episode of the past.

The episode depends on the study that is being carried out. An example could be a past instant of an epilleptic seizures someone had, or a period before making a simple choice.

2. "Evocation" of the past experiential episode.

This refers to the interviewer's assistance to the interviewee in helping the interviewee to access the experience in question.

  • Recalling the precise context of the experience. (E.g. recalling the sensory context of the experience.)
  • Recalling its sensory and affective dimentions.
  • Repetition

3. Describing experience along the diachronic and synchronic dimensions

Diachronic: Temporal succession of acts, feelings, perceptions, states, etc. (How the experience unfolds in time.) Synchronic: "Snapshot" of the experiential field at the specific moment. (How the experience is given at a certain moment.)

The interveiwer helps the interviewee to find this description by using specific phenomenological interviewing techniques.

Further sources: Vermensch (1994), Petitmengin (2006)

Example: Sensation of Panic

Initial description: "sensation of panic"

Question asked by the interviewer:

  • And when you feel this sensation of panic, what do you feel?
  • If I had this feeling, what would I feel?
  • How do you know that you feelm this sesnation of panic?
  • Is this feeling located somehwere? Does it have size? Is it moving or stable? How intense is it?

An interview of a temporally short experience of this sort could talk an hour.

Descriptive Experience Sampling

Participants carry arround a beeper during their day.

  1. Random beep in participants' natural environments, several times a day.
  2. Notes about the ongoing experience at (i.e., just before) the moment of the beep. This is an "experience sample" taken immdetiately after the beep
  3. Expositional interview about the xperience samples within a day

DES questions are different from those of micro-phenomenology. They are non-leading, open-ended, interested in what was present "at the footlights of awareness".

The idea is that enough sampling will allow to focus on specific experiences among all that are being sampled.

Participants often discover that their pre-conceptions about their own experiences are mistaken.

Sources: Hurlburt (1970, 1990, 2011)