The Phenomenology of the Social World Analysis

Alfred Schutz


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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.”

A Review of Weber

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Schutz begins by introducing the sociological background of the problems that he intends to address. This involves a critical review of Weber’s methodological writings. In Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 1947; also as Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society, 1954; The Sociology of Religion, 1963; and Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 1968), as well as elsewhere, Weber argued that the social sciences ought to be value-free (wertfrei) and that social phenomena ought to be analyzed in terms of “ideal types,” logically controlled and unambiguous concepts that, although removed from historical reality, nonetheless serve as a means of objectively interpreting the social world. From such a perspective, Weber argued, social action could be interpreted scientifically. Weber defined social action as behavior to which subjective meaning is attached.

Although Schutz agrees with Weber that social science must be interpretive, he believed that Weber failed to develop a clear account of the concepts essential to such an undertaking, including “understanding” (Verstehen), “subjective meaning” (gemeinter Sinn), and “action” (Handeln). Ambiguities in the explication of these foundational concepts weakened the enterprise of interpretive sociology, Schutz believed. For instance, although Weber made “subjective meaning” a key aspect of social action, Schutz argued that Weber did not adequately specify whether that term referred to the actor’s own understanding or to the understanding of the sociological observer of the action. This ambiguity made the concept of “action” problematic. Consider the example of a person turning a doorknob: Is the relevant action “opening the door”? What if the person in question is a locksmith, who might be “checking the lock”? Or an actor who might be “rehearsing a scene”? In sum, Schutz objects to the idea, advanced by Weber, that there is a “course of behavior” to which “subjective meaning” is “attached.” Such a formulation conveys the sense, Schutz argues, that “meaning” is somehow separate from “behavior,” when in fact the two concepts are necessarily intertwined in actual human action. The problem for Schutz becomes a matter of determining more precise ways of specifying these concepts. To do so, he turns to Husserl and phenomenology.


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From Husserl, Schutz adapts the phenomenological conception of lived experience as lacking in inherent meaning or discrete identity. Instead, experience depends on acts of reflection, recognition, identification, and so forth. The meaning of experience is established in retrospect, through reflective interpretation. “It is misleading to say that experiences have meaning. Meaning does not lie in the experience. Rather, those experiences are meaningful which are grasped reflectively.” It follows that not all experiences are meaningful; meaningful lived experience is constituted as such in the individual’s own “stream of consciousness” through active reflection. Likewise, Schutz proposes that humans are also capable of ascribing meaning prospectively to future experiences. If action is behavior directed toward the realization of a determinate future goal, it involves projection: The actor pictures the completed action as it is in progress, phase by phase.

Motives and Intersubjectivity

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On this basis, Schutz proposes the highly original distinction between the “in-order-to-motive” (Um-zu-Motiv) of action and the “because-motive” (Weil-Motiv) of action. The in-order-to-motive refers to the future-oriented project of the action; in contrast, the because-motive refers to the past event that led to the action. For instance, in opening an umbrella as it begins to rain, an actor may be said to act on the bases of the perception of rain and knowledge about the effect of rain on clothing, as a because-motive, and the aim of “staying dry,” as an in-order-to-motive.

Drawing on the interpretive resources gleaned from Weber and Husserl, Schutz proceeds to analyze “intersubjective understanding”—that is, socially shared knowledge—and the bases for it in human experience. Whereas Husserl had attempted to address intersubjectivity as a “transcendental problem” by seeking to demonstrate how we know that there are other minds, Schutz sidesteps this issue by arguing that, in everyday life, individuals assume the existence of others. Schutz argues that intersubjectivity is a practical problem: Given that individuals postulate—and, indeed, take for granted—the existence of other minds, how do they come to know and share one another’s lived experiences? Schutz responds that in everyday life, the “problem” of intersubjectivity is recurrently “solved” through reliance...

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The Social World

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Given intersubjectivity, individuals experience the world as a social world. Schutz then proceeds to attempt to explain the “multiform structure” of the social world. The structuring of the social world is, he contends, integral to humans’ ways of perceiving and understanding one another’s subjective experiences. This claim holds both for everyday interpretation of the social world and for scientific interpretation of it. An underlying aim of Schutz’s examination of the structure of the social world is to distinguish between the categories that ordinary actors (approaching the world from a “natural standpoint”) use in making sense of the social world and the categories that social scientists (approaching the world from the perspective of their professional discipline) use in classifying the social world, including ordinary actors’ efforts to make sense of it.

Schutz aligns with Weber in proposing that the social world is properly understood in terms of the concept of “social action.” Drawing on Weber and Husserl, Schutz defines “social action” as action whose in-order-to-motive contains some reference to another individual’s stream of consciousness. Thus Schutz establishes the relevance of analyzing social relationships.

Social Relationships

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Schutz distinguishes among three types of social relationships and their corresponding orientations: In a thou-relationship, one person in direct, face-to-face contact with another person orients to the other as a specific person; a we-relationship arises when two persons in a face-to-face situation orient to each other as in reciprocal thou-relationships; and, in contrast with the previous two types, a they-relationship refers to a situation in which the actor orients to others with whom there are no direct dealings and only general notions.

The import of the distinctions between the different types of social relationships and orientations hinges on the distinction between directly and indirectly experienced social reality. Schutz’s analysis of this distinction yields a novel reinterpretation of Weber’s conception of “ideal types.” In instances of direct experience, an individual has available a number of interpretive resources that are not available to others who have only indirect access. Consider, for example, the differences between listening to a friend talk and reading a letter from the friend. In making sense of the friend’s spoken words, a diverse array of interpretive resources are available on the basis of direct observation of that person—including, for example, the friend’s tone of voice and accompanying gestures. Moreover, on the basis of this direct access, the listener can actively transform the situation, for example, by asking a question.

In contrast, in the absence of direct social relationship or observation, the interpreter must necessarily rely on relatively generalized, abstract means of interpretation. The indirect observer, Schutz writes, must resort to the employment of relatively anonymous “course-of-action types” and “personal types” to interpret social actions and relationships. In brief, indirect observation necessarily relies on the use of “ideal types” of the sort described by Weber. However, in contrast with Weber, who understood ideal types as unique to social scientific interpretation, Schutz argues that the use of ideal types is necessary to any interpretation based on indirect experience. In consequence, reliance on ideal types cannot be what distinguishes scientific observation from nonscientific observation.

Social Science

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This analysis allows Schutz to provide an answer to the question: What is social science? Social science necessarily involves the interpretation of social action and the social world on the basis of ideal types; consequently, the knowledge of the social world thus generated can only be indirect. In this regard, social science is no different from other forms of indirect knowledge. However, social scientific knowledge differs from everyday forms of indirect knowledge in one crucial respect: No directly experienced social reality is pregiven to social science. Schutz writes, “In scientific judgment no presupposition nor any pregiven element can be accepted as simply at hand’ without need of any further explanation. On the contrary, when I act as a scientist, I subject to a detailed step-by-step analysis everything taken from the world of everyday life.” On this basis, Schutz concludes that the enterprise of social science is none other than an “objective context of meaning” constructed out of and referring to “subjective contexts of meaning.”

Not surprisingly, given its focus on the methodology of the social sciences, the influence of The Phenomenology of the Social World has been most pronounced in sociology. The book made a profound impression on Harold Garfinkel, who (along with Aaron Cicourel) established the sociological field of ethnomethodology. Garfinkel saw in Schutz’s work a significant resource for his own extension and critique of Talcott Parsons’s then-dominant theory of social action. Similarly, Schutz’s writings have a foundational status in the area of social constructionism. More generally, by insisting that sociology, including its theories and methods, is itself a social construction, Schutz’s phenomenological approach to the social sciences stands as an important corrective to trends in sociology toward positivistic theorizing and research methods.

As a profound and thoroughgoing investigation of the fundamental concepts of social science—including “action,” “meaning,” “subjectivity,” and “objectivity”—Schutz’s first book had an immediate and lasting effect on practitioners of the social sciences.


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Additional Reading

Embree, Lester, ed. Worldly Phenomenology: The Continuing Influence of Alfred Schutz on North American Social Science. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1988. A collection of essays that evaluate Alfred Schutz’s continued influence on the practice of phenomenology and the social sciences.

Gorman, Robert A. The Dual Vision: Alfred Schutz and the Myth of Phenomenological Social Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977. A critical account of Schutz’s work and especially the claim that phenomenology can provide an objective basis for the social sciences.


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