Tuesday, 27 October 2015

More IPA - still no idea why I'm keen

I've read a little more about the 'nitty gritty' of IPA, as well as some more background on its history and theory. Daunting, but still I haven't come across a reason why I shouldn't pursue this path. My main concern, I suppose, is that a lot of the literature relates to its use in psychology/health psychology rather than in education. If you search, there is a range of material out these using it in education, albeit relatively recent. I've not got a real idea on the quality of the material either.

Incidentally, while I'm making some notes about assignment 1 (and potential dissertation thoughts), I've come across some reference to Tinto's student retention/departure models, which merit further investigation. (Also, Austin's theory on student involvement - not looked into this at all at the moment). These could be of use, depending on what my research finds. I need to keep them in mind. However, I'm not sure, if I use IPA, whether I should be 'free' of theories until after I have done my first lot of analysis - I may potentially organise my questions to support the theories I'm considering aligning my thoughts to.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing. My most recent reading (usual caveats apply - I'll need to paraphrase before use):

Larkin, M., Watts, S., & Clifton, E. (2006). Giving voice and making sense in Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 102-120.


IPA involves the phenomenological requirement to understand and give voice to the concerns of participants. The interpretative requirement to contextualise and 'make sense' of the claims and concerns. The paper looks to explore the relationship between the phenomenological and interpretative aspects of IPA. It covers the epistemological range of IPAs interpretative focus and its relationship to the more descriptive features of phenomenological analysis. Drawing upon concepts from Heideggerian phenomenology the paper situates its conclusions within a contextualist position.

Introduction: IPA

There is a belief that IPA is 'simply descriptive'. However, it is only seen as this as it is a flexible, accessible and applicable tool. This is not to say that it is without vigour. To be done correctly the novice researcher must be aware that its inherent flexibility may make other,  more prescriptive, methods 'safer'. The authors believe that IPA is a powerful method when carried out correctly.

The idea that IPA is 'simple' may stem from Conrad's use of the words "insider's perspective" and is invariably used to describe others' work with IPA. To be able to gain an "insider's perspective" requires thought. Some IPA research, particularly in health psychology, has avoided interpretation of data and the formation of concepts. This oversimplification can make IPA seem superficial.

IPA research is ideographic - it focuses on the individual. That is not to say that findings from IPA studies cannot be applied more widely, but that this wider application is not very generalizable (??? - my own thoughts - need to clarify and then support!)

IPA studies, methodologically, produce an intensive and detailed analysis of a relatively small number of participants. A range of methods can be used to gather data, including semi-structured interviews. Findings are reported thematically. The process is flexible and similar to other qualitative methods.

There is a phenomenological emphasis on the lived experience of the participants. The IPA researcher must seek to understand the world of the participant and to describe it. However, our experience of the participant's world can only ever be partial - the account is constructed by both participant and researcher. Nevertheless, the researcher's aim is to reproduce a view as close as possible to that of the participant. The second stage (double hermeneutics) is to perform an interpretative analysis. Here, the researcher takes into account the wider social, cultural and theoretical context when revisiting the description. The interpretation "aims to provide a critical and conceptual commentary upon the participants' personal 'sense-making' activities'" (p. 104). The researchers can consider 'what it means for the participant to have made these claims and expressed themselves within this situation. within this, the researcher may draw upon existing theoretical constructs'. So here, I've answered my question about whether/when to draw on existing theory such as Tinto, Bourdieu (if they are relevant!).

The paper expands on the phenomenological and interpretative aspects of IPA. The background is drawn from Heidegger and hermeneutics. There follows a discussion on the role of IPA in qualitative psychology.

Husserl, Heidegger and phenomenology as the study of persons-in-context

I'm going to have to review other papers on Husserl vs Heidegger, as I don't really understand this. Husserl made human consciousness central to his analyses. He also believed in the role of bracketing.
Heidegger was concerned that a person is always a 'person-in-context': "We are a fundamental part of a meaningful world and the meaningful world is a fundamental part of us". We can only be understood as a function of our involvement within the world and the world can only be understood as a function of our interactions with it.

Heidegger rejects Cartesian dualism of separate subject and object. He develops the concept of 'Dasein' ('there being'/'being there') - by nature we are 'there', i.e. somewhere, always located within a specific context.

Ontological and epistemological bases for investigating the person-in-context

It is not possible to remove ourselves, our thoughts, our meaning systems, from the world 2to find out an objective truth". However, this is not to say that we  live within a relativistic kedgeree of thought. "What is real is not dependent upon us, but questions about the nature of their reality can only occur because we ask the question". "Things" cannot be revealed unless they are brought meaningfully into the context of human life. Any discoveries we make are just a function of the relationship between researcher and subject. The 'reality' which emerges from the work depends upon how it is constructed by the researcher.

To gain answers of value, we need to reflexively consider the most appropriate questions to ask. A key concept of IPA is using 'sensitivity and responsiveness' to provide useful outcomes. Sensitivity and responsiveness are key to the phenomenological context of this method/stance. This allows the participant to show themselves as themselves and reveal any subject matter on their own terms.

The paper discusses the "empathetic" treatment of the subject, but consider this against the paper on hermeneutic listening - an inappropriate word?

IPA and persons-in-context

IPA is interested in how a particular person experiences and understands the idea of interest. Our interest is in their perception of the subject rather than the subject itself. This is a really important idea to remember. This is what makes it such an interesting method/stance. We know that we can't get to the truth, so we seek a truth, as seen by the participant. We need to consider their truth in light of historical/social etc contexts - the interpretative part of IPA. "An account can be used to reveal something about a person, but only that person's current positioning in relation to the world of objects which have come to constitute the subject in their experience, culture and locale". The analyst must therefore focus on the person-in-context (a particular person in a particular context) and that person's relatedness to the 'phenomena at hand' is the topic we are interested in. "That is, we are interested in how they understand and make sense of their experiences in terms of their relatedness to, and their engagement with, those phenomena."

An account produced by a participant can be used thematically to reveal something real about the object we are studying. "In choosing IPA for a research project, we commit ourselves to exploring, describing, interpreting, and situating the means by which our participants make sense of their experiences" (p. 110). This is contextualism (Madill et al., 2000).

Giving voice: The 'phenomenological goal' demonstrated

Heideggerian phenomenology requires us to identify, describe and understand the 'objects of concern' in the participant's world and the 'experiential claims' made by the participant. These are the key feature of the first order, descriptive, coding in IPA. The authors give an example - Nigel. They study him in order to capture something "of what is important" to him in this context and with this topic at hand. The key element for Nigel is money - it permeates his words.

Making sense - the 'interpretative repertoire' revisited

IPA wants to go further than description; not least because it is hard to identify where description ends and interpretation begins. IPA goes beyond description as it focuses on sense-making activities and our 'involvement in the world'. Interpreting what it means for the participant to have such concerns, within their specific context.

Hermeneutics does not subscribe to a correspondence theory of truth. It assumes that any interpretation involving a hermeneutic circle in which the interpreter's perspective and understanding initially shape their interpretation, but that interpretation, as it reacts with the phenomena of interest, is open to revision and elaboration as the perspective and understanding of the interpreter, including their biases and blind spots, are revealed and evaluated.

P. 114: IPA has been developed to allow the researcher to produce a theoretical framework based upon, but capable of exceeding, the participant's own terminology and conceptualisations. The approach seeks to generate an 'insider's perspective' but no single theoretical assumption about how that perspective may be interpreted.

A range of analytical strategies can be used during interpretation. Anything used needs: carefully formulated research questions and subsequent analysis; a willingness to reflect on the process of data collection and analysis; a contextualised account.


IPA has developed as a set of core ideas (idiographic, phenomenological, interpretative analysis, with first person accounts as data, etc.). Some areas are flexible, e.g. epistemology procedure. It combines rich description of a phenomenological 'core' (aiming to capture something of the 'person-in-context'), with more speculative development of an interpretative account - the meaning of the claims and concerns.

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