THE MEANING OF MEANING: PHENOMENOLOGY’S LIFEWORLD

DVORA YANOW

When put under oath in a Canadian court to testify about the fate of his hunting lands in connection with a case concerning a hydroelectric plant, a Cree hunter is reported to have said, “I’m not sure I can tell the truth . . . I can only tell what I know.” —James Clifford (1986, 8)

Tracing the development of phenomenological thought from its early articulations in Edmund Husserl’s writings in the latter part of the nineteenth century to Alfred Schütz’s in the mid-twentieth century is tantamount to observing social philosophy develop into social theory and sociology. The further one moves in time, the more grounded the theorizing becomes in explaining human life in all its dimensions. Moreover, reading the work of these two thinkers alone makes it clear that phenomenological philosophy itself diverges epistemologically, although its proponents hold similar ontological presuppositions.

From its inception, phenomenologists argued that meaning making takes place in the “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt) of the individual—the bedrock of beliefs against which the very ordinary, mundane moving through one’s everyday world, interacting with others, takes place and through which one shapes and reaffirms one’s sense of oneself and the elements of one’s social world. This was to be the focus of social scientific study. It requires accessing what is meaningful to social, politi- cal, cultural, and other groups, and to individuals within them, as well as understanding how meaning is developed, expressed, and communicated. In a phenomenological approach, much of everyday life is seen as consisting of common-sense, taken-for-granted, unspoken, yet widely shared and known “rules” for acting and interacting. It is the articulation of these “rules” that constitutes one of the central concerns of phenomenological analysis and of methods informed by this perspective, such as ethnomethodology and other forms of conversation analysis, symbolic interaction, ethnography, and participant-observation. As the social scientist is herself embedded in that social reality, the analytic problem is to extricate herself sufficiently from that unspoken common sense in order to render it “uncommon,” reflect on it, and make sense of it (which is the purchase claimed by ethnographic and participant-observer research for the researcher’s standing as “stranger” to the situation being studied; this argument informs the chapters by Joe Soss, Ellen Pader, Clare Ginger, Steven Maynard-Moody and Michael Musheno, and Samer Shehata).

Social realities are seen as “willed into existence through intentional acts” (Burrell and Mor- gan 1979, 233), through “consciousness” or “mind.” Something, in other words, intercedes in the phenomenal experience between sensing and sense-making A knock on the door at different times of day may produce identical sound wave sine curves, but what those sound waves mean differs if the knock comes at two in the afternoon and we are U.S. citizens sitting in a classroom in Hayward, California, in 2005 or if it comes at two in the morning and we are Jews hiding in an attic in Amsterdam in 1944.17 What we claim as knowledge of social phenomena comes from a willed (or intentional) interpretation of our sense perceptions, not from an uninterpreted register- ing of them, against the backdrop of preexisting conceptual categories derived from life experi- ence in interaction with others.

Other terms—lens, frame, paradigm, worldview or weltanschauung—capture aspects of the same idea as mind or consciousness.18 Husserl, in his approach to phenomenology, argued that analysis should focus not on the phenomena of lived experience themselves—the objects or events or terms were to be “bracketed” and set aside—but on the perceptual processes or mental con- structs humans create in order to make sense of those experiences, what in these other terms might be called the organizing frames or lenses or conceptual boxes that structure perception and comprehension of that reality.19 This shifts the analytic process from “What do you know?” to “How do you know [what you claim as knowledge]?” So, for example, in attempting to under- stand arguments about abortion from “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps, the researcher or policy analyst would “bracket” the arguments themselves—making no attempt to discern their objective “reality”—and focus instead on their “experienced reality”—on how those arguments are experi- enced by those making and hearing them and how they become “factual” reality to them, as Luker (1984) did. In this “transcendental” phenomenology, Husserl attempted to transcend experience to focus analysis on “pure” consciousness.

In his approach to phenomenology, Schütz directed inquiry back toward an engagement with lived experience, toward a more “existential” phenomenology in which the individual is engaged in and with a social world. For him, as for Heidegger, experience was about “being in the world,” and so its analysis, too, should be about engaging that world rather than bracketing it and setting it aside. It is this set of ideas that has been more productive for interpretive social science and its methods. In this view, each knower comes to his subject with prior knowledge that has grown out

of past experience, education, training, family-community-regional-national (and so on) back- ground, and character. These constitute, for each of us, the contexts that give rise to our lifeworld; both lived experience and lifeworld, in turn, shape the way that we understand our “Selves” and the world within which we live (Schütz 1967, 1973). Sense making—interpretation—with re- spect to a specific event or experience is done through retroactive reflection on that event or experience informed by prior knowledge. It is as if all human actors enact the words attributed, in Yogi Berra’s telling, to a baseball umpire speaking about pitched balls crossing the home plate being “balls,” or “strikes.” “They ain’t nuttin’ ’til I call ’em.”

The point holds, as well, for social scientists with respect to their subjects of study. This ren- ders the researcher, as well as the researched, a situated entity: Meaning making and the specific meaning(s) made by each one are contextualized by prior knowledge and by history and sur- rounding elements (other events, other experiences), a position shared by critical theorists and echoed in feminist “standpoint

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theory” (e.g., Hartsock 1987, Hawkesworth 1989). The implica- tion of this argument is not only that universal or cross-case laws are not possible in the same way in which positivist laws claim generalizability (see Adcock’s discussion, chapter 3, this volume) but also that social “reality” may be construed differently by different people: The social world we inhabit and experience is potentially a world of multiple realities, multiple interpretations. Discovery of some external, singular reality, a requisite of methodological posi- tivism, is not possible in this view.

The process of sense making is, in this way, iterative: Prior experiences shape one’s under- standing of new experiences, and new understanding derived from these experiences itself may refine the a priori knowledge brought to bear on subsequent experiences. All knowledge, in this sense, is social knowledge, as Karl Mannheim noted (quoted in Burrell and Morgan 1979); obser- vation and “facts” are theory-laden; and what we take to be objective “facts” may well be shaped, if not affected, by the observer.

The focus on the lifeworld as the core of experience and, hence, of the researcher’s analysis positions individual subjectivity at the center. As Bernstein (1976, 145) wrote, describing Schütz’s views on this subject:

A human actor is constantly interpreting his [or her] own acts and those of others. To under- stand human action we must not take the position of an outside observer who “sees” only the physical manifestations of these acts; rather we must develop categories for understanding what the actor—from his [or her] own point of view—“means” in his [or her] actions. . . . [I]n focusing on action, we can and must speak of its subjective meaning.

It is for this reason that interpretive researchers focus on methods of understanding from the perspective of the actor in the situation. At times, this renders the relationship between the actor’s meaning and the researcher’s meaning problematic: How do we reconcile the researcher’s cat- egory construction with the actor’s situated meaning? (I return to this point below; see also chap- ter 4, on faithful rendering, and chapter 5, on evaluative criteria.)

Applied to social situations, phenomenology has been called upon to address not only the individual Self, but Selves in social encounter with one another: how it is that in communal, political, organizational, and other collective settings and encounters, people manage to under- stand one another without necessarily making explicit the “rules” for living that they, by and large, adhere to. P. Berger and Luckmann (1966, part II) provide an extended and detailed discus- sion of a hypothetical situation, starting with Persons A and B as aboriginal creators of rules for living in the same setting. Over time, the rules are submerged into unspoken practices, becoming tacit knowledge, creating a sense of “how we do things here.” This works well until a third person arrives. New to the situation, Person C does not know the rules, and this requires A and B to make them explicit as they socialize C to the situation they have created and modify that situation and the rules to accommodate C’s strengths, talents, and limitations.

Through such interactive processes, members of a group come to use the same or similar cognitive mechanisms, engage in the same or similar acts, and use the same or similar language to talk about thought and action.20 The shared meanings are public, not private or personal (although the latter may be of interest in psychological studies and other fields less focused on collective action): Each group “has its own sounds, noises, and silences which arouse the attention of its members and have agreed upon significance” (Warner 1959, 455). This is also the process through which institutions are objectified and practices, reified.

Taking off from Berger and Luckmann’s book, the notion of “social construction” achieved currency in the human sciences. The creation of intersubjective understanding that they describe there—that which is developed between two (or more) “subjectivities”—was a central concern of their teacher, the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz, in his effort to understand how an individual makes sense of another’s acts. This is what is “social” about ontological constructivism: that it has a shared character, developed in the course of living in common, interacting through the medium of political, cultural, and other artifacts in which the meanings embedded in these arti- facts come to be known, tacitly, even when such communication is nonverbal.

Were it not for the awkwardness of language, we should rather speak of social constructing, rather than social constructions (much like Weick’s [1969] distinction between organizing and organization). The gerund captures the dynamism of the process and reserves agency to actors, whereas the noun form excessively reifies process outcomes: “social constructions” have been treated by some, in a most non-phenomenological fashion, as if they were agentless entities, disembodied from their action contexts.22 This is not to deny the institutionalization and reification that typically occur—the habits of thought and practice that result as constructive acts become mundane, so well described in that section of Berger and Luckmann’s work. A phenomenologi- cal ontology would remind us, however, and ask us to remind ourselves in the midst of our research and writing of the “as if” character of these institutions; it insists on human agency and, thereby, the possibility of change.

The concept of intersubjectivity, operative in an ontological sense, enables a conceptualization of collective action that is, or may be, otherwise problematic. A student of political, organizational, and social life often wants to make statements not only about individual actors but also about collectivities: states, communities, neighborhoods, departments. The intersubjective char- acter of social “realities”—describing as it does the habits of thinking, the ways of seeing, and the shared meanings submerged therein that knit together members of a group who have been inter- acting over time—accomplishes what from a more atomistic perspective appears to be an anthro- pomorphizing sleight of mind. The classic challenge put to analytic philosophy (thinking here of Bertrand Russell or the early Wittgenstein)—what meaning is there in the statement “England declared war”?—provides an example. Such declaration is an act of a single individual; what sense does it make to render it in the collective? Does it mean that “Parliament declared war” or that “Prime Minister Winston Churchill, acting as representative of The Crown, itself standing in for the English people as a whole, declared war”? The phenomenological observation that ongo- ing interaction leads to communities of interpretation and of practice, while not denying indi- vidual differences, enables such statements as “the United States has an immigration policy” or “the department knows how to get its students jobs.”23 The phenomenological concept of intersubjectivity that enables such a conceptualization of collective social reality stands in direct opposition to a methodological individualism that denies the significance, if not the very existence, of historical-cultural-social constructings other than those made through the choices of individuals. In sum, phenomenology focuses attention on the deeply embedded frameworks of tacitly known, taken-for-granted assumptions through which humans make sense of their lives. Research based on or influenced by a phenomenological outlook seeks to highlight the problematic character of such framings, as Ellen Pader does, for example (chapter 8, this volume), with respect to the everyday concept of “crowding,” a taken-for-granted, “commonsensical” assumption about ap- propriate spatial relations among people sharing a household, which, as a public policy concept, polices all manner of activities and regulations. Phenomenologically inflected methods seek to make explicit the lens or frame or way of seeing—the lifeworld—that makes such perceptions make sense. Reflecting on them and making them explicit potentially enables both understanding and action in their regard.

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