Phenomenology & Reflective Practice

Subject: Management Theories
Pages: 15
Words: 4215
Reading time:
16 min
Study level: PhD


Reflective practice has mushroomed over the last few decades throughout various domains of professional practice and education, though what is understood by ‘reflective practice’ has been found to vary considerably across different disciplines and intellectual traditions (Willis 1999). Available scholarship has identified critical reflective practice as a fundamental aspect of successful working behavior (van Woerkom, Nijhof, & Nieuwenhuis 2002), a key ingredient in the development of self-awareness and self-reflection concerning multiple aspects of learner identity in educational settings (Fenge 2010), and a central model across the spectrum of post-compulsory education (Bleakley 1999). Willis (1999) writes that there has been a strong instrumental and later critical tradition in the discourses surrounding the reflective practice, where the former (instrumental discourse) brings attention to the means/end correlation of the activities chosen in a domain of practice while the latter (critical perspective) seeks to uncover inequitable interests that could be embedded in the choice of activities and the way they are practiced in a domain of practice. The present paper critically reviews available scholarship on how to apply phenomenology as the methodology to reflective practice.

This paper extends the nexus of reflective practice by directing attention to the appraisal of the literature on how phenomenology can be applied as the methodology to reflective practice in a domain that deals with special needs people. The paper first reviews the literature on understanding reflexivity and the reflective practice, before appraising various research studies to understand the concept of phenomenology as a methodology. The subsequent section reviews the literature on phenomenology and reflective practice, with particular focus being on illuminating the importance of reflective practice and attempting to understand how different practices are applied to intrinsically diverse contexts involving personal life, work, and study. The paper concludes by undertaking a summary on the importance of reflective practice in work-related contexts (communicating with special needs people).

Understanding Reflexivity and the Reflective Practice

Although a number of scholars view reflexivity as synonymous with reflective practice, it is evident that the two imply different things and are normally used in considerably diverse contexts. As posited by Valandra (2012, p. 204), “researchers recognize reflexivity as a shift from a focus on data collected to the internal dialogue of researchers that helps them understand what is known and how it is known.” In her influential work on reflexivity and phenomenological research, Clancy (2013) notes that reflexivity not only involves ways of questioning our attitudes, thoughts, reactions, and habitual actions to strive to understand our roles in relation to others but also entails an examination of our involvement and awareness of the limits of our knowledge and how our behavior may influence or affect others.

These capabilities of reflexivity, according to Clancy (2013, p. 13), “allow us to look more critically at circumstances and relationships and help review and revise ways of being and relating.” Such reflexivity forms the basis for dealing with special needs people as it enables professionals to not only question their attitudes, thoughts, and reactions toward the needs of this group of the population but also to review and revise their ways of relating with these people to ensure congruity of thought. Reflexivity also assists such professionals to take an outsider view when dealing with people with special needs and to overcome any assumptions that may arise when dealing with this group of the population.

It is documented in the literature that the term ‘reflective practice’ is open to many different interpretations that are a reflection of the various conceptions of reflective practice and the traditions in which they have emerged (Parsons & Stephenson 2005; McGarr & Moody 2010) and that applying reflection to professional practice provides practitioners with an effective way to understand, critique and improve their professional work (Willis 1999). In reflective practice, individuals must develop the awareness of, and capacity to, scrutinize their own thinking, comprehension, and knowledge about their varied practice settings for them to qualify as reflective practitioners (Parsons & Stephenson 2005).

Jarvis (1992), cited comprehensively in Willis (1999, p. 91), argues that “reflective practice begins where practitioners are problematizing their practice and learning afresh about both the knowledge and skills and attitudes that their practice demands.” In their study, Francis and Cowan (2008) acknowledge the importance of reflective practice in assisting postgraduate and doctorate practitioner students to develop higher-level cognitive, interpersonal, and affective capabilities within the milieu of a challenging and critical environment. The reflective practice cycle, according to Willis (1999), follows four steps which entail the following: (1) focusing attention to the purposive activities which make up the practitioners’ practice, (2) undertaking an examination with the view to noting the extent to which the activities which actually occur are those that have been planned, (3) critiquing these activities in different ways for comprehensive understanding and synthesis, and (4) determining corrective action for a further episode of practice. Consequently, “the reflective practice cycle consists of “description, appraisal, suggested correction and planning for subsequent action” (Willis 1999, p. 91).


Emanating from Edmund Husserl’s foundational work (Willis 1999), phenomenology basically presupposes that “experiences can be understood by discovering the objects of our attention in our lifeworld, revealing ourselves as those to whom things appear” (Wilson 2014, p. 29). Halling (1989), comprehensively cited in Willis (1999, p. 95), defines phenomenology as “the rigorous and unbiased study of things as they appear so that one might come to an essential understanding of human consciousness and experience.” As a methodology which is mostly used in qualitative research, phenomenology not only provides a rich portrayal of experience which takes into account context and subjective meanings (Wilson 2014), but also adopts expressive inquiry to portray various perceptions of the phenomena, generating the so-called “immediate” knowledge of some thing or event, and represents phenomena as lived, contextual experiences (Willis 1999).

The conception of “lifeworld” in phenomenology is taken to imply the world as it is immediately experienced; that is, the realm of reality which the wide-awake and the normal person merely takes for granted in the mindset of common sense (Wilson 2014). Phenomenology does not hold that the world “out there” can be known using objective and positivist orientations; rather, the methodology assumes that all-knowing is at one level subjective in orientation as it is always related to, and constructed by, the individual engaged in knowing (Willis 1999). Although lifeworld is to a large extent determined by our bodily movements and perceptions, people in various practice settings are not necessarily aware of this experience as lifeworld fundamentally encompasses a pre-reflective approach of being in the world. Consequently, by turning their attention to a specific experience, individuals are able to develop the capacity to attain reflective awareness of it (McInnis-Bowers, Chew & Bowers 2010; Wilson 2014).

In her seminal work, Finlay (2008) introduces the concept of the phenomenological attitude to denote a process where individuals attempt to suspend presuppositions and go beyond the natural attitude of taken-for-granted understanding with the view to engaging in a certain sense of wonder and openness to the world. As postulated by this particular author, “the phenomenological attitude has been explicated as the process of retaining an empathic openness to the world while reflexively identifying and restraining pre-understandings so as to engage phenomena themselves” (p. 29). In practice settings, such a process can assist professionals dealing with special needs people to understand their lived experience while at the same time reflexively restraining their own pre-understandings.

Phenomenology and Reflective Practice: Demarcating the Importance

In applying phenomenology to reflective practice, the challenge for the researcher entails attempting “to remain focussed on the phenomenon being studied while both reining in and reflexively interrogating their own understandings” (Finlay 2008, p. 29). The aim of assuming such a predisposition, according to this author, is to perceive the phenomenon through fresh eyes and also to understand the lived experience through embracing novel modes of being. This view is reinforced by Clancy (2013), who argues that applying phenomenology to reflective practice assists nurse researchers to not only deal with assumptions about organizations or processes that they know well but also to understand the phenomenon being studied without neglecting fundamental components. In communicating with special needs people, for example, the author of this particular literature review realized that he needed to identify and interpret the subjects’ accounts accurately and separate them from his own experience with the view to ensuring a holistic understanding of their lived experience. This is in line with the view of Bleakley (1999) that the locus for reflective practice should not be in the individual but rather in the total event or experience.

Drawing from the existential and hermeneutic lead of Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, Finlay (2008) notes that phenomenology as a qualitative methodology can be applied to reflective practice in terms of engaging the phenomenon of interest through an iterative and dialectical process of hermeneutic reflexivity that enables the researcher to step away from initial pre-understandings to achieve adequate distance from which to critically and reflexively interrogate them. Reflexivity in this context, according to Finlay (2008, p. 17), can be described as the “process of continually reflecting upon our interpretations of both our experience and the phenomena being studied so as to move beyond the partiality of our previous understandings and our investment in particular research outcomes.” Finlay (2005) elaborates that the process of hermeneutic reflection allows researchers to not only continually reflect upon their experiences as researchers, but also to understand the lived experience of the phenomenon being studied with the view to moving beyond the partiality and investments of their prior understandings.

Consequently, it is evident that hermeneutic reflexivity can be used by graduate students in academic institutions to critically and reflexively investigate how various pre-understandings influence their research studies (e.g., pre-understandings on the purpose of study, data gathering methodologies, data analysis), and also to make interpretive revisions as new thoughts and insights begin to challenge these pre-understandings. Hermeneutic reflexivity, according to Finlay (2005), can also be used by students undertaking doctorate studies to facilitate critical self-reflective involvement, which in turn allows different facets of the phenomenon to present for deliberation by the students. In the words of Parsons and Stephenson (2005), such reflection is beneficial as it assists students and practitioners to combine experience with analysis of beliefs about those experiences in an attempt to draw not just on experience but on a broader range of knowledge and understanding.

The following sub-sections of this review attempt to demonstrate the importance of reflective practice in various domains (personal life, work settings, and study) as well as which reflective practices best suit these domains. It is important to note that these sections draw heavily on the various phenomenological insights as demonstrated by authors such as Willis (1999), Clancy (2013), and Wilson (2014).

Reflective Practice in the Personal Life

In personal life settings, phenomenology can be applied as the methodology to reflective practice by using language to enhance our self-understanding of the various phenomena of interest and generate knowledge in the first instance (Raelin 2007). In their respective studies, Clancy (2013) and Wilson (2014) acknowledge that such practices as phenomenology and action research are epistemologically effective in not only privileging the perceptions and world views surrounding the conduct of personal life but also in ensuring that individuals are always engaged in their world, interpreting, coping with practicalities and caring about arising matters. Here, phenomenology can be applied as the methodology to reflective practice as it assists individuals engaged in reflecting upon their personal experience to hold their gaze on the phenomenon itself or the lived experience, rather than seek to locate the phenomenon in an abstract matrix by suggesting how its abstracted structure might be similar to others (Willis, 1999). As an example, the author of this review has routinely used language (narrative) and the phenomenological orientation to immerse himself in the lived experiences of special needs people with the view to enhancing self-understanding of the needs of this group of the population and generating knowledge on the interventions that need to be initiated to change the situation.

The use of language can assist individuals to develop their cognitive capacity to help make sense of their own practice or personal life through “reflection-in-action.” As noted by Raelin (2007, p. 501), the concept of reflection-in-action “characterize the rethinking process that attempts to discover how what one did to contribute to an unexpected outcome, taking into account factors unique to the interplay between the individual practitioner and his or her local operating context as well as the interplay between theory and practice.”

Overall, drawing from the literature on expressive description, it is important to note that contextual reflection is the most effective to use while reflecting upon personal experiences. As noted by Willis (1999, p. 105), “contextual reflection occurs when an episode of experience is looked back in terms of it being influenced and shaped by contextual forces: its location in time, place and social relationships.” In dealing with special needs people, for example, contextual reflection has assisted the author of this literature review to make sense of the social and cultural forces emanating from the macro forces (e.g., how race and class orientations of special needs people influence their needs and expectations); meso forces (e.g., how relevant the various policies developed and implemented by the institution are in catering for the needs of this group of the population); and micro forces (e.g., what actual tasks does the researcher need to do to alleviate the suffering of special needs people).

Reflective Practice at Work

Research is consistent that phenomenology can be an effective methodology in assisting researchers to move away from their usual taken-for-granted understandings about the nature of a particular phenomenon toward a more focussed and holistic understanding of the lived experiences of individuals experiencing that phenomenon. In the words of Finlay (2008), phenomenology assists researchers to specifically bracket their educational or practitioner pre-understandings of a particular condition or phenomenon with the view to evaluating it anew. While communicating with special needs people, for example, the discipline of the phenomenological attitude can assist professionals to return and adopt an open presence to their stories and experiences with the view to understanding their lived experience. In describing a patient with multiple sclerosis, Finlay (2008) argues that the development of a phenomenological attitude coupled with subsequent reflection not only deepened her understanding about the conditions away from medico-scientific pre-conceptualizations but also allowed her to empathize with the patient’s lifeworld.

In work-related settings, phenomenology can be used as the methodology to reflective practice with the view to assisting the individual to bracket particular experiences, remove any form of prejudice that may arise from his or her professional knowledge and background, and examine the process or phenomenon in a fresh way that enables new understandings to emerge. Citing Husserl’s stages of reduction, Finlay (2008, p. 21) argues that bracketing of knowledge should be “followed by a process of examining the phenomenon in a fresh way that enables new understandings to emerge.” This author further argues that, in reflective practice, the process of reduction is “concerned with engaging phenomenological understanding as a whole, and not just eliminating pre-selected bits to be strategically bracketed out” (Finlay 2008, p. 21). Consequently, in work-related settings dealing with special needs people, professionals can use the process of bracketing as referred to in intuiting or classical phenomenology to suspend their various beliefs in the reality of the natural world in order to study or understand the fundamental structures of the world (Willis 1999; Rigg & Trehan 2008). In identifying the special needs of such people, the phenomenological process of bracketing can be applied to reflective practice to assist the professionals to develop skills and expertise in “standing apart from” or “aside from” their habitual ideas, feelings, and convictions of what really are the needs of this group of the population.

As acknowledged by Willis (1999, p. 96), “the phenomenological agenda is an attempt to get back to the first naming: to understand and describe phenomena exactly as they appear in an individual’s consciousness.” Drawing from this elaboration, a new phenomenological enterprise known as empathetic phenomenology has emerged to provide a framework for individuals to focus on the meanings and significances given to an experience by those experiencing it, rather than inquire about the nature of the experience and how it presents itself as a phenomenon in line with classical phenomenology. Available scholarship demonstrates that empathetic phenomenology not only brings into perspective the subjective states of individuals who have engaged in a common experience, but also protects and values the contributions of various subjects engaged in life experiences (Willis 1999), and makes a contribution to reflective practice by showing the socially embedded nature of human consciousness (Clancy 2013; Wilson 2014). In practice settings involving communicating with special needs people, a group of professionals may develop a diverse contextualization and interpretation of a shared experience depending on the subjectivity it evokes to those who experience it.

Overall, drawing from the literature on expressive description, it is of importance to note that experiential reflection is the most applicable in situations where individuals want to engage in reflective practice at work. Experiential reflection attempts to bring attention to the lived experience of a learning facilitative episode, implying that the professional reflecting on her or his purposive activity attempts to think back to what the event was like as an experience (Willis 1999). In their study, Francis and Cowan (2008, p. 339) argue that “developing our student abilities in self-engagement calls for a radically different educational methodology, which is facilitative rather than instructive and is based on more participative values.” Such a reflective process, according to Willis (1999), not only serves to allow what something was like to be foregrounded in the reflecting person’s attention but also permits the employment of one or more of the various empathetic techniques to make the episode present in its contextualized lividness. In work-related settings involving communicating with special needs people, the author of this particular literature review has made use of contextualized autobiographical narratives (e.g., narratives and other forms of creative writing) to “intuit” episodes of his practice and develop means through which he can contemplate and present the “whatness” of having to deal with this group of the population. Consequently, following insights of Willis (1999) and Wilson (2014), it is suggested that experiential reflection has been effective in providing the author of this review with a space to represent the life-world experiences of special needs people in their particularity using aesthetic techniques of expression to generate as living and as textured a depiction as possible.

Reflective Practice while Studying

Fenge (2010) introduces the concepts of sensemaking, ‘habitus’, and identity in explaining how reflective practice can assist students to complete their doctorate programs. The author writes that “sensemaking is about such things as placement of items into frameworks, comprehending, readdressing surprise, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding and patterning” (p. 647). Sensemaking not only provides a method of conceptualizing how PhD students position themselves in relation to particular pre-existing discourses, but also helps them to develop self-awareness and self-reflection concerning the manifold components of their learner identity with the view to positioning themselves within the social nexus of practices (Sambrook & Stewart 2008). As postulated by Parsons and Stephenson (2005), the process of sensemaking in reflective practice can be enhanced by ensuring that students collaborate with more experienced colleagues.

Available literature demonstrates that “the development of habitus is influenced by one’s place in the social structure, and is an internalized representation of early socialization” (Fenge 2010, p. 648). The habitus not only highlights the ways in which structural arrangements become embedded within a person’s lived experience and choices, but is also influential in reinforcing personal dispositions that give an individual a sense of things to do or not to do. In his analysis, Raelin (2007) writes that the concept of habitus refers to how individuals internalize social structures and is instrumental in assisting them to change their way of both perceiving and acting using such tools as consciousness and psychoanalysis. As an example, it can be argued that this particular component has enabled the author of this review to sharpen his analysis and understanding of the practice through education as he becomes increasingly aware of the structural determinants of his practice through reflexivity. Fenge (2010) is of the view that both habitus and sensemaking are of immense importance in influencing the way PhD students to make sense of their versatile identities through their past, present, and future selves. Overall, available scholarship suggests that that the reflective practice involving sensemaking, habitus, and development of identity has enabled PhD and doctorate students to dissolve the boundaries existing between their domains of education and professional practice (Sambrook & Stewart 2008), and also to develop a deeper insight into how their identity as students/researchers/practitioners are both complementary and contradictory (Fenge 2010).

The phenomenological methodology can be instrumental in assisting students to develop their sensemaking and habitus components associated with critical reflective practice. Owing to the fact that phenomenology focuses on the study of subjective experience (Willis 1999), it is possible that such a methodology can assist student teachers to make sense of their thoughts, feelings, and tacit concerns in the fundamental process of learning to reflect (Parsons & Stephenson 2005). More importantly, the phenomenological nature of attempting to understand objects and events using the lens of human consciousness can be applied in assisting student teachers and practitioners to, among other things, (1) use reflective practice and reflexivity to develop and reconstruct their understanding of an aspect of professional practice, (2) view themselves as a resource, (3) become aware of different kinds of knowledge from which to seek assistance, and (4) recognize their ideas and beliefs, evaluate them in terms of what is to be learned, and decide whether to reconstruct their beliefs (Parsons & Stephenson 2005; Finlay 2008).

Moving on, McGarr and Moody (2010) are clear that reflective writing can be used in the domain of teacher education as a form of self-directed professional inquiry that allows student teachers too, among other things, pause, reflect on their experiences, and re-energize. Reflective writing, according to these authors, assists student teachers to expand their self perspectives with the view to helping them perceive experiences from a range of viewpoints, solve problems that may arise in practice, and challenge the status quo. McGarr and Moody (2010) cite other studies on reflective practice to acknowledge that reflective writing can be used in the educational context to:

  1. develop socio-political awareness,
  2. enhance personal and professional development,
  3. stand outside the experience to see it more objectively and to become detached from emotional outcomes,
  4. understand oneself as a teacher,
  5. provide feedback about teaching and learning in workshops, and about classroom experiences during placements.

The benefits of reflective writing for the student teacher, according to McGarr and Moody (2010, p. 581), entail “the provision of space to reflect, a permanent record of thoughts and experience and a safe outlet for personal concerns.” The results of their study show that reflective writing by the use of journals is beneficial as it helps students to:

  1. tease out/explore issues and improve practice,
  2. examine issues and improve practice,
  3. step back and gain perspective on issues,
  4. gain a broader understanding of schools and students.

Overall, drawing from the literature on expressive description, it is of importance to note that dispositional reflection is the most applicable in situations where individuals want to engage in reflective practice during the study. Willis (1999, p. 105) writes that “dispositional reflection looks to identify the pre-dispositions of the teacher and learners towards the teaching/learning project.” In situations involving communicating with special needs people, dispositional reflection has allowed the author of this particular literature review to not only locate himself within any learning context using the notion of stance (Willis 1999) but also to use his personal orientation, preferences, aspirations, feelings, and reactions to shape and influence the purposive action being attempted (Wilson 2014).


This literature review has elaborated on the concepts of reflexivity, reflective practice, and phenomenology, before appraising various scholarly articles on how to apply phenomenology as the methodology to reflective practice. Overall, the review is clear that phenomenology can be applied as the methodology to reflective practice not only in personal life but also in school and work-related settings. The importance of reflective practice has been stressed throughout the paper. Depending on the type and scope of reflective practice, some of the benefits include allowing researchers to:

  1. develop and reconstruct their understanding of an aspect in professional practice,
  2. view themselves as a resource,
  3. become aware of different kinds of knowledge from which to seek assistance,
  4. recognize their ideas and beliefs, evaluate them in terms of what is to be learned, and decide whether to reconstruct their beliefs,
  5. develop socio-political awareness,
  6. enhance personal and professional development,
  7. stand outside the experience to see it more objectively and to become detached from emotional outcomes,
  8. provide feedback about teaching and learning in workshops,
  9. explore issues to improve practice,
  10. step back to gain perspective on issues. Lastly, the review has demonstrated that contextual reflection is most applicable in personal life, experiential reflection in work-related settings, and dispositional reflection in the school or study environment.


Bleakley, 1999, ‘From reflective practice to holistic reflexivity’, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 24 no. 3, pp. 315-330.

Clancy, M 2013, ‘Is reflexivity the key to minimizing problems of interpretation in phenomenological research?’, Nurse Researcher, vol. 20 no. 6, pp. 12-16.

Fenge, LA 2010, ‘Sense and sensibility: Making sense of a professional doctorate’, Reflective Practice, vol. 11 no. 5, pp. 645-656.

Finlay, L 2005, ‘Reflexive embodied empathy: A phenomenology of participant-researcher intersubjectivity’, The Humanistic Psychologist, vol. 33 no. 4, pp. 271-292.

Finlay, L 2008, ‘A dance between the reduction and reflexivity: Explicating the phenomenological psychological attitude’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, vol. 39 no. 1, pp. 1-32.

Francis, H & Cowan, J 2008, ‘Fostering an action reflection dynamic amongst student practitioners’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 32 no. 5, pp. 336-346.

McGarr, O & Moody, J 2010, ‘Scaffolding or stifling? The influence of journal requirements on students’ engagement in reflective practice’, Reflective Practice, vol. 11 no. 5, pp. 579-591.

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Rigg, C & Trehan, K 2008, ‘Critical reflection in the workplace: Is it just too difficult?’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 32 no. 5, pp. 374-384.

Sambrook, S & Stewart, J 2008, ‘Developing critical reflection in professionally focused doctorates: A facilitator’s perspective’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 32 no. 5, pp. 359-373.

Valandra, V 2012, ‘Reflexivity and professional use of self in research: A doctoral student’s journey’, Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, vol. 6 no. 4, pp. 204-220.

van Woerkom, M, Nijhof, WJ & Nieuwenhuis, LFM 2002, ‘Critical reflective working behaviour: A survey research’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 26 no. 8, pp. 375-383.

Willis, P 1999, ‘Looking for what it’s really like: Phenomenology in reflective practice’, Studies in Continuing Education, vol. 21 no. 1, pp. 91-112.

Wilson, A 2014, ‘Being a practitioner: An application of Heidegger’s phenomenology’, Nurse Researcher, vol. 21 no. 6, pp. 28-33.