The initial premise of their work was to relate theories of organization to their wider context. Their map, whilst originally developed around organisational theory, raises broader questions around nature and science. Questioning fundamental assumptions around ontology, epistemology, human nature and methodology, the model proposed pivots around two meta-theoretical assumptions about the nature of the society and the nature of social science. The debate (they choose) around the nature of social science is objectivity versus subjectivity. The society debate lies around regulation versus radical change. Given these two broad axes: the subjective – objective spectrum of social science and the regulatory – radical change spectrum of society, Burrell and Morgan conceive of four paradigms. The term paradigm, itself, is problematic but they use it to mean the commonality of perspective which binds theoretical work together. Thus, the paradigms (here) are defined by the metatheoretical assumptions about the theorising and modus operandi of the theorists who work under this problematic. Each set identifies a separate social scientific reality. Of the four paradigms we are interested in the interpretive paradigm which is allied with social theories which see the social world as stable (versus radical change) and privileges subjectivity – individual interpretation rather than an objective view. This paradigm seeks to explain the stability of behaviour from the individual's viewpoint. Researchers in this paradigm try to observe on-going processes to better understand individual behaviour and the spiritual nature of the world. In essence then, phenemenologists.
In terms of locating this approach in contemporary maps of qualitative research, a commonly utilised model is that given by Guba and Lincoln. Guba and Lincoln (2005) identify five main paradigms of contemporary qualitative research: positivism, postpositivism, critical theories, constructivism/ and participatory/cooperative paradigms. Each of the paradigms listed by Guba and Lincoln are characterized by axiomatic differences in axiology (the value of the research) intended action of research, control of research process/outcomes, relationship to foundations of truth and knowledge, validity, textual representation and voice of the researcher/participants, and commensurability with other paradigms. Rather than try to position phenomenology within one of these paradigms, we will try and unpack what these distinctions mean for the phenomenologist.
Defining and mapping phenomenology as an approach
Bogdan and Taylor (1975) noticed early the potential for qualitative methods, through them, we learn about people we would not otherwise know. ‘We hear them speak about themselves and their experiences and, though we do not accept their perspectives as truth, develop an empathy which allows us to see the world from their points of view’. (p.9). The distinctiveness of phenomenological research specifically is that it offers the ability to explore the diversity and variability of human experience in all its complexity from first person accounts, with intention to gain new understandings of how the world is understood and experienced, from those actually experiencing the phenomena of interest. Willig who was interested in exploring ‘…the meaning and significance of an embodied experience’ (2007:209) demonstrates how using Colaizzi’s descriptive method to explore the experience of taking part in extreme sport, allowed, ‘... genuinely new and surprising insights to emerge from participant’s accounts of their subjective experience.’ (2007:217).
There are common features within the broad and complex school that is phenomenology and which distinguish it from other approaches. Firstly, from a phenomenological viewpoint, the world of subjects and objects cannot be separated from our experience of it. Whilst we may locate ourselves (as humans) distinct from objects in our world, these objects present themselves to us, and we experience them as something. The appearance of this object is dependent upon intentionality – the perceiver’s location, context, angle and mental orientation (e.g. desires, wishes, judgements, emotions, aims and purposes).
Michalko (2010) writes as a blind disability theorist and demonstrates the vitality of pheneomenological theory. He notes that sighted people tend to dislike mundane tasks such as dusting- they are visually reminded that objects need dusting. . There is a need to dust and many objects gather dust, however few like doing it and see it as a chore, or may pay others to do it. For Michalko (op cit), the act of dusting is intrinsically tied to the stuff that needs dusting. Stuff that needs dusting can be found everywhere and for a blind person presents an opportunity to connect with the material. The feeling at home experience afforded to a sighted person is of being surrounded visually by artifacts (clean or in need of dusting). One knows one is at home through being surrounded with familiar stuff. It is probable that the artefacts (stuff) that one has in one’s home contains souvenirs and mementos from holiday, personal and familial photos, cards, gifts from others. For most people, however, the primary mode of coming into contact with their stuff is through seeing – an equivalent to touch with the eyes. For Michalko, this recognition comes through touching where the meaning of the object is embedded in the act of touching and knowing. The practice of touching here connects the person and the object in knowing and belonging. Dusting here is a practice of understanding and connecting with what may be termed the lifeworld.
Another clear demonstration of how intentionality shapes understanding and experience comes from Willig’s review of Langdridge’s (2007) text. She was enthusiastic about the book that she was already making use of and indeed recommending to students and thus initially keen to write the review. However, once her aim and purpose became that of a critic, rather than a teacher, she ‘read’ the book quite differently. Reflecting on this shift she claims, ‘... intentionality made all the difference! After all, it is not really possible to review the 'book' itself (as object); instead, the 'review' arises from, and tells us about, the relationship between the reviewer and the book’ (2008:429).This relationality between the subject/perceiver/toucher and the object is a very different feature of phenomenological theory.
Secondly, no other perspective in psychology focuses on people’s lived experience as phenomenology does. The aim is to gain an understanding of the participants’ lived experiences in their own terms, to focus on the uniqueness of experience from the point of view of those who live it. ‘‘Phenomenology takes accounts at face value in that it treats them as an expression of experience itself ‘ (Willig 2007:210). Sometimes universal features, or essences of the lived experience are sought (see Woodgate, 2006), other times followers of Husserl seek the common features, or essence of the phenomenon, rather than the experience (see Wade 2006). In the literature there is considerable variance and lack of clarification of the term - lived experience. The intention is, via exposure to the participants’ accounts of experience, mediated by the research process and the researcher, to gain a deep and useful understanding of the phenomena of interest.
Michalko (1999) in recounting his relationship with Smokie, his guide dog developed the notion of the two in one (together as one yet distinct species, both in some ways alienated from society).
‘Smokie, decides how we will get where we are going in the midst of human society. His judgement take me and my blindness into account He is not going anywhere: we are. He bases his judgement of the best way to a destination not on what is best for him or for me, but what is best for us Smokie has also turned my blindness into a occasion for me. With Smokie I see a world which has never been seen by a sighted person. Alone together, Smokie and I decide what is best for us in a sighted human world, a world with which we are familiar but from which we are estranged’ (Michalko 1999;106)
Here, the essence of the lived experience is communicated as sensory uniqueness of being a blind person and a sighted guide dog, together as two-in-one. The livedness of this experience is unique to the writer and his construal of it is central to making sense of it. We may empathise with this construal and imagine this experience but it belongs to the writer.
Another distinctive and much contested feature of phenomenology is the setting aside of researcher reality, theoretical and other meaning giving structures, often referred to as an ‘attitude of openness’ or ‘empathy’ throughout the research process in order to allow the participants’ lived reality to emerge. This setting aside, epoche (bracketing) or phenomenological reduction is never completely achievable, in our view, and it is here, in the level of openness and interpretation that is acceptable and involved in practice that much of the variance and tensions within the perspective arise (more of this later). Various schools of phenomenology approach the possibility of epoche and reduction rather differently.
Individual subjectivity or lived experience is understood by many phenomenologists as the lifeworld that we are all immersed in which is highly personal and it is this individuality that is key. However, all lifeworlds are understood as including some common features such as, embodiment, spatiality, intersubjectivity, temporality and selfhood (Ashworth 2003a). Some general definitions of these terms may help;
Embodiment: It is through our bodies, our felt sense, or the subjective meanings of the lived experience of the body that we communicate with and come to know and understand our world.
Spatiality: Our space includes other people, a variety of natural and cultural objects and of course cultural institutions. Toombs, highlights how lived space impacts on the quality of experience, ‘the subjective feeling of space is intimately related both to one’s bodily capacities and the design of the surrounding world’ (2001:249). More specifically Van Manen suggests that it is, ‘... the nature of lived space that renders that particular experience its quality of meaning’ (1997:102).
Intersubjectivity: It is through intersubjective experience, connection with others that we gain an understanding of the social world; individual subjectivity is formed in an ongoing process of exchange and interaction with others (Grunwald & Thiersch 2009:5). Although the focus is on individual experience of intersubjectivity we recognise that collective forms of subjectivity, such as ethnicity, culture and religion also impact on how relations with others are played out and experienced.
Temporality: an awareness of finiteness of life, of lived time and time left to live. Self project refers to the ways in which we engage in ongoing projects which change and transform the self. Finlay and Molano-Fisher (2008) show the changing life world of a woman, following a cochlear impact, and how this shift impact upon her notions of self.
A worked example here will help unpack what temporality, spatiality and other terms mean.
Temporality and spatiality are prominent features of Roxy’s narrative which appears at the beginning of this chapter. First temporality, there is a real sense of time past - we weren’t brought up living in a house - being part of time present, of her earlier experiencing being absorbed by her and shaping her current experiencing - I crave greenery - I spend half my life opening doors and windows, trying to get rid of the airless, claustrophobic feeling that comes with being inside - and the sense of heightened awareness of what seem to be experienced as intrusive noises - I get woken up by bin lorries, the rush-hour traffic and my neighbours shouting, rather than the more familiar, natural (and no doubt gentler) noises of her childhood - of birdsong and the wind in the trees.
In terms of spatiality she writes of - feeling trapped - within her flat, of trying to gain the space she had as a child by living - near the sea because it gives me some sense of openness and freedom. The whole piece paints a textured picture of something that many of us take for granted, living in a built environment, being for Roxy - bizarre and alien. Finally she claims that - my instinct is to travel - but recognises that - to reach my dream, I have to put down roots. Her self project requires that she locates herself within the built environment and all that that means to her.
Locating the phenomenological approach in terms of ontology, epistemology, methodology and positionality Willig (2008) proposes that asking questions about methodology allows us to identify the epistemological and ontological roots. If we take each question in turn this may help us entangle this approach.
First, what kind of knowledge does the methodology aim to produce? For phenomenology, knowledge is messy in that it is neither realist (assuming there is some direct access to reality) nor relativist (assuming that all knowledge is constructed). Phenomenology occupies a position somewhere in between these approaches which takes on board that knowledge/experience is always at some level constructed and interpreted although it is for the person ‘real’. The epistemological position of interpretive phenomenology then is one of ‘critical realism’ (Willig1999) which maintains a central focus on the ways in which people make meaning of their experience, whilst being aware of the influences that broader social structures have on those meanings. Whereas descriptive phenomenology, after Husserl is more realist. The aim is to ‘give voice’ to participants. However, their’ ‘voice’ is always mediated through the research process and the researcher/s understandings. Researchers play an active role in analysis, in identifying and presenting patterns and themes, themes do not naturally emerge from the data (Taylor & Ussher 2001), thus interpretation is to some degree an inevitable feature of the findings. Descriptive phenomenologists would not see their analysis as mediated through the research process because in a purist research process engagement with the epoché and the phenomenological reduction would prevent this, allowing them to see the world ‘in its appearing’. For a recent account of these distinctions, see Finlay (2009) which debates differing construals of phenomenological practice.
An example helps shed light on this voice giving, although here, it is the writer who is constructing a phenomenology of blindness. A leading disability theorist (Michalko) writes about blindedness and sightedness(from an insider perspective) using phenomenological lens. Michalko (1999) argues that the experience of being disabled is of course a real phenomenon which has real effects living in a dominant sighted world. However, the construction of blindness as an impairment occurs both for him and the wider society which positions him often as a person in need of being handled, ‘helped’ to cross the road or offered money if standing alone. The knowledge about being blind for Michalko is both a product of his actual experience and his knowledge of how it is viewed and treated in a wider sense. In this account he is both researcher/ theorist and participant.
For Michalko, and for us, guide dogs are inexorably tied to blindness, we cannot see guide dogs without interpreting the need for them – i.e. blindness.
“ Me? Are you talking to me?’
“Yep. Is that one of those blind dogs?”
“Jeez, I hope not” (Michalko 1999: 41)
Here the dog in harness, leading, brings the observer to query the status of the dog. Of course the dog is not blind but the observer reads the cues and uses familiar constructions of blindness and guide dogs to wrongly label the dog as blind. The kinds of knowledge produced by phenomenological approaches are either first person accounts, co-constructed accounts between researcher and the researched, or accounts around first person experience but analysed by researchers.
Second, what kinds of assumptions does the methodology make about the world? This question is about ontology – what is there to know and what is the nature of the thing we are trying to know? Taking on board the idea that experience is primary, this approach focuses on the consciousness of experience. The Greek word phainomenon means ‘how things appear’ and here reality is important for the person who is having the experience. For the phenomenologist the lived experience, from the view of those who live it, is central although there is acceptance that people can be in the same setting and experience this differently. These individual realities are understood as multiple, subtle constructions which are both socially and experientially based, as well as local and specific in nature ( Denzin and Lincoln 2000; Guba and Lincoln 1994). A further assumption is that these individual subjectivies or realities are often understood as lifeworlds (see above).
An example here of the utilty of the lifeworld, comes from Thome, Esbensen, Dykes and Hallberg (2004) who explored the meaning of living with cancer in old age for ten participants aged 75 plus, using Van Manen’s (2001) phenomenological method. The four essential themes of the lived experience identified within the accounts of these ten participants were understood in terms of lifeworld features. The researchers revealed how the lived body (embodiment) was disturbed by fatigue, loss of bodily capacity and bodily discomfort. That participants’ available lived space (spatiality) was much reduced and that their illness had brought with it ‘a sudden awareness of the finiteness of life… leading to a reorientation in present time’ (2004:5) (temporality). Finally, intersubjectivity was evident in their renewed closeness with family and friends which seemed to give new meaning to the illness and gave participants strength. These insights of experience, gained from those actually living with cancer provided new understandings to health care professionals about how best to meet with, be with and support people in their ‘disintegrated life situation’ (2004:1) A very different study by Roxberg , Dahlberg, Stolt and Fridlund, of survivors accounts of the tsunami catastrophe demonstrates that the participants’ experienced a heightened awareness of time as embedded and lived now (temporality) when the tsunami cut through their taken for granted view of the world and caused disruption and turmoil, according to the authors ’… the theoretical and methodological framework made it possible to some extent to reveal the invisible threads between the world of the victims and the world of the tsunami catastrophe’ (2009:26). The tsunami seemed to survivors to be ‘timeless’ with features of motion, both of the waves and the disorder felt, of stillness, characterized by endless waiting and shifts in perspective from focusing on helping themselves and others to a complete lack of understanding of what had happened, compounded by the lack of information. The nature of the knowledge in phenomenological lens is brought to life through features highlighted above, such as temporality and intersubjecivity.
Third, how does the methodology conceptualise the role of the researcher in the research process? In traditional phenomenological practice the idea of the researcher is one where the participant’s lifeworld is understood through bracketing off or epoché. This requires the researcher to set aside assumptions, judgements and prior interpretations before immersing oneself fully in the data. This positionality is not without critics and certain forms of analysis, such as IPA do not advocate this. A creative piece of research by King et al (2008) allows us to see the importance of positionality, of how different positioning within phenomenology, and different uses of bracketing or phenomenological reduction together with underlying assumptions affect findings. Five phenomenologist researchers analysed a single detailed narrative of the experience of mistrust within an organizational setting, the only agreement was that the analysis should be descriptive, that is, not offering explanation or cause. Between them they produce a consensual analysis with many links to lifeworld features, which is exactly what is expected. However what is interesting for us here, is that they ‘...demonstrate how different approaches can usefully draw out different meanings’ (96). King and Smith, who both position themselves as interpretive phenomenologists focus on Kath’s use of metaphor, supported by symbolism as this was seen by them as most striking, in order to reveal her experiences of organisational mistrust, essentially that she experienced colleagues within her institutional context as both a ‘small and silly nest of chickens’ and simultaneously as a ‘dangerous and malevolent nest of vipers’. Butt and Langdridge on the other hand, distance themselves from the realist notion that the interview narrative produced came ‘ … from within the research participant’ (92). Instead working with it as a narrative jointly produced during the process of the interview, they each explore the ‘rhetorical structure of the mistrust narrative’. In their connected individual commentaries they highlight Kath’s resistance to being positioned as client within the interview and suggest that this may be due to Kath’s need to take responsibility for her actions. They also track Kath’s changing tone through the narrative from relatively neutral to one that becomes more ‘brave and battling’ in response to the interviewer’s construction of Kath’s situation. Finally, Finlay who positions herself as an existential-hermeneutic phenomenologist and who was the only one to meet Kath and work with her face to face, focuses on embodied intersubjectivity. Finlay also understands the narrative as co-constructed within the process yet accepts that it also reflects Kath’s meanings, which positions Finlay somewhere between realism and relativism. However, she reveals how her felt sense, or embodied empathic reaction to Kath’s evolving story facilitated her understanding. She argues that her sense of closing down, reducing to a paler version of herself mirrored Kath’s own felt sense as she recounted her experiences. ‘The crucial question is to what extent was I reflecting Kath’s response or was it my own self creation?’ (96). One narrative with a variety of phenomenological readings which have produced rich yet inevitably partial understandings of Kath’s life world. The authors, while acknowledging shortcomings, claim to have glimpsed and represented something of Kath’s meanings around her experience of organisational mistrust.
The definitions of reflexivity within qualitative research are necessarily rich although phenomenology, with its emphasis on experience, forefronts how the researcher can and should position oneself in relation to the data.
Phenomenology as method Whilst tenets of phenomenology have filtered into many qualitative approaches, we here outline what is distinctive in gathering data and analyzing it.
Much of the published work on phenomenology seems to feature issues related to health and illness or disruption. This is interesting as it begs the question as to why? Is it difference that excites and hence work privileges that which is not normal to us (ill health, disability, ‘abnormality’, crisis)? Alternatively is it shifts in experience- the changing status of a medical condition, the ageing process, being in the midst of a crisis - which remind us to feel and think differently.
Details of methodological decisions which are driven by philosophical assumptions are often not clearly articulated in research papers, which promotes the unhelpful notion of the free floating method. This idea that methods stand alone and can be applied to data is critiqued as technicist and value free (Hughes, 1997;Parker 2008). Philosophical grounding and the rationales for decisions made through the process of the research need to be made transparent. This enables readers to have an understanding of how the findings have been produced and how the study might be evaluated.
When gathering data, all phenomenologists aim to gain the richest possible account of subjective experience from the participant in order to enable the depth and complexities of experience to be revealed and thus ultimately strengthen the authenticity of findings. To achieve this researchers adopt an attitude of openness throughout the research. Finlay maintains that an ‘… open phenomenological attitude … enables me to be curious and ready to be surprised ‘(2008:1000). The most popular data collection method is the one to one in-depth interview, based around few open ended questions or topics, although any first-hand accounts may be used. For example, Roxberg et al (2009) used Swedish television footage of survivors talking of their experiences of the 2004 tsunami as it took place in Thailand, which had the advantage of immediacy, of participants being in the world of the tsunami experience as they spoke, and the disadvantage of lack of engagement between researchers and participants. Initially researcher attitude of openness needs to be empathic, meeting and being with the participants in a non censorial manner in order to gain access to the participants’ reality as understood by them. It is a matter of encouraging participants to tell their story of experience in as much detail as they wish and are able to. This attitude, is succinctly expressed by King, Finlay, Ashworth, Smith, Langdridge and Butt, ’The interviewer, Linda, aimed to be a non judgmental, sensitive listener and to promote natural, spontaneous conversation’ (2008:84).
Whilst descriptive approached tend to use participant’s written descriptions f one concrete experience rather than interviews whereas the interpretive approach favours interviews. Here, it is in the way the data both gathered and treated that descriptive and interpretive methods differ most strikingly. Having highlighted the importance of the philosophical base of the approach we will follow good practice and outline the background philosophy of descriptive and interpretive traditions before directing you to some good examples of recent research which illustrate some of the different phenomenological positions.
First the descriptive tradition after Husserl, the focus here is to reveal the lived experience of those being studied, without any researcher interpretation. To achieve this lack of bias the researcher must achieve the Husserlian concept of transcendental subjectivity via use of epoche. Husserl called for epoches, or abstensions from any influences that might bias description. These include bracketing off personal and professional presumptions and the theoretical frameworks of science to access the phenomena as they are experienced by participants, rather than as the phenomena might be understood professionally or through a particular scientific framework. Willig (2007) provides a clear example of articulating her presuppositions about phenomenology and the embodied experience of taking part in extreme sport, in the early stages of her study.
Descriptive phenomenologists are interested in the essential features of lived experience, that is, the commonalities within accounts of experience of the phenomena. Such essences are taken as objective and true descriptions of the phenomenon, which stems from the realist ontology of this school of phenomenology and Husserl’s enthusiasm to ensure that all research in this tradition is scientifically rigorous. Importantly, Husserl considered people as free agents responsible for shaping their environment and culture, rather than understanding the environment and culture as influencing the person. This concept he called radical autonomy (Husserl 1970).
If you are interested in descriptive phenomenology we suggest reading any or all of the following very different examples. Wertz (2005) who explores the use of this method in the field of counseling psychology, and thus provides a helpful overview; Bargdill (2000) who makes use of Giorgi’s approach to investigate the experience of life boredom; Mastain (2006) who aims to reveal the structure and meaning of the lived experience of spontaneous altruism
Secondly, the interpretive tradition, after Heidegger, which is not so much interested in description of phenomena but is interested in making explicit the meanings within participants accounts of everyday experiences, specifically the links between participants and their lifeworld, which are sometimes expressed as metaphors. As Lopez and Willis make clear, ‘it is not the pure content of human subjectivity that is the focus of a hermeneutic inquiry but, rather, what the individual’s narratives imply about what he or she experiences every day’ (2004:729).
In contrast to the descriptive tradition there is an assumption of ‘situated freedom’ (Leonard 1999), of choices being limited and variously influenced by the web of social structures and access to resources that people live within. Such structures are understood as having a profound effect on individual experience.
Researcher presuppositions, including knowledge of the relevant literature, that are bracketed off within the descriptive tradition are seen here, in the interpretive tradition, as a resource, a guide to the research process and the transformation of data. Through an ongoing process of reflexivity researcher understanding in all its guises (personal and professional suppositions as well as theoretical frameworks) is critically engaged with throughout and how each impacts and shapes the decision making and eventual understanding gained is made transparent. It is not unusual within this tradition to make use of a theoretical frame to provide a lens for the research.
Intersubjectivity, between researcher and participant is also recognized as key to generating data and thus influencing findings. The meanings within participant transcripts are understood as produced by the topic of the research and the interconnection of researcher and participant. Thus interpretation at a number of levels is acknowledged as inherent in data production. Ricouer (1970) emphasized that the interpretive work is always with the intent of ‘bringing out’ the meaning of experience’ (cited in King et all 2008:82) Findings, recognized as interpretative, must nevertheless be firmly grounded in participant narratives and be coherent within the parameters of the study. However, it is also acknowledged that findings are inevitably partial and that other readings are always possible. This positions the interpretive tradition as relativist rather than realist.
The examples of work we would direct you to if interested in interpretive phenomenology are, King, Carroll, Newton & Dornan (2002) who explore how people adjust to living with diabetic renal disease; Thome, Esbensen, Dykes & Hallberg’s (2004) work using Van Manen’s method to reveal what living with cancer in old age means to participants; Katz, O’Neal, Strickland & Doutrich’s (2010) US based study aiming to understand the experiences of native American nurses working within their tribal communities with the intention of improving the retention of such professionals.
Critical hermeneutics, a particular branch of the broad school that is phenomenology, favoured by critical theorists such as feminists and Marxists explores how participants’ lives, often those of marginalised groups, are structured by dominant ideologies. The purpose here is to look beneath the accounts of experience , to explore and surface how the invisible threads of power and socially accepted thinking impacts on the life chances and often diminishes the experiences of specific groups.
In traditional formulations of phenomenology it is the researcher whose experiences are studied although accounts from others are more commonly found in contemporary research. Critical hermeneutics allows a critical reading on subjective experience, in interpreting the wider social world.
Analytical approaches prioritise the process of treating the data although
Smith Larkin and Flowers (2009, p.1) argue that ‘interpretative phenomenological analysis’ (IPA) is ‘committed to the examination of how people make sense of their own life experiences’. This approach accepts researchers’ views and interactions with participants will influence the data and the subsequent interpretation of the account. The systematic process towards analysis is well covered elsewhere (Flowers et al. 1997, Smith et al, 1999) and utilizes a form of annotating issues and then labeling themes. The analysis then becomes structured around clusters and themes representing participant’s meanings.
Good and varied examples of IPA, which you may want to read are, Johnson, Burrows & Williams’ (2004) exploration of how women in the later stages of pregnancy and early stages of motherhood experience their changing body; Flowers, Duncan & Frankis’ (2000) study, looking at how gay men understand and manage their HIV risk; Rhodes& Smith’s (2010) analysis of what depression actually feels like for their forty-six year old participant.