Phenomenological Theories

man in wheelchair in dance with woman leaping through the air


“Phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.

Phenomenology develops a complex account of temporal awareness (within the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (notably in perception), attention (distinguishing focal and marginal or “horizonal” awareness), awareness of one’s own experience (self-consciousness, in one sense), self-awareness (awareness-of-oneself), the self in different roles (as thinking, acting, etc.), embodied action (including kinesthetic awareness of one’s movement), purpose or intention in action (more or less explicit), awareness of other persons (in empathy, intersubjectivity, collectivity), linguistic activity (involving meaning, communication, understanding others), social interaction (including collective action), and everyday activity in our surrounding life-world (in a particular culture).” (1)

Normal Project Examples


Hughes and Paterson

  • Disability is the embodiment of negative cultural perceptions and attitudes
  • Impairment is socioculturally constructed
  • Non-disabled structure of embodied contexts of meaning creates disabled people’s social dys-appearance
  • Advocate for a cultural-phenomenological restructuring of carnal contexts of meaning along more inclusive lines

Russel Shuttleworth

  • Embodied sensitivities to certain social situations reveal disability oppression
  • Lived metaphors of embodiment (i.e blocked, trapped) are felt remembrances of past disability oppression/empowerment

Gelya Frank

  • Focuses on the disabled person’s body image
  • Concedes the “other” is “unknowable

“Unlike the early anthropologists, whose published works often consist of cultural inventories and static generalizations about the people they studied, contemporary anthropologists tend to write narrative ethnographies. These are stories based on events we have experienced–more as observing participants than as participant observers–through which we try to convey how people within a particular group or tradition create meaningful solutions to life’s challenges. Here I tell a story based on my observations while participating in Diane’s life for more than two decades.” (2)


  1. Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  2. Frank, Gelya, “Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America,” online version.
  3. Image: AXIS Dance Company

Published by Sarah Quinto

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