An Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology For Consumer Research: Historical, Conceptual, and Methodological Foundations

Scott D. Churchill, University of Dallas
Frederick J. Wertz, Iona College
ABSTRACT - Phenomenological psychology's approach and its relationship to contemporary philosophy and psychology are briefly reviewed. The key concepts of "intentionality" and "the life-world" are discussed and related to consumership. Three moments of intuitive methodology experiential contact, reflective analysis, and psychological description are outlined and their relevance for consumer research is suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Scott D. Churchill and Frederick J. Wertz (1985) ,"An Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology For Consumer Research: Historical, Conceptual, and Methodological Foundations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 550-555.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 550-555


Scott D. Churchill, University of Dallas

Frederick J. Wertz, Iona College


Phenomenological psychology's approach and its relationship to contemporary philosophy and psychology are briefly reviewed. The key concepts of "intentionality" and "the life-world" are discussed and related to consumership. Three moments of intuitive methodology experiential contact, reflective analysis, and psychological description are outlined and their relevance for consumer research is suggested.


Phenomenology began as a movement in contemporary philosophy. Its foundations were originally laid by Edmund Husserl (1913/1983) and subsequently developed by his followers Martin Heidegger (1927/1962), Jean-Paul Sartre (1943/19562, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962), and Alfred Schutz (1962). Husserl first called his new discipline "descriptive psychology," and although he was later to distinguish the properly philosophical discipline of transcendental phenomenology from the positive science of psychology, the fundaments of the latter have never ceased to be a central interest of the movement.

The contribution of phenomenology to the foundations of the positive sciences followed from Husserl's (1900/1970) passionate call, "We must go back to the 'things themselves'!" One implication of this statement is that the basic concepts and methodology of each science must rigorously target the essential characteristics of its subject matter. Indeed, one of the original aims of phenomenology was to complement and contextualize empirical scientific investigations by clarifying the "essence" of such regions of study as nature, animal life, and human psychic life. Such a clarification, Husserl reasoned, would be propaedeutic to any inquiries made at the empirical level. Each of the different subject matters make specific demands on science, which therefore must be developed differentially, each discipline in accord with its own phenomena. Along these lines, phenomenologists have insisted that human beings are a radically different kind of "thing" from physical and animal nature and therefore to treat them according to the concepts and methods of natural science is grossly unscientific, however appropriate and successful this approach has proven in the areas of its rightful application.

Within the German intellectual climate, phenomenology carried on a sympathetic dialogue with the Gestalt school of psychology and incorporated many of their findings. Another kindred movement, which also devoted interest to the development of descriptive human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in contradistinction to the experimental sciences of nature, originated in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1894/1977).

In his view, human and cultural phenomena manifested neither the exactness nor the mechanical regularity of physical nature, and consequently did not lend themselves well to quantification and causal explanation. Indeed, the human realm was considered to be distorted rather than truthfully disclosed by exact mathematical language and naturalistic reductionism. Dilthey foresaw the need for an approach that would be adequate to the structural complexity of the human order and characterized the orientation of the human sciences with the simple remark: "We explain nature; we understand psychic life."

Though much of psychology remains based on the approach of the natural sciences, the human science Dilthey envisioned a century ago as descriptive psychology exists today as a rather broad-based movement consisting of several strains. Characteristic of the diversity of research methodologies in this area is the work of Garfinkel (1967), Keen (1975), de Rivera (1981), and Polkinghorne (1983). Among these, the phenomenological approach developed over the past twenty-five years at Duquesne University and articulated by Giorgi (1970) has become a major force. Former students and associates of the Duquesne Circle now teach and carry on research at some twenty-five colleges and Universities throughout the United States and Canada (Smith 1984). Prototypic and exemplary research from this group can be found in the work of Van Kaam (1959, 1966), Colaizzi (1973), Fischer (1974), Giorgi (1975, 1984), and von Eckartsberg (1975, in press), and in edited volumes by Giorgi et al. (1971, 1975, 1979, 1983), Valle and King (1978), and Aanstoos (1984).

While learning, perception, motivation, emotion, thinking, language, remembering, development, personality, psychopathology, and an array of social phenomena have been investigated by phenomenological psychology, consumer research has remained only a potential area of its application. In the present paper we will discuss some basic concepts and methods of phenomenological psychology and begin to suggest their relevance for consumer research.


The questions we raise about persons, not to mention the answers, are shaped on one hand by our everyday or "prescientific" encounters with people, and on the other, by notions about them that we have come to accept in the course of our scientific endeavors. Not only do we "know more than we can tell" with respect to our precomprehension of human phenomena (Polanyi 1966), but we are immersed in a world of experience in which the lived is always greater than the known (Merleau-Ponty 1945/ 1962). That is, life both precedes and exceeds our very efforts to grasp it. Accordingly, the moment we refer to human beings as "consumers," we do so on the basis of a profound, deeply rooted, lived sense of the meaning of being a consumer. Although this "sense" is not a well articulated knowledge, it is an ineluctable foundation of scientific inquiry which merits consideration, and indeed clarification, in its own right.

The ambiguous, multifaceted and variegated presence of human life is the origin of the diversity of conceptual orientations that guide research efforts. For instance, a behavioristic approach would view the consumer as a repertoire of instrumental behaviors which have been shaped by environmental contingencies, while a psychoanalytic model would regard the consumer as activated by unconscious psychosexual wishes. The cognitive paradigm might see consumer behavior as an output traceable to intervening variables involved in processing input information. In contrast, a socio-economic perspective might conceive the consumer as a member of a class or individuals whose needs and actions have been collectively defined by the mass production and distribution of goods and services.

Phenomenological psychologists, in fact, characteristically say "yes and no" to each and all of these guiding notions. They say "yes" to the extent that these concepts are faithfully descriptive of and intuitively evident in prescientific phenomenal reality. They say "no" to the extent that these concepts involve inferences or constructions which, despite their explanatory or predictive power, are not directly reflective of the immanent quality of consumer life The; .so say "no" to the extent that a concept, even if it refers faithfully to "the lived," abstracts a part of the whole and is used to deduce or reduce the rest according to that part. The constituents of the phenomenal domain are not related in mutual externality of causality as are physical objects but rather meaningfully implicate each other internally in a structural unity. Since we live immediately in this realm, we need not explain it according to hypothetical/theoretical models but can understand its meaning directly (as it resides in its own framework).

Thus, if by theory one means "motel building" or "explanation by abstracted principles," phenomenological psychology is atheoretical. This does not mean that it eschews conceptuality but only that its guiding notions have a rigorously distinctive status: They have arisen from an attempt not to get behind human life or to explain it but rather to faithfully explicate its multifaceted wholeness, retaining the essentially lived through character- of human reality (over and against nature-in-itself). The phenomenological approach is unique, then, in that it begins and ends with "the things themselves" (die Sachen selbst), i.e., with the affairs of the phenomenal realm considered in their own terms.


Fundamental for any research that attempts to address everyday life is an adequate conception of consciousness, which Husserl (1913/1983) put forward in the notion of "intentionality." While a nonhuman thing has a "nature" or a kind of being that resides within itself (and thus the whole is often reducible to its parts), consciousness is always consciousness of something other than itself, and thus must be grasped holistically as a relationship of subject and object. Perceiving involves a perceiver relating to a perceived: What one sees is a function of how one is looking. The "what" (objective characteristic) and the "how" (subjective presence) are dynamically and dialectically related. It is this relational phenomenon, wherein consciousness and object together constitute one irreducible totality, that is meant by the term "intentionality."

Phenomenological psychology recognizes the intentionality of all lived experiences, including perception, imagination, expectation, remembering, thinking, feeling, and social behavior. These are so many human potentials for relating to the surroundings which they target. The concept of intentionality does not imply that these various modes of experience are lived through in a clear and explicit way, let alone reflected upon by the person; on the contrary, it faithfully emphasizes the unreflective vagueness of much of the individual's relations with his or her multi-colored situation. "The precise function of intentionality is to characterize consciousness as a primary and original phenomenon, from which the subject and object of traditional philosophy are only abstractions" (Levinas 1973, p. 48). This understanding of experience as a primordial contact with the world bridges the gap between traditional concepts of subject and object so that the very unit of investigation becomes the person-in-the-situation. With the concept of intentionality, psychic life is thus released from traditional philosophical prejudices which place it 'inside' the individual, separate from an 'outside' objective reality. Sartre (1947/1970) expresses this point rather dramatically: "If, impossible though it be, you could enter 'into' a consciousness you would be seized by a whirlwind and thrown back outside, in the thick of the dust, near the tree, for consciousness has no 'inside.' It is just this being beyond itself . . . this refusal to be a substance which makes it a consciousness" (pp. 3-4).

In order to carry the guidance of phenomenological conceptuality further, we must extend our grasp of the sphere of intentionality to its fuller structure.

The Life-World

As we move from simple perceptual contexts to more existentially-expanded social realities, we continue to find that the perceived is a function of both the world as given and the person as an illuminating presence to the world. This world of everyday life is a personal world that differs for each unique individual even while it shares many common social structures. Indeed, the very presence of the person to situation that constitutes a "world" is itself in part socially constituted, insofar as one of the ways that we understand our situation is by means of a shared system of meanings we call language. A faithful interrogation of any human experience thus shows that it is not an isolated event, but is, according to its immanent structure, a moment of the ongoing relation between a whole "personality" and the "world." This larger order unity outside of which no single human activity can be understood is generally referred to by phenomenologists as "the life-world." Indeed, this world as directly experienced provides the foundation for all scientific inquiries. "To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-languages as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is" (Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962, p. ix).

An intrinsically spatial expanse, the life-world as experienced by persons consists of a "referential totality" of equipment, cultural objects, natural objects, other people, and institutions, each of which mutually implies and is inextricably bound up with all the others (Heidegger 1927/1962). It is the ultimate horizon, or context, within which persons unfold collectively and individually through sharing and each forging his or her own way. This world also inseparably involves temporality, an immanent teleology in which, rooted in and retaining a determinate past, the present determines, acts into, and opens onto an ever uncertain future. From birth to death, human beings participate actively in and are also vulnerable to and passively caught up in this world which so profoundly transcends them. And yet this world is experienced in its individual relevance as each person, through the play of his or her "projects" (personal goals, interests, and desires), makes it an 'owned' world (Eigenwelt). We are therefore thrown into the world, into the hands of other PeoPle. and yet called to make our own way through it.

It is the tremendous multidimensionality of this life-world as the broader nexus of intentionality that on one hand allows for the diversity of guiding theories and on the other renders each partial. Psychoanalysis emphasizes the rootedness of existence in past affective familial relations; behaviorism emphasizes the instrumentality of embodied comportment and its contingent consequences; cognitive psychology emphasizes the calculatively organizing contribution of the individual; socio-economic theory emphasizes the collective forces of production. Each of these features of the life-world is powerful enough to give the impression of a sole determinant, yet the holistic phenomenological conceptuality shows that each secretly draws its power from its implicit dependence on and internal residence in each of the others. Priority must be given to the total life situation over any of these partial aspects, which could hardly subsist in isolation. Watching television or buying and using a product always involves the taking up of a determinate past, extending the stock of knowledge into situations of present relevance, and projecting oneself towards a future through the possibilities offered in cultural life. Thanks to the equally intrinsic residence of language in the world that envelopes the consumer, this whole involvement can be genuinely described.

A Phenomenological Reflection on Product Desirability

Given the phenomenological conception of human beings as nothing apart from their relations with others and objects, it is to be expected that the phenomenological literature touches upon the consumption of goods and services. Some of the most directly relevant and characteristic are the descriptions of "having" provided by Marcel and Sartre, and we will briefly consider the latter's views with some of the implications for consumer psychology.

For Sartre (1943/1956), "desire expresses a man's relation to one or several objects in the world" (p. 7355. The fundamental intention of desire is to appropriate, in and through the possession of a certain product, some kind of being we lack. Since the product's meaning is constituted by its world relations, desire is understood as a desire to appropriate a certain kind of world, the referential totality within which the particular item desired is placed. It is not just the isolated "thisness" of a particular thing that I desire; rather, "to possess is to wish to possess the world across a particular object" (p. 762). Thus a product becomes significant not in itself, with regard merely to its own merits, but rather with respect to its place within the world of the consumer, or, more specifically, with respect to its role in enabling the consumer to appropriate the world of his or her desires. One desires a pair of skis not merely for themselves but to conquer the mountain, impress one's peers, participate in anecdotes around the fire, to be a skier with all that entails. Indeed, this may entail no isolated purchase, but a 'family' including gloves, goggles, poles, ski wear, lessons, and a room at the lodge.

Although each individual appropriates a world in his or her own unique way, there are cultural commonalities that include, for instance, the very desire to be perceived as unique, successful, healthy, desirable, and so on. It is these collective aims for which manufacturing and advertising seek to provide vehicles. Each product is the embodiment of a "greater reality" that supersedes and incorporates an ensemble of products which constitute a particular way of life that appeals as a world one may inhabit. Appropriative behavior, understood existentially, is instrumental in the fulfillment of the individual's intention to enter a particular relation with the world. One "does things" in order to possess what has not yet been attained, and this very movement immediately implicates the being of the consumer. "The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being. I am what I have" (Sartre 1943/1956, p. 754). Thus we understand the consumer's "identification" with the products he buys.

The internal connection of being between the product and its world, including the very self of the consumer, is implicit in those ads that set the product, by language and pictures, against the background of a world which resonates with a complex ensemble of desires. It is not the bottle of perfume, or of cola, but rather the possibility of becoming a chic, sensual, intriguing person in a glamorous world, or of being a fun loving, socially active part of the proverbial "pepsi generation," that the ad holds out through this brand, which is merely "a node in the woof" of a certain existence. "The desire of a particular object is not the simple desire of this object; it is the desire to be united with the object in an internal relation, in the mode of constituting with it the unity 'possessor-possessed"' (Sartre 1943/1956, p. 751).

It is by no accident, then, that advertisers,collectively, are seen to manifest the "desired life" of the targeted population in all its multifaceted complexity and, inevitably, to evoke new senses of lack by presenting worlds, in juxtaposition to which, one's own may appear relatively impoverished. Berger (1972) suggests that advertisements offer the promise of either the possession of a desirable object or the realization of a particular state of being, which he calls "the happiness of being envied" or, more simply, "glamour" (p. 132). Advertising is understood as a language "which is always being used to make the same general proposal . . . that we transform ourselves, our lives, by buying something more . . . . Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable" (p. 131). He continues, "the purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life . . . it suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better" (p. 142). One may transform oneself from being envying to being enviable by buying. It is in this sense that we can say, with Williamson (1977), that advertisements are selling us not only material possessions but that "they are selling us ourselves" (p. 13). We would add, with Sartre, that even more, they are selling us a whole world.

How can consumer-psychology benefit from the framework of phenomenology, with its guiding notions of intentionality and the life-world? Perhaps more obviously than many areas of human science, consumer research focuses on people's relations with objects that are meaningful and appealing by virtue of their use, their beauty, and what people can "mike of themselves" in concrete relations with these objects. Consumer research investigates human beings relating to the world in such concrete forms as watching television, reading magazines, calculating finances, walking to the store, deciding what to buy, bargaining with salespersons, expecting satisfaction, and cooking and eating dinner. All of these acts amount to intentional relations with real things. How would phenomenological psychology seek to further knowledge of the consumer's intentionality and its life-world context?


Phenomenological research can be characterized as consisting of three discernible moments: experiential contact with prescientific psychic life, reflective analysis, and psychological description. Before briefly discussing each of these moments, we will focus on the distinctively intuitive style that runs through each.


Phenomenology has been defined etymologically by Heidegger (1927/1962) as letting "that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself" (p. 58). This "letting show itself" is a way of speaking of the researcher's posture towards the phenomenon which can be described as one of open-minded generosity and non-interference. In phenomenological research, preconceived notions about a phenomenon are at once put aside in order to allow the researcher to experience first hand the process of discovery of the phenomenon through direct contact or "intuition." Of course, it is impossible to completely suspend all of one's assumptions, for that would amount to a denial of perspectivity, the latter being an essential feature of any act of consciousness. Indeed, the moment one attempts to articulate an experience, one draws upon language, which already contains many implicit assumptions. The idea, then, is for the researcher to let his or her conceptuality, be informed by the phenomenon rather than dictating on the basis of assumptions and preconceptions.

The "bracketing" or putting aside of preconceptions does not mean, however, that what has thus been "placed in abeyance" is forgotten, let alone denied. Certainly, the researcher is oriented toward the data from the point of view of general guiding notions. The rigor of phenomenological intuition simply consists in "the effort to make no use whatever" of other researchers' or theorists' specifications of psychic life in the course of one's own confrontation with the givenness of experience (Natanson 1973, p. 60). Meanwhile, as the analysis proceeds, "the phenomenologist remains as much in the world as he ever was, retains all of his interests and knowledge, and persists in his human concerns" (Natanson 1973, p. 59)

The phenomenological method is empirical, then, in the root sense of the term which refers to that kind of evidence that is given through experience. The researcher allows the phenomenon to appear concretely in its own self-givenness and proceeds to reflect on and describe its appearance as best he or she can without the intermediacy of theories or hypotheses. While the latter are appropriate and indeed more operative with respect to knowledge of nature, which can be revealed only mediately, existence is precisely what is immediately given. Intuition, of which perception is the primary and privileged case by virtue of its presence to objects in their flesh and bones, apprehends the object in a direct, concrete, face-to-face way. It reaches and possesses what actually exists in its own fullness and quests after ever greater extension, vividness, and reality in its determinations. Such an achievement of explicating what actually exists precisely as it is lived may also be achieved by memory, feeling, or even imagination to the extent that they apprehend the matters under concern in evident fullness.

Contact with Prescientific Life

Although early phenomenological investigations consisted of the researchers t reflection on their own experience, more recent efforts have devised procedures for making other people's phenomenal life accessible to the researcher. For instance, subjects may be invited to express an event that they have already actually lived through. Researchers may emptily specify a type of life-event according to their research interest and ask the subject to provide a descriptive account of an actual example. It is important that these descriptions hug the contours of the original experience, as it may be relived in remembering, with a minimum of scientific rubric, speculation, explanation or anything not immanent to the original event. This becomes part of what Giorgi (1976) refers to as "the ideal of presuppositionless description," which implies that "one does not use language derived from explanatory systems or models in the initial description, but precisely everyday, naive language" (p. 311). Generally, an open-ended contact with everyday life is preferred over experiments or questionnaires. The researcher might ask subjects to "describe a situation in which You were attracted to a product you saw advertised in a magazine" or "describe your last visit to a supermarket." In order to evoke the greatest possible fidelity, researchers often explicitly ask for the full detail of the event as well as what led up to and followed it. Further description may be gained through interviewing, for a description which does not include the whole existential context may conceal the very significance of the phenomenon (see Kvale 19845.

It is then the researcher's reading of these protocols that initiates phenomenological reflection; the researcher reads and rereads the description and begins to gain a sense of the whole. This empathic intuition and intensive amplification of the reality described by the subjects in which the researcher calls upon all of his or her powers cognitive, affective, and conative--to share the subject's living, is the first moment of phenomenological method. "It is one of the most demanding operations, which requires utter concentration on the object intuited without becoming absorbed in it to the point of no longer looking critically" (Spiegelberg 1983, p. 682). In the reading of protocols, the object reached is the situation lived by the subject. It is the aim of phenomenologists to make the subject's involvement their own by taking it up themselves, co-performing it in the reading. While striving to project themselves into the situation described in order to "reexperience" it (Dilthey 1927/1977), researchers maintain a critical presence, which will serve the subsequent reflective analysis.

Reflective Analysis

This phase of the research consists of a more penetrating presence to the subject's description that allows segments of the description to stand out as discernible (but not separable) moments within the subject's experience. Unlike any analysis which seeks to divide the phenomenon into its presumably separate parts and then to reassemble the whole from the parts, the phenomenological method is an attempt to apprehend the parts from the point of view of the whole. Such an analysis consists of "the distinguishing of the constituents of the phenomenon as well as the exploration of their relations to and connections with adjacent phenomena" (Spiegelberg 1983, p. 691). There is a dialectical movement in the researcher's consciousness from part to whole, and back to part, as the researcher proceeds from the initial reading of the descriptions gaining an intuition of the whole from the flowing coherence of the parts, and then returns to the description in an effort to discern and comprehend part/whole relationships. It is in the relation which is intuited between one moment of the subject's experience and all other moments within the "whole" of the experience, that psychological significance is to be found.

It is important to emphasize here, again, that phenomenological analysis is the "analysis of the phenomena themselves, not of the expressions that refer to them" (Spiegelberg 1983, p. 690). The subject's description functions as a medium through which, as the meanings of the subject's experience begin to resonate within the researcher's own experience, the researcher gains access to the world of the subject and at the same time grasps this world as a function of the subject's presence, or intentionality. "What had hitherto been simply accepted as 'obvious "-so obvious, in fact, that it went beyond the barest notice or mention--is now recognized reflectively as a performance of consciousness and subjected to analysis" (Natanson 1973, p. 59).

To the extent that the constituent immanent meanings apprehended in reflection are not necessarily obvious or clearly stated in the original description, the process of analysis is an "explicitation" (Giorgi 1970). For instance, a subject unreflectively absorbed in the process of selecting the "right" bathing suit may not state directly or even be actually aware of basing her selection on the comments of the salesperson, yet a careful intuition of the described dialogue may show its significant shaping power. It is also an intrinsic characteristic of phenomenological analysis that its intuition strives to be eidetic, that is, to distinguish the essential from the accidental or incidental. It is not just any constituent, implicit dimension, relation among aspects, or pervasive orientation that analysis seeks to discern but those which constitute the essential or invariant structure of the experience. For instance, that a bathing suit was purchased at a particular time of day may not be essential, and even the particular department store might allow variation without altering the integral meaning of the experience; but perhaps it is the fact that the purchase occurred late, after a long, hard day, and in a big crowded department store, that is necessary for insight into the harried resignation of the subject's participation.

Phenomenological analysis may strive for varying levels of generality ranging from a unique individual to the universal. Constituent meanings essential to a particular experience, say the harried resignation of the above example, may not be essential to all buying, but characteristic of a certain "type." The attainment of higher levels of generality requires qualitative comparisons of different individual cases, real and imagined, in which the researcher strives to intuit convergences and divergences and thereby gains insight into relative generality, i.e., universality, typicality and idiosyncracy.

Psychological Description

Having intuited a sense of the subject's lived experience, and having then gone back to the particulars of the description in order to flesh out a sense of the psychological significance and coherence of the experience, the researcher then proceeds to the final task, psychological description, which expresses the understanding that has been achieved and constitutes the actual findings of the research. In this phase, researchers arrange their insights into an integrative statement that conveys the more or less coherent structure of the psychic life under consideration -- its various constituents (e.g., temporal phases) and their relations within the whole. Here one may use psychological language to the extent that it discloses intuitable realities. This phase actually begins when the researcher starts to reflect on the situations described. By taking notes as the analysis proceeds, researchers may keep track of their ongoing thoughts, and these informal, tentative reflections are the roots of the final understanding to which they ultimately commit themselves. What is distinctive of this phase is the researcher's attempt to speak and illustrate the full organization of what remains salient in light of the relatively complete analysis. What is central and decisive is critically brought to the fore, without any statements in the subject's description which are relevant to the research interest remaining unreflected in the psychological discourse.

Verification of Findings

In scientific research, verification is established when another researcher follows the original procedure, utilizes the specified measures, applies them to the data, and confirms the results. This task is mate relatively simple when the measures are mathematical formulas. In phenomenological research, the "measure" is the researcher's perspective on the data, namely, the questions raised and the guiding assumptions applied. Verifiability. then. depends an whether another researcher can assume the perspective of the present investigator, review the original protocol data, and see that the proposed insights are indeed possibilities of interpretation that illuminate the situations under study. "Thus the chief point to be remembered with this type of research is not so much whether another position could be adopted (this point is granted beforehand) but whether a reader, adopting the same viewpoints as articulated by the researcher, can also see what the researcher saw, whether or not he agrees with it. That is the key criterion for qualitative research" (Giorgi 1975, p.96). Verification here is not simply a matter of repeatability, for the logic of the movement from data to results does not proceed in a linear fashion and thus cannot be "tracked." Rather, there is a hermeneutic "circling" in which the reader tries to assume the perspective of the researcher and moves back and forth from findings to data in an effort to 'retrieve a sense of' (rather than to 'repeat') the researcher's own movement through the analysis.

The distinction between validity and verification becomes blurred in qualitative research precisely to the extent that, in the process of determining whether or not a set of findings can be verified by other researchers, the latter must make their own assessment of how well (if at all) the findings have reached their target. Thus, the question of validity (i.e., the adequacy of a description with respect to the phenomenon which it characterizes) is already invoked in raising the question of whether or not one can affirm the description. This is uncharacteristic of quantitative research and assessment techniques, where the two issues are treated separately in view of the fact that an act of measurement can be verifiable while of dubious validity.

In the case of phenomenological research, it would seem ludicrous to find oneself verifying another's results while at the same time deeming them invalid. The two issues are intimately related insofar as the procedure for assessing the findings is at the same time an assessment of the "measure" (the researcher's perspective). There may certainly be times when one might only partially (or even marginally) agree with other researchers' characterizations of their phenomena, even while being able to affirm their findings in view of the data collected and the perspective adopted in the analysis. Here we would simply speak of a "limited validity" of the findings.

In general, then, posing the question of validity in absolute terms ("is this study valid or invalid") is erroneous. Bather, descriptive research may be more valid, less valid, or better valid in different ways, depending upon one's perspective, for research always discloses a limited truth. The validity of one's findings is therefore not contingent upon whether they are consistent with other viewpoints; for, according to the phenomenological approach, it is not possible to exhaustively know any phenomenon. In other words, other perspectives--perhaps rooted in different research interests and their corresponding intuitions--are always possible.

In the end, the value of the findings depends on their ability to help others gain insight into what has been lived unreflectively. "The main function of phenomenological description is to serve as a reliable guide to the listener's own actual or potential experience of the phenomena" (Spiegelberg 1983, p. 694). Further description from different viewpoints may then supplement, thereby extend, and possibly even radically decenter what remains a forever partial knowledge of human life.


As a complex social reality, the consumer's world offers multiple directions for phenomenological research. Inasmuch as the psychological study of this domain opens upon human existence holistically and contextually, it inevitably encroaches upon and gains its bearing from such other human sciences as anthropology, economics, history, and sociology. Moreover, these disciplines which together constitute a nexus of human-scientific investigation are united by common interests concerning questions of methodology and, ultimately, questions about the very purpose of science itself. The human sciences have historically oriented themselves toward emancipatory concerns, and in this context phenomenological research requires a constant mindfulness of its value orientation with all its social implications. This would include the important, however difficult, task of reflectively examining the presuppositions operative in research that are taken over from everyday and scientific life, personally and collectively, by researchers.


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