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The body: a phenomenological psychological perspective
The body: a phenomenological psychological perspective

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3.4 Experiencing multiple sclerosis: a case illustration

The idea of a body–world interconnection and distinction between objective and subjective body is explored further in the following extract, drawn from some phenomenological research Linda Finlay conducted on one person’s (Ann’s) lived bodily experience of having MS (Finlay, 2003). In the extract, the focus is on the process by which Finlay came to analyse what Ann’s body feels like subjectively. Her story – obtained via an in-depth interview (see Box 3 below) – emphasises the way her sense of embodied experience is both complex and ambivalent. Her body, experienced as both subject and object, is engaged in trying to operate in, and cope with, the world.

Box 3 An existential phenomenological method

In this research I used an existent-phenomenological method (Giorgi, 1985; Valle and Halling, 1989) aiming to describe the lifeworld. I assumed Ann's expressions reflected her perceptions of her lifeworld. Throughout both the interview and analysis I tried to set aside previous assumptions and understandings I had of both Ann and MS. I strove to adopt an attitude of openness to her story as it unfolded.

I interviewed Ann, using an in-depth relatively non-directive approach, on two consecutive days. The interview began with a general question: ‘What is living with multiple sclerosis like for you?’. Thereafter, I prompted her to offer concrete examples: ‘Can you describe an example of an actual situation when that happened?’.

To analyse the interview, I first created a narrative drawing extensively on her verbatim quotes. I then undertook repeated, systematic readings of the transcript using the analytical method suggested by Wertz (1983). I focused specifically on seven ‘existential dimensions’ of the lifeworld: Ann's sense of embodiment; selfhood; sociality; temporality; spatiality; project; and discourse. These interlinked ‘fractions’ (Ashworth, 2003) act like spectacles through which to view the data. Taking embodiment for example, I'd ask: ‘What is Ann’s subjective sense of her body? How does she experience and move in her body? Does she feel big, small, clumsy, happy tense, comfortable, disconnected, in pain?…’

(Finlay, 2006b, p. 190)

Activity 1

As you read the description of research findings in Extract 1 and the method used, note the way theoretical ideas about body–subect, body–object and the body–world ‘intertwining’ are applied. Reflect on the advantages of this method of researching the body, in terms of the findings as well as the theory and methodology. What do you think psychologists from other theoretical perspectives might say about the limitations of this type of research?

Read Extract 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


This brief extract from the analysis of Ann’s story suggests that her sense of self-body unity, her daily life projects and her relationships with others (especially her children) are being threatened. Yet as her life is derailed, she is also seeking to reclaim it by attempting to connect with her alienated body. The split between the objective and subjective body is clear – though complicated through the way Ann seeks to reflexively reintegrate the subjective and objective in her morning rituals – and important here for Ann's own understanding of her illness and also the treatment of such conditions by health-care professionals. Importantly, Ann’s illness is encountered in the context of her family and other relationships – that is, the intersubjective and social realms of her life. Her experience of having/being a body with MS cannot be separated from her world. ‘Just as the multiple sclerosis is “in” her, it is “in” her embodied intersubjective relations with others’ (Finlay, 2003, p. 172). As Merleau-Ponty has famously explained: ‘There is no inner man [sic] … Man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself’ (1962 [1945], p. xi).