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Psychology and Formalisation

Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Statistics


Anita Williams

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.

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Chapter Four: The Theoretical Attitude and the Natural Scientific Attitude



The fundamental problem that I gesture towards in the last chapter is that, statistical and ethnomethodologically informed (EM-informed) approaches proceed from the taken for granted backdrop of our natural scientific tradition of thinking. In forgetting that they start from a theoretical standpoint, both statistical and EM-informed psychologists obscure lived human experience.2 Instead of eschewing theoretical inquiry, Edmund Husserl argues that what is forgotten by our natural science tradition is that human experience and reasoning are the necessary, albeit overlooked, starting point for any investigation.3

In the following part of the book, through two chapters, I will provide a phenomenological critique of EM. I will pay particular attention to Husserl’s (1970) critique that natural science has lost their life-world foundation as presented in Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenology4 and ‘The Vienna lecture: Philosophy and the crisis of European humanity’.5 In this chapter, I will argue that EM-informed approaches to research conflate the theoretical attitude and the natural scientific attitude and, hence, lose the importance of the theoretical attitude for understanding the world in which we live.6 In chapter five, I will argue for a distinction between generalisation, idealisation and indirect mathematisation in order to put forward that empirical data is not simply generalised from lived experience, but is indirectly mathematised from experience.7 In concluding the second part of the book, I will suggest that both EM and natural scientific approaches to researching the human world strip our world of...

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