The body: A phenomenological psychological perspective
The body: A phenomenological psychological perspective

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The body: A phenomenological psychological perspective

1 Embodiment

Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage – he is called Self. He lives in your body, he is your body.

(Nietzsche, 1961 [1883], p. 62)

At first glance you might be curious about why we're including a course on bodies, or rather embodiment – the process or state of living in a body – in relation to social psychology. The body has generally been treated as a biological object in psychology, crucially important with regard to brain physiology or human development but not something that has been considered a key topic in social psychology. However, when you recognise that it is through the body that we relate to other people and the world about us, then perhaps it does make sense. Our body is the vehicle for communicating with others and for carrying out our everyday lives. It is impossible to separate our bodies from who we are and what we do in the social world. At all levels – individual, relational and cultural – we can see that something as apparently ‘personal’ and ‘natural’ as the body is also intensely ‘social’.

In Section 2 of this course we will consider connections between an individual's body, personal identity and social world. Here we intend to pick up on the dualisms between mind and body. In particular, we will show how the body has been thought of as an object separate from the mind, and how this dualism has led to a similar separation, until relatively recently at least, in psychology. In this section, you will once again find yourself encouraged to challenge approaches that present the world in terms of simplistic binaries (mind–body, individual–social, agency–structure). Section 3 turns the spotlight on the phenomenological perspective. Many of the examples in this course concern health and illness. This is for two reasons: first, because a very great deal of psychological and sociological work on the body has – perhaps unsurprisingly – focused on this topic; and second, because health and illness have formed the site of a considerable corpus of literature that is critical of the ways in which the body has been constructed/positioned as the passive recipient of legal and medical interventions (but more on this below). Throughout the course we encourage you to move beyond seeing the body simply as a biological object in which the mind resides and, instead, challenge you to think of the ways in which this mind-body dualism may be overcome such that we might recognise the importance of bodies in our lived experience of the world.

After watching the following video clips, which will provide an introduction to the phenomenological perspective, work through the rest of the course to look at how this comes to be applied to a substantive topic: embodiment. This course therefore provides students with an accessible introduction to phenomenological psychology and its application to understanding embodiment.

Watch the following video ‘The Phenomenological Perspective Part 1’.

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Transcript: The Phenomenological Perspective Part 1

DARREN:
First and foremost I think phenomenological social psychology is about lived experience. Experience as people live it in their day to day lives.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
It’s about focusing in on what it, what it means to be human and, and that, that I just find very exciting.
LINDA (continued):
Very often in psychology people focus in on smaller aspects of people’s behaviour, whether it’s in their brain or whatever, and you lose the sense of what it means to be human.
DARREN:
Immediately I encountered the phenomenological approach and the philosophy of the kind of phenomenological philosophers, did I merely kind of think: hello, this is, this is something that resonates with me and my understanding of the world, and what I’d learnt and studied so far.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
My path into this really came from practising as a mental health therapist, because there I used all sorts of theoretical perspectives in my work, but the one I favoured was the humanistic approach, where you’re trying to look at, kind of taking a holistic view of the person, the individual, trying to understand their, their feelings, their needs, their potential. Trying to empower. And these are the kinds of messages that also phenomenologists pick up on. And so it was a very short jump for me really as, as a therapist to then move into phenomenology .
DARREN:
What I discovered with phenomenology was an alternative psychoanalysis that had that vast scope, that actually sought to kind of deal with human existence kind of as we live it, in its entirety.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
It asks: well what is that experience like for you? So for example, if you were a depressed person and you had a whole room of psychologists here, every single psychologist would probably look at you differently and understand you differently. And you’d have some psychologists perhaps would be very focused on why is it that you’ve become depressed. Whereas the phenomenologist simply says well, I want to know what is it like for you to be depressed? What is your world? You know, who are you and how are you handling it? What’s your pain? What’s … what are your needs, what are your feelings? What is it that gives you meaning in your life? And for me those are the important questions. And of course there a link there then into how one would then help you with your depression.
NARRATOR:
Phenomenological research sets out to describe the particularity of people’s experiences.
DARREN:
My own research has been mostly concerned with understanding the lived experience of sexual identities. A particularly interesting study that I conducted was concerned with understanding the expectations of young gay men for parenthood. As a gay man coming out some years ago, I recall automatically assuming that I’d not be able to have children of my own or give my parents grandchildren. I was interested in exploring whether there was a new story about parenthood and the possibility of this for young gay men. This led me to conduct a study designed to investigate the hopes and fears of young gay men about becoming parents themselves.
DARREN:
We set out basically to conduct kind of fairly in depth interviews with sort of 20 young gay men, who didn’t have children but had something to say about the topic.
DARREN:
Hi, James. I’m Darren.
DARREN:
We recruited from a number of different sources with flyers that we put around various venues, directly approached youth groups in the area, university groups and other people that we knew. We basically were trying to find kind of as many young gay men as we could who were willing to volunteer that didn’t already have children through whatever means, and that had some wish to take part and talk about the topic. Men that sometimes we were interviewing them in my office, at the university, or we’d go to their homes, whatever was most appropriate for them, and they felt most comfortable with.
DARREN:
Through here?
JAMES:
Yep. Would you like a drink or anything?
DARREN:
Yeah, a cup of tea would be great, thanks.
JAMES:
No problem.
DARREN:
I wonder if we could begin by just talking a little bit about your expectations for parenthood. And in particular I’m interested in whether you’ve ever imagined becoming a parent at some point in the future?
JAMES:
I have certainly. Five years ago, before I came out as a gay man, I was in a relationship with a woman and I got her pregnant. I realised I think at that point that I wasn’t in the relationship I wanted to be in to actually bring the child up. It was a mutual decision, but we decided to get rid of the baby in the end and … it was the right decision, I don’t think we could have supported it as I would have wanted to and I think she had the same opinion as me really. I would like children in the future but obviously now, being a gay man, it would be with a different partner, and it would definitely be I think in a relationship that I would want to have that child.
DARREN:
What we heard from these people were a variety of themes around the way in which having a child was a way of connecting them in with their own families, their own biological families in particular; a way of continuing the generation, the family name through providing parents with grandchildren, linking themselves into the family structure in a way that often heterosexual siblings did.
DARREN:
And have you thought about the implications of your decision for the child themselves?
JAMES:
My generation’s a lot more accepting of gay marriage, gay people having babies. And I would hope that in the future, perhaps ten years down the … ten years down the line, sorry, that it’s developed even more, so that it’s become less of an issue.
DARREN:
And I wonder if you thought about how your friends or family might respond to you in this decision?
JAMES:
I think my friends would be very accepting. My parents would like grandchildren, definitely, and wanting children myself, I think, I think it would be, it would be a good thing for them and it would be a good thing for me.
DARREN:
There was often an emphasis on quite traditional notions of families, of needing to be in a couple before having children was actually quite a common theme, and wanting to be a kind of fairly traditional family, where the child had lots of love and affection and support. And these things were kind of clearly identified as common themes for the men involved.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
I set out to study the lived experience in multiple sclerosis and in my research I actually interviewed several people with multiple sclerosis. Now what was so striking was that they all had completely different stories, and I soon realised that actually it was not possible to do a study on this is what the experience of multiple sclerosis is like. It was clear to me that I needed to focus in on the individuals and kind of honour their story. And Ann was one of the individuals, and I thought she had a really important story to tell. In Ann’s interview she talked about having a numbness in her hands that had spread, spread up her arm, and then it subsided, leaving her with a little bit of numbness in her fingertips. And that’s pretty much all she had wrong in a way. And, and that was what I was thinking: well, it’s not that bad in, in the grand scheme of things. But of course I wasn’t setting aside my understandings of the medical condition not being so bad. Whereas really I needed to tune in to what Ann was feeling about this and what it meant to her. And she did something in the interview which just yanked me back to her life world and really showed, showed me, from her perspective, what it was about. LINDA (continued): She, she described the sense of not being able to feel her babies skin properly, so that she could love them. And she did this gesture, this kind of embodied gesture, which just whoa, and I … and I suddenly got it. I suddenly realised what … whatever the medical status of her hand, that was really irrelevant. For her, having a little bit of numbness in her hand, meant that she couldn’t touch her babies. In medical terms her symptoms were relatively minor, but her entire world was derailed. One of the valuable things that has come out in my research with Ann is, is actually working with health professionals. They do exactly what I did, which is kind of thinking: oh well, she’s just got a little numbness in her fingers, no big deal. And then they switch off. And I say wait a minute, you’ve got a person there with a whole life, look at how her, her whole world has been disrupted. I think phenomenological research in general reminds the professionals to listen and hear what it is like for the individual.
End transcript: The Phenomenological Perspective Part 1
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Now watch ‘The Phenomenological Perspective Part 2’.

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Transcript: The Phenomenological Perspective Part 2

NARRATOR:
There are several key features which distinguish the phenomenological from other perspectives in social psychology.
DARREN:
We seek to approach things with, with a sense of naivety, with a sense of not coming at it, knowing what we’re going to find. I mean this is, this is actually called epoché, which is kind of a Greek word, which is, which is a kind of … the process by which we try and approach things without preconceptions.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
The epoché is often a misunderstood process, and people think of it as something about becoming objective and unbiased. And it really is absolutely not that. It’s about suspending the researchers presuppositions and prior understandings.
LINDA (continued):
But it’s not putting them away forever, it’s just bracketing them, holding them to one side in order to be open to the phenomena or to be open to the person and, and see what emerges.
DARREN:
So we for instance try and horizontalize. We don’t put things into hierarchies of meaning straight away. So when somebody tells us that their cat died, and that they’re worried about their mother’s illness, we don’t assume that their mother’s illness is necessarily more important than their cat dying. It might not be the case for that person. I don’t know. I need to find out.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
It’s very important for the researcher to be, to be aware selfconscious of how they impact on the data collection, the data analysis, the writing up, and in the whole research process. Because it’s not simply hearing the person’s story.
DARREN:
Like the social psychoanalytic approach, we take field notes very seriously, and are very interested in our experience of what happens in relationships with an interviewee, before and after, and our relationship with the subject too.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
As the person is telling their story, the researchers are part of the story that’s being told. They’re, they’re in a sense co- producing the findings.
DARREN:
There’s something about an intrinsic interconnection that people have with each other, and that this interconnection is the stuff of phenomenology, this is the material out there between people that is the core of what we do.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
Phenomenologists are concerned to understand the lived embodied experience of the person and how they relate to others. So it’s about their self identity, it’s about their sense of embodiment, it’s about their relationships with others. But a part of that is actually trying to capture something of what’s called lived, the temporality and spatiality, lived time and lived space.
DARREN:
We all live in a three dimensional spatial world and that that will have impacts on us. So we might feel in a certain environment closed in, kind of you know, confined, and it might not be because the environment is small, it might just be the experience we have of that space.
DR LINDA FINLAY:
With lived time, you know how you sometimes feel that time is rushing by, you know, when you’re feeling happy it seems to go very quickly, and then when you’re feeling bored or tired, time goes very slowly. So that’s the kind of thing you try and pick up in a phenomenological analysis. Time’s going quickly, slowly. Is it discontinuous? Is it fragmented? Is it both, fast and slow?
DARREN:
We describe rather than interpret. The first principle is that we always seek to approach any subject in a descriptive way. We actually try and stay with the thing as it’s presented to us, and describe it, in kind of vivid rich detail.
DARREN:
Sartre about us being condemned to be free and being kind of an emptiness and that what we’re trying to do in our every day lives is fill that up. So we’re kind of constantly becoming. So human nature is an active process, where we’re meaning makers, we’re kind of machines that are seeking to kind of find the meaning in the world, and that’s what we’re, we’re doing. We don’t have anything kind of core essential, any personality that’s fixed or in traits that, that are there, you know, for all eternity. We’re not inherently extroverts or introverts. It will depend on what’s going on for us and our experience as we live it, day to day.
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