Alfred Schutz – Phenomenology of Social World

Biographical Sketch of Alfred Schutz

Alfred Schutz (1899-1959) was a renowned social philosopher. Born and raised in Austria, he found himself compelled to leave Germany in 1939 to escape the oppressive Nazi regime. Schutz pursued his studies in law and social sciences at the University of Vienna. His education was influenced by several renowned scholars. These included Hans Kelsen, a philosopher of law, and Ludwig von Mises, an economist from the Austrian marginalist school. Both of these scholars later gained recognition in the United States. He also studied under distinguished sociologists Friedrich von Wieser and Othmar Spann. Early in his academic journey, Schutz developed an interest in the work of Max Weber, a leading German sociologist. He was particularly drawn to Weber’s efforts to establish a solid methodological foundation for social sciences.

After seeking refuge in the United States, he took up a daytime position at a bank in New York City to support himself financially. In 1943, Schutz began teaching evening courses in social philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His intellectual prowess and insightful teachings led to his appointment as a professor of sociology and philosophy in 1952. He continued to enlighten students with his profound knowledge and unique perspectives at the New School until his untimely death in 1959.

Schutz is particularly noted for introducing the concept of phenomenology to American sociology. Phenomenology, a philosophical approach that emphasizes the subjective experiences and perspectives of individuals, significantly influenced the field of sociology in the United States.

Throughout his works, Schutz grappled with fundamental problems that lie at the heart of social sciences. One of these is the role of objectivity versus subjectivity. He explored how objective facts and subjective interpretations interact and influence our understanding of social phenomena.

Another key issue that Schutz delved into is the nature of human action. He examined how individuals make decisions and take actions within their social contexts, contributing valuable insights to our comprehension of human behavior within society.

Major Works of Alfred Schutz

  • The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932; 1967)
  • Reflections on the Problem of Relevance (1970)
  • Structures of the Life-World (with T. Luckman) (1973)
  • Collected Papers (1962-72)

Meaning and Historical Backdrop of Phenomenology

Phenomenology, a term rooted in the Greek word for “appearance,” is a philosophical approach that emphasizes the individual’s conscious experience and seeks to set aside preconceived notions, biases, and philosophical doctrines. It focuses on understanding phenomena as they are immediately perceived by the social actor.

This approach encourages us to question our learned concepts and our perception of the world. It invites us to adopt the perspective of an outsider, akin to a foreign visitor or an alien being. Phenomenological sociologists investigate how individuals interpret their social situations once they have set aside their ingrained cultural beliefs. They propose that our everyday reality is a socially constructed system of ideas that has evolved over time and is accepted without question by members of a group. This viewpoint critically examines the social order and challenges our culturally ingrained ideas, contrasting with functionalist perspectives.

Phenomenological sociologists view their role as accurately describing our perception of the world, highlighting that our perceptions are inherently shaped by our concepts. They also explore how we develop perceptions similar to others – how we assemble our experiences of phenomena in a way that leads us all to construct a shared “everyday world.”

The term phenomenology was first employed by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel in his 1807 book “Phenomenology of Spirit.” However, phenomenological sociology primarily traces its origins to European phenomenological philosophy, particularly the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who was the first to use the term phenomenology in its modern sense. Husserl defined phenomenology as focusing on things that can be directly perceived through one’s senses. This is the crux of Husserl’s phenomenology: it asserts that we can never know more about things than what we directly experience through our senses. All our knowledge stems directly from these sensory “phenomena.” Husserl argued against speculation beyond these direct experiences.


Schutz attempted to integrate Husserl’s philosophical concepts into sociology, incorporating Weber’s idea of verstehen, or subjective understanding. Schutz emphasized the significance of the meanings individuals assign to their everyday situations, focusing on how individuals interpret their circumstances.

According to Schutz, individuals rely on a shared “stock of knowledge,” which includes societal norms and expectations, allowing them to categorize the world into “types” of objects such as books, cars, houses, and clothing. This concept is akin to Mead’s “generalized other.” Schutz posits that individuals construct their world using these typifications or ideal types inherited from their social group.

Schutz exemplifies this process of typification by discussing the assumptions involved in mailing a letter. He suggests that individuals inherently assume that certain types of people, such as postal workers, will handle the letter. Despite not knowing these individuals personally, people perceive themselves as collaborating with them through a process of self-typification. By employing these societal “recipes,” individuals perceive their everyday world as orderly and predictable.

Furthermore, Schutz proposes that the meanings one assigns to an interaction may be shared with the other person involved in the interaction, a concept he refers to as the “reciprocity of perspectives.” For instance, musicians in an orchestra could swap places with the conductor and perceive the situation from the conductor’s viewpoint because they share a common understanding of the situation. In Schutz’s framework, these shared meanings can be both presupposed and experienced in an interaction.

In such situations, according to Schutz, individuals act based on assumptions about reality that they take for granted. They set aside any doubts about alternative realities, and interactions proceed based on the assumption of shared perspectives. This concept bears resemblance to Mead’s idea of “taking the role of the other,” which Schutz also incorporated into his theoretical framework. Therefore, while Schutz’s philosophy was heavily influenced by Husserl, he also integrated ideas from Weber and Mead into phenomenological sociology.

Meaning and Motives

Schutz, instead of adhering to the idea of a uniform social reality, advocates for the concept of multiple realities. These realities, potentially infinite in number, each possess their unique and distinct existence. We encounter various types of realities, including the physical world, the scientific realm, the domain of ideal relations, the supernatural sphere, and the religious world. Each of these realms is distinct, and transitioning from one to another can be a jarring experience.

Schutz emphasizes the need to differentiate between meanings and motives. He further subdivides both meanings and motives into two categories. For Schutz, meanings pertain to how individuals determine what aspects of the social world matter to them, while motives concern why individuals act as they do.

In terms of meaning, Schutz identifies subjective meaning context and objective meaning context. The former refers to our personal interpretation of reality, defining certain elements as meaningful. However, Schutz did not consider this process suitable for scientific study due to its idiosyncratic nature. The objective meaning context, on the other hand, refers to shared meanings within a culture that can be scientifically studied by sociologists. Schutz criticized Weber for not distinguishing between these two types of meanings and for not clarifying that objective meaning contexts are more amenable to scientific sociology.

Schutz also distinguishes between two types of motives: “in-order-to” motives and “because” motives. “In-order-to” motives are subjective and exist only during action; they are the reasons why an individual undertakes certain actions with a future goal in mind. These motives can only be understood retrospectively by the actor once the action is completed. On the other hand, “because” motives refer to past factors that influenced an individual’s actions. These motives are objective and can be scientifically studied since they are accessible to both the actor and the social scientist after the action has occurred.

Despite their accessibility, Schutz was less inclined to study “because” motives than “in-order-to” motives as they represented a return to consciousness. Schutz was more interested in exploring the intersubjective world. However, he believed that all social interactions were based on a reciprocity of motives: an actor’s “in-order-to” motives become their partner’s “because” motives and vice versa.

Stock Knowledge and Recipes

Alfred Schutz’s concept of stock knowledge refers to the structured, systemic, and contextual information that one has already learned and internalized. This preexisting knowledge is known as stack knowledge. Schutz also introduced the concept of recipes in the context of social interactions. Recipes are typifications that actors use to guide their actions in social situations. They are based on the actor’s past experiences and are used to predict the behavior of others 2. In other words, recipes are a way for actors to make sense of their social world. Schutz believed that recipes are a fundamental tool for social science because they allow us to understand how people interact with each other in different social contexts.

Schutz’s concept of stock knowledge is closely related to his idea of typifications. Typifications are cognitive constructs that allow actors to make sense of their social world by categorizing people, objects, and events into meaningful groups. Stock knowledge is the accumulation of these typifications over time. Schutz believed that stock knowledge is essential for understanding how people interact with each other in everyday life.

Recipes are a specific type of typification that actors use to guide their actions in social situations. Recipes are based on past experiences and are used to predict the behavior of others. For example, if an actor has had a positive experience with a particular type of person in the past, they may use a recipe based on that experience to guide their interactions with similar people in the future. Similarly, if an actor has had a negative experience with a particular type of person, they may use a recipe based on that experience to avoid similar people in the future . Recipes are an important tool for understanding how people interact with each other because they allow us to predict how people will behave in different social contexts.


All recurring social situations involve a process known as typification, which categorizes situations and individuals into types or categories based on shared social meanings and definitions. For example, when encountering a dog in my neighborhood, I might perceive it as a stray or a pedigree. I might further classify it as an Alsatian, Spaniel, or Doberman, etc. Each time I categorize the dog, my current interests or relevance system determines the prevailing form of typification. Changes in my interests may lead to changes in typification.

Typification specifications also vary over time and space. For instance, cultural items like utensils, tools, and instruments cater to specific human needs and activities. During recent excavations at Khirsara village in Gujarat, India, a variety of pottery and other artifacts were discovered. Initially, their typical purposes and uses were unknown, but we can understand their purpose by categorizing them into a type of vessel.

People develop and use typifications in the social world. In any given situation in everyday life, an action is determined by a type formed in earlier experiences. Typifications overlook individual, unique features and focus only on generic and homogeneous characteristics.

Typification takes many forms. When we label something (for example, a man, a dog), we are engaging in typification. More generally, any time we use language, we are typifying. Language can be thought of as a repository of typologies that we use to make sense of the social world.

The association of typifications with language indicates that typifications exist in broader society and that people acquire and store typifications throughout their lives. The typologies that we use are largely socially derived and socially approved.

Schutz often discusses typifications in the context of recipes, using the terms interchangeably. Like typifications, recipes serve as methods for understanding or managing aspects of experience. However, while recipes typically address situations, typifications are more often associated with people. People use recipes to navigate the multitude of routine situations they encounter daily. For example, when someone asks “How are you,” we respond with “Fine, and you?” This is akin to following a recipe.

Schutz suggests that we operate with “cookbook knowledge” or recipes to manage the routine aspects of daily life. Most of our daily activities, from waking up to going to bed, follow these culturally ingrained recipes. However, when we face unusual or challenging situations, we initially try to apply our existing recipes. If it becomes clear that our current recipes are ineffective, we abandon them and seek to mentally devise new ways of handling the situation.

Schutz outlines conditions under which situations become problematic and necessitate the creation of new ways of dealing with them (new recipes or typifications). If no existing recipe can handle a novel situation, or if a recipe fails to manage the situation it was designed for, a new one must be created. In other words, when the existing stock of knowledge is insufficient, individuals must augment it by creating new recipes (or typifications).

Due to the recurring presence of problematic situations, people cannot rely solely on recipes and typifications. They must be adaptable enough to handle unforeseen circumstances. People require “practical intelligence” to deal with unpredictable situations by evaluating alternative courses of action and devising new ways of managing situations.

Intersubjectivity and Reciprocity of Perspectives

The exploration of intersubjectivity seeks to address questions such as: How do we comprehend other minds or selves? How is the reciprocity of perspectives achieved? How is mutual understanding and communication facilitated?

An intersubjective world is not secluded; it is shared by all. It exists because we inhabit it as individuals among others, connected through shared influence and work, comprehending others and being comprehended by them.

Intersubjectivity thrives in the “lively present” where we converse and listen to each other. We share the same temporal and spatial dimensions with others. This simultaneity is the crux of intersubjectivity, as it implies that I understand the subjectivity of the other while living in my own stream of consciousness. This mutual understanding enables our coexistence in the world. While phenomenological philosophers primarily focused on consciousness, Schutz shifted this focus outward towards the intersubjective, social world. However, it’s important to note that both approaches concentrate on subjectivity, with phenomenological philosophers focusing on consciousness and Schutz on the social world.

Husserl refers to this world as the world of natural attitudes, where we find ourselves at every moment of our lives, accepting it as it is presented to us in our daily lives. This world extends indefinitely in space and time and encompasses both material and cultural objects. We encounter animals, objects, and have various relationships with fellow human beings. We exist, carry out our activities, pursue goals, and have a certain familiarity with whatever we encounter in it. This is not a scientific world but a world of common sense where all our social relationships occur and actions are carried out.

Schutz’s primary focus was on how individuals comprehend the consciousness of others while immersed in their own stream of consciousness. In essence, when two individuals share a single experience, the meaning derived from that activity is termed intersubjective. His exploration of intersubjective understanding primarily aims to elucidate how interactions between individuals in the social world occur at various levels of anonymity. Schutz leverages the differences in levels of anonymity in social experiences to categorize different types of encounters in the social world. He posits that these varying levels of anonymity shape what he refers to as the structure or ‘regions’ of the social world. To facilitate the analysis of these structures, he utilizes a comprehensive set of conceptual tools, including face-to-face relationships, ‘we’ and ‘they’ relationships, and the worlds of predecessors and contemporaries.

Reciprocity of Perspectives

Schutz’s overarching theory of the reciprocity of perspectives encompasses two idealizations:

  1. Standpoint Interchangeability: This concept suggests that it is assumed that one can place oneself in another person’s position and perceive things from their viewpoint, and vice versa. Consequently, objects that are beyond my reach but within my friend’s reach can be brought within my ‘manipulatory zone’ or ‘actual reach’.
  2. Congruency of Relevancy Systems: This leads us to the assumption that we, along with our fellow humans, take for granted that the differences in perspectives arising from biographically determined situations can be eliminated. As a result, different relevancy systems can be made congruent.

Owing to the reciprocity of perspectives, we arrive at a shared world composed of identical objects with identical qualities and properties, uniformly interpreted by all of us.

Life-World (Lebenswelt)

Alfred Schutz’s theoretical contribution is centered around the concept of Life-World (Lebenswelt). According to Schutz, our social experience constitutes a vast world that is made up of a complex network of dimensions, relations, and modes of knowledge. Schutz distinguishes between directly experienced social reality and a social reality that lies beyond the horizon of direct experience. Directly experienced social reality (Umwelt) consists of our immediate consociates, whom we perceive directly. Those whom we do not directly perceive fall into three classes: the world of our contemporaries (Mitwelt), the world of our predecessors (Vorwelt), and the world of our successors (Folgewelt). Our contemporaries are distinguished from the other two by the fact that it is in principle possible for them to become our consociates.

Alfred Schutz

Schutz identifies different modes of relatedness to others according to the social realms which they inhabit. For instance, toward a consociate, we have what Schutz calls a “Thou-orientation” (Dueinstellung). If this is reciprocated, a face-to-face situation results, and we have a “We-relationship” (Wirbeziehung). Within the world of directly experienced social reality, there is a unique connection between observation and social relationships. We can observe our consociates in simultaneity, which gives us an advantage over anyone who is conducting merely indirect observations upon them. For instance, being present while a friend talks is very different from reading their letter. We not only can grasp the objective meaning of their words but can also hear the tone of their voice and watch their gestures and other bodily movements. But the difference is not merely that these concrete symptoms are present to us. There is an additional advantage: we can look into their eyes and ask them what they mean. In other words, we can transform direct social observation into a direct social relationship.

Our knowledge of our contemporaries, predecessors, and successors is indirect. As for our contemporaries, they coexist with us in objective time, but we must picture them in a quasi-simultaneity rather than perceive them in real simultaneity. We do not see their actual bodily movements but only their products such as letters etc. We cannot comprehend them with a direct grasp (in Selbsthabe) but at a distance and by means of a peculiar inferential process. We interpret the products as being the result of such and such an inner process, such and such an emotion, such and such an in-order-to motive, and we interpret the contemporaries in question as being persons of such and such a type. In short, when interpreting the behavior of our contemporaries, we are resorting to ideal types either course-of-action types or personal types.

The use of ideal types does not enter at the stage when we pass from prescientific to scientific observation. It enters rather when we pass from direct to indirect social experience. Our contemporaries are therefore something less than fully concrete persons for us. Their degree of concreteness may vary.

Alfred Schutz’s ideal types can be arranged on a scale of increasing anonymity, ranging from our absent friend to abstract entities like Canada itself. As the types get more and more abstract, we are getting further away from the actual subjective meaning complexes or contexts of individuals. We are making more and more use of objective contexts of meaning. But these refer by their very nature to subjective meaning-contexts of greater or lesser anonymity. Schutz believes that social science is an objective context of meaning constructed out of and referring to subjective contexts of meaning. The fundamental tool of social science is the ideal type, which must be fitted into a whole hierarchy of other objective concepts making up the total complex of scientific knowledge.

Schutz’s objective was to develop a sociology based on the interpretations of the social world made by the actors being studied. It is difficult to know the interpretations of predecessors and impossible to understand those of successors. However, it is possible to understand contemporaries (mitwelt) and the interpretations of those with whom we are in immediate face-to-face contact (umwelt).

Umwelt and We Relations: Alfred Schutz’s concept of We relations is characterized by a relatively high degree of intimacy, which is determined by the extent to which the actors are acquainted with one another’s personal biographies. The pure we relation is a face-to-face relationship in which the partners are aware of each other and sympathetically participate in each other’s lives for however short a time.

The we relation encompasses the consciousness of the participants as well as the patterns of face-to-face interaction. It is characterized by a “thou orientation,” which is the universal form in which the other is experienced ‘in person’ 1. In other words, we relations are highly personal and immediate.

The immediacy of interaction has two implications for social relations. First, in a we relation, there are abundant indicators of the other’s subjective experience. Immediacy allows each actor to enter into the consciousness of the other. Second, when entering any social relation, an individual has only typical knowledge of the other. However, in the continuing process of a face-to-face interaction, typifications with others necessarily modifies typologies

Alfred Schutz’s insights into We relations are not limited to the relationships themselves but also extend to cultural phenomena in the real world. For instance, in we relations, actors learn the typifications and recipes that allow them to survive socially. People not only learn typification and recipes in we relations but also use them there – trying them out, altering them when they prove ineffective or inappropriate. Schutz was aware that there is considerable give and take among actors in we relations. People try out different courses of action on other people. They may quickly abandon those that elicit hostile reactions and continue to use those that are accepted. People may also find themselves in situations where recipes do not work at all, and they must create appropriate and workable sets of actions. In other words, people constantly adjust their actions with regard to those with whom they interact.

People also adjust their conceptions of others. They enter a given relationship with certain assumptions about what the other actors are thinking. In general, people assume that the thinking of others is of the same order as their own. Sometimes this is confirmed by what they find, but in other circumstances, the facial expressions, movements, words, and actions of others must revise their view of others’ thought processes and then adjust their responses on the basis of this new image of what others are thinking. This is an indirect process because people cannot actually know what others are thinking. Thus, they may tentatively change their actions in the hope that this will elicit responses consistent with what they now think is going on in others’ minds.

Alfred Schutz suggests that people may be forced to revise their conception of others’ thought processes and their actions a number of times before they are able to understand why others are acting in a particular way. In some instances, people may not be able to make an adequate number of adjustments, with the result that they are likely to flee the particular interaction, completely confused. In such a case, they may seek more comfortable situations where familiar recipes can be applied.

Even within we relations in everyday life, most action is guided by recipes. People do not usually reflect on what they do or on what others do. However, when they encounter problems, inappropriate thoughts and actions, they must abandon their recipes and reflect on what is going on to create an appropriate response. This is psychologically costly because people prefer to act and interact according to recipes.

While it is difficult to analyze the umwelt scientifically, it is far easier to study the mitwelt in this manner. However, although it may be easier to study the mitwelt, such study is not likely to be as rewarding as a study of the umwelt because of the latter’s key role in the creation of typifications and recipes and its central role in the social lives of people in the life-world.

Mitwelt and They Relations:

Alfred Schutz’s Mitwelt is that aspect of the social world in which people deal only with types of people or with larger social structures rather than with actual actors. People do fill these types and these structures, but in this world of “contemporaries,” these people are not experienced directly. Because actors are dealing with types rather than with actual people, their knowledge of people is not subject to constant revision on the basis of face-to-face interaction. This relatively constant knowledge of general types of subjective experience can be studied scientifically and can shed light on the general process by which people deal with the social world. A number of specific levels of the mitwelt will be discussed below.

While in the Umwelt, people coexist in the same time and space, in the Mitwelt, spatial distances make it impossible to interact on a face-to-face basis. If the spatial situation changes and the people draw closer to each other, then face-to-face interaction becomes possible, but if it occurs, we have returned to the umwelt. People who were once in our umwelt may draw away from us and ultimately, because of spatial distances, become part of the mitwelt. Thus, there is a gradual transition from umwelt to mitwelt as people grow apart from one another. Here is the way Schutz describes this gradual transition:

Now we are face-to-face, saying good-bye, shaking hands; now he is walking away, now he calls back to me; now I see him waving to me; now he has disappeared around the corner. It is impossible to say at which precise moment the face-to-face situation ended and my partner became a mere contemporary of whom I have knowledge (he has, probably, arrived home) but no direct experience.

Similarly, there are no clear dividing lines among the various levels of the mitwelt discussed below. The mitwelt is a stratified world with levels arranged by degree of anonymity.

According to Alfred Schutz, the more anonymous the level, the more people’s relationships are amenable to scientific study. Some of the major levels within the mitwelt, beginning with the least anonymous, are:

  1. Those whom actors encountered face-to-face in the past and could meet again. Actors are likely to have fairly current knowledge of them because they have been met before and could be met again. If these people were to be met personally at a later date, this relationship would become part of the umwelt and no longer be part of the mitwelt.
  2. Those once encountered not by us but by people with whom we deal. Because this level is based on second-hand knowledge of others, it involves more anonymity than the level of relationship with people we have encountered in the past. If we were ever to meet people at this level, the relationship would become part of the umwelt.
  3. Those whom we are on the way to meet. As long as we have not yet met them, we relate to them as types, but once we actually meet them, the situation again becomes part of the umwelt.
  4. Those whom we know not as concrete individuals but simply as positions and roles. For example, we know that there are people who sort our mail or process our checks, but although we have attitudes about them as types, we never encounter them personally.
  5. Collectivities whose function we may know without knowing any of the individuals who exist within them. For example, we know about the senate, but few people actually know any of the individuals in it, although we do have the possibility of meeting those people.
  6. Collectivities that are so anonymous that we have little chance of ever encountering people in them. For most people, the Mafia would be an example of such a collectivity.
  7. Objective structures of meaning that have been created by contemporaries with whom actors do not have face-to-face interaction. The rules of English grammar would be an example of such a structure of meaning.
  8. Alfred Schutz suggests that physical artifacts produced by a person we have not met and whom we are not likely to meet, such as a museum painting, create a highly anonymous relationship with the Mitwelt. As we move further into the mitwelt relationships, they become more impersonal and anonymous. People do not have face-to-face interaction with others and thus cannot know what goes on in other’s minds. Their knowledge is therefore restricted to “general types of subjective experience”.

They relations, which are found in the mitwelt, are characterized by interaction with impersonal contemporaries (for example, the unseen postal employee who sorts our mail) rather than consociates (for example, a personal friend). In they relations, the thoughts and actions of people are dominated by anonymous typifications and recipes. In the “pure” they relation, the typical schemes of knowledge used to define other actors are not available for modification. Because we do not interact with actual people but with impersonal contemporaries, information that varies from our typification is not provided to us. In other words, new experiences are not constituted in they relations. Cultural typifications determine action, and they cannot be altered by the thoughts and actions of actors in they relationship. Thus, whereas we relations are subject to negotiation, they relations are not. Despite the distinction between we and they relations, the typifications used in they relations have their historical roots in we relations: “The first and originally objective solution of a problem was still largely dependent on the subjective relevance awareness of the individual” 1. However, these solutions ultimately become more typified and anonymous – in short, more and more a part of the cultural realm.

Critical Comments

Alfred Schutz’s phenomenology has not gone without criticism, some severe and unjust, some productive and insightful. Schutz’s theory is radically different from the then prevalent theories of Parsons, Weber, and Durkheim. His theory is both fundamental and modest in contrast to the recent attempts to theorize society as a whole. However, it is not a full-grown social theory, but it is highly theoretical and has more to do with providing a philosophical background for the study of society. His strong critique came from Natansona – a phenomenological philosopher. He has called upon social scientists to be more self-critical, more theoretical, and certainly more philosophically literate in their conception of theory and theory construction. In view of Zeitlin, the real problem with Schutz’s scheme is that it provides us with no independent means of assessing the validity of everyman’s judgments about his existential conditions and his interpretations of his relations with his fellowmen. Schutz not only presents an abstract picture of the everyday world but idealizes it as well.


Schutz – Phenomenology of the Social World

Explore Sociology


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top