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Micro Phenomenology Crash Course

Practical Tips and Tricks for Fieldwork with First-Person Experience

Published onFeb 26, 2024
Micro Phenomenology Crash Course

As the latecomers entered the room of the workshop that morning at the cluster “Matters of Activity”, they encountered yet another head-scratching scene. In small groups, the participants were silently enjoying some collaborative stone gardening. Kat Heimann, our instructor from Aarhus University, was moving deftly from table to table, making sure we were diving into her “stoning game,” as she called it. After a little while, she asked our little group: what was a moment that especially surprised you?

The Micro-Phenomenology Crash Course from Feb 7 to 9, 2024 focused on collecting lived experiences through a specific interview method. Organized by Zeynep Akbal and myself at MoA, the workshop featured the exploration of two VR pieces from the Stretching Senses School project: “Subterranean Matters” and the “Virtual Sensing Knife.” 

Can neuroscience teach something about empathetic interviewing to ethnographers? I was sceptical at first, but Kat Heimann blew my mind (again) as she taught us the nitty-gritty of micro phenomenology (MP). MP developed by Claire Petitmengin under the guidance of the cognitive scientist (and Buddhist meditation practitioner) Francisco Varela.[1] And it’s all about the practice—as if the neuroscientists stumbled on a philosopher’s stone as they were going around their business of doing rationalist Science. 

The original aim of MP was to devise an introspective technique that would make it possible to access the experience of small populations of non-trained subjects, in order to develop statistically relevant relations between subjective data and functional magnetic resonance images. What did the subject actually experience in their consciousness during these very moments? We cannot probe the unconscious, or the subconscious—that is off limits, says Kat—neither can we reach the “actual” experience of the event, as we only access a memory of what happened to that person during this given time. 

Even more so, “micro pheno” comes across as an interview method to become aware of your own conscious experience. “We know it’s a weird claim for people who aren’t familiar to this method, or to mindfulness techniques: but actually, how much to we pay attention to what is happening within us?”

Can we isolate these micro moments, like a “string of pearls”? This method is very much about mapping out the bodily and mental events of “our own stream of consciousness.” This last statement brings the pragmatist philosopher William James to mind, and indeed, he is never too far, as a precursor and a model for the quest of the many facets of human experience.[2] Steering away from “meaning making” and why questions, the MP interviewer avoids all reformulation, and prevents anything of their own experience to interfere with the elicitation. Diversions from the tiny moment scrutinized, such as explanations or context-giving, are accepted but they are also discouraged, as the felt-experience of that given moment is the only aim of the interview. It’s a process of “always coming back to it,” says Kat.

Micro-phenomenological interviews bring both interviewee and interviewer into a quasi-hypnotic state: like Kat, many of these researchers, many of them women, got hooked by the sheer experience of doing MP.[3] In this fleeting state, subjectivity becomes a porous thing, and a window seems to open into the mind of the other—and into one’s own, somehow. And a very short one-time window of a few seconds can take hours to dig into and to elicit! 

It’s all about the practice, as I wrote already: this crash course is very much hands on. My co-organizer Zeynep agreed to demo the interview process, using a very short experiment of interpreting a simple drawing onto a piece of paper. Kat stops the experiment a few seconds in—it feels almost disconcerting. Zeynep was about to start speaking about what she saw. First spotlessly framing the interview and collecting repeated consent, Kat then relentlessly refocused on the target experience: how did she proceed with the input? How did she do then?

The aesthetic of the slides is sometimes starkly contrasting with the nature of the method. The strong influence of positivist methods is made obvious in the diagrams and study material. Yet one should not get fooled by the cover: these boxed sequences of operations are more like a cooking guide, Kat says, so that we can keep precisely on track. 

The afternoon of the second day, we moved on to a different kind of “stoning game,” this one coming from earlier experimentations between anthropology, art and creative coding at the cluster. We showcased “Subterranean Matters,” a VR experience created in 2021 by Nayeli Vega, Paulina Stefanovic, Baris Pekcagliyan and Warja Rybakova in the context of the stretching senses school, curated by Yoonha Kim and myself.[4] The participants were just as much in awe as we were a few years ago as we discovered the piece, in which the hands of the immersant become stone and bring the walls of a cave to grow onto them.

Immediately after, we split for interviews in pairs. Sitting down with the recorder on, I go with Zeynep through my last experience, a moment of elation at the sensation of going through a meaningful piece of VR. 

On and again, Kat brought the theory against the background of her experience as an interviewer. She shared many of her “tricks” to level up our practice. Speaking of a “memory report” sets the tone with the interviewee, for example. Also, not all kinds of experiences can be elicited, or not in the same way. It’s possible to provoke an experience to look at it right after, or invoke something from the past—or look at the memory invocation itself as an event. Some things are more difficult than others: when the moment is about interpersonal relations, the elicitation is almost impossible, because “there is just too much going on.” Also experiences such as the VR setting we presented are very difficult, for the same reason.

Kat kept warning us about “priming”: not a single word of the interviewee should bring the interviewer onto a path which they haven’t elicited themselves. This can be tricky, of course, as even a question can prime. A minimal amount of priming is allowed, strictly when inducing the remembering: what, where, when, bringing the interviewee back to their positions. “It’s not magic, it’s more like finding a lost key,” going in rounds where it should be. 

Also the non-verbal elements are part of the practice: closing the eyes to perform the kind of “coming back” to the moment that is asked from the respondent. Small elements of language make a big difference too: not making statements such as “you said” when repeating the words that one has jolted done, or memorized—with practice, a general sense of humility about remembering processes seems to arise into the practitioner. 

The analysis is a whole other training, Kat warns us before we dive in the last section of the training. And indeed, the level of complexity of the diagrams becomes slightly overwhelming at this point, even to the well-intended trained social scientist. Coming back to the tenets of neurophenomenology, MP analysis is based on coding of the collected data, which then will be organized graphically to give a synchronic description of the inner events that have been elicited. The objective is to find generalizable traits to the subjective experience of a number of subjects. The “mapping” and the boxes recall the diagrams that neuroscientists draw to articulate together the regions of the mind. (See Star 1989, and more recently Dumit 2014 on “how these circuits got into the brain.”)

Yet, it is also possible and highly beneficial use Micro Pheno at different moments of a design process, may it be the design of an experiment, or that of an interface. (See Heimann, Nouwens, Saggurthi & Dalsgaard forthcoming) Tactically conducted during early phases, sketches of a design can be evaluated in-depth. 

A crash course is too short to get the hook of it, but we certainly all got impressed and lured into “micro pheno” and the mere experience of it. In her recently translated opus magnum, Virgin Mary and the Neutrino, Isabelle Stengers explores a possible ecology of scientific practices[5]: what does it take to learn something in a way that one can “address oneself well” to what it is a matter of learning from? It takes a lot of openness and careful non-rephrasing to get things right.

At every step of the process, MP encourages and supports a kind, gentle, and polite relation to the experience of others. In a reversal move, it does reverberate on the awareness of one’s own practices. The smiles and heartfelt feedback of the participants testified to the “complete experience” that they went through during the course: an experience that changes the individual in some meaningful way, leading to personal growth or transformation.[6] Micro Phenomenology practice leads to that sort of philosopher’s stone, or nuggets thereof: it points directly towards the work of Francisco Varela on “ethical know-how” and the relation between action, wisdom, and cognition.[7]

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