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Anne Flood looks at the theory and methods involved in phenomenological research
Abstract Phenomenology is a philosophic attitude and research approach. Its primary position is that the most basic human truths are accessible only through inner subjectivity, and that the person is integral to the environment. This paper discusses the theoretical perspectives related to phenomenology, and includes a discussion of the methods adopted in phenomenological research.
phenomenology epistemological assumptions research methodology research method nursing research
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The primary position of phenomenology is that the most basic human truths are accessible only through inner subjectivity (Thorne 1991) and that the person is integral to the environment (Burns and Grove 1999). It is a research approach in the interpretivist tradition (Parahoo 1997). Koch (1995) postulates that one has to contextualise phenomenological research to the philosophical tradition that informs its methods, such as those of Heidegger (1962), Husserl (1960), Merleau-Ponty (1962) or Wimpenny and Gass (2000). Epistemological assumptions The epistemology of phenomenology focuses on revealing meaning rather than on arguing a point or developing abstract theory. Discovery of knowledge cannot be attained by the empirical-analytical sciences (van Manen 1997), only by sharing common meaning of mutual history, culture and language of the world. Two types of meaning are offered: cognitive and non-cognitive. Cognitive meaning is concerned with the designative, informational, conceptual and expository aspects of the text – the semantic and linguistic meaning that makes social understanding possible (van Manen 1997). Combined with
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’ Theoretical perspectives A theoretical perspective supports the philosophical stance underpinning a methodology. and therefore all meaningful reality as such. Social constructionism involves the creation of meaning in a community. As Crotty (1998) states: ‘Research in the constructivist vein… requires that we may not remain straight-jacketed by the conventional meanings we have been taught to associate with the object.. The notion of intentionality brings to the fore interaction between object and subject and therefore rejects objectivism and subjectivism. the transcendent and the poetic elements. the expressive. The researcher’s task is to analyse the intentional experiences of consciousness to perceive how a phenomenon is given meaning and to arrive at its essence (Sadala and Adorno Rde 2002).. They differ in how findings are generated and used to augment professional knowledge (Lopez and Willis 2004). and provides a context for the process involved and a basis for its logic and its criteria. 17. Meanings are constructed by people as they engage with the world they are interpreting. 2 . and developed and transmitted within an essentially social context’ (Crotty 1998). the resulting phenomenological information enriches our understanding of everyday life (van Manen 1997). Husserl believed that subjective information 8 NURSERESEARCHER 2010.phenomenology the non-cognitive meanings of the text. where one experiences an intuitive grasp of what is written (van Manen 1997). is contingent upon human practices being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world. This mutual recognition of the meaningful aspects of the text may be experienced as an epiphany or transformative effect.all knowledge. There are two main phenomenological approaches: descriptive (eidetic) and interpretive (hermeneutic) (Cohen and Omery 1994). Instead… approach the object in a radical spirit of openness to its potential for new or richer meaning. Phenomenological knowledge reforms understanding and leads to more thoughtful action through constructionism: ‘. such as the evocative. Descriptive Husserl’s (1970) philosophical ideas gave rise to the descriptive phenomenological approach to enquiry. It is an invitation to reinterpretation.
society and politics on the individual’s freedom to choose are not central (Lopez and Willis 2004). Interpretive Heideggarian phenomenology (hermeneutics) Heidegger suggested that rather than focus on people or phenomena. a scientific approach is needed. their freedom is not absolute – it is circumscribed by the specific conditions of their daily lives. While individuals are free to make choices.should be important to scientists seeking to understand human motivation because human actions are influenced by what they perceive to be real. 2 9 . The hermeneutic phenomenologist will focus on describing the meanings of the individual’s ‘dasein’ and how these meanings influence the choices they make rather than seeking purely descriptive categories of the real. Thus. Hermeneutics goes beyond description of core concepts and essences to look for meanings embedded in common practices (Lopez and Willis 2004) – what people experience rather than what they consciously know. Two further assumptions of Husserlian phenomenology are: n Universal essences or eidetic structures which are common to all persons who have a lived experience – there is one correct interpretation of experiences. and to ensure scientific rigour (LeVasseur 2003). to bring out the essential components of the lived experiences specific to a group of people. focusing on how interpretation is intrinsic to human existence – it is not simply that someone merely has. Heidegger (1962) asserted that humans are embedded in their world to such an extent that subjective experiences are inextricably linked with social. perceived world in the narratives of the participants. This represents a move from an epistemological to an ontological project. the exploration of the lived experience or ‘dasein’ (‘the situated meaning of a human in the world’) should be the focus (Thompson 1990). NURSERESEARCHER 2010. Todres and Wheeler 2001). This requires researchers shed all prior personal knowledge (bracketing) to prevent their biases and preconceptions influencing the study (Drew 1999). n Radical autonomy: the impact of culture. Heidegger used the term ‘lifeworld’ to express the idea that individuals’ realities are invariably influenced by the world in which they live. cultural and political contexts (Leonard 1999). 17. but what he/she is (Heidegger 1962.
van der Zalm and Bergum 2000). ideas. meanings and experiences. 2 . which are fluid and open to change. The horizon is the background of various assumptions. Understanding and getting to know others is based on a personal horizon of experiences and meanings. the concept of co-constitutionality is proposed. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) states. Gadamer (1976) describes this as ‘fusion of horizons’. The researcher aims to understand the cognitive subjective perspective of the person who has the experience and the effect that perspective has on the lived experience (Omery 1983). in which the meanings arrived at in interpretive research comprise a blend of those articulated by participants and researcher. 17. Phenomenological research Phenomenological research is inductive and descriptive. Hermeneutic phenomenology investigates and describes a phenomenon as experienced in life through phenomenological reflection and writing. Giorgi 1970. Heidegger (1962) emphasised that it is impossible to rid the mind of the background of understandings that has led the researcher to consider a topic worthy of research in the first place (Koch 1995). van Kaam 1966. Phenomenological methodology can be structured (a sequence of steps) or more fluid. who must set aside any prior thought. conceptions or judge10 NURSERESEARCHER 2010. thus personal knowledge is useful and necessary to phenomenological research (Geanellos 2000). ‘We can only really understand phenomenology by doing it’ – there is a difference between comprehending phenomenology intellectually and understanding it from the inside (van Manen 1984). The process begins with a description of a situation experienced in daily life (Giorgi 1975) and comes from a position of pre-reflexive thought. Descriptions of a phenomenon are obtained from the participant by the researchers. intersecting horizons of researchers and participants (Geanellos 2000). developing a description of the phenomenon that leads to an understanding of the meaning of the experience (Osborne 1994). thus the art of interpretation is always bounded by the separate.phenomenology Another philosophical assumption is that presuppositions or expert knowledge on the part of the researcher are valuable guides to enquiry. Finally. following the direction the experience indicates – a discovery orientated approach (Spiegelberg 1960.
Colaizzi 1978) that give added rigour (Hilton 1988. The researcher’s task is to analyse the intentional experiences of consciousness to perceive how the meaning of a phenomenon is given meaning and to arrive at its essence. Analysis of phenomenological data An analysis of the structure of a phenomenon in context is one of the outcomes of phenomenological research. the lack of structure in the phenomenological approach can lead to a lack of study vigour. While the researcher may start with only a general plan about the direction the conversation will take. NURSERESEARCHER 2010. The phenomenon is placed in epoché (bracketed). Seidman (1991) suggests that it will pass through three structured stages: n Establishing the context of the interviewee’s experience. Koch 1993). illuminated and probed (Kvale 1996) using reflection. Turner 2003). a range of frameworks were formulated by psychologists (van Kaam 1966. n Reflection on the meaning it holds. Haase 1987. The interview is the main method of data collection: participants’ descriptions can be explored. 2 11 . although there is a dearth of guidance on this in the literature (Whiting 2001. Data collection – phenomenological interviewing From a phenomenological perspective. the interview is reflective (Munhall and Oiler Boyd 1993) rather than observational as seen in quantitative research. requests for examples and descriptions. Accordingly. In phenomenological research. These have been used by nurses (Benner 1985. Morse et al 1990). n The construction of the experience. 17. However. meaning must be a result of co-creation between the researcher and the researched rather than just the interpretation of the researcher who may have different contextual factors or agendas influencing the descriptions (Wimpenny and Gass 2000). clarification. and listening techniques (Jasper 1994). To achieve this. Giorgi 1970. searching for its essence (Sadala and Adorno Rde 2002).ment they may have so they can be open to the description. if such tools are employed then phenomenology becomes a method rather than a philosophical approach (Hallett 1995). the researcher has to select a method for data analysis congruent with the philosophical underpinnings of the study. In addition.
Results are presented in everyday language as close to the lived experience as possible. widen and deepen the understanding of the text (Lindseth and Norberg 2004). n Comprehensive understanding or interpreted whole: All themes are summarised and reflected on in relation to the research question and the context of the study. which are then condensed into sub themes and main themes. At this stage. Giorgi (1970) suggested that rather than seeking variations of the phenomena solely in the imagination of the researcher. Ricoeur’s (1971) interpretation theory allowed entry into the circle through three steps (Lindseth and Norberg 2004): n Naive reading: The text is read several times to grasp its meanings. explication is used to reveal the phenomena under question. n Structural analysis: Themes which penetrate texts conveying essential meaning of the lived experience are identified and presented in ‘meaning units’. Here. Since the participant is someone of equal status from whom cooperation is sought. The whole text is re-read with the naive associations and relevant literature to help revise. the phenomenon can only be known through its manifestations as revealed through others. consideration should be given to the same phenomena as it manifests to different individuals. Husserl (1960) requires the researcher to draw on his or her imagination to visualise phenomena from varied dimensions. and the focus of the study is not to determine reactions to situations or experiments but to meet the intention of the research (intentionality). The aim of the study is therefore to arrive at meanings. This is assisted by entering the ‘hermeneutic circle’. researchers are ‘open’ so the text can talk to them (naive understanding). 2 . These are reflected on in relation to the initial naive understanding.phenomenology Hermeneutic interpretation Hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of texts to obtain a valid and common understanding of their meaning (Kvale 1996). His model has four stages (Giorgi 1975): n The researcher reads through the whole protocol to get the sense of the whole. 17. bracketing occurs – the researcher suspends belief in 12 NURSERESEARCHER 2010. Giorgi’s method of analysis Giorgi’s (1975) phenomenological method emphasises quality of data rather than quantity.
Ireland This article has been subject to double-blind review NURSERESEARCHER 2010. Conclusion Phenomenology is an interpretive. a descriptive statement of the essential. n Once the themes have been enumerated. Letterkenny. This is achieved by reading and rereading the transcripts and then identifying areas of the interview that highlight the participant’s experiences in relation to the phenomenon under investigation.the ‘outer world’ to avoid making judgements or having any preconceived ideas (Husserl 1960). There must be maximum openness at this stage to allow the researcher to identify the theme that dominates each meaning unit. The description must then be considered further. n Analysis to determine the natural ‘meaning units’ as expressed by the respondent. 2 13 . These units are separate entities which together form the whole of the experience. non-redundant themes is generated by describing them in relation to the specifics of the research situation. Furthermore phenomenology contributes knowledge that is practically relevant to nursing practice. Questions which are central to the research should be ‘put to the data’ in an ordered and systematic manner. RGN is director of nursing and midwifery. qualitative form of research that seeks to study phenomena that are perceived or experienced. Phenomenology has gained respect as a valid approach to the study of nursing as a science of caring and offers a means by which human phenomena or the lived experiences of nurses and patients can be studied and understood. This review has focused on the theoretical concepts underpinning phenomenological research and the issues which phenomenological researchers may need to address in the design of their research n Anne Flood PhD. Letterkenny General Hospital. 17. County Donegal. MSc. Whiting (2001) refers to them as revelatory themes. n The researcher ‘interrogates’ the natural units and the central themes which emerged during the second stage. It offers a means by which to identify the essences of the experience. BSc(Hons). Final themes are generated from this questioning.
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