On phenomenology and the challenge of helping parents

I know that I am a pediatric occupational therapist, but I am also an adult occupational therapist because all the kids come attached with parents. Often, the primary point of intervention is with the parent and I think the roadblocks that I run into make me spend a lot of mental time considering the problems that adults have in operationalizing their occupational roles.

Now I know that I just dared to utter the term 'occupational roles' which I believe is probably not theoretically in vogue, but the concepts are still quite useful at times. That is a discussion for another time, I suppose.

Anyway, I am currently stuck on Rowles again and the concept of 'being in place' particularly as it relates to parent's abilities to find themselves and function within some constricted occupational niche of parenting.

So of course this problem in helping parents brings me to the core of meanings, values, and intentionalities that underly adaptive parenting behaviors. This of course takes me to the very basic concept that phenomenological approaches are primary in trying to understand and decipher individual occupational dysfunction.

The primary purpose of the phenomenological method is to describe the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness, without consideration of the theory, deduction, or assumptions from other disciplines. Edmund Husserl is the founder of this philosophical school of thought; he developed phenomenology as an a priori and eidetic methodology of scientific inquiry. Husserl believed that phenomenology would provide a basis for reform in all fields of science.

Pure phenomenological inquiry, as it applies to occupational science, answers the research question: “What is the essence of occupation?” By ‘essence’ Husserl means the absolute basis of knowledge regarding a subject. Husserl proposes that all un-provable assumptions should be discarded when describing what is given in experience and represented this opinion in his famous statement ‘zu den sachen selbst,’ or ‘to the things themselves.’

The primary procedures for conducting phenomenological inquiry (commonly referred to as phenomenological reduction) are phenomenological intuiting, phenomenological analyzing, and phenomenological describing (Gray, 1997).

Pure phenomenological reduction provides basic sense-data on the essential content of a phenomenon. The essence of occupation as described by Gray (1997) includes ‘doing’ by the patient, involves goal directed behavior, carries meaning for the individual, and is repeatable.

Husserl uses the term epoche to refer to the method of suspending judgment regarding the true nature of reality. The process of suspending judgment is also referred to as ‘bracketing’ any information about the subject being analyzed. By intuiting, analyzing, and describing within the rules of epoche, the true nature of an object could be determined.

Presumably, analysis of objects through phenomenological reduction is the only valid methodology for arriving at Truth. This was a large problem for Husserl, who attempted to explain that reduction could be done through a ‘transcendental ego,’ so as to avoid criticism that his ideas were solipsistic. Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his work in this area. Other philosophers (Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) disagreed with Husserl’s version of intentionality because it limited description of knowledge to a process of ‘bracketing’ where there was no influence of other factors. In brief, there was considerable debate about the nature of ‘true’ or ‘reliable’ results from Husserl’s phenomenological analysis, and this disagreement provided a basis for the creation of another philosophical movement known as existential phenomenology.

Gray’s (1997) article is based primarily on Spiegelberg’s historical recounting of phenomenology, thereby limiting the perspectives noted in the article. Gray’s descriptions of Husserl’s ideas are sometimes simplistic, but in fairness, it probably is not really possible to dilute Husserl’s phenomenology into a single journal article. A wider variety of source material would have been helpful, particularly regarding other phenomenologists’ applications of Husserl’s ideas.

Gray (1997) uses Husserl’s basic concepts appropriately, although there is a fundamental contradiction to studying something as meaning-laden as occupation within the confines of a ‘bracketed’ methodology. This was my biggest concern with Gray’s article. Husserl’s ideas are foundational to other philosophical systems that are much more applicable to occupational science, particularly Heidegger’s concepts of Dasein. This is also where I believe the Rowles article is so important.

Gray’s presentation would have been more applicable to occupational science if she were more expansive in her consideration of other phenomenologists.

Husserl’s phenomenology is itself a reductionistic form of inquiry in that it strips interpretation of reality away from the context that would make it applicable to occupational science. Occupations, by their nature, can’t be de-contextualized from the individuals who are engaging in them. However, this does not make phenomenology useless to occupational science. Hermeneutic and narrative inquiries, both of which fully embrace the interpretational perspective of the subject that is based on a larger (shared) conceptualization of reality, are based on phenomenological ideas. Phenomenology’s applicability to occupational science lies most in an embrace of subjective interpretation, not in the intentionality of disconnected sense-data interpretation.

Gray’s (1997) article is a useful starting point for occupational scientists’ study of phenomenology. However, it is important for occupational scientists to move beyond Husserl’s original ideas and to study the phenomenology of other philosophers.

I'll try to operationalize some of this later this week. Really, I do have some points to make.


Gray, J.M. (1997). Application of the phenomenological method to the concept of occupation. Journal of Occupational Science, 4, 5-17.

Rowles, G.D. (1996). Beyond performance: Being in place as a component of occupational therapy. In R.P. Cottrell (Ed.), Perspectives on purposeful activity: Foundation and future of occupational therapy (pp. 201-208). Bethesda, MD: AOTA, Inc. Reprinted from American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 45 (1991), 265-271.


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