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Phenomenology as a Research Method: The Example of Becoming at Home in a Cohousing Community

Madeleine Rothe

Rothe is a landscape architect. This essay is a revised version of chapter 4 of her master’s thesis, which examines phenomenologically the process of becoming at home for 12 residents of the Nyland cohousing community outside of Denver, Colorado. As illustrated in the figure below, Rothe portrays this process as a series of seven stages and suggests that purchasing the land for development (after stage 3) and moving into the community (after stage 5) provide important external “spurs” for motivating the process onward. A thorough discussion of this becoming-at-home process is provided in Rothe, 2000. © Madeleine Rothe, 2001, 2003.

This essay reviews the phenomenological method that I used in my master’s thesis (Rothe, 2000) to comprehend the process of becoming at home in a cohousing community outside of Denver, Colorado.

Staying true to the phenomenological mode of inquiry, I attempt here to capture the essence of my research method as I experienced and lived it. As I outline the steps that I followed in my method of study, I attempt to weave in some of the details of my study as well as the impact that I have personally felt as the study progressed.

Finally, it will become obvious that this journey has not progressed in a straightforward path but instead has followed a meander that continues to be full of meaning.

Above: The stages of "becoming at home" in the Nyland Cohousing Community (from Rothe, 2000, p. 16).

Phenomenology as Journeying
Journey is defined as “travel or passage from one place to another” (Webster, 1988, p.652). There are different kinds of journeys that we undertake throughout our lives, for example, we can talk about traveling to some place such as Albuquerque or we can speak about journey as something more symbolic such as searching for meaning about a particular event such as divorce, illness or death.

The point of bringing this up is that often things make more sense when we reflect back upon them. This phenomenon is important to keep in mind as I discuss my method of study because, while I was going through it, I didn’t always grasp why I was doing something but I listened to my intuition anyway (which requires a certain amount of confidence and trust).

In other words, my methodology was not clear from the beginning but rather slowly evolved and developed. I learned and adjusted many things along the way. Million (1992, p.66) explains her experience this way:

In brief, there is no prescribed procedural manual. The most precise and formal description of method is a …circle constituted by a series of “back and forth,” apparently circular, encounters that invariably moved the researcher more deeply, and with emerging clarity, into the phenomena under study.

Hence, the analogy of “journeying along a path” seems an appropriate metaphor for describing how this study progressed. The phenomenological mode of inquiry compels us to study a phenomenon such as the process of becoming at home as a “lived experience.” In other words, we are challenged to “see” anew, to discover and to search for thematic understanding while we live the experience—all of which cannot be forced or approached too aggressively or rapidly.

In order to proceed with a discussion of method in a clear and organized manner, it is helpful to consider Van Manen’s work (1990, pp.30-31), in which he outlined six activities for researching lived-experience as:

1.   turning to a phenomenon that seriously interests us and commits us to the world;

2.   investigating experience as we live it rather than as we conceptualize it;

3.   reflecting on the essential themes that characterize the phenomenon;

4.   describing the phenomenon through the act of writing and rewriting;

5.   maintaining a strong and oriented pedagogical relation to the phenomenon;

6.   balancing the research context by considering parts and whole.

1. Searching for the Right Path
Although there is no right or wrong path, anyone who has tried to write a thesis can recount that one of the first steps is to choose a topic of interest. Van Manen suggests that we not only choose a topic of interest but that we select a theme that “commits us to the world.” I stumbled upon cohousing as a topic for several reasons that I will explain and in retrospect appear serendipitous.

Being a single parent during my graduate studies meant that I was challenged to juggle many responsibilities, both at home and at school. Meanwhile, this was also a time when I met other single parents who were also dealing with the same demands of juggling responsibilities. Having this common bond, it seems natural that we learned to support one another.

At the same time, because I was studying architecture, I began to notice the discrepancy between our needs as single parents and the inadequacy in the design of traditional family housing to meet our unique needs. For example, although I knew that it was feasible to move into a house with another single-parent household, I was also aware that doing so would be a rather difficult task that could possibly “ruin a good friendship.”

The problem, as I perceived it, was in the design of the single-family house in that it would be difficult to be autonomous as single parent families in spaces that were designed for traditional two-parent families who commonly share much of the interior spaces.

In this way, because of a need that I experienced in my life, I was made aware of a phenomenon that not only intrigued me but that also challenged me to search for more compatible design responses. I don’t recall exactly when or how I came to hear about the concept of cohousing, but I do recall that when it was explained to me, I had a sense that I had found what I had been searching for—so, in this way, cohousing became the subject that “committed me to the world.”

I followed a similar path in my search for an appropriate methodology for my thesis. Initially, I wrote my proposal using the more familiar empirical approach that included a predetermined conceptual framework and hypotheses. At the same time, I began to learn more about cohousing by reading various publications—e.g., McCamant and Durrett’s Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Over time, I gathered a wealth of information about cohousing and became familiar with the people who were involved in promoting cohousing around the country.

At this point, I again have to interject some background history that is relevant to why I was eventually drawn to the phenomenological approach. Having been trained as a special- education teacher, much of my education prior to graduate school had involved dealing with student behaviors through the use of behavior management and behavior-modification techniques not only as a teaching tool but as a way of explaining human behavior.

During my ten years of teaching, I found these techniques effective for training students to learn simple concrete and mechanical tasks necessary to master vocational skills such as learning to clean a hotel room or working in a restaurant dish room. When it came to more complex issues such as those dealing with social behaviors, however, I found that behavior-management techniques were not nearly as effective.

Then, in the fall of 1995 (after I had already submitted my original thesis proposal), I enrolled in one of Prof. David Seamon’s classes and was exposed to phenomenology as a method of study. Although it took some time to grasp what this method was about, I was initially fascinated because it seemed to address some of the unresolved questions I already had experienced in my career as a teacher. I was sincerely drawn to the fact that phenomenological work contributed to a deep understanding of the human experience.

In this sense, learning about phenomenology—a coincidental discovery—provided a method for answering questions to which I was already  searching for answers. The result was that, like my substantive topic of cohousing, this method of study also “committed me to the world.”

2. Commencing the Journey
Once one has found both a topic of study and a method that he or she feels committed to, Van Manen suggests that one must next investigate lived-experience as opposed to simply learning about it through discussions, journals, books, and other secondhand, cerebral accounts. At this point in my research, I reorganized both my approach to my thesis as well as my thesis committee.

It was also around this time that I became familiar with Louise’s phenomenological study on rebuilding place in which she identified eight stages of involuntary displacement as a forced journey (Million, 1992). Additionally, since I was already familiar with some of the existing cohousing sites as well as the names of people involved in cohousing, I was equipped for this next step of exploring the lifeworld of cohousing.

I chose to study the Nyland Cohousing Community near Denver, Colorado, primarily because it was the closest existing community to Manhattan, Kansas, where I was living at the time. As it turned out, this community, as one of the earliest cohousing communities in the U.S., was one of the more established—a fact that is crucial, since, in studying a phenomenon such as the process of becoming at home, time is of the essence. Obviously, it takes time for people to become at home in a place. This truism also points to a weakness in my study, since, at the time I conducted my interviews, the longest any members had actually resided at Nyland was four-and-a-half years.

Taking the first step is always the most challenging in beginning a new journey and, in this case, that step was making a first contact with someone who actually lived at Nyland. As my initial contact, I approached an individual who not only lived at Nyland but who was involved in promoting cohousing around the country. I explained my interest in cohousing during our initial conversations and offered to volunteer my time during my initial visit to Nyland, which occurred October 10-13, 1996. My goal during this first visit was not only to meet residents but also to begin to experience firsthand the everyday lifeways and ambience of a cohousing community.

Additionally, a couple of weeks preceding my first visit to the community, I spoke by telephone to Louise Million about my work. She provided me with useful insights in organizing the information that I would be gathering, advised me on the questions that comprised my proposed interview schedule, informed me about potential issues to consider for my study, and walked me through her experiences with the research method.

She also related the amount of time she had spent not only in conducting her interviews but also in the writing of her dissertation. Finally, when I asked her what she would do differently if she had to do her research all over again, she gave me this wonderful piece of advice—to trust and have confidence in the method and the process.

The success of my initial visit to Nyland as well as the encouragement and enthusiasm that I received from Louise indicated that I was prepared to move forward with my study. Descriptive evidence for examining the process of becoming at home was gathered from twelve residents of Nyland over a period of six months. The specific method utilized for obtaining this experiential information was in-depth interviews, which were tape recorded with the consent of the participants and subsequently transcribed.

3. Considering the Structures Along the Way
Van Manen suggests that another activity for researching lived experience is “reflecting on the essential themes that characterize the phenomenon” (1990, p.30). In this sense, reflection implies attempting to capture the essential meaning of the experience as lived—in other words, its essence or that which grounds the things of our experience (ibid. p.31). In this way, phenomenological research involves “reflectively bringing into nearness that which tends to be obscure, that which tends to evade the intelligibility of our natural attitude about everyday life” (ibid.).

It is important to reiterate that it is primarily through direct contact with the experience as lived that the essence or structure of meaning of a particular phenomenon is revealed. In light of this statement, phenomenological reflection is both an easy and difficult task. For instance, everyone has an understanding of the meaning of becoming at home in a place from the perspective of his or her own lived experience. However, it is a much more challenging task to articulate a reflective determination and explication of what becoming at home means. This task demonstrates the difference between our pre-reflective lived understanding of the meaning of becoming at home and our reflective grasp of the phenomenological structure of the lived meaning of becoming at home. 

Thus, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of an experience such as becoming at home by a single definition due to the complexities associated with the multi-dimensional and multi-layered aspects of the phenomenon. Rather, it is the themes as structures of the experience that embody the evolving image and meaning of the experience. The interpretive work of clarifying the nature of a lived experience such as becoming at home is described as a process of insightful invention, discovery, or disclosure whereby formulating a thematic understanding is not a rule-bound process but an approach for “seeing” (Van Manen, 1990, p.79; Million, 1992, p.64).

Attempts at understanding the phenomenon of becoming at home at Nyland occurred at several levels over an extended period of time. Procedures used for “seeing” the nature of the lived experience of becoming at home included (but were not limited to) the following:

·     reviewing the phenomenological literature on place and home;

·     visiting Nyland and experiencing firsthand the lifeworld of a cohousing community;

·     keeping notes about my experiences as I visited and volunteered at the Nyland community;

·     interviewing participants and later transcribing the interviews with members of the cohousing community;

·     analyzing and interpreting the responses of the twelve participants who were interviewed;

·     writing as an attempt to communicate and understand the experience at hand.


In other words, the fundamental purpose of “seeing” and reflecting on the lifeworld experience of becoming at home was to disclose the existential meaning of the experience of becoming at home by bringing to the foreground the structures of the phenomenon so that it would eventually lead to an uncovering of essential themes. As Van Manen explains, “in determining the universal or essential quality of a theme, [the] concern is to discover aspects or qualities that make a phenomenon what it is and without which the phenomenon could not be what it is” (1990, p.107).

 Thus, essential themes of the process of becoming at home were identified by asking such questions as: Does the nature of the lived experience of becoming at home change if we alter or delete this theme? Does the phenomenon of becoming at home lose fundamental meaning without this theme?     

Initially, I approached the transcripts from my interviews individually and became thoroughly familiar with each one so that I could analyze them in terms of broad issues. During this phase, I also recorded descriptive key words on 3” x 5” note cards to characterize the content of each interview.  As another approach, I cross-analyzed the interviews by “cutting them up” and arranged the pieces on 3” x 7” cards by similar topics. In this way, I began to identify thematic descriptions whereby I could decide on the shared aspect of the experience of becoming at home and identify potential, more general themes. In comparing these descriptions, I searched to identify those “moments” that seemed to be at the center of the event for Nyland participants as they described their experiences of becoming at home.

In the end, my overall experience in searching for these essential themes can best be described as filled with tension. On one hand, feeling apprehensive about not being able to uncover the essential themes in a nice neat package by a certain time and having a sense of wanting to read more or perform one other “action” in order to force the themes to appear versus having faith in the research process itself and listening to my intuition while it suggested that I had gained some valuable insights along the way and more fully understood the process of becoming at home than I did in the past.

In the end, it was this struggle to understand the essence of the phenomenon with emerging clarity that led to the uncovering of the themes in a sensitive and compelling manner.

4. Writing as Research
Another of Van Manen’s six actions for conducting phenomenological research involves commun-cating the lived experience through the art of writing and rewriting. In phenomenological research, this act of writing itself brings forth the structures of the lived experience. In other words, striving to express thoughts in as clear and precise a manner as possible is another method for understanding the structure of the phenomenon. In this way, the process of writing is at the heart of the research enterprise.

As a method for coming to understand a phenomenon, writing is a reflective act in which there is an attempt to cognitively bring to the surface the appropriate language to describe self-consciously the unself-conscious experiences of the taken-for-granted lifeworld. Exactly because experiences of the lifeworld are typically unself-conscious, pre-reflective, and self-evident, there is invariably a struggle to uncover the layers of meaning that describe these experiences. Consequently, one may come to realize the limits of language in that words somehow fall short of being able to fully express lifeworld experiences.

However, much like speech that rises out of silence and returns to silence, the deep truth of the lived experience seems to lie just beyond words, on the other side of language (Van Manen, 1990, p.112). Silence is to the phenomenologist the stillness out of which and against which text is constructed in much the same way as the architect must continuously be aware of the nature of space out of which and against which building occurs (ibid.). By implying more than what is explicitly fixed on paper, this silence around words aspires to disclose the deeper meaning of the lifeworld. In other words, a certain sense of stillness and silence is experienced when in the presence of truth (ibid., p.114).

Likewise, to “see” the deeper significance, or meaning structures, of the lived experience, the themes that have been identified must be presumed (by the reader) as appropriate. That is to say, the description of the themes should reawaken our basic experience of the phenomenon it describes in such as way that we experience the foundational nature of the phenomenon itself. It is in this way that phenomenology is an effective method because it permits us “to see the deeper significance, or meaning structures of the lived experience it describes” (ibid., p.122).

Conclusively, the act of writing fixes our thoughts on paper in that it seeks to externalize what is somehow internal. In attempting to grasp the meaning of a lived experience as it presents itself to the consciousness, writing distances us from the immediate lived-world experience yet also draws us more closely to the lifeworld. Barritt states that “to write is to learn about the adequacy or inadequacy of your thoughts” (1984, p.16). In this way, because the aim of writing is to create text that does justice to the fullness of the human experience, “to write is to measure the depth of things as well as to come to a sense of one’s own depth” (ibid., p.127). 

My own personal experience of writing as a component of my phenomenological journey can be described as rewarding and enriching. I was surprised that the process of writing about becoming at home could give me such a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in spite of the fact that I often felt frustrated or unproductive.

I attribute this satisfaction to two factors: first, because the essence of my writing about the meaning of becoming at home was of great interest to me personally; and secondly, because it required a great deal of effort, time and patience on my part to strive to say what it was I really wanted to convey through the creation of text that spoke sincerely about the human experience of becoming at home. In the end, I not only learned about the topic at hand, but also about myself.

5. Meandering in a Directed Way
Maintaining a strong and oriented relationship to the lived experience is another of Van Manen’s proposals for conducting phenomenological research. I call this “meandering in a directed way” because the phrase describe my experience as I searched for answers to the fundamental research question of how one becomes at home in a cohousing community like Nyland.       

My research process entailed not so much asking “where am I going to end up?” but rather reflecting on the meaning of the journey along the way. In other words, the focus was on the experience as I sought to interpret, to explain and to deeply understand the phenomenon of what it means to become at home.

Similarly, van Manen states that “to do research, to theorize is to be involved in the consideration of the text, the meaning...that render a human science text a certain power and convincing validity (van Manen, 1990, p.151). To achieve this end, the research and writing need to be “oriented, strong, rich, and deep” (ibid.).

According to van Manen, being oriented means that we do not separate theory from life, but rather that “we are researchers oriented to the world” (ibid.). Being oriented in the case of this thesis meant that, oftentimes, I felt little separation between myself as the researcher and myself as being on my own personal quest (in which I was searching for answers to the question of what it means to become-at-home in a place). The research qualities of strength and richness were pursued while attempting to capture the essence of the lived experience in such a way that it both broke through the abstractions and yet was engaging. 

Finally, as the quality that gives the lived experience its meaning, depth implies that some questions may have to remain unanswered or ambiguous. As van Manen explains,

...as we struggle for meaning, as we struggle to overcome this resistance, a certain openness is required. And the measure of the openness needed to understand something is also a measure of its depthful nature. Rich descriptions, which explore the meaning structures beyond what is immediately experienced, gain a dimension of depth. Research and theorizing that simplifies life, without reminding us of its fundamental ambiguity and mystery, thereby distorts and shallows out life, failing to reveal depthful character and contours (1990, pp.152-153).

6. Balancing Parts and Whole
Van Manen suggested that a final dimension of conducting research on the lived experience is “balancing the research context by considering parts and whole” (1990, p.31). In phenomenological work, one can easily “get so buried in writing that one no longer knows where to go, what to do next, and how to get out of a hole that one has dug” (ibid., p.33; Carpeneto, 1996, p.111-112). For instance, in posing the question “What is the process of becoming at home?” I had to be continually mindful of balancing the overall design of the research against the significance that the parts contributed to the total work.

The question then becomes “how do I balance a strong, committed, personal involvement in the lived experience of becoming at home while objectively giving a thoughtful interpretation in the written text?” In other words, reaching an equilibrium between the parts and the whole “means living in the tensions that phenomenological research presents” (ibid., p.113). For instance, I experienced a similar tension in writing this discussion of research method in that it has been necessary to present the methodology in some form of order (i.e. in a linear progression) even though my research process could better be described as a back-and-forth movement between each of Van Manen’s six research activities.

Correspondingly, finding an equilibrium between the parts and the whole continued to be a challenge as I wrote my interpretive chapters on the process of becoming at home in the Nyland cohousing community. That interpretation, however, is another topic, which the interested reader can find in my full report (Rothe, 2000).

Carpeneto, G., 1996. Walking the Midlife Labyrinth. Doctoral dissertation, Education, Univ. of Maryland, College Park.

McCamant, K.  & Durrett C., 1994. Cohousing. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Million, L., 1992. “It Was Home.” Doctoral Dissertation, Saybrook Institute, San Francisco.

Rothe, M., 2000. The Process of Becoming at Home in a Cohousing Community: A Case Study at Nyland, Colorado. Master’s thesis, Landscape Architecture, Kansas State Univ.

van Manen, Max, 1990. Researching Lived Experience. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.