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Home Environment and Architecture Phenomenology, Place, Environment and Architecture: A Review of the Literature

Phenomenology, Place, Environment and Architecture: A Review of the Literature

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David Seamon

*A much-abbreviated version of this review appears as “A Way of Seeing People and Place: Phenomenology in Environment-Behavior Research,” published in S. Wapner, J. Demick, T. Yamamoto, and H Minami (Eds.), Theoretical Perspectives in Environment-Behavior Research (pp. 157-78).  New York: Plenum, 2000. 


This review examines the phenomenological approach as it might be used to explore environmental and architectural issues. After discussing the nature of phenomenology in broad terms, the review presents two major assumptions of the phenomenological approach--(1) that people and environment compose an indivisible whole; (2) that phenomenological method can be described in terms of a "radical empiricism." 

The review then considers three specific phenomenological methods: (1) first-person phenomenological research; (2) existential-phenomenological research; and (3) hermeneutical-phenomenological research. Next, the article discusses trustworthiness and reliability as they can be understood phenomenologically. Finally, the review considers the value of phenomenology for environmental design. 

Keywords: phenomenology, place, architecture, landscape, environmental experience, lifeworld, home, dwelling, being-in-world, hermeneutics, environmental ethics 


1. Introduction
2. History and Nature of Phenomenology
3. Some Core Assumptions of the Phenomenological Approach
4. Specific Phenomenological Methods
5. Reliability and Phenomenological Methods
6. Phenomenology and Environmental Design
7. Making Better Worlds 


In simplest terms, phenomenology is the interpretive study of human experience. The aim is to examine and clarify human situa­tions, events, meanings, and experienc­es "as they spontaneously occur in the course of daily life" (von Eckartsberg, 1998, p. 3). The goal is "a rigorous description of human life as it is lived and reflected upon in all of its first-person concreteness, urgency, and ambiguity" (Pollio et al., 1997, p. 5). 

This preliminary definition, however, is oversimplified and does not capture the full manner or range of phenomenological inquiry. Herbert Spiegelb­erg, the eminent phenomeno­logical philoso­pher and historian of the phenomenological movement, declared that there are as many styles of phenomenology as there are phenome­nologists (Spiegelberg 1982, p. 2)‑-a situation that makes it difficult to articulate a thorough and accurate picture of the tradition. 

In this article, I can only claim to present my under­stand­ing of phenomenology and its significance for environ­ment-behavior research. As a phenomenologi­cal geographer in a department of architecture, my main teaching and research emphases relate to the nature of environmental behavior and experi­ence, especially in terms of the built environ­ment. I am particu­larly interested in why places are important for people and how architec­ture and environ­mental design can be a vehicle for place making.

I hope to demonstrate in this article that the phenomenological approach offers an innovative way for looking at the person-environment relationship and for identifying and understanding its complex, multi-dimensioned structure.

In exploring the value of phenomenology for environment-behavior research, I have come to believe strongly that phenomenolog­y provides a useful conceptual language for bridg­ing the environ­mental designe­r's more intuitive approach to understand­ing with the academic researcher's more intellectual approach. In this sense, phenomenology may be one useful way for the environment-behavior researcher to reconcile the difficult tensions between feeling and thinking and between firsthand lived experience and secondhand conceptual accounts of that experience.

In this article, I consider the following themes: 

  • the history and nature of phenomenology;
  • key assumptions of a phenomenological approach;
  • the methodology of empirical phenomeno­logical research;
  • trustworthiness and phenomenological research;
  • phenomenology and environmental design.

Throughout my discussion, I refer to specific phenomenological studies, the majority of which involve environment-behavior topics.1 Most of these studies are explicitly phenomeno­logical, though occasionally I incorporate studies that are implicitly phenomeno­logical in that either the authors choose not to involve the tradition directly (e.g., Brill, 1993; de Witt, 1992; Pocius, 1993; Tuan, 1993) or are unaware that their approach, methods, and results parallel a phenomeno­logical perspective (e.g., Krapfel, 1990, Walkey, 1993, Whone, 1990).

I justify the inclusion of these studies because they present aspects of human life and experience in new ways by identifying generalizable qualities and patterns that arise from everyday human life and experience‑-for example, qualities of the built environ­ment that contribute to a sense of place, order, and beauty (Alexander, 1987; 1993; Alexander et al., 1977; Brill, 1993; Rattner, 1993). 



The history of phenomenology is complex. Over time, as often happens with philosophical traditions, there developed different phenomenological schools, styles, and emphases (Spiegelberg, 1982). As the found­­ing father of phenomenology, philosopher Edmund Husserl believed that, beneath the changing flux of human experience and awareness, there are certain invariant structures of consciousness, which he claimed the phenomenological method could identify. Because Husserl viewed consciousness and its essential structures as a pure "region" separate from the flux of specific experiences and thoughts, his style of phenomenology came to be known as "transcendental."

Eventually, however, other phenomenological thinkers such as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty reacted against Husserl's transcendental structures of consciousness (Heidegger, 1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1962). These "existential" phenomeno­logists, as they came to be called, argued that such transcendental structures are questionable because Husserl based their reality on speculative, cerebral reflection rather than on actual human experience taking place within the world of everyday life (Schmidt, 1985).

In his 1927 Being and Time, Heidegger (1962) argued that conscious­ness was not separate from the world and human existence. He called for an existential correction to Husserl that would interpret essential structures as basic categories of human experience rather than as pure, cerebral consciousness. In his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau‑Ponty (1962) broadened Heidegger's correction to include the active role of the body in human experience. Merleau‑Ponty sought to reinterpret the division between body and mind common to most conventional Western philosophy and psychology. This "existential turn" of Heidegger and Merleau‑Ponty moved Husserl's realm of pure intellectual consciousness "into the realm of the contingencies of history and embodiment" (Polkinghorne, 1983, p. 205).

As a philosophical tradition, therefore, phenomenology has changed considerably since its founding by Husserl, moving from cerebral structures to lived experience. In this article, I emphasize the viewpoint of existential phenomenology, since the central focus of environment-behavior research is the everyday environmental experiences and situations of real people in real places, environments, landscapes, regions, spaces, buildings, and so forth.

I therefore define phenomenology as the exploration and description of phenomena, where phenomena refers to things or experiences as human beings experience them. Any object, event, situation or experience that a person can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, feel, intuit, know, understand, or live through is a legitimate topic for phenomenological investigation. There can be a phenomenology of light, of color, of architecture, of landscape, of place, of home, of travel, of seeing, of learning, of blindness, of jealousy, of change, of relationship, of friendship, of power, of economy, of sociability, and so forth. All of these things are phenomena because human beings can experience, encounter, or live through them in some way.

The ultimate aim of phenomenological research, however, is not idiosyncratic descriptions of the phenomenon, though such descrip­tions are often an important starting point for existential phenomenology. Rather, the aim is to use these descriptions as a groundstone from which to discover underlying commonalities that mark the essential core of the phenomenon.

In other words, the phenomenologist pays attention to specific instances of the phenomenon with the hope that these instances, in time, will point toward more general qualities and characteristics that accurately describe the essential nature of the phenomenon as it has presence and meaning in the concrete lives and experiences of human beings.


In the last several years, there has appeared a growing number of works that discuss the relation of phenomenology to the scholarly and professional worlds in general terms (Burch, 1989, 1990, 1991; Embree, 1997; Stewart and Mukunis, 1990) and to specific disciplines‑-e.g, anthropology (Jackson, 1996); art (Berleant, 1991; Davis, 1989; Eisner, 1993; Jones, 1989); education (Fetterman, 1988; van Manen, 1990); environmental design (Berleant, 1992; Condon, 1991; Corner, 1990; Dovey, 1993; Mugerauer, 1994; Howett, 1993; Vesely, 1988); geography (Cloke et al., 1991, chap. 3; Relph, 1989b, 1990; Seamon, 1997); gerontology (Reinharz and Rowles, 1988); psychology (Pollio et al., 1997; Valle, 1998); philosophy (Casey, 1993, 1996); social science (Rosenau, 1992); and natural science (Bortoft, 1997; Heelan, 1983; Jones, 1989; Riegner, 1993; Seamon and Zajonc, 1998).

In much of this work, commentators have placed phenomenology within the wider conceptual and methodological rubric of qualitative inquiry (Cloke et al., 1991; Fetterman, 1990; Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Low, 1987). For example, Patton (1990, pp. 66-91) associ­ates phenomenol­ogy with such other qualitatively-oriented theories and orientations as ethnography, heuristic inquiry, ethnometh­odology, symbolic interact­ionism, and ecological psychology. 

Patton argues that, in broadest terms, all these perspectives present variations on "grounded theory" (e.g., Glaser and Strauss,1967)‑-in other words, perspectives assuming "methods that take the researcher into and close to the real world so that the results and findings are `grounded' in the empirical world" (Patton, 1990, p. 67). This perspective approaches theory inductively, in contrast to "theory generated by logical deduction from a priori assumptions" (ibid., p. 66). 

Patton's identification of phenomenology with qualitative orientations is certainly acceptable, though it is also important to realize that these various qualitative perspectives involve as many differences as similarities, thus, for example, ethnographic inquiry typically studies a particular person or group in a particular place in time; in contrast, a phenomenological study might begin with a similar real-world situation but would then use that specific instance as a foundation for identifying deeper, more generalizable patterns, structures, and meanings. 

Similarly, both symbolic interactionism and phenomenology examine the kinds of symbols and understandings that give meaning to a particular group or society's way of living and experiencing. The perspective of the symbolic interactionalist, however, most typically emphasizes the more explicit, cognitively-derived layers of meaning whereas a phenomenological perspective defines meaning in a broader way that includes bodily, visceral, intuitive, emotional, and transpersonal dimensions. 

Phenomenology, therefore, can be identified as one style of qualitative inquiry but involving a particular conceptual and methodological foundation. Here, I highlight two broad assumptions that, at least for me, mark the essential core of a phenomenological approach. These assumptions can be described as follows: 

1. Person and world as intimately part and parcel;
2. A radical empiricism. 

I emphasize these two broad assumptions because the first relates to the particular subject matter of phenomenology, while the second relates to the means by which that subject matter is to be understood. I hope discussion of these two assumptions gives the reader a better sense of what makes phenomenology distinctive and how this distinctiveness can offer a valuable tool for environment-behavior research. 

3.1. Person and World Intimately Part and Parcel

A central focus of phenomenology is the way people exist in relation to their world. In Being and Time, Heidegger (1962) argued that, in conventional philosophy and psychology, the relationship between person and world has been reduced to either an idealist or realist perspective.

In an idealist view, the world is a function of a person who acts on the world through consciousness and, therefore, actively knows and shapes his or her world. In contrast, a realist view sees the person as a function of the world in that the world acts on the person and he or she reacts. Heidegger claimed that both perspectives are out of touch with the nature of human life because they assume a separation and directional relationship between person and world that does not exist in the world of actual lived experience.

Instead, Heidegger argued that people do not exist apart from the world but, rather, are intimately caught up in and immersed. There is, in other words, an "undissolvable unity" between people and world (Stewart and Mickunas, 1990, p. 9). This situation‑-always given, never escapable‑-is what Heidegger called Dasein, or being-in-the-world. It is impossible to ask whether person makes world or world makes person because both exist always together and can only be correctly interpreted in terms of the holistic relationship, being-in-world (Pocock, 1989; Relph, 1989a; Seamon, 1990a).

In this sense, phenomenology supplants the idealist and realist divisions between person and world with a conception in which the two are indivisible--a person-world whole that is one rather than two. A major phenomenological challenge is to describe this person-world intimacy in a way that legitimately escapes any subject-object dichotomy.

One broad theme that phenomenologists have developed to overcome this dichotomy is intentionality—the argument that human experience and consciousness necessarily involve some aspect of the world as their object, which, reciprocally, provides the context for the meaning of experience and consciousness. 

As Pollio (1997, p. 7) explains, intentionality "is meant to emphasize that human experience is continuously directed toward a world that it never possesses in its entirety but toward which it is always directed." Intentionality, therefore, "is a basic structure of human existence that captures the fact that human beings are fundamentally related to the contexts in which they live or, more philosophically, that all being is to be understood as `being-in-the-world'" (ibid.).2

In examining peoples' intentional relationships with their worlds, environment-behavior researchers using phenomenology have typically drawn on three central notions that I review here‑--lifeworld, place and home. These notions are significant for a phenomenological approach to environment-behavior research because each refers to a phenomenon that, in its very constitution, holds people and world always together and also says much about the physical, spatial, and environmental aspects of human life and events. 

3.1.1. Lifeworld

The lifeworld refers to the tacit context, tenor and pace of daily life to which normally people give no reflective attention. The life­world includes both the routine and the unusual, the mundane and the surprising.

Whether an experience is ordinary or extraordinary, however, the lifeworld in which the experience happens is normally out of sight. Typically, human beings do not make their experiences in the lifeworld an object of conscious awareness. Rather, these experiences just happen, and people do not consider how they happen, whether they could happen differently, or of what larger experiential structures they might be a part.

The natural attitude is the term by which the phenomenologist identifies the correspond­ing inner situation whereby the person takes the everyday world for granted and assumes it to be only what it is. In this mode of attention and awareness, people accept the lifeworld unquestioningly and rarely consider that it might be otherwise. The natural attitude and lifeworld reflect, respectively, the inner and outer dimensions of the essential phenomeno­logical fact emphasized above: that people are immersed in a world that normally unfolds automatically.

One major research focus relating to the lifeworld is its perceptual taken-for-grantedness (Abrams, 1996; Pocock 1993), thus, for example, Heelan (1983) argued that Western people tacitly perceive the world in terms of a Euclidean-Cartesian perspective that organizes space in terms of rules of mathematical perspectives. By examining the artistic presentations of space portrayed by post-impressionist artists Cezanne and van Gogh, Heelan also considered ways by which we as Westerners might become familiar with non-Euclidean modes of perceiving whereby concepts like near/far, large/small, inside/outside are brought into question and shift in their experiential sense (also see Jones, 1989).

Partly influenced by the seminal works on the acoustic dimensions of the lifeworld by Schafer (1977) and Berendt (1985), there have also been phenomenological studies of the multimodal ways in which the senses contribute to human awareness and understanding (Jarvilouma, 1994; Pocock, 1993; Porteous, 1990; Tuan, 1993; von Maltzuhn, 1994). One of the most unusual studies in this regard is Schonhammer's efforts to understand the experience of regular users of Walkman headsets, both in terms of the impression that these users have on people nearby as well as the way the sense of the surrounding world is changed for the users themselves (Schonhammer, 1988, 1989).

Other phenomenological researchers have considered how particular circumstances relating to the environment or to the person lead to particular lifeworld experiences, thus Behnke (1990) and Rehorick (1986) examined the experience of earthquakes phenomenologically, while Hill (1985) explores the lifeworld of the blind person and Toombs (1992a, 1995a, 1995b) drew upon her own experience of chronic progressive multiple sclerosis to provide a phenomeno­logical explication of the human experience of disability.

One insightful study relating to material aspects of the lifeworld is Palaasma's architectural examination of how the design aesthetic of Modernist-style buildings largely emphasized intellect and vision and how a more comprehensive architecture would accommodate an environmental experience of all the senses as well as the feelings (Pallasmaa, 1996). Another study linking lifeworld with environment is Nogué i Font's efforts at a phenomenology of landscape (Nogué i Font, 1985, 1993). He attempted to describe the essential landscape character of Garroxta, a Catalonian region in the Pyrenees foothills north of Barcelona. In developing a phenomenology of this region, Nogué i Font conducted in-depth interviews with five groups of people familiar with Garroxta in various ways‑-farmers, landscape painters, tourists, hikers, and recently-arrived residents who were formerly urbanites.

In this study, Nogué is Font addressed a central phenomenological question: Can there be a phenomenology of landscape in its own right, or does there exist only a phenomenology of that landscape as particular individuals and groups experience and know it? He concluded that both phenomenologies exist, and one does not exclude the other.

In describing the meanings of Garroxta for the farmers and painters, for example, Nogué i Font (1993) found that, in some ways, the landscape has significantly contrasting meanings for the two groups. In spite of these differences, however, both farmers and painters spoke of certain physical elements and experienced qualities that mark the uniqueness of Garroxta as a "thing in itself." For example, both groups saw the region as a wild, tangled landscape of gorges, precipices, and forests that invoke a sense of respect and endurance. 

3.1.2. Place

One significant dimension of the lifeworld is the human experience of place, which, in spite of criticism from non-phenomenologists (e.g., Rapoport, 1994), continues to be a major focus of phenomenological work in environment-behavior research (Barnes, 1992; Boschetti, 1993; Bolton, 1992; Chaffin, 1989; de Witt, 1991; Hester, 1993; Hufford, 1988; Million, 1992; Oldenburg, 1989; Pocius, 1991; Porteous, 1989; Relph, 1992, 1993; Seamon, 1992, 1993; Sherry, 1990, 1998; Smith, 1989; Tammeron, 1995; Weimer, 1991). 

In philosophy, Casey (1994, 1996) has written two book-length accounts that argue for place as a central ontological structure founding human experience: "place, by virtue of its unencompass­ability by anything other than itself, is at once the limit and the condition of all that ex­ists...[P]lace serves as the condition of all existing things...To be is to be in place" (1994, pp. 15-16). 

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty (1962), Casey emphasizes that place is a central ontological structure of being-in-the world partly because of our existence as embodied beings. We are "bound by body to be in place" (1994, p. 104), thus, for example, the very physical form of the human body immediately regularizes our world in terms of here-there, near-far, up-down, above-below, and right-left. Similarly, the pre-cognitive intelligence of the body expressed through action--what Merleau-Ponty (1962) called "body subject"‑-embodies the person in a prereflective stratum of taken-for-granted bodily gestures, movements, and routines (Ediger, 1994; Hill, 1985; Seamon, 1979; Toombs, 1992a, 1995a, 1995b). 

The broad philosophical discussions of Relph (1976, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996) continue to be a significant conceptual guide for empirical phenomenologies of place (Boschetti, 1991, 1993, 1996; Chaffin, 1989; Masucci, 1992; Million, 1993, 1996; Paterson, 1996; Seamon, 1993, 1996).

Perhaps the most comprehensive example is provided by Million (1993), who examined phenomenologically the experience of five rural Canadian families forced to leave their ranches because of the construction of a reservoir dam in southern Alberta. Drawing on Relph's notions of insideness and outsideness (Relph, 1976), Million sought to identify the central lived-qualities of what she called involuntary displacement‑-the families' experience of forced relocation and resettlement. Using in-depth interviews with the families as her descriptive base, she demonstrated how place is prior to involuntary displacement with the result that this experience can be understood metaphorically as a forced journey marked by stages.

Becoming uneasy (1), struggling to stay (2), and having to accept (3) emerge in Million's study as the first three stages of involuntary displacement whereby the families realize that they must leave their home place. The process then moves into securing a settlement (4) and searching for the new (5)‑-two stages that mark a "living in between"‑-i.e., a middle phase of a forced journey and a time when the families feel farthest away from place. Finally, with starting over (6), unsettling reminders (7), and wanting to settle (8), the families move into a phase belonging to the rebuilding phase. 

Million conducted her study at a time when the families were involved in the third year of rebuilding, thus the end of a forced journey at that point remained to be seen. Her last chapter therefore explored the hopeful possibility of rebuilding place. Million's study is significant because it examined the foundations of place experience for one group of people and delineates the lived stages in the process of losing place and attempting to resettle.3 

3.1.3. Home

Another important aspect of the lifeworld, home and at-homeness are another way in which the situation of people immersed in world is often expressed existentially. Since the early work of Bachelard (1963) and Bollnow (1961), the theme of home has received major attention from phenomenologists (Barbey, 1989; Boschetti, 1990, 1993, 1995; Cooper Marcus, 1995; Day, 1995; Dovey, 1985; Graumann, 1989; Koop, 1993; LeStrange, 1998; McHigh et. al., 1996; Norris, 1990; Pallasmaa, 1995; Rouner, 1996; Seamon, 1993; Shaw, 1990; Sinclaire, 1994; Vittoria, 1992, Wu, 1991). 

Shaw (1990), for example, conducted a firsthand description and phenomenological explication of a return to a home place and family that he had not seen for some twenty years. In another phenomenological study, Winning (1991) explored the relation between language and home by drawing on experiences from teaching English as a second language to Canadian immigrants. 

Using students' written descriptions as an interpretive base, Winning developed five "axioms" in regard to language and home‑-e.g., "at home people always speak to each other in a particular way"; "an accent comes from somewhere else"; "when away from home we hear the sound of words." Winning then asked what educational value these axioms might have in teaching immigrants as a second language: Given that there is a homelike quality to language, "what can be attended to in the...classroom to foster a more homelike feeling in the second language?" (p. 180)

There is also a growing phenomenological literature on what home can mean in today's postmodern times of continual change, spatial fragmentation, and instantaneous communications (Casey, 1993; Chawla, 1994, 1995; Mugerauer, 1994; Romanyshyn, 1989; Seamon, 1993; Silverstein, 1994). Day (1995), for example, suggested that, in the last two centuries, the idea of home has become the core of Western traditions and a mainstay of popular culture. In our ever-increasingly technological and mobile society, however, home takes on new, ambiguous meanings, and Day argued that its uniqueness experientially is in danger of being lost. 

To identify the particular nature of at-homeness, Day asked a group of individuals to "describe a time in which they felt at home" (p. 14). He identified five themes that appear to present "a general structure of the experience of at-homeness" (ibid.): (1) home often invokes a timeless quality; (2) home involves a positive attunement to the present moment; (3) home relates to a lived interplay between safety and familiarity, on one hand, and strangeness and the uncanny, on the other; (4) home offers an attunement to one's self in relation to special others; and (5) home relates to healing and personal well-being. 

As with lifeworld and place, home as experience presupposes and sustains a taken-for-granted involvement between person and world. This bond is largely unself-conscious, and the phenomeno­logical aim it to make that tacitness explicit and thereby understand it. 

3.2. A Radical Empiricism

If one key phenomenological assumption is the intimate connectedness between person and world, a second assumption relates to what I call "radical empiricism"‑-the particular manner in which this person-world connectedness is to be studied. 

In using this descriptive phrase, I attempt to encapsulize the heart of phenomenological method by indicating a way of study whereby the researcher seeks to be open to the phenomenon and to allow it to show itself in its fullness and complexity through her own direct involvement and understanding. In that this style of study arises through firsthand, grounded contact with the phenomenon as it is experienced by the researcher, the approach can be called empirical, though the term is used much differently than by positivist scientists who refer to data that are materially identifiable and mathematically recordable.

If, in other words, phenomenological method can be called empirical, it must be identified as radically so, since understanding arises directly from the researcher's personal sensibility and awareness rather than from the usual secondhand constructions of positivist science‑-e.g., a priori theory and concepts, hypotheses, predetermined methodological procedures, statistical measures of correlation, and the like. In this section, I first delineate in broad terms the particular attitude and approach that phenomenology, as a radical empiricism, uses to examine the phenomenon as thoroughly and as deeply as possible. Then, I present some specific phenomenological research methods. 

3.2.1. The Phenomenological Reduction, Intuiting, and Disclosure

Through a change in perspective--the phenomenological reduction as it is sometimes called--the phenomenologist works to circumvent the taken-for-grantedness of the natural attitude and bring to the lifeworld a directed, sympathetic attention (Spiegelberg, 1982, pp. 118-123). 

The heart of the phenomenological reduction is what Spiegelberg (1982, pp. 682-687) called phenomenological intuiting‑-an effort through which the phenomenologist works for an openness in regard to the phenomenon under study. He or she attempts to meet the phenomenon in as free and as unprejudiced way as possible so that it can present itself and be accurately described and understood. The hopeful result is moments of deeper clarity in which the phenomenologist sees the phenomenon in a fresh and fuller way.

Phenomenological intuiting requires discipline, patience, effort and care. It requires considerable practice and training, and students can find their way to intuiting only by themselves, often in hit-and-miss fashion. Intuiting is: 

one of the most demanding operations, which requires utter concentration on the object intuited without being absorbed in it to the point of no longer looking critically. Nevertheless, there is little that the beginning phenomenologist can be given by way of precise instructions beyond such metaphoric phrases as "opening his eyes," "keeping them open," "not getting blinded," looking and listening (Spiegelberg, 1982, p. 682). 

Through intuiting, the phenomenologist hopes to experience a moment of insight in which she sees the phenomenon in a clearer light. I call this moment of greater clarity the phenomeno­logical disclosure, though it might also be described by such phrases as "the aha! experience," "revelatory seeing," or "pristine encounter." Through phenomenological disclosure, the student hopes to see the thing in its own terms and to feel confident that his or her seeing is reasonably correct. 

In phenomenological intuiting, therefore, the researcher's personal efforts, experiences, and insights are the central means for examining the phenomenon under study and arriving at moments of disclosure whereby the phenomenon reveals something about itself in a new or fuller way. 

Generally, phenomenological intuiting involves a series of smaller and larger disclosures that slowly coalesce into a fuller sighting of the phenomenon. In this sense, intuiting is rarely a single moment of revelation in which understanding is had in one full swoop. Instead, intuiting is gradual and unpredict­able. Through the researcher's wish, effort, and practice, the phenomenon is seen in smaller and larger ways. Patterns, relation­ships, and subtleties gradually arise of which the student was not aware before. In her depiction of phenomenological intuiting as a flow and spiral, Tesch (1987, pp. 231-232) described the unpredictability and serendipity of the process well: 

Obviously, the [phenomenological] researcher must begin somewhere and intends to end somewhere. Thus there is a movement, a progression, and eventually, an arrival. It would be wrong, however, to picture this movement as a straight, sequential process. It is even a bit misleading to think of it as a process. To conjure up an image of what this movement is like, it helps to see it more in terms of a flow, or of a cycling and spiraling motion that have no clearly distinguishable steps or phases. Typically, the researcher would be hard pressed to say where this flow begins. She knows only that her first data collection session already contained the seeds of what is usually termed the "analysis." The first ideas of how to make sense of the data are born then, and other ideas may come to her at any time during any research activity, even up to the eventual writing of her results (pp. 231-232).

3.2.2. Key Characteristics of Phenomenological Method

There is more to the phenomenological enterprise than phenomenological reduction and phenomenological intuiting, but these two processes mark the core of phenomenological method.4 Having discussed this core, I can now make the following claims about phenomenological method as a radical empiricism:

1. The study must involve the researcher's direct contact with the phenomenon. If the phenomenologist studies a person or group's experience, then she must encounter that experience as directly as possible. Methodological possibilities include the researcher's participating in the experience, her conducting in-depth interviews with the person or group having the experience, or her carefully watching and describing the situation supporting or related to the experience. 

If the phenomenon being studied is some artifactual text--for example, photographs, a novel, or music‑-the researcher must find ways to immerse herself in the text so that she becomes as familiar as possible with it. Thus, she might carefully study the text and thoroughly record her experience and understanding. She might ask other parties to respond to the text and provide their insights and awareness. Or she might study other commentator's understandings of the text--for example, reading reviews of the novel or studying all critical commentaries on the author or artist in question. 

In short, the researcher must facilitate for herself an intimacy with the phenomenon through prolonged, firsthand exposure. 

2. The phenomenologist must assume that she does not know the phenomenon but wishes to. Ideally, the phenomenologist approaches the phenomenon as a beginner‑-in fact, phenomenology is often defined as a "science of beginnings" (Stewart and Mukunas, 1990, p. 5). Whereas in positivist research, the student typically begins her inquiry knowing what she does not know, the phenomenologist, does not know what she doesn't know. The phenomenon is an uncharted territory that the student attempts to explore. 

The phenomenologist must therefore always adapt her methods to the nature and circumstances of the phenomenon. A set of procedures that work for one phenomenological problem may be unsuitable elsewhere. In this sense, the central instrument of deciphering the phenomenon is the phenomenological researcher herself. She must be directed yet flexible in the face of the phenomenon. 

In short, the phenomenologist has no clear sense of what she will find or how discoveries will proceed. The skill, perceptiveness, and dedication of the researcher is the engine for phenomenological research and presupposes any specific methodological procedures. 

3. Since the researcher as human instrument is the heart of phenomenological method, the specific research methods she uses should readily portray human experience in experiential terms. The best phenomenological methods, therefore, are those that allow human experience to arise in a rich, unstructured, multidimensional way. 

If the interview format seems the best way to gather an account of the phenomenon, then the researcher must be open to respondents and adapt her questions, tone, and interest to both respondents' commentaries and to her own shifting understanding as she learns more about the phenomenon. If the researcher uses a novel, photograph or some other artifactual text to examine the phenomenon, then she must be willing to return to its parts again and again, especially if an exploration of one new part offers insights on other parts already considered. 

In short, phenomenological method incorporates a certain uncertainty and spontaneity that must be accepted and transformed into possibility and pattern. The phenomenological approach to a particular phenomenon must be developed creatively and allow for a fluidity of methods and research process.


Having considered, broadly, some central components of phenomenological method, I next wish to review attempts to identify specific methodological forms of phenomenological research. 

For the most part, it has been psychologists‑-especially psychologists associated with what has come to be called the "Duquesne School of Phenomeno­lo­gical Psychology"‑-who have sought to establish reliable procedural methods for conduct­ing empirical phenomenolog­ical research (Giorgi et al., 1983; Valle, 1998; also see Moustakas, 1994).5 

Drawing on the designations of Duquesne phenomenological psychologist von Eckartsberg (1998a, 1998b), I discuss two methodological approaches‑-what von Eckartsberg calls the existential and the hermeneutic. I also add a third approach that I call first-person. I describe this approach first, since it draws on the realm of experience closest to the researcher‑-her own lived situation. 

4.1. First-Person Phenomenological Research

In first-person phenomenological inquiry, the researcher uses her own firsthand experience of the phenomenon as a basis for examining its specific characteristics and qualities (Chaffin, 1989; Lane, 1988; Seamon, 1992; Shaw, 1992; Toombs, 1992a, 1992b, 1995a, 1995b, Wu, 1991). One example is the work of Violich (1985, 1998), who examined the contrasting qualities of place for several Dalmatian towns with varying spatial layouts. Using such techniques as sketching, mapping, and journal entries, he immersed himself in each place for several days and sought to "`read' each as a whole" (1985, p. 113). 

One of the most sensitive and exhaustive uses of first-person phenomenological research is the work of Toombs (1992a, 1992b, 1995a, 1995b), who lives with multiple sclerosis, an incurable illness that affects her ability to see, to hear, to sit, and to stand. In her work, which most broadly can be described as a phenomenology of illness (especially 1995a), she demonstrates how phenomenological notions like the lived body provide "important insights into the profound disruptions of space and time that are an integral element of changed physical capacities such as loss of mobility" (Toombs, 1995b, p. 9). 

Toombs' method involved a continual dialectic between phenomenological notions as conceptually understood versus their concreteness as known directly in her own lived experience. For instance, to provide an understanding of how the disabled person's loss of mobility leads to a changed interaction with the surrounding world, Toombs recounted in detail a typical experience‑-her journey by airplane to a professional conference. At one point in her narrative she described airport check-in: 

Once in the terminus I go to the airline check-in counter. In my battery-operated scooter I am approximately three and a half feet tall and the counter is on a level with my head. All my transactions with the person behind the counter take place at the level of my ear. The person behind the counter must stretch over it to take my tickets, and I must crane y neck and shout to be heard (ibid., p. 14). 

From such lived examples, Toombs drew phenomenological generalizations‑-for example, she described how her loss of upright posture relates to Merleau-Ponty's broader notions of bodily intentionality and the transformation of corporeal style (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 76). Thus the loss of uprightness is not confined to problems of locomotion but also involves deeper experienced dimensions like the diminishment of one's own autonomy and the tendency of able persons to treat the disabled as dependent or even subnormal.6 

Another way in which the first-person approach can be used is phenomenology is as a starting place from which the phenomenologist can bring to awareness "her preconceived notions and biases regarding the experience being investigated so that the researcher is less likely to impose these biases when interpreting [the phenomenon]" (Shertock, 1998, p. 162; also see Colaizzi, 1973). 

In this sense, if the phenomenologist has access in her own experience to the phenomenon she plans to study, first-person research can offer clarity and insight grounded in one's own lifeworld.7 This understanding is derived from a world of one, however, and the researcher must find ways to involve the worlds of others. This need leads to the method of existential-phenomenological research. 

4. 2. Existential-Phenomenological Research

The basis for generalization in existential-phenomenological research is the specific experiences of specific individuals and groups involved in actual situations and places (von Eckartsberg, 199a, p. 4). In the discussion of lifeworld and place research above, Million's phenomenology of involuntary displacement (Million, 1998) and Nogué i Font's phenomenology of landscape (Nogué i Font, 1993) are good examples in that the basis for generalization is the real-world experiences of the ranchers forced to relocate or the farmers and landscape painters of Garroxta. 

Phenomenological psychologists, particularly those associated with the Duquesne School, have devoted considerable effort to establishing a clear set of procedures and techniques for this style of phenomenology (see Valle, 1998). For van Eckartsberg (1998b, p. 21), the heart of this approach is "the analysis of protocol data provided by research [respondents] in response to a question posed by the researcher that pinpoints and guides their recall and reflection." 

Specifically, he speaks of four steps in the process: (1) identifying the phenomenon in which the phenomenologist is interested; (2) gathering descriptive accounts from respondents regarding their experience of the phenomenon; (3) carefully studying the respondents' accounts with the aim of identifying any underlying commonalities and patterns; and (4) presentation of findings, both to the study respondents (in the form of a "debriefing" about the study in ordinary language) and to fellow researchers (in the form of scholarly presentation). 

Other phenomenologists have discussed the steps in existential-phenomenological work in ways that more or less echo von Eckartsburg's four stages (e.g., Giorgi, 1985; Churchill et al., 1998; Wertz, 1984). Whatever the particular phrasing, the common assumption is that the individual descriptive accounts, when carefully studied and considered collectively, "reveal their own thematic meaning-organization if we, as researchers, remain open to their guidance and speaking, their disclosure, when we attend to them" (von Eckartsberg, 1998b, p. 29). In short, we return to the openness and spontaneity of the phenomenological disclosure discussed above. 

The existential-phenomenological approach makes one important assumption in its claim for generating generalization. The approach assumes a certain equivalence of meaning for the respondents whose experience the researcher probes. In other words, the claim is that  "people in a shared cultural and linguistic community name and identify their experience in a consistence and shared manner" (von Eckartsberg, 1998a, p. 15). 

Procedurally, this claim means that respondents (1) must have had the experience under investigation and (2) be able to express themselves clearly and coherently in spoken, written, or graphic fashion, depending on the particular tools used for eliciting experiential accounts. Ideally, the respondents will also feel a spontaneous interest in the research topic, since personal concern can motivate the respondent to provide the most thorough and accurate lived descriptions (Shertock, 1998, p. 162). 

These requirements mean that inquiry is not carried out, as in positivist science, on a random sample of subjects representative of the population to which findings will be generalizable. Rather, some respondents will be more appropriate than others because of their particular situation in relation to the phenomenon studied or because they seem more perceptive, thus better able to articulate their experience. 

Usually, in phenomenological research, "subjects" are instead called "respondents" or "co-researchers," since any generalizable understanding is a function of the sensibilities of both respondent and researcher. As Shertock (ibid.) explains: "The emergent meaning is co-constituted by the description of the experiences [from the respondents] and the interpretive process of the one seeking the prereflective structure of the experience."

In practice, there is exact step-by-step procedure for conducting existential-phenomeno­logical research beyond the general stages identified above. As explained earlier, the individual style of the researcher and the specific nature of the phenomenon are much more important for establishing the specific research procedure and tools of description.

In her study of involuntary displacement, for example, Million (1993) spent much time locating participants who wished to share their experience and who appeared to be able to offer that sharing in a thoughtful, articulate way. She involved these participants in several in-depth interviews, the formats of which shaped and reshaped themselves as she learned more about each family's experience and the broader events of the dam construction. In addition, she lived with some of the ranch families and asked them to accompany her on "field trips" to the flooded areas that used to be their ranches. In short, Million's specific methods and procedures were auxiliary to the nature and needs of her own individual research style, her research participants, and her phenomenon of involuntary displacement.

4. 3. Hermeneutic-phenomenological research

Most broadly, hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation (Mugerauer, 1994, p. 4), particularly the interpretation of texts, which may be any material object or tangible expression imbued in some way with human meaning‑-for example, a public document, a personal journal, a poem, a song, a painting, a dance, a sculpture, a garden, and so forth.

The key point hermeneutically is that the creator of the text is not typically available to comment on its making or significance, thus the hermeneutic researcher must find ways to discover meanings through the text itself. As von Eckartsberg (1998b, p. 50) describes the hermeneutical process:

One embeds oneself in the process of getting involved in the text, one begins to discern configurations of meaning, of parts and wholes and their interrelationships, one receives certain messages and glimpses of an unfolding development that beckons to be articulated and related to the total fabric of meaning. The hermeneutic approach seems to palpate its object and to make room for that object to reveal itself to our gaze and ears, to speak its own story into our understanding.

In environment-behavior research, much of the phenomenological work has been hermeneutic because the aim is often an understanding of material environments, whether furnishings, buildings, cultural landscapes, settlement patterns, and the like (Alexander, 1987, 1993; Alexander et al., 1977; Anella, 1990; Brenneman, 1995; Chaffin, 1989; Chawla, 1994; Chidester and Linenthal, 1995; Condon, 1991; Francis, 1995; Harries, 1988, 1993, 1997; Hieb, 1990; Holan, 1990; Lin, 1991a; Lin, 1991b; Lipton, 1990; Mugerauer, 1993, 1994, 1995; Norberg-Schulz, 1980, 1988, 1996; Paterson, 1991, 1993a, 1993b; Relph, 1976, 1990, 1992; Riegner, 1993; Seamon, 1991, 1993, 1994; Silverstein, 1993b; Stefanovic, 1994; Sturm, 1990; Swentzell, 1990; Thiis-Evensen, 1987; Walkey, 1993; Wu, 1994).

One useful example of the value of a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach in environment-behavior research is the work of Norwegian architect Thiis-Evensen (1987), who proposes a universal language of architecture by focusing on the experi­enced qualities of floor, wall, and roof, which he says are "the most basic elements in architec­ture" (ibid., p. 8).

Through a hermeneutic reading of many different buildings in different cultures and historical periods, Thiis-Evensen suggests that these three architectural elements are not arbitrary but, rather, common to all architectural styles and traditions. The essential existential ground of floor, wall, and roof, he argues, is the relationship between inside and outside: Just by being what they are, the floor, wall, and roof automati­cal­ly create an inside in the midst of an outside, though in different ways: the floor, through above and beneath; the wall, through within and around; and the roof, through under and over.

Thiis-Evensen demonstrates that a building's relative degree of inside­ness or outsideness in regard to floor, wall, and roof can be clarified through motion, weight, and substance‑-what he calls the three "existential expressions of architec­ture" (ibid., p. 21). Motion relates to the sense of dynamism or inertia evoked by the architec­tural element--i.e., whether it seems to expand, contract, or rest in balance. Weight involves the sense of heaviness or lightness of the element and its relation to gravity. Substance refers to the material sense of the element--whether it is soft or hard, coarse or fine, warm or cold, and so forth. The result, claims Thiis-Evensen, is an intricate set of tensions between archi­tectur­al elements and experi­ence. 

In his work, Thiis-Evensen assumes that architectural form and space both presuppose and contribute to various shared existential qualities‑-insideness-outsideness, gravity-levity, coldness-warmth, and so forth‑-that mark the foundation of architecture as human beings experience it (Seamon, 1991).

For example, if one studies the lived qualities of stairs, one realizes that narrow stairs typically relate to privacy and make the user move up them more quickly than up wide stairs, which better express publicness and ceremonial significance. Similarly, steep stairs express struggle and strength, isolation and survival--experienced qualities that sometimes lead to the use of steep stairs as a sacred symbol, as in Mayan temples or Rome's Scala Santa.  On the other hand, shallow stairs encourage a calm, comfortable pace and typically involve secular use, as, for example, Michelangelo's steps leading up to the Campidoglio of Rome's Capitoline Hill (Thiis-Evensen, 1987, pp. 89-103).

I discuss Thiis-Evensen's work at length here because it is an exceptional example of one researcher's effort to look at a text‑-buildings in many different times and places‑-and to identify a series of experiential themes that do justice to "the integrity, complexity, and essential being of the phenomenon" (von Eckartsberg, 1998b, p. 50).

One test of the value of Thiis-Evensen's experiential theory is that other researchers have found his interpretation to be a useful language for examining in detail the work of specific architects and specific architectural styles (e.g., Kushwah, 1993; Lin, 1991b; Lin and Seamon, 1993; Ramaswami, 1991).

At the same time, it is important to emphasize that Thiis-Evensen does not claim that his way of architectural interpretation is the only way, and clearly there could be other hermeneutics of architecture that would provide other ways of presenting and understanding architectural meaning (e.g., Harries, 1988, 1993, 1997; Mugerauer, 1993; Alexander, 1987, 1993). This is a key aspect of all hermeneutical work: there are many ways to interpret the text, thus interpretation is never complete but always underway.

4.4. Commingling Methods

Very often the phenomenological researcher uses the first-person, existential, and hermeneutic approaches in combination, thus, for example, Nogué i Font (1993), in his phenomenology of the Garroxta landscape, made use of interviews but also did hermeneutic readings of nineteenth-century Garroxtan photographs and the pictures of artists associated with the nineteenth-century Garroxta school of landscape painting.

One of the most sensitive examples of a phenomenological study drawing on multiple methods is Chaffin's study of one Louisiana river landscape as it evokes a sense of place and community (Chaffin, 1989). Chaffin's focus is Isle Brevelle, a 200-year-old river community on the Cane River of Lousiana's Natchitoches Parish.

His conceptual vehicle to explore this place is simple but effective: to move from outside to inside, first, by presenting the region's history and geography, then by interviewing residents, and, finally, by canoeing the Cane River, which he comes to realize is the "focus of the community-at-home-and-at-large" (ibid., p. 41). As he glides by the river banks, he become aware of a rhythm of water, topography, vegetation, and human settlement. He writes:

Once on the water, the earlier feelings of alienation and intrusion were gone. I came directly in contact with a spatial rhythm. As the valley's horizon is formed by the surrounding sand hills, so the river's horizon is formed by the batture [the land that slopes up from a waterway to the top of a natural or artificial levee], silhouetted against the sky when viewed from a canoe. I had the paradoxical sensation of being both high and low at the same time; held down between the banks, yet as high as the surrounding fields.

The meanders of the once-wild current organized this experience. As I paddled around the bends, the rhythm unfolded. On the outside of the curve, I was contained by a steep bank, emphasized by red cedar sentinels. Only rooftops and cars passing along the river road hinted at a world beyond. On the inside, I was released into a riverside world of inlets, peninsulas, and undulating banks softened by black willows, some even growing directly from the water on submerged bars...

 As the curves changed direction, the containment and release offered by the two sides of the river altered in turn and, in `my own little world,' of the river, everything seemed to fit (ibid., p. 102).

In his study, Chaffin begins with a hermeneutic study of the natural and cultural landscape through scientific and historical documents. He also observes the community of Isle Brevelle firsthand and sees a strong sense of place, which he understands more fully through an existential stage of study involving interviews. Finally, through the first-person experience of canoeing on the river, he sees clearly that the river is not an edge that separates the two banks but, rather, a seam that gathers the two sides together in belonging as one place.

The ultimate question, especially for the non-phenomenologist, is whether, in fact, phenomeno­logical interpretations like  Chaffin's offers a truthful picture of the phenomena they purport to present. This question leads to the issue of validity and trustworthiness as understood phenomenologically.


Though phenomenological research in the human sciences has been criticized on a number of grounds,8 perhaps the most significant concern among conventionally-trained, positivist social scientists is the issue of trustworthiness‑-in other words, what criteria can be used to establish the reliability of phenomenological descriptions and interpretations?

From a phenomenological perspective, the issue of reliability first of all involves interpretive appropriateness: In other words, how can there be an accurate fit between experience and language, between what we know as individuals in our own lives versus how that knowledge can be accurately placed theoretically? As von Eckartsberg (1998a, p. 15) explains,

How is it that we can say what we experience and yet always live more than we can say, so that we could always say more than we in fact do? How can we evaluate the adequacy or inadequacy of our expression in terms of its doing justice to the full lived quality of the experience described?

How are thought and life interrelated so that they can be characterized as interdependent, as in need of each other, as complementing each other, as interpenetrant? Living informs expression (language and thinking) and, in turn, thinking-language-expression reciprocally informs and gives a recognizable shaped awareness to living. Meaning, experience as meaningful, seems to be the fruit of this dialogue between inchoate living and articulate expression. Whereas living is unique and particular, i.e., existential, thinking tends toward generalization, toward the universal, the essential, the phenomenological.

Beyond the issue of interpretation's rendering experience faithfully is the dilemma that several phenomenologists, dealing with the same descriptive evidence, may present their interpretations differently and arrive at entirely different meanings. In an article comparing three phenomeno­logically-based interpretations drawing on the same descriptive evidence, Churchill and colleagues (Churchill et al., 1998) attempt to deal with this issue of interpretive relativity. They point out that, in conventional positivist research, reliability refers to the fact that one can establish an equivalence of measurement, where measurement refers to quantification according to an predetermined scale or standard (ibid., p. 64). If, however, "measurement" must be applied to the qualitative descriptions of phenomenological research, the required equivalence is much more difficult to establish: "[N]ot only is the criterion for agreement between two verbal descriptions not clearly defined, but also an agreement among judges regarding the equivalence of descriptions becomes equally difficult to establish" (ibid., p. 64).

As a way to consider the issue of reliability phenomenologically, Churchill and colleagues organized the following phenomenological experiment: They presented the same set of narrative descriptions to three researchers all trained in phenomenological method.9 Each researcher was free to bring his or her set of concerns and questions to the descriptions.

After studying the three resulting interpretations, Churchill and colleagues concluded that, though there were some differences in emphases, there was also a common thematic core.10 In this sense, the experiment indicated that phenomenological interpretation offers some degree of equivalence, since a "somewhat coherent set of themes can be gleaned from three different interpretive research results" (ibid., pl 81). On the other hand, there were also differences among the three interpretations, but these differences do not so much indicate the failure of phenomenology as a method but, rather, demonstrate the existential fact that human interpreta­tion is always only partial.11 

In this sense, reliability from a phenomenological perspective cannot be defined as some equivalence of measurement based on some predefined scale of calculation separate from the experience and understanding of the researcher. Rather, reliability can only be had through what can be called intersubjective corroboration‑-in other words, can other interested parties find in their own life and experience, either directly or vicariously, what the phenomenologist has found in her own work? In this sense, the phenomenologist's interpretations are no more and no less than interpretive possibilities. As Giorgi (1975, p. 96, cited in Churchill et al., p. 81) explains: 

Thus the chief point to be remembered with this kind of research is not so much whether another position with respect to the [original descriptions] could be adopted (this point is granted beforehand) but whether a reader, adopting the same viewpoints as articulated by the researcher, can also sea what the researcher saw, whether or not he agrees with it. That is the key criterion for [phenomenological] research. 

In this sense, whether one is doing or reading phenomenological research, it is important to allow ourselves the time and space to be with and follow the other's presentation, whether of the person being interviewed, the art work being interpreted, or the final phenomenological report. The aim is an openness and empathy whereby we begin to sense the other's situation and meaning. 

In spite of the relativity of phenomenological trustworthiness, one can identify qualitative criteria that can help to judge the validity of phenomenological interpretation‑-at least in broad terms (e.g., van Manen, 1990; Polkinghorne, 1983). Polkinghorne (1983, p. 46), for example, presented four qualities to help readers judge the trustworthiness of phenomenological interpretation: vividness, accuracy, richness, and elegance.

First, vividness is a quality that draws readers in, generating a sense of reality and honesty. Second, accuracy refers to believability in that readers are able to recognize the phenomenon in their own lifeworlds or they can imagine the situation vicariously. Third, richness relates to the aesthetic depth and quality of the description, so that the reader can enter the interpretation emotionally as well as intellectually.  Finally, elegance points to descriptive economy and a disclosure of the phenomenon in a graceful, even poignant, way. 

Using these four criteria, one can evaluate the effectiveness of specific phenomenological work--for example, the above-mentioned first-person studies of Toombs and Violich. Note that, from a conventional positivist perspective, the reliability of this work would immediately be called into question because of the issue of extreme subjectivity: How can the reader be sure that the two researchers' understandings of their own experiences speak in any accurate way to the realm of human experience in general? 

But also note that, in terms of Polkinghorne's four criteria, the issue is no longer subjectivity but, rather, the power to convince: Are Toombs' and Violich's first-person interpretations strong enough to engage the reader and get her to accept the researchers'  conclusions? In this regard, Toombs' first-person phenomenology of illness (Toombs, 1993a, 1993b) succeeds in terms of all Polkinghorne's criteria: Her writing is vivid, accurate, and rich in the sense that the reader is drawn into the reality of her descriptions and can believe they relate to concrete experiences that she, the reader, can readily enter secondhand. 

In addition, Toombs' work is elegant because there is a clear interrelationship between real-world experiences and conceptual interpretation. In sum, the reader can imaginatively participate in Toombs' situations and conclusions. What she says "seems right" as her connections between phenomenological theory and lived experience allow the reader to "see" her situation in a thorough, heartfelt way. 

On the other hand, Violich's portrait of Dalmatian towns can be judged as less trustworthy in terms of Polkinghorne's four criteria because Violich's  interpretations seem too much the image of an outsider experiencing place for only a short time. He describes these towns largely in terms of physical features and human activities as they can be read publicly in outdoor social spaces. There is no sense of what these places mean for the people who live and work there. The resulting interpretation seems incomplete and lacking in the potential fullness of the places as they are everyday lifeworlds.12 

We could use Polkinghorne's four criteria to evaluate other studies discussed above. For instance, Million's existential-phenomenological approach to the ranch families' involuntary displacement satisfies the criteria exceptionally well, portraying a lived experience that the reader can follow concretely and vividly, yet at the same time, using that empirical evidence as a means to identify the broader stages of losing one's place and having to resettle elsewhere. 

Similarly, Thiis-Evensen's hermeneutic phenomenology of architectural form and space is powerful because it holds a conceptual consistency and cohesion that provides valuable new insights into the lived-aesthetics of specific buildings and architectural styles. 

On the other hand, Nogué i Font's phenomenology of the Garroxta landscape is less effective because the specific understandings of his five groups as well as the essential nature of the Garroxta landscape seems opaque and without the vividness and richness that groups intimately familiar with place‑-e.g., the farmers and landscape painters would be expected to possess.13 

Ultimately, the most significant test of trustworthiness for any phenomenological study is its relative power to draw the reader into the researcher's discoveries, allowing the reader to see his or her own world or the worlds of others in a new, deeper way. The best phenomeno­logical work breaks people free from their usual recognitions and moves them along new paths of understanding. 


In the end, the phenomenological enterprise is a highly personal, interpretive venture. In trying to see the phenomenon, it is very easy to see too much or too little. Looking and trying to see are very much an intuitive, spontaneous affair that involves feeling as much as thinking. In this sense, phenomenology might be described as a method to cultivate a mode of seeing that cultivates both intellectual and emotional sensibilities, with the result that understanding may be more whole and comprehensive. 

Because architecture and design also regularly involve a process of intuitive awareness and discovery, a phenomenological approach may be one way to rekindle designers' interest in environment-behavior research‑-an interest that seriously waned as architects and other designers became uncomfortable with the strong positivist stance of environment-behavior studies in the 1970s and 1980s. 

According to Franck (1987, p. 65), a key reason for this discomfort was the unwillingness of social scientists to "understand or accept the [more intuitive] strategies and priorities of the design professions" (ibid). Franck emphasized that one of the greatest values of phenomenology is its potential for providing a place for dialogue between designers and social scientists because it gives attention "to the essence of human experience rather than to any abstraction of that experience and because of its ability to reconcile, or perhaps to bypass completely, the positivist split between `objective' and `subjective'" (ibid., pp. 65-66). 

As Thiis-Evensen's work indicates, many of the more recent phenomenological works relevant to environment-behavior research use phenomenological insights to examine design issues (Alexander, 1987, 1993, et. al, 1977; Barbey, 1989; Boschetti, 1990; Brill, 1993; Coates, 1998; Coates and Seamon, 1993; Cooper Marcus, 1993; Dorward, 1990; Dovey, 1993; Francis, 1995; Hester, 1993; Howett, 1993; Mugerauer, 1993, 1994, 1995; Munro, 1991; Murrain, 1993; Paterson, 1993a, 1993b; Porteous, 1989; Rattner, 1993; Seamon, 1990; Silverstein, 1993a; Silverstein, 1993b; Thiis-Evensen, 1987; Violich, 1998; Walkey, 1993). Dovey (1993, p. 267) has summarized phenomenology's value for environmental design well: 

The rigorous application of a phenomenological perspective to the built environment entails a critical analysis of the design process to ensure that the primacy of experience is not lost to the complexities or scale of the development; to failures of communication; to the imperatives of capital development, or to the lure of geometry as an end in itself. In particular, phenomenology entails a critical distinction between lived-space and geometric space, between the experience of place and the geometric simulations which are a means to its effective transformation. 


In placing phenomenological work in today's broader intellectual landscape, Mugerauer (1993, pp. 94-95) points to critics on both the "right" and "left." On the "right," are the positivists, who see phenomenology as "subjective," "soft," and "anectodal." On the "left," are the post-structuralists and deconstructivists, who question phenomenology's belief in commonality, continuity, pattern, and order.14 

In phenomenology and hermeneutics, Mugerauer sees a middle way between the absolutism of positivism, on one hand, and the relativism of post-structuralism, on the other. This is so, says Mugerauer, because in its efforts to see and understand human experience and meaning in a kindly, open way, phenomenology strives for a balance between person and world, researcher and phenomenon, feeling and thinking, and experience and theory. This effort of balance, he believes (ibid., p. 94) is crucial "if we are to adequately understand, plan, and build a socially pluralistic and ecologically appropriate environment." 

In regard to environment-behavior research, a phenomenological approach emphasizes that the material world plays a significant role in the quality of human life exactly because human beings are always everywhere immersed in their worlds, which in part is physical. The central aim is to explore and to interpret that mutual relationship through examining behavior, experience, and meaning in a descriptive, interpretive manner as they happen in their everydayness. 

The long-term impact of phenomenology on environment-behavior research remains to be seen. The advances in the last ten years are encouraging, though among mainstream researchers the approach is still obscure. I hope this article makes phenomenology more understandable and indicates the considerable value it can have for making better places and environments. 

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1. In this article, I largely highlight research of the last ten years. For discussions of earlier phenomenological work relating to environment-behavior research, see Seamon, 1982; Seamon, 1987; Seamon, 1989.

2. Unintentionally, this phenomenological assumption that people and world are intimately part and parcel gives environment-behavior research a central place in the human and environmental sciences, since the recognition is that the crucial unit of study is the lived fabric of inescapable connectedness between people and world. Environment-behavior research gives attention to one key aspect of this connectedness‑-viz., the ways that the physical, spatial, and human portions of the world sustain, reflect, and potentially change the lives and experiences of particular individuals and groups.

3. Closely related to the theme of place is the topic of sacred space, which has also received increasing attention phenomenologically in the last ten years (Barnes, 1992; Brenneman and  Brenneman, 1995; Chdester and Linenthal, 1995; Cooper Marcus, 1993; Eliade, 1961; Lane, 1988; Lin, 1991; Lin and Seamon, 1993; Muguerauer, 1994, chap. 4; Whone, 1990; Wu, 1993. Also related is work dealing with a phenomenology of environmental ethics (Abrams, 1996; Cheney, 1989; Foltz, 1995; Mugerauer, 1994; Margadant-van Archen, 1990; Stefanovic, 1991; Weston, 1994).

4. For example, Spiegelberg (1982, pp. 681-717) follows phenomenological intuiting with phenomenological analyzing and describing as well as broader phrases of investigation that include, among others, "investigating general essences" and "watching modes of appearing." Again, I emphasize that each phenomenological problem necessarily requires a different starting point, method, and manner of presentation, thus, it becomes difficult to delineate a definite set of rules, stages, procedures, or formats.

5. In contrast, pheno­meno­logical studies in environment-behavior research have typically given only minimal discussion to methodological issues, partly because the perspective has relative­ly few adherents and partly because real-world studies have arisen largely from the ideas of phenomeno­logi­cal philosophers like Heideggerand Merleau-Ponty, who reach their conclusions largely on the basis of personal reflection rather than through some wider corroborative method that would validate conclusions as also correct for other human beings.

6. Toombs (1995b, p. 17) writes: "Whenever I am accompanied by an upright person, in my presence strangers invariably address themselves to my companion and refer to me in the third person. `Can SHE transfer from her wheelchair to a seat?' `Would SHE like to sit?'.... When I am unaccompanied, people often act as if my inability to walk has affected not only my intelligence but also my  hearing. When forced to address me directly they articulate their words in an abnormally slow and usually loud fashion...." (p. 17).

7. Obviously, the phenomenologist cannot always have firsthand experience of the phenomenon. One example is Hill's work on the environmental experience of the blind (Hill, 1985). Hill was sighted herself and therefore lived with congenitally-blind individuals and interviewed them in depth.

8. I have discussed a number of these criticisms elsewhere (Seamon, 1987, pp. 15-19).

9. The description related to the current sexual practices of a young woman who had previously been the victim of a date rape.

10. This thematic core involved a common focus on "a vacillation within the [respondent's] experience from active to passive agency, with passivity emerging precisely at those moments when a decision is called for on the subject's part. Likewise, all three see her as `disowning' her body‑-disconnecting her `self' from her actions when her integrity is at stake. Finally, all three see that her integrity within the situation is a function of her...desire for a sexual experience that is `shared and reciprocal'" (ibid., p. 81).

11. From a phenomenological perspective, Churchill's experiment is artificial in the sense that two of the researchers interpreting the lived description had not actually gathered it from the respondent, thus they had no sense of the lived context out of which the description arose. In addition, these two researchers were recruited after the description was already solicited, thus they had no personal interest or stake in the phenomenon being studied. It is significant that, in spite of these weaknesses, the three researchers were able to identify similar core themes. 

12. On the other hand, Violich's work is still important because it serves as one model for first-person phenomenologies of place. More such studies are needed, coupled with other ways to read place as in Million's and Chaffin's work (Million, 1993; Chaffin, 1989).

Other useful models include Hufford's interpretation of the New Jersey Pinelands (Hufford, 1986), Lane's work on American sacred spaces and places (Lane, 1988), Mugerauer's hermeneutic readings of the contemporary North American landscape (Mugerauer, 1993, 1994), Pocius' in-depth study of a Newfoundland harbor village (Pocius, 1991, and Walkey's presentation of the multi-story, guild-build houses of mountainous northern Greece, western Turkey, and the adjoining Balkan states (Walkey, 1993).

13. At this point, the reader may well ask why he or she should trust my evaluation of these various studies' strengths and weaknesses. There is not space here to justify my judgments in depth. I would ask the interested reader to go to these studies directly and evaluate them for himself or herself. Certainly, there might be disagreements. On the other hand, I would expect that, with a sizable group of evaluations, we would begin to find a certain degree of consistency (though never total agreement because, again, interpretation is always partial and underway) as to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various studies. In a sense, we would be participating in a phenomenology of phenomenological texts that do and do not draw the reader in and allow him or her to "see" the researcher's discoveries.

14. Post-structuralism and deconstruction have become a significant conceptual force in social science and, especially, in architecture (Mugerauer, 1994, chap. 3). For deconstructivists, meaning, pattern, and quality are plural, diverse, and continuously shifting. The aim is relativist interpretation and "deconstruc­tion"‑-the undermining and dismantling of all assumed and taken-for-granted givens, be they existential, cultural, historical, political, or aesthetic.  The aim is the freedom to change and to reconstitute oneself continually.  To have this shifting freedom, one must vigilantly remember that all life is a sham and so confront the unintelligible, relative nature of the world and human being (Mugerauer 1988, p. 67).

On one hand, the potential academic contribution of deconstruction is its unceasing aim to undercut and to question all taken-for-granted elements of an idea, ideal, lifeway, art work, and so forth.  On the other hand, the dangers of deconstruction are at least two.  First, there is a tendency to loose sight of the thing being interpreted and to fall back on an arbitrary, highly idiosyncratic, understanding of the interpreter. Second, in that deconstruction constantly undermines understanding, the final result too often is that meaning comes to be seen as meaningless, and hope, beauty, and creative enterprise are replaced by hopelessness, mediocrity, and nihilism. An excellent discussion of the poststructural-deconstructivist criticisms of phenomenology is Mugerauer, 1994, especially chap. 6.

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