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541642

research-article2014
BJP0010.1177/2049463714541642British Journal of PainSmith and Osborn

Original Article

British Journal of Pain

Interpretative phenomenological
2015, Vol. 9(1) 41­–42
© The British Pain Society 2014
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research on the lived experience of pain DOI: 10.1177/2049463714541642
bjp.sagepub.com

Jonathan A Smith1 and Mike Osborn2

Abstract
Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) is a qualitative approach which aims to provide detailed
examinations of personal lived experience. It produces an account of lived experience in its own terms
rather than one prescribed by pre-existing theoretical preconceptions and it recognises that this is
an interpretative endeavour as humans are sense-making organisms. It is explicitly idiographic in
its commitment to examining the detailed experience of each case in turn, prior to the move to more
general claims. IPA is a particularly useful methodology for examining topics which are complex,
ambiguous and emotionally laden. Pain is a prime exemplar of such a phenomenon: elusive, involving
complex psycho-somatic interactions and difficult to articulate. In addition to the 1998 article,
published in this Special Issue, two further papers are suggested that the interested reader might
wish to look out for.

Keywords
Back pain, chronic pain, pain, intractable, pain clinics, pain perception

It is 16 years since our article on the experience of pain There is now a very large corpus of research studies
first appeared in the British Journal of Health Psychology. applying IPA in psychology and also in cognate disci-
We are delighted to see it reprinted here, taking this as plines. Much of this research is on the patients’ per-
an indication of its ongoing resonance. We wish to take spective on illness, and it includes a number of papers
the opportunity to say a little on how we think inter- on the experience of pain. There are a number of rea-
pretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) can make a sons why IPA is a particularly useful methodology for
valuable contribution to research on pain. examining pain. First, IPA is especially valuable when
IPA is a qualitative approach which aims to provide examining topics which are complex, ambiguous and
detailed examinations of personal lived experience emotionally laden. And pain is a prime exemplar of
(Smith et al.1). It has three primary theoretical underpin- such a phenomenon: elusive, involving complex psy-
nings. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach, ini- cho-somatic interactions and difficult to articulate. IPA
tially articulated by Husserl, which aims to produce an
account of lived experience in its own terms rather than
one prescribed by pre-existing theoretical preconcep- 1Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck College,
tions. IPA recognises that this is an interpretative endeav- University of London, London, UK
our because humans are sense-making organisms. In 2Pain Clinic, Royal United Hospital, Bath, UK

IPA, therefore, the researcher is trying to make sense of
the participant trying to make sense of what is happening Corresponding author:
Jonathan A Smith, Department of Psychological Sciences,
to them. Finally, IPA is idiographic in its commitment to Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1
examining the detailed experience of each case in turn, 7HX, UK.
prior to the move to more general claims. Email: ja.smith@bbk.ac.uk

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42 British Journal of Pain 9(1)

is helpful here because of the painstaking attention it condition for the women lies in its impact on their sexu-
gives to enabling the participant to recount as full an ality and relationships. As part of this, the women judge
account as possible of their experience. This requires a themselves as failing in their role as a loving partner. The
high level of skill on the part of the interviewer – a com- article is a well crafted, careful and intimate account of
bination of strong empathic engagement and highly how the women’s lives are affected by the vulval pain.
attuned antennae ready to probe further into interest- For the future, we hope to see more IPA work on the
ing and important aspects. The small sample size of lived experience of pain because, as we have suggested,
most IPA studies then enables the micro-level reading we see a close fit between what the methodology can offer
of the participants’ accounts, which offers the possibil- and some of the issues that warrant further examination.
ity of some entree into the understanding of this elusive
condition. And the inquiry is sharpened by IPA’s induc- Declaration of Conflicting Interests
tive, interpretive analysis, providing an illumination of The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with
what is presented but importantly grounding that firmly respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
in a close examination of what the participant has said. article.
We offer here suggestions of two further papers the
interested reader might wish to look out for. The article Funding
by us reprinted in this Special Issue acted as a recon- The authors received no financial support for the research,
naissance of the terrain of the lived experience of pain. authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Something which particularly interested us was the
impact of pain on identity which was beginning to References
emerge as a theme in that article. We therefore decided 1. Smith JA, Flowers P and Larkin M. Interpretative phe-
to explore this in more detail, and the resultant study nomenological analysis: theory, method and research. Lon-
appears in Smith and Osborn.2 Analysing interviews don: SAGE, 2009.
with six adults with long-standing severe back pain, we 2. Smith JA and Osborn M. Pain as an assault on the self:
detail the corrosive effect of the pain on participants’ an interpretative phenomenological analysis. Psychol
sense of identity. Patients present pejorative descrip- Health 2007; 22: 517–534.
tions of their current self: ‘miserable git, cow, this mon- 3. Marriott C and Thompson AR. Managing threats to
ster’ and contrast this tainted self with a truer self from femininity: personal and interpersonal experience of liv-
the past. The article focuses on the dynamic interplay ing with vulval pain. Psychol Health 2008; 23: 243–258.
between these different self-perceptions.
A second article exemplifies the ability of a good IPA Useful links
study to access and illuminate a difficult or sensitive IPA at Birkbeck homepage: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/psychol-
subject. Marriott and Thompson3 interviewed eight ogy/ipa
women who had vulval pain. A key consequence of this Main IPA website: http://www.ipa.bbk.ac.uk

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