Session 5: Wednesday 3rd June, 11:00-13:00, room 731         

Phenomenological Research

Professor Paul Dowling

The studies that we have looked at in the last three sessions have all involved qualitative, interpretive research. They have, however, been concerned with different objects of study. The pushing strategies described by Tina Johnston in her GT study are patterns of social action; the narratives presented by Douglas and Carless and the other narrative research mentioned concentrate on lived experience over parts of life histories, they are distinctly diachronic in nature; Simmons’s research, as with ethnography in general, is concerned with meanings and tensions between meanings generated, sustained, and sometimes destabilized in a distinct culture—a classroom sub-culture, in Simmons’s case. The studies also deploy theory differently. Substantive theory—and potentially formal GT—being the outcome of Johnston’s research; Douglass and Carless’s study is theory driven, although this is not a necessary feature of narrative research, which may also deploy GT, for example; in Simmons’s research, Bakhtinian theory enables her to highlight the carnivalesque nature of the children’s play. Again, this kind of use of theory is not a necessary feature of ethnography, which may also deploy aspects of GT, or may generate or deploy specifically anthropological theory as is illustrated by Mary Douglas’s work. Phenomenological research differs from all of these studies by taking as its object the lived experience of something in particular. Nitta et al (2010), for example, study the experience of school consolidation—the merging of two schools—in rural Arkansas, Anderson and Spencer (reproduced in Creswell, 2012) studied cognitive representation of AIDS. There is very little consistency in interpretation of just what phenomenological research is or should be, but perhaps Linda Finlay’s negative gloss is worth attending to:


Any research which does not have at its core the description of “the things in their appearing,” focusing on experience as lived, cannot be considered phenomenological.
(Finlay, 2009; p. 9)

Even this attempt at purification (see Dowling, in press) is perhaps a little strong. Some phenomenological researchers places considerable importance in grounding their research in key texts and authors in philosophy: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. Others—and the Nitta et al paper would be an example, present their approach as substantially detached from philosophy, rather following their interpretation of a method as presented in Creswells work and, in this case, not including any philosophical writing in their bibliography. Denovan and Macaskill (a set reading for this session) describe their approach (Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)) as follows:

IPA is concerned with subjective experience and perceptions of the world ... Of central concern to IPA is in-depth exploration of an individual’s lived experience of a phenomenon, its meanings for the individual and how the individual understands and makes sense of their personal and social environment … (p. 4)

The two citations that they offer are methodological texts in the field of psychological research. Anderson and Spencer offer a very brief section on phenomenology that includes two citations of methodology texts and a genuflection to Merleau-Ponty.
IPA is an approach that is widely deployed in qualitative psychology. If one wants to make a philosophical connection, it is probably appropriate to refer to it as hermeneutic phenomenology, very loosely connected with the work of Martin Heidegger, which we might contrast with descriptive phenomenology, associated with Edmund Husserl. All phenomenology is concerned only with experiences that are products of consciousness and/or the body. Husserl asserts that to experience an object must always entail the assumption that the object itself exists independently of the individual having the experience irrespective of whether or not the object does exist (for example, even where the individual is hallucinating); the independent existence of the object, then, is also a product of consciousness. Furthermore, any consideration of the actual independent existence or non-existence of the object is irrelevant to the experience itself and should therefore be set aside. This setting aside is referred to as bracketing or epoché, the phenomenological reduction. Having determined that it is the phenomenon—the thing as given in consciousness—that is the proper object of phenomenology, Phenomenology is then concerned to identify the essence of the phenomenon, which is achieved via eidetic reduction. This process involves determining which elements of the experience are necessary to it and which are not and discarding the latter. In the context of social research, this will clearly involve the bracketing of the researcher’s own experience relating to the phenomenon being studied. See Amedeo Giorgi (2009) for details of descriptive phenomenology in psychology.


Central to IPA is its ideographic nature, as Jonathan Smith—the originator of the approach—puts it:

IPA is strongly idiographic, starting with the detailed examination of one case until some degree of closure or gestalt has been achieved, then moving to a detailed analysis of the second case, and so on through the corpus of cases. Only when that has been achieved, is there an attempt to conduct a cross-case analysis as the tables of themes for each individual are interrogated for convergence and divergence.
(Smith, 2004; p. 41)

The close, detailed nature of the analysis, Smith claims, entails that IPA can generally handle only very small samples—typically 5-10 (Denovan and Macaskill worked with 10 subjects)—and potentially works well with single case studies. Associated with hermeneutic phenomenology, IPA requires active interpretation on the part of the researcher and does not involve bracketing. Smith notes that IPA is expected to contribute to psychological knowledge and, rather than excluding psychological theory, IPA engages in dialogue with it. This does not mean that extant theory is forced onto the empirical data, but theory arising out of IPA can rather interrogate extant theory. A very helpful Prezi presentation on IPA has been produced by Michael Larkin; Smith's IPA website is here.

There are two set readings for this session and I hope that about half of the group will choose one and the other half the other to form the basis of a discussion. The paper by Denovan and Macaskill is and IPA study. The other paper—by Patrick Howard—is a more reflexive paper that seeks to illustrate how hermeneutic phenomenology can reveal how literature ‘works’.

Preliminary Reading

The intention is that half of the group will read one of these papers and the other half the other. There is no interdiction on reading both.
DENOVAN, A. & MACASKILL, A. (2012), An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. British Educational Research Journal. 39(6); pp. 1002-1024.
HOWARD, P. (2010). How Literature Works: Poetry and the phenomenology of reader response. Phenomenology and Practice. 4(1); pp. 52-67.

Further Reading

CRESWELL, J. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: choosing among five approaches. Third Edition. Thousand Oaks. Sage. Sections on phenomenology and also Appendix C.
DOWLING, P.C. & BROWN, A.J. (2010). Doing Research/Reading Research: re-interrogating education. London. Routledge. c. 6.
FINLAY, L. (2009). Debating Phenomenological Research Methods. Phenomenology and Practice. 3(1). pp. 6-25.
GEORGI, A. (2009). The Descriptive Phenomenological Method in Psychology: A modified Husserlian approach. Pittsburgh. Duquesne University Press.
NITTA, K.A., HOLLEY, M.J. & WROBEL, S.L. (2010). A phenomenological study of rural school consolidation. Journal of Research in Rural Education. 25(2). 1-19.
SMITH, J.A. (2004). Reflecting on the Development of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis and its Contribution to Qualitative Research in Psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology. 1(1). pp. 39-54.
WOJNAR, D.M. & SWANSON, K.M. (2007). Phenomenology: An exploration. Journal of Holistic Nursing. 25(1). pp.172-180.