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

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