The Use of Phenomenology
for Family Therapy Research
THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
CARLA M. DAHL
Are cows pink? “No,” says the positivist, “they are black and white or brown—and sometimes combinations thereof.” But those who have had direct experience with cows know they can be pink. We have seen them. At sunset, when the sky over a Wisconsin field is rosy and glowing, cows are pink. At that moment and in that particular context, the description of pink for cows is really true. This is phenomenology. True knowledge is relative.
We define a phenomenon—in this case, cows—by describing its essential impact on our immediate conscious experience (Becker, 1992). Artists, musicians, and poets have for ages recorded their interpretations of life by using the phenomenological approach. In this chapter, we focus on the phenomenology of everyday life—particularly marriage and family—to familiarize family therapists with a method of investigation and description that is compatible with their already developed skills of observation, creativity, intuition, empathic listening, and analysis.
What is clear is that the phenomenon of phenomenology itself has different meanings to different people. Deutscher (1973) refers to the term broadly as a tradition within the social sciences concerned with “understanding the social actor's frame of reference” (p. 12; see also Bruyn, 1966; Psathas, 1973). Others use the term more narrowly to refer to a European school of thought in philosophy (see, e.g., Schutz, 1960, 1967). Phenomenology has also been called the “microsociology of knowledge” by Berger and Kellner (1964; see also Kollock & O'Brien, 1994). Today many might argue that the original meaning of “phenomenology” has become ambiguous or has been lost altogether.
More critical, however, than one agreed-upon definition of phenomenology is what we believe about the world and the people in it, so our discussion (after a brief