The Phenomenology of the Social World

by Alfred Schutz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The author addresses problems of objectivity and subjectivity in the social sciences and their relation to human action from a phenomenological standpoint in an attempt to answer the question of to what degree social science can provide a genuine understanding of human actions and motivations. The question of whether humans be best understood through a reductive categorization into types or only as individuals 'close up' is subject to systematic analysis.

Shutz expands upon the sociological framework of Max Weber and Edmund Husserl. Shutz agrees with Weber that action is defined through meaning, and so proceeds to analyze the meaning of actions. Shutz develops many useful categories of action and how well they can be understood on a sliding scale from objectivity to subjectivity based on physical or temporal proximity and many other variables.

He makes a crucial distinction, following Husserl's phenomenology, between repeatable actions that anyone can theoretically do, that can be understood objectively and have universal validity. These include certain concepts in law and pure economics. They are distinguished from concepts like "Western capitalism" or "the Indian caste system" or, indeed, economic history, which require subjective analysis of actions and motivations and are unrepeatable. This latter quality does not imply they are less important to understand, but rather that they are more difficult to approach objectively. The former have universal validity, being repeatable and having predictable outcomes, ceteris paribus, and can form the basis of objective social science, while the latter do not have that quality. Thus Shutz offers a potential resolution to the conflicting views of Max Weber and Ludwig von Mises on the possibility of objectivity in the social sciences, and lays a useful groundwork for further research and debate.

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