Practical Phenomenology

Practical Phenomenology

By Ike Kamphof

MA in Media Studies: Digital Cultures

Objective statement / Intended effect of the tool

Aims of the module:

  1. Practice phenomenological approach to user experience and develop phenomenological ‘attitude’
  2. Practice data presentation

Introductory lecture on practical phenomenology

Practicing phenomenological observation and writing

Method: practical phenomenology

  1. Make field notes on observations of your perceptions and experiences (data collection)

During or right after online education sessions jot down keywords and notes.

Points of attention:

What is it like to work in this medium?

  • What do is sense (see, hear, touch, feel, smell…)?
  • What does the medium invite, inhibits or suggests in ways of experiencing and handling?
  • Focus on what Van Manen (2014) calls ‘existentials’ or forms of perception: space/time/body/materiality/relationship, and mood

Remember: Wonder (epoche) and reductions:

  • Focus on what appears as it shows itself!
  • Describe don’t explain!
  • Horizontalize: take all elements of your experience seriously
  • (Possibilize)
  1. (Re)read fieldnotes and mark striking elements/patterns (Van Manen Ch. 10)

Focus on experiential themes related to space/time/body/materiality/mood/relationship

e.g., I-medium-world/object relationships

World/object = class, present others…

  1. Choose two significant themes of What is it like…?

All media comes with specific affordances and specific constraints

Try to move beyond obvious constraints and affordances by being detailed

e.g., argh it’s cumbersome, distanced… unfamiliar

e.g., ah, I can sit at home and don’t have to commute…

WHY? HOW? CONCRETE EXPERIENTIAL DETAIL on what it feels that x feels distanced… etc.

  1. Construct two phenomenological anecdotes (250 words each) (data presentation) (Van Manen 252, 254-255, 256)
  • Draft anecdotes, for use in online class (peer review + discussion of experiences with phenomenology as a research method)


Short and simple (max. 250 words)

Describes one! Significant incident of lived experience (works out only one experiential theme)

Includes concrete detail (may contain quotes, what was done or said) has a punchy last line that marks the significance.

Writing anecdote:

  • Focus on the experience as lived! (preferably do not change facts, even though V Manen Says you can)
  • Make it vivid, evocative
  • Use the present test
  • Avoid generalization
  • Avoid theoretical terms
  • Leave out irrelevant
  • Draw the reader into the experience
  • Edit, edit, but don’t make it artificial, keep the raw lived meaning

One example of anecdote: Where is (my) class?

‘Participants 1’ a small grey notice reads at the bottom of my laptop’s screen. But we are having class! Confusion presses behind my forehead, tingles in my hands that want to reach out. Less than a minute ago we were 28, cramped in a mosaic of rectangular boxes that held our faces together on this same screen; gestures, words and looks sprang from these boxes. And my own box, containing my face, was in the midst of it all. In the meanwhile, my self-in-the-flesh was leaning forward, shoulders hunched, trying to read faces for questions left about today’s assignment. In an instant, that whole bustle is gone. I sent them off myself, in so-called break-out groups. But I was not prepared for the ominous silence this deed effected. Suddenly, my screen has become flat, or a mirror, showing a woman sitting at her desk, ready to start on annotating their written work while they work on the assignment. But there seems no reason to do so now. Instead I catch myself wondering where they are. There is no space I can imagine where we all are. Class is broken into pieces, scattered into fragments of space floating between homes, screens, cables, electronic waves and Zoom software. Reality is a teacher facing her own image, having lost her class.

  • Space: screenspace from mosaic ? flat; social space of collective involvement ? mirrored single space + imagined fragments…
  • Time: suddenness of zoom deeds…
  • Relation: involvement, break in that
  • Body: sensing, wanting to reach out, hunching, sitting here by herself…
  • Mood: confusion, shock of silence, lost connectiveness

Explore with joy and wonder

Give yourself time to dive into the concrete lived detail

Find focus to explore depth

  • Questions?
  • Break out groups: take 10 min to note down what you sense; then share some initial observations of how you sense the situation of online education
  • Pay attention to: space, time, body, relation, materiality, mood
  • I’ll move around, but let me know if you need help
  • After approx. 30min collective moment: questions, observations….

Peer reviewing anecdotes assignment

Do this by:

– giving general comments (making use of the points of attention drawn from van Manen (2014) below, and of the examples of anecdotes in the back of the Phenomenology Reader;

– trying to rewrite (parts of) the anecdotes of peers, not as a ‘must do’ but as practice for yourself, and as possible suggestions and try-outs.

Choose one (two is allowed), rework on the basis of feedback from peers and tutor and post as weblog post + send link to tutor

Course specific or not 

Is originally designed for MA Media Studies: Digital Cultures but could be applied to other courses when the aim is to learn noticing one’s sense experience and train observation skills.

Target group specific or not 

Master’s students but might be possible with Bachelor’s too

When do you use it? 

When explaining phenomenology; when exploring types of research methods

Why do you use it? (Pedagogical approach)

Experience comes in many shapes, but when we are experiencing whatever we are seeing, hearing, feeling and doing, we are simply immersed in it and hardly conscious of it at all. What is the experience like, as an experience? What are ‘getting bored by a text’ or ‘hurrying through course material’ as experiences? It is not always easy to recuperate that, and when you try, you are always after the fact, drawing up words for something fleeting that hardly capture the richness of all that went on in that one experience.

How is the situation for researchers? In their attempt to understand and explain the world, researchers are always in danger of losing touch with the world as lived in their own particular way. This is expressed in the famous image of the scholar inhabiting an ivory tower. From the tower (s)he studies and maps the world as an observing and thinking outsider.

In contrast to this, phenomenology studies how we live in the world, as embodied subjects who are always involved with the world. Moreover, phenomenology studies our experience in the midst of being engaged with the world.

Additional biblio sources

  • Lecture + exercise Introduction to Phenomenology
  • The phenomenology reader (incl. Van Manen texts and samples of short phenomenological anecdotes)
  • Examples that we read in class to refer to experiences in a phenomenological way (esp. Friessen, Pols, Markham)
  • Exercise in observing and writing, theme ‘Online Education’, leading to two short descriptions
  • Cf. Vignettes by tutor Marisa Mori on her experiences with 1st year BA Zoom classes
  • Investigating Lived Experience – Phenomenology as a Research Method