Sunday, 31 January 2016

Weekend 3: Handwritten notes

Theorising data

The quality of theorising data is key in doctoral research. See Dean’s two papers to explore what it means to theorise something, for example application of Foucault’s ideas to policies surrounding safeguarding in sports coaching.
Rorty stats that “All we have is interpretation”, so all we have is differing interpretations of experiences. Should we strive towards truth, in its absence.
Jean-Luc Nancy explored the concept of “being with”: we cannot exist as individuals, as we are social beings. Our identity emerges through our interaction with others. Identity captures our engaging with others within particular contexts.
Judith Butler discussed performativity – we perform differently in different contexts. There is no ‘essence’ of ourselves.
We bring meaning to data – it is a process of construction of meaning. The data does not exist without the meaning and the significance we put on it. Context is of key significance, and helps us to produce meaning. There is construction of the context between interviewer and interviewee.
This links to reflexivity – the narrative of who we are, our aspects of self and our connections to the research.

There was a brief discussion over research data anomalies – it is of great interest to explore anomalous data rather than to try and ignore it. Why is it there? What does it mean in relation to the agreeing data?

 Key issues arising from the evening activity
Truth is plural – there are multiple truths.
Who we are and how we see influences our perception of truth. Our interpretations cause us to see the world differently. We privilege some things and deselect others – perception is very individual.
We need to relate this to our ontological and epistemological position.
Ontology is existence.

If truth is a plural concept, the ontological status is relativism. Interpretation is critical. We are not dealing with the ontological realism of a singularity of truth but a plurality of multiple truths.

BUT – does this mean ‘anything goes’? – The tutor asked us to question whether this was actually important. We always have to live with uncertainty, so why not with uncertainty over research. However, there are certain truths which hold sway at different times – these are not foundational but are based on community debate as to what is temporarily/provisionally held to count as ‘truth’. However, within this community, there may be different perspectives, with tensions between them. Therefore, there is no total agreement on interpretation/truth.
Other key issues:

Meaning does not reside in the data itself – meaning is brought into being and partly constructed through our interaction with it. The sense we make of data is affected by what we bring (culturally, socially, historically located) i.e. CONTEXT.
Discovery as a metaphor for research is inaccurate. It is more a construction and creation than a discovery. For example phenomenological hermeneutics acknowledge the importance of ‘self’ in the construction and telling of the ‘other’ – self and other are conjoined.
We cannot bracket off our subjectivity but we must embrace it – this is who I am and this affects how I understand and interpret.

Heidegger suggests that we are already located in presuppositions – ie our ‘being in the world’ – our social, historical, cultural context.
Nancy: ‘being with’ locates you – who you are with affects who you are.

Michael Polanyi discussed ‘tacit knowledge’: knowledge we cannot explicitly explain but that we have. We cannot render a feeling fully explicit (e.g. my choice of IPA?)

Other issues raised:
The criteria with which our research is judged: where I position myself in relation to onto-epistemic issues. I  need to articulate how I want to be judged – I will need to discuss the criteria for judgement.

Conventional criteria do not apply in qualitative contexts. Remodelling of the criteria to include, for example, authenticity and verisimilitude are still ‘fudging’ the issue – still appealing to accuracy but by different names. We only have the power of rhetoric to take the reader into your word – you need resonance with the reader, and this will not always happen.

What you write will only ever ring true for some people. Validity shifts from accuracy to a plain that recognises the importance of resonance and experience – connection to the information. This is not a simplistic correspondence, such as ‘does the report accurately represent reality?’

This shifts the test of validity – the truth of the account partly resides in the standpoint of the reader. Truth isn’t solely controlled by the authorial account.

Dean is going to send out a paper on the flexibility of validity.

Presentation (PowerPoint) on Heidegerrian Phenomenology

Slide 1:

Ò  … utilises a hermeneutic approach that is fundamentally ontological
Ò  This informs us of ‘how’ a ‘what’ is to be treated, and is primarily methodological
Ò  ‘what does this data mean’ becomes ‘how is this data meaningful’?
The activity we took part in was fundamentally ontological – we drew on our own being. The questions move from ‘what does this mean’ to ‘how is this meaningful?’ – our interaction and construction bring meaning into being.

 Slide 2:

Ò  The latter cannot be answered except in relation to Dasein (da – here; sein – being)
Ò  Thus, descriptions are impossible without interpretation
Ò  ‘the meaning of phenomenological description as a method lies in interpretation’ (Heidegger 1962: 61).
Descriptions are impossible without interpretation and construction of meaning. Our identities (plural rather than singular) are exposed differently depending on our ‘being with’. Identities are contextually located.

Slide 3:
Ò  Being and becoming are hermeneutic:
Ò   ‘the phenomenology of Dasein is a hermeneutic in the primordial significance of the word, where it designates this business of interpreting’ (Heidegger 1962: 62).
Becoming: Being isn’t fixed – it is dynamic. We ‘become’ according to those around us – it is relational.

Slide 4:

Ò  Interpretation is ‘grounded in something we have in advance fore-having … we see in advance fore-sight … and something we grasp in advance fore-conception (Heidegger 1962: 193)
Ò  The implication for research is that data is analysed through these fore-structures
Ò  Such structures suggest that understanding is not ground in data but in what people have in advance – the always already Being
‘Fore-having’ – we have ‘fore-conception’ – we analyse data through these fore-structures. The understanding is not grounded in data but in being and fore-having – i.e. we have preconceptions and ‘baggage’.

Therefore, research is always already theoretically over-determined – we are always already theoretical as we are always already schooled in some sense, e.g. through family, community, culture, tradition. We cannot bracket that.

 Slide 5:

Ò  Key points
Ò  The object and subject of the world are inseparable
Ò   Dasein is the Being that is peculiar to humans who must paradoxically live in relationships while simultaneously being ultimately alone with oneself
Ò  To understand the Other, a person’s behaviour or expressions, one has to study that person in context
It is impossible to know when what is outside of ourselves starts and what is internal begins in regard to interpretation. Interpretation is an interaction but we cannot pin it down. We cannot recognise the extent of our self. Ethically, this is very powerful as we as the author have to consider equity, responsibility, whose voices we choose to privilege and whose we silence.

Reflexivity involves engaging critically with what we recognise as our position and subjectivity, to interrogate but we will always fail as we cannot fully recognise the extent of our influence.

Reflexivity: positioning our professional values that are shared with the contextualisation of the work.

Grounded Theory

Slide 1:
… addresses the ‘important enterprise of how the discovery of theory from data - systematically obtained and analyzed in social research - can be furthered’
Glaser, B.G. and Strauss, A.L (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research, London:  Aldine, p.1).

Glaser & Strauss (1967): The discovery of theory from data
Theories from the study are based on data – theories emerged from the data, i.e. the authors weren’t bringing anything to it – the data drove the themes. This assumes that we enter the context of research without baggage, in order to see what’s occurring. It assumes that no literature has been read beforehand, there are no lenses to see through, allowing data to drive theory production – data “springs forth”. BUT there is no acknowledgement of a lens.


Slide 2:

  … relies upon ‘a general method of comparative analysis’ (p.1)

‘we would all agree that in social research generating theory goes hand in hand with verifying it’ (p.2).

This is problematic as it suggests that there is logical induction. Karl Popper critiques logical induction through the black swan story. There is no way of verifying a theory based on induction. There is always the possibility of an anomaly in the next observation. We can only ever falsify a theory rather than verify it.

How can we ever know how close we are to ‘the truth’? Verify against what? We cannot know how near or far we are from a ‘truth’.

The categories we develop in our minds are influenced by our framing of the context. We cannot verify it – if something (a theme) keeps repeating itself, it is because we keep seeing it. We may not see other things.

There is a tension in grounded theory – it wants us to be open-minded, inductive and generative BUT it is also seeking to verify – that is, it is narrowing, reductive and deductive.

What are the external references allowing us to verify something, other than keeping seeing the same thing? – affirmation of the self.


Slide 3:

  According to Glaser and Strauss – grounded theory appeals to the ‘interrelated jobs of theory in sociology:

                (1) to enable prediction and explanation of         behaviour; (2) to be useful in theoretical advance in                 sociology; (3) to be usable in practical applications –        prediction and explanation should be able to give                 the practitioner understanding and some control of        situation; (4) to provide a perspective on behaviour                 – a stance to be taken towards data; and (5) to guide and provide a style for research on particular         areas of behaviour’ (p.3).

“Prediction and explanation” come up several times in these assumptions – these align with the key concepts of positivism. This holds to the view that there is a ‘real view’ of the world – theory is developed on that basis and we can remove our subjectivity, so in reality, GT is positivist.

Slide 5:

  Located where? … possibly conceptual tensions?

  Used in education research, nursing and organisational studies, but also elsewhere

  Has much in common with ethnography, case study, action research

  Rejection of a priori theorising – emergent theory

  Implicit verification-ism

  Not steeped in literature

  Inductive, constructivist approach to data collection

  Imperative to reach saturation, but why?

  Interaction between data collection, analysis and theory building – ‘theory must “fit” the situation being researched’ (p.3)

Features of grounded theory: It is unsure where it sits – there are conceptual tensions. It rejects a priori theorising.

Slide 6:

  ‘Categories must be readily (not forcibly) applicable to and indicated by the data under study; by “work” we mean that they must be meaningfully relevant to and be able to explain the behaviour under study
  … categories are discovered by examination of the data’ (p. 3).
  ‘the adequacy of a theory for sociology today cannot be divorced from the process by which it is generated’ (p.5).

To generate theory…

GT suggests that the meaning/theme is already there, and is not imposed by the self. But how can this be separate? We interact (with our baggage) – they suggest that this doesn’t happen and that the categories are there *before* our interaction.

Slide 8:
  ‘The biographies of scientists are replete with stories of occasional flashes of insight, of seminal ideas, garnered from sources outside the data. But the generation of theory from such insights must then be brought into relation to the data, or there is great danger that theory and the empirical world will mismatch’ (p.6)

What is the ‘empirical world’ – we only know the phenomenal one through our own senses and constructions.
NOTE: The tutor did mention the work of CHarmaz with regard to grounded theory, but suggested that her developments took it away from grounded theory and it was closer to phenomenology.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Stress and coping in first year undergraduates - Denovan and Macaskill

This paper is of interest because of the participants, as well as the methodology. I’ve also tried to look at their excerpts, to try to get a feel for analysing data. It’s hard but sometimes I managed to pick up something which wasn’t in the text (though was probably highlighted in their full analysis of the transcription). IPA is going to be a challenge – and I’m interviewing in three days’ time!

Denovan, A. Macaskill, A. (2013). An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. British Educational Research Journal, 39(6), 1002-1024.


Against the background of increasing student numbers there also appears to be increasing levels of stress.


There is a discussion of models relating to stress, including the transactional model of Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and the updated model (Folkman, 2008).

Transition to university

Transition to HE is stressful for a number of reasons – academic, financial and social. Stress can be reduced by coping mechanisms associated with focussing on problem solving rather than emotions.

Positive psychology

Quantitative studies indicate that optimistic students cope better with the stress of transition. Meijer (2007) suggests that stress felt by students is affected by the “perceived level of guidance from lecturers”. Pekrun et al. (2007) find that students who demonstrate high levels of self-efficacy are more likely to have higher levels of achievement motivation. This, in turn, increases their likelihood of feeling in control of academic tasks.

Qualitative research

Greenbank (2007) found that the transition to more independent study was perceived as stressful. There is some qualitative evidence that positive coping techniques aided transition. The authors identify the role of phenomenology in the in depth exploration of individuals experiencing stress. They go on to link IPA to the area to be explored.



Purposive sampling with the use of a homogeneous sample. The authors discuss the sample size as linked to Smith’s work. They provide a demographic breakdown of the students, to indicate how they relate to national statistics on UK undergraduates.

Interview schedule

Semi-structured and open-ended, non-directive questions to provide deep responses. Use of a ‘vignette’ to develop rapport and put the participant at ease. This is something to consider. The authors identify what the questions focus on. The authors perform a verbatim transcription.


The authors considered the place, ethics, recording and length of the interview process.

Data analysis

The authors gained familiarity with the transcripts through the transcription process, reading and re-reading –immersing themselves in the text. On the left hand margin were written the thoughts, reflections and preliminary codes, with the preliminary themes being recorded on the right hand side. The authors discuss the iterative process the analysis went through. The themes were then grouped, and these were then validated by checking against the text, and these themes were supported with quotes. Each transcript was subjected to the same process, leading to the development of master themes. The themes were verified by the use of a colleague. The researchers do not mention the ‘bracketing’ of findings from prior interviews before starting on a new analysis, which might be considered a failing. There is also no mention of drawing attention to areas of divergence as well as those of convergence. Perhaps, therefore, some of the individuality of the interviews has been lost.


The authors mention several sets of criteria for evaluating the quality of qualitative research. They use Elliott et al.’s (1999) criteria as these are “…rooted within a phenomenological hermeneutic tradition”. I need to have a look at this and explore how it relates to Yardley’s criteria as they seem pretty similar. The criteria include ensuring that the researcher’s perspective is made clear, in depth discussion of the procedures, use of rich data as illustration of themes, the use of a colleague to assess the interpretation of themes, and use of a reflexive journal.


Reflexivity aids transparency and demonstrates how the researcher’s work has been framed by prior experiences and by assumptions and preconceptions.

Results and discussion

Five main themes were drawn out by the authors. These are: all the change; expectations of university; academic focus; support network; difficulties.

Theme 1: All the change

This discusses transitions to independent living. Coping was better in those who planned and prepared for the transition to living away from home. The authors discuss their findings and then draw out the theory associated with the findings.

Homesickness is also discussed within this theme. There is a gradual adjustment and acceptance of the change in their life. Social support aided their adjustment.

I started to look at the excerpts used within this paper, and became interested in one excerpt, where the change in language is apparent. David starts off with the more impersonal ‘you’, talking about living with others, then moves to the personal ‘I’, admitting his struggles. The authors don’t mention this within the discussion, but I’m sure they must have picked up on it in the analysis.

Differences between post-compulsory education and university

Participants initially struggled with independent learning. Once they adjusted to the new methods, they became more confident. Lack of initial feedback was a concern. Greenbank (2007) found that there were increased levels of stress due to the emphasis on independent learning in HE. There is a difference in the level of independent learning required between FE and HE. With increasing student numbers, increased class sizes lead to a more difficult transition. This links to Meijer’s (2007) model where stress is linked to reduced tutor guidance. Research by Greenbank (2007) suggests that there should be greater focus on the development of independent learning skills in FE. Furthermore Urquhart and Pooley (2007) suggest key areas for support. The authors acknowledge that some support in provided in most HEIs.

Theme 2: Expectations

Realistic expectations of university life led to better adjustment to the new environment. More passive approaches or negative thoughts led to issues with transition. A key influence on transition is the information received beforehand, whether from official or unofficial sources. Positive expectations represent optimistic thinking, which aids transition.

Theme 3: Academic focus

The importance of self-discipline is discussed by the respondents, as well as the development of strategies to improve time management led to positive feelings. Goal focus improved motivation. Learning from experience was a theme within the major theme of academic focus: stress was caused by deadlines, especially missed ones caused, for example, by poor time management. Students appeared to learn from their mistakes and acknowledge this. There is a discussion of the role of self-control and self-efficacy.

Theme 4: Support network

Establishing a support network: the participants expressed anxiety over making new friends, and acknowledged isolation in those not making new friends as quickly or as easily as they expected. The findings of other research (Kantanis, 2000) indicated that nearly 50% of first year undergrads hadn’t established a friendship group by the end of the first semester.

Support for coping with the transition came from three sources: family, acting as reassurance; friends, especially those experiencing similar problems; university staff. However, the authors, despite saying that provision of rich data is important in supporting the quality of the themes, do not provide any evidence for this final support group.

Theme 5: Difficulties

Housemates were a major source of difficulties, causing high levels of stress which was ongoing and hard to avoid. A range of coping mechanisms were used. Financial stress was also of concern, with more students working at the same time as studying, and the work/study/life balance being difficult. Within the sub-theme of academic difficulties, the authors (and so, presumably, the students) focus primarily on presentations as stressors. Stress was also incited by exams, though this tends to be short-term.


Transition to HE involves change. This can cause stress. A range of coping mechanisms were used by the participants. Adaptive coping was more effective, leading to positive adjustment. The authors acknowledge limitations such as sample size (though this is appropriate for IPA), and using a single university.

They suggest several potential interventions, which are: interventions to promote autonomy; support networks; preparation classes; support from colleges and schools.


Possible references to explore:

Barter & Reynold (1999) The use of vignettes in qualitative research

Brown, Moerkamp, & Voncken (1999) Facilitating progression to higher education from vocational paths

Elliott, Fischer & Rennie (1999) Evolving guidelines for publication of qualitative research studies in psychology and related fields.

Golsworthy & Coyle (2001) Practitioners’ accounts of religious and spiritual dimensions in bereavement therapy – this looks at reflexivity and how the researcher’s perspective affects interpretation

Greenbank (2007) From foundation to honours degree: the student experience.

Henwood & Pidgeon (1992) Qualitative research and psychological theorizing. This is quality in QMs

Lyons & Coyle (2007) Analysing qualitative data in psychology – about IPA & sense making

Meijer (2007) Correlates of stress in secondary education.

Robotham & Julian (2006). Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature.

Seguin & Ambrosio. (2002). Multicultural vignettes for teacher preparation.

Smith (2003) Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods

Smith & Eatough (2006). IPA in Breakwell et al.’s Research methods in psychology.

Tinto. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition.

Urquhart & Pooley (2007). The transition experience of Australian students to university: the importance of social support.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Note to self - to bracket or not to bracket?

I need to get my head around whether one attempts Husserl's bracketing in IPA. The literature seems inconclusive. I think if I can write down in one place all of the literature I've found relating to the topic, then I can come to some sort of conclusion.

It does not seem clear in Smith et al.'s book on IPA where they sit. They do talk about bracketing but it appears to be a more limited way than espoused by Husserl.

I'll leave the rest of the thinking to another day. I know where my thoughts currently stand. We'll see how the literature guides me.

What makes good quality qualitative research for me?

The first readings I had to complete for my first EdD weekend all revolved around the concept of the validity of research. How do we measure (if indeed we can?) what “good” qualitative research is? There were a range of viewpoints, depending on the philosophical and methodological viewpoints of the authors. I could see that each made sense in its own context. However, I didn’t really have any background understanding to critique the ideas adequately, and nor did I then know which way my own research would take me.

Since then, I’ve made the decision to use IPA, and feel comfortable with the relationship between this and my own views on truth and knowledge. I’ve been thinking back as to how I can ensure the quality of the research I am about to undertake. In my quantitative research past, I’ve been concerned over methods, statistics, reproducibility etc. But now, as they say, for something completely different.

Smith and the other IPA stalwarts discuss quality, but in my limited timescale and support for this small scale research, use of other people to determine whether my interpretations are appropriate is not possible. I’ve seen several papers mention Yardley (2000) in relation to quality, so I’ve had a look at her paper. Her thoughts are interesting and relevant, and above all, achievable in my timescale.

Yardley, L. (2000). Dilemmas in qualitative health research. Psychology and Health, 15(2), 215-228.

The suggested reason for the increase in the use of qualitative methodologies (QMs) in health psychology is that it provides a detailed exploration of the experiences of the participant. Yardley clearly identifies that these are true methodologies, with differing underlying assumptions, rather than just a proliferation of methods of data collection and analysis.

The author highlights the reason for the paper as to how to evaluate qualitative research. She suggests that there is a gap in the understanding of how to evaluate qualitative studies in accredited health psychology. Yardley identifies that qualitative research is defined as ‘not quantitative’, rather than the diverse range of qualitative methodologies having a unified definition. Even within a single tradition, such as phenomenology, there is diversity in its assumptions and approaches.

Yardley suggests that it is the very subjectivity allowed by qualitative work that leads to it being used so extensively. However, because meaning is constructed and negotiate between researcher and participant, the imposition of set criteria for truth would restrict the construction of knowledge and could prejudice particular groups who subscribe to alternative criteria for truth. Therefore, a standardised procedure for performing qualitative methodologies cannot be entertained.

There is a concern in the field of health psychology that QMs most closely resembling quantitative methodologies are gaining precedence over other methods because of familiarity in terms of quality and measurements/assessments of validity. Another concern is a tendency to be drawn towards those methodologies providing a framework within which to complete research, leading to isolated methodologies without the flexibility to understand the benefits of other approaches.

This is something which does niggle away at me. I’m not really fully sure why I chose IPA as a methodology. It seemed ‘right’ for the question I wanted to answer. However, I do wonder whether I am drawn to it because, compared to other methodologies, it seems to provide a ‘process’ through which to work. The guidelines are broad and inclusive, but nevertheless, perhaps I am clinging to the set procedures of quantitative research. Perhaps in later work I should explore some in more detail other areas of phenomenology such as van Manen.

Yardley discusses the issue of quality control, suggesting that we cannot apply quantitative standards of quality, such as representative sampling, reliability and replicability, to QMs. These would be unlikely to be achievable and may also not be desirable. She believes that structured coding and interpretation fashioned by rules means that there is a loss of nuance in the rich data provided by QMs. Nevertheless, a means of ascertaining the quality of qualitative research is needed, so that the work can be judged accordingly.

The author identifies what she believes are four characteristics of good quality research, along with some examples of how these can be achieved. The four characteristics are:

1.       Sensitivity to context;

2.       Commitment and rigour;

3.       Transparency and coherence;

4.       Impact and importance.

Yardley suggests these characteristics but stresses that they are not meant to be applied rigidly. Indeed in order to be useable in a range of QMs they must be flexible.

Sensitivity to context:

The author acknowledges the vital aspect of context within qualitative research. However, whilst it is important to have an understanding of related theories and relevant literature, this knowledge must not cloud the researcher’s interpretation of the data. Areas of divergence from theory must be sufficiently explored, as well as those data which do link the specific study to more abstract theories and generalisations discussed in previous research.

The social and cultural context of participants and researchers must also be considered. Contextualisation of findings can shed new light on meanings. The social context of the data gathering needs to be considered including the shared understandings and conversations between researcher and participant and consideration of the researcher’s position in relation to the participant is vital.

A concern for the perceived power imbalance between researcher and participant is required. Whilst some QMs seek the viewpoint of the participants on the researcher’s interpretations to determine the ‘truth’ of the interpretation (perhaps an example of this is the Patricia Hill Collins reading from week 1), it must be remembered that the opinions of the participant should not over-ride the academic independence of the researcher.


Commitment is suggested through the longer-term involvement of the researcher with the topic being researched, as well as an appropriate ability in the methodology of research and immersion within the data.


This is, Yardley suggests, indicated by the completeness of the data analysis and a sufficient amount of data collection. This will vary depending on the chosen methodology – grounded theory will require more participants than IPA. Within phenomenological research, there should be sufficient depth of interpretation, not just surface level analysis.

Transparency and coherence:

This explores the persuasiveness of the research in constructing a reality. Another area to consider to provide coherence is whether the research question and the philosophical underpinnings of the research are appropriate.

Transparency is achieved through thorough documentation of the process of data collection and analysis and provision of rich data, that is, extensive excerpts. Within IPA, it’s my understanding that this is at least in part provided by the tables of themes and annotated transcripts produced as part of the analysis process. Reflexivity is also needed to demonstrate transparency – identifying the experiences and motivations which underlie the research.

Impact and importance:

The impact of the research is a key factor in determining its value. The value may be theoretical but may also have a wider impact within other fields. There may also be a socio-cultural impact to the research. Yardley suggests that an advantage for QMs in health research is their close link to practice. This would, presumably, be similar within educational research.

Yardley concludes by stressing the importance of integrity in QM, whilst taking into account the diversity of these methodologies.

Further reading?

Stern (1997) Strategies for overcoming the rage of rejection. In Morse (ed.), Completing a qualitative project: details and dialogue (pp. 135-145). This covers how to get over editors rejecting work for publication. Its relevance is, perhaps, stressing that you need to clearly demonstrate to the reviewer/reader how you expect your research to be measured against concepts of quality. If you're explicit, there's less room for misunderstanding.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Panic stations

There's nothing like getting a response to your request for research participants for making you panic. Or is it just me? The research project has suddenly become real, as opposed to just reading about research paradigms and methodologies. I will have to look like I know what I'm doing to a real person, and then transcribe and analyse the interview. Gulp. I hope I can do the student's experiences justice.

Just need one more (assuming that the current respondee is happy to proceed). Assignment hand-in date 10th March. Can it be done in time? The Countdown clock is ticking...

Friday, 15 January 2016

And we're off...

I have received ethical approval for my small scale research project using IPA to explore how students feel their vocational qualifications have supported their academic skills development. Phew. Now the difficult bit - recruiting some students!

And then the hard work really begins - interviews, transcription, close reading and analysis. And I've got a word limit of 8000 words, 4000 of which have to cover my philosophical stance...

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Does vocational training lead towrds or away from HE? Hillmert & Jacob

This paper is based on research completed in Germany. Germany seems to have a more 'joined up' system of academic/vocational education than the UK, with well-developed vocational pathways which lead towards HE. However, it seems all is not perfect in this world, and that VET students may be at a disadvantage. The authors produce a model to discuss the 'returns to education' - the value gained from the education taken. It also looks at social disparity and the effects this has on educational choices. The research is quantitative, but does indicate some useful areas for general consideration and discussion, including thoughts around parental education levels.

Hillmert, S. & Jacob, M. (2003). Social inequality in higher education: Is vocational training a pathway leading to or away from university? European Sociological Review, 19(3), 319-334. Retrieved from


The authors look to examine the effect that an intermediate training alternative has on participation in HE, particularly in relation to social inequality. They develop a model of decision making as to how students transition through education in Germany.

Qualification levels and educational mobility

In Germany there is a marked wage differentiation between those who have studied at university and those with vocational qualifications, which is greater than the difference between those with VET and with no training.

The authors are interested in patterns of combinations of training and education in Germany, particularly with the increasing numbers of students attending HE ho have previously taken VET. The authors note the effect of parental education levels on the likelihood of children studying at HE level.

The theoretical model

Previous research suggests that different factors affect the participant at different choice points in their educational career. The authors use an individual decision model to explain the patterns in educational differences. Previous studies have highlighted 'risk aversion' as a rational way of decision making about education choices. The authors go further than previous models, discussing the effects of family origin.

The authors suggest that the route of vocational training followed by HE is less risky than an either/or choice of HE or joining the workforce immediately after school - the people have an 'insurance policy' of their vocational training to fall back on should their HE experience end in failure. They suggest that school-leavers calculate the outcomes of the different scenarios and make a rational choice based on their expectations for success.

Social inequality and educational systems

"Parents' education and income are strong predictors of the children's educational behaviour" (p. 329).

Summary and outlook

This is a theoretical model, although empirical data have been used to support it. However, the model provides information on how variables such as parental education and income interact. The authors identify study limitations such as basing the model on the concept of individual choice.

Why am I reading this?
I'm not sure how I came to this paper, perhaps solely by exploring literature around transition and VET.

What are the authors trying to do in writing this?
Produce a theoretical model which explores the choices made with regard to transition from school to vocational and/or HE. They seek to explain the choices made, and the effects of social inequality on access to HE.

What are they saying that is relevant to what I want to find out?
Not a lot really. Interesting general read but of no direct value to assignment one, except to perhaps consider asking about parental education. However, this would only be a scene-setting question rather than something I'm seeking to explore in my interview. Maybe I only reviewed this paper because I picked it up ages ago before my reading had become more focussed :-/

How convincing is what the authors are saying?
The authors are generally convincing in their specific methodology, although (as I suppose many  theoretical models are) it does seem very simplistic.

In conclusion, what use can I make of this?
Not a lot. Background reading. Perhaps consider parental education levels.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

An interesting discussion on different phenomenological methods - Finlay (2009)

This text is handy as it gives an analysis of several types of phenomenology within one paper. It has helped situate me more clearly within hermeneutic phenomenology. I need to take a bit of time to read Giorgi, however, so that I can understand and engage with his objections to IPA (and most other forms of phenomenology, it seems...)

Finlay, L. (2009). Debating phenomenological research methods. Phenomenology and Practice, 3(1), 6-25.


There is great diversity in phenomenological research,however, all phenomenological researcher wish to gain rich description of lived experience. There is much debate over different methods, some of which appears unduly critical. The author highlights six questions to discuss in this paper, in order to help develop dialogue rather than diatribe between different approaches.

What counts as phenomenology?

There area great any methods and techniques described as phenomenological. Psychological phenomenology, according to Giorgi (1989) has four core characteristics:
  1. the research is descriptive
  2. it uses phenomenological reductions
  3. explores the intentional relationship between persons and situations
  4. discloses the essences of meaning in human experience
However, there are a range of variations: open lifeworld approach of Dahlberg et al., van Manen's lived experience human science enquiry based on University of Utrecht tradition, Hallig et al.'s dialogic approach, the Dallas approach (Garza, 2007), Todres' embodied lifeworld approach and Ashworth's lifeworld approach.

Other phenomenological methods do not explicitly use Husserlian techniques such as eidetic variation, such as Smith's IPA. Smith, whilst claiming the method to be phenomenological, also identifies with hermeneutics, recognising the essential role of the researcher. This author suggests that Smith (2004) does not advocate the use of bracketing.

The discussion/argument over what qualifies as phenomenological frequently stems from disagreement over whether it follows the Husserlian viewpoint or not. Further, confusion is compounded when there is a mixing of philosophies and viewpoints, for example using Husserlian philosophy but perhaps being Heideggerian in acknowledging the role of the researcher's own experience, rather then reduction.

Finlay's definition of phenomenological research is work that provides rich description of experience, where the researcher adopts an open phenomenological attitude, setting aside judgements and initially avoiding theoretical frameworks. She also requires that the researcher follows a consistent philosophy/methodology.

General description or idiographic analysis?

There is disagreement over the focus of phenomenological research. Those of the Husserlian tradition, such as Giorgi seek the universal 'essences' of a phenomenon. Idiographic details are of no importance once analysis has been completed. For other researchers, idiographic meanings are of importance, whether or not they lead to generalisations. Smith (from other reading) believes that IPA must concentrate on the individual - generalisations may be made, but not at the loss of view of the individual. Halling (2008) follows the middle ground, suggesting that idiographic experiences can also illuminate more general structures of experience. Halling suggests following three levels of analysis: firstly looking at one person's experience of a phenomenon; secondly they explore those themes common to the phenomenon. Finally, they explore the philosophical and universal experiences of the phenomenon, moving between experience and abstraction as the researcher analyses the data.

Description or interpretation?

Phenomenological research starts through a description of a person's experiences. The researcher then analyses these data to identify themes, drawing out implicit meanings as well as those that are explicit. The area of discussing implicit meanings in the data is where the researcher can move from description to interpretation.

There is frequently a delineation between descriptive phenomenology and interpretive (hermeneutic) phenomenology. Husserlian (descriptive) phenomenology stays close to the text and only make assertions that can be intuitively clearly drawn from the data. The users of interpretive phenomenology argue that interpretation cannot be separated from the description, it is an integral part of our 'being-in-the-world'. The data are already interpreted through the participant, and then through the researcher.

Finlay argues that there is a continuum between description and interpretation, upon which phenomenological research all sits. van Manen (1990) discusses that there is a greater level of interpretation in studies where nonverbal aspects are of greater importance, as well as when using other types of data such as artwork. van Manen finds it important to clarify the difference between interpretation that draws attention to a concept and interpretation that imposes an external framework on the description, developing Gadamer's ideas. Wertz (2005) suggests that interpretation is valid, so as to place the ideas within the whole, but the interpretation must remain grounded within the data.

Researcher subjectivity

All phenomenological research is characterised by the connections between the researcher and the researched. However, there are differences in how this subjectivity is acknowledged. Whichever form of phenomenology one use, it is vital to be open to the "other" and retain an open attitude.

The key difference between phenomenologists is whether the subjective experiences of the researcher are brought to the foreground and explored. Those following the Husserlian tradition seek to perform reduction, to reduce the influence the researcher has on the phenomenon. Researchers must bracket their preconceptions and past knowledge on the phenomenon.  This "setting aside"  must take place throughout the research, not just at the beginning.

Hermeneutic phenomenologists suggest that it is not possible to bracket one's experiences, but instead it is important to acknowledge one's pre-existing beliefs, and question them if new evidence comes to light. Within this field, subjectivity is placed in the foreground, so that one can recognise biases, whilst being open to the 'other' (Gadamer, 1975). In reality, this means the researcher must shift between a focus on personal assumptions and then returning to theparticipant's experiences with fresh eyes. However, navel-gazing must be avoided - it is the participant's experience which should be privileged, not the researcher's. Finlay discusses Merleau-Ponty's (1968) idea of a co-creation of data through the dialogic encounter of the interview.

Science or art?

Giorgi posits phenomenology as a human science, being systematic, methodological, general, and critical. However, others suggest that it can have close links with art as well as science. There is disagreement over the relative importance of the two elements.

Giorgi (2008) stresses the importance of maintaining scientific rigour, through systematic processes deeply based on the data. Other phenomenologists look to more artistic interpretations such as literary prose, art and poetry. Finlay tells us to  look to our audience and determine how our argument can best be made.

Modern or postmodern paradigms?

Finlay discusses the confusion over which paradigm phenomenology sits within. These paradigms don't seem to be in accord with those we've looked at. Giorgi suggests that his phenomenology comes from a grounded critical realist tradition, but with its roots in Husserlian phenomenology, it could be argues that his views sit within a naturalistic paradigm.

This discussion of where phenomenology sits is confused not least by the differing definitions of postmodernism.


Phenomenology is adaptable.

Further reading

Gadamer (1975) Truth and method

Giorgi (1989) One type of analysis of descriptive data: procedures involved in following a phenomenological method.

Giorgi (1997) The theory, practice and evaluation of the phenomenological method as a qualitative research procedure

Giorgi (2008) Concerning a serious misunderstanding of the essence of the phenomenological method in psychology

Halling (2008) Intimacy, transcendence and psychology: closeness and openness in everyday life

van Manen (1990) Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy.

Wertz (2005) Phenomenological research methods for counselling psychology

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Use of IPA in education: Cooper, Fleischer and Cotton (2012)

This paper uses IPA to explore how students experience the learning of qualitative research techniques. It has some useful information on quality control, and talks through the process of undertaking IPA. I've not gone into details of the theory surrounding the topic, as it doesn't relate to my interests, although the use of IPA in an education setting does. The researchers do not discuss the philosophical underpinnings of their research, but the use of IPA relating to the lives experience is mentioned, so it appears an appropriate method.

Cooper, R., Fleischer, A., & Cotton, F. A. (2012). Building connections: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of qualitative research students' learning experiences. The Qualitative Report, 17(1), 1-16.

This research, according to the authors differs from previous research by looking at students from a range of academic fields, learning a range of different qualitative techniques rather than concentrating on one academic field or one type of qualitative research.


Research design

The authors used a qualitative method to gather rich data, from which to draw themes and theoretical structures. The research centred around how students make sense of their experiences in learning qualitative research.


Purposive (though they use 'purposeful'). Six respondents, with data saturation claimed at that point.

Data collection

Semi-structured in-depth telephone interviews.

Data analysis

Transcription followed by reading and re-reading. Initial noting, including descriptive, linguistic and conceptual comments. Then analysis across respondents, once individual respondents were exhausted.


The researchers bracketed their biases and prior knowledge - through bracketing interviews, the maintenance of a research journal to identify and bracket biases. The authors use a quote from Hein & Austin (2001, p. 5) about setting aside biases. However, I've also read an acknowledgement that this can't be done in reality and that this isn't what Husserl meant - I'll have to check where I read that.
They also discuss ethics within this section.


Findings reflect the lived experience and meaning of the process of learning qualitative research processes. They also discuss the use of double hermeneutic approach. The researchers identified five themes through their analysis: emotions, active learning,  pivotal experience, the role of story, impact of prior experience and knowledge. The authors mention that the focus in phenomenology is on the common elements of the phenomenon rather than on the individual.. However, this is at odds with the stress that Smith lays on the story and experiences of the individual in IPA, whose story should not be subsumed within the generalisations to come to wider essences. The sentence here tends to sound more like Husserl's phenomenology that Smith's IPA.

Theme 1: The experience of learning qualitative research inspires a range of emotions

I can identify with the feelings of the students - perhaps these are universal essences! Panic, elation.

Theme 2: Learning qualitative research requires active learning

Learning by doing.

Theme 3: A pivotal experience plays a role in motivating students to learn qualitative research

A pivotal experience served as a catalyst in their learning methods; often this was a moment of connection - with a method, with a person.

Theme 4: Story plays a central role in the experience of learning qualitative research

Listening to stories shared during interviews, memories of learning from stories as a child.

Theme 5: Students make meaning of their experience of learning qualitative research by relating it to their prior research knowledge and experience

Summary of results: Building connections

Learning qualitative research is a process of building connections, broadening understanding and opening up new vistas.


Support of previous findings, whilst identifying new ones. Discussion of  limitations: study participants all have prior experience of qualitative methods, all from a single university.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Development of IPA - Smith (2004)

This paper has been referred to in a couple of papers I've read. Seeing as it was Smith who originally developed IPA, it's probably important for me to get a thorough understanding of his viewpoints. I'll also need to gain an understanding of some of the criticisms levelled at Smith and his technique - Giorgi seems to lead on this.

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), 39-54.


IPA is has become well established in qualitative psychology, especially within the UK. IPA is composed of three broad elements: an epistemological position, a set of guidelines for conducting research and as a description of a corpus of empirical research.

The theoretical position of IPA is to explore in detail the lived experience of individuals and how the individual makes sense of the personal experience. IPA is phenomenological because it concentrates on individuals' perception of experiences, but further than this, the researcher has a key role in interpreting the lived experience, as relates to the hermeneutic tradition. Indeed, Smith suggests the use of a double hermeneutic - the participant attempts to make sense of the experience and the researcher seeks to make sense of the participant as they attempt to make sense of their world. Smith acknowledges that IPA a distinctive epistemological or methodological position, suggesting that it is closely allied to a range of similar approaches, such as those of Ashworth (1999), Benner (1994), Giorgi (1985), Halling (1994), Moustakas (1994) and van Manen (2002). Smith says that there will be a discussion of IPA in relation to these other approaches in a subsequent paper. There is then a discussion of its role in cognitive psychology, and indeed, a discussion of what is meant by cognitive psychology.

The characteristic features of IPA

1. Idiographic
IPA begins with the detailed examination of one case until further meaning cannot be gained, before moving on to another Only after full analysis of individual cases is complete are they analysed as a group, to develop themes for convergence and divergence between cases.

Only a small number of individuals are used, as the process is detailed - see Smith & Osborn (2003) for a discussion of the sampling rationale. The key process of IPA is to write the analysis in a way that allows the reader to parse it in two different ways:

a. For the themes which have emerged and which the participants share (but illustrate in particular ways)
b. For the individual's own account, through the linking of data from that individual through the write-up.

This allows the reader to develop an understanding both of more general themes and those pertinent to one individual's experiences. This is in contrast to nomothetic qualitative research, where group level claims are explored.

Smith does suggest the possibility of using IPA to explore an individual, as a case study, if the data are sufficiently rich. Smith suggests that a deep exploration of an individual can lead us to more universal truths, linking the idiography of IPA to Husserlian phenomenology, seeking a more general human 'essence' of an experience.

2. Inductive

IPA techniques are flexible, to allow for the development of emerging themes within the data collection and analysis. Broad research questions are constructed, to allow for this, and may become modified during the research process.

3. Interrogative
Unlike much phenomenological research, analysis of the case studies is followed by a discussion of the findings in relation to other relevant literature, for example discussing theories which may relate to the data.

Levels of interpretation

IPA operates at a level which is clearly grounded in the text but which also moves beyond the text to a more interpretative level. However, different levels of interpretation are possible. Smith gives a useful example of this in relation to a women talking about chronic back pain. The different levels are identified by him as:
1. Social comparison
2. Use of metaphor as self-image
3. Struggle over the development of a new self, as indicated by changes in tense during the extract

Smith argues that within the bounds of IPA other forms of analysis should not be overlayed, for example psychodynamic theory. This is unlikely to be something I would do! If one does draw on a more theoretical account to assist the analysis, it is important to couch the discussion in more speculative language because of the distance between the text and the interpretation. Links to more formal theories can be suggested, but after the close textual analysis and guided by the emerging analysis.

Generally beginning researchers would be expected to be working at level 1 or occasionally level 2 analysis

Checking boundaries: domains, topics and constructs

Smith declares emphatically that IPA is not just suitable for health psychology. He goes into some detail of its history in this field. In general, IPA is used to explore existential issues of participants which are of import to the researcher. Many studies can be identified as linking to the super-ordinate theme of identity.

Expanding horizons: type of participant, type of data collection

Most IPA studies have been conducted within individual, semi-structured interviews with English speaking adults. Smith speculates how this can be developed to include those for whom English is not their first language, children and people with learning disabilities. This may require gentle probing, in addition to the semi-structured questions, as well as perhaps getting to know the participants prior to the interview.

Smith counters the critique of others that IPA (and qualitative methods in general) require a level of articulacy more common in the middle classes.

There then follows a discussion of methods of data collection. whilst the individual semi-structured interview is most common, this is not the only means of gathering data. Written records such as diaries can be used. Smith discusses the potential use of focus groups but stresses the further analysis required to ensure that the individual's voice is heard, due to the ideographic basis of IPA.

Concluding comments on future developments in IPA

Smiths draws together key thoughts from the paper:

1. IPA has an ideographic commitment to the individual; he suggests that a single case study can be done. There is the possibility of developing the microtextual analysis of small excerpts of text, which will inform the emerging analysis of the study as a whole.
2. The use of IPA can be developed both in the methods of data collection and the populations studied.
3. As IPA is sued more widely, Smith suggests a consideration of the patterns which emerge, to determine whether there is the development of core constructs.
4. It is important to critically discuss IPA in relation to other phenomenological methods, to determine similarities and differences, and how these influence the nature of studies and their analysis.

Further reading:

Ashworth (1999) Bracketing in phenomenology: renouncing assumptions in hearing about student cheating
Benner (1994) (Ed.) Interpretative phenomenology

Giorgi (1985) Phenomenology and psychological research

Halling (1994) Embracing human fallibility: on forgiving oneself and forgiving others

Moustakas (1994) Phenomenological research methods

Smith & Osborn (2003) IPA in Smith's Qualitative psychology: a practical guide to research methods - see for sampling rationale.

van Manen (2002) Writing in the dark:  phenomenological studies in interpretive enquiry