Historical-Hermeneutic Approaches in the Social Sciences

Psychoanalysis began with a young physician’s search for the treatment of his patients with emotional problems. Frustrated by the lack of knowledge that existed during his time, he set out to develop his own methods of treatment. In the course of developing his methods, the young doctor also developed a general theory of personality, aimed at explaining why people develop their unique patterns of typical behavior. That young doctor was Sigmund Freud, and his theory was known as psychoanalytic theory (Lahey 2007, 464).

Freud theorized three levels of consciousness and three components of the personality structure. The three levels of consciousness are the conscious mind, the preconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. The three components of the personality structure, each with a different function are: the id, the ego, the superego.

To Freud, the mind is like an iceberg; the conscious mind is merely the tip visible above the surface, whereas the bulk of the important workings of the mind lurks mysteriously beneath the surface. Just below the surface is what Freud called the preconscious mind. It consists of memories that are not presently conscious but can easily be brought into consciousness . . . The contents of the preconscious were once conscious and can be returned to consciousness when needed.

Further down from consciousness lies the unconscious mind. It stores primitive instinctual motives plus memories and emotions that are so threatening to the conscious mind that they have been unconsciously pushed into the unconscious mind through the process of repression. The contents of the unconscious mind, unlike the preconscious mind, are not normally accessible to consciousness. They can rarely be made fully conscious, and then only with great difficulty (Lahey 2007, 465).

The best-known aspect of Freud’s theory was his view that the mind is composed of the id, ego, and superego. Each has a different function, but they all relate to each other.

When the infant is born, the mind has only one part, the id. The id is composed primarily of two sets of instincts, life instincts and death instincts … aggression and even suicidal urges arose from these instincts. The life instincts, termed libido by Freud, give rise to motives that sustain and promote life, such as hunger, self-protection, and sexual desire. To Freud, the sexual and aggressive urges are by far the most important of these motives . . . sex and aggression are used by Freud to explain a vast range of personality characteristics, from kindness to shyness to cruelty . . . the id—operates according to the pleasure principle. The id wants to obtain immediate pleasure and avoid pain, regardless of how harmful it might be to others.

The ego is formed because the id has to find realistic ways of meeting its needs and avoiding trouble caused by selfish and aggressive behavior. The ego operates according to the reality principle. This means that it holds the id in check until a safe and realistic way has been found to satisfy its motives. The ego’s goal is to help the id fulfil its needs. It opposes the id’s wishes only long enough to find a realistic way to satisfy them.

The id and ego have no morals. They seek to satisfy the id’s selfish motives without regard for the good of others. The ego tries to be realistic about how those motives are satisfied. But as long as the needs are safely met, it does not care if rules are broken, lies are told, or other people are wronged. Restrictions are placed on the actions of the id and ego when the superego develops, the part of the mind that opposes the desires of the id by enforcing moral restrictions and by striving to attain a goal of Ideal” perfection. Parents are the main agents of society in creating the superego. They teach moral principles to their children by punishing transgressions and rewarding proper behavior. These experiences become incorporated into the child’s mind as the two parts of the superego. According to Freud, parental punishment creates the set of moral inhibitions known as the conscience, whereas their rewards set up a standard of perfect conduct in the superego called the ego ideal. These two parts of the superego work together by punishing behavior that breaks the moral code through guilt and rewarding good behavior through pride (Lahey 2007, 466-467). 

The beginning of the twenty-first century witnessed the decline of psychoanalysis—”Its prestige has plummeted along with its economic viability and even its population. It has lost much of its standing among the traditional academic disciplines, and almost all of its coverage as a psychotherapeutic technique . . . A once-fascinated public distrusts psychoanalysis as unscientific, authoritarian, deluded, reactionary, trite, arrogant, sexist, and/ or passé” (Richards 2015, 390).

Those who questioned psychoanalysis as scientific, make the following claims: (1) its subject (i.e., the unconscious) is not reducible to its anatomy, physics, or chemistry; (2) its development cannot be understood or replicated independent of its founder’s personality; and 3) it does not meet up methodological specifications of the sciences that require public verification and testing (Richards 2015, 390-391). 

Moreover, the question of whether psychoanalysis is a science or not opened up the subjectivist-objectivist dichotomy or debate in the Social Sciences. On one hand, the hermeneuticists believe “that psychoanalysis is hermeneutic discipline, not capable of being held to the principles of the traditional sciences but instead requiring a more humanistic understanding” (Fusella 2014, 871). On the other hand, certain psychoanalysts believe “that psychoanalysis is a science and that its basic theoretical tenets and therapeutic efficacy can be validated by empirical-analytical methods that are akin to those used in the other basic sciences” (Fusella 2014, 871).

Hermeneutic Phenomenology

Hermeneutic phenomenology is a particular type of phenomenology among a range of phenomenological methodologies, usually classified into two camps, namely the descriptive phenomenology and the interpretive phenomenology. Descriptive phenomenology was developed by Edmund Husserl and interpretive or hermeneutic phenomenology by Martin Heidegger (Sloan and Bowe 2014, 1). A basic difference between the two camps is that “hermeneutic phenomenology is used to interpret the meaning of lived experiences and communicate the interpretation textually or symbolically, while transcendental phenomenology is based on discovering the objective universal essences of lived experiences and communicating them through pure description (Newberry, 2012, 14).

Both Husserl and Heidegger sought to uncover the life world or human experience as it is lived. Both phenomenologists were convinced that the world is simply one life world among many worlds (Laverty 2003).

Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology was and is also known as transcendental phenomenology. Heidegger’s interpretive phenomenology was and is also known as hermeneutic phenomenology or existential phenomenology. Defined as the interpretation of text or language by an observer, or the “art and science of interpretation” (Ezzy, 2002, p. 24 in Tan et al., 2009, 2), especially as it applies to text, hermeneutics can be used as a methodology or as an enhancement of phenomenology, hence, the name, interpretive phenomenology (Sloan and Bowie 2014, 5).

Descriptive and interpretive methodologies share four common features, namely, description, reduction, essences, and intentionality (Kafle 2011, 181).

The aim of phenomenology is the description of phenomena, Reduction is a process that involves suspending or bracketing the phenomena so that the ‘things themselves’ can be returned to. Likewise, an essence is the core meaning of an individual’s experience that makes it what it is. Finally, intentionality refers to consciousness since individuals are always conscious to something. This means intentionality is the total meaning of the object or the idea which is always more than what is given in the perception of a single perspective (Kafle 2011, 181)

In principle, phenomenology focuses on peoples’ perceptions of the world or the perception of the ‘things in their appearing” (Langdridge 2007, 11 in Sloan and Bowie 2014, 5). But there is a variation between descriptive phenomenology and interpretive phenomenology on this aspect.

Husserl believed that “the observer could transcend the phenomena and meanings being investigated to take a global view of the essences discovered; an objectivization of the meanings of human experiences” (Sloan and Bowe, 2014, 6). A brief description of Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology is described below.

… the key to the study of a phenomenon was through consciousness and an intentional grasping of the ultimate essences of the unique experience. However, identification of the essences requires . . . phenomenological reduction, or “to set aside all previous habits of thought, see-through and break down the mental barriers which these habits have set along the horizons of our thinking . . . to learn to see what stands before our eyes” (p.43). This process has become known as bracketing … claims to remove the distortion of perception, by enabling a refraining from judgment through the process of bracketing (Husserl 1931 in Tan et. al., 2009, 3)

In contrast, Heidegger was of the view “that the observer could not remove him or herself from the process of essence-identification, that he or she existed with the phenomena and the essences” (Sloan and Bowe, 6). What is central to Heidegger’s view was the use of language and the interpretation of a person’s ‘meaning-making’, their attribution of meaning to phenomena (Sloan and Bowe 2014, 6). Disagreeing with Husserl, Heidegger suggested that a philosopher cannot investigate ‘things in their appearing’ to identify their essences while remaining neutral or detached from the things. This means “that it is not possible to bracket off the way one identifies the essence of a phenomenon” (Langdridge 2007 in Sloan and Bowe 2014, 6).

Between descriptive phenomenology and hermeneutic phenomenology, hermeneutic phenomenology is more complex. Its elements of temporality and ‘being-in-the-world’ make this variation possible. Under Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology, “the participants’ existence and relation to the world around the philosopher is also accounted for. This added complexity was an attempt, by Heidegger, to provide more clarity about phenomena for the philosopher or the researcher, and to allow more practical applications of the approach to a wider range of scenarios to which phenomenology might be applied” (Sloan and Bowe 2014, 8). 

As a methodology, descriptive and hermeneutic phenomenologies also vary significantly.

In descriptive phenomenology one has the technique of ‘bracketing off’ influences around a phenomenon to get to the essences (Smith et al 2009). The focus of descriptive phenomenology is the correlation of the noema of experience (the ‘what’) and the noesis (the ‘how it is experienced’). Once ‘the things themselves’ have been identified, or otherwise analyzed, descriptive phenomenology considers its work done. The researcher can do what he or she likes with the outcomes, but those actions will be a departure from descriptive phenomenology. In hermeneutic phenomenology one has approaches that recommend to the researcher to interpret the meanings found in relation to phenomena. Often these approaches suggest the analysis of text to find these meanings and allow interpretation. The focus is on understanding the meaning of experience by searching for themes, engaging with the data interpretively, with less emphasis on the essences that are important to descriptive phenomenology. Also, hermeneutic phenomenology prefers not to formalize an analytical method so that the context of the phenomenon itself can dictate how the data are analyzed (Langdridge 2007 in Sloan & Bowe 2014, 9).

Van Manen (197 in Sloan and Bowe 2014, 3) noted that to apply the hermeneutic phenomenology, a researcher “has to apply the skill of reading texts, such as the text of transcripts, that is, the spoken accounts of personal experience.” These spoken accounts of personal experience are what van Manen (1997) referred to as “isolating themes.”

These isolating themes can be viewed as written interpretations of lived experience. Using van Manen’s (1997) words, Sloan and Bowe (2014, 3) notes that any application of hermeneutic phenomenology requires the examination of text, to reflect on its content in order to discover something ‘telling’, something ‘meaningful’, something ‘thematic’. By having isolated phenomenal themes, one can rewrite the theme while interpreting the meaning of the phenomenon or lived experience.

Brought about by their difference in terms of their process of interpreting and describing human experience to understand the central nature of that experience, descriptive phenomenology and hermeneutic phenomenology also differ in terms of the role of reflexivity. Reflexivity” is a person’s reflection upon or examination of a situation or experience. It can help in interpreting the meanings discovered, or add value to those types of interpretations” (Langdridge 2007 in Sloan and Bowe 2014, 11).

Reflexivity describes the process in which researchers are conscious of and reflective about the ways in which their questions, methods, and subject position might impact on the data or the psychological knowledge produced in a study (Langdridge 2007 in Sloan and Bowe 2014, 11). Reflexivity is often mentioned in hermeneutic phenomenology …This is where th
e researcher uses empathy or relevant prior experience as an aid to data analysis and/or interpretation of meanings. Reflexivity has no place in descriptive phenomenology—it is an antithesis to the principle of bracketing out influences on the phenomena so that they can be seen as ‘the things themselves’ (Langdridge 2007 in Sloan and Bowe 2014,12).

Among the fields of inquiry in the social sciences, it was the discipline of psychology that adopted Husserl’s phenomenology. The philosophical perspectives offered by phenomenology have been adopted as a methodology—or a family of methodologies, so that phenomenological psychology can be seen as a ‘family of approaches, which are all informed by phenomenology but with different emphases, depending on the specific strand of phenomenological philosophy that most informs the methodology’ (Langdridge 2007, 4 in Sloan and Bowe 2014, ).

To date, the influence of descriptive phenomenology and hermeneutic phenomenology is visible within the field of qualitative investigative methods. Some have their antecedents in the former and some in the latter. However, hermeneutic or interpretive phenomenology is more prominent being listed as one of the various qualitative methodologies of the social sciences. It is also applied to many sorts of qualitative studies in the human sciences (Sloan and Bowe, 2014, 10 ).

Tan et al. (2009, 2) noted the application or use of hermeneutic phenomenology in recent years in various applied disciplines such as nursing, social work, mental health, and in the study of the experiences of hope and of grief. Nevertheless, hermeneutic phenomenology remains to be both a theoretical perspective and a methodology and not a method of research, and therefore, the challenge to it is the clarity and accountability of its method. Like psychoanalysis, hermeneutic phenomenology faces the critique posed by the positivists about claims to scientific knowledge, one that is utterly objective and is the only type of evidence that is valid and certain (Crotty 1998 in Tan et al., 2009, 2).