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date: 27 October 2020

Critical Phenomenology

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Since the turn of the millennium, critical phenomenology has developed in a parallel fashion in both philosophy and anthropology, with considerable cross-pollination between the two movements. Where philosophical phenomenology traditionally has focused on disclosing the transcendental structures of subjectivity that condition the possibility of concrete lived experience, critical phenomenology combines a phenomenological sensitivity toward lived experience with a critical view as to how subjectivity is fashioned also under quasi-transcendental—experientially accessible and ethico-politically mutable—sociocultural and economic conditions. In both philosophy and anthropology, critical phenomenology has been inspired and instigated by feminist thinking and queer theory, and it most often takes its point of departure in the lifeworlds of those living somehow on the margins of society: for example, people of color, queer people, drug users, homeless people, and people living with dementia or other mental illnesses.

In anthropology, this combination of the phenomenological and the critical has been understood roughly in two different ways, according to where the critical impulse is located. One kind of critical phenomenology undertakes a third-person critique of societal structures, inspired by critical theory or poststructuralism, and combines it with a phenomenological analysis of the first-person experience of what it feels like to live under such conditions. Another approach to critical phenomenology finds the critical impulse in first-person experience itself. Here, the excessive limit experiences of breakdowns, perplexing particulars, and interruptions endured by people in their ordinary lives are explored phenomenologically as the loci of an indigenous critique of the prevailing societal orders and of the potentiality for things becoming otherwise. Critical phenomenology is closely related to the phenomenological and critical hermeneutical branches of the anthropology of ethics and, to some extent and critically so, to the ontological turn in anthropology.