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Suspended Belief

The article by Van Manen examines the effects of phenomenological perspective on the interpretation and structure of our research questions and topics. Phenomenology aims to isolate the exact moment of an event or phenomenon, and interpret the meaning and significance regardless of its existence in the natural world or influence from other events in the past, present, or future (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71).

Phenomenological research occurs at the beginning of the research question, before data or inquiry has begun. It is the curiosity of wanting to explore the research topic and all the avenues which it could take before the research commences. The phenomenological question involves being in the moment, and examining it through a pre-predictive and pre-reflective lens. It focuses on the experience as we are living in it, not before and not after (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71).

Bracketing and phenomenological reduction suspends judgement about the physical world to focus on the analysis of the experience itself (Brann, 1970, pp. 153-155). The experience, it the exact isolated moment, must be explored and interpreted as a singular event, not part or influenced by a larger system. Bracketing does not question whether the experience is real or possible; it simply takes the phenomenon for what it is. Natural sciences are responsible for considering the probability of this event happening or not (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71), (Brann, 1970, pp. 153-155).

Phenomenological research is rooted in experience, regardless of natural occurrence or existence. An example of this is the experience of walking through a forest (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71). The forest walk is bracketed as the experience and the researcher/phenomenologist suspends all investigation regarding if the forest walk actually occurred. The experience, or phenomena, that has occurred, is studied and interpreted, not the objectivity or existence of the object or subject itself. Phenomenological researchers are not concerned if the experience happened or if the object is real; they simply look at the meaning and significance of the event from the user’s perspective (Molina, 2017, pp 77-94).

In phenomenological research, empirical subjectivity, which are observations based on logic and existence, is disregarded. Transcendental subjectivity, focusing on the spiritual, experiential, and subjective experiences of each individual, is valued instead (Brann, 1970, pp. 153-155). An example is two people drinking a cup of hot coffee. They both know what a cup of hot coffee tastes like, but their lived experience will be different in the exact moment they sip. This is because their interpretation of that sip will be influenced by different lived experiences and reaction to the coffee. Empirical evidence will show the experience of drinking this cup of coffee will be the same because of objective observations: two people drinking the exact same cup of coffee will lead to identical results. From a transcendental perspective, these two people will have different experiences based on their backgrounds, mental processing, and emotional past which will lead to a completely different experience during the bracketed moment they are drinking the cup of coffee. Phenomenology is concerned with those isolated moments of experience, regardless of quantitative observations, or objective experience. It isolates the exact moment of the event regardless of context of the past, present, or future (Molina, 2017, pp. 77-94), (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71).

Phenomenology develops theories around the event before it has occurred or been placed into context. While phenomenology is based on examining the experience or phenomenon from an individual’s perspective, regardless of the plausibility of the event in the natural world, grounded research looks at events from the opposite angle. Grounded theory arose from sociologists wanting to explore sociological research from a different angle, and give researchers a method of moving from data points to theories, rather than theories to data. Interpreting data after the event has occurred, and taking context into consideration, allows for new theories to develop and our understanding of events to broaden (Wiesche, 2017, pp. 685-701). Context, pretext, and background knowledge are included when analyzing events from a grounded theory approach, which leads to each theory or interpretation being specific to the context in which they developed and were studied (Buckley, 2019, pp. 965-989). The theories are ‘grounded’ in the data to give a more contextual interpretation of the event. The interpretation takes in the holistic view of the situation and event, rather than isolating and bracketing like in phenomenology. Grounded theory holds the natural world and the objectivity of the situation in high regard, and the plausibility of the findings actually being able to occur is considered (Wiesche, 2017, pp. 685-701). Grounded theory develops conclusions, findings, and ideas using the context of the research, which enables new ideas, perspectives, and contextualized theories to emerge (Bryant, 2002).

In the article by Thornberg, a field study involving school bullying and sense of belonging was examined with a grounded theory approach. 144 students and seven teachers from seven school classes in three Swedish public primary schools participated in a grounded research study to gather data on why bullying occurs and how it affects the students’ group dynamic. Ethnographic research was conducted, where the researcher spent four to six months with each class. Observations of interactions between peers, and between the pupils and teachers, and informal conversations and interviews of the pupils and teachers were the qualitative data that was collected. Field notes and audio transcripts were used to assess short term and long term bullying occurrences. This information was then transcribed into numerical data to record the number of bullying cases and the length of occurrence. This quantitative data was used in conjunction with the qualitative interviews to assess the cause and frequency of bullying. The author then correlated the frequency of bullying to how each student felt about their place, friendships, and sense of belonging at school. When analyzing the data, it was clear there was a strong correlation between the increased frequency and duration of bullying and a decreased sense of belonging in the school community. The author stressed how the theoretical understanding of bullying and a student’s sense of belonging cannot be confined to an individual event or factor. There are multiple factors in the socio-economic framework of school which impact how students are treated on a day-to-day basis. Grounded research and theory is necessary to take into account the multitude of issues relating to bullying. This includes racism, classism, heteronormativity, and a range of other oppressions students have (Thornberg, 2018, pp. 144-158).

If bullying and a student’s feeling of belonging at school were examined from a phenomenological approach, the results would be much different and likely difficult to understand without environmental context. Phenomenological research examines the event or phenomenon exactly as it occurs to that individual, without any outside context or explanation. If a student was yelled at by another student, and they experienced that yelling with a sense of violence, hurt, and betrayal, then that moment would be interpreted as a form of bullying on that individual if it was looked at from a phenomenological lens. Phenomenology is rooted in the act of suspending judgement regarding the true nature of reality; it is a neutralization of belief (Van Manen, 2014, pp. 26-71). This suspension of context becomes difficult, as it is nearly impossible, as humans, to ignore this belief of due to our unconscious subjectivity in every thought or experience we have (Brann, 1970, pp. 153-155). The individual experienced this yelling, felt a negative emotion of bullying, and therefore it will be recorded as an event of bullying. Whether or not this yelling happened in the natural world on the playground from a person intending to hurt the feelings of this person is irrelevant. All that is being focussed on is what the individual experienced and perceived. Where issues would arise is if we wanted to examine what was said, why it was hurtful, who the other student was, and if accusations of bullying are being laid upon another person, did this event actually happen? From a phenomenological perspective, these pieces of information do not matter; context and natural occurrence are not included in analysis. It only matters that this individual perceived they were being yelled at, interpreted this as negative, and therefore this was a case of bullying. We would then derive our theory of the causes of bullying to be from individuals feeling they are yelled at, record the types of emotions they felt, and would include these feelings as effects of bullying on peers in school. Bullying cannot be interpreted as individual events and actions without background context. Human emotions and interactions are complex and require context, motivation, and flexibility based on how each person reacts to each interaction. If we only looked at the immediate phenomenon of the bullying act, we would miss out on recognizing common issues in society such as gender norms, racism, homophobia, and judgement. Without the larger picture, including past, present and future context, we will be unable to identify causes, solutions and preventions for bullying at school and on a global scale (Thornberg, 2018, pp. 144-158).


Brann, H. W., & Institute for Scientific Co-operation (1970). Kant’s theory of subjectivity. A systematic analysis of the relation of transcendental and empirical subjectivity in his theoretical philosophy. Philosophy and History, 3(2), 153-155. doi:10.5840/philhist19703264

Bryant, A. (2002). Grounding systems research: Re-establishing grounded theory. Paper presented at the 3446-3455. doi:10.1109/HICSS.2002.994383

Buckley, J. B. (2019). A grounded theory of education for sustainability in the postsecondary classroom. The Review of Higher Education, 42(3), 965-989. doi:10.1353/rhe.2019.0026

Molina, E. (2017). Kant’s Conception of the Subject. CR: The New Centennial Review, 17(2), 77-94. doi:10.14321/crnewcentrevi.17.2.0077

Thornberg, R., Utbildningsvetenskap, Pedagogik och didaktik, Linköpings universitet, & Institutionen för beteendevetenskap och lärande. (2018). School bullying and fitting into the peer landscape: A grounded theory field study. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39(1), 144-158. doi:10.1080/01425692.2017.1330680

Van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing (pp. 26-71). Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. Retrieved from

Wiesche, M., Jurisch, M. C., Yetton, P. W., Krcmar, H., City of Munich, Deaken University, & Technische Universität München. (2017). Grounded theory methodology in information systems research. MIS Quarterly, 41(3), 685-701. doi:10.25300/MISQ/2017/41.3.02

1 Comment

  1. This was a very helpful explanation of phenomenology for me. Thanks!

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