Originally published in 1932, The Phenomenology of the Social World has its deepest roots in the nineteenth century, when scholars (especially in Germany) made great advances in the study of history, economics, and social institutions. The modern conception of the social sciences arguably has its origins in the intellectual advances of this period. However, in conjunction with the development of the social sciences, questions arose about their status as scientific enterprises: Could human thought and activity be explained in terms of general laws? To what extent could the study of human thought and activity be free of value assumptions? Are the methods of the natural sciences appropriate for the social sciences? Timeless as these questions may seem, they held special prominence for the generation of philosophical and social scientific thinkers that came to intellectual maturity in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In orienting himself to these questions, Alfred Schutz drew on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the methodological writings of sociologist Max Weber. Husserl sought to describe the relationship between objects of experience and the subjective structures through which humans become conscious of those objects; Weber championed an interpretive approach to the explanation of social action in terms of its subjective meaning. Schutz found shortcomings in both Husserl’s and Weber’s thought, but he also believed that a synthesis of the two thinkers’ works—that is, a phenomenological study of the basic concepts of the social sciences—would address the questions about the scientific potential of the social sciences. Schutz’s commitment to the synthesis of phenomenology and social science can be seen in the following pair of facts: He dedicated this book to Husserl, and he conceived of it as a “preface to interpretive sociology.”