Psychology and Formalisation

Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Statistics

by Anita Williams (Author)
©2017 Monographs XIV, 222 Pages


This book revisits psychology’s appropriation of natural scientific methods. The author argues that, in order to overcome ongoing methodological debates in psychology, it is necessary to confront the problem of formalisation contained in the appropriation of methods of natural science. By doing so, the subject matter of psychology – the human being – and questions about the meaning of human existence can be brought to the centre of the discipline. Drawing on Garfinkel, Sacks, Edwards and Potter, the author sees ethnomethodologically informed qualitative methods, which stem from phenomenology, as a possible alternative to statistical methods, but ultimately finds these methods to be just another method of formalisation.She returns to Husserlian phenomenology as a way to critique the centrality of method in psychology and shows that the adoption of natural scientific methods in psychology is part of the larger push to formalise and objectify all aspects of human existence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Interview Extracts
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Psychology, Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology
  • Overview of the Book
  • Part One: Phenomenology as a Guideline for an Empirical Method
  • Part Two: A Phenomenological Critique of Quantitative and Ethnomethodologically informed Qualitative Methods in Psychology
  • In Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part One: Phenomenology as a Guideline for an Empirical Method
  • Chapter One: A Conversation Analytic Investigation of Therapy—Clinical Psychologists Use Members Methods to Present Their Interpretation as Objective
  • Introducing Conversation Analysis
  • Conversation Analysis: A Relevant Review
  • Analysis: Therapists and Clients have Asymmetrical Speaking Positions
  • Therapists Use Common-Sense Methods to Break the Conversation Maxim to Talk for Oneself
  • The Key Asymmetry: Therapists Formulate Clients Problems
  • The Objective Standpoint and Conversation Analysis
  • An Ethnomethodological Critique of Conversation Analysis
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Two: An Ethnomethodological Investigation of Therapy—Clinical Psychologists ‘Do Being Ordinary’
  • Sacks and Garfinkel on Social Order
  • Clinical Psychology and ‘Doing Being Ordinary’
  • Analysis: Telling and Listening to Stories in Ordinary Ways
  • There is nothing Extraordinary about Clinical Psychological Therapy
  • The Problem of Generalisation in Ethnomethodology
  • The Ordinariness of Social Interaction and the Problem of Critique
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Three: A Discursive Psychological Investigation of Therapy—‘Personality’ as a Mediating Device
  • Discursive Psychology and Statistical Personality Psychology
  • Analysis: Personality and the Clinical Psychological Setting
  • Personality: A Method for Managing Disputes
  • Personality as a Members’ Category of Stable Individual Difference
  • A Conflict between the Analyst’s and the Members’ Definition of Personality
  • How Discursive Psychologists bring Analytic Concepts to bear on their Analyses
  • The Problem with Atheoretical Description
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Two: A Phenomenological Critique of Quantitative and Ethnomethodologically-Informed Qualitative Methods in Psychology
  • Chapter Four: The Theoretical Attitude and the Natural Scientific Attitude
  • Husserl’s Continued Relevance to the Field of Psychology
  • Returning to Discursive Psychology
  • Questioning Discursive Psychology’s Critique of Quantitative Psychology
  • The Importance of Theorising
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Five: Method as Formalisation—Empirical Data as Formal Categories
  • Husserl on the Difference between a priori and a posteriori Disciplines
  • Husserl on the Greeks and the Theoretical Attitude and Galileo and the Natural Scientific Attitude
  • Discursive Psychology and Formalisation
  • Discursive Psychology and Statistical Psychology as Extensions of the Factual Natural Sciences
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion: Psychology and Formalisation
  • New Methods are Not the Answer
  • Harold Garfinkel’s and Harvey Sacks’s Objectification of the Social World
  • The Promise of Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology: Questioning Objectification and Opening a Space to talk about the Meaning of Human Existence
  • Psychology: What is its Subject Matter?
  • In Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Appendix: Transcription Notation
  • List of Index Terms

← X | XI →

List of Interview Extracts

← XII | XIII →


This book only truly began when a close friend, Ľubica Učník, began asking simple questions: ‘what do you mean by…?’ in regards to basically all the technical jargon I had learned to handle, yet could not explain, over the years of doing ethnomethodology, conversation analysis and discursive psychology. It was then I started to see that ethnomethodology and phenomenology were not compatible approaches and phenomenology had far more to offer than just another research method. I appreciate, more than words can say, our many discussions about, as well as her perceptive criticisms of, my work.

For their time spent in furthering my understanding of Edmund Husserl, I would particularly like to thank Steve Schofield and Mark Brown. Mark also provided invaluable feedback on early versions of chapter 4.

Over the years spent researching and writing for the book, the people who have helped shape it through discussion and criticism are too many to name. I would like to especially thank Bonnie Barber, Peta Bowden, Don Bysouth, Ngaire Donaghue, Martyn Hammersley, Kalle Jarvinen, Craig McGarty, Alec McHoul, Dermot Moran, Reece Plunkett, and Mark Rapley. For her outstanding editorial skills, I thank Urszula Dawkins. My gratitude also goes to the philosophy students who regularly attend our reading group, I couldn’t think of a better place to discuss and clarify ideas, and the Social Psychology Reading in Group (SPRiG) for critical discussions of the literature and my early work. I apologise to those I have forgotten.

I gratefully acknowledge the two clinical psychologists, as well as their clients, who provided the recorded therapy sessions that formed the data corpus for my investigations in chapters one, two and three. Although I never met the clients, this book would not have been possible without their contribution.

Last but not least, I would like to thank all my friends and family for their love and care. Especially, my mum and dad for their unwavering belief in me; my partner, Mark, who gave me with the most precious gift when finishing a book: time; and my friends, Eva and Courtney, who are always there to listen to my gripes, both intellectual and personal. ← XIII | XIV →

← XIV | 1 →

Introduction: Psychology, Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology

In this book, I argue that psychological methods, despite claims to the contrary, continue to be based upon methods adopted from the natural sciences. In particular, methods used in psychology are underpinned by the concept that there is an objective standpoint from which to view human behaviour.1 Thus, psychological researchers assume that through their methods they can establish general unchanging patterns in human characteristics that explain and predict the way people act in the world.2 Through adopting methods from natural science, psychology presupposes that the human condition can be understood, categorised, explained and predicted in the same way as rocks and trees. Psychologists specifically investigate people but, by using methods based on natural science, they are forced to admit that meaningful human experience is either irrelevant or inaccessible to their investigations of human behaviour.

I reconsider the ‘methodological’ appropriation of the objective standpoint by engaging with the quantitative-qualitative debate in psychology. I argue that the problem associated with the adoption of natural scientific method, either acknowledged or unacknowledged, cannot be resolved by replacing quantitative methods with qualitative methods. To substantiate this claim, I pay close attention to the framework of ethnomethodology (EM) as an exemplar of a selfproclaimed ‘non-scientific’ qualitative approach to social research, including psychology. On the quantitative side of the debate, I focus on personality psychology and testing as a typical example of a natural scientific approach to research in psychology. I demonstrate that the statistical examinations of personality and discursive psychological investigations of social interaction, which are often presented as diametrically opposed within the psychological literature, in fact both presuppose the natural scientific attitude.3 Instead of seeking an alternative to the use of natural scientific method in psychology, I argue that we first need to understand the historical development and grounding assumptions of this attitude. The underlying question throughout the book is why and how the adoption of the natural scientific attitude leads to the elimination of lived human experience within psychological research.4 ← 1 | 2 →

Overview of the Book

In this book, I revisit the critique of psychology’s appropriation of natural scientific methods that stems from Husserlian phenomenology. Modern natural science is a systematic and formal approach to research, constructed in terms of ‘objectivity’ and impartiality, so scientists everywhere can follow the same method and arrive at the same results. According to Husserl (1970, 23–59), the problem with the ideal of obtaining identical results is that the exactness of the results obtained relates to the method and no longer to the subject matter. In other words, as Husserl notes, method comes to replace reality. I suggest that Husserl’s critique is relevant to contemporary psychology because it sheds light on the dominance of methodological debates—specifically, for this book, the qualitative-quantitative debate—over engagement with questions concerning subject matter. I argue that, in order to overcome ongoing methodological debates in psychology, we need to confront the problem of formalisation contained in the appropriation of methods of natural science. Through understanding the problem of formalisation we can bring the subject matter of psychology—the human being—to the forefront of the discipline.

The book is divided into two parts, each focusing on a different phenomenological approach. In the first part, following the work of Garfinkel, Sacks, Edwards and Potter, I take phenomenology as a guide for a new method in psychology. I engage with ethnomethodologically informed qualitative methods, which originally stem from phenomenology, as an alternative to, and a viable replacement for, the appropriation of natural scientific methods in psychology. Through a series of attempts to replace natural scientific methods with an alternative empirical method, I propose that the problem with the natural scientific method is much larger than might, initially, be imagined. By contrast, in the second part, I return to Husserlian phenomenology as a way to critique the centrality of method in psychology. I show that the natural scientific interpretation of human experience is part of the larger sedimentation of the natural scientific interpretation of the life-world in our current historical situation. We cannot simply replace the natural scientific method because, currently, there is no viable alternative. Instead, in order to reinstate the importance of meaningful lived experience in psychology, we need to understand the natural scientific attitude in terms of its historical development and grounding assumptions. ← 2 | 3 →

As Husserl points out, the theoretical attitude is the precursor to the natural scientific attitude. Yet, while the theoretical attitude was originally a way to ask questions related to the meaningfulness of human existence, the natural scientific attitude is a way to know, control and predict nature only. Hence, the book ends with a suggestion that we need to understand the potential of as well as the limitations of the natural scientific attitude as well as its precursor: the theoretical attitude. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing ourselves under the plethora of formal concepts and models that we have amassed.

Part One: Phenomenology as a Guideline for an Empirical Method

The power of this book is that my critique starts from using the methods in question. So, in spite of where the book ends, part one retains my original research analyses and results in order to guide the reader—whether familiar with the method/s or not—through using the methods and arriving at the results; rather than just discussing how the method is presented in the literature, which is at odds with the spirit of EM. Garfinkel is originally inspired by the phenomenology of both Alfred Schütz and Husserl. Hence, I originally understood EM and phenomenology as compatible approaches. As a result, the book not only speaks to EM, but also the larger problem of taking phenomenology as a guide for an empirical method only, which happens across the social and human sciences.

In the first part of this book, I adopt EM as an applied phenomenological research approach for investigating and clarifying how clinical psychology actually ‘gets done’ within the interactions between therapists and clients. Garfinkel (2007), the founder of EM, claims to appropriate the phenomenological critique of the natural sciences. Originally adopting Schütz’s social phenomenology and his notion of common-sense knowledge (Garfinkel 1967a, 37, 55, Garfinkel and Sacks 1970, 343–344) and later adopting Husserl’s life-world specifically (Garfinkel 2007, Garfinkel and Liberman 2007), Garfinkel proposes that social science prevalently misses its phenomenon of interest: the social world as it is actually lived. Initially, I thought that the phenomenological influence upon EM was what underpinned the radical nature of its project, which was to study the social world as an already orderly phenomenon from a non-specialist position (Lynch 1993, Livingston 2006, 41, 2008, 59–63, Garfinkel 2007). ← 3 | 4 →

A Key Similarity between Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology


XIV, 222
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
Indirect mathematisation Theoretical attitude / or / Theory Modern science Conversation analysis Discursive psychology Research methods
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. XVI, 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Anita Williams (Author)

Anita Williams is an Adjunct Philosophy Lecturer at the Murdoch University, Perth (Australia). She questions the increasing psychologisation of thinking and experience; drawing on Patočka, Husserl and Heidegger.


Title: Psychology and Formalisation
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238 pages