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Qualitative Methods

Learning from the ‘lifeworld’

Joanna Brooks introduces a range of approaches to phenomenology in qualitative psychology.

14 July 2015

Although different branches of phenomenology have developed, with their own particular variations and emphases, all are usually acknowledged as stemming from the work of the founding father, Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl was concerned with developing phenomenology as a rigorous alternative to methods traditionally used by the natural sciences. These existing methods were, Husserl believed, inappropriate for the examination of human experience. In contrast to notions of an objective reality, Husserl suggests that it is in fact only our experience of the world – namely, direct and subjective human experience – that is ‘knowable’. We can, Husserl argues, only really know and understand concepts when they are grounded in concrete experience.

A fundamental concept is the lifeworld, the world of lived experience inhabited by us as conscious beings, and incorporating the way in which phenomena (events, objects, emotions) appear to us in our conscious experience or everyday life. Husserl conceptualised the lifeworld as pre-reflective – that is, our focus is on what we are perceiving rather than how we are perceiving it. Husserl’s project was to isolate ‘essences’ – invariant features and structures of phenomena – and to describe these as precisely as possible. By isolating such essences from a range of experiences, Husserl argued that it might be possible to identify the qualities giving a specific experiential phenomenon its distinctiveness. Husserl believed that to do this, it was also necessary to adopt a specific attitude, to suspend – or ‘bracket’ – presuppositions and judgements so that a clear and unblinkered view of the lifeworld could emerge. This attitude is known as the epoché.

How far it is possible to fully engage with and transcend the epoché is a topic of contention for different phenomenological traditions – and it was in fact a pupil of Husserl’s, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), who first developed an alternative to Husserl’s original descriptive or transcendental phenomenology. Heidegger is associated with the development of existential or hermeneutic phenomenology. For Heidegger, we are, as human beings, inseparable from the world in which we live and exist – we exist in the world, rather than next to or outside of it. If this is the case, then notions of achieving the epoché as advocated by Husserl become more problematic. Rather than focusing on how we know what we know, Heidegger was instead interested in exploring what it means to live in and among a world that is experienced by each individual in their own way. Heidegger saw our relation to the world as being always both interpretive and relational – we are always situated in context. This means that to understand reality, we need to understand both detailed experience and the bigger picture, and thus factors such as language, temporality, history and culture become important. Neither the whole nor the individual elements can be really understood without reference to the other – this is known as the hermeneutic circle. The extent to which the bracketing of presuppositions is possible, and the appropriate balance between description and interpretation in phenomenologically informed work, continue to provoke considerable debate to this day.

Heidegger’s writings inspired many other theorists and writers and for phenomenological psychologists, the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) is often highlighted as particularly influential. Merleau-Ponty radically challenged accepted dualist notions prevalent at the time, arguing that as people are embodied beings, we cannot, when considering human experience, meaningfully detach mind from body, nor subject from object (‘There is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself’ – Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962). Much of Merleau-Ponty’s work originates from empirical psychology studies (he held a Chair in Child Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of Sorbonne in Paris and was succeeded to this post by Jean Piaget), and the productive amalgamation of phenomenology and psychology continues today. Phenomenology has been an important source of reference for the development of qualitative psychology as it provides a philosophical rationale for focusing on the study of human experience.

However, a considerable array of different traditions and methods is covered by the umbrella term of phenomenology. We turn now to a number of leading qualitative UK psychologists to reflect on some of the thought-provoking ways they personally draw upon phenomenological principles and approaches in their work. Rosie Morrow, Alison Rodriguez and Nigel King outline Colaizzi’s (1978) descriptive approach to phenomenology – little known in psychology but widely used in other fields – using an example from a study on the experience of camping; Jonathan Smith uses two examples from his recent research into depression and chronic pain to demonstrate how his approach to experiential research (interpretative phenomenological analysis or IPA) draws on a range of phenomenological thinking to capture lived experience whilst recognising research as a dynamic and necessarily interpretative process; Darren Langdridge uses an example from his research on sexualities to describe how his ‘critical narrative approach’, with its explicit focus on narrative, works with language, power and politics within a phenomenological framework; and Peter Ashworth reflects on how his use of a descriptive lifeworld approach to phenomenological psychology can reveal ‘taken-for-granted’ meanings in everyday life experience, using the example of gift giving.

This is just a glimpse of the wide variety of approaches available, but we hope that these concise exemplars give some idea of how phenomenology is being used in psychology today.

- Dr Joanna Brooks is at the University of Huddersfield

Descriptive phenomenology is concerned with revealing the ‘essence’ or ‘essential structure’ of any phenomenon under investigation – that is, those features that make it what it is, rather than something else. By far the best known descriptive approach in psychology is that of Amedeo Giorgi (1985), who is widely credited as a pioneer in bringing phenomenological thinking into psychology. Giorgi’s method can be seen as a form of distillation, in which the analyst step by step sifts away everything that is not essential to an adequate description of the phenomenon. It is, however, not the only descriptive phenomenological method in the social and human sciences. We focus here on a method proposed by Colaizzi (1978), which is little-known in psychology but widely used in other disciplines, such as the health sciences. We argue that the method has considerable potential for qualitative psychologists, especially those coming fresh to descriptive phenomenology.

Colaizzi’s (1978) distinctive seven-step process provides a rigorous analysis, with each step staying close to the data. The end result is a concise yet all-encompassing description of the phenomenon under study, validated by the participants that created it. The method depends upon rich first-person accounts of experience; these may come from face-to-face interviews, but can also be obtained in multiple other ways: written narratives, blogs, research diaries, online interviews, and so on. The stages are as follows:

1.    Familiarisation: The researcher familiarises him or herself with the data, by reading through all the participant accounts several times.
2.    Identifying significant statements: The researcher identifies all statements in the accounts that are of direct relevance to the phenomenon under investigation.
3.    Formulating meanings: The researcher identifies meanings relevant to the phenomenon that arise from a careful consideration of the significant statements. The researcher must reflexively ‘bracket’ his or her pre-suppositions to stick closely to the phenomenon as experienced (though Colaizzi recognises that complete bracketing is never possible).
4.    Clustering themes: The researcher clusters the identified meanings into themes that are common across all accounts. Again bracketing of pre-suppositions is crucial, especially to avoid any potential influence of existing theory.
5.    Developing an exhaustive description: The researcher writes a full and inclusive description of the phenomenon, incorporating all the themes produced at Step 4.
6.    Producing the fundamental structure:The researcher condenses the exhaustive description down to a short, dense statement that captures just those aspects deemed to be essential to the structure of the phenomenon.
7.    Seeking verification of the fundamental structure: The researcher returns the fundamental structure statement to all participants (or sometimes a sub-sample in larger studies) to ask whether it captures their experience. He or she may go back and modify earlier steps in the analysis in the light of this feedback.
Morrow (2013) used Colaizzi’s method to explore the lived experience of camping, with a particular interest in its impact on relationships. While there is a substantial literature on the use of structured camping-based interventions as a form of therapeutic intervention (e.g. Desai et al., 2013), there is very little about how people experience everyday unstructured recreational camping. Four participants were recruited on the basis that they had recently embarked on an unstructured camping trip. Through using Colaizzi’s method, five themes were identified: ‘Getting away’, ‘Relationship maintenance’, ‘Tranquillity and relaxation’, ‘Appreciation of the natural environment’ and ‘Freedom and adventure/exploration’. Following the seven-step process, an exhaustive description was created, which was then condensed into a fundamental structure of the lived experience of camping:

Camping provides the ideal escape for friends and couples alike. The tranquil and relaxing environment provides the ideal setting for relationship maintenance and reinforcement with friends and partners, whether there are issues to resolve or otherwise. The freedom experienced by individuals encouraged adventure and exploration, which in turn allowed them to appreciate the natural environment. (Morrow, 2013, p.49)

While the fundamental structure is the end-point of the analytic process, the main themes from which it is derived are themselves useful to explore and present. Thus in Morrow et al. (2014) we focused particularly on the theme of ‘Relationship maintenance’.

The final step in Colaizzi’s method, returning the results to the participants, is a controversial one, criticised by Giorgi (2006), who stated that the researcher and participant inevitably have different perspectives – the researcher from a phenomenological perspective and the participant from the ‘natural attitude’ (our everyday taken-for-granted perception of the world). This echoes a wider debate in qualitative research as to the value of ‘respondent validation’ or ‘member checking’. We would certainly agree that any notion that participants can simply rubber-stamp an analysis as ‘correct’ is untenable. Nevertheless, given the aims of descriptive phenomenology, it is not unreasonable to expect that they should be able to recognise their own experience in the fundamental structure.

Descriptive phenomenology is especially valuable in areas where there is little existing research, as was the case in the example we have given of the experience of recreational camping. For psychologists, Colaizzi’s method offers a clear and systematic approach; its thematic nature may be more familiar and accessible than the ‘distilling’ style offered by Giorgi.

- Rosie Morrow, Alison Rodriguez and Nigel King are at the University of Huddersfield

Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was developed and articulated as a particular approach to conducting experiential research in psychology (Smith 1996). Since then it has grown enormously and is now one of the best-known and most frequently used approaches in qualitative psychology. IPA aims to provide an in-depth and nuanced analysis of participants’ accounts of their lived experience. For much of IPA, the experience in question is one of major significance or existential importance to the participant. Much of the early work was in health psychology, but IPA is now used to address questions in a wide range of areas both within and beyond psychology. While IPA originated in the UK, it is increasingly being used in many countries.

IPA represents an attempt to put some of the philosophical principles of phenomenology into practice in the form of a methodology that can be used for empirical research in psychology and related disciplines. It does not privilege any one phenomenological theoretical position but draws on the range of phenomenological thinking. It tries, as far as possible to go ‘back to the things themselves’ (Husserl, 1900–1901/2001, p.168), to capture personal lived experience in its own terms, as opposed to those prescribed by existing scientific or personal presumptions. However, IPA recognises this process as an interpretative process and is therefore influenced by hermeneutics and Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology.

IPA is meticulously idiographic, requiring the in-depth examination of each case in its own terms before moving to the next case. What comes out of this process is a detailed and nuanced analysis of convergence and divergence in participants’ accounts of experience. IPA is not in principle averse to moving to more general claims, but such a move for IPA will be a slow, painstaking one. Following from IPA’s micro-lens is a particular concern with the value of the gem (Smith, 2011), the small extract that offers powerful illumination of the topic under investigation. IPA is described as involving a ‘double hermeneutic’, as it recognises both researcher and participant as intrinsically sense-making creatures. Therefore ‘the researcher is trying to make sense of the participants trying to make sense of their world’ (Smith & Osborn 2003, p.51).

There is not a single right way of collecting data in IPA. Any method that allows a participant to give a detailed account of their personal lived experience can be used. Thus IPA has been conducted with diaries and other personal written accounts. However, by far the most common way of collecting data is through the in-depth, semi-structured interview. The popularity of the interview lies in allowing the researcher to hear the participant’s unfolding account and decide, in real-time, where and when to probe further. There is not a prescribed process of analysis. However, to help the newcomer to IPA, a guided step-by-step approach is offered – beginning with the close examination of the first case, leading to the extraction of micro-experiential themes and then a careful examination of patternings across the cases in the corpus. This primarily linear process is accompanied by a parallel operation of the hermeneutic circle, whereby pieces of text are seen as parts and wholes offering mutual illumination. Good IPA presents a stimulating and coherent analytic account evidenced with vivid quotes from participants and with some detailed interpretative commentary. For a detailed presentation of IPA, including coverage of the theoretical underpinnings as well as practical guidelines, see Smith et al. (2009).

In a recent paper (Smith & Rhodes, 2014) we present an in-depth analysis of the experience of first-episode depression. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven patients from a mental health service in London. We interpreted the participants’ depression as involving a three-fold existential depletion in the relational, corporeal and temporal domains. Along with this diminution, participants experienced occasional intensified emotional reactions and frenzied thinking. The paper gives a detailed interpretative presentation of these features of depression illustrated with extracts from participants’ accounts. We point to the value of examining these existential features in the early stages of therapy.

Another current paper (Kirkham et al., 2015) is concerned with understanding the experience of chronic pain. It does this through an analysis of patients’ accounts of their own visual representations of their condition. Participants are seven women, aged between 36 and 52 years, from southern England. The pictures offer striking portrayals of the pain. In some the pain itself becomes a sinister punishing object; in others the picture is of the self in relation to pain. The artworks also vividly capture the biographical context for the pain with representations of self before and after it had begun. Some images look ahead to a hoped-for pain-free self in the future. We discuss the valuable role pictorial representation can play in helping the expression of difficult conditions and experiences.

- Professor Jonathan Smith is at Birkbeck University of London

The method of critical narrative analysis (CNA) that I have been developing was created to serve a specific purpose in my own research programme on sexualities, and also to resolve some of the epistemological tensions that I saw with other similar methods (Langdridge, 2007). It draws heavily but not uncritically on the hermeneutic phenomenological philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (1970, 1981) and is an attempt to work with language, power and politics within an overarching phenomenological framework. It is distinct from other forms of phenomenological analysis, firstly through the explicit focus on narrative. Whilst this is not commonly seen amongst the better-known methods of phenomenological analysis featured here, it is common to a number of phenomenologically informed narrative methods (e.g. Polkinghorne, 1988). This theoretical focus on narrative reflects a Ricoeurian (1971, 1991) stance where meaning is appropriated through the critical interrogation of the stories we tell of our lives.

The second distinctive element to this method is the inclusion of a moment of critique, engaging with two analytic moments in a hermeneutic arc. The first moment is what Ricoeur would refer to as a ‘hermeneutic of empathy’, and is that descriptive mode of understanding common to all phenomenological methods. The second moment involves the use of specific methods of interpretation – or in Ricoeur’s terms ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ – to critically interrogate the social imaginary, the world of stories into which we are all immersed and that allows and limits our ability to understand and narrate our experience. Ricoeur (1970) identifies Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as the ‘three masters of suspicion’, but here I depart somewhat from Ricoeur and argue that we need to turn to critical social theory for our critique rather than, if we take Freud as our example, engaging in an archaeological trawl through the unconscious for hidden meaning. For me, the key to using hermeneutics of suspicion is to draw on social theory like queer theory or post-colonial theory as ‘imaginative hermeneutics of suspicion’. This enables us to critique the ideology of the social worlds of researcher and participant alike for how it allows and limits understanding and narrative expression.

Studies using this method are likely to be idiographic, with a focus on individual stories of particular life experiences. This need not be solely about the case study, as data from participants can be combined (see, for instance, the studies of ethnicity and sexuality conducted by David Mair, 2010a, 2010b). But the data collection method does often involve a life story interview of some kind designed to encourage the telling of a story or stories. So, for instance, I conducted a piece of case-study research with one of my therapy clients in which we worked together to examine his life as it related to being a sexual slave (Langdridge, 2009). Several hours later and with few interventions from me we stopped, with me having the privilege of considerable new insight into his ‘lifeworld’ through the stories he told me. I suggest a number of analytic stages for CNA, but these are open to modification: (1) a critique of the illusions of subjectivity; (2) identifying narratives, narrative tone and rhetorical function; (3) identities and identity work; (4) thematic priorities and relationships; (5) destabilising the narrative; and (6) synthesis. These stages guide the researcher around a hermeneutic circle of analysis such that there is a critical but also ethical examination of the stories being told of the life, or lives, in question.

Where the topic is notably inflected with power and politics, as we see with minority sexualities or ethnicities, and is also amenable to understanding through the stories told of personal experience, then CNA is likely to be appropriate. Should your research interests lie elsewhere, then other methods from the phenomenological family may better suit your needs. CNA should be understood as ‘open source’, amenable to modification, to be used – or not – as you see fit. We need to avoid rigid adherence to methodological guidelines and dogmatic fights. That is not to say ‘anything goes’, not at all, but rather we should avoid the debates and politics so often associated with the marketing and branding of methodologies. Instead, we should focus our energy on achieving our shared research goals as phenomenologists, notably our desire to improve our understanding of the human condition.

- Dr Darren Langdridge is at the Open University

Phenomenological psychology does not aim at discoveries of precisely the kind experimental psychology seeks. Experimental psychology uncovers the causal conditions of human behaviour, where the individual is seen as an intrinsic part of the objective system of mechanisms of the natural world. Phenomenological psychology, instead, aims to reveal the taken-for-granted meanings by which our experience is constituted. For example, when giving a gift (Ashworth, 2013) what are the meanings involved for the giver and the recipient? What constitutes ‘giving a gift’? Such meanings are by no means always explicitly known but are usually lived through, and these are to be brought to light. I will use the phenomenology of gifting below as an example, mentioning four principles of analysis.

First, keep in the realm of experience by the epoché. Husserl (e.g. 1913/1983) insisted that to seriously scrutinise an experience purely as experience, an epoché is required, a setting aside of the presuppositions with which we approach it. William James (1890/1950) made a similar point specifically for psychology, showing how easily a researcher can unintentionally impose their own meanings onto research participants’ accounts or actions (for James’s psychologists’ fallacy, see Ashworth, 2009). Following Giorgi (2009), I regard it as imperative to adopt the discipline of the epoché, even though it can never be complete… in any case, the researcher has to start trying to understand by using their own categories of thought. Be this as it may, the researcher must continually, self-critically question the accuracy of their understanding to minimise the danger of the psychologist’s fallacy.

For example, in investigating giving a gift, the scholarly literature (e.g. Mauss, 1925/1990, and Derrida, 1992) almost unanimously argues that the recipient experiences an implicit obligation to reciprocate. (Gifting is thus reduced to the structure of economic exchange.) The presupposition that the obligation to reciprocate is part of the experience must, however, be subjected to the epoché. What is the experience itself like? Of course such things may reappear in the findings (gifts might indeed evoke a sense of obligation). But these are not imposed prior to the description of the experience.

The difficulty of the epoché has led some qualitative researchers to downplay its importance and to emphasise the role of interpretation. The danger of this move is that of succumbing to the psychologist’s fallacy, and is only justifiable if the research plainly remains within the phenomenological realm – experience.

The second principle is to notice both what is experienced and how it is experienced. The realm of experience uncovered in the epoché has two thoroughly interdependent parts. In being conscious, one’s mode of approach to the experience (the noesis) will entail some elements of memory, imagination, perception, and so on, as well as various emotion-tones. At the same time what is experienced (the noema) is affected by, and affects, the noesis. Both aspects of intentionality (the approach of consciousness to its object) must be studied. The phenomenon entails both.

Third, idiography alternates with essential structure. An individual’s ‘noematico-noetic’ experience of a phenomenon is not free-floating or abstract, but is set in that person’s specific lifeworld. A phenomenological research report will seek the essential ‘conditions of possibility’ of such-and-such an experience – the features without which the experience would not be one of this kind. But in any particular personal instance, the experience will be thoroughly linked with other aspects of the individual’s lifeworld. Research therefore alternates between the idiographic understanding of an individual’s experience within the lifeworld, and the description of the essential features of a specific experience.

Finally, to help grasp the idiography of an experience some features essential to any lifeworld should be noted (Ashworth, 2006 – developing especially Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962). Then those aspects which are bound up with the conditions of possibility of gifting can be sought. For example, consider:
I    Selfhood: How does the situation implicate identity, the person’s sense of agency, their feeling of their own presence and voice in the situation, etc?
I    Sociality: How does the situation affect or depend on relations with others? When accounts of giving and receiving are used to describe the conditions of possibility of gifting in general, the lifeworldly elements self and other predominate. The giver assumes for themselves the right to give, and by the act of giving defines a relationship with the other. The recipient may or may not accept the gift; gifting may then not be ‘fulfilled’.
I    Embodiment: How is our body implicated in the lifeworld? For instance, since our projects are pursued through bodily action, illness, gender, age, etc. can have personal reality in the thwarting of our activities and our ability to give.
I    Temporality (and its events): How is the meaning of time, duration, or biography intrinsic to the situation? How is the past echoed and the future anticipated in giving?
I    Spatiality (and its things): Consider the meaning of the staging of giving and the form of the actual gift.
I    Project: How does this event of giving relate to activities to which the person is fundamentally committed?
I    Discourse: The gift relationship is surrounded by social conventions and linguistic formulas. However, important though it is, gifting discourse is by no means fully determinative or limpid. How the person speaks and enacts gifting must be carefully analysed.  
I    Mood-as-atmosphere: A feeling-tone is an essential element of any situation, and in gifting the mood dynamics of the expression of gratitude are extraordinarily sensitive: gratitude seals the meaning of the gift as an affective affirmation. (Not, it is clear, as an economic exchange.)

I have mentioned four principles of analysis. For more detail, Giorgi’s (2009) approach is to be recommended. The key perspective is this: The material of phenomenological psychology is precisely the intentional realm under the epoché, and the taken-for-granted meanings by which our experience is constituted. Research participants’ idiographic accounts are investigated, embedded in each personal lifeworld. Taking such evidence together, a description of the features without which the experience would not be of the kind under scrutiny is achieved. Such a description is phenomenological.

- Professor Peter Ashworth is at Sheffield Hallam University


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