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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 Five: Method as Formalisation—Empirical Data as Formal Categories


Merely fact-minded sciences make merely fact-minded people (Husserl 1970, 6).

In the last chapter, I discussed the equivocation of the theoretical attitude with the natural scientific attitude. I argued that equating the natural and theoretical attitudes forecloses the possibility of critique. The natural scientific attitude is grounded upon particular presuppositions, one of which is the hypothesis of indirect mathematisation. The theoretical attitude, on the other hand, is the attitude through which we can bring into question our presuppositions. Collapsing the distinction between the natural scientific attitude and the theoretical attitude leads ethnomethodologically informed (EM-informed) researchers to eschew theory altogether and, thereby, these researchers overlook that they too have a theoretical framework. In this chapter, I will argue that, not only does EM-informed discursive psychology (DP) commit the same error that they accuse quantitative psychology of committing—failing to be aware of their own theoretical framework—but also discursive psychologists indirectly mathematise, that is formalise, lived experience by their method of data collection.

EM-informed researchers attempt to start from empirical data alone, which is entailed by EM-informed researchers’ endeavour to describe, so-called, actual practices without theory. However, actual practices do not simply appear before us ready for analysis. Instead, actual practices must be made ready for analysis through tape-recording and transcribing a social situation, a situation that exceeds both the tape and the transcript. The mistake that EM-informed approaches make—that knowledge of social interaction can be gained from purely looking at ‘actual’ social interaction...

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