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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/1478088704qp004oa
IntroductionIPA 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 IPA1. 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.
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.
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 interpretationIPA 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 constructsSmith 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 collectionMost 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 IPASmiths 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