17. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson, “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology”
Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson’s article is a brief introduction to phenomenology and its usefulness for research into sports. “There are relatively few accounts truly grounded in the ‘flesh’ of the lived sporting body,” she writes, “and phenomenology offers a powerful framework for such description and analysis” (279). Phenomenology, the study of things as they present themselves to and are received in our consciousness, emerged in the work of Edmund Husserl “and now spans a wide-ranging, multi-stranded and interpretively contested set of perspectives” (279-80). “In general,” Allen-Collinson continues, “phenomenology seeks highly detailed, in-depth descriptions of subjective human experiences in specific contexts, and aspires to reveal their ‘essences’” (280). Her article is intended to give an overview of key “strands” in phenomenology, “identify central characteristics or qualities of the phenomenological method,” consider some of the ways phenomenology has been applied (particularly in sports studies), and “examine the potential of existentialist phenomenology”—particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—“to offer rich analyses of sporting embodiment that evocatively portray the multi-textured experiences of the lived sporting body” (280). According to this article, phenomenology provides a language one can use to write and think about embodiment, and I find that encouraging. Perhaps I’m finally on the right track.
According to Allen-Collinson, who has published widely on embodiment and sports, phenomenology is not simply focused on individual experience:
in addition to overcoming Cartesian mind-body dualism and advancing detailed, grounded descriptions of phenomena (two of Husserl’s original purposes), phenomenology also provides a stance on embodiment that incorporates conceptions of bodies and action as socially and historically located, socially related and interacting from particular structural standpoints. Our bodies are thus acknowledged to be gendered, classed, “sexually oriented,” aged, “raced,” with differing degrees of dis/ability and corporeal variation. (280)
There are four tendencies within phenomenology—realist, constitutive or transcendental, hermeneutic, and existentialist—but Allen-Collinson argues that it is the last tendency that is likely to prove most relevant for investigations of embodiment (281). Existentialist phenomenology, as represented in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, “provides a ‘third way’ epistemologically and ontologically speaking, commencing not from the assumption of an objective world ‘out there,’ nor from a pure, constituting consciousness, but from a dialogic where world, body and consciousness are all fundamentally intertwined, inter-relating and mutually influencing” (283). One’s own body is the subject of perception in existentialist phenomenology, “the standpoint from which all things are perceived and experienced,” and therefore phenomena are not “merely abstract things out there in the world, separate from human consciousness and experience, but are part of our incarnate subjectivity” (283). In other words, we experience phenomena with our bodies, before reflection (thought) or language (283).
At the same time, existentialist phenomenology also highlights the situatedness of human experience (283). It also argues that embodiment is always mediated by our interactions with other bodies (both human and non-human), something Allen-Collinson calls “inter-embodiment” (283). She also notes Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility: the idea that sense perceptions are reversible, that we both touch and are touched, see and are seen, and that “our embodied subjectivity inheres in both our touching and our tangibility; the two are inextricably intertwined”—not just with other bodies but with objects and the general environment” (283). “Whilst all strands of phenomenology potentially offer insights into the sporting experience,” she concludes, “Merleau-Ponty’s form of existentialist phenomenology, with its focus upon embodiment, is particularly well-suited to the in-depth portrayal of the corporeally grounded experience of sport and physical activity” (284).
Next, Allen-Collinson describes four themes or qualities that are general within phenomenological theory or research. The first is description, specifically descriptions of things in the world with reference to the person perceiving and recording them. The second is epochē or reduction: the work of suspending taken-for-granted assumptions about a phenomenon, something most contemporary phenomenological researchers acknowledge is an impossibility (286). The third is an interest in essences, the essential structures of experience, in order to derive knowledge in a systematic and disciplined way. The last theme is intentionality, the claim that consciousness is always directed towards something or someone (287).
One form of phenomenological research that is common in the social sciences, Allen-Collinson continues, is something called interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA is a research approach that aims to explore in detail the sense-making activities of study participants in relation to their subjective experiences (288). However, this method has been confused with qualitative research in general, and some IPA projects lack phenomenological grounding and are phenomenological in name only. (I wonder if she includes the article on the phenomenology of long-distance walking that I wrote about yesterday in that category? The authors of that study were clearly more interested in positive psychology than they were in phenomenology.) Another research method that might be more promising is autoethnographic phenomenology, or “autophenomenography,” a rarely used research method, but one that can “provide the rich, evocative, textured descriptions of first-person experience” that are “central to the phenomenological quest to bring to life and to share with others the felt, lived, embodied experience” (291). “Phenomenology seeks to provide highly textured, evocative descriptions that locate the specifics of individual experience within broader, more general structures of human experience,” she continues, and “[a]utoethnography is thus one possible means of generating the rich, bodyful, fleshy, grounded and evocative descriptions of the body in sport and exercise” (292).
“Phenomenology can provide not only a theoretical and methodological framework for examining human subjectivity and embodiment in general,” Allen-Collinson concludes, “but also for investigating the specifics of socially located, socially related and interacting bodies” (293). It can also provide a way of combining personal experience with general or ethnographic categories, and of “creating rich descriptions that produce a feeling of understanding in the reader, of bodily knowing and sense-making as well as cognitive knowledge” (293).
Phenomenology seems much more likely to be a productive area of research for me, if Allen-Collinson is correct, in contrast to embodied cognition, and it’s clear that I need to read Merleau-Ponty if I am serious about exploring embodiment. I’m left wondering, though, if autophenomenography might not just be another word for good writing, writing that evokes sensory experiences effectively, and if there is any relationship between phenomenology and anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s much-cited “thick description.” Isn’t the point of thick description to create feelings of understanding in the reader? Is thick description just a characteristic of any decent autoethnographic writing? I don’t have the answers to those questions—but to be honest, I think those tangents can wait, at least until after I’ve finished reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Completing that book is my next goal. I’m glad I read Allen-Collinson’s article, though, because it gives me a sense that I’m heading in the right direction, and that’s a good feeling.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.
Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, 1973.