Bringing phenomenology to the people (but don’t call it that)


The phenomenological approach is of particular relevance when dealing with the questions of significance for preservation. … If a historical place is such a phenomenon, then the term ‘significant’ should be used in preservation to describe places whose physical character and matrices of historical, mythical, and social associations can and do evoke experiences of awe, wonder, beauty, and identity, among others.” – Jack D. Elliott, Jr. (2002)


If you’re reading this post, you probably like old places. Do you remember a particularly emotional encounter with an old building or place? Maybe you even had a physical sensation, like your spine tingling, because you saw something out of the corner of your eye. Or perhaps you simply felt physically and emotionally connected with some past event. Everyone seems to have these experiences with old places, but in heritage conservation practice, they are pretty much ignored if not actively discouraged (Smith and Waterton 2009, 49). Even in critical heritage studies literature, the role of emotion and experience in the historic environment is largely absent, save for the work of Gaynor Bagnall (2003), Laurajane Smith (Smith 2011, Smith and Campbell 2015), and my own research (Wells and Baldwin, 2012).

Traditionally, in heritage conservation, Smith (2015, p. 446) asserts that “emotion was seen as somehow ‘dangerous’ in achieving a balanced understanding of the importance of the past in the present.” This is a theme that can be traced in built heritage conservation all the way back to the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg (United States) if not earlier; restoration architects involved in the project were quite explicit in describing their “scientific” techniques as a way to avoid making the past into a “theatrical event” (Kimball 1935). The Venice Charter and similar, modernist-driven doctrines, also carefully eschew any signs of subjective approaches to heritage.

But what if, as I’ve discovered in my work (Wells 2009), emotion is a key, if not fundamental, reason why people value historic places? Historic places have a unique capacity to engender spontaneous vignettes of the past in the mind of people who experience old buildings and places. I’ve been able to correlate this “spontaneous fantasy” with a higher degree of emotional attachment to places; in other words, the more people experience spontaneous fantasies in the historic environment, the more emotionally connected they are to this environment. And a higher degree of attachment means that people prefer these historic places to similar places that are not historic. Moreover, the spontaneous fantasy seems to be triggered by the appearance of patina (age/decay) in the historic environment. If there’s no patina, there’s no spontaneous fantasies. (A condensed version of my work on historic preservation, significance, and phenomenology is in the Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, edited by David Seamon.)

This emotional connection with place is a very different way of looking at historical significance than is commonly used in heritage conservation practice. It doesn’t rely on facts about the past, architectural history, or objective measures of authenticity and integrity. Instead, the value of an historic place is predicated on people’s emotional attachment to this place. On the face of it, this seems like a terribly obvious way to value things; after all, the people in our lives we value the most are the ones we love the most. Why should place be treated any differently? The answer is that it’s very difficult to translate an emotion, such as love, into something that has enough objectivity so that it can be used in planning processes. But, does this mean the field of heritage conservation should simply ignore a fundamental reason why people value historic places? I believe the answer is no; we need better answers as well as better tools to understand this emotional connection to historical places. Once we understand this phenomenon better, then we might be able to adapt heritage management practices to accommodate it.

One of the most effective tools for understanding emotion is something called “phenomenology”. This is something the nursing field has long known about because of its effectiveness in understanding how patients experience pain, through a specific technique known as an existential phenomenology. Other fields, such as architecture (e.g., Christian Norberg-Schulz 1980) have used a different technique, known as a hermeneutical phenomenology, to understand “genius loci” or “sense of place”. In the built environment, the largest users of existential phenomenology are humanistic geographers who desire to understand people’s emotional experience of being in certain places. Yi-Fu Tuan (1977, pp. 194, 198) briefly explored some aspects related to built heritage conservation, arguing that the practice of heritage conservation has nothing to do with how people are affected by place or attached to place. With few exceptions, however, phenomenology has not been used to research the historic environment in any depth. The only two examples that I know of are my own work and Ingrid Leman Stefanovic (1998).

What is phenomenology? The technical explanation.

Phenomenology as a general concept is first credited to Kant (1934/1787) when he separated objects into “phenomena” and “noumena.” Phenomena alone is generated from perception and experience; noumena can exist purely as an intellectual concept without a concrete presence. Hegel (1937/1807) later refined these ideas into a study of consciousness and the phenomenon of the mind. The modern concept of phenomenology was developed by Husserl in the early part of the twentieth century and focused on “being of the world” and transcendence, or the process of “conferring meaning by the knowing ego [and] reflecting on itself” (Ray, 1994, p. 119). The goal is to “attain the genuine and true form of the things themselves” (ibid.). This emphasis on the true and genuine quality of things has led to the label of “pure” phenomenology for Husserl’s methods.

As opposed to Husserl, Heidegger (Husserl’s student) focuses on “being in the world”; for Heidegger “being, as such, already is present in the world. … [P]resuppositions are not to be eliminated or suspended, but are what constitute the possibility or intelligibility of meaning” (Ray, 1994, p. 120). Most phenomenological researchers use Husserl and Heidegger as a division between the two major strands of phenomenology. While Husserl represents a pure or transcendental phenomenology, Heidegger stands for an interpretive or hermeneutical perspective. Husserl’s methodology insists that “phenomenological research is pure description and that interpretation (hermeneutics) falls outside the bounds of phenomenological research” (Van Manen, 1990, pp. 25, 26).

Phenomenology is the study of the essences of human perception; the goal is to find definitions for these essences based on perception and consciousness (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. vii). It is the “explication of phenomena as they present themselves to consciousness” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 9). Phenomenology seeks to describe and understand the preontological ramifications of “being in the world” (Heidegger, 2005/1924) and “experiential meanings as we live them” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 11). Seamon (1982) describes phenomenology as a “science of beginnings” that dispenses with “assumed notions and perspectives [in order to] return to the foundations of meanings, things, and experiences” (p. 119). According to Van Manen, phenomenology “differs from almost every other science in that it attempts to gain insightful descriptions of the way we experience the world pre-reflectively, without taxonomizing, classifying, or abstracting it” (p. 9).

Phenomenological research focuses on the experience. What is it like to be in a certain environment?  What senses are called into action? What kind of feelings are engaged? For instance, Merleau-Ponty (1962) spends many pages describing the experience of the color red: “This red patch which I see on the carpet is red only in virtue of a shadow which lies across it, its quality is apparent only in relation to the play of light upon it, and hence as an element in a spatial configuration” (p. 4). Phenomenological research requires the researcher to become in part a philosopher, reflecting on the experience of the self and of others.

Types of phenomenology

Van Manen divides phenomenology into transcendental, existential, hermeneutical, linguistical, ethical, and experiential “orientations”:

OrientationBasic themesOrigins
Transcendentalintentionality, eidetic (mental images) reduction, and constitution of meaningHusserl, Stein, and Fink
Existentiallived experience, modes of being, ontology, and lifeworldHeidegger and Merleau-Ponty
Hermeneuticalinterpretation, textual meaning, dialogue, preunderstanding, and traditionHeidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur
Linguisticaltextual autonomy, signification, intertextuality, deconstruction, discourse, and space of the textFoucault and Derrida based on earlier ideas of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gadamer
Ethicalotherness, responsibility, I-Thou, the vocative, and (non)relationalityLevinas and Scheler based on ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre
Experiential (application of phenomenology to social science)Applied research originating in the human sciences such as education, clinical psychology, nursing, medicine, and specializations such as psychiatry or midwifery, but based on philosophical approachesBinswanger (field of psychiatry in the 1940s)

A phenomenological researcher may draw on all the phenomenological orientations described above. While the hermeneutical approach appears to dominate most research because of its interpretive basis, I am partial to existential phenomenology because of its emphasis on the emotional experience of being in the world.

Existential phenomenologies can be divided into two major types: first person and third person. In a first-person phenomenology, the researcher experiences the phenomena directly and reflects on this experience; in a third-person phenomenology, the researcher collects data, usually from interviews, from people who explain their experience.

A phenomenological method

There is a lack of a general consensus in the field of phenomenology as to how one should conduct a phenomenological inquiry. Some researchers believe that by rigidly defining a series of steps, unwanted post-cognitive meanings compromise the collection of data. Probably the most detailed method I’ve found is from Patricia Munhall (2007) from the field of nursing. Van Manen’s (1990) guide to conducting a phenomenology is probably the most widely used reference, but it is not prescriptive and only provides general principles and guidelines, which are as follows:

  • Empty your mind of any preconceived notions about the phenomenon you are trying to understand; try to experience the phenomenon on its own terms as if you have never encountered it before. (I like to think that the researcher assumes the perspective of a toddler, who is experiencing nearly everything in the world for the first time–a kind of child-like wonder about the world.)
  • Focus as much as possible on per-cognative emotions and states. In other words, say that you are trying to understand the experience of a breeze on your face. You would describe how it feels (e.g., cool, tickles, smells), the feelings it elicits (calmness), and any memories that are catalyzed without your conscious effort (the smell of the ocean makes you think of spending time at the beach with your mother).
  • Avoid any higher-order information or meaning processing, which would take the form of comparing how cool the breeze is today with the breeze yesterday or if the smell of the ocean really smells like seaweed or not.
  • As David Seamon (1982) writes, this process is “radically empirical” where you want to focus on the essence of experience in all of its richness. This should result in lots of descriptive terms of experience.
  • There are lots of variations to this process, but it’s important to remember that you want to focus on elements of experience just as they enter your consciousness, but before you’ve started analyzing their meaning.

These instructions assume a first-person phenomenology, but they also apply to a researcher trying to understand others’ experience of the world as well.

After collecting data, a common technique is to look for patterns and themes in the data that were collected and use these patterns to answer a particular research question. (This step has much in common with many qualitative research methodologies, such as ethnographies.)

The non-technical explanation of existential phenomenology

Most of the materials on phenomenology are rather difficult for most people to understand because they are written for academic researchers. I will attempt to describe, in as simple language as possible, the characteristics of an existential phenomenology and how someone can use it in understanding emotional responses to the environment.

It is not possible to experience the world without your body. All experience is therefore mediated through your body. Phenomenology seeks to understand this experience of “being in the world”. Another way of looking at this condition is that there is no way to understand the world without your body. There is therefore the assumption that experience and your body are inseparable; the factual nature of the experience is therefore not what is important. Understanding your body’s reaction to this experience is fundamental. Focus on describing the way your body experiences the world in as much rich detail as possible, focusing on emotional states and feelings and raw description.

An existential phenomenology is an appropriate technique to use when there is a desire to learn as much as possible about how you or other people experience, on the most fundamental, emotional level, different environments. There are much better methodologies to use if you want to understand cultural values, beliefs, or other meanings that require higher-order cognitive processing. A phenomenology needs to focus on the most “naked” elements of environmental experience. In other words, what is the most basic, fundamental way you can describe a particular experience in the most detail possible? This is how one conducts a phenomenology.

Can lay people be taught to conduct an existential phenomenology?

In the context of community-based participatory research, I am exploring the idea of training participants (assuming that they are interested and curious) to use a first-person phenomenology in order to understand the experience of being in certain environments. Rather than this process being one-ended–data going to the researcher–I want the participants in the community workshop to share their experiences with each other, and through this process, come up with their own patterns and themes to answer questions that they think are important.

I’m still exploring how this might be done, but my thoughts are:

  • Never use the word “phenomenology” with participants. No one will know what it means and it’s multi-syllabic and erudite qualities will probably not work very well in terms of warming up a group of community workshop participants.
  • Provide instructions to participants in a very simple way (similar to what I’ve described in the section above), focusing on personal feelings and emotions.
  • Suggest to participants that they write down words that describe emotions and feelings in a journal during a particular experience so that it is fresh and vivid.
  • Consider suggesting that participants take photos of places that are particularly meaningful to them and then discuss the photographs in the community workshop meeting, focusing on the emotional experience of being in that particular environment.

Some open questions:

  • What to call phenomenology that’s been adapted for community-based participatory research? There are some reasonable parallels between conducting a phenomenology and meditation that could help connect these ideas to something more accessible.
  • What is the most effective way to gather the data generated in these community workshops and analyze it? How can the participants be a part of this process? In other words, how can the participants take ownership of the process? To some extent, this will play out on its own in the community workshop, but the question is how to best facilitate it.

The idea of using a phenomenological approach in community-based participatory research is novel and may not work, but it should be an interesting experience that I hope proves to be practical. Ultimately, I hope that it would benefit the participants by helping them better understand their own relationship to the historic environment.



Bagnall, G. (2003). Performance and performativity at heritage sites. Museum and Society, 1(2), 87-103.

Elliott, J. D. (2002). Radical preservation: Toward a new and more ancient paradigm. Forum Journal, 16(3), 50-56.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1937). The phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Harper Torchbooks. Originally published in 1807.

Heidegger, M. (2005). Introduction to phenomenological research (Dahlstrom, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Source material derived from lectures in 1923 and 1924.

Kant, I. (1934). Critique of pure reason (J. D. D. Meiklejohn, Trans.). London: Everyman. Originally published in 1787.

Kimball, F. (1935). The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The Architectural Record, 78(6), 359.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception: An introduction (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Munhall, P. (2007). A phenomenological method. In P. Munhall (Ed.), Nursing research: A qualitative perspective. (pp. 145-210). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlet.

Norberg-Schulz, C. (1980). Genius loci: Towards a phenomenology of architecture (p. 213). New York: Rizzoli.

Ray, M. A. (1994). The richness of phenomenology: Philosophic, theoretic, and methodologic concerns. In J. M. Morse (Ed.), Critical issues in qualitative research methods. (pp. 117-133). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Seamon, D. (1982). The phenomonological contribution to environmental psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2, 119-140.
Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching the lived experience. Ontario: The University of Western Ontario.

Smith, L. (2011). Affect and registers of engagement: navigating emotional responses to dissonant heritage. In L. Smith, G. Cubitt, R. Wilson, and K. Fouseki (eds.), Representing enslavement and abolition in museums: Ambiguous engagements, pp. 260-303. New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. and Campbell, G. (2015). The elephant in the room: Heritage, affect, and emotion. In W. Logon, M. N. Wraith, and U. Kockel, A companion to heritage studies, pp. 443-460. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith, L., and Waterton, E. (2009). Heritage communities and archaeology. London: Duckworth.

Stefanovic, I. L. (1998). Phenomenological encounters with place: Cavtat to square one. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18(1), 31-44.

Tuan, Y. F. (1977). Space and place: the perspectives of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wells, J. C. (2009). Attachment to the physical age of urban residential neighborhoods: A comparative case study of historic Charleston and I’On (Ph.D. dissertation), Clemson University.

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.

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