Epoche and the Psychological Phenomenological Reduction

Phenomenological description is achieved by attempting to set aside our taken-for-granted assumptions about the world, to move away from the natural attitude. Phenomenology approaches any object of study in a systematic way, with an attempt to encounter the object in a fresh and unbiased way. That is, we seek to elaborate a description, in which we put aside our preconceptions and biases. We achieve this through the phenomenological reduction (Husserl, 1913/1931). The phenomenological reduction requires that we avoid all abstraction, theorising and generalisation. Husserl (1913/1931) described two procedures that are central to the reduction called epoche (pronounced ‘epokhe, from the ancient Greek). The aim is to gain access to the things themselves, Husserl’s famous rallying cry for phenomenology, meaning a focus on how things are given in experience itself. The first epoche involves setting aside prior (natural) scientific understanding, something that is particularly important for psychology as so many aspects of our discipline are shrouded in a natural scientific (often medical) understanding. This is regardless of whether we think there is value in these theories or not. The key is that we need to approach the phenomenon in its own terms, rather than through the lens of the various theories of science.

Setting aside scientific understanding does not mean that phenomenology simply returns us to the uncritical and unreflective stance on the world of the natural attitude (in which we take the reality of what we experience for granted). Instead, the second epoche involves us moving from the natural attitude to a phenomenological attitude in which we focus on experience itself and hence the subjective meaning of the lifeworld, the historically and culturally situated world that any person inhabits. In effect, we move our focus from the what to the how of the intentional relationship with an object. The question is not does X exist but rather how does X exist for a given concrete person or, to put it differently, how does X exist within the lifeworld of the participant under investigation (Husserl, 1936/1970). This focus on the meaning of any phenomenon for the person who has experienced it serves to reduce the field of investigation to something properly psychological. That psychological field of experience is brought to life through an analysis designed to shine a light on its subtle details.

The essence of the message above is the need to put any natural scientific preconceptions to one side when investigating a topic and to seek out a person’s subjective experience of that phenomenon, trying to understand how it appears to them and what it means in their own terms. The epoche is necessarily quite philosophical, but it translates into a relatively simple practical method. Ihde (1986), drawing directly on Husserl’s work, provides a helpful guide to how we might achieve a phenomenological reduction where we approach the phenomenon with a phenomenological attitude. This involves three processes: description, horizontalisation and verification. Description is at the heart of the phenomenological method and the central process in getting close to the things themselves in their appearing is to engage in rich description of the experience itself, resisting any temptation to draw on existing psychological theories. In order to help with this, we need to horizontalise the phenomenon and treat all elements equally, resisting our natural tendency to put things in hierarchies of meaning or importance. It is only when we have the meaning confirmed by the person him- or herself that we can start to do this. Until that point, we remain agnostic about everything we encounter. The way that we can check on meaning is through the process of verification where we repeatedly check our understanding of the meaning of someone’s experience back with them and/or the data (e.g. through the transcription of an interview). In phenomenology, we have to stay close to the data, repeatedly checking that we understand the meaning of any unit of analysis in context, and not rushing off beyond the data making wild interpretations.

An important thing to note is how the phenomenological reduction will require continual effort throughout the analytic process: it is not a once-and- for-all operation. Of course, it is never possible to achieve perfection and view the phenomenon with a ‘God’s eye view’, with nothing of us present in our analysis (Heidegger, 1927/1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962). But this does not mean we should not try as best we can to bracket our own preconceptions and engage a phenomenological attitude to the best of our ability. Our focus must be on the experience of the participants in a research project, seeking to understand it in their own terms, as it is lived by them in their lifeworld.

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