Writing as Research

Phenomenology as a Research Method, by Madeleine Rothe

Rothe is a landscape architect. This essay is a revised version of chapter 4 of her master’s thesis, which examines phenomenologically the process of becoming at home for 12 residents of the Nyland cohousing community outside of Denver, Colorado. As illustrated in the figure below, Rothe portrays this process as a series of seven stages and suggests that purchasing the land for development (after stage 3) and moving into the community (after stage 5) provide important external “spurs” for motivating the process onward. A thorough discussion of this becoming-at-home process is provided in Rothe, 2000. © Madeleine Rothe, 2001, 2003.



[…] Another of Van Manen’s six actions for conducting phenomenological research involves commun-cating the lived experience through the art of writing and rewriting. In phenomenological research, this act of writing itself brings forth the structures of the lived experience. In other words, striving to express thoughts in as clear and precise a manner as possible is another method for understanding the structure of the phenomenon. In this way, the process of writing is at the heart of the research enterprise.

As a method for coming to understand a phenomenon, writing is a reflective act in which there is an attempt to cognitively bring to the surface the appropriate language to describe self-consciously the unself-conscious experiences of the taken-for-granted lifeworld. Exactly because experiences of the lifeworld are typically unself-conscious, pre-reflective, and self-evident, there is invariably a struggle to uncover the layers of meaning that describe these experiences. Consequently, one may come to realize the limits of language in that words somehow fall short of being able to fully express lifeworld experiences.

However, much like speech that rises out of silence and returns to silence, the deep truth of the lived experience seems to lie just beyond words, on the other side of language (Van Manen, 1990, p.112). Silence is to the phenomenologist the stillness out of which and against which text is constructed in much the same way as the architect must continuously be aware of the nature of space out of which and against which building occurs (ibid.). By implying more than what is explicitly fixed on paper, this silence around words aspires to disclose the deeper meaning of the lifeworld. In other words, a certain sense of stillness and silence is experienced when in the presence of truth (ibid., p.114).

Likewise, to “see” the deeper significance, or meaning structures, of the lived experience, the themes that have been identified must be presumed (by the reader) as appropriate. That is to say, the description of the themes should reawaken our basic experience of the phenomenon it describes in such as way that we experience the foundational nature of the phenomenon itself. It is in this way that phenomenology is an effective method because it permits us “to see the deeper significance, or meaning structures of the lived experience it describes” (ibid., p.122).

Conclusively, the act of writing fixes our thoughts on paper in that it seeks to externalize what is somehow internal. In attempting to grasp the meaning of a lived experience as it presents itself to the consciousness, writing distances us from the immediate lived-world experience yet also draws us more closely to the lifeworld. Barritt states that “to write is to learn about the adequacy or inadequacy of your thoughts” (1984, p.16). In this way, because the aim of writing is to create text that does justice to the fullness of the human experience, “to write is to measure the depth of things as well as to come to a sense of one’s own depth” (ibid., p.127). 

My own personal experience of writing as a component of my phenomenological journey can be described as rewarding and enriching. I was surprised that the process of writing about becoming at home could give me such a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in spite of the fact that I often felt frustrated or unproductive.

I attribute this satisfaction to two factors: first, because the essence of my writing about the meaning of becoming at home was of great interest to me personally; and secondly, because it required a great deal of effort, time and patience on my part to strive to say what it was I really wanted to convey through the creation of text that spoke sincerely about the human experience of becoming at home. In the end, I not only learned about the topic at hand, but also about myself.