A Beauvoirian Take on Empirical Phenomenology

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In her great treatises The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe) and The Coming of Age (La Vieillesse), Simone de Beauvoir makes systematic use of empirical data. She draws on memoirs, literary texts and clinical case histories, which help her to expose the ambiguity of lived experience. While this openness to the empirical follows from the phenomenological attitude, there are also major differences between Beauvoir’s work and classical Husserlian analyses. Most striking is Beauvoir’s insistence on the entanglement of lived experience and socio-cultural norms. She interprets her data in light of existing power relations, which puts her work in close proximity to qualitative social research.

In this paper, I want to explore said proximity. How precisely does Beauvoir weave together description and conception in her studies of gender and old age? What are her lessons for future attempts at an empirically informed phenomenology? Addressing these questions first requires a reckoning with the methodological shortcomings of Beauvoir’s approach: her distance from the original context of the data, her reliance on hearsay, her equivocation of literary representation and lived experience—all of which appear problematic in light of qualitative research standards. In a second step, I will zoom in on the merits of Beauvoir’s approach. I will discuss several of her core ideas that, I argue, can greatly enrich qualitative research: the unity of lived experience, analogy as a criterion of validity, and existential freedom as a basic research premise. To illustrate these theoretical points, I will draw on my own ethnographic fieldwork.


ConferenceThe British Society for Phenomenology 2020 Annual Conference: ‘Engaged Phenomenology’
Abbreviated titleBSP 2020 Annual Conference
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