A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Other Uses of the Term

As one might expect, there have been other uses of the term `cultural phenomenology'. The work of the German sociologist Alfred Schutz, for example, is often described in this way. During the 1930s, Schutz, who was associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, attempted to graft the insights and procedures of Husserlian phenomenology on to a Weberian form of social theory: his major work, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt, was written in 1932, and has been translated as The Phenomenology of the Social World. Schutz's sociologised phenomenology is an extremely formalist and positivist affair. I think David Carr captures the limitations of Schutz's project well, when he criticises his too-exclusive focus upon the cognitive forms of social life, or the forms of intersubjective understanding, rather than other kinds of relation and experience:

Schutz describes concrete relations between persons almost exclusively as the sorts of relations that can grow, given certain interests, into scientific knowledge. Intersubjectivity is for him too much a matter of typifying or classifying others with a view to predicting, in a very broad sense, their behaviour....Is our relation with others really best characterized as that of understanding them? I'm not sure. And I suspect that in spite of all disclaimers, the centrality of this term may derive from a conception that social reality is essentially founded in an epistemic relation.

Another more recent claimant for the term cultural phenomenology is Thomas J. Csordas, who has recently used it to characterise his investigations into charismatic healing practices. Csordas brings to his material an anthropologist's emphasis on the ways in which human beings make themselves and their humanity through their practices.

The answer to the question of "what it means to be human" is the same as the answer to the question of "how we make ourselves human." This is an enduring promise for cultural anthropology and means that an inquiry into a topic like the "sacred self" is an inquiry into human creativity, and in particular self-creativity.

Csordas's account of the dual focus of his cultural phenomenology - on lived experience and the shared conditions of cultural making - is one that I find it easy to agree with. `Cultural phenomenology', he writes, `represents a concern for synthesising the immediacy of embodied experience with the multiplicity of cultural meanings in which we are always and inevitably immersed.'

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |