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Discovering the structures of lived experience

Towards a micro-phenomenological analysis method


This paper describes a method for analyzing a corpus of descriptions collected through micro-phenomenological interviews. This analysis aims at identifying the structure of the singular experiences which have been described, and in particular their diachronic structure, while unfolding generic experiential structures through an iterative approach. After summarizing the principles of the micro-phenomenological interview, and then describing the process of preparation of the verbatim, the article presents on the one hand, the principles and conceptual devices of the analysis method and on the other hand several dimensions of the analysis process: the modes of structural unfolding of generic structures, the mutual guidance of the processes of structural and experiential unfolding, the tracking of analysis processes, and finally the assessment of analysis results.

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  1. This article is the continuation of (Petitmengin 2006) which describes the interview method. The French “entretien d’explicitation” (Vermersch 1994/2017), previously translated as “elicitation interview”, is now translated as “micro-phenomenological interview”.

  2. Husserl invites us to scroll through in our minds, for example the different types of red, until the essence of red emerges from this process. But this process corresponds to an imaginary variation which is situated at the level of possible and not actual facts. Micro-phenomenology, on the other hand, tries to highlight invariants from singular actual facts.

    However it seems that Husserl’s thought evolved over time from the idea of an eidetic variation and a characterization of the invariant as a priori (independent of the experience and the singularity of the facts) (in Logische Untersuchungen, 1901 and Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, 1913), to an “empirical phenomenology” understood as an universal science of the facticity, where eidetic variation is defined as a process affected by the singularity of facts (Phänomenologische Psychologie, 1925, §9c) (on this issue, see Depraz 2014, pp. 85–95). A detailed comparison of eidetic variation and micro-phenomenological analysis would fall beyond the scope of this article.

  3. For a more detailed description of the method, we invite the reader to refer to the articles and books which are devoted to it. References are available on the Microphenomenology website: A film made of interview excerpts can be found on:

  4. An English commentary of Vermersch's book "Explicitation et Phénoménologie" (2012) is provided in (Petitmengin 2014)

  5. Micro-phenomenological descriptions of the process of becoming aware of one’s experience show that it does not consist in reorienting a focused attention from the “what” towards the “how”, “observing” it as an object, but through an open, receptive and bodily anchored mode of attention, in coming into contact with one’s experience in order to let its awareness unfold progressively (Depraz et al. 2003 chapter 1.2, Petitmengin 2007, Petitmengin and Bitbol 2009 pp. 373–381, Bitbol and Petitmengin 2013, 2016).

  6. The issue of the relationship between experience and its verbal description is notably addressed in (Petitmengin and Bitbol 2009 pp. 387–390) and (Bitbol and Petitmengin 2013, 2016).

  7. For a description of the different steps of this preparation, the reader may also refer to (Vermersch 2012, chapter 11), and (Valenzuela-Moguillansky and Vásquez-Rosati, forthcoming).

  8. One of the co-authors of this article was a consultant and researcher in information system design for ten years. Designing an information system consists in identifying the main entities used by a system or organization (for example a “book” in a library), and the evolution of these entities over time (a book may be on the shelves, loaned, reserved, etc.) The Semantic Network method is used to represent the static aspects of the system in the form of a network of entities related by abstraction relationships. The Remora method makes it possible to represent the dynamics of the system as transitions between the different possible states of an entity that are triggered by events. These methods inspired us 1) to differentiate the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of an experience, 2) to structure the synchronic dimension in the form of abstraction relationships between descriptive categories, and 3) to structure the diachronic dimension in the form of transitions between the values of descriptive categories, that are triggered by events.

  9. Descriptemes can be compared to “meaning units” defined in the Descriptive Phenomenological Psychological Method (Giorgi et al. 2017) as passages of the transcript which elicit an experience of “transition in meaning” in the researcher. However they cannot be assimilated with them. Meaning units may indeed be long, not instantiate a precise experiential category and contain information that is considered as “satellite” in Micro-phenomenology.

  10. Two descriptemes may be compared in terms of their proximity of meaning as in this chosen example, and / or their “proximity of expression” at the para-verbal or non-verbal level, for example when they are accompanied by the same gestures.

  11. In Fig. 14, the number in parentheses under each category indicates the number of occurrences in the interviews of the description of the corresponding process.

  12. The descriptions of the emergence of an intuition almost always mention such a feeling of an absence of control: “It happens to me”, “It’s given to me”, “It escapes from me” (Petitmengin 1999, 2007). In this instant, the “sense of agency” that is “the sense that I am the one who is generating a certain idea in my stream of consciousness” (Gallagher 2000, p. 15) seems to be altered. The subject does not say: “I have an idea”, but “an idea is coming to me.”

  13. An experience described by Teresa, a member of the Laboratory of Micro-phenomenology who participated in this study.

  14. “The mechanism at work is of the order of a particular type of “focusing”, a little like the one that makes three-dimensional images emerge, of which the motif, invisible at first sight, appears after a certain amount of time if one knows how to adjust the eye properly.” (Paillé et Muchielli 2012, p.351)

  15. The reader may also refer to (Vermersch 2012, Book IV), where the author describes the process of semiosis or creation of meaning as an operation that “does not begin with language, with the fact of naming, but with the fact of detaching, of becoming aware of a new ipseity, of a new identity, unity”, an awareness which often appears in the form of an “intellectual feeling” (p. 342).


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We thank Shirley Carter-Thomas for the linguistic revision of the article.

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Correspondence to Claire Petitmengin.




Abstractions operations: Set of operations making it possible to “pull-out” (ab-strahere) a generic (synchronic or diachronic) structure from the description of a set of instances of a given type of experience.

Aggregation: Abstraction operation defining a category in intension as composed of sub-categories. The reverse operation is Fragmentation.

  • Alternative definitions:

  • Aggregation: Abstraction operation making it possible to consider a group of categories as one category.

  • Fragmentation: Abstraction operation making it possible to divide a category into sub-categories.

Classification: Abstraction operation defining a category in extension as a class composed of instances (or occurrences). The reverse operation is Instantiation.

  • Alternative definitions:

  • Classification: Abstraction operation making it possible to consider a set of instances as a class, by neglecting the details which differentiate the instances.

  • Instantiation: Abstraction operation making it possible to consider an entity as an instance of a class.

Class of experiences: Set of instances of experiences of the same type.

Content statement: Excerpt of a transcript describing the “what”, content or object of the experience.

Descripteme: Short statement taken from a descriptive statement, presenting a unity of meaning, and corresponding to an instance of a descriptive category.

Descriptive statement: Excerpt of a transcript describing a singular experience, precisely situated in time and space.

Descriptive category: Grouping together of descriptemes of close meaning through an operation of classification or grouping together of experiential categories into a more abstract category through an operation of aggregation or generalization.

Diachronic dimension of an experience: Evolution of the experiential space or “landscape” of a subject in time.

Diachronic structure of experience: Evolution in time of the architecture or topography of the experiential space of a subject.

Dynamic line: Representation of the evolution of the values of a descriptive category along the different phases of an experience.

Experiential structure: A network of descriptive categories, independent of the experiential content.

Generalization: Abstraction operation defining a category as a set of specialized categories associated with sub-classes and characterized by specific properties. The reverse operation is Specialization.

  • Alternative definitions:

  • Generalization: Abstraction operation making it possible to extract from the description of several classes a more general class, by highlighting the properties shared by the specialized classes and by neglecting the details that differentiate them.

  • Specialization: Abstraction operation making it possible to distribute the instances of a class into subclasses characterized by specific properties .

Generic structure: Structure of a type of experience.

Instance of experience: A singular experience, precisely situated in space and time.

Partition: A set of specialized synchronic structures, each of them being associated with a particular value of one category of the corresponding generic structure, and with a sub-graph in the corresponding semantic network.

Partition key (or Specialization criterium): Particular category of a generic synchronic structure enabling the distribution of the instances of the corresponding experience into specialized categories.

Phase: Stage in the temporal evolution of an experience.

Satellite dimensions of the description of an experience: Statements of commentaries, beliefs, judgments, explanations and preconceptions about the experience.

Specific structure: Structure of a single experience.

Structural statement: Excerpt of a transcript describing the “how” of the experience, and indicating a possible descriptive category.

Structural category: Class of descriptive categories.

Structural operation: Operation making it possible to highlight a structure, such as an operation of abstraction or a partition.

Synchronic dimension of an experience: Configuration of the experiential space or “landscape” of a subject at a given moment in time.

Synchronic structure of experience: Architecture or topography of the experiential space or “landscape” of a subject at a given moment in time.

Transitional event: Modification in the subject’s experience which in turn induces significant transformations in his/her experience.

Type of experience: Set of instances of experience presenting common properties.

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Petitmengin, C., Remillieux, A. & Valenzuela-Moguillansky, C. Discovering the structures of lived experience. Phenom Cogn Sci 18, 691–730 (2019).

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  • Entretien d’explicitation
  • Micro-phenomenology
  • Micro-phenomenological interview
  • Micro-phenomenological analysis
  • Qualitative analysis
  • Diachronic structure
  • Synchronic structure